Etched in Sidewalk

Late one Friday night my girlfriend and I emerged from the subway in Bushwick. Holding hands we turned down the industrial block that led to my her apartment. As we chatted and giggled we came across a bit of construction on the sidewalk.

A wooden platform roughly 15 feet across had been created to serve as a bridge over the wet cement below it.

Several large four-foot squares of the sidewalk had been taken out and replaced with freshly poured cement and left to dry overnight.

Since our evening had involved enough cocktails and laughter to enable a more brazen self to emerge I took a knee.

“What are you doing?” my girlfriend asked.

I carefully, albeit crudely, carved our initials into the wet cement. It was soft enough that writing wasn’t difficult but thick enough that neatness was.

One must print legibly when defacing public property.

She followed with a fingerprint pushed gently next to our initials, as did I.

We stood to admire our soon to be an indelible mark on the world. Our just under one-year relationship had instantly achieved an unforeseen milestone.

“I’ve never done that before,” I said.

Since I was a child I remembered seeing initials in the sidewalks around my neighborhood. I would wonder how that had happened and who had done it. It was a mystery to me.

As I got older I saw my fair share of wet cement surrounded by orange cones and caution tape, realizing the opportunity, but too afraid to do anything.

I always worried not about the appropriateness of such an action but about getting caught. Even if my courage was present at the same time as the opportunity I never acted. Perhaps too many people surrounded me or I didn’t have the appropriate implement to use and dispose of.

That night in Bushwick my mind was empty of consequences.

We resumed our walk home, hand in hand, all smiles and bliss. Flush with the feeling of imparting a bit of permanence on a forever changing city and world.

Early the following morning as I walked to the train by myself, I happened down the same industrial block. While normally busy with trucks and trailers dropping off large shipments of goods, the block was quiet. The only activity was one man in worn work clothes kneeling next to the wooden plank we had walked over the night before.

Hunched over the seam where the sidewalk met the street, a tool in hand, he moved his arm from side to side slowly, methodically.

The realization came immediately.

Our little public statement of affection was merely an early offender in a series of others that had essentially ruined the sidewalk.

We were not the only ones who had thought to make our mark.

In addition to initials and handprints, somebody had scrawled in shoe-sized cursive letters across a dozen feet of wet pavement.

The man kneeling was gingerly spreading wet cement, carefully patching up what was presumably his earlier work.

I felt a guilt buoy within me yet I didn’t pause my stride. Shame and embarrassment propelled me down the block at an even quicker clip.

How stupid I was to believe that this wouldn't affect somebody, nevermind double the efforts of a workman who spent his time schlepping, mixing, and spreading, perfecting the angles and the level.

I felt ashamed.

Then I felt anger.

Some stupid kids (the obvious culprit in my mind) had carelessly and arrogantly destroyed the sidewalk with their gratuitous contribution.

They hadn't taken a small corner to themselves to try something their fear never let them. They had defaced largely and selfishly, careless of what their actions meant.

In my lizard brain, my girlfriend and I were contributors of a permissible inscription. Everybody else was a nefarious transgressor. Somebody else had ruined it for everybody.

But then again we had wanted to “make our mark” without thinking whether a mark was ours to make. Nobody had given us permission. We had self-approved our actions for mark making without considering whose work we were destroying.

Perhaps it was entirely our fault. Perhaps it was us that let the world know that this blank canvas was fair game.

I don’t know the tipping point that brought the workman back.

Would he have patched up the walk if it were just our initials and not those of everybody else?

I wrestled with the idea of minimal wrongdoing, acceptable mischief, trying to indemnify myself against any culpability, trying to crystallize, what I thought was, the obvious difference between our actions and those of others.

I was unsuccessful.

It is incredibly frustrating to realize one’s own hypocrisy.

Today I am less divided about our actions, more interested in the irony of it.

A mark we set out to make that we might never have remembered after that night has been replaced by something far more resonant that lives on in my memory, potentially permanently.