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Reading the Signs

October 14, 2013

I’ve spent the last few weeks criss-crossing the heart of America (or, for those with corpus phobias and metaphor voracity, the starboard forecastle of this ship of state), and I’ve come to enjoy an unflagging regard for signs.

Highway signs, street signs, signs that say EXIT or those declaiming prohibitions worthy of Moses with their ubiquitous slash and circle–all of these signs seem to think themselves immune from Metaphor. And that’s the rub. Metaphor’s a pretty good friend of mine, so you can understand why I’m taking offense at this presumption of singular meaning on the part of the signs.

You see, my pal Metaphor comes from a place that breeds meaning promiscuously. Newborn signifiers waddle about there like rabbits, bunching up the sidewalks. The signs we see in our daily lives would not operate in the same way there. But here and for most of us, signs presume an intransigence of meaning.

Yet, even as typical signs forbid multiple meanings, they are not always successful in doing so. In fact, I saw a few signs on my trip that seemed to be speaking out of both sides of their mouth–shooting from their larboard and starboard gunports.  Here are some of them, each one a prize of double-speaking metaphor-friendly implication. (Let’s categorize this entry for you theory-lovers under the heading of “signs that would make Mikhail Bakhtin go all carnival on us”).

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1. Drunk Driving Lane Ahead. Whenever I see this sign I wonder if I’m being asked to drive erratically on purpose. It’s a good thing the guy in the picture is all by himself. Or maybe there’s someone else seated exactly behind the driver, lined up to perfection, the way ninjas attack the lord’s estate in a razor sharp single file. Maybe it’s the complementarian in me that wants to see an element of exactitude in an image so oddly celebratory of zig-zaggy peril.

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2. Up with a Leg Up. Party pop music plays loud for this one. It’s a party. A party for arrowheaded lines. And they dance like Peanuts kids to Schroeder in a fugue state: head straight up, legs kicked out at awkward angles. I’m liable to get all soft in the shoulders when I pass this one.

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3. Truck Hypotenuse. This is a scary one. You only see it when the road mimics a roller coaster and never ever while driving a truck.  You read it therefore according to a principle of secondary surveillance, as one who reads a love letter intended for someone else. All you know, in the flash it takes to recognize the sign, is that something dreadful awaits you, something so alarming that mathematics has been brought in at some earlier point in time to fight it. There are chances up ahead, percentages, likelihoods. In the actuarial moments before encountering this hypotenuse of doom, you wonder what number you and your car would get. Would your number be better if you were in the truck?

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4. Man with Pet Square. Sure there’s construction going on and the pylons seem placed not to guide you but to make you winner of the hit the orange and win the jeers game by all those hardhats trying so hard to look busy. But there’s a circusy feeling to it all the same. And with that spirit, you glimpse this gem. Up ahead is a man performing with his pet square. Here Square. Jump Square. Attsa goooood Square!

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5. Last One Down’s a Rotten Egg. You’ve pulled off that endless stretch of Eisenhower’s finest manifestation of destiny in asphalt and orange. Now you’re in the nearest hotel, motel, Holiday Inn… Wearily before the elevator you notice this flash of sheer childhood joy. O for those days now gone by when a boy and his campfire could frolic wild and free. “Haha Flamey. You can’t catch me. Race you to the pool!

23 Comments
  1. Fascinating reinterpretation of signs. There are two that I take particular exception to: the one promises jumping deer, the other bear with bear cubs. I’m yet to come across either. Oh promises promises…

  2. Ah, Michael, what have you done? My road trips will never be the same.

    My favorite is the one that says “Speed Enforced by Aircraft.” I always get a mental image of planes machine-gun firing across the roadway at cars that are going too fast.

  3. I like Man with a pet square. I can relate to him, he’s approachable.
    If you do a sequel, I’d like to see “Olympic dear racing” https://www.badgerworks.com/images/inventory/119.gif

    • I know. Of all the things in the world that X, and all the amazing XING going on, I think Olympic dear XING is the most spectacular. Rare but spectacular.

      • I have yet to witness it happen myself, but I’m sure its a majestic and dangerous moment to see a dear by the road.

      • It’s also amazing to see how they get their antlers through those helmets. Dear are aces at hair pin turns. How they work the stick shift with hooves is beyond me. It’s probably duct tape.

      • Yeah, probably duct tape.

  4. I like Truck Hypotenuse. A mathematical metaphor is intrinsic here. The equation of extreme density vs gravity. Perhaps there is a 92% chance of a level stretch of highway.

  5. Fun ‘stuff.’ Thanks! This sure beats the road games we played as kids traveling the country. Wish I had your creative mind. 🙂

  6. my favorite sign is the one that says to watch for falling cows ….

  7. Love it! 🙂

    I can relate. My brain always wants to interpret the orange rectangular signs that say “End Construction” as protest signs!

  8. A number of years ago, I used to sit not far from the people who worked on “signs policy” in the UK’s Department of Transport. I will only say that metaphor was not their friend.

  9. Hilarious, I loved it.

  10. Lauren permalink

    When I lived in Southern California, I was always surprised by the road signs depicting a Mexican family fleeing (or, out for a brisk walk?) have you seen this one? http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/primary-sources/289

    • Wow. That’s an amazing image. I’m stupefied by it and the lagging impossible span that separates these blocky objectivist shapes from the actual lives they signal.

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