There was graffiti in the bathroom, Frank Zappa too

My parents flirted with the counterculture. You wouldn’t guess it from the way they behave today, although my mom still exhibits a bit of the gypsy in her soul. My dad, however, has developed into the kind of retired guy who punctuates his daily reading of the newspaper with the appropriate harrumphs.

Still, you should have seen him in the 1960s. He was a groovy dentist, who wore blue jeans and desert boots to the office and grew his sideburns. None of the other dads in the neighborhood did this. He picked up a folk guitar and learned to play it, and added Beatles and Bob Dylan albums to his existing collection of Kingston Trio records.

My parents got a contractor to build them a custom house on a hill in the style then known as California contemporary. Its high cathedral ceilings were supported by dark, thick visible beams, and though it was contained in a subdivision, it displayed individuality. Its walls of picture windows looked out on a lawn that my father let revert to forest. It was a cool house.

My mom organized an Art Party and turned our suburban rec room into A Happening. She lined the walls with blank white paper and supplied her friends with paint and brushes. Music was on the stereo. Creativity erupted. My dad stood back and filmed the whole thing on Super 8. How Warhol!

Mom and Dad joined Mensa and acquired some brainy friends. Someone passed my mom a joint at a party. Dad’s record collection grew to include the Rolling Stones and Janis Joplin.

But as a commitment to cool, nothing could touch the graffiti bathroom.

I remember so well its discovery. Coming to dinner one night, stopping to wash my hands in our little powder room off the kitchen and spying, written diagonally on the wall in my father’s hand, “Kicks are a drag.”

I came to the table and asked why it said that, and my mother gave my father a seriously meaningful look. He smiled back. I guessed they had discussed this idea and my father took action before my mother was ready for her powder room to become a library of self-expression.

After that a black felt-tip pen stayed in the john and anyone was welcome to write. I learned philosophies from those walls that remain with me today: “Imagination is more important than knowledge;” “Time is the best teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its students;” and, “Honor pawned is never redeemed.” This graffiti had been to college.

But there was more. From a poster shop, my dad brought home an image of music iconoclast Frank Zappa sitting on the toilet. The poster was entitled, “Zappa Crapper,” and mostly, I imagine, copies were sold to the folks that also bought brass hookahs and incense burners from this kind of store. My dad took wallpaper paste and affixed the poster at the apex of the high, beamed ceiling in the graffiti bathroom. Zappa smiling down was a pictorial endorsement of the musings that friends and family kept adding to the bathroom walls.

By the time my parents sold the house, the counterculture was history. So were disco, Reaganomics and the Gulf War. Poster shops had been replaced with coffee bars.

The graffiti walls had long since been primed twice and painted over, and a drop ceiling had been installed to update the room’s appearance. It brought into reasonable, fashionable scale what had been a quirky, tall room, by obscuring the original vaulting and, consequently, the old poster that got hidden way up in the dark.

By then, the value of the house had matured to about six times its original price. People were retiring on the profits made from selling their homes. My parents sold to an investor who redid the kitchen, painted the exposed beams and installed carpet, then immediately put the house back on the market. I don’t know how many times it has been sold and bought since then.

But I doubt the current residents know what’s probably still hidden above the bathroom ceiling. And if you’re wondering if the house I write about is yours, here’s how to tell: my handprint at the age of seven is in the foundation of the house, along with my sister’s at age six. We were there the day they poured the slab. The impressions are visible at the southwest corner of the garage, near the garage door.

If you find the marks of two little girls’ hands in the cement, go up to the second-floor powder room, lift the ceiling, and look up. See if there’s a famous rock hippie seated on a toilet, looking back.

— Maggie Wolff Peterson writes from Winchester, Va.



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