Living for the moment (part 1)

June 6, 2010

In every minute there is a single second that defines the entire minute. If you just witness this single moment then you will have grasped the essence of the other 59 surrounding seconds. In every hour there is a defining minute and this pattern repeats right up through days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries and millennia.

This significant snippet of time, the moment, is something that writers, photographers, painters and other artists continually attempt to grasp hold of. By capturing a moment, it is possible to encapsulate a much larger narrative into a smaller medium.

In comedy performance much is made of the pregnant pause, that expectant silence that ramps up the anticipation of a killer line. And in other creative areas it can also be an understated moment of seeming inactivity that is the defining point in time.

Take the example of a wedding photographer walking backwards in order to get a large wedding crowd into the shot. Is the most significant moment when the photographer finally tumbles over backwards into the fountain or is it when the assembled crowd all spot the inevitable and decide as a group to stay silent and watch the event unfold?

Although the sight of the photographer screaming as he plunges into the cold water is the more dramatic moment, there is a strong argument to say that the assembled crowd all mumbling sheepishly among themselves, and trying to hide their mischievous smirks behind cheesy photo grins, is the key moment that tells the full story.

One of the most fascinating aspects of these moments is that they can often leave a footprint in time. Long after the moment has passed, evidence can be found of what previously occurred and the entire event can be unpacked and relived afresh.

A perfect example of this was a piece of graffiti I saw in the male toilets of a service station on the A303 near Stonehenge.

[WARNING: the following section features a piece of very explicit sexual profanity. It has been almost entirely starred out, but in case you guess the original word and feel offended you are being warned now.]

Graffiti is always interesting. It’s a mass conversation, completely anonymous, where the participants converse over a long period of time and many of those involved never get to see the replies to their statements.

The predominant themes are generally football teams, racial slurs and fictional offers of sexual services.

The particular message that caught my eye on this occasion was not part of any ‘conversation’ on the wall. It was a huge, brash standalone message that arced across the middle of the wall in arrogant capitals… and it was incomplete.

And it was the fact that it was incomplete that made it stand out. Like an unfinished symphony, this moment of arrested ‘creativity’ revealed something of the mind behind this message.

The scrawled message was simply this:

C*********S WANTED CALL:

The original intention was undoubtedly to append a phone number onto the text, but after the message above only blank white wall stared back.

These three words, in the context of a male toilet wall, mark a moment and by using simple logical steps we can begin to unpack and restore what happened to cause this piece of graffiti to sit abandoned.

The placement and subject matter of the text can lead us to quickly make a few fairly safe assumptions about the writer.

It would not be completely impossible for these words to have been written here by a female, but probability would weigh heavily in favour of the writer being male. We can also guess that the age of the writer would more than likely be somewhere in a very vague 13-18 bracket.

And so we can now picture our young writer, locked away in the lone cubicle of the service station toilets on the A303, pen in hand, poised to make his own contribution to the crowded scrawl of messages on the wall.

Another significant detail is that the letters, although large, were written in biro. A Biro is a superb tool for rendering text on paper, but is highly inadequate at marking letters on a painted wall. The letters are worked over with secondary lines in places where the ball in the pen has failed to mark the wall clearly enough. In places the text is formed as much by the scratches in the paint as the ink itself.

Along with some other evidence we will consider shortly, the use of a biro pen to write the graffiti suggests that the act was not premeditated. This was a spur of the moment decision that occurred to the writer while they were in the cubicle. A thick black marker pen would be the ideal tool for the job and any seasoned individual used to tagging a wall would carry one, but this writer would have to make use of the less adequate biro he finds in his pocket.

The writer decides he is going to write an appeal to people willing to perform ‘a certain sexual act’ and encourage them to call a phone number in response to the request.

Without thinking the entire process through, he launches headlong into his plan and scrawls ‘C*********S WANTED CALL:’ onto the wall.

And now came the vital piece of the puzzle… whose phone number should he add to the message?

One intriguing fact that we cannot make any assumptions about is whether or not this individual had his mobile phone on him within the cubicle. Either way, it made no difference to the final outcome, but it would be a wonderful extra level of detail to the unfolding story.

If he did not have his mobile phone on him then the only source of a candidate phone numbers for his message would have been his memory. With people storing all their numbers on a handy mobile, how many phone numbers do people actually memorise now?

He obviously doesn’t want his own phone number plagued by pranksters so he needs another number that he knows. He is unlikely to decide that his parents would be a good choice of victim, so maybe a friend? But how many friends’ phone numbers can he accurately recall? And if the friend is that close that he can recall their number then does he really want to make them the victim or risk the prank being traced back to him?

The victim needs to be someone that the graffiti writer is not overly fond of, but how many people know the phone numbers of people they dislike?

Even if he did have his mobile on him, does he really want to be overheard in a toilet cubicle making a call to directory enquiries or a friend of a friend, attempting to subtly elicit the phone number of someone whose name he is not entirely sure of?

And so the uncomfortable truth slowly dawns on him and we now have our significant moment. The graffiti writer comes to the conclusion that he has no usable phone number that he can use to complete his message. He has no option but to abandon it and leave it incomplete.

We can imagine him taking a few deep breaths before making his ‘escape.’ He knows that nobody will know for certain that it was him who scrawled the incomplete sentence on the wall, even if someone walks into the cubicle directly after he departs, but he still wants to compose himself into a nonchalant composure to distance himself from the evidence of his idiotic folly screaming on the wall behind him.

He has probably long forgotten this moment by now and I know from another stop at the same service station that the wall has since been repainted and now sports a fresh cloud of scrawl on the brickwork.

But there was always a chance that someone visiting that cubicle would spot the incomplete message and stop to think about what had caused it to be abandoned. That someone might begin to unpack that moment and that the moment might live on and leave its mark elsewhere.

[In Living for the moment (part 2) I will be discussing how a significant moment can completely alter the logical course of events and even be disastrous for your wallet.]

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