I never read them, okay? I mean, when they’re there I usually close my eyes or just look away. And anyway, unless I’m in extremis, I don’t like using the public facilities where they’re likely to show up. I try to plan ahead -especially now that I’m older and, well, seem to fill up more quickly. Also, I’m usually concentrating on where and what I’m doing.
Still, I can’t say I understand the need to produce them -or rather reproduce them- because they often seem to be copies of poorly spelled salacious puns, and childish variations on themes I would have thought all but the seriously worrisome would have outgrown by the time they dropped out of high school. And it’s not as if we’re talking Banksy here. Or iambic pentameter. Come to think of it, I’ve never seen them in sonnet form, either, but maybe I just haven’t been allowed into high end washrooms. Or perhaps nobody has enough time to transcribe the 14 lines required to qualify as a sonnet, let alone perfect the meter, before people begin banging on the door
No, I figured it was just washroom smut, cubicular graffiti. The subject, too far from my mind to wonder deeply about, came to my attention in a rather short item in smithsonianmag.com: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/roman-latrine-was-full-dirty-jokes-180970705
I had assumed that this art form only arose after crayons, and private cubicles were invented, but apparently not. The ancient Romans were famous for their graffiti -much of it was preserved in the ruins of Pompeii. But in a new finding in present-day Turkey, ‘[A]rchaeologists [from the Antiochia ad Cragum Archaeological Research Project (ACARP), which has been excavating the archaeological site along the southern coast of Turkey since 2004] have unearthed a latrine decorated with suggestive mosaics, meaning the dirty jokes were built right into the walls… It’s not known if this latrine was especially naughty or if these types of mosaics may have been a common element of lavatories. What we do know from Pompeii and other sites is that sexually suggestive murals were common in places like taverns, brothels and in some homes.’
Now this may sound naïve, or perhaps firmly place me in an age group for whom titillatory curiosity is simply a memory, but I have always wondered why anybody would feel the need to scribble in a place visited only in briefly and in a time of pressing urgency. To blame it on the misguided, perverted youth of today or even envisage a larger societal debauchment, is evidently historically inadequate. Still, I am puzzled as to why, nowadays, some subjects are chosen, some places selected, and yet not others. Is it discernment, decorum, or simply, shame?
And yet, in spite of my confusion and my proffered innocence, I, too, may have been an inadvertent deviant.
I remember when I first opened my office; I wanted to make it a pleasant space to visit -a place that reminded people more of home than the problems that had brought them in to see me. I hired a friendly secretary, and with her help, we decorated the waiting room with rugs, and plants, and pictures on the walls. There was a large window at one end where we put a comfortable chair and a large areca palm to lend an air of, I don’t know, the edge of a forest or something. I even suggested putting a bird cage near it, but Sheila, ever vigilant, thought that some people -including her- might be allergic. We settled for her little daughter’s drawing of a beaked thing with wings on the adjacent wall. No one was offended, although many of them spent some time trying to identify it, I remember.
But there was still my personal office space to deal with. I brought a little oak stand from home and a delightful terra cotta statue of a begging woman to sit on it in the corner. A nice touch, I figured, but Sheila wasn’t sure. She wondered about the little bowl the statue was holding, and whether my clients would feel I was asking for donations.
So, I decided to bring another picture from home to hang on the wall behind my desk. I thought that it would commandeer their eyes rather than the begging bowl. It was a delightful reproduction of an S.C. Schoneberg lithograph of two young girls partially covered by sheets from the bed where they sat. Perhaps they had just awakened, because they both looked outwards, their expressions curious, yet welcoming -as if their mother had just come into the room to call them for breakfast.
I loved the picture, and thought it would be perfect for the room, but because one of the girl’s breasts were visible, my secretary wasn’t as convinced as I’d hoped.
“Don’t you think it’s a bit… suggestive?” she asked when she first saw it. I must have looked puzzled, because she pointed at the breast.
To tell you the truth, I hadn’t even noticed it -the innocent expressions of the girls and their evident surprise was what had captured my attention, I think.
“Well,” I said, trying to save face, “ Everybody will know it’s a fine work of art… Suppose I leave it up for a week, and see if anybody objects…”
She rolled her eyes and smiled. “They’re not going to tell you, you know.”
I smiled at her. “But then it…”
“They’ll tell me,” she interrupted, shaking her head disapprovingly.
I remember shrugging at her in disbelief. I just assumed that everybody who saw it would appreciate the beauty and the innocence of youth in the young girls’ expressions. So what if a breast had slipped out from beneath the covers? No one could mistake that for anything remotely pornographic, if that’s what Sheila was implying.
But sure enough at the end of the first week, Sheila stopped me at the door as I was leaving for the day. “The week is up, now,” she said, with a wry smile pasted on her lips.
“Yes it is,” I answered, wondering whether she had decided she needed a raise in salary already -things had been much busier than I had anticipated.
“Your picture…” She hesitated for a moment, no doubt trying to choose her words carefully. I smiled at her, thinking she was going to apologize for her comments. “Well, remember that elderly lady with the cane that saw you today?”
I nodded -she’d seemed intrigued that I hadn’t been wearing a tie, I remembered.
“Well, I think she was quite… upset, I guess,” Sheila added, as if she couldn’t quite figure her out.
I think my mouth dropped. “Why…?”
Sheila shook her head like a teacher with a disappointing pupil. “She said she knew as soon as she saw you from the waiting room…”
Sheila lowered her eyes for a moment and re-composed her face. “I tried to reassure her about you…”
“About the tie, you mean?” I couldn’t think what else it could be.
“That’s what I thought at first, and I told her not every man wore a tie to the office.”
I blinked. “I told her that as well…”
“She wasn’t upset about the tie, though…”
I shook my head in disbelief. “Can’t please everybody, I guess.” I managed a weak smile. “Well, at least she seemed to enjoy the picture…” Sheila’s forehead wrinkled when I said that. “She couldn’t keep her eyes off it the whole time she was sitting in the office,” I added. Then I thought about it for a moment trying to remember our meeting. “She even asked me the name of the artist.”
Sheila chuckled, and her face brightened when I said that. “She told me it was disgusting.” A smile crept over her face. “She said it was like sitting in a washroom.”
“She didn’t seem very upset when she left my office,” I said, genuinely puzzled.
“I think she was upset because she enjoyed it,” Sheila added, and winked saucily. “Like she’d been lured over to the dark side.”
Well, maybe one person’s graffiti are another’s gallery. We are, each of us, solipsists…