Those of you who have read this blog for some time may remember that I'm a little bit obsessed with strange markings that appear for no apparent reason on concrete surfaces, often in parking garages. What strange impulse led people to make these marks? It can't be that they wished to preserve their names and thoughts forevermore; if they'd wanted to do that, they'd have used a fountain pen, or possibly a Sharpie. No, what ties these mysterious graffiti together is that they are invariably executed in pencil.
A new working gig has brought me banishment to a whole new smoking venue -- a loading dock in Clarendon. But rather than stand around in the cold gawking, I have made excellent use of my time outside: I have documented the local concrete markings, with the thought in mind of subjecting them to rigorous scholarly analysis.
One would-be scribe left behind a strange combination of Arabic and Roman digits: 230.V:
Is this some form of code? Does it refer to a time? A geographic location? Perhaps it's a clue to a hidden treasure: On compass point 230, walk V steps and dig! You never know!
A lesser scholar might conclude that these markings are meaningless. Nothing could be farther from the truth! My expert eye and vast knowledge of folk art tell me that these are hobo signs left over from the Great Depression. (The fact that the garage was built in the 1990s only strengthens my argument. Because I say so, and I'm the Dad.)
If my hypothesis that these markings are indeed hobo signs is valid, then there remains only the matter of interpretation. The glyph reproduced below represents, I believe, the hobo's contempt for the building itself in which the garage is located:
A lofty mountain with some small boxlike dwellings perched precariously at the summit. Was there ever a more piquant critique of bourgeois life than this, from a happy denizen of the road and the wide-open spaces? I think not, sir! I think not!
Squinting my eyes and cocking my head to the side, I realize it may not be a mountain after all, but an extremely primitive attempt at perspective -- a road heading to (or away from?) a distant town where all the buildings lie flat on the ground and are only about an inch tall. My conclusion still stands, though: The hobo didn't care much for civilization.
The hobo, as a race, was never among life's mathematicians. It is easy to imagine the frustration experienced by No-Count Louie the Louche while trying to perform subtraction of fractions by sheer force of will until Decimal Doc the Subtraction King came along and showed him how to convert one-fourth into 0.25:
Hobo legends and lore speak of three hobo brothers, Larry, Moe, and Geoffrey the Jimson-Jiggler. The brothers each had three magical hairs that stuck straight out of their heads that gave them the powers of second sight (Beatin'-Avoidin', or just "B" in hobo parlance), prestidigitation ("Rube-Diddling," or "R"), and the ability to change the weather ("Nature-Fuckin'," or "N"). One day, Geoffrey the Jimson-Jiggler clean forgot which hair was which, and Larry and Moe, ridiculing him, labeled them for him with duct tape and cardboard, which drove Geoffrey to madness. He prestidigitated a tornado that destroyed the city of Kankakee, Illinois. No one in Kankakee remembers this because they were hypnotized by an apologetic Larry and Moe.
This is where we get the expression "get out of my hair."
Below, we are greatly privileged to see a folk-art illustration of this legend, now lost in the mists of the Great Depression:
No one knows this today, but the hobos of the Great Depression were a dab hand at computer user-interface design. Granted, they did not themselves possess computers, but then again, nobody else did, either, so who's to say otherwise, eh?
Below we see a primitive but effective mockup of a three-tabbed Search module. This design would be deprecated today (modern usability testing being the cruel mistress that she is), but -- pretty good for 1934, right?
Hell, I've done worse mockups myself. With a computer.
So that's our art-history lesson for today, kids. Tune in next week for an exploration of the folk-art left on the door of the third stall on the left at the Union Station men's room.