May 21, 2011

It is Rapture Day and I’m seated outside the Alley Kat Grill in Johnson City, Tennessee.  Rapture time has passed, not only in New Zealand, but also here—yet I’m sitting with a friend  in the sunset and staring at the General Mills building, the one they’re going to tear down, a white mammoth five stories high, tall for this town, with tubes of grain storage no longer storing grain. At the top of it, vandals have painted, in blue outlined in black, in all capital letters, “WERE ALL GONNA DIE.” They’ve ignored the apostrophe in their haste. This morning, someone said the Johnson City Police have rolling patrols to make sure “no one else” vandalizes the building, despite its scheduled demolition.

The graffiti is not about Rapture Day, as it’s been there for many months, nor was it put there to commemorate the Great Zombie Tag Caper, which occurred early this spring and put Johnson City on the map as the Zombie Capital of the World, breaking a Guinness Book Record for the “most people participating in a zombie event,” with over three thousand players.

So if the blue-on-black message references neither the Apocalypse nor the great Guinness achievement, what was in the mind of the message maker? Indeed, there must have been at least a couple of people—I’m picturing half a dozen up there. Maybe they wrote it in the light blue first and it didn’t show up. Maybe no one even noticed it up there, the way it used to be with those invisible ink pens we’d get from cereal boxes, where you could see the message if you were looking for it, but otherwise it remained a mystery. Who knows, but maybe this light blue before the black outline message even inspired—subliminally!—the Zombie Tag organizers if not the Rapture Day people.

Perhaps not enough were affected by it, so our fearless Graffiti Team—for so I’ve come to see them, those brave ones who climbed the white towers with their buckets of blue paint only to be ignored by the general passersby—decided yet again to ascend. Up, up, up into the night sky, this time with buckets of black paint. Painstakingly, they make their message more clear to the unheeding public:


Some of the letters are not outlined along the top edge. Were they too high up? Did the ladders not reach? In the end, I guess they went up again because they wanted us to know the bare facts of it, like the zombie fetishists, like the Rapture people, that in some form or another (many are possible) death awaits us.

And now the streetlights come on. Traffic, both auto and pedestrian, intensifies, a jogger in a dark blue outfit, with his music machine strapped to his arm like some medical monitor, a couple hand in hand, and in her free hand the girl holds what looks like a dandelion going to seed only it’s the size of a baseball. Next door at the Papa John’s the pizza delivery guys come and go (without even mentioning Michelangelo, so far as I can tell).

I stare at the General Mills building as the light fades. The missing punctuation bothers me, but I get it. Who could reach an apostrophe at two hundred feet? Who would jump on someone else’s shoulders to add the punctuation in some off chance that months from now some English teacher sits with a friend at the Alley Kat and is put out by the omission? Of course, the patrolling Johnson City Police would not let them fix it now anyway, even if they wanted to, even if some grammatically proper member of their tribe should notice it today and want to fix it, or read this essay and want to—someone not even related to the original graffiti team.

Then it comes to me: it should be me! I should be the one up there on the towers, grammatically perfecting the General Mills building, adding to the original message in my own way. How hard would it be, I speculate, to find enough black paint at this hour, and brushes, ladders, for a simple apostrophe? Surely, the dean at my college would bail me out were I to get caught in such an endeavor; I’d say “I’m not a vandal, I’m simply an interested grammarian.” He would give me his best Dean’s look, and shake his head, and give me his signature advice: “No good deed goes unpunished.”

It’s getting dark. I sigh. The best I can do for them is to fix it in print, here, right now, in this essay:


Yeah, it’s true. We are. And meanwhile? Let’s enjoy it. A blue pick-up truck clatters by, a black dog in the back smiling contentedly for all the world to see.

Postscript 1: October 31, 2011

I had come to think of the General Mills building as part of my life experience here in Tennessee, so when they (the anonymous public serving ‘they’) painted over “WERE ALL GONNA DIE” sometime in late summer, I was crestfallen. The worst part was the lack of public announcement: I simply happened to be driving down Walnut Street and glanced up to see the emptiness. I asked my friends if they’d noticed this change, but my friends (who have started looking at me a little sideways) said they hadn’t.

Then it happened: This week on my way to the Acoustic Coffee House Laundry, I looked up to see a new signboard in the bright October sky, the words “Declare Independence” only with everything except the “ARE” vaguely whitewashed over:

Decl ARE Independence

There it is, right where my “WERE ALL GONNA DIE” used to be! I wonder if the two building signs are related, if the fact that we’re all going to die somehow creates a stronger desire to declare independence, and if so, from whom, from what? Next, I imagine the so-called vandals are declaring their independence from those who assert the “unpainted” state of the building scheduled for demolition. They’re independent and so they again make their voices heard.

Perhaps it is another group entirely, one inspired by the first. At any rate, my East Tennessee world feels right again. This place where the mountain men held off the tried and tested British forces ought to be a place where people also ascend into the sky and communicate  their messages, and where sitting outside the Alley Kat or driving to the laundry gives us reason to suspect we are not alone in this.

Postscript 2: March 17, 2013

It is St. Patrick’s Day and the “ARE” of DeclARE Independence has been painted white and then repainted red/black a dozen times in the last year or so.  I long to paint it green today.