The pluperfect subjunctive doesn’t begin to capture the state of unreality in which I found myself absorbed for an entire afternoon recently.
About two weeks ago the Town employees dug a deep hole in the street in the front of my office to repair a damaged water connection. Subsequently on a Friday afternoon as I returned to work from lunch a team of contracted workers arrived with a cement truck to pour the replacement slab. Eying the process from my office window I was stirred to approach the foreman of the crew and enquire what if anything they proposed to do to prevent delinquents from defacing the new concrete. The foreman clearly hadn’t any particular plan in mind, and my question was noticeably an unwelcome interruption, following which he immediately returned to shouting instructions and waving his arms at the younger workers. I let it go, but not without reservation. The area in front of my office is a high traffic area for young people, more especially during the school year, but also at other times. The proximity of the TYPS (“Take Young People Seriously”) office contributes to the regular passage of youth. I knew that wet concrete is a magnet to nefarious amusement.
As it turns out it wasn’t long after the cement crew had departed that my worries began to enlist substance. Attracted like flies to the proverbial, two young boys on bicycles suddenly materialized at the corner of the now barricaded glistening cement slab. I caught the sight of them out of the corner of my eye through the garden shrubbery as I worked at the computer in my office. My hurried glance at first told me that their preoccupation was mere curiosity. I wasn’t however ready for what then transpired. In a matter of seconds, the employment of the boys turned from casual inquisitiveness to determined obliteration. One of them descended from his bicycle and moved aside the barricade. Then in a flash he raised his right leg and planted his foot firmly and deeply into the wet concrete. I couldn’t believe my eyes! I ran from my office to the street but the boys had disappeared with the speed of vanishing flies. I continued my search for them by checking the area behind my office but without success.
Meanwhile I returned to the scene to fathom what I could do to repair the damage. The footmark depression was at least six inches into the corner of the slab. Not surprisingly my office is not outfitted for anything approaching out-of-doors service. I knew I had a spoon in a drawer somewhere but speedily dismissed that utensil as a useful possibility. What I needed was something larger and firmer. A mere piece of cardboard would not serve as an implement. At last I settled upon a plastic dust pan. In a decidedly unprofessional manner I restored the cement to a semblance of what it had been originally. I tried to refine the appearance by drawing a corn broom across the top of the damaged area to imitate the lines which the workers had previously applied.
Upon completion my mind returned to the original act of vandalism, prompting me once again to go in search of the culprit. This time I was in luck. In the distance near the TYPS office I saw about six boys sitting in a line, their bicycles resting nearby. I approached with the stealth of an animal on the hunt. My searching looks at the boys were immediately rewarded. One of them was sporting a sneaker which had clearly been recently mired in some grey matter. As I wasn’t positive that he was my man, I decided to introduce the subject offhandedly. I began by asking whether all the boys were on bicycles today, to which they replied they were. That at least cleared that element of the evidence in support of my case. I decided that the bicycle combined with the soiled shoe was sufficient to permit an inductive leap. Looking intensely into the eyes of the targeted young man I blandly commented that I disapproved of his having planted his foot in the new cement slab on the street and that I noticed his shoe was testimony to the act. He began by telling me that he had fallen from his bicycle (at least he acknowledged the performance), but my look of disbelief in addition to my blunt statement that I had seen him do it prevented him from advancing his theory of defence any further. He then adopted a new diplomacy, explaining that he wasn’t a bad boy, that he never did anything wrong and so on. I diverted him from this entertainment by telling him that actions such as his give young people generally a bad name. His colleagues by the way were singularly silent throughout this interrogation. I decided to punctuate the vandalism by asking if he knew where the police were at this time (someone on the street had tipped me off that there was a policeman in Baker Bob’s). The boy said yes, he did know where they were. I asked him whether we should have a chat with the officer. The boy naturally discouraged that course of action and I acquiesced.
Having done all that I felt was necessary to deal with this common prankster, I merely capped it off by telling the boy that it was a dumb thing to have done. I walked away from the crowd (privately wondering whether I would be hoot-called in my retreat but thankfully I hadn’t to suffer that indignity). It may have helped that at least one of the boys among the group was known to me as I had previously met him and others at an open-house sponsored by TYPS. That same boy had discovered that I knew his grandparents as well.
As I continued to brood about the matter it occurred to me that as practical retribution I should invite the boy who did the damage to sit by the slab over the next two hours until it set to ensure no further damage was done. However I quickly discarded that pitch as I could see I was setting myself up for a false imprisonment action by the boy’s disgruntled parents. It was easy to make out the translation of irresponsibility into a constitutional crisis. Instead I settled for my own scheme of observation. I returned to my office and opened the side door which leads directly to the area of the new concrete slab. I reasoned that the open door would alert any further trespassers that there were eyes on the project.
Meanwhile, in keeping with a long-standing convention, a dear friend of mine came to the office for a late afternoon visit, a coffee and a gossip. She sat in her usual chair which was now precisely in the open doorway, something she suggested was a pleasant change from the former less airy environment. Naturally I narrated the details of what had previously transpired. My story was accompanied by the expected huffs and puffs, expressing disbelief, annoyance and so on. The focus of our combined antagonism was young people.
Well, what then unfolded just shows how wrong one can be! While we two were sitting there in my office, chitchatting back and forth, with the door wide open upon the scene of the crime, a gentleman of about forty years of age came along the street. To our surprise unaware of our immediate presence he knelt on the street at an interior corner of the new slab. Neither my companion nor I could decipher what he was doing. My visitor speculated sotto voce that he was collecting garbage. For some reason neither of us felt entitled to question the chap about what he was doing as he appeared very intent but not furtive.
When the man evaporated I went to the street to see if there was any proof of what he had been doing. To my utter astonishment I discovered that he had engraved his initials and those of someone else into the corner of the cement! This was the limit! I immediately began imaging every possible form of agony which I would inflict upon him if we were ever to meet in the street.
This further transgression of course only heightened our collective scrutiny of the concrete slab. Twice we had witnessed the speed of these surreptitious and unanticipated acts.
By this time, the concrete had begun to set. It was also approaching five o’clock and I confess I am a creature of habit when it comes to leaving the office promptly at the end of day on a sunny Friday afternoon. We were however treated to one last assault. This time there was a young man in the company of two young girls who we saw kneeling on the sidewalk at another corner of the slab. When I approached him and asked him what he was doing, he frankly stated that he was putting his initials into the concrete. I then asked him why, to which he replied “To go down in history!” I returned the volley by observing that he would only go down in history for destroying public property. This had the desired effect and he withdrew. In any event his labours would have been without profit as the concrete was now sufficiently set to withstand any menace.
I acknowledge that I may be becoming a curmudgeon but truthfully I have no desire to spend the rest of my career coming to the office every morning having to witness a boot depression or some stranger’s initials in the pavement. Both efforts at art and notoriety have thankfully been defaced.