No event, no matter how preposterous, will fail to find itself indispensable to some future happenstance. Hence, as I sit here sipping instant coffee in my makeshift prison cell, I am led to wonder when the daily accidents of my existence began whispering among themselves and conspiring to place me, and perhaps humanity, in such a dire and peculiar predicament.
This is nuts, really. This is some previously undiscovered variety of craziness. This is a singularity, something else entirely, and I just don’t get it. Everyone in town is laughing and dancing like there’s no tomorrow (and that cliché may well be a literality), and I’m left counting my fingers like some bewildered bumpkin. Consequently, it would be premature of me to assert what exactly this is, and so, borrowing an irritating habit from a very good friend of mine, I must leave this temporarily undefined.
Here’s the thing. I could theoretically retrace the path of occurrences leading to this from the beginning of time (and perhaps I well should), but I cannot risk courting such infinite regress. It’s a long story, as they say, but not that long, and so instead I shall retreat to a much safer point of departure from which to commence my telling: the weather. Yes, let’s talk about the weather. Let us linger for a nostalgic moment in the safety of the humdrum, the shelter of the mundane, where the commonplace is common and not some misty reminiscence.
The weather was awful. It was hot—sticky, stinky hot, hot like a smoggy sauna with an overdue litterbox stewing in the corner, and it stayed that way all summer. The season had been pranked by the El Niño weather devil in the Pacific Ocean. Dr. Blip Korterly, my best friend, says El Niño is Spanish for “global warming.” He’s joking. El Niño means “the child” (or more precisely, “the boy”), and indeed, the candy-brat climate was pegged on sugar and unable to simmer down. It was in this hyperactive atmosphere that Blip went mad. I hasten to add that he was not what you might term psychotic. Rather, he lost himself somewhere on the harmless side of lunacy, slightly south of innocuous but definitely north of demented.
It is at least possible that the disagreeable climate had something to do with the blossoming of Blip’s eccentricity. He certainly wasn’t the only person in our big Ohio town acting suddenly screwy. Last summer it seemed as if everyone was rocking their chairs frightfully close to the tip of their arcs. But lest I scapegoat the prevailing meteorological milieu, the sweaty weather cannot be held solely responsible for toppling Blip off his rocker. He had, after all, recently lost his job, and before then he was already tempting the point of no return. Never much of a cheerleader for cognitive conformity in the first place, he charged instead through the brambles and brush on the margins of consensus reality in search of berries most people wouldn’t touch even if they could reach them. This past summer, however, Blip ate the wrong berry and lost sight of the beaten path altogether, and however hazy the line between innovation and insanity may be, he was unmistakably sipping iced tea with the hatters and the hares.
Perhaps it was appropriate, then, when he became the accidental and anonymous ringleader of what his wife once referred to as “mass meshugas.” As far as I can tell, or as far as I’m willing to see, events began their inexorable dance toward this with a mania-inspired misdemeanor committed by Blip, unemployed and unesteemed professor of sociology and nouveau graffiti artist. He found a canvas for his artistic expression on an overpass near campus, a bridge under which most of the city’s commuters had to pass every afternoon. After covering all the FUCKS and I LOVE YOU TRACYs on the bridge’s side with black paint early one morning, he replaced them with a simple, unexplained expression, written in dripless white: UH-OH. Then he called at 4:00 A.M. to tell me about it, justifying his vandalism as “freedom of landscape” and refusing to explain what it was supposed to mean. He made me promise not to tell anyone, not even his wife, but it matters not who knows any of these trespassings and transgressions now.
For a few weeks, countless drivers on their way home from work could not help but read Blip’s tag along with the dozens of billboards for a dazzling variety of consumer crap. As it happened, it piqued their collective curiosity and gave the urban workforce pause to think. Drive-time disc jockeys quickly assumed the role of moderator as commuters called in from their cellular phones to argue about the significance of the graffiti. Untold speculation abounded as the dreary, air-conditioned masses projected their own anxieties onto the bridge, and it very quickly became the favorite topic of idle chatter as coworkers gabbed about the vandalism during their cigarette and coffee breaks like it was last night’s popular sitcom. Blip’s graffiti gave people something in common, however bizarre, and an esprit de corps never before known settled over the city like an intoxicating cloud of good cheer.
Then it happened, inevitably and yet wholly unexpectedly. Some bold soul responded, and an entire city was surprised and a little embarrassed that they had not thought of doing the same. It was simple. One day the bridge was broadcasting UH-OH, and the next day the graffiti had been replaced with an equally confounding message painted in a distinctly different style: WHEN? Blip nearly choked on his delight at this turn of events, and called me every hour to talk about it so he wouldn’t burst and tell someone else.
“I’ll let it be for a while,” he resolved. “But I’m gonna have to respond.”
“What will you say?”
“How should I know? I don’t even know what we’re talking about.”
This was not the case with everyone else, who now debated their personal takes on the graffiti exchange at every opportunity. Local religious zealots claimed it was an omen from on high or thereabouts, while employers pointed out that the number of sick days taken by their employees had plummeted since the enigmatic declarations had appeared. One local columnist offered his own wry observations, claiming to be surrounded by morons and casting himself above such desperate ridiculosity. He was relieved of his column following a torrent of angry letters from readers. Wise guy.
And so it developed. Public enthusiasm for what came to be called “Graffiti Bridge” was overwhelming. Mayor Punchinello originally decried the graffiti as a blatant show of disrespect for the law and a scar upon the landscape, and vowed to put whomever was responsible behind bars. He toned down his rhetoric immediately, however, after a public outcry ensued when someone leaked to the press that he had ordered the bridge sandblasted. The mayor’s spokespersons immediately denied the rumor, what with an election in November, and the graffiti stayed.
Then came Blip’s response, despite increased patrols around the bridge. Surprising everyone, he broke with the initial one-word pattern and wrote an entire phrase, taking the time to paint: JUST A COUPLE OF DAYS. He resisted phoning me until the next evening to see what I thought.
“It works,” I said, not wanting to encourage him.
“My ass it works. That phrase has never worked a day in its life. It dances, man, it dances across the side of that bridge....