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Ms. Helvetica misread
I’m a junkie.
There, I’ve said it. I’ve bared my soul.
But it’s the truth, I’m addicted to print. I’ll read anything that happens to be in my line of sight no matter who put it there: bestsellers, bathroom walls, drug store rags, Proust, skywriting and self-help books (though it’s arguable any of these have ever worked on me). Non-fiction works, the works of Scott Turow, the fine print on bottles of analgesics, headlines of supermarket tabloids and trashy novels appear on my list of things read, as do candy wrappers thrown away, even trash on the ground, assuming I can see that far. Occasionally, I’ve even violated the Testosterone Code and read instructions on how to assemble this thing or that thing though I can assure the brethren that I have not made a gross habit of doing so. Drawn to print like a moth to a flame, my eyes will read anything, even bumper stickers suggesting “IF YOU’RE READING THIS YOU’RE TOO CLOSE”. I even once remember reading a sign that commanded “DON’T READ THIS.”
None of this is an intellectual boast but rather, an admission. It’s also the basis for an explanation because like having any other kind of jones, satisfying the need has from time to time, gotten me into trouble. Usually the trouble comes from me being worse off after I’ve read the contents of a Dear John, (“Dear Will, get lost you bum….”) a PAST DUE NOTICE or a letter from the IRS. But there are other roads to trouble for my kind of habitual.
I’m in the aisle of rail car number 128 clinging to the overhead bar provided for standing passengers and listening to the clatter of steel wheels against rusty rails. We’re all packed into the 3:18 Southbound train from Sandy Springs on Atlanta’s public rail system. It’s pre-rush hour but it’s still a Standing Room Only crowd and every square inch of floorspace is occupied by some human’s footprint. The windows of number 128 are foggy from the steady drizzle of rain on the outside and you can almost see the sides of the rail car bulge from the crush of passengers on it’s inside.
In back of me stands someone twice my size; my hands are full and the pack on my back is heavy with a laptop, notes, pens, assorted papers, an emergency book or two and God only knows what else. Pinned in tight, I am careful not to invade the personal space of person in front of me but there is no chance I can free my arms to retrieve a small paperback book I keep on hand for occasions when I’ve suddenly got unexpected time on my hands. All I can do is look straight ahead, try to breathe, and brace myself for an uncomfortable forty minute ride to Atlanta’s airport.
Standing directly in front of me but facing in the opposite direction is a tall, rangy twenty-something-ish woman. For all I know her real name might be Tahoma or Georgia or Verdana although to me she seems to me more like a ‘Helvetica’. She’s boarded the train a few stops before me late in the afternoon on one of those days during the January thaw in which the mercury has risen to the mid sixties. Wearing one of those backless, strapless blousey affairs ubiquitous in summer and even at indoor cocktail parties in winter, Helvetica is decorated with a large, expansive tattoo that takes up the entire landscape of her back—and maybe more.
The proliferation of the tattoo (along with the Bravo Network’s ‘Real Housewife of ‘ TV series) is one of the more remarkable as well as more disturbing developments of the new Millennium. Evolving from the simple statement of personal expression such as a ship’s anchor inked on the wearer’s bicep (or simple statement of devotion — e.g. ‘Laura’ or ‘Mother’) the body as canvas notion has spread like fungus or Internet SPAM and morphed into an almost life-form that engulfs broad areas of the human torso.
What gets into people and drives them to permanently alter themselves in perma-blue or indelible black? Perhaps the owners of body worn art see it as the ultimate form of wash n’ wear or a cheaper form of plastic surgery. Whatever the reason, it is a decidedly different take on the idea of ‘just -because-you-can-doesn’t- mean-you-should’ philosophy-of-life.
The ink our Helvetica is wearing has a distinctly literary motif. I’m not an authority on the subject — I mean who really is an authority on anything while riding a cramped, crowded and airless subway car on a rainy winter afternoon? — but I know Shakespeare when I see it… and this is it. A Mid-Summer’s Night Dream. It’s all right there before me directly in the line of sight of my farsighted eyes. And since I can’t get to my emergency book, I do the only thing possible a we ride the rails: I begin to silently read the Shakespeare before me. The only thing that would make reading what’s on her back more convenient would be if she, as the train goes through the series of underground tunnels, glows in the dark and elevator music appropriate for reading breaks out.
Several paragraphs in…and the only thing I can figure, even these few days later is that Ms. Helvetica felt my eyes upon her back.
Mere minutes later, while my eyes are reading the dialogue on Helvetica’s back and getting to what I suppose are the good parts, the train comes to its next stop and she along with Shakespeare moves toward the exit. But as Ms. Helvetica moves away from me, she turns around and catches my eye. It is at this very moment in the proceedings that I perceive that for some reason, Ms. Helvetica is not happy with me. I could be wrong about this, of course –it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve misread a woman. I seem to have a special gift for it, having been told so by any number of females that I have misread them (or is it ms-read?). Usually my misread is a woman who is standing before me, arms folded, her foot taping and wearing a very perturbed look. But to confirm my doubts -and my sudden suspicion- Ms. Helvetica then seamlessly shoots me a look that could kill if only she had that kind of power. She also shoots me an emphatic middle finger and –I’m pretty sure– mouthes something untoward about my mother.
And all I have done was read what was written… upon her… in permanent blue and black ink …even if it was written by someone else.
A few moments later 128’s passengers have mostly cleared out but as I watch Helvetica walk down the concourse, I am befuddled and confused. Why was she upset with me? I had only read what she’d put out there.
I can only hope she later realizes I was merely reading what she had written upon her. Of course, I also wonder how any body can love Shakespeare that much and if she will be on the same train at the same time on the next day so I can see how the Shakespeare tale ends.
As the train rattles along towards its next stop, I am still haunted by her look that could kill, her emphatic one finger salute but mostly I am haunted by my innocence in the whole matter as well as the perils of brief literary encounters.
I also wonder if there is such as thing as a Twelve Step Program for reading habituals.
©2013 Will Cantrell
- Image Credits: Proust 6-pack is promotional (fair use); Crowded subway photo is all over the web with no attribution - this photo came from photobucket and we'll take it down if asked; featured photo of woman's bare back with a fake tattoo applied was created for LikeTheDew.com using an image licensed by the Dew at iStock.com; and Shakespeare (or who many think is a painting of the man) is public domain via WikimediaCommons.org.