Read Old Man Scanlon


14 July 2015

With spray paint and testosterone-enriched brutishness kids emblazon their noms de guerre on boxcars and buildings, indeed on anything conspicuous and approximately flat. Some elevate truculent lunatic typography nearly to art. From scuzzy alleyway to mountaintop wilderness, no place is immune. I understand an inchoate adult’s desire to make his mark. I understand conquistadorish greed and lust for dominion. I understand the power of the name. I understand, and I still call it vandalism.

In my greenest youth I scratched my own name onto our neighbor’s freshly-painted garage, the baleful call of a tabula rasa overcoming what little judgment I then possessed. A consummate goody two-shoes, I nearly beat the rap—no one believed I would have done it. Unfortunately, I was the only one of the usual suspects who could then write. The repercussions were severe enough that not long afterward I ratted out my own brother when he broke a window as we walked home from elementary school—which is what we did then, before they invented school buses—leaving a written note stating his culpability, contact information, and an offer of restitution.

Later, as a member of a roving gang of adolescent bicyclists, I ignored the lesson. Our turf included a stretch of the newly completed Interstate 95 not yet opened to cars, and the railroad station next town over. I’ve lived long enough to see the aluminum guardrail on the I-95 overpass where I engraved my initials be replaced by concrete, and the brick station walls rehabilitated by sandblasting. The road to immortality by way of graffiti is a dead end. Even cemeteries become disused, derelict, abandoned, forgotten.

Ensconced on a shaded park bench on a mountain ridge overlooking the Catskills, I can see, for all practical purposes, and despite atmospheric haze, forever. The theory that the earth is curved does not seem so far-fetched. I can watch magisterial vultures soar below me and see weather happening on a scale grander than afforded by the typical kitchen window. I have the illusion that I can hear forever, too. A towhee calling in the valley perseveres for as long as I care to sit here. A tree falls: sharp crack, rending wood, swishing leaves, a thud I can almost feel. A peacock cries, mournful and querulous, sounding half ape, half cat, no audio clue that he’s a glorified and gaudy chicken. Sublimity spurs my imagination. With no effort I can conjure the winter’s shrieking indifferent harshness. I can almost see time.

While I marinate myself in this idyll, a walker passes along the trail, takes a five-second pan with her Android, and ambles on, engrossed in chat with her friend. A runner pounds by with scarcely a sideways glance. All the more, I think, for my senses and my very pores to absorb. So cavalier in what I want to be a sacrosanct place, but when I consider the scarred bench I’m warming I shouldn’t be surprised. Initials, hearts, dates, ampersands: carved calls to witness undying love, and doomed bids for cheesy immortality. The wood is already weathered grey and buffed smooth by be-denimed butts, molecules being polished away even as I shift in my seat. It is only a matter of time before this bench, too, is history.

But I do understand. I’ve refrained from inflicting my own initials on the bench, having gained over the years a more nuanced appreciation of property rights. For me, now, such an act would connote not so much an aggressive territorial “I was here” as an “I have seen this and I will remember it” imposing no obligation on the place to acknowledge my existence. I am, however, plotting one final criminal enterprise: the unauthorized disposal of human remains. Say, a small Baggie of my ashes shaken over the cliff on an unseasonably warm autumn day by my widow and friends, as if ashes were immutable. The plan will keep; I’m in no hurry to have it executed. State lines will be involved. And I won’t be taking the rap.