Signs of the time
Sunday, February 10, 2019
You're from out of town going 65 mph down the highway heading west, and you want to catch another highway going north. What do you think the exit sign should say in 3-foot-tall letters?
B) Exit 42
C) Gov. Tiddwilly Memorial Highway
D) Pinewood Mall
Quick, you've got nanoseconds to decide. It is part of the new theory in highway sign design — signs for people who already know where they are going. If you know where you are going, what do you need a sign for? Shouldn't signs be for people like me, out-of-towners who don't know what direction Gophertown is from here? I had plenty of time to think about it as I traveled west for 20 more miles.
Of course, some signs tell you more than you need to know. On the outskirts of one little down-on-its-heels town in our county is a ramshackle country store with a large sun-faded sign over the porch that says "Worms, Bait, Computers." I figure the worms are just loss-leaders to pull in the computer customers.
When we lived in the city, Sue and I used to go to a seafood restaurant that had a picture of a crab on one restroom door, a picture of a lobster on the other. We used to have great fun watching people get up from their table and head for the restrooms, only to be stumped by the signs. Sometimes they'd just shrug their shoulders and cautiously push on one or the other, but often they'd slink back to their tables, confused and distressed. Then we'd hear raised voices back at their table.
"Of course the lobster is the men's room. Lobsters are bigger than crabs."
"So, you think women are crabs?"
We saw many a nice anniversary dinner go down the tubes after that. The truth was, it didn't matter. The restrooms were only big enough for one person. You locked the door, and it was your personal restroom.
A few years ago, there was a craze for signs on cars that said "Baby on Board." I always wondered what the parents were trying to tell us? That it would be OK to ram them from behind with great speed if it were only adults in the car? Wouldn't that still be wrong?
Airports go out of their way to come up with confusing signs. Where else in the world would you see a sign directing you to "Ground Transportation"? Doesn't that just roll off the tongue?
"Honey, I'm taking the Ground Transportation to the store. Anything you need while I'm there?"
Our last trip, we took a free courtesy bus from the airport terminal to our car in the long-term parking lot. We had to stand on the crowded bus, and in the back of the bus was a sign that said C-O-U-R-T-E-S-Y written vertically.
C — Courtesy is not a word; it's our No. 1 job.
O — Our passengers deserve the very best.
U — Use the courtesy bus every time you travel.
R — Respect is not just a slogan, it's our policy.
T — I didn't get past T.
Our driver was screaming through the closed door at a woman trying to get on the courtesy bus. He wouldn't open the door for her. He kept yelling, "Catch the next one! Catch the next one!" through the closed door as he pulled away. It was raining. She had a small child in one arm and was dragging a big piece of luggage behind her. She chased the bus for a few yards before she gave up.
The problem seemed to be that sign was in the back of the bus where the passengers could read it, instead of in the front of the bus where the driver could have read it.
Jim Mullen is the author of It Takes a Village Idiot: A Memoir of Life After the City. His column, The Village Idiot, takes a look at the curiosities of American life.