A chat room of one’s own.
Past Personal Essays Entries
Me, Consuming the News
English Phrases on Shirts in Spain
Personal Essays by Randon Rosenbohm
English Phrases on Shirts in Spain
I tweeted to myself, “god is trying to communicate with me via the macarena.”
“Vacation: meant to be spent alone.”
— The Go-Go’s
Wearing shirts with statements written on them says you want to be singled out for something and loved for it all the same. My favorite statement T-shirts are as personalized as possible – like something written on a white tee in sharpie, or an airbrush tee that my peers in my youth would get from a vacation to the Gulf coast , or (my favorite tumblr) “Zazzle poetry”, or those Velcro shirts from Limited Too all the girls were wearing in elementary school. When you buy a shirt with something on it, there is potential for a loss of authenticity. Depending on my mood, seeing my personal sentiments mass-produced as consumer goods, like statement T-shirts, can either bring me comfort in feeling less alone, or anti-consumerist terror after realizing that something I felt a genuine connection to has yet again been co-opted for capitalist gains. It doesn’t matter if the statement is ironic, political, a cultural allusion, or totally mundane: putting your heart on your sleeve is a marriage of personal and physical boundaries, a cry for attention, and just another way people try to connect with others.
Shortly after graduating, to focus on the surging helplessness I felt, I retreated to a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language. I wanted to spend some time with myself, or at least learn how to. Personal space is a precious resource in New York City. Lacking the concentration to build personal boundaries, I considered travel my best bet: maybe physical boundaries could work for now.
So, after spending a week with my family in one Spanish city, I’d travel alone for ten days in two other Spanish cities. Of course, there were a few things I overlooked, like how being alienated doesn’t feel great. Traveling alone, as a tourist, where you can barely speak the language is maybe fun for three days. The rest of your time may be spent feeling so alone you catch yourself speaking nonsensical psychobabble (outside, walking down the street), and eventually you just give up. I was pathetic.
Whenever anyone had the opportunity to treat me with hospitality, I was so happy I cried. Productive, interpersonal meat-vessel-to-meat-vessel interaction made me feel like I won something. For instance, when I was lost in these arid mountains in an attempt to take a suburban bus to a 15th-century Spanish military-style castle just outside of Madrid, I missed my stop by a couple of kilometers and wobbled hungrily up a hill to a fancy restaurant, where a kind woman named Beatrice spoke to me in English, had the chef make me sandwiches, gave me water, and wrote out directions. She requested nothing in return. I didn't have much to offer. I wept tears of joy, remembering people sometimes have the potential to convince me that they’re selfless. Something about it felt biblical, privileged.
I should have stayed in a hostel so I could have been with other tourists; maybe I’d’ve cried less and gotten lost less, but I wanted to be alone. Solitude was my mission, after all, except I didn't have any reason for it, other than having said, "please leave me alone," out loud too many times when I was (already alone, in my apartment) in New York City. So instead of hostels, I stayed at Airbnbs which was, as I should’ve suspected, bad. The whole Airbnb industry alienates literally everybody involved, not just selfish tourists who can afford privacy. The Barcelona neighborhood I stayed in had anti-gentrification graffiti stenciled on the walls in poetically-translated English. It basically said: tourists keep out. I was quick to criticize Airbnb's hand in gentrifying New Orleans, but not as quick as I lazily relished the convenience of instantly knowing where I would stay. I didn't think gentrification was a thing in Barcelona, but it is. I should have done my research. Gentrification in Barcelona is a big deal. After beginning this writing, I encountered Barcelona’s PAH, Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (Platform for People Affected by Mortgages), an activist group that has organized against tourism’s hand in Spain’s housing crisis since 2009. Thankfully, and unfortunately, they’re still active. Gentrification and neoliberalism are complimentary symptoms of our doom. Neoliberalism has a global reach, it always seems to find a clever way to capitalize on a collective desire to be recognized as individuals and the seemingly contrary desire to connect with others.
My loneliness was killing me. Conversations with my multiple personalities, replying to my own tweets, only satisfied so much. I didn’t know how to make friends. I tried Tinder, but deleted it when I realized the pretense of sex was inescapable. I couldn't ask strangers for a cigarette or a lighter – I quit smoking years ago. I used FaceTime to phone home, and I hardly ever use FaceTime. Deluded, I didn’t know how to interact with anyone if it wasn’t transactional. Having less money than I needed to go out and make friends, I reenacted that one Vito Acconci performance: following around select strangers for as long as I could. I had no clue where to go anyway. Genuine interpersonal connections are conveniently unattainable, making our deepest desires easily exploited and sold back to us by the bushel like a Che Guevara t-shirt.
I was so lonely I grasped for relatable content anywhere I could find it, which is why I began recording every English phrase on shirts I came across. Keeping track of English phrases on T-shirts in Spain became my reason to get out of bed in the morning, my motivation to leave the Airbnb, my omen of choice. Anything is a source of divination if you try hard enough. Spiritual significance aside, the statement t-shirt has a politic, similar to the Che Guevara t-shirt: people want to connect with others while simultaneously adorning themselves as unique, be they rebellious or not.
So, here’s my uncut list of English phrases on shirts in Spain, in chronological order, with director’s commentary. I’d like to take this opportunity to say: I’m with stupid and nobody knows I’m a lesbian. Also, I [heart] NY! I [heart] NY so, very much.
(Global capitalism and my personal crises are not entirely unrelated. I don’t exist in a vacuum. No one is really alone in a globalized economy.)
(The east coast of the United States is a globally recognized aesthetic. New York City and all things related were the most common apparitions, which didn't make me feel any less crazy. English and NYC has some sort of globally-recognized cultural cache. I think consuming American culture is a rebellious, countercultural act in European countries where their nationalism is rooted in cultural traditions: I saw a very alternative-looking, potentially Instagram-famous Spanish teen setting up shop at a Starbucks.)
“Ice cream heals the brokenhearted.”
(I was sad, possibly heartbroken. This shirt reminded me to consume. Although I don't necessarily agree, food doesn't always make me feel better, I totally had ice cream later. I just wish the girl in the shirt was with me for ice cream, and maybe she was, forever in my heart, ice cream girl.)
“Sound of Freedom”
(This shirt was on a John Cage level of conceptualism.)
“Bullet for my Valentine”
(I had a less-lonely moment when I met up with my mom's friend's daughter one night. She told me about her boyfriend’s favorite Avenged Sevenfold hoodie. I once heard cultural moments start in big cities then take a while to get other places. I think some people in middle America still like BFMV, and wherever that is, it is probably a similar distance from New York City as Madrid, be it monetarily or physically.)
“Brooklyn Subway Signs Service”
(I remember this shirt looking like an Old Navy design from the early aughts. Brooklyn! Cool! All of the shirts that referenced New York made me realize how much social capital I had. I wondered where I could exchange it for euros.)
“I Woke Up Like This”
“Don’t Grow Up It's A Trap” [with a picture of tattooed Tinkerbell]
(I saw this t-shirt more than once.)
“Born in the 90’s”
(Your generation is one of the top ten ways to identify and relate to others. Generational discrimination is also a great way to pinpoint your market.)
[union jack], [American flag]
(English! Inglese! Global cultural capital! Maybe wearing an English phrase on a shirt is too much, and a glyph representing the English language, and, like, global imperialism, is more simple, more chic.)
“In pain makes me [anthropomorphic happy coin]”
(I think this is a poor translation of "no pain no gain." I don't like to take pictures of strangers, it's rude, but I got a shot of this shirt.)
“Welcome to America”
(OK, Christopher Columbus! The United States of America is an unmatched militarized global power. Wearing this shirt somewhere that isn't America is an amazing political statement.)
(The other New York City.)
(Thanks, Lena Dunham. I saw 3 dozen shirts with "Brooklyn" written on them. Maybe someone from Barcelona will get an Airbnb in Bushwick today and maybe I gave them directions to the J train on my way to the Mask Magazine office this morning.)
(I guess these places are related. Being on vacation as I was in Europe is a glamorous thing. I shouldn't have openly complained online so much, I lost some followers.)
(My mania was on an upswing and this awesome shirt sure validated it.)
“Can't Stop Won't Stop”
(See above. These shirts were motivating me to be productive.)
(Rock isn't the first thing white people stole from black people, but the implications of cultural appropriation are right in front of us. Why is icon spelled with a “k” here? There's something lonely about over-identifying with a genre.)
“Become your dream”
(No, I'm not worried about me developing schizophrenia, you're worried about me developing schizophrenia.)
(A better shirt could say, "Figure out what you want.")
“Mermaids have more fun”
“Chicks dick the uniform” [picture of startroopers]
“Big Grrrl Small World”
(The person wearing this had a beard.)
“#SELFIE” (written in Helvetia over a girl taking a selfie)
(I read the person wearing this as masc.)
(I was homesick.)
“It's F#cking Monday once again”
(It was Tuesday. This was the first shirt I read as "ironic".)
“Let's end this feudin' and a fussin' and get down to some lovin’” [Homer Simpson reclining]
“Fire Walk With Me”
(In a social situation I would make small talk with this person.)
(Thanks, I will continue projecting my internal world onto statement shirts.)
“Bad Boys Don't Go to Heaven”
(This reminded me of a shirt my eleven-year-old step-sister got in Malaga. The design on the shirt was a fish flirting with a shark that said, “I like bad boys.”)
“We all demand more playa”
“Ink in my vain”
"Life is beautiful"
“Music is the answer”
“Enjoy my cock”
(The design of this shirt was similar to a Coke can, anti-capitalist and patriarchal at the same time.)
"Not your princess”
“Living for the weekend”
“Do not belong”
(There are so many other people with this shirt.)
“The adventure begins when the mountains hit the sky”
“Stay hungry for creativity inspiration and art”
“Keep up don't give up”
“Shitty times eat the rich kids”
(I know. I will.)