Soft Gray Permanent

I am entranced by the words people take the time to stop and scar into concrete. I stop when I see them, whatever they say, and wonder at the people who, given an opportunity to scrawl something that will last forever, or near enough as far as they know, that they choose words that are usually entirely meaningless, or obscene, or both.
I think that time is a factor. Concrete sets up pretty quickly, and you don’t often encounter fresh, wet concrete sidewalks every day. So when you come upon one, you have an immediate dilemma. Do I conform to the wants of society and leave this pristine and unmarred by my passing, or do I stop now, and in this moment, as time runs on endlessly and people, somewhere, are staring up at Starbucks menus wondering which Venti they will get today (because they always get the same one and maybe today… but no) or paused at traffic lights thinking about their cuticles as they glance at their own hands resting furtively on the steering wheel waiting for their own, precious green—or they sit in their office chair before their office desk staring at their office computer pretending that the porn they write into the MS Word window belongs to them and no one will ever find it, or do I continue on, dodging the soft gray stone at my feet and never leave my mark for anyone else to see?

Most people don’t stop. I, in fact, have never stopped. But others do. And they use their finger or a pencil or a stick and they gouge the cement and write something into it for everyone else who passes—or those of us who tend to look down as we walk so as not to accidentally engage someone else in eye contact which could lead to all sorts of horrors like smiling and nodding and checking out of asses and so forth—to read and contemplate.
Near my apartment in Hayes Valley, one of the fake neighborhoods of San Francisco and known really only to those of us who live there as Hayes Valley and to nearly everyone else as Civic Center even though there is a giant painted sign on the side of a building on Hayes as you drive into our ‘hood that says in letters four feet high ‘WELCOME TO HAYES VALLEY’ as if merely proclaiming a name on the side of a building makes it so (in which case I am taking a brush to the side of the Honda dealership on Market and Van Ness this weekend and declaring that intersection Lanceland! (exclamation point included, naturally)) there is on the sidewalk a small proclamation I read each time I return home from some errand (i.e. I need toilet paper, spray starch and vitamin C from Walgreen’s) and which, each time, makes me happy. It says, simply:


I imagine Tippy and Bill (because I want to imagine them both chancing upon the square of soft cement together, hand-in-hand, licking ice cream cones, Tippy is wearing Keds and Capri pants, Bill in threadbare jeans he actuall wore in rather than bought from Diesel pre-worn-in, a pair of Chuck Taylors and a white T-shirt from JC Penney with a hole under one arm, assuming Tippy is a person and not a cat—which would be even more cute, of course. The cat chancing upon the new sidewalk tile in the dead of night, because for some reason they could only replace the sidewalk in the dead of night, and the cat, out for a stroll, carves the message in the concrete with her claw, spending the next six hours licking the indelible love out of her paw) pausing there at the fresh cement, both of them then silently smiling and looking at each other before dropping to their knees to inscribe their love in stick letters for everyone to see.
Tippy and Bill are in love still, in my imaginary world. A love that lasts as long as the words in the concrete, and longer even than that, gouged into time and space and as strong as their embraces. In my imaginary world, these are the things that describe and define the way things are, not the observable, but the recorded. Things that are written down in concrete.
I often stop and stare at sidewalk writing. It comes in many flavors and styles. Sometimes messages overlap because people come upon the same patch of forever and need to use it up now, so they write at opposing angles to what someone else has said so that both messages come through, perfect and understandable. Not like in an argument, or even in debate or conversation. Words that must be heard to be understood can lose something. You can even ask for those words to be repeated, but they will come out differently, colored with exasperation or impatience.
Sidewalk words are always the same. Tippy Loves Bill. Always the same. LOVES in all caps. The O is a box. Note that it wasn’t begin as a circle and then restarted, the author knew that to control LOVE he or she would need to square the corners. You don’t want to fuck around with LOVE too much. It’s easy to screw up. Especially that middle part.
Near where I work, there is a veritable canvas of sidewalk words all crammed into the same 3-by-3 square on 3rd street near where Jack London was born. I think there may be five separate messages there, each at it’s own angle, crossing over but never obliterating another message to the world. The This Is Me message, These Are My Words, This Is Fun.
As I said, I have never written anything in concrete. It goes against my nature. I am all about the clean lines, the untouched surfaces, the smooth, unscarred man-made unrealness of city living, where we plant trees where trees should not be (and usually cannot survive) and plan parks to look like nature and shove nature aside because, well, it’s so awfully filthy, isn’t it? I had the chance—an invitation in fact—to scrawl into wet cement when they rebuilt the entire sidewalk in front of the office where I work.
We watched from above, my co-workers and I, and they were chomping at the bit to get down there and start sidewalk wording. Me, I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to put down there. Certainly not my name. I’d rather keep my name to myself and not plaster it all over the place, thank you. So gauche, really. So what else would I put in the sidewalk? A handprint? Too kindergarten. Too Hollywood Boulevard. A shoe print. Indelibly marking Prada into the concrete in SOMA. Apropos in some respects, but perhaps more so in 1998, 1999, the whole dotcom era now well and truly put behind us all.
I’m not in love with anyone, so no one’s name to inscribe there. My cat’s name would be fun, but what would I write? “Paris likes to watch me pee!” Too long. “Paris likes pee!” Too obscure. “Paris!”
Too Las Vegas.
So I wrote nothing, and as I watched others scribe I felt no pull toward the act. As in most things, I was an observer, not a participant. I stood there watching them scribe monkeys and bunnies and words into the soft setting cement. They used keys and pens, anything handy, really. I later saw one of the guys who’d spent hours making sure the surface was perfect come back in his truck and scribe a nmae, his own I assume, into his work like an artist signing a canvas. He looked down at his own writing and noticed, in a corner, someone else’s name there as well. Quite large, and dug deep.
He went back to his truck, got a trowel or some such implement and carefully, slowly, patiently… erased the other name from the cement. He never touched the bunny or the monkey or the other words, only the one appearing on his square, the one, evidentally, he had labored over earlier just so he could come back and put his own indelible mark into the otherwise smooth perfection of the new sidewalk.

September 3, 2003

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