Messages on the Bathroom Wall

Graffiti Bathroom.jpg

There’s something to be said about secret messages. We take for granted that social media is completely free.

Not too long ago in western history, you had to pay a small fee to the postman to receive letters. With the stakes so high, a good amount of wit went a long way when trying to woo a young lady or man.

‘Sexting’ is not some new epidemic, as the news makes a fortnightly effort to tell us. It’s been going on as far back as the ancient Greeks in some form or another, surely. It certainly went on in the Victorian era.

With smart-phones rocketing into regular use, the days are quickly fading when people even ask each other, ‘Does your phone receive pictures?’ Dirty pictures may be free, but in an age when an image is so easily distributable, the price of that freedom is much higher than ever.

It’s hardly surprising seeing to what extent sex has crept into the world of mass-communication. It was to be expected that as technology made things easier, sexual expression would become simpler, clumsy even.

What never seizes to shock, scandalize and disturb are those messages written in the margins of the world’s pages. Bathroom walls are covered in the messages you don’t see on Facebook. Why the knife-scribbled swastikas?

Though swastikas, in my experience, aren’t as common in women’s bathrooms (something I’ve cleaned thanks to menial retail jobs), they are just as replete with fecal-themed limericks written in sharpie and scratched-in with knives. Men and women’s bathrooms have the same phallic/vaginal cartoons, the same declarations of so and so being a bitch/bastard or being party to unsavory sexual acts, and the same shared, ongoing poetry of good-time phone numbers and malcontent aphorisms.

Both have the same level of statement and response. One fanatic thinks that the white space above the urinal is the proper place to inform the urinater which social groups he believes are going to hell, and likewise, someone else thinks it proper to answer the person with a ‘Jesus loves them,’ which incites all of the pagans, agnostics, Satanists, Buddhists and scat-poets to lambast the latter and expand their own bathroom-spun theology, aided by markered-in inverted crosses, infinity-symbols, lizard eyes and steamy-turds.

Politics, in these margins, may as well be mythological. It would be an exhausting task to tease apart the fascistic sympathies from the crackpot, Truther, we-knocked-our-own-Twin-Towers-down warnings of paranoia.

I think next time I’m in a bathroom, I’ll write a list of my favorite actors, or maybe my favorite authors. Favorite books would be better. Favorite films, perhaps.

Vandal-graffiti is where the real opinions of the people are held. It isn’t expressed by the results of votes, necessarily. The guy scratching the swastika into the wall doesn’t have the option of a Nazi vote. But then, he doesn’t have the option because the opinion is marginal, and where do the marginal opinions go?

They go to the place where people can’t see your face or don’t have to see it. Perhaps this is why the comment section of Youtube, more than most other social-media/entertainment site, resembles a bathroom wall.

For 90 percent of the videos, it seems like you don’t have to scroll down very far before people are arguing, calling for certain groups of people to be incinerated, before someone is calling someone out for being, perhaps, the dumbest person alive, or my personal favorite, when someone WRITES IN ALL CAPS TO DENOTE PRINTED YELLING.

It can certainly be disheartening to see such morbid reoccurring themes in the written margins of society. But it’s nice for about three seconds every time I drive home from Portland after work to see the gigantic graffiti on the wall by the freeway reading, ‘MAY EVERYONE BE HAPPY AND FREE FROM SUFFERING.’ I ignore the inner-cynicisms that tell me it’s probably not graffiti at all but city-sanctioned art, just as I ignore the side of me that wonders why the well-intentioned hippies who wrote it didn’t give the paint-money to someone in need.

Even the pencil-margin notes one finds in books these days are lacking in literary merit. A recent book I read, on a page which spoke about social change and politics, had written in a scribbly column by some bitter library patron, ‘Tell that to me when I get my 40 hrs a we!’ (‘We’ was ‘week,’ surely). Another note, in the same handwriting, read, ‘That’s what I’m saying!’ underlined three times. I’ve come to believe that writing in the margins of books is not much different from standing up in the theater and shouting when the monster is coming.

How wonderful it is to hear about the strange little rites and rituals of young travelers across the world. People leave books in strange places with notes and directions written for future strangers. Backpackers, hitchhikers, hobos and train-hoppers (few as they are these days) develop all kinds of code that depend on the written word. Certain phrases have been bouncing around and repeating for decades within different cultures of people living right under our noses. These different coded systems of communication each have very specific lives—almost like non-internet forms of internet.

One recalls The Underground Railroad. Again, a coded system of language. Think of the specific words, the specific phrases, whether in a song or at the back door, used to convey messages that meant the difference betweens one’s freedom and one’s bondage.

Different systems of written and whispered message may come about for one specific purpose, as was the case with The Underground Railroad, or they may come about for a multitude of starting purposes without a particular ‘aim,’ which could be said of text and social media. The language is chopped in text. In social media, a whole system of like/ignore and online/offline and comment/wall-post etiquette is cemented in Mr. Zuckerberg’s easy-to-use vision married to the impulses of the marginal. What social media offered mass-communication was unprecedented. Never before was there a time in history when, if someone wanted to shamelessly shout something out for all their friends to hear, they could do so, whether it be a sentiment, a gripe, a promotion or a cry for help.

It seems that, on whole, we’ve not really reached the other side of this shamelessness without a wee bit of shame. Just about everyone I know seems to say of social media, ‘Facebook is ridiculous,’ or ‘It’s not something I take seriously.’

Part of being active in social media seems to involve constantly trying to find a way to surpass the banality of its coded language at its silliest, at its lol-iest, at its most adolescently exhibitionistic. It doesn’t help that everyone’s screen looks the same. Every screen is blue and white. Socialism as social networking.

I find it peculiar that Zuckerberg and friends chose to call the plane on which we post ‘the wall.’ What in the world does one write on a wall but the most creative scatology? The lewdest limericks? The shrillest statements of discontent and the basest yelps of whoa?

I suppose it would have been too remote to call it ‘the book margin.’ ‘The blank yearbook page’ would have made the whole business more adolescent than it needed to be. Yet, these titles are more appropriate wherever there is the spirit of lol, the jocular comment, the well-wish or the call of concern. The real ‘wall’ will always belong to those places where hatred is too quickly spewed, where weird beliefs seem far too familiar and where no matter what one has to say, it is quickly followed by the faceless reactionary who comes to tear you down.

I think I have it … From now on, I propose that we call the Facebook ‘wall’ the ‘Telatalmud.’ Let’s create a coded language on purpose, rather than on accident.

Yet in the end, being subject to more or less accidental coded systems of language isn’t as daunting as it first appears. I have heard many a diatribe about how the internet and specifically, how social media changes consciousness, and this is often spoken in paranoid tones by the very people who are staying up late at night with the blue screens of a dozen friends lighting their faces.

But what doesn’t change consciousness? Everything does. The bathroom walls do. Every little shift in technology. Every newly-paved street. Things change quickly and it can be frightening to the unprepared. I suppose one needs to decide whether one is going to be the scribbler of swastikas and scat-poems on the marginal walls of life or whether one is going to carve a big LIKE thumb on the tree of time.

Though I’m certain, if you’re creative, those aren’t the only options. 


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