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05/02/2002 Archived Entry: "A Reason To Laugh"

I have often marveled at how our literary instincts come alive when we are sitting alone in a toilet stall. Maybe it’s a reaction to the temporary sensory deprivation that brings out the closet authors, poets, and philosophers in us. Perhaps it’s something about being occupied by blank walls, porcelain, and the business at hand that ignites the imagination with insights and observations that otherwise escapes our attention.

Bathroom graffiti is obviously an interactive art, wholly involving and inciting the audience to be both observer and participant. I mean, what self-respecting citizen has not scribbled a limerick on a wall at least once in their life? If you claim that you haven’t then you are either a liar or you should go back to the hovel whence you came (I would have said ‘monastery’ – but even monks do it).

Not so surprisingly we find that graffito lavatrina is also, apparently, quite ancient. Archeologists have found hundreds of Latin epithets scribbled into the walls and fixtures of public latrines and bathhouses; some of them even have a familiar ring to our modern versions.

“Lingua factiosi, inertes opera” (trans. “all talk and no action”) was found on the steps leading to a bath – one can only imagine what that was all about. Of course, there is something about “Puella Defututa” (‘prolific nymphomaniac’) that is decidedly highbrow compared to the modern practice of merely associating a person’s name and phone number with some sort of amusement or activity.

There is something timeless about the humor we expound on public walls. When I was a kid, I remember laughing at this all-time favorite: “Ye who writes on bathroom walls; can roll their shit into little balls!” and its companion answer, “Ye who complains about our words of wit; can eat our little balls of shit.” The former might have been originally scribbled by a janitor – the latter, obviously by those who takes this art fairly seriously; both were likely written so long ago that they were old when my grandfather first read them. While these examples may be crass, they are so widely known that a former professor of mine claimed they were prime examples of modern folk limerick; perhaps something for the anthropology department.

Of course, we have all seen the product of gang graphitti – but, as intended, the average person needs a translator to comprehend most of it. Sometimes the bathroom scribbles are so thick with bathroom language that I feel as though I should take a bath, after I wash my hands. However, when the scribbles are less embellishing, they can be far more revealing of our cultural mindset than one might expect. Here are a few gems I have collected through the years:

“Make love, not war. -Hell, do both: get married!”
“I've decided that to raise my grades I must lower my standards”
“If voting could really change things, it would be illegal.”
”God is dead. –Nietzsche, Nietzsche’s in Hell. -God”

One of my personal favorites was found, not on a bathroom wall, but inside a telephone booth: “If pro is opposite of con, then Congress must be the opposite of progress.”

As a writer, I see societal relevance in these scribblings. For years they amused me and, at times (okay, I admit it), they have provoked me to add a comment or two of my own. Lately, however, I have found reason to be worried by some of the graphitti – especially in light of recent troubles. Here are a few that I recently saw in the men’s room of the Federal Court House in Santa Ana, California.

The first one: “God will not be mocked by those who claim to be righteous and we shall not be vanquished by those who choose to use their earthly powers to pass judgment.” Then: “Vengeance is a human thing that is set into motion by purely human acts.”

At another building, again something one might not expect in a toilet stall wall: “Evil has contempt for freedom and brews acts that kill.” And at a local department store: “If we do not root out fundamentalism and all its forms and origins, we shall never see the end of the misery.”

The first thing I wondered was, “did we run out of phone numbers or what?” Then I remembered something else my poetry professor said: "Lighthearted wit is the first to die in times of tribulation and trouble.”

You know, he’s right. Immediately after 911, I saw a decline in wit – indeed people were downright and quite understandably witless. Some months later, the jokes returned, but they seemed somber and brooding – even strained. I’m not saying that everybody I know turned into sad sopping mops, but the laughter has not been quite as bright and at times, even forced.

Another frightening trend – ‘we’ seem to be getting more pleasure from expressing violence on our communal walls, especially towards other races and cultures. Perhaps this is merely cathartic, but has all this upheaval truly ironed out the famous American jocularity? Have we lost our will to grin and bear it?

Two weeks ago I used a Taco Bell restroom – the walls were surprisingly clean except for this commentary that was ingeniously penciled into the grout between two rows of tiles: “If I laugh it is over times begotten, times ensconced by the warmth of nostalgia – I miss Bill, Monica, and Ken, those were the good old days.”

Obviously, the author is making reference to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and its chief protagonist, Kenneth Starr. But if those were the good old days, then we must really be in for a world of hurt.

If only walls could talk – particularly the ones in the bathrooms – perhaps they could tell us what is under the veneer of these suddenly sullen remarks. Maybe they might reveal how much we’ve changed – or perhaps would they show us how we have stayed the same? Maybe I’m just imagining it and the truly witty have found other places onto which they may ply their vertical humor. Maybe we grew up, or maybe janitors have finally caught up and I’m just seeing the bad days.

I would like to be told that I’m merely an alarmist and that people have not come to be permanently scared and witless. Like the last commentator, I am looking for a reason to laugh – not just for the good old days (as bizarre as some of them may have been), but for all days to come – even if the reason comes from a bathroom wall. –HP

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