Last weekend, just as the sun was setting, I walked the half-dozen blocks to my local park. I listened to my ipod – Malcolm Gladwell talking about problem-solving at a New Yorker conference last year, which was interesting, I’d recommend it. Skittering around me, sometimes in front, then behind, tripping over their own feet, shouting, giggling, prodding each other, were five tweenage boys, 12- and 13-year olds all hopped up on birthday cake and sugary drinks.
One of the boys was my son, and it was at his instigation that we take his friends, all of whom were sleeping over that night, to the park, to play chase/find/scare/explore in the dark before going home to a marathon of video games. I went with them. They may or may not have even noticed this until we got to the park, where it was my job to sit at a wooden picnic table and look after discarded hats, jackets, and various should’ve-been-left-at-home props.
I sat with my arms folded on the table, staring at the darkening outline of the trees, catching an occasional glimpse of the boys as they flung themselves around the play equipment, and I listened to Malcolm and also pondered what I’d seen as we all tumbled off the footpath and into the park. There’s a public toilet here, the entrance is open and airy, brightly lit, with shiny white tiles and stainless steel sinks. Last weekend the white tiles were the backdrop for a large black spraypainted swastika. The black lines were heavy and the circle had been painted carefully, slowly enough that the paint was thick enough to drip down in places.
I’m not Jewish. I wasn’t alive for the second world war. I’m not easily shocked. And I’m pragmatic enough to know the vandals would have a day, two days tops, before their work was removed. This is a well cared for park. Still, I was genuinely shaken. The boys were too busy with one another to notice the swastika, and I’m not sure they’d know what it meant in any case. Or that they’d care: they’re so bombarded with symbols, logos, iconography that it’s hard for any one image to hold real power. But I knew what it meant. And I knew that someone must have felt very angry, very determined, very churned-up, very righteous to come down here and paint that image on that wall. On a public wall in a suburb home to a large Jewish community.
I wondered why. Many of my neighbours are Jewish, there are several Jewish schools a few blocks from the park, many of the businesses on the high street are Jewish, and there’s a synagogue not far away. And the person holding the paint can would know that. Had he been slighted that day (I’m assuming ‘he’) by someone Jewish? Had someone taken his parking spot, taken two parking spots for one car, stepped in front of him in a queue, talked through a movie, fussed at the bakery and made him late, worn weird clothes? I chose those examples carefully. Because that’s what people around here who aren’t Jewish say about our Jewish neighbours. We do. We complain about all manner of differences. Maybe they have equivalent gripes about us.
But I wondered what, in 2008, would make a person feel so affronted by our differences that they would leave their house, walk to a park and scar a wall with an image that has no equal in its power, and in its capacity to call up feelings of pain and hate. Was it a show of strength, of control, a reminder that no matter what happened to him that day his mob was in charge?
Of course, it may have been an act of vandalism by someone young and ignorant who happened upon a paint can and a wall begging to be marked. I don’t think so though. I walked home with the boys and listened to them talk about movies and games and skateboards and school. They told me they were starving, cold, hot, tired. They told me they were going to stay up very late. They were trying to look grown up but looked incredibly innocent.