When I was young, my family and I would drive from our house in Southern Maine to go see my mom’s family in Vermont. The trip was 3 hours one way, which is excruciatingly long in both kid time and backseat time. We had a few spelling games we would play in the car (which were helpful when I was learning how to read and write), we would sing rounds, and when everyone was too tired to talk we would listen to the radio. One of my parents’ favorites was Car Talk radio, a program out of one of the Boston based stations. If you aren’t familiar with it, it was an hour long program where a set of twin brothers with thick southie accents would answer callers’ questions about all things to do with cars.
On one of our journeys to Vermont, a time not too much longer after the first photograph posted above was taken, a woman called into the broadcast and reported that someone had keyed the letters S-L-U-T into her driver’s side door. I saw the utterance of these letters elicit a response from my mom that made me curious. While the radio hosts wheezed and cackled out a few jokes that I didn’t understand, I was busy sounding out the mysterious word using the same skills that I’d been imbued with by our letter by letter family spelling game.
Finally I shouted up to the front of the minivan, “Mom, what’s slut?”
She turned her face to mine and said calmly but strongly:
“It’s a bad word. Don’t use it.”
A few days after we returned home from the trip, I sat idly in the rocky driveway between my Mom’s minivan and my Dad’s pale blue 1992 Ford Crown Victoria spelling out the short list of words I knew. At the end of my slow and worn out recitation, I happily remembered that I had recently learned a deliciously mysterious word. With a piece of gravel in my hand, I slowly yet methodically picked out the letters from memory, one by one, scratching them into the passenger door of my Dad’s car. I added a couple of stars and one of those “S” things that every schoolchild is seemingly required to know how to draw. I stood back and eyed my handiwork, pretty certain that no one would know it was there but me.
It was a very gratifying experience to carve letters into material with a sense of purpose and permanence. This wasn’t like cutting the shag rug with scissors or driving my mom’s drill into the wooden toy chest to make air holes for my teddy bears. I was making my mark, I was saying something.
This pleasant experience dropped to the back of my mind until about one week later when my mom called my sister and I into the driveway with one fierce and abrupt: “Girls!”
We walked out to our parents standing next to the Crown Vic.
“Did one of you do this?”
“Do what?” My sister asked in earnest.
I followed her lead – “Yes what could you possibly mean” my mouth said while my face surely betrayed me. My dad pointed to the new designs emblazoned on the side of his car. We both denied knowing anything about the strange scribbles, and after an icy moment of sizing us up, somebody supposed that it could have been one of the kids at the High School that my dad taught at. We agreed, I most vigorously, that this was a distinct possibility and the issue was dropped.
For me, this memory is an accurate illustration of qualities that have remained consistent over the course of my development as a writer and an artist. To this day I still love a good hidden message in plain sight, I remain intensely curious to explore the mysterious and the taboo, and I continue to appreciate written and visual language that evokes a response in us.
One major difference between then and now however, is that I have learned to always take full responsibility for all my words and creations.