Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Zero Points

From time to time on you strolls through your midtown residential neighborhood, you come  upon a series of hieroglyphics, spray painted on the street or surrounding curbing, a combination of blue and red letters and numbers, at once mysterious and reminiscent of your younger days, when almost any excuse for a treasure map would do.

These graffiti remain for about a week, whereupon the surrounding area is barricaded, strange vehicles with insect-like protuberances scurry about the street, and a cadre of men, many of whom carry clip boards, stand about in small clots, swearing, pointing, and adjusting their hard hats against the overhead sun.

Thee crews arrive, by your reckoning, at seven, often carrying steaming cups of coffee. Were you to return around noon or one, you'd find odd-shaped trenches, exposing the various layers of soil, sand, gravel, and even traces of the previous paving surfaces that make up the city's thoroughfares. 

Such visions remind you of a high school class in physiology, where an earnest teacher with a French accent tried to impress upon you the need for memorizing the names of the layers of skin, ancillary to recognizing their varied appearances. This made sense to a dear friend and classmate, who already knew he wished to be a doctor. 

You, who wished to become a writer, could see no value in memorizing layers of skin, devoting your efforts instead to memorizing Shakespeare's Sonnet No. 18. This did not do well for you in physiology tests, but what girl could resist being compared to a summer's day? Or, once again, so you thought at the time.

Were you to return to the area at 3:30, the hour when all city- and state-funded construction operations ceased, you'd find the hieroglyphics and trenches gone, replaced by some matte-finish black conglomerate, reminding you this time of visits to dentists, who seemed determined to do to previous excavations what had been done in the streets, replacing them with a smoother, more durable protective finish.

Not long ago, you came upon a man who was applying such hieroglyphics to the street, a spray can of red in his right hand, with which he applied a series of numbers, and a spray can of blue paint, with which he'd earlier drawn two arrows. Overcoming your impulse to ask the man if he'd nourished dreams of becoming another Banksy, you reflected a sincere curiosity about his part in the decision tree whereby a zit or other flaw was reported, brought to official notice, then plans were scheduled for what the man called "a resurface."

As to the numbers and symbols, the mention of them required your non-Banksy to remove his hard hat, wipe his brow, and reflect on surveyor's transits, and such arcana as plate levels, meets and bounds, add tapes, and fucking zero points, which you supposed held some special pain for your informant. You were introduced to any number of terms, and then told that Santa Barbara was about as fucked up as a city could be as a consequence of some nineteenth-century surveyors having an overly familiar relationship with sour mash bourbon.

Such urban mythology and, credit where credit is due, legends stir your heart, and for as long as he was willing, you listened to your man. Not saying, he said, that other cities aren't a surveyor's nightmare, but you take yourself to Utah, where them LSD folks--"You mean LDS," you said.  Whatever. They know how to lay out a city. They got their aliquots separate from their bark scribes, and you sure don't see them blazing.

The better part of five minutes passed, while you were buried under a flurry of surveying terms and concepts, interrupted by another man, with a clip board and a chewed-upon cigar, who wondered, You gonna finish up over there so we can get to Dunkin' Donuts?

You did get the story from him, since he sensed you were not anything you shouldn't be, that more than once, a wrong hole had been excavated, re-packed, and resurfaced. This gave you the rest of your walk to consider the existential meaning of not being what you shouldn't be.

The best you could do was recall times when, as an editor, you'd made editorial hieroglyphics on a manuscript. With no recourse to sour mash bourbon, these were misinterpreted by a writer, who, in effect, resurfaced after laying bare the thoroughfares that make up a manuscript.

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