22 August 2007 | Vol. 7, No. 2
On Recycling – Subjects Covered: Trees, Graffiti, & Life Plans
The etching on the stall door said "I want to suck your kneecap!!"
There were exclamation points behind kneecap. The writing was in drunken cursive or 5th-grader cursive or drunken 5th-grader cursive. It was difficult to decipher.
I looked down at my knees, bent and peaking out of my khaki shorts. They were grubby and the skin was peeling in half-moon shapes.
I was three hours outside Portland, Oregon. Late summer.
What was I doing here?
The heat was suffocating and the bathroom in need of a thorough Mr. Clean-cleaning. I stood, pulled up my khakis, and flushed. I walked over to a sink lined with damp paper towels, scattered like some abandoned papier-mâché job. The towel dispenser was empty. To the left of the sink on the wall was the demand—in less crude but still sloppy cursive—"Save your environment! Paper towels produce waste and cannot be recycled. Use air blowers! A fast, efficient way to dry and helps reduce the occurrence of disease." I pressed the button. The machine gagged, choked and died.
I waved my hands, spraying droplets of water into the air. The wet seemed to float, to slowly melt back into humidity. The restroom door then opened a space of two feet, letting in the petite woman wearing a dull maroon jumper over an antacid-pink blouse. She began gingerly picking up the wet paper towels previously smothering the sink. She then turned towards me and produced two soft, white, creased tissues from her smock pocket. I nodded and accepted the tissues. She nodded back and then went to the wall on the left of the sink and smoothed out the "Save your environment!" posting. She pressed down on the taped corners. She looked over her shoulder at me as she did this. She said nothing. I realized I was staring. And she was staring. At my t-shirt. Across my chest printed in forest green over the solid olive-green fabric was the word Treehugger.
My Treehugger t-shirt was a gift from a few years ago—gifted from a boy who was almost my boyfriend, but we argued about communism, and then he was no longer even my friend. He later sent me the shirt as a peace offering or apology. He miscalculated the postage. I ended up paying $2.10 for the shirt. Shortly after I received the shirt in the mail, he sent me one of those eco-email postcards from the Sierra Club or Nature Conservancy. Something about have a happy Earth Day. The only personalized part of the card was his brief note in Garamond font, "I hope the shirt fits. It sure is fitting. A person can hug, but the tree can't hug back. The problem was I couldn't only hug trees." I thought the problem was communism. His email card didn't make sense. And the fuckin' t-shirt cost me $2.10.
Should I talk to the petite bathroom attendant woman in the Pepto-Bismol blouse? It might have been the humidity, but surely we stared at one another for a good 30 seconds. That qualifies as a stare down. It at least begs for an introduction, a greeting, a crummy-weather-we're-having, or you know what I appreciate about Oregon? They ticket you for driving slowly in the fast lane. Amen and thank-the-goddess, I hate slow bastards in the fast lane. Instead none of this chit-chat was necessary (and none of it would have come out of my mouth anyway. I think this way, but I don't talk this way. Some sort of Walter Mitty affliction, I think). It wasn't necessary because pink antacid blouse broke her stare and then sweetly chuckled. She had the voice of a twelve year old when she asked, You're lost, aren't you?
I arrived in Oregon at the tail end of a cross-country trip. I traveled with a man-boy who was on the cusp of becoming my boyfriend. We both somehow knew this was a precarious cusp to be on. We had met in a poetry workshop earlier that summer—The Music of Poetry. I had asked him where there were good running trails. He drew me a map and then rested his eyes on my bare legs.
He was studying medicine and the art of vagrancy. I wanted to take kayak lessons, learn more poetry, and maybe find a life plan stuck in a bottle on the North Shore, past Duluth, Minnesota. I thought perhaps the note in the bottle would have my name on it. It would be subtitled 'fate' and the entire plan would be written in verse.
I'm not sure how someone could be lost in a restroom, the facility having a direct purpose and a person having an obvious reason for being there—to use the toilet, to wash the hands, to splash the face with water, to read the bathroom graffiti on the stall door. The best place for graffiti, the most useful.
But, no, I wasn't lost—not at that precise moment. The restroom might have been a pit stop in an adventure of lost. Of Lostness.
My oldest sister has this book, Graffiti in the Big Ten. It's full of transcribed graffiti found on Big Ten campuses. Most of the found passages were etched on bathroom stall doors and wooden desks in darkened library corners. I fell in love with this paperback book with the pealing spine and pages with corners that looked as if they have been used as napkins. My sister's copy was old, a first issue. I searched for the book online. Graffiti in the Big Ten is no longer in print. And I doubt the transcribed etchings—the found poems—on the back of college toilet stall doors and library desktops still exist. Surely the words have been sanded over, filled in with paint, or have been completely gutted—entire stall doors removed and replaced with recycled aluminum or a lighter resourceful metal.
In the poetry workshop, we transcribed found poems—learned how to tweak the logical and then encourage the nonsensical. We twisted words to make sense and then shrugged the meanings off again. It was late summer and everyone seemed giddy. Some of us even crazed. Everyone was in between something—jobs, schools, lovers, states, and debts. I could check off everyone one of those categories.
My found poem:
Toilet Stall Door
Orangutan Flavored Dope 3/4
Tastes tropical, makes you swing
And below this
A new performance drug is born!
And below that
Orangutans have 7x the strength of Man
And then below
Or equal to the strength of Women
Have you ever sniffed an orangutan?
It was a lie, my found poem. None of the lines were found—I had made them up. They hadn't been scrawled on a toilet stall door, not even one word. But if I had found Orangutan Dope in a public restroom, if I could have passed the idle time reading about strength and sniffing orangutans, this etching would have made the entire toilet experience more worthwhile. I'm certain of it. And it's plausible, isn't it? Couldn't this have once been graffiti?
In the restroom in Oregon, on the back of the stall door, scratched into the sod-gray paint, that single line "I want to suck your kneecap" was the only graffiti written on the stall wall. And I favored its independence. I liked the aggressiveness, the peculiar choice of body part, and the quirky setting to make such a request. I want to suck your kneecap changed my mood. I felt more open to the possibilities. I felt oddly assertive. I didn't feel lost.
No, not lost. I answered the petite woman. She just smiled, looked again at my Treehugger shirt. She was contemplating the large word printed across my chest or she was intently studying my breasts. But the word was more pronounced than the flesh it covered. I like your shirt, she said. Trees make good companions.
My traveling companion, my co-pilot and co-poet, sat in the hotel lobby, his hands in the 9 o'clock and 3 o'clock positions, holding up a map of the Oregon coast. Our plan was to head to the Pacific's shore to wander near sea caves, see the sea lions and maybe experience a different kind of fog. He wanted to let go of clarity, to get stuck in the vapors of the Pacific and then stay.
I like the idea of suspending time. It's easy enough; you just change venues, meaning environments, surroundings, and you do so constantly. I learned this while studying not the music of poetry, but while studying the art of vagrancy and then master vagrants. You may change location, but you then constantly recycle your actions.
On the rocky Oregon coast, I found my bottle. It had chips smoothed over and was vintage coke-bottle green, but this didn't make it any easier to date, since vintage was back in soft-drink style and the ocean was still an active rock tumbler.
Inside the bottle, still kissing the cork, was a note beginning to molt like sodden toilet paper. I discovered the bottle on the sand, lodged between two black rocks. It was half-full (or half-empty) with seawater. Of course the note was blank, but the faded purple lines of school-girl notepaper were still visible. In reality, the bottle was probably recycled into the ocean not more than a week ago, maybe even that yesterday… but in my suspended time and my world of mastered vagrancy, the bottle was vintage and the note a life plan from a far away venue. Of course the note was washed clean, any words written in verse having been filled in by the ocean; of course the plan was blank.
About the author:
Michelle Menting teaches and studies at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan. When not writing, Michelle enjoys long-distance running and doodling. She is currently at work on two series of doodles—one featuring a quill-shooting porcupine and the other featuring ornery dried fruit.
For further reading:
Browse the contents of 42opus Vol. 7, No. 2, where "On Recycling – Subjects Covered: Trees, Graffiti, & Life Plans" ran on August 22, 2007. List other work with these same labels: nonfiction, travel writing, memoir.