136 000 volts can kill you

Published on 2024-02-17

There was this guy in the town I used to live. He was a "public figure" in a sense, but I won't give his name because you could probably reverse engineer where I lived with it. But we'll call him John. He had a name with that kind of energy.

John was infamous in my town. He was by far our most prolific vandal of all time.

His medium was permanent marker and city bench. Sometimes he dug a key into the wood to leave a trace harder to remove. He vandalized every bench in the city. By the time I left, I couldn't find a single bench that hadn't been touched.

On these benches, he'd write messages and numbers in all caps. He'd list what seemed to be the amount of energy being put out by nearby power plants, along with a number of warnings. Sometimes kind of vague, like "danger!" and other times more direct, like "136 000 volts can kill you," and "research [historical event involving a power plant in the region]". Things of that nature.

Every bench included the message "John was here" and a number, counting upwards, apparently from the first bench he vandalized. Some were in the two hundreds.

I really want to drive home how thorough this guy was. When I say all the benches I mean all of them. Even the ones pretty deep into the nearby provincial parks. Some were faded. The timestamps dated back a few years. You could tell he revisited some of them too, with hasty, newer markings drawn over old ones.

Despite this, whenever I'd ask people about it, nobody seemed to know what I was talking about.

I found it really strange. This seemingly glaring thing passed completely under the radar for the vast majority of people in my town. There was only one thread about it online, where most people dismissed it out of hand. Nobody noticed, and the few that did didn't care. John's screams went unheard.

I saw John one day. I was out on a bike ride. I noticed a guy who was hunched over a city bench, who seemed to be writing something. He was a middle-aged guy, wearing athletic shorts and a tee-shirt. Very normal looking for my city. After a few minutes he got up and left, and I walked over to where he was sitting. The markings were fresh.

Sitting on those benches always gave me a strange feeling. You could really feel the pain and fear in his words. He seemed to truly be afraid of electricity. A hundred years ago, he wouldn't have been alone. The idea of stringing up all our quiet neighbourhoods with these massive cables that could kill you if you touched them rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. But today, a hundred years later, it feels quite normal, being in a city with an electrical grid. I've never lived any other way. In the grand scheme of human history it's still a pretty absurd idea. Electricity is something we should absolutely be afraid of. But here I am, sitting on his bench, passively ignoring his warnings.

I've always been curious what he would have had to say, had I approached him that day. Supposedly the local news organization had reached out to him before for an interview, but he turned them down. It's hard to tell. Much of John's story that does exist is local legend. More than anything, I hope wherever he is today, he's found some place in life where he feels safe.

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