We move a lot, as my helpful moving assistants reminded me during our many trips up and down from the third floor. It’s true; my daughter and I are apartment dwellers, and just about every year for the past decade, our building has been sold, or a live-in relationship ended, or I decided to find a cheaper rent/better location/more reasonable landlord. We’ve moved in all seasons, in all weathers, with hired movers and with beer-motivated friends. I’ve become something of a moving expert, having developed a system for packing that allows maximum access to the everyday essentials, like coffeemakers, toothbrushes, and the beds. It really works – drop me a note if you’d like a few hints.
This most recent move was prompted by the end of a relationship and the subsequent jump in rent caused by the lack of a roommate. I found us a place on the peninsula, nestled at the bottom of Munjoy Hill, with a view of the bay, and started bumming cardboard boxes from my friends. This move went well because I was given access to the new apartment for a few weeks before the Big Moving Day, which allowed me to make many advance trips in my sensible little car. I scheduled Big Moving Day to take place well before the end of the month so I could go back to the old apartment for the final deep-clean.
It happened sometime during our first night at the new place.
When I staggered out to my car around noon post-Big Moving Day, my leg muscles creaking from the previous day’s efforts, I discovered a strange orange substance dripped all over the car’s door handle. That’s a weird place for a bird to shit, I thought. I used a scrap of paper to open the door and made a mental note to hit the car wash later. I figured if a bird’s bad aim was the biggest trial of this move, I was going to roll through this one easily.
While I was sweeping the empty rooms of the old apartment, the downstairs neighbor called. “What happened to your car?” she asked. Confused, I peered out the window and down to the street. From above, I could see what the sharply slanted hood of my car had hidden from my view while in the driver’s seat: loopy orange letters that stretched across the entire front of the vehicle. I took the stairs down three at a time.
My neighbors and I stood around for a while, smoking cigarettes and speculating about what the letters spelled. My first guess was the tag JURNE, which appears all over the city, but there were too many letters. Someone pointed out that the last bit looked a lot like the word “DIE,” and from there it wasn’t long before I could make out two words: GAYS DIE. It was written in what we determined was mustard that had baked hard in the August heat – all across the hood of my car.
Now, I understand there is a human tendency to see ourselves in random shapes. Two windows and a door make a house appear to have a face. An inkblot looks like a man on a horse. In a similar spirit, I tried to see alternatives to the hateful message. It could have been random that my car was chosen; the words could have been nonsense. But after seeing the words, I could not unsee them.
Someone suggested I call the police, and everyone agreed that I should photograph it for documentation. But all I could think of was how much I wanted it off my car – right now.
I finished up in the apartment and hurried to the car wash, an anxiety like I have never before experienced hovering like heat-haze above my head. I felt like everyone could read the awful words on my car, and I mentally apologized to every queer person who might see it and think it was meant for them. With ten dollars and the help of a sympathetic car wash attendant, most of the mustard was scrubbed off. The attendant even offered to let me come back later, when the car wash wasn’t so busy, so she could scrub off the rest. This bit of kindness dissolved my anxiety, and I wept through the gnashing spray of the washer.
Worse than the stains the mustard left on the paint was my suspicion of my new neighbors. There are no pride flags or bumper stickers on my car, so if someone had targeted me, they must have watched me and my assortment of butch friends carry my tattered cardboard boxes into the house, hating us all the while. Rather than call the police, I decided to talk to the neighbors myself, since I still wasn’t completely sure the words said what I thought they did. It would be worse, I figured, to live with that kind of doubt in my own home, being paranoid every time I carried in the groceries or sent my daughter out to play.
I began by asking each neighbor if they’d seen anything suspicious, and then, nervously, described what happened. To my relief, every one of them was horrified, and promised to keep an eye out for me. There haven’t been any reoccurrences.
After a spell of checking and rechecking door and window locks in the middle of the night, I’ve settled down a bit. Most of the boxes are unpacked and the new place is starting to smell like us. I still don’t know exactly what happened that first night, and I probably never will. The possible variations are endless, and I could make myself crazy trying to figure it out, so I don’t. It’s just a mystery.
But I tell the mustard story to everyone I can, because it feels important for me to report that it can happen, here, in this city I love with all my heart, today, in the 21st century. And I’m now on a mission to find some rainbow stickers to put on my car, because I want to mark on it, too. My bumper’s silence did not protect me.
Jen Hodsdon is the proud, if temporary, owner of a view of the Atlantic Ocean. She thanks Audre Lorde for the quote borrowed and rephrased at the end of this column.