by Tom Jacobs
Over the course of many years of micturating into all manner of urinals (and, it must be said, the occasional sink, as well) from Buenos Aires to Brooklyn, my attention has been drawn again and again to the peculiar little devices that affix the stalls or the little barriers (the little planes of pressed metal that separate urinator from fellow urinator, presumably to prevent the awkward social encounters of standing exposed before complete strangers without a barrier to mitigate). I am speaking of what, in an unlovely phrase, must be called “bathroom screws”—the strange anti-theft screws used in public bathrooms. These screws are neither philips head nor flat head screws. These are what are called in the industry “hex” or “security torx” or “spanner head” (aka, “snake eye”) screws. These are screws that look usually like this * or this : (But not like the more familiar this – or this +. They are designed to prevent “you,” the faceless, nameless, and disembodied citizen from disassembling the bathroom, because you don’t have the right tools. This, it seems to me, is interesting.
To the type of person who is given to free ranging, loosely analytical reflections upon all the strange things that the world casts is his way, who finds himself attracted to strange little disturbances in the otherwise smooth surfaces of everyday life (things like the creative defacement of public advertisements, unpicked up dog poo on the sidewalk, the strange guy on the subway, the unexpected pattern of ice crystals on my kitchen window, and so forth), these bathroom screws have been a point of particular and considerable interest. What, the querulous mind asks, do these screws assume? And what do they imply?
Walter Benjamin was excited by the prospects of applying historical-materialist (or “Marxist, really, I suppose) analysis to everyday life. He thought that one of the great challenges of the age (his age, which is still, in some sense, “our” age, even if the mechanics of reproduction have gone all ethereal and immaterial) was to “assemble large-scale constructions out of the smallest and most precisely cut components. Indeed, to discover in the analysis of the small individual moment the crystal of the total event.” What I take him to mean is something to the effect that we need to pay attention to how the little details of our experience can, if we pay proper attention to them, tell us something important about the larger world. These are what might be called “clues.”
A favorite professor (of sociology) once dropped this little iridescent observation in passing, which I immediately dutifully wrote down: “you can read a person’s class by paying attention to two things: their shoes and their watch.” These days, things have gotten much slipperier. No one wears a watch anymore, for one thing, unless out of affectation or nostalgia. And shoes? Well, rich people frequently pursue the shabby chic look while the impoverished seek to conspicuously display outward signs that they are not impoverished (I count myself among the latter, by the way…the shoes that I am now wearing I bought for ten bucks at a thrift store in Lincoln, Nebraska…these lovely suede buckskins are way above my pay grade, but you’d never know it.)
The literature of detection is inherently interesting because it hinges upon this fuzzy, slippery dimension of everyday life: that it is still possible to read the macro in the micro, to see in “the small individual moment the crystal of the total event.” This sort of thing relies upon the notion that there is a stable and coherent social order against which one can read a given particular clue. If, for instance, you lived in England during the Victorian age, you could pretty safely assume that someone sporting a tan had, in all likelihood been in the South at some point. Possibly India. Possibly in a military or civil/administrative capacity. So suddenly you know a fair amount about this stranger. There’s just no other way to obtain a tan. Callouses on your hands meant that you were a laborer.
Here’s Sherlock (from the mostly truly great Granada television series from the late ‘80s/early ‘90s) conversing with his older brother, Mycroft, before an intriguingly aroused and fascinated Watson, performing precisely this kind of semiotic abduction/ deduction/ induction—the categories get muzzy rather quickly when implemented in the messy phenomenologies of actual human experience in the material world. (Mycroft, you will recall, is actually the shrewder of the two, although he evidently suffers from a more severe form of the Asberger’s-like characteristics of his younger brother).
With the rise of modernity and postmodernity and so forth, formerly decipherable clues have been uncoupled from their conventional meanings within the broader social order. People move to the city trailing their own private histories, which often find expression in peculiar and occasionally surprising ways. A tan doesn’t really mean anything anymore: perhaps you are one of those yellowish people who visit a tanning spa. Muscles, once the marker of blue collar labor, now generally mean the opposite: the be-muscled one more likely has the leisure time and money to attend a gym to over develop useless and unnecessary bulk. I, myself, have several items of clothing bearing some kind of reference to my beloved homeland, Nebraska. When I wear my Nebraska t-shirt, I do so unironically—it is a private little expression of nostalgia and loss, but I have the distinct sense of being perceived as having a good sense of irony. Holmes, these days, would be lost in the unanchored little social codes and cues that constitute the ways we present ourselves in everyday life. He’d be right about me, but precisely wrong about the broad shouldered guy with the deep tan in darkest January. This is not news, I suppose, but it remains interesting.
And it’s not all a chaos of floating signifiers. The inversion of meanings has created a new kind of stability. If one grasps the irony of, say, the beards that are currently being cultivated amongst hipsters in Brooklyn, one understands something of what they mean. They seem to me to suggest a longing for a more authentic kind of existence…a longing for the kind of life that involves broad axes and flannel. And even if the beard-grower cannot say, exactly, on some level he “gets” it in some way, even if it’s only in his bones. There’s a structure of feeling in the air that addresses the desire to remake the city and all of the signs that structure and shape our daily interactions with both the material culture and the inhabitants of the city, a feeling that the city can be remade or at least refashioned into something more hospitable and maybe even pastoral. He knows how to read the signs and can signal back.
These forms of communication that are based on gesture, feint, inflection and the like are complex, and require a really rather sophisticated understanding of all that goes unexpressed. The material sign always leans toward the immaterial, the spiritual, the unspoken and unrepresentable. We need something like a crucifix or a map or a novel to remind us of just how unrepresentable our deepest and most profound desires are, of how all that’s really important can never really be expressed (“The heart is not heart-shaped,” Julian Barnes once memorably wrote). It’s a ridiculous and impossible but also necessary condition. We can never really say what we mean. We can never really understand anything, not really. What matters in a way is not just the sign or the symbol, but also all the reverberating uncapturable energies that the sign or the symbol alludes to. The residues of speaking and signaling. It’s not, as Benjamin notes, “what the moving red neon sign says – but the fiery red pool reflecting it in the asphalt.”
And still there are those bathroom screws. What do they mean? What do they imply and assume? It seems to me a rather bleak commentary on the deeper and darker realities that underwrite the more palpable social realities. These screws, which require a special screwdriver bit to install (or, for that matter, to disinstall), speak volumes. You are not to be trusted. Not only are you not to be trusted, the worst is assumed of you. Yes, we have democracy and public spaces and money that only functions because we all trust and believe that it’s worth something. But at the end of the day, in the last analysis, there are these bathroom screws, which are made the way they are so that you cannot walk into the bathroom and disassemble the bathroom for whatever unfathomable motive that might possess you. You don’t have the right tools. But somewhere there is someone, perhaps sitting in the apartment opposite you, with the right toolbox. Not a detective. Not a semiotician. A carpenter or maybe a construction worker. Perhaps he doesn’t know it, but he possesses an important secret knowledge. He knows how to turn the screw. He surmises that, even if it’s only on the lower frequencies, these screws are speaking to you.