He stood on a rock in the little trickling creek, can of spray paint in hand.
He cocked his head slightly, looking at the work before him. It was a half-filled, gothic-style, yellow, lower-case b, the latest level of glitzy glam glowy graffiti beneath a railroad bridge turned trail in the woods of Gompers Park.
He leaned forward past the point where he could stand on his own. Planting his paint-smeared Chuck Taylors firmly on the rock jutting out from the little creek, he fell forward. This was the plan. He hit the wall, holding himself hypotenuse to the right triangle of underpass and water with his left hand.
Holding himself against the wall, he gently gently gently shaded back and forth, back and forth with the spray can, yellowing the innards of the half-filled b.
To the left of the yellow b, a completed blue s and o. To its right, the blue outlines of e and r.
His tag was Sober.
“It’s, like, irony because I’m never sober,” he said.
A dozen rocks over, his friend topped off the shading on his own tag, Hier.
In terms of narrative, it’s terrible that I’m not giving you a visual of Sober and Hier, but I want no part of getting them in trouble. Suffice to say they were young and male, one Latino and the other white. They nodded back at me when I gave a little wave from a foot-beaten path through the brush and forest.
Sober warned me about the mud when he saw me almost slip as I hopped from rock to rock to watch them.
They were pleasant and kind, breaking their worker silence only to grouse about running out of blues, the nozzle sticking on the yellow and other artist moans.
It was bright day and they worked unconcerned. No hustled, furtive gestures in the moonlight, one eye over the shoulder to avoid the steely grip of Johnny Law.
Their cans hissed among the chirping of birds, rustling of leaves, babbling of creek and the occasional roar of an O’Hare-bound jumbo jet.
Sober called it a hobby, said that when he can’t get out to paint, he uses markers and ink to write up the world. He had a quirked sideways smile when he talked about his work, but didn’t say anything of note.
He said “yeah” a lot, and “like.” He got into it a while back. He likes it. It’s good.
Sober lets the spray can summon the words he can’t. I can respect that.
A little girl, a little boy and a big splashing Labrador Retriever suddenly appeared. The dog headed straight for the water. The little girl, maybe about 4, and her brother, 6ish, started stepping from rock to rock in the creek.
“Why are you painting?” the little girl asked the taggers.
Leaning from her rock, she reached out and put her palm on an older, bright red tag a previous graffitist left on the wall.
“Is this paint going to come down?” she asked me, thinking I was one of the artists.
The parents watched from the train bridge above, their only concern that the little girl, the more daring rock-hopper of the siblings, would fall in the water and get her dress muddy. She did.
She scampered back up to the top of the bridge, muddy legs and all, to chiding parents, older brother and watchful Labrador. The family moved on, happy the kids had a nice time talking with the nice young men vandalizing the train bridge below.