Better than Fiction (creative non fiction)
Dirty Chalk Thoughts
by Kevin Drzakowski
I’m always amazed when there isn’t any profanity on the “Chalk Thoughts” board at Caribou Coffee. At the top, it might say, “What do YOU want to get from Santa?”, and people have written things like “A New Fifteen Speed Bicycle” or “World Peace” or some other crap like that. I imagine these people are mostly the Caribou employees, for whom filling out the chalkboard with large, innocuous responses is undoubtedly in the job description. Before closing, you empty the urns, scrub the coffee rings off the table tops, fluff up the footrest shaped like a black bear, then write something Grandma would like.
I don’t understand this, because Grandma does not go to Caribou. To be fair, I suppose Caribou would be the coffee shop Grandma went to if she went to coffee shops, but your grandma and mine and everyone else’s drinks decaffeinated coffee she buys in a big can from that grocery store where they don’t sell any name-brand products, except for Del Monte.
Normally, however, I don’t have to scan the board for long before finding something like what I saw last Thanksgiving. In orange/red/brown/yellow letters, the prompt asked, “What are YOU thankful for this season?” Of course, there were scrawled responses like “My family” and “Light Roast in the Morning!”, most of them conspicuously in the same handwriting. Then, artfully placed in the center of the chalkboard, someone had written, “MATT IS THANKFUL FOR PENIS.” This is more along the lines of what I expect.
On a side note, I like to imagine that such a message was not written by some sophomoric friend of Matt, whoever that might be, but instead by a caveman who is actually genuinely thankful for the continued presence of his male organ. He went into Caribou, probably because he saw the bear-shaped footrest through the window, and then he ended up reading the prompt. What Matt thankful for? Good question. Matt think hard. Matt look down. Matt know! And then he wrote his enthusiastic response.
I suppose I should scoff at finding bathroom graffiti in a front-room location, especially now that I’m a professor, responsible for instilling a sense of decency and civility in all these students. But I can’t. I know that, given my particular philosophy, worldview, and turn-of-the-millenium sense of what is funny, this is exactly the sort of thing I would have written in my youth, back when I was getting my Master’s.
Let me be honest with you. I love seeing the Chalk Thoughts board defaced. It’s not that I think the uninspired penis joke is all that funny in and of itself; it’s more the mere thought that someone actually decided it was worth the effort to grab the chalk, sneakily look left and right, and write something as dumb as “Matt is thankful for penis.” To me, that represents comedy at its best. Seriously.
I recall watching a particularly formative Simpsons episode when I was in fourth grade. Granted, all the episodes of The Simpsons straight up through my high school graduation can be called particularly formative of the person I have become, but there was this one joke from this one episode that really spoke to me, back from the first season. The Simpsons were going out to eat at a seafood restaurant. At the front of the restaurant, near the hostess’s stand, a placard sign advertised the special of the day: cod platter. Bart, true to the spirit of puckish mischief that made him such an appealing character in those first couple seasons, rearranged the letters on the sign so it spelled out “cold pet rat.” For me, a ten-year-old just like Bart, this was a thing of pure beauty. Bart had just opened me up to an entirely new brand of humor: repurposing the mundane into the tasteless. Sure, I had seen other characters rearrange signs, like the cartoon guy on Sesame Street who would encounter signs and carefully read them, sometimes realizing that they were scrambled and needing to be fixed, but it had never occurred to me that you could make the signs say something taboo. I know that by today’s standards, “cold pet rat” isn’t all that taboo (we all eat it nowadays), but the way Bart rearranged those letters still stands up for me as a master class lesson in comedy.
It’s one thing to make a joke with a blank canvas. It’s another, much better thing to take someone else’s already-painted-on canvas and smear poop all over it. Figuratively speaking, of course. (Unless it’s some stupid painting of a toilet that’s supposed to be some kind of ironic self-commentary on postmodernism. Then, by all means, smear away.)
During my sophomore year in college, my RA, bless her heart, used to set up cutesy little displays on the wall of the common room before every holiday. I’m thinking she must have been an early childhood education major, because she seemed to have had an endless supply of cardboard turkeys, Santas, Cupids, lephrechans, bunnies, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s. Every month, she would hang up these little icons of joy, trying to brighten up our darkened old dormitory hallway, and within a day all of the cutouts would be rearranged into various sexual positions. Each morning, she would go into the common room and, like Sisyphus, move everything back to its original place, only to come back the next day to find all those sixty-nining bunnies back at it.
Great art like this means nothing without someone with the refined sensibility to appreciate it. Winemakers have sommeliers. Mozart had Salieri. Jazz flautists have that one guy out in the crowd who’s listening. And those who write the Dirty Chalk Thoughts, those who can think of a vulgar phrase that actually fits into the letters that Vanna has turned around so far, those who add in dialogue balloons with ghastly profanity to Family Circus cartoons—those artists have immature chuckleheads like me.
Kevin Drzakowski is a professor and chair of the English and Philosophy Departrment at UW-Stout, in Menomonie, where he teaches composition and creative writing. His work has appeared in journals like Spectrum, Verse Wisconsin, and Adelaide, and his plays have been performed around the Midwest and in New York City.