MAD DOG: Signs of the Times

Drive across America and you'll see a lot of signs. That's the great thing about this country -- anyone with a jar of paint and a brush is free to use them as they see fit. Spelling, clarity and a compelling need are optional at best.A lot of the signs are official. Cities, states and the federal government are all strong believers in signs. That's why sign painters have the lowest unemployment rate of anyone in this country. Next to foreign lobbyists, of course. I've seen intersections with as many as 17 signs stacked up, including street signs, highway signs, parking signs and more arrows aimed in more directions than Cupid at five minutes to two on a Friday night in Houlihans. And the directions can be downright mind boggling. How can one road actually be I-10 West, Rt. 61 North and Rt. 285 South at the same time, unless the Department of Transportation has done what even Einstein couldn't and proved that you really can be in two places at once.Many years ago someone told me how the road numbering system works. As I remember, it's a little less complicated than trigonometry but dangerously close to numerology. I'm sure there's someone somewhere, probably in Jackson Square in New Orleans, who can tell your fortune by the roads you've recently traveled. A road with a 13 in it is bad luck, riding down Rt. 69 will bring success in love and sex, and God help anyone who travels on State Road 666. I noticed that a lot of the Texas state highway signs have an outline of the state on them with the highway number in the middle. They missed a good opportunity here to score brownie points with travelers. While the map is purely decorative, it would make life much easier if the highway number were placed in the state outline according to where you are, sort of a "You are here" symbol. For some reason these state outlines are only used to indicate Farm Roads, which as you get to west Texas become Ranch Roads. Is it somehow important to know there's a farm or ranch down that road? I haven't noticed any signs in Texas labeled Business Roads, Church Roads, or Condo Roads, which would indicate there are stores nearby, a place to pray for directions to the nearest McDonald's, or a lot of people living in apartments which they think they own yet for some inexplicable reason they still have to pay rent every month.When I was driving through Tennessee I thought they were being helpful by putting a stylized picture of a jet on top of the highway signs, letting me know there's an airport up ahead. After about a hundred miles I realized that either Tennessee has more airports per capita than any other state or they had a lot of these signs donated by the Audobon Society so they tacked them up anywhere they had room. The truth came out when I realized that what I thought was a jet plane sitting on top of the sign was actually a picture of their state bird, the mockingbird. And as mockingbirds are wont to do, this one was pretending to be a jet. So much for international symbols.Speaking of Tennessee, it was in Rogersville that I passed a business that carved memorial gravestones. Hanging out in front was a big banner that read: Clearance Sale, 20-70 percent off. Every once in a while you run across a deal that's just too good to pass up. If only I'd had Dr. Kevorkian's home phone number with me I could have stopped and scarfed up on the bargains.There was the sign for the "Skinquarter Taxidermist" in Virginia, the "Just Nails Hair Salon" in San Antonio (proving that the age of specialization has given way to the age of non sequiturs), and the signs erected for the Kodak Moment Challenged at Cumberland Falls which pointed towards the gloriously thundering waterfall while declaring: "Photo Opportunity."Sometimes people just put up signs to try to climb on the bandwagon. I could tell a lot about the population's ancestry in Castroville, Texas just by driving by. First there was the Alsatian Bakery, then the Alsatian Restaurant, and finally the Alsatian Golf Course. This, obviously, is where they yell "Quartre!" when they drive a ball down the fairway.But with all these signs there's still one I think we could use more of on the road: Clean rest rooms -- not only for customers. Hey, a guy can dream, can't he?

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