Monday, August 31, 2009


#243, Midtown, NYC

Sunday, August 30, 2009


#242, Bruxelles

There's an entire comic strip museum -- housed inside a gorgeous Art Nouveau building designed by Victor Horta, well worth salivating over -- but you don't have to leave the streets of Brussels to come across some cool drawerings in the most unexpected places. This one was so unexpected, I didn't even see it myself the first time around. Here's a few other scenes from my Belgian waffling, just because I'm feeling nostalgic: an impromptu James Bond mural and a peeling poster from a derelict back street. Ah, Brussels: you just never know what's going to sprout up.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


#241, Memphis

In the window of an old Memphis building, cracked and peeling, stands a faded diamond. Back before the Department of Homeland Insecurity began branding entire swathes of the country with a nonsensical coding system -- I can't fly out of LaGuardia without being reminded by a booming PA that "the current threat advisory level is ORANGE" -- people actually took time to come up with criteria for how to intelligently communicate threats to our health, safety, and stuff. There has never been any published criteria for the government's so-called advisory system, just someone sitting in an office saying, "Hmm... feeling a bit yellow today. Let's bring it down a notch from high to elevated." Not to mention the MTA. After years of contemplating the back of my Metro Card, I've never understood what exactly they mean when they say "If you see something, say something." On the New York City subway? Are you kidding me? I see something all the time. That kid doing break dancing in the aisle during rush hour poses a bigger health hazard to me than that nicely wrapped parcel, done up with twine, sitting on the seat underneath some old dear's legs.

This is why I like firefighters. Yes, I'm the daughter of one, so if I haven't been over to your house, I'll be making sure you don't leave that burning candle unattended and that you replace the batteries in your smoke detector every April, but beyond that, I also know that these trained men and women know a lot more about fighting fire than the government knows about fighting terror.

Case in point: this 241 looks like just a cool number in a window. But for those in the know, it's the NFPA 704, or fire diamond. The three numbers represented here stand for health, flammability, and chemical reactivity. That white space is left open here, but in other cases, there are symbols for special hazards that would go there. Like a giant Pericolo skull, maybe, telling you to keep out, or a picture of Elton John to warn you to cover your ears. That sort of thing.

This 2 tells me that "Intense or continued but not chronic exposure could cause temporary incapacitation or possible residual injury." The 4, fairly dire, means what's inside is gonna vaporize or burn readily, and the 1 indicates that the chemicals inside are "normally stable, but can become unstable at elevated temperatures and pressures." Flash point temperatures are included in the code criteria, too. I like the National Fire Protection Agency. Maybe Homeland Insecurity can take some tips on how to utilize standards of logic, legibility, and procedure in their Advisory System. Oh wait, that might interfere with the fear-mongering. Silly me.

On a more sobering note, the fire diamond reminds me of the Search & Rescue diamonds spray-painted onto the homes in New Orleans post-Katrina. These markings, standardized and used all throughout the relief effort, indicate, in the various quadrants, the date of search, the name of the search team, if any hazardous conditions exist, and, in the bottom quadrant, the number of dead bodies found inside. This "x", which could be found on virtually all buildings in the months following the disaster -- many of which still remain -- have become known grimly to some as Katrina tattoos. The great blog Life Without Buildings has an image of one homeowner who had a Katrina tattoo converted into a permanent work of art, and also a post with an extensive collection of links about redevelopment in New Orleans.

Also, because I don't want to give the beautiful town of Memphis short shrift, I'm linking to my previous post about the most charming dive bar in the world and, yes, soul burgers. If you missed it the first time, check it out. If you didn't, go back for seconds. Mmm.

Friday, August 28, 2009


#240, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn

Thursday, August 27, 2009


#239, East Village, NYC

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


#238, Tucson, Arizona

The heat in Tucson in mid-July was nasty and infernal; it's the sort of thing that would drive someone to say, "You know what? I'm gonna stick this wicker chair on the roof." It inspired a perspiring David Foster Wallace to adopt his signature bandana so he wouldn't drip on his manuscripts, and it drove me into a tiki bar (granted, I was playing a gig there) where I ordered a drink called Fat Man on a Diet. Strange things happen in the Tucson heat, and when umlauts appear over numbers, you know you're in uncharted territory, my friend. The 8 also appears to have a blank word bubble hovering off to the side, a feature I've seen throughout New York plastered on ads and bus shelters, but next to a number is a new one on me. All I know is, when the 8 starts talking to me, I'm sticking my head in a bucket of ice.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


#237, Midtown, NYC

237 E. 48th Street: once the home to feisty anti-fascist American reporter Dorothy Thompson. The plaque on the building reads:
The journalist, known as "the intrepid girl reporter" lived here from 1941 to 1957. Her book, I Saw Hitler and column, "On the Record," were influential in calling for American intervention in World War II.
Brought to you today by the intrepid girl photographer.

Monday, August 24, 2009


#236, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn

Stoop-sitting in Brooklyn is one of the few pleasures I can think to squeeze out of these infernal New York summers. I think fondly of all the times I've trespassed on my neighbors' front steps, slurping happily on a nuclear-colored ice from Uncle Louie G's while the evening set in, bikes whirred on by, and the street lights started to buzz overhead. A sort of calm settles in, a subdued, heat-induced torpor (damn, I've always loved that SAT word) that lends itself perfectly to doing nothing. Not far from this stoop, though I can't place the exact location, I scored an accordion at a stoop sale for twenty bucks: case and all.

A stroll through a stoopified neighborhood like Cobble Hill is one of endless possibility. You never know what you'll find on your neighbor's steps as you walk to the subway or the bar, what offerings have been left for the casual scavenger to pick up or contemplate. Nothing goes to waste here; it's better than Craig's List. Want a stack of 2004 Architectural Digest issues tied together with twine? It's yours. How about an aluminum tea tin with "TEA" written in Art Deco lettering? Hell yes. Does that pair of worn white knee-high go-go boots fit? They never do: something's wrong with that zipper.

I don't have a stoop of my own, but I do like the communal aspect of them. And while I'm sure that proposal of Frank Gehry's (as part of the ill-fated Atlantic Yards project) to build a giant stoop at the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues must've sounded great to someone in a board room meeting, how many of you would want to perch atop that chaotic intersection with fifty or a hundred of your closest strangers? The stoop, according to the proposal, would be "visible to 60,000 vehicles that pass through the intersection daily". Um, no thanks. Unless it's coming with a giant Uncle Louie G's and a giant accordion -- and last I checked, it isn't -- I'll take small scale, thank you.

In the meantime, what's the best -- or weirdest -- thing you ever saw left out on a neighbor's front steps? And more importantly, did you take it or leave it?

Sunday, August 23, 2009


#235, South Loop, Chicago

City of the Big Shoulders. And of cool stencil numbers. This yellow post was, and probably still is, holding up the El tracks south of the Loop. There are a few sights and sounds I forever associate with Chicago, but maybe the most prominent is the rattling noise of a passing El train.

When I was 17, I made my very first 4-track recording at my brother's apartment on Albion. There was just me, my new nylon string acoustic guitar, and a compact hunk of gorgeous analog recording gear in an airy room with hardwood floors. And, of course, there was the El, the trusty, industrious elevated railway, with cars passing so close to the apartment it shook the window panes. We had to time our takes so we started recording just after a train passed, crossing our fingers one wouldn't slash by from the opposite direction anytime soon.

In any city, there is something reassuring about steel and rivets and train tracks. But in my personified Chicago, thanks, in equal parts to Carl Sandburg and Nelson Algren, the steel is a little bit stronger and rivets a little bit tighter. And the trains I could ride all day long.

Saturday, August 22, 2009


#234, 14th Street, NYC

Friday, August 21, 2009


#233, Sorrento, Italy

After reading Sheila O'Malley's excellent post on being in a great theatrical bomb, and in light of the NYC fringe festival that's going on, I thought I'd riff a minute on an experience I had while in Naples last summer.

No, it's not about how I almost got killed by a minibus on Capri or about the afternoon I spent at a rooftop pool reading Corelli's Mandolin, convinced the storm rumbling in the distance was Mt. Vesuvius about to blow. I could tell you about the pleasures of zipping around on a high speed hydrofoil, the damn good espresso, or the thrill of seeing villas once owned by Fellini and another conceived by Le Corbusier. No, this is a little story about what happened when I went, apparently of my own free will, to see a production called Sorrento Musical.

A disclaimer: except for maybe Sweeney Todd, because there's a lot of knives and murders and stuff, I kind of loathe musicals. I loved being in them, once upon a time, because when you're dancing around on stage, emoting wildly with your forehead, and trilling jaunty, happy tunes, you don't have to be confronted with the spectacle that you are creating. It's fun to sing and dance, and being in plays is fun because of all the friendships you form, etcetera, but when all is said and done, I'm just not a "musicals" kind of gal. If it's not in a minor key, or isn't about kicking ass, angst, or whiskey, you've kind of lost me.

The upside: it was air conditioned inside the theatre. I do remember there was unlimited alcohol on the deck as well. Drowsy after a day of exploring in the hot Italian sun and chock full of bubbly, I sat down for an hour and fifteen minutes of song and dance about life in Sorrento. Mandolins were trembling. Skirts were whirling round and round. And yes, that was someone with a ribbon-threaded tambourine distinctly breaking out into a boisterous chorus of Funiculi, Funicula. I spent an entire ballad watching two actors engage in mimed fishing net sewing while carrying on that most dreaded of all musical tics, faked silent conversation. It wasn't bad theatre, really, in the sense of being a true bomb, and there were some very talented singers and dancers. What was the problem, then? Well, I had been duped. I had fallen into the jaws of tourist trap theatre, something I swore I would never do after being tormented for two hours in Prague by a puppet version of Don Giovanni. But I was hot, and I was tired, two things that have been known to compromise my brain cells.

We all want to engage in another culture when we travel. We want to open our eyes, ears, and taste buds to what a new place has to offer. Why I thought I would get an "authentic" taste of Italy from staring at set pieces for an hour, listening to songs played at the Olive Garden, I'm not sure. Am I an elitist? Maybe. Am I cranky? Certainly. It's summer, and hot, and my decorum molecules have melted away. But still, if I can think back to Sorrento Musical and that hour and fifteen minutes of my life I'm never getting back, yes, if I can think about maybe turning it into some kind of Italian Waiting for Guffman, with Sorrento standing in for Blaine, Missouri, it can even bring a smile to my face.

And if you do happen to be in New York City this weekend, be sure to check out two thoroughly promising pieces from the fringe festival: The Unlikely Adventures of Race McCloud, Private Eye, put on by Jackie's theatre company, Momentum Repertory Company, and Lola Lola dance company's Ectospasms, an eerie multi-media piece about two sisters who like to have seances. A bumbling noir detective and Victorian era ghosts. I feel happier already.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


#232, Boerum Hill, Brooklyn

This looks seriously sci-fi for old Brooklyn. I always wonder if there will come a point in time when this so-called futuristic font will just look retro. Or maybe it already does to you. What comes to mind when you see this 232: Jetsons? J.G. Ballard? Or how about Tron?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


#231, Fort Greene, Brooklyn

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


#230, Pittsburgh, PA

After yesterday's amble down telephone exchange lane, I still have Pennsylvania 65000 on the brain. Unfortunately, "Pennsylvania 230" doesn't have quite the same ring to it. Poor underdog numbers.

Monday, August 17, 2009


#229, South Loop, Chicago

Today's 2 for 1 special: a ghost sign with an additional ghost concept: the old telephone exchange abbreviation system. Back before everyone had three personal phone numbers, in the days when switchboard operators still labored away in tiny cement buildings connecting and untangling cables by hand (my Luddite heart beats warmly to think of these days when you could still sort of get the logic behind how dialing this leads to that), you had these little clusters of people living in the same spot whose phone numbers all began with the same prefix. To make it simple, the prefix was often written out as a word instead of numbers, based on the area where the phone numbers were centered: Gramercy numbers would begin with 47 (GR), and so on. The John O'Hara story BUtterfield 8 and the song PEnnsylvania 65000 both riff on this idea.

Really old phone books and ghost ads like this one will sometimes show signs of this mostly outdated system. Instead of an ad telling you to dial 842-2973, instead you'd see this one that reads VIctory 22973. Or, because I'm running a tight ship around here, you'll see only part of it. You get the idea. I crop because I care.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


#228, Henry Street, Brooklyn

Saturday, August 15, 2009


#227, Brooklyn Heights

Friday, August 14, 2009


#226, Clinton Street, Brooklyn

Thursday, August 13, 2009


Most of you here are familiar with the game, but here's a quick run-down of the rules just in case. I've cooked up a brand new batch of fresh 225's, piping hot and straight out of the oven. Your job is to let them cool, take a nibble, and if you're feeling adventurous, match the number to the city it was taken in. Here's a menu of seven possibilities from the &7 archive, listed in alphabetical order: Brooklyn, Chicago, New York City, Pittsburgh, Portland, Siena, Venice. Reasons, guesses, details, or alibis? Just feeling lucky? Few will win; all are welcome. Answers will be posted at the end of the week. Good luck!





Wednesday, August 12, 2009


#224, Brooklyn Heights

The only thing more beautiful than snow falling in Brooklyn is snow falling on a red fire engine in Brooklyn. This one's for Engine Co. 224. Their firehouse at 274 Hicks Street is one of New York City's best old firehouses, a red brick and limestone beauty built in 1903, nestled in between a row of brownstones and carriage houses. Stop by and visit if you're ever around. I'm thankful to have them protecting my 'hood.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


#223, Spokane, WA

Sometimes the alphabet gets jealous of all this itinerant number-hunting of mine and decides it's going to sneak its way into my photographs. After all, I'm a writer, not a number-cruncher. Shouldn't I show the alphabet a little love on these typographical scavenger hunts?

Looking for shapes of letters in doorways, columns, scaffolds, and window panes is a common exercise for beginning architecture students, and while I haven't tested it beyond a few accidental discoveries like this "A", I'm curious if, from a writer's perspective, it would interest me or just frustrate me. I can see how it could quickly degenerate from a harmless game into a Hitchcockian psychological thriller with me as its victim. All of a sudden, the city is one big disorganized keyboard, and I'm trying to hunt-and-peck my way through it, searching desperately for letters, never mind words, never mind paragraphs that make any kind of sense at all.

After a lifetime of writing, I've grown quite comfortable with QWERTY, right where I know I can find it.

Monday, August 10, 2009


#222, Portland, OR

I love counterculture stores in American cities. They're so cute and earnest. This shop, complete with edgy Goth font, is called "Another State of Mind," which reminds me of the ultimate punk rock band-on-tour movie by the same name. I watched the movie when I was eighteen and remember a certain level of awe watching the story unfold, as if I were watching a pioneering team of scientists discover DNA. Now I realize it was more like a bunch of kids looking for a 7-11, but still, there's a magic to it that I can only attribute to the beautiful impulse that drives musicians to go on tour.

Balthrop, Alabama didn't have to contend with quite the same set of circumstances on the road as Social Distortion and Youth Brigade (at least we didn't have to watch our school bus, er, van get towed off), but it's hard not to be moved by the sight of the roll of pennies handed to Youth Brigade drummer Mark Stern as payment from a San Francisco club owner. At the very least, we always got some free PBRs and grateful handshakes out of the deal.

One really punk rock thing we did on the road was stop at a Dairy Queen in a small town in Ohio to get us prepped for the gig that night in Athens. The DQ satisfied, but sure it would've been great to step into a time warp and find ourselves at a roadside Haagen Daas being served ice cream by Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and later, Fugazi fame. (For optimal scoop action, see clip at 1:58.) One scoop of vanilla in a sugar cone + punk ethos + earnest manifesto-that-isn't-a manifesto. Now that's what I call straight edge.

Sunday, August 9, 2009


#221, Midtown, NYC

Sun-drenched, pale, and seeking shade from the New York summer: this number and I have a lot in common.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


#220, Greenwich Village, NYC

When I was a kid, I had a few sleek dark blue Whitman coin folders that I spent hours poring over, organizing my meager lemonade stand earnings and lodging pennies and nickels into their appropriate slots, which may explain why I had no friends how I got into collecting numbers. Collecting coins was never an obsession the way, oh, collecting numbers in architecture is, but I do remember the combined pride and frustration that came from looking at my 1909-1940 one-cent folder and seeing those few open spaces that were never filled.

So it's difficult to look at this 220 and not want to lodge a giant penny in the wall above it. My choice for this West Village wall would be the rare-ish wheat penny, manufactured in the U.S. between 1909 and 1958, before they stuck the Lincoln Memorial on the tails side. Plus, wheat pennies take me back to the fall of 1993 when I hungrily happened upon Buy This Used Compact Disc: A Dutch East India Sampler. I recall buying it primarily for the Sebadoh "Gimme Indie Rock" track, but I ended up being won over by Tackle Box's song "Wheat Penny," which, with its anthemic chorus and paen to the ultimate symbol of my geeky childhood, somehow made my obsession cool again. And check out the elegant typography on the back of the wheat penny. A few very rare ones also feature a "VDB" on the very bottom in between the stalks of wheat for the initials of the designer, Victor David Brenner. It was later revoked after the American public complained. You can see the empty space left behind.

All this did get me thinking, though, about how the old-fashioned penny album could translate into an interactive piece of architecture. I've seen so many bland walls of scaffolding plastered with "Post No Bills" signs. What if, instead, you could walk down a city street and discover a giant corridor of pennies, an entire wall of pale blue slots constantly being filled and emptied. Think of it as a more organized, architectural version of the classic "leave a penny, take a penny" dish you see on deli and shop counters all over the city. After all, with people in countries from North America to Europe wanting to do away with the penny altogether (Canada even introduced legislation last year to phase it out - how very un-Canadian of them), it'd be nice to see the penny find a new use. Apart from indie rock anthems, that is.

Friday, August 7, 2009


#219, Meatpacking District, NYC

You see a 21 9th Street. I see a cool sign and a 219. After catching up with two month's worth of architecture reading and coming across Nicolai Ouroussoff's glowing review in The New York Times of the newly opened High Line park, I think I'm ready to hoof it back to the meatpacking district this weekend and have a look myself. As a dedicated lover of desolation and fruitful dereliction, I shared Ouroussoff's skepticism about converting this abandoned, forgotten Manhattan railroad line into a city-sanctioned park, but if he can be convinced, maybe I can be too. I'll check it out and let you know. In the meantime, you can read about it here.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


#218, Branson, Missouri

For one reason or another, I find it hard to take fish seriously. A trout with a number carved into it is only slightly more respectable than a No Smoking shark; still, I've been challenged to say something intelligent about today's number, so I will try very hard to forget my favorite Surrealist joke (Q: How many Surrealists does it take to change a lightbulb? A: A fish) and give this fish its due.

The Big Cedar Lodge is a recreational resort ten miles south of Branson, Missouri, a town of many billboards that is the sort of metropolis that springs up when you mix Las Vegas, Red Lobster, hillbilly humor, and the bible belt together in a big American bowl, then top it off with salt water taffy and dump it in the Ozark mountains. Yum! I found myself there this past May for the wedding of some dear friends and was horrified delighted intrigued to stay in a giant lodge of knotty pine with taxidermy deer on the walls. There was also the treat of free gingerbread cookies, shaped like pine trees, delivered door to door each afternoon by a nice old dear. Recipe included, of course.

So back to the hand-carved fish: kitsch or craft? To find out, I did a bit of nosing about on Ye Olde Internette and learned that for all its potentially over-the-top wilderness and wildlife motifs, the Big Cedar Lodge is the real deal. A fellow named Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops (aha -- fish!) designed the cabins and lodges based on old Ozarks and Adirondacks designs. The logs that line the lodges (say that five times fast) come from western Montana's Bitterroot Valley, and the wood furniture that decorates the resort is largely hand-crafted by a local wood merchant. And yes, you can fish there.

No word on who's responsible for the door marker you see here, but this may be &7's first example of a wooden bas-relief. (I can't imagine who this will impress, but then again, I swoon at ampersands.) And with all the brick, tar, and stone slathered about in the city, I know to never underestimate the charm that comes from trees.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


#217, East Missoula, Montana

Rambling thousands of miles cross-country in a massive Ford van for the past month, I had a lot of time to look at maps. The trusty Rand McNally atlas played second fiddle to the iPhones when it came to navigation, but for me, there's no map like a paper map, complete with its crumpled pages, obscure town names, and state mottos at the top of each page. (Memo to Maryland: it may be time to update your old Manly deeds, womanly words motto. And no, it doesn't sound any better in Latin.)

Although it's not the official catch phrase, Big Sky Country is the default motto assigned to the state of Montana. It's what appears on the quarter next to the cow skull and on Montana license plates, and you can't help but think of it as you coast along the state's open roads, gawking at the huge blue skies.

Along with big skies come big rivers, and five days or so into Balthrop, Alabama tour, we were ready to give the waters of this country of ours a test run. We had the combined good fortune of an hour or so to spare before setting out for Spokane and the misguided gusto to go swimming in one of these frigid watering holes in East Missoula near the intersection of the Clark Fork and the Blackfoot River -- the river, incidentally, that was the inspiration behind Norman Maclean's novel A River Runs Through It. A landlubber at heart, I've gingerly dipped my toes in some cold waters in my lifetime, but this was glacial. Apart from a few folks frolicking above water in inner tubes with feet in the air and hands firmly tightened around beer cans, there weren't many souls brave enough to commit to full immersion. But there was that fabulous big sky to look at, so I tiptoed in, bracing myself against the rocky floor and fast current, fixing my gaze firmly on the horizon.

It turns out dipping into the freezing water isn't the stupidest thing ever done in the waters of East Missoula. Turns out they have hosted at least one underwater pumpkin carving contest, just in case you're into diving and are looking to make some late October travel plans. Now I'm no expert on the matter, but I have to say the thought of a novel about underwater pumpkin carvers (water temperature: 41 degrees) is a wee bit tempting. Anyone have a suggestion for a title? Or worse, a sequel?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


#216, Pittsburgh, PA

It was late afternoon when we pulled into the parking space out front Howler's Coyote Cafe. Liberty Avenue was drenched in setting sunlight as we unloaded amp after amp and a trail of white picket fences through the narrow passageway onto the edge of the carpeted stage. The ceiling was hung with t-shirts of local bands and other acts who had passed through and left their Sharpie-signatured merch stapled to the ceiling. Big Green Tanks. The Beautiful Losers. Ninjas Who Met God. I spotted a bright red Bloodshot Records bumper sticker on the door and smiled. It was a little taste of Chicago, my hometown, in this Pittsburgh bar where we were about to play our first show of tour.

Pizza orders safely placed, all equipment snugly settled against the stage, I set out with my camera to see what numbers I could find. I hadn't been to Pittsburgh since my college years. I was going out with a DJ who went to school at Purdue and lived in Pittsburgh, and I spent a few days one summer touring the city with him. We saw Andy Warhol's grave, lay on the grass at Carnegie Mellon, and rode a car on the Duquesne Incline. I liked what I'd seen of Pittsburgh and was glad to have a chance to revisit the city. With a stroke of luck, our gig had landed us in Bloomfield, a residential area with plenty of houses in the 200 and 300 range -- you understand. It's all a work in progress.

The neighborhood was sleepy, a combination of aluminum sided homes and old brick buildings on a low scale. Telephone wires stretched and gaped across alleys. A suspicious man in a car yelled out to me, as I was taking pictures, "Sweetheart! Sweetheart!" Reluctantly, I turned to face him. "Who you lookin' for?" he bellowed. "Numbers," I shouted back. "Don't worry about it."

Monday, August 3, 2009


#215, Dundalk, Ireland

Four weeks, twenty shows, twenty-five states, some nine thousand or so miles later, I am at last back in Brooklyn after a month out on the road with Balthrop, Alabama. I have stared out of van windows at the passing landscape of America. I have visited truck stops and Love's Travel Centers and refilled, in various rest stop bathrooms, a dented Dasani water bottle that lasted me all the way from Chicago to Phoenix. Some drives were short but some pushed the eight, nine, ten hour mark: New York City to Pittsburgh; Tuscon to Louisville; Athens, Ohio back to Brooklyn. We had plenty of diversions along the way to keep us sane: we had Patton Oswalt and Dave Chappelle to make us laugh, the incomparable coal miner's baritone of Lorne Greene to make us wish we were cowboys, and more Wilco and Elliot Smith than you can shake a stick at. We told jokes and filmed the view through the cracked front windshield as the green Highway Gothic signs lumbered past. But along the side of the road, hour by hour, day after day, there was nothing but the infinite weirdness of the United States of America to entertain us. And entertain us it did.

Staring out the windows of a rapidly moving vehicle isn't just a way to pass time; it's also a sort of talent. After I've popped a Dramamine and downed a hot coffee, I'm good to go. Just set me next to the window, put on some tunes, and I'm set.

Back in the middle of the last century, when highways were still young and Subways (the food chain, not the trains) were not even a twinkle in a marketer's eye, there was a lot of bare countryside. Burma Shave signs were there for a bit of excitement, a kind of early version of Times Square, but apart from a few gas station signs or town names, there wasn't much roadside reading material. Enter the "roadside attraction," stuff they made up to make you stop along the way and wonder who came up with this stuff and why you can't quite seem to resist it. Cactus Stuff: Exit 72. North Dakota Cowboy Museum: Exit 27. The Santa Cruz Mystery Spot, Crazy Mountains, Buffalo Skulls, the World's Largest Rocking Chair. I may not have seen it all, but I saw signs for it all, which is probably just as good -- if not better -- than the thing itself. After the twinge of disappointment I felt at the sight of the Largest Cross in the Western Hemisphere (in Oklahoma, just in case you were looking for it in Sierra Leone), I think it's better to keep some things mysterious.

Billboards and signs are the only reading material I bring for the road. On these little reservoirs of text, you can see America in all its diverse weirdness. The practical and hopeful nuzzle together; the comedic and tragic come to blows. Buy this, stop here, look out for that: America is nothing if not eager to tell you -- or sell you -- something. Ads are nothing special, but it's the weird stuff I relish: poetry painted on barns, papier mache dinosaurs, the forgotten and unloved museum. So I get really excited when I go to another country and I see a little glimmer of the roadside attraction.

I've spent a lot of time on the Dublin to Belfast Enterprise train. It's a pleasant but unremarkable railroad amble, about three hours or so, with a smattering of stops along the way. I have the stops memorized: Dublin Connolly to Drogheda, Drogheda to Dundalk, then Newry, Portadown, and finally Belfast Central. One of my favorite things on the route is the railroad platform at Dundalk Station. Passing through it the first time many years ago, my eye was caught, appropriately enough by this bit of text, painted in a cheery hand alongside a flower box:

You catch your eye
You'll never see the man who sat across from you
Better look away

I scribbled it down in my small green notebook as the train pulled away, but that was all I'd had time to see. Afterward, staring at the monotonous passing trees and greenery, it seemed like a mirage. What was that all about? Had I dreamt it all up? A few days later, on the trip back down from Belfast, I eagerly anticipated the Dundalk platform and its unexpected poetry. It made the train journey more exciting: just those small bits of text that I hadn't expected seemed to give the trip some larger meaning -- a reason for being. Each time I took the train, I would look forward to that strange poem of unfulfilled desire and feel something of the same whenever the train pulled away.

It was years of occasional trips before I finally stopped over in Dundalk presumably to do some research for my novel but really -- I knew my true motive -- to find out once and for all what the rest of the poem said. I was surprised and delighted to find that poetry was all over the station: scrolling on platform canopies, arching over the Victorian covered walkway, in plain view on the windows of the waiting rooms. There was also a small railway museum on the platform, honoring the old station masters from W. Catterell (1874-1884) to B. McQuaid (1988- ), and providing a young couple a place to make out among the poetry and the white plastic chairs.

And there was this: Time Passing on the 2.15. Why keep images of transit fresh? Anyone who commutes knows how easily they can go stale. So whether you're passing through North Dakota or Drogheda, New York or New Mexico, I'd like to know from my readers: what are the attractions that have made some of your journeys memorable? What are the signs or unexpected images that keep your journeys fresh? And no Subway: sure that's cheating.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Saturday, August 1, 2009


#213, Los Angeles, CA