Bar Bathroom Graffiti in New Orleans: A One Year Catalog by Kirsten Reneau

Carrie Cleveland

“Don’t Worry Dear, I Forgive You!” – Jan. 1, R Bar

It feels good to go into a new year knowing that someone, somewhere, has forgiven me for all that I am and all I’ve done. In this moment the bathroom nearly feels like a confessional, as if I can speak to the walls in this single stall and reveal the worst parts of myself. As long as I come back, I will be forgiven again and again, no conditions attached.

This is actually often how I feel in bar bathrooms, a step away from people and noise and all that encompasses. I like to observe graffiti, see the stalls become galleries, find out what people are yelling into the universe. Sometimes I like to think it’s just for me. I’ve never written anything myself, but I understand the urge to create something that feels permanent.

“Impeach Kavanaugh” – Jan 2, Banks St. Bar

It’s only been a few months since the Kavanaugh hearings, and the very private wound, felt collectively, is still dangerously open.

The summer I was fourteen I tripped on gravel, and the skin of my knees opened up to show the world my insides. When it happened, first I screamed at the blood on the rocks, then I laughed, and then I was doing both; I couldn’t help myself. The camp nurse comforted me and applied Neosporin and wrapped my body back inside itself.

Weeks after I peeled off the ace bandage, I still picked at the bubbles of individual scabs left behind, let them open over and over and over and over again until my mother started to question how they hadn’t healed yet and whether she should take me to a medical professional. My father assured her it was my fault; I was the one keeping them red and alive. Only then did I let them scar.

This time it’s not me picking at the scab, but I carry the guilt of it all the same, the invisible open gash of living in a women’s body that other people have tried to claim as their own. It feels good to see that even in bar bathrooms, someone is offering what feels like a tender touch across the walls.

 The entirety of “When Death Comes” and an excerpt of “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver –  Jan. 18, 12 Mile

We’re drinking because the poet Mary Oliver was alive two days ago and dead the day after, and the world seemed worse all at once. There are two tributes to the poet from two different people, separate handwriting on the same wall honoring one woman. For a moment, it felt like we were all holding hands, collectively grieving if not for her, for someone else, even if it was just ourselves.

Throughout the year, I will continue to return to the last line. I touch it after I wash my hands: “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

I wonder what it is to visit the world, what it is to live, and if I’ll ever be able to figure out the difference. It feels like we’re all just dominos just trying to topple into each other to create something meaningful. I worry nothing I’ve created is good enough to last. But does it matter?

“It Is In Your Self-Interest To Find A Way To Be Very Tender” – Feb. 20, ???

The first “e” in “Tender” is scratched out, so it almost looks like “Tinder” instead, which I like nearly as much. I am very drunk when I first read this, which is why I don’t know where it is, but I continue to look for it over and over again.

“BANSHEE BANSHEE BANSHEE” – Feb. 21, Santos

The text, all caps, screams against the wall.

The music, heavy and full of guitars, scream back.

I want to scream too.

Banshee feels like a loaded word for a woman and, because of that, I like it. The text screams against the wall. It’s probably a band name or something, but that doesn’t matter. The walls are thin and the bass of the music penetrates into the back room, where women talk about men and offer strangers their lipstick. Outside the bathroom door, through the dance floor and over to the bar, a man I think I could spend a lot of time with buys me a drink. We’ve been on enough dates that I’ve lost count, but not so many that the newness has worn off. He’s lived in the city long enough that he can take me to bars I haven’t been to yet, and I am new enough to New Orleans that I am still impressed by this.

I still feel like I have to impress him. I like to revel in that caring. It presses against my chest when he looks at me, the want that comes with it; I worry he won’t want me when I become human, when everything stops being easy and fun. I know it has to happen eventually, but I just want him to stay long enough to find out.

“We Eat Gumbo Because It’s Great” – Feb. 23, Circle Bar

It’s in the thick of carnival season, and I am always having fun and always tired, waking up with glitter in my bed even though it hasn’t been on my body in weeks and I swear I keep washing the sheets. In my dreams, there’s music, and I eat so much that it feels decadent. I feel like I could be in love, just a little bit; with the man, with the city, with the constant feeling that the community is on the precipice of something wonderful. Beads hang from the trees by my house like the Spanish moss. Time blurs in a way that makes me feel like I am holding a glass figurine in my hands–that there is something so deeply precious in my grasp, and if I am too intent and squeeze it or if I am too relaxed and drop it, it could all shatter.

“God and I have become like two giant fat people living in a tiny boat. We keep bumping into each other and laughing – Hafiz” – Feb. 28, somewhere on Frenchman

I haven’t prayed in a long time, but I like the idea of finding a god by accident, in places that don’t just feel serious and devout – I want to touch something holy in places that make me laugh too. My grandfather is a pastor but, at this point, I’ve been avoiding church longer than I ever attended.

The writing is in chalk. Someone will erase it by morning, I’m sure of it. Taking a picture feels like my way of telling god that I’m listening, I’m preserving, and, if this is for me, I’ll keep laughing. Or at least try to.

“Sister Act 2: Back In the Habit Is Far Superior to the Original Film” – July 6, Gasa Gasa

It’s written across the entire door, this all-important message. In the corner, someone has added “The Shrek trilogy too!” I start laughing and so does the other woman in the bathroom, and we each take a picture of it.

A few weeks later, I find out my uncle is dead. He’s told he’s dying on Wednesday and does it on Sunday. That night my boyfriend drives me into the depths of the swamps so we can look at stars. On the ride back I try to find a picture on my phone to show him and see this graffiti instead, the text loud and excited. I start to laugh and it becomes crying and I somehow do both at the same time.

I eventually return to the bathroom shrine to Mary Oliver. The heat makes the days blend. Life feels stagnant and that makes me worry that I am too. I consider throwing away all my clothes, selling my couches, quitting everything that ties me to one single place, and driving as far as I can, until I feel like I am inside myself again.

impeach Assassinate Kavanaugh” – Aug. 7, Banks St. Bar

I like the change. My personal wound feels like it’s begun to scar over, and I want to pick at it again and again and again and again. I have become comfortable, less angry, and that can feel like complicity. It’s so exhausting, holding onto that violence. But I don’t want to heal. I don’t want to forget.

I tell my boyfriend bits and pieces of my personal history. I explain the nightmares about men I never learned the name of. He holds me after, while I cry so hard I nearly vomit. Despite what all the self-help pamphlets and free therapy says, it still feels like my fault.

“Don’t let a sad boi / boy / girl / woman / person get you down. It ain’t fucking worth it, ’sides the self-inspection” – Sept. 13, The Other Bar

We are going to a show at Gasa Gasa but we stop by The Other Bar first, and I don’t know if these omnipotent instructions are for me or someone else. I try to follow the writing’s commandment and consider if other people get me down, and decide that, really, it seems like I’m the one making myself sad.

The leaves barely change, and the temperature still holds the summer’s heat. I want to cry but I don’t have the language to explain why.

“Magic is real + it lives in your hearts CUNTS” – Sept. 13, Gasa Gasa

This one makes me laugh and I feel grounded again.

“Move to New Orleans, Forget Your Old Life, Talk to Ghosts” – Nov. 8, Circle Bar

I’ve lived in New Orleans long enough to impress people with my bar recommendations. I haven’t prayed in a long time, but tonight I find god in the bathroom and I laugh and dance with a man who loves me when I’m so human it hurts. I tell the ghosts in my life how much I love them. I forgive myself.

 

Meet the Contributor

KirstenReneauHeadshotKirsten Reneau is currently working on her MFA in creative nonfiction at the University of New Orleans, where she serves as a nonfiction editor for Bayou Magazine. She’s thrilled to be publishing again with Hippocampus, who nominated her previous essay for a Pushcart in 2019. Her work can also be seen in Hippocampus Magazine, (Mac)ro(mic), Xtra Magazine, The Daily Drunk, Santa Fe Writers Project Quarterly and is forthcoming in The Threepenny Review.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Carrie Cleavland

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