Somebody called me a slave today. But that’s okay – I called someone a slave once.
Of course it’s not okay. And I didn’t actually call them that.
Towards the end of a long walk on a hot, sunny mid-day today I crossed a bridge. A pedestrian underpass beneath a light rail transit track. After a short twisting incline I entered the bridge, and was confronted with the word “YOU”, spray painted overhead on one of the concrete support arches. Not far off was a big “ARE” on the next arch. I assumed a sentence was forming as I soon saw a capital “A” in the distance. The next word wasn’t yet visible. And so the suspense was set.
The shaded breeze cutting East from along the North Saskatchewan River felt great after 45 minutes of steady walking in the sun. I’d reached more-or-less a nice place of peace, if not zen (whatever that means). The bridge was my distance goal for the day, with intent to cross the bridge, turn and pause halfway before heading home. The graffiti message was a eerie bonus.
“YOU ARE A (…) ” could mean a lot of things. Even before the “A” I anticipated “You are beautiful”, or “perfect”. The “A” narrowed down possibilities, changing the final word(s) from an adjective to a specific noun. My mind went “Oh no” as I suddenly predicted “You are a FAG”.
The bridge bended slightly to the right as I approached the mysterious conclusion. Another cynical possibility popped in to mind. “Please don’t say it,” I thought. Sure enough I was right.
“YOU ARE A SLAVE”.
About 15 years ago I was a minor counter-culturist. It started with bands like Rage Against The Machine and films like Fight Club, extending briefly to things like Adbusters Magazine. To be honest I never really became active in counterculture, or indeed an “activist”. I only ever pushed it into the outside world with a bit of late night, felt marker graffiti. And it was so innocuous. Probably more annoying than effective, writing things like… I can’t even remember what exactly. And it didn’t last more than a week.
The only thing I can for sure remember writing was at a restaurant. Bored and alone, I sat in a booth at the diner and picked up the empty paper sleeve from my straw. I flattened it out smooth and took out a pen.
“YOU ARE NOT A SLAVE.”
I left it on the plate after my meal and went home.
Quite frankly I was disappointed to see that “SLAVE” at the end of the bridge. At the same time, it bummed me out. And in a matter of minutes I had a realization, likely out of maturity and experience.
I didn’t appreciate being called a slave. Just as quickly my mind flashed back to almost 20 years ago, and a sense of embarrassed sympathy crept in.
Not long after leaving the bit of paper graffiti at that diner I went back, not thinking anything of it. Towards the end of my night one of the servers confronted me. It was a woman who worked there regularly, and was on friendly terms with my circle of friends that often hung out there.
She told me she didn’t appreciate my message. She was the one who had cleared my table that night, noticed the scribbled straw paper and read it. I was embarrassed, and assured her that I meant no harm. Nothing offensive, nothing personal. She pensively accepted my apology, though was still flush and upset.
I didn’t leave any more countercultural messages after that.
What was I thinking that night? In all likelihood, the same thing as today’s bridge writer. Our missives were differentiated only by one word: “NOT”. Yet that’s exactly the point – they are “not” different, in context, in meaning.
In my countercultural mind way back when, my point was to deliver a Fight Club-ish message of hope. It was to assure whoever found it that they were not bound by whatever meaningless, 9-to-5 job they had. They could change their situation in life, for the better.
It was so naïve of me. To assume that anyone would pick up a little piece of paper and see it in just the right light. To assume that a lightbulb would go off, their eyes bright with self-revolutionary power and throw down their apron and storm off into the night, ready to face the world as a new person.
As if I’ve ever done anything like that.
I’ve done my best to live my life. There’s been change; there’ve been attempts to change, successful or not. I sit here an exhausted, recent university graduate who works at a record store instead of fully pursuing a writing career, instead of improving a body and mind that aren’t getting any younger.
It’s difficult. Inspiration and motivation come and go, rarely matched with the drive or passion needed to fight for change on a daily basis. But I try. I do my best.
The younger me felt bad for that server, all those years ago. She was upset and I empathized. And now I sympathize. I sympathize because in the most general sense of things I am in her shoes. I didn’t know her situation in life; I still don’t. At the very least it’s safe to say that she was just trying to get by. Lord knows she could have had family problems or health issues or a mountain of debt (if not all of those things).
The motivator in me feels certain that change is always possible, for everyone. It knows that the most important changes in life require hard work and commitment. And that all sounds fine on paper. All I know now is, as I approach 36, it’s not easy to even start that road to change. I went for a long walk today, and I have visions of more fitness walks, getting my bicycle out, getting back into yoga-based workouts. How I’ll feel about it tomorrow, who knows.
All I know is, I don’t appreciate things like “YOU ARE A SLAVE” in big black letters after a good, successful walk. I get it – I’ve been there. I was just trying to help. But there are better ways to help others. Empathy, if not sympathy, goes a long way. A little understanding.
Because trust me, it’s not as easy as you think, kid. Just wait and see.
© 2018 Andrew Hall Writes