Saturday, June 28, 2008

The text-covered world

Years ago, Rhian used to live in a house in Missoula, near the railroad tracks, that didn't have any off-street parking. But there was a garage behind it that occasionally had a free space in front of it, and one day she briefly stopped her Datsun there. When she returned there was a handwritten note attached to the windshield. It read:

YA ANT SUPPOSE TA PARK HERE

There is something unforgettable about that line--it's not just awkward and ungrammatical, it's ideally awkward and ungrammatical. It sticks in your mind and won't let go. The same is true of a story my brother tells, about a friend of his who always ordered the same thing at the hot dog stand they patronized: "Gimme tree hoddogs, two wit kepitch, one wit not." This gets uttered at least three times a day in our house, and has pretty consistently for the past two years. And just this evening, during our family night out at the Chinese buffet, I received the following fortune: "A carrot a day, may keep cancer away."

Cancer! In my cookie!

I love the notion of a public text--the handlettered sign, the overheard cell phone conversation, the mash note found under a hedge. I've always felt that good fiction and poetry is inseparable from the rhythms, quirks, and foibles of common speech--a writer may embrace it fully, or react against it aggressively, but it's always part of the equation. The text of a book may be a secret whisper between the writer and reader, but language itself has a life of its own, out in the wild. Literature is a zoo, an awesome zoo of language, but sometimes it's just as enjoyable to stalk the beast out on the street.

I've made it something of a habit to photograph unusual or otherwise noteworthy texts in their natural environment--a few are below. Feel free to share a few specimens of your own.







15 comments:

rmellis said...

I insist you edit your post to include the fortune you just got at the Chinese buffet.

jrlennon said...

Done! How could I have forgotten?

Dusty said...

Wow! Instant asshole! What does the label on the base of that free-newspaper box say? "Writers & Crooks"?

5 Red Pandas said...

Even though fortune cookies aren't really Chinese, I think the bluntness of your fortune strikes me as very Chinese, at least from my experience of Chinese culture. My mother told me a story and said something like, "I told her she was getting fat." I stopped her and said, "how could you say that to her?" She claimed that the woman asked her, and then later insisted that Chinese people prefer honesty and want you to tell them if they're getting fat, otherwise they wouldn't know. I insisted that someone who's "getting fat" knows that they're getting fat and doesn't need her to tell them. She also didn't believe me when I told her that some cultures think it's rude to talk about money. She thought that was preposterous. At least the fortune didn't tell you that you were getting fat.

Anyway, I overheard a man talking about Amy Winehouse's drug problems and he said, "I guess I'm lucky I'm just an old fashioned alcoholic."

myles said...

I think the note on the Datsun was from Cletis, the yokel on The Simpsons.

There's so much in the wild, too much to choose from. But here's a recent one, overheard on a train. Two young women, discussing a problem at the office. One says: "Oh, I was so embarrassed. I had to apologise to him, so I went into his office with my head between my legs."

I spent the rest of the journey trying to stop thinking about that.

jrlennon said...

:LOL:

An aside about Pandas' comment...fortune cookies may not be authentically Chinese, but they are certainly authentically "Chinese Restaurant." I wonder if American-style "Chinese" dining will ever actually make it back to China as "American" food. Will Chinese ever get all sentimental opening up American-style "Chinese Restaurant" cookies printed, inside, with bad Chinese translations of bad English translations of fake Chinese sloagans? With little Chinese language lessons on the back, translated into English and then back to Chinese?

hobart said...

Have you read FOUND Magazine much/at all? It is really great, the best parts being all the amazing exhibits of language and how people say/write things.

jrlennon said...

FOUND is a daily internet stop for me--a great site!

rmellis said...

I am obsessed with FOUND. Or I was, until the comments section got all Gawker-y and annoying. For years I've gathered bits of paper I find -- nothing so good as the letter I found years ago on a street in Louisiana, from a prison inmate. People write less down these days.

Someone You Went to High School With said...

Found on a store in a small town in northwest Pennsylvania:

CONNEAUT LAKE TACKLE
"Fine Art - Live Bait"

Sums it up. One man's water leech is another man's Water Lilies.

bigscarygiraffe said...

current location: Santa Cruz California (first time in California, first time this far west)

amount of text covered world in a percentage: 93% (amazing!)

favorite moment so far:
rough, tough, and gruff harley davidson dude with a paperback stuffed into his too-tight leather pants talking about "stickin his knife" into something.

Reading really does make the world go 'round!

AC said...

Was that Instant Asshole flyer spotted in Rochester? The Writers and Books logo looks familiar.

I saw an advertisement here a few years back for a show where My Pen is was playing with Yer Mom. Sadly, I do not have any record of it.

jrlennon said...

Yeah, it was Rochester--I took that photo outside Lake Shore Record Exchange...

James (Mr. 5 Red Pandas) said...

When I was ten years old, a neighborhood kid and I decided to gather up spare wood to build a backyard fort. Like most schemes dreamed up by ten year olds, ours didn't get very far. But we did gather up some wood, including some sort of crossbeam that had the words "RANCH GUTS" carved into one side.

I am haunted by this. Why did someone want to spend the time and effort to carve this message into a beam, and what the heck did it mean?

5 Red Pandas said...

Ha. Didn't see your comments till today JRL. Fortune cookies are "Chinese Restaurant". That's true. I don't remember ever seeing them in Taiwan. I suspect they'd never be accepted as American because when they want American they want steaks and things like that.

I planned to explore Chinatown restaurants more closely this summer, so I will study whether the ratio of actual Chinese people eating at a place is in direct correlation with whether or not they give out fortune cookies.