Mack Williams column: Signs ‘they’ don’t want you to be able to read

  • Posted: Monday, October 28, 2013 12:19 a.m.

“I’m mad as H---, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” (I always use a capital for the “H” in Heaven, so I will be consistent and do the same in referring to the other “H” place). Let me warn you that in borrowing this quote from the movie “Network” I am about to begin a “60 Minutes-style rant,” but it has nothing to do with the great questions of the day regarding “planet warming” or governmental stalemate. Instead, it deals with that thorn in the side of every motorist: the unreadable, telephone-pole-posted, homemade sign advertising yard sales, stews, free hot dogs, etc. You may not have thought about how much such a thing gets on your nerves, but now that I have brought it to your attention, you may say: “Yes, I’m mad as H--- too!”

In crafting my rant, I have no self delusions of equalling that late gentleman who weekly ranted on “60 Minutes.” He was the genius of the rant, but since I have also earned a few white hairs in my eyebrows, I will lay a little bit of claim to the right to be a grumpy old man.


My going off on a tangent doesn’t include the average “lost dog” sign, because those usually have a nice-size picture of the dog, its mouth hanging open in that toothy look which we sometimes regard, anthropomorphically, as a “smile.” Even with these signs, however, the size of the lettering and informational phone and address numbers are most often too small to be seen from driving distance.

Sometimes, home-crafted signs will have an attention-catching color scheme, but still possess letters which make the message appear just at the level of legibility (but on the farther side of that threshold, instead the nearer one). I saw just such a posting (pink on purple) down the street the other day, which got the better of my curiosity. After suddenly slowing my car (putting myself in danger of rear-end collision), I parked, got out, and in order to read the sign, had to get to within about the same distance as I would from a book or newspaper when sitting in a chair, reading at home.

This sign’s message dealt with ending domestic violence; and since I am an old retired social worker, that theme struck a very positive chord. An informational speaker on such an important subject would not mumble, but the size of the lettering on this sign placed it in the category of a visual garble. Surely the sign’s seriousness should have inspired its creator to make it “traffically” readable, and not leave one with the same feeling of achievement as that experienced when managing to identify a few letters of the bottom-most line on the optometrist’s eye chart. Distance-wise, these letters equaled something even smaller, the name of the printing company which printed the eye chart, along with its date of printing.

The seeming invariability of the unreadable quality of these amateur signs almost makes me think that it is by some diabolical design; and by design, I don’t mean these posters’ scribbled graphics.

We have been warned by Kevin Trudeau concerning debt cures, weight loss secrets, and natural cures “They don’t want you to know about” (according to the “computer news,” at the moment of your reading this, Mr. Trudeau will once again be in a state of incarceration for preying upon the public trust). Perhaps these hand-made advertisements are in a similar vein as the subjects of Kevin Trudeau’s books, being “Signs ‘they’ don’t want you to be able to read.”

In addition to those tacked-up, communicationally challenged messages, there is often the use of less-than-desirable paper in the construction. While walking down a sidewalk the other day, I saw just such a sign, suffering in the rain, as well as suffering from its maker’s lack of foresight. All of the sign’s corners had curled in over the message (kind of like one of those little, folded, triangular-sectioned “fortune tellers” from grade school). When I pulled back the wet corners, the message read “Buy a house for $6,000.” After having been led by my natural curiosity to go to the in-good-faith trouble of revealing the sign’s message, I felt a kinship with those unsuspecting members of the public who had been “Kevin Trudeaued.”

Of course, attempting to read cell phone texts while driving is dangerous, but so is trying to make sense from one of these peripherally placed, poor excuses for a sign. In the DMV’s road sign knowledge testing machine, some examples of these “jack leg” pieces of work should be included, but only as a deception. The license examiner, upon hearing the examined individual exclaim “yield,” “merging traffic,” ”divided highway,” and “yard sale, Saturday at 7 a.m.,” will say: “You got all of them right, but as far as the last sign is concerned, you should not have even tried to read that hastily scribbled mess! It has absolutely nothing to do with information pertaining to the safe navigation of the highway; and your attempted reading of it there could have taken your attention away from where it should have been. We will schedule a time next week for you to try again; and hopefully by then, you will have learned your lesson.”

In addition to all of my “negativity,” I will now offer something positive on this subject (but in a smart- alecky sort of way). If one is desirous of making a sign of advertisement for his yard sale, the kids’ summer lemonade stand, etc., there are many existing, professionally done, and distantly legible examples to use as models. These signs are familiar to everyone, and have such themes as: “I-85,” “One Way,” “No Right Turn,” “Salisbury,” “Granite Quarry,” “Faith,” “Old Concord Road,” as well as a host of other messages, including the numbers “20,” “35,” “45,” “55,” “60,” “65,” and “70.”

Just now, I had to run to Food Lion, and on the way, saw a rain-drenched sign made from neon-yellow paper, in which one side had folded inward, leaving only a single word visible: ”Yard.” That word was, refreshingly, actually of legible size, although it would have been nice if all of the message had been visible. I thought that being in the cathartic process of writing my peeve on this subject would have provided me some relief, but on seeing that half-sign (or rather, half-”somethingelssed” sign) I find that I am just as annoyed as ever.

I have resigned myself to the fact that as long as there are people, some of these people will, on occasion, make illegible signs of advertisement and unabashedly post them in public places along the road. The only cure for my exasperation at the sight of them (the signs, not the people) is for me to change my attitude.

About 30-some years ago, I sang the old hymn “Come O Thou Traveler Unknown” (set to the tune of: “Ye Banks and Braes o’ Bonnie Doon”) as a solo for the annual homecoming of Bethesda Presbyterian Church in Caswell County. The guest speaker for the service was the unforgettable Rev. Dr. Albert G. Edwards of Raleigh, a born Scot. The theme of his message was: “The only freedom you have in this life, is the freedom to determine what your attitude will be.” (His native rolling of the “r” in the words “freedom” and “determine” gave his address an even more “determined” sound.)

Pertaining to those nerve-grating, illegible posted messages about which I have just written, I will follow the late Rev. Dr. Edwards’ advice (after a fashion). At this moment, I can now direct my full attention to such “attitude adjustment,” especially since I am off the road, away from its signs (both professionally done or otherwise), and safely in for the night.

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