I have a thing for signs. Street signs, flyers, restaurant specials – they strike me as secret messages posted so conspicuously we often miss their meaning. Last year I took some time off school to study dance in New York, and I fell in love with the city’s signs.
On the southwest corner of Lafayette and Astor Place, there is a sign by a Halal food truck: “Call for pick-up. We make all kind sandwich. Signed, David.” On East 7th there is a tiny placard hidden between the doorbells of a grungy residential walk-up advertising, “Dentist: A5.” The doorbells do not go past A3. I passed a note in red spray paint by Tompkins Square Park: “Dear Helen – I love you and need you. Please forgive me.” Two days later I found the same red spray paint in the neighborhood of the first note: “Helen is heartless bitch. She deserves to be lonely.” A large notice in an Italian restaurant in SoHo shouts, “Eat Fast. We Need the Table. You Choke, We do Heimlich.”
I was reminded of New York’s signage when I went to fill my water bottle outside the Bender room at Green and saw a piece of white printer paper proclaiming, in large black typeface, “Beware of Old Faithful.” I always mistrusted that water fountain, and apparently I wasn’t alone. In the window of a ground-floor dorm room at Suites there is another piece of printer paper, this one warning, “F.Y.I. I can hear all your conversations when you stand outside my window. Yes, even if you whisper.” Even the conspicuous “Please Don’t Touch the Clock” warning in the Lane reading room seems pregnant with meaning – why the courtesy, why the casual contraction in so formal a message?
I recently braved the electric stress of the East Wing stacks to investigate a different kind of signs – the notes scrawled on cubicle walls from one anonymous student to another. I found “I love Harry.” Beneath it, Harry was crossed out and replaced with “Shelly,” then “Sarah,” then “him.” There was “My boyfriend is a douchebag ” and next to it, “My girlfriend is amazing.” Several times I found “Fuck School,” and many “You can do it” or similar notes to the same effect. Hidden in a corner by a window I found “No on prop. 19 – Nov. 2, 2010” with the responses “Prick” and “Light one up.”
My personal favorite, on a desk near the stairwell, was a solitary note: “Why is nothing written here?”
These anonymous penciled exchanges pull something in me taut. They defy temporal boundaries, community divides and the myth that Stanford students have it all together. They show a level of care at a school that can sometimes feel too busy to care. I admit I fall prey to Narrative, and use questionable alchemy to make meaning of accidental words. I’m sure “Why is nothing written here” is nothing more than the sum of its parts. Still, I like to think of it as a student’s code that really means “Why does this school feel vast and lonely?”
In Absalom, Absalom, William Faulkner defies the narrative instinct to which I have succumbed. “You make so little impression,” he reminds us. But even he, the tortured realist, proposes a solution:
“Maybe if you could go to someone, the stranger the better, and give them something - a scrap of paper… at least it would be something just because it would have happened, be remembered even if only passing from one hand to another, one mind to another, and it would be at least a scratch.”
The randomness of the world calls for the posting of thousands of signs each day in a mark-making endeavor. The writing and reading of those signs serves as a mutual acknowledgment, a hat tipped to a stranger to remind him he is real. Helen may be a heartless bitch, a girl’s boyfriend might be a douchebag. It is a willingness to share and the patience to listen that softens the blows of frustration and regret, that eases the loneliness of experience. A scratch, a note, a word, a mark.
Leave your note with Renee at firstname.lastname@example.org.