Culture 16 August 2018
Bar bathrooms are dark, dingy, and surprisingly omniscient. Sammy Smith became privy to this long-kept secret of toilet-side wisdom when she moved to NYC. She was in her mid-twenties, fresh out of college in the Golden State, and searching—as every twenty-something is—for answers. Answers to the questions that can’t properly be verbalized. Essentially, answers to life. Her answers appeared while she was at a bar on Hudson Street. “I was in the bathroom and I looked up and there was something so poignant on the wall, and I was like, ‘That’s it! That is the answer to everything! This is going to get me through my twenties!’ And I went out and wrote it on a napkin and I put it in my back pocket,” Smith recalls with a laugh. “I pulled out this wad of napkin from my back pocket the next morning and couldn’t read anything on it, but it was my first introduction to it, to the amazing content out there from all different people. If you think of it now, those were the original status updates, like on Facebook or Twitter, but hard copy.”
When given the key to life, albeit in an unexpected form, there’s only one thing to do: publish a book. Smith couldn’t hog all of that knowledge to herself, after all, but she needed some time to decide binding up her findings in print was the best next step. It took moving back to California—San Francisco—and her best friend gifting her a book in which to write down all of the bar-bathroom messages she encountered. Soon Smith realized writing them wasn’t enough, it didn’t sufficiently capture the walls’ scrawls. “I realized one of the best parts of it was the penmanship and the banter back and forth and the spelling or lack of spelling,” Smith says. “And so I started taking pictures of them. I borrowed my dad’s Canon Rebel, which I loved, and I went out with this big bulky camera shoved in a purse because I didn't want to be too conspicuous walking into a bathroom.” Smith is not a classically trained photographer, but she has the eye for it and sees value in the moments snapped and crystallized.
“I think from being a history major and lover of history, really I love to capture time,” Smith says. “To me, photography is about capturing moments and capturing time. So there are a couple different sides to my art I think. There’s photography and writing and social history and all of that.”
“I would always get a drink and then by the end of it I was friends with the bartender or someone else sitting there. I’d tell them about my project and they’d love it"
Smith reveals her preppy fashion sense—picture plaid on plaid—did not blend in with the punk-rock dive bars she was photographing, but her personality won over bartenders and patrons alike. “I would always get a drink and then by the end of it I was friends with the bartender or someone else sitting there,” Smith says. “I’d tell them about my project and they’d love it. Guys would lead me into the mens room probably thinking they were getting more than me just taking photos. I was like, ‘No, I’m just here to take photos, really!’” Thanks to her sociability, Smith got more than cocktails from the bartenders while scoping out the bars, she got the true inside scoop. Bartenders would excitedly show Smith their own favorite bathroom messages, pointing out things she might not have noticed otherwise. Who knows what words lurk in the corners of the walls better than the bartenders?
“I was just in Seattle and I took a bunch of pictures in this one bathroom. I loved this one that said ‘bitches get shit done’ and it had two cherries above it, and then below it somebody had written ‘but they can’t be president,’ and someone had written below that ‘that’s the damn truth.’ I just love that dialogue. I was looking through all my film and I saw another one that I hadn’t noticed before that said ‘witches get shit done,’ and I thought it was hilarious next to the other one. There are little hidden gems all over.”
“It’s broken down by love and heartbreak, and there’s a section on pizza versus tacos, and one about body parts—people love to draw and talk about body parts"
In 2015, Smith compiled her eclectic photographs in a book of nearly 300 pages and cleverly titled it, Advice From John. Self-publishing was the name of the game, Smith having gotten a loan from her dad, and she found a printing company in Minneapolis. She describes Advice From John as a “coffee table book,” quite a wonderfully atypical one at that. “It’s broken down by love and heartbreak, and there’s a section on pizza versus tacos, and one about body parts—people love to draw and talk about body parts.” Anonymous wit, humor, and wisdom from those whiling away in restrooms paints each page. There are no limits in what striking content can be stripped from a stall.
“I thought Advice from John was so cool as a book, but then when I was looking at some of the pictures, they’re layered and have all this color and these poignant things that they say—some sad, some profound, some of them really stupid, like one was ‘I like your face so hard,’—I needed them to be bigger, so I blew them up and printed them on metal with vibrant colors.”
"When I was looking at some of the pictures in there, they’re layered and they have all this color and these poignant things that they say—some sad, some profound, some of them really stupid. I needed them to be bigger, so I blew them up and printed them on metal with all these vibrant colors"
Smith says that self-publishing is not the hard part, rather getting one’s finished product out there is, especially with a day job keeping you busy. Smith is a personal assistant with unpredictable hours, a blessing and a curse. “It’s definitely not a 9-5, which is great...sometimes,” Smith admits. “I just got into a relationship a couple of years ago and got the work-life balance talk from my girlfriend recently. I haven’t been balancing it well, but I’m going to try to again. It’s a lot. Like I said, I love my job and that everyday is different, but if I’m not working on my own creativity and passion projects, then what’s the point of it all?”Luckily Smith’s boss encourages her artistic endeavors and allows her the freedom to take a couple days off here and there to make important leaps with her art, and he isn’t the only one, Smith’s parents offering their support as well. “I have a great support system,” Smith says. “My mom and stepdad were [at my show in San Francisco], holding the easel for me. I worked so hard on making the book, I didn’t want all these copies sitting in my garage, so this year I made a commitment to myself that I was really going to take more time to work on it. I’d say I’d given it probably 25% more of my time factoring in my day job. I probably need to give it 50% more for it to really push off.”
What’s next for Smith’s art? “I’m really trying to contact hotels, restaurants, and those kinds of places,” she says. “I think it’s the kind of thing that’s instagrammable. Everybody wants to take a picture with a giant neon sign that says ‘I do what I want.’ There’s a science to it.” Smith also dreams of being an art model, her pieces on display in all of their neon glory in a funky city like Miami; from there, she hopes her art will sell her books. Her ultimate goal would be to make her dreams her day job, dedicating all of her time to Advice From John and her art.
Now, thanks to Smith and that bar she stumbled upon years ago, you know to never underestimate the messy, silly, meaningful etchings on a bathroom wall. Your eyes might catch sight of the very thing that changes the course of your life.
3 Min Read
With a lack of certainty surrounding the future, being and feeling healthy may help bring the security that you need during these unpredictable times.
When it comes to your health, there is a direct relationship between nutrition and physical activity that play an enormous part in physical, mental, and social well-being. As COVID-19 continues to impact almost every aspect of our lives, the uncertainty of the future may seem looming. Sometimes improvisation is necessary, and understanding how to stay healthy and fit can significantly help you manage your well-being during these times.
Tip 1: Communicate with your current wellness providers and set a plan
Gyms, group fitness studios, trainers, and professionals can help you to lay out a plan that will either keep you on track through all of the changes and restrictions or help you to get back on the ball so that all of your health objectives are met.
Most facilities and providers are setting plans to provide for their clients and customers to accommodate the unpredictable future. The key to remaining consistent is to have solid plans in place. This means setting a plan A, plan B, and perhaps even a plan C. An enormous amount is on the table for this coming fall and winter; if your gym closes again, what is your plan? If outdoor exercising is not an option due to the weather, what is your plan? Leaving things to chance will significantly increase your chances of falling off of your regimen and will make consistency a big problem.
The key to remaining consistent is to have solid plans in place. This means setting a plan A, plan B, and perhaps even a plan C.
Tip 2: Stay active for both mental and physical health benefits
The rise of stress and anxiety as a result of the uncertainty around COVID-19 has affected everyone in some way. Staying active by exercising helps alleviate stress by releasing chemicals like serotonin and endorphins in your brain. In turn, these released chemicals can help improve your mood and even reduce risk of depression and cognitive decline. Additionally, physical activity can help boost your immune system and provide long term health benefits.
With the new work-from-home norm, it can be easy to bypass how much time you are spending sedentary. Be aware of your sitting time and balance it with activity. Struggling to find ways to stay active? Start simple with activities like going for a walk outside, doing a few reps in exchange for extra Netflix time, or even setting an alarm to move during your workday.
Tip 3: Start slow and strong
If you, like many others during the pandemic shift, have taken some time off of your normal fitness routine, don't push yourself to dive in head first, as this may lead to burnout, injury, and soreness. Plan to start at 50 percent of the volume and intensity of prior workouts when you return to the gym. Inactivity eats away at muscle mass, so rather than focusing on cardio, head to the weights or resistance bands and work on rebuilding your strength.
Be aware of your sitting time and balance it with activity.
Tip 4: If your gym is open, prepare to sanitize
In a study published earlier this year, researchers found drug-resistant bacteria, the flu virus, and other pathogens on about 25 percent of the surfaces they tested in multiple athletic training facilities. Even with heightened gym cleaning procedures in place for many facilities, if you are returning to the gym, ensuring that you disinfect any surfaces before and after using them is key.
When spraying disinfectant, wait a few minutes to kill the germs before wiping down the equipment. Also, don't forget to wash your hands frequently. In an enclosed space where many people are breathing heavier than usual, this can allow for a possible increase in virus droplets, so make sure to wear a mask and practice social distancing. Staying in the know and preparing for new gym policies will make it easy to return to these types of facilities as protocols and mutual respect can be agreed upon.
Tip 5: Have a good routine that extends outside of just your fitness
From work to working out, many routines have faltered during the COVID pandemic. If getting back into the routine seems daunting, investing in a new exercise machine, trainer, or small gadget can help to motivate you. Whether it's a larger investment such as a Peloton, a smaller device such as a Fitbit, or simply a great trainer, something new and fresh is always a great stimulus and motivator.
Make sure that when you do wake up well-rested, you are getting out of your pajamas and starting your day with a morning routine.
Just because you are working from home with a computer available 24/7 doesn't mean you have to sacrifice your entire day to work. Setting work hours, just as you would in the office, can help you to stay focused and productive.
A good night's sleep is also integral to obtaining and maintaining a healthy and effective routine. Adults need seven or more hours of sleep per night for their best health and wellbeing, so prioritizing your sleep schedule can drastically improve your day and is an important factor to staying healthy. Make sure that when you do wake up well-rested, you are getting out of your pajamas and starting your day with a morning routine. This can help the rest of your day feel normal while the uncertainty of working from home continues.
Tip 6: Focus on food and nutrition
In addition to having a well-rounded daily routine, eating at scheduled times throughout the day can help decrease poor food choices and unhealthy cravings. Understanding the nutrients that your body needs to stay healthy can help you stay more alert, but they do vary from person to person. If you are unsure of your suggested nutritional intake, check out a nutrition calculator.
If you are someone that prefers smaller meals and more snacks throughout the day, make sure you have plenty of healthy options, like fruits, vegetables and lean proteins available (an apple a day keeps the hospital away). While you may spend most of your time from home, meal prepping and planning can make your day flow easier without having to take a break to make an entire meal in the middle of your work day. Most importantly, stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
Tip 7: Don't forget about your mental health
While focusing on daily habits and routines to improve your physical health is important, it is also a great time to turn inward and check in with yourself. Perhaps your anxiety has increased and it's impacting your work or day-to-day life. Determining the cause and taking proactive steps toward mitigating these occurrences are important.
For example, with the increase in handwashing, this can also be a great time to practice mini meditation sessions by focusing on taking deep breaths. This can reduce anxiety and even lower your blood pressure. Keeping a journal and writing out your daily thoughts or worries can also help manage stress during unpredictable times, too.
While the future of COVI9-19 and our lives may be unpredictable, you can manage your personal uncertainties by focusing on improving the lifestyle factors you can control—from staying active to having a routine and focusing on your mental health—to make sure that you emerge from this pandemic as your same old self or maybe even better.