With Friday’s annual homage to fools almost upon us, I can’t help but think of my mom, whose uniqueness and advice brought from her own Nova Scotia youth continue to live in my mind long after her death in 1988. And, the one lesson most appropriate to Friday’s April Fools’ Day came in a classic internal rhyming package and went, “Fools’ names and fools’ faces are always seen in public places.”
The advice came with a story, one where she recalled a youthfully foolish moment in time back in school when she was caught by her teacher writing her name on the back of the desk chair in front of her. The rhyme was given to her by the teacher as a means to impress upon her the imprudence of her graffiti.
I think the first time I heard the admonishing rhyme from Mom was when I’d gotten a hold of a knife and carved my name into a pear tree in the backyard. When she saw the initials, she made a reasonable assumption that the other John Grindrod in the house surely wouldn’t have done such a thing (he had an alibi anyway, because he was at work), and I was marched into the kitchen to the table where all lessons worth learning were taught.
Over time, I’ve thought a lot about Mom’s words, say, for instance, sitting on Cole Street waiting for yet another train to pass not far from where American Feed and Hardware used to stand once upon a 1960s time. While waiting for the slow crawl of boxcars, many of which are emblazoned with spray-painted symbols and names and slogans, I shake my head over how all this graffiti business has spun so far out of control.
Even in my travels abroad, I’ve noticed it, proving that America hasn’t really cornered the market on such destructive idiocy. On a tour of Italy, one of my earliest impressions of the historic city of Rome really wasn’t the ancient Coliseum nor was it the holiest of Michelangelo’s work, the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling.
And, it really wasn’t the logic-defying symmetrical beauty of the dome region surrounding the Oculus in the Pantheon or any of the other wonderful sights that the ancient city has to offer.
Instead, my very first impression was one that prompted astonishment over the amount of graffiti I saw, first in the park across from my hotel, and later in public commons and even on the ancient stone barrier walls of the historic Tiber River, the very river which provided a water highway for boat traffic even before Rome was the capital city of the Roman Empire.
When, on another trip, this one to Eastern and Central Europe, I saw more graffiti all over Old Town Prague, Czech Republic, including not far from the iconic Astronomical Clock, which dates to 1410, and, later, in Budapest, Hungary, along the banks of the Danube, where scores of Hungarian Jews were shot into the river, a historic river that once cleaved the cities of Buda and Pest. And, on it went through three more countries as well.
This past summer, while in St. Louis awaiting entry into the Gateway Arch to take the elevator ride to the top of the 630-foot structure to see the Mississippi as an eagle might, I couldn’t help but notice scores of names and initials and proclamations of love scratched into the stainless-steel shell surface at its base.
It always saddens me whenever I see graffiti that, somehow, I couldn’t try to impart my mom’s lesson from long ago to those who held the spray paint canisters and other tools of destruction, realizing at the same time my own naiveté that it would have made a difference.
I know there are some out there who would tell me that I just don’t get it, that I must be missing some artistic gene and that what I see as destructive is actually self-expressive art. To those I would say, using the rhetoric of so very long ago, “Save thy breath to cool thy broth.”
Wherever my paths wind, be they domestic or international, I just don’t like the view of the world nearly as much when sullied by those who failed to have someone impress upon them at an early age that, while the place for self-expression can be a canvas if one paints or a piece of paper if one writes, where it certainly is not is on a backyard pear tree, the side of a boxcar or the sides of historic and revered landmarks.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News and Our Generation’s Magazine, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at email@example.com.