Sunday, November 7, 2010

Graffiti by Valerie Williams-Sanchez

Urged on by each other, one fateful sleepover-night, we friends plotted to make things happen. Under an unfurled sofa bed, we were indoor safe, with all the feel of outside adventure. It was after a day spent at Disneyland, and in this fortress where we read teeny-bopper magazines by flashlight, and dreamed how we would each meet and become Mr. and Mrs. Heartthrob, pointing out our future husbands from pages in 'Right On,' or 'Tiger Beat' magazine.

Muffled squeals, sighs, and giggles punctuated tales told of mortifying acts of stupidity, innocence or just plain bad luck: "How embarrassing!" The phrase rang out time and again as we shared stories of how kids in our day-to-day worlds had succeeded or failed to conquer the idiosyncrasies of adolescence.

We gabbed through the night, gossiping, playing truth or dare, and applying make-up while we crowded around the powder room mirror of our home in, Orange County, California. The little bathroom was generic, like most of the tract homes on the block, and of the era. All the fixtures; sink, faucet, and Formica countertops, were standard issue. But there was one element of the dĂ©cor that made the restroom at 709 Concord Street distinct. One wall had been decorated with graphic wallpaper in a design that simulated graffiti. Yeah, that's right, graffiti. In our sterile, cookie-cutter, suburban, tract home, our bathroom was decorated to look as if it had been tagged.

Mechanically etched and repeated markings lacking any sort of real edge or originality were emblazoned across our wall. Puffy, scrolled letters and forms spelled out funny, often banal messages, under fluorescent light and my scrutiny. More than once, I pondered that wallpaper, never quite able to reconcile how it had been deemed acceptable. After all, it was vandalism, a prohibited activity that was in direct opposition to any definition of "appropriate behavior" that existed in my stringent, pre-teen world.

In those days, diatribes about what was becoming of a young woman, who, like me, "should be striving to become a young lady" were frequent. Against this backdrop, how those particular scribbles had transcended from vulgar to stylish, gaining entre into suburbia and onto the walls of my family's home completely perplexed and befuddled my friends and me.
"Hey," Crystal asked as we each rouged our cheeks and glossed our lips, "can we write something on the wall, too!?"
"Oh yeah, can we?" asked Charra.
"Uh, I don't think that'd be a good idea," I argued, feebly, anticipating trouble. But then, Jennae asked, as I had of myself, 'why would anything we wrote be any worse?' After all, I continued the thought, what harm would there be in simply adding a few marks to an already tagged wall? Would anybody even notice? Besides, anything we girls could do, would be infinitely more interesting if not equally good, right? "Well, that's true," I said. 

Our action was taboo, but we managed to rationalize it, to craft a sort of justification that was just plausible enough to make things exciting, and to convince ourselves to do it.

"Uh, okay, sure," I capitulated to the role of leader.
Excited, we all looked for pens.
"Black ink ones, only," I said sternly, feigning control. One, then another found ball-point, then felt-tipped, even a roller-balled pen in the sticky-bottoms of the drawers.
"Hey, I need one," another said. When there were no more pens to be found, I went to the kitchen and found two more. The last, a red, chisel tip marker was for me.

We wasted little time writing and drawing on the wall, just at our eye-level. When nearly all were done, I added my message to the effort in red letters. After, each was proud of her work, creativity and bravery. Far more personal and meaningful than the stock text, ours were the markings of true artists. In our minds, we were rebels, risk-takers. But mostly, it had been fun. We headed back to our fortress, falling asleep, finally. We awoke without giving a second thought to our masterwork as each of us gathered belongings and headed out, signaled by moms' honking horns on station wagons. Not until shortly after the last girl had gone, was it that my mother went into the bathroom looking for something. 

"Valerie!" My name rang out into the hall, echoing like a siren into a New York City street. Not thinking about our art, I was somewhat confused by her call. But her tone left no doubt I needed to get down stairs to the bathroom, quickly. Once there, the look on my mother's face spoke volumes. Punishment and consequences seemed imminent, destined to fall squarely on my shoulders with the other girls gone.
"What is this?" she demanded.  
"Oh, we drew on the wall," I said matter-of-factly.
"Why?" she quizzed, "you have destroyed the wallpaper."
"I didn't think it was a big deal," I said innocently.
"It is a very big deal," she said, rolling into a lecture about why our actions had been so terribly wrong. Her soliloquy ended with me being grounded for a month.

That month passed. Then another passed, and another after that. Despite her lecture about what we had done, years later, our art remained. My mother never took down the wallpaper. I never told my friends how I had paid for our fun. Rather, each time, even years later, whenever I stood at the vanity and looked into the mirror, I saw our messages and it reminded me of that day when I had led our overlooked, ignored, chastised, and otherwise marginalized, pre-teen-girl voices.

In writing on the bathroom wall, I felt I had done something important. For me, the experience was one of my earliest tastes of leadership, the power of communications and the written word.

My mark then, "Valerie Williams was here," was significant in ways metaphoric and literal, for me it was a move out of the margins. However misguided, the gesture to add my own voice to a written discourse on public display as a means of empowerment, and an exhilarating harbinger of things to come.  

(c) 2010 Valerie Williams-Sanchez


Thierry said...

I knew you could do it...see, you can both write and set up the blog! I know you will have a successful blog! Ton ami, Thierry

Thierry said...

I also like the name 'valerie's vignettes'!

Gerry Wendel said...

Sure wish you had a pic of that wallpaper! Great story.

Anonymous said...

Powerful!!! I'm glad that you are still writing on the walls for all to see that "Valerie was here." Continue to make your mark and your presence known. SABRINA.