Not So Fast, Sonny Boy

Is there anything sadder, more infuriating, more apocalyptic than a 13-year-old with absolutely nothing in his eyes? No mischief, no sadness, no desire, no energy, no love, no anger, not even a deliberate pose of apathy?

There he was standing in front of the stairwell of the bus, earbuds in ears, 24-oz soda in hand, face ravaged with acne, staring into space. I sat directly across.

He threw his half-full soda into the stairwell—well, dropped it really, and not accidentally. He just didn’t care.

Count one against him. This is the point at which my righteous, good-citizen face started burning with blunted rage. Lousy kid. Should I say something? Should I not say something? He was a honky, I was a honky, so I could wag my bony 41-year-old finger at him without feeling like an imperialist pig.

Then out from his pocket came the stickers. You’ve seen these. They’re about the size of the “Hello, My Name Is” stickers but they’re blank and kids put their graffiti tags on them, then stick them here and there. It’s like Tagging Lite, I guess, because it’s easier to slap those stickers around than to do a full-on tagging, which I’ve also witnessed on the bus and been pissed off by.

Boom. Up goes sticker number one on the plexiglass partition. I’ve seen “good” tags (dramatic, clever, containing visual puns, photogenic, inventive) and I’ve seen lousy ones, and boy was this one lousy. Just your bog-standard ugly jumble of black letters.

He scanned around behind him – not alertly, not foxily, just roundly and dumbly, the way a drunk looks at the ground before taking his next step. Maybe he was drunk. Maybe it hadn’t just been soda in his dropped-in-the-stairwell soda.

I looked around, too. Was anyone noticing this? Was anyone seeing this? Did anyone give a damn? It was the warm Saturday of Pride Weekend, and the bus was stuffed with earbudded hipsters behind grasshopper-eye sunglasses, their maws full of slopping bubble gum and lip studs. If they did notice this kid demeaning their public services, either they’d tell themselves it was all harmless fun, or wouldn’t want to risk being perceived as uptight by speaking up.

Or, certain Facebook exchanges have led me to believe, in fact they cared a lot but lacked the sort of script for what to say to a wayward younger peer.

Boom. Up went sticker number two. Same pointless tag, same braindead expression on the kid’s face.

Ah shit, Jen, you’re going to say something, aren’t you? You’re not going to be able to stop yourself, are you? It’s probably going to fuck up your whole weekend too, as you quarterback the incident again and again in your mind and ask yourself what you could have done differently, or tell yourself you just should’ve kept your big mouth shut. Dammit, why is this stuff always up to me? Why can’t anyone else be the Culture Cop for a change? Sometimes I think someone needs to slip me a random mickey every now and again, it’d give me a much-needed mental vacation from caring too much.

I reached over and poked him in the XXL t-shirted ribs. It took a few pokes to even get his attention. He removed his earbuds in slow motion.

Messed up.

“Hey,” I said, “don’t do that. Stop doing that. It’s ugly.”

Sneer, roll of the eyes. My first from a teenager, as a non-teenager! Yay! Now I’m a grown-up!

“Come on,” he drawled.

But he stopped. For a while. Then sticker number three went up on some relatively low-visibility piece of railing. Was that a compromise? Now that I’d done my snickety thing he had to do one more to prove I had no power over him.

The bus, almost at my destination, waited for what seemed like ten minutes at the junction of Upper Market and 18th Street, right before the 33’s treacherous hairpin turn into the Castro. I was still burning all over from fright and rage. Is that why I do this crazy shit? For the adrenaline rush?

But don’t-give-a-shit kids are probably so rarely and randomly scolded by the public, people like me seem to them like oddities, earnest psychotics amusing themselves in mysterious ways, or time travelers groping for a keyhole back into some hoary mist of Avalon.

I stared hard at him. He never looked at me, but plainly knew I was looking.

At long last the bus opened its doors to my stop, and as I stepped down and out, I couldn’t resist picking his discarded soda back up off the ground and brandishing it in his face before the bus doors snapped shut.

“And pick up your damn trash, too!” I snarled. But, with his earbuds back in, he must have seen me as some mouthing female sea monster below him, nipping at the shore of his lysergic little island. His eyes were dead, flat, unabsorbing.

So did I do any good? Did my anger vent make him think? Did any hipsters dig my direct action and get a script for future Lousy Kid interventions?

Let’s be clear: my feelings about graffiti and vandalism are complex.

In March 2003, on the eve of the Iraq War, I got laid off from my umpteenth media job and decided to take a road trip to LA. On Venice Beach, I spied a colorful graffiti wall that was constantly being worked on, constantly in flux, and obviously an accepted part of the landscape there. An artist worked on either side as I snapped photos of the images and words evolving. With the freedom to take their time, the artists could apply a level of detail and creativity they couldn’t if they were just tagging on the fly. With the impending war in the background, freedom of speech issues were very much on my mind, and this wall gave me a revelation: graffiti is media for poor people.

Even if you’re just tagging, there is a kind of message there, which is, “Hello! I’m here! I’m me! I matter!” And who hasn’t wanted to say that?

Still and all, it upsets me to see kids so young engaging in tagging when it’s clear they’re not just being obnoxious but starting to make really poor decisions with their lives. When a gang of taggers leaps up and starts hitting an already-nearly-destroyed bus, I pick up heavily on their rite-of-passage adrenaline. As they shout and egg each other on, their brotherly bonding saddens and repulses me. I want to smack them or shake them: Don’t you care about anything?!

Then when I deduce why they don’t care about anything…I don’t know. I just wish someone at home had really shown them the way.

Taggers could fend off a lot of hostility if they just chose their targets a little more logically. There’s an old folks’ home down the street from me, and they’re constantly getting tagged. Come on, guys, you don’t have grandparents? Nobody in your family does home care for a living? All those people need a break, big time.

A friend of mine works at a nonprofit providing vital services to a poor community in Oakland. Her office is always getting tagged, too. To paraphrase her response, “Like I don’t have anything better to do with my time than get out the can of cover-up paint in the morning again?”

Which brings us to our beleaguered public transit system. Sure, I’m mad at MUNI. You’re mad at MUNI. It needs fixing. Is that any reason to degrade and filthy the buses we all rely on? When you fuck up the buses, it’s demoralizing to those who use the system.

That means YOU, Sticker Boy. MUNI is not The Man. MUNI subsidizes your transportation, especially if you jumped your fare, which you probably did for maximum mucho-macho street cred. You’d be well advised to direct your anger elsewhere, such as City Hall. With the spill in the Gulf, we need to fight harder than ever for a transit system that saves oil, and citizen-to-citizen, we need to keep the buses nice for all of us.

Better (as in more morally acceptable) places for graffiti: the backs of street signs (definitely not the fronts. I once got a $250 parking ticket because someone put a sticker over a bus stop sign so I didn’t know not to park there – I appealed but the court showed no mercy), abandoned buildings and other derelict eyesores, or intelligence-insulting ad billboards.

Have you ever randomly intervened when you saw a young person doing something wrong? Does part of you not want to risk their disapproval? Have you wanted to intervene, but were afraid? Send me your stories.

One response to “Not So Fast, Sonny Boy

  1. Well said (as usual).

    I think that all public interaction has become more perilous. Socially acceptable public interpersonal relationships between strangers seem to be limited to flirting and temper tantrums directed at service providers. Blame the media.

    That is why I embrace impending elder years – my parents are fearless in their interactions with strangers. My mom will walk up to children who are misbehaving in public places and say in a loud voice, “If you were my child, you would not be allowed to hit/ scream/ throw things/ pull cans off the shelves.” or, even better, “I know you know better than that.” My dad is less oblique, “Stop chewing gum so I can understand you;” “Take your feet off of my chair.”

    But the rest of us are too concerned with the consequences of our behaviour – Will they get mad? Will I look un-cool? Am I interfering? Will they shout at me? Am I in danger of . . .?

    And we stick to what we know – offering unsolicited advice to our friends, complaining and flirting with service providers and creating amusing anecdotes about other peoples’ public behaviour.

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