The spot where the graffiti-marked light pole stands and I stood transcribing them is along a major pedestrian walkway on University Ave in East Palo Alto--an obviously economically depressed, low-income area. Just within the freeway entrance at a sunny 1 p.m. under the cover and in the shadows of a thick, dense tree canopy, there I was openly invisible while locals walked past involved in what appeared to me to be their respective busy lunchtime routines. Adjacent to the light pole was an eight-foot-high chain-link fence installed as a barrier separating the freeway entrance ramp from the sizeable backyards of private homes on a parallel residential street; the homes set a good distance back from the fence.
While logging down the messages, an older black man on a bike stops along the fence on the sidewalk about ten yards from me just on the University Ave surface-street side of the entrance sign. Apparently unconcerned with my presence, he began to yell something through the fence, evidently to someone in the closest two-story house, in a tone which sounded to be the giving of orders.
I paid as little attention as I could to the details of this exchange; a general policy of mine when conducting the field survey portion of this research, being that I always feel rather conspicuous in my actions when collecting hitchhiker graffiti. This tack--to mind my own business and to not raise any additional suspicions about my motives and intentions while I am some stranger on some other folks’ turf--comes bred into me as a kid from New York City; to exude confidence while seeming to mind my own business while observing only those actions that might compromise my survival. My aim is to focus my observations of and attention to the world and people around me purely on any of the potential risks to my person and possessions, not on whatever possible interesting peripheral conversations or activities are taking place. I just want to get the graffiti logged down and get on my way, be it in an urban or rural or industrial setting. these are not the times or places to look to strike up a conversation.
Standing there in the shadowy fringe on the edge of East Palo Alto, what I did take note of was the voice of a young black woman emanating from the back-porch landing on the upper floor of the house. She yelled something back to the older man–maybe her father, I thought. Apparently satisfied with her response to his demands, he proceeds to ride off on his bike and on down University Avenue. As I continued my graffiti transcribing, I also began to feel eyes gazing upon me through the fence back from her direction. I tried to ignore this as had absolutely no inclination to have an interaction initiated with me, as a 40-year-old man with any teenage girl under such circumstances.
I must have been right about being watched, because it wasn’t long before her curiosity must have gotten the better of her. So, apparently with the security of the fence as a barrier, the young lady blurted out to me, “You from the city?" as if I must have looked like I was out there on some official government business, maybe public works or something. My first reaction was to give no reaction, trying to express through my body language an emphatic, “You certainly can't be wanting to talk to me!” Then, looking briefly away from the light pole and up from my logbook, I couldn’t help myself. Turning to her, I calmly returned a simple, curt, "Nope," before returning to minding my own business.
Evidently confused, but not ready to accept my single-syllable response as the end to the conversation, she volleyed back over the fence, "You the police?" Pivoting back toward her, with a light chuckle in my voice, I replied, "No, no. Nothing like that.” I continued, “I'm doing research. Going around writing down the things hitchhikers write on poles while they wait for rides." "Really?” she responded in a high pitch, as this concept so alien to her world went rolling around in her head. Not exactly sure what to make of it, she probed at a loss of what else to say, “That against the law?"
"Well, I guess it might be–uh, technically. But, there's stuff written here going all the way back to 1970 or maybe even before." "Really!?" she repeated, the word lurching from her with a trailing screech, incredulous that something could have been written there that long ago could still be there all that time right behind her house; there all that time without her ever having known it. From her adolescent perspective, they might as well have been as I perceive Giza's hieroglyphics.
"Really!” I emphasized, and then challenge her with, “But, if you don’t believe me, come on around here when I leave and check it out for yourself." "I will," she said, with a puzzled, yet growing interest in her voice. “I will!”
This fence-line conversation ended with my barking an encouraging, “Alright!” and a little nod from me as I went back to finishing the transcription, while repeating under my breath, “Alright," and thinking that, first a white, middle-aged cop a couple of months ago near Clovis, and now a teen-aged black girl there in East Palo Alto. So different in life experiences, but both finding at least a passing interest or curiosity in this, too! Another connection made and another reason to keep on keepin’ on doing this!
Graffiti found at this location:
I love this world of life. Let me take you on the road / St. John
Marty was here from Pasadena Calif 3-26-70
Love Peace Dope Jack Weir 1970
Ronn Durr headed back to Fla 1972
Homer Seattle to Mexico
Boz were here 8-17-70 Things are a little slow today
Also 9-2-70 going to LA
Cactus is stuck here again
Eddie Martinez knows what’s happening
San Francisco the promised land will promise you
Yesterday is faded Tomorrow is opaque Today is luminescent