We all crave attention. Some crave it more than others. Perhaps they suffer from low self-esteem, they’re the youngest sibling, or because they’re an only child. I too sought my share of attention growing up. Aw, let’s be honest, I still like attention, only now I’m not as obnoxious about it as I used to be. At least I don’t think I am.
However, getting arrested on a sunny but brisk Monday afternoon on December 26th in 1983, the day after Christians celebrated the birth of that sweet baby Jesus, was not the kind of attention that I was looking for.
I was charged with tagging. That’s street lingo for defacing property with spray paint. When I was seventeen years old, my friend Laura and I sat in her bedroom, in her parent’s house, suffering from an acute case of suburban boredom. We didn’t have i-devices or 300 television channels to occupy ourselves. Laura didn’t even have cable, so MTV wasn’t an option. What to do? We had to get creative. We had to think outside of the mall. After an hour of drinking Tab and potato chips, I blurted out, “Let’s graffiti something.”
I didn’t know that graffiti was illegal. I saw it on buildings and on street signs in Manhattan every time we ventured in for dinner and Broadway show. I thought it was normal. I thought that it was okay because I hadn’t heard of anyone getting arrested for it. Of course at that age, I wasn’t watching much news or reading the paper either. Shit, people may have been getting arrested left and right and I wouldn’t have known about it.
I instinctively knew that public places were out of play but that anything dilapidated or hidden from view (for the most part) from the public, was fair game. And yes, my parents failed me somewhere along the line. I considered giving an otherwise dreary wall a splash of color. I was performing a community service and I was giving the graffiti artist inside a chance to be immortalized.
Laura and I drove to the local hardware store and bought cans of spray paint. We decided on an overpass that was far enough away from the middle of town but close enough to be seen when people exited, or entered, the parkway. It also provided us with a large blank canvas. What a wonderful space to be able to express our seventeen year old selves.
I was madly in love with my boyfriend (hello handcuffs) and I thought, what better way to show my love than to spray paint our initials on a concrete wall. Laura was dating someone as well, so she decided to do the same. As I was putting the finishing touches on the enormous red heart around the D.A. + P.S., I heard the dulcet tones of a police siren.
I looked around expecting to see a pack of spoiled, preppy hooligans, that were drunk and had just been caught vandalizing someone’s front yard with toilet paper. That happened a lot in my town. Instead, the black and white pulled up alongside two naive and misguided teenagers. I was oblivious to what was happening, until I wasn’t.
Laura and I threw our cans into a snowbank, trying to hide the evidence. Never mind the fact that I had paint droppings all over my pants and hands. I wanted to scream, Run! Run like the wind! Then I realized that this wasn’t an episode of The Mod Squad. An officer, who looked like he had just gotten out of the boy scouts (I was a kid and even I thought he looked young) approached. “Get in girls, we’re going downtown.”
“You’re taking us into Manhattan?”
“You’re going to the police station in town, funny girl.” Even then I couldn’t hide the funny. I never knew that my town had a police station. This is how clueless I was. I wasn’t trying to be funny. Rare. My family always called New York City, downtown. It’s what I knew.
Laura started singing like a canary. “She made me do it. I didn’t want to go. I begged her to go to the Chess King and get our boyfriend’s sweaters.” I wanted to back hand her across her Bonne Bell glossed smacker. We slid into the back seat of the police car. I tried to roll down my window but I couldn’t find a handle. Something else that I didn’t know. Police cars don’t have any way for perps to escape. Now how would I have known that adorable fact?
It was probably around this time, when I started to feel that this whole scared straight charade might not be a charade after all. I was getting a touch scared.
The police station in my town was also the library and deli. No wonder I didn’t know that there was a jail in the back. When Laura and I were escorted into the building, the smell of pastrami and tongue almost knocked me over. Baretta took us into a back room and fingerprinted us. What? Was this happening? I cooperated but I was still in disbelief that all of this rigmarole was because I sprayed some cruddy looking underpass. Weren’t there shoplifters to bust?
I was handed a paper towel and I made a feeble attempt to clean my fingers, but they were stained. It was like my scarlet letter. Baretta thought he was hot shit. I’d bet my freedom that Laura and I were his first arrests.
He handed me a piece of wood that had numbers on it, that looked like they were drawn with black Sharpies. I was instructed to hang the wood around my neck. That seemed archaic. Doesn’t the criminal hold the block of wood below the chin for their mug shot? Bat balls! I was getting a mug shot! Who would think that this could be going on alongside meat cleavers and the Dewy Decimal system?
I asked Baretta if I should smile for my photo. As a budding performer, I was always thinking, “Hmm, possible headshot?” I talk stupid and inappropriate when I’m nervous. He shot me a look that sent an internal heat missile to my sphincter. How could I, the most responsible person that ever lived, and my town’s designated driver, have gotten pinched, especially when my motivation for tagging came from passion and innocent love.
An hour later, my attorney, otherwise known as Dad, bailed me out. When I got home, my brother and his friends were sitting around our kitchen table. They had just gotten back from Ft. Lauderdale and had decided to try Sun In hair lightener, so they all had the same orange tinted hair color. They looked ridiculous. They smiled at me as if I were the coolest or dumbest, (it was hard to tell) kid on the planet. I followed my father into the living room to have a talk.
It was more like he yelled and I listened. The details of the conversation are foggy at best but I do remember his panic over the fact that I was applying to colleges and that he didn’t want this little speed bump to go on my permanent record, and hinder my chances of getting into school. I had a record? I was learning so much that day. Perhaps I needed to pay more attention to my surroundings, and what was real, and a little less Marcus Welby, M.D reenactments in my bed at night.
A week later, my father and I trekked back to the courthouse/library/deli, where he was able to plea with the judge. This is legalese for, how much is it going to cost me to get her records expunged? Wouldn’t you know that this was the same day that a Constitutional Law class, from my high school, was on a field trip and sitting in the courtroom. As I faced the audience of my peers, as I walked out, the entire class looked up at me as if I were the coolest or dumbest, (again, hard to tell) kid on the planet.
Laura and I got off with several hundred thousand hours of community service. It felt like that many anyway. The envelope licking and the paper cuts were child’s play compared to removing our artwork from the cement wall. We tried everything; Brillo Pads, bleach, every household cleaning supply known to man, to no avail. It was clear that nothing short of sand blasting was going to get that shit off.
A decade later, while I was visiting my parents, I decided to revisit the scene of the crime. I know (now) that what I did was illegal and wrong, but there was a medium sized part of me that felt proud when I saw the outline of the enormous red heart. It had faded almost beyond recognition. Almost. For me it was a symbol of lost innocence and profound ignorance.