Of ads and men | Inquirer Opinion
High Blood

Of ads and men

The years 1967 to 1969 were the height of the hippie culture and anti-Vietnam war protests. I was in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts to start my Harvard fellowship in adolescent medicine.

On my very first day of school in Boston, I asked a distinguished-looking gentleman seated next to me in the MTA (Massachusetts Transportation Authority) train for direction. “Sir,” I asked, “how do I get to Harvard?”

“Son,” he answered me in a serious tone, “only by studying hard. No easy way to get in there, sonny!”

Two years of commuting regularly between Boston and Cambridge via the MTA subway trains got me hooked on the fascinating habit of deciphering the myriad graffiti on the ad-covered walls of the subway stations. They were mostly amusing, but some of the inscriptions were downright ludicrous and/or suggestive. A few were serious, and I found them all revealing of human nature. The habit proved to be a delightful way to pass the time while waiting for those perpetually delayed MTA trains (so it seemed to me then), especially on Sunday mornings.


Some of the appealing ones I really liked that I can still recall:

A big ad selling some “super-duper” tear gas spray gun designed “especially for ladies working on night shifts” declared in big bold letters, “YOU CAN’T ALWAYS RUN!“ Underneath, scribbled in purple pink, perhaps by some aspiring preacher: “BUT YOU CAN ALWAYS PRAY, DUMMY! “

“MAYBE WHAT YOU’VE GOT ISN’T JUST ORDINARY DANDRUFF!“ averred an ad endorsing a medicated shampoo. A hastily-written footnote to this ad said, “Yes, baby. It must be spiroagghnew!”—referring no doubt to former US vice president Spiro Agnew, who resigned from office in disgrace in the ‘60s.

Decades before this, provocative ads would never make it to the old and proper city of Boston. But in those days of growing permissiveness, hordes of these slyly provocative ads, many with downright sexual overtones, had finally found their way to the venerable Boston subway walls. An example of this type of ad was that avant-garde poster selling some kind of after-shave lotion. It said “TAKE IT ALL OFF!“ in psychedelic lettering, which was very popular in those days. And some red-blooded adolescent, turned on perhaps by the glossy ad, must have written down the inscription I noticed on the lower right hand corner of the ad, each letter in red and capitalized: “NNNNOW?!!!”


A public service ad that I liked best was a simple poster in black and white that said, “BOY — THAT’S WHAT YOU’LL BE CALLED ALL YOUR WORKING LIFE IF YOU DROP OUT OF SCHOOL!“ Underneath it, angrily written in red ink, most likely by a frustrated black man: “Only if you’re black. LIARS! That’s what you all are!“

“SOMETHING TO BELIEVE IN…”, blared a very elegant car ad in glossy royal-blue letters, bold enough to attract anybody’s attention. Predictably, many subway commuters signed in their “convictions” on the big, flashy and glossy poster—a veritable summary of the era: “FREE SEX NOW!!!” “WOMEN’S LIB, WHAT ELSE?!!!” “JESUS POWER NOW AND FOREVER!!!” “GAY LIB NOW!!!” “BLACK POWER!!!” “MAKE LOVE NOT WAR!!!” “LEMAR, LEMAR, LEMAR!!!” (for “Legalize Marijuana”).


One sunny Sunday morning in a Cambridge subway station, while I was indulging in my pastime, pen and paper in hand, jotting down the graffiti on the wall ads that appealed to me, two heavily-bearded, long-haired hippies wearing love beads, peace medallions, jingling Indian bells and all came by. Both stared at me for a brief moment. As the two were walking away, one of them glanced back at me, shook his head, then told his companion, loud enough for me to hear: “Man, must be a crackpot, that guy…”

Replied the other: “Aw, man, c’mon now, the poor guy isn’t botherin’ nobody. Let ‘im do his own thing, will ya?“

Peace, brother!

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Dr. Floriño A. Francisco, 81, was a Harvard Fellow in adolescent medicine, a retired pediatrician, 2005 TOPICS (The Outstanding Physician in Community Service) awardee, and a freelance feature writer based in Cabanatuan City.

TAGS: Floriño A. Francisco, High Blood

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