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Jun 2002 / the ordinary eye :: email this story to a friend

Signs of the Time
By Patrick and Teresa Hurley

It must have started a few years ago. We kept driving past that garish farrago of multicolored pulsing spheres and crooked letters in the fifties font from hell spelling, from top to bottom, "Wayside Motel." When we finally took the camera down Watson road to capture that icon, it was gone. Cold sickness in the pit of the stomach one usually associates with Applebee's. In place of that majestic neon sign was a flat white board with uniform red letters advertising the dubious charms of the motel and one of those mean-nothing logos designed by overpaid marketing halfwits.

Since then, we have been collecting little fragments, preserving the eccentric from the assault of corporate uniformity.

Who can resist the charming innocence of some of these advertising strategies? "If we put a ninety foot tall neon bottle of Vess off the side of the highway, these thirsty drivers are going to pull over and demand a Vess!" Size often plays an important role in these signs. Notice the Arby's ten-gallon hat on Lindell—surely it could hold over a thousand gallons. Consider how the flashing martini glass saves the sign for George's Bar and Grill from utter banality. And it also promises the alert driver to . . . well, gin, but really huge glasses of it.

But the glamour of neon won't blind us to the charming, and equally endangered, advertisements painted on the sides of buildings: red-brick palimpsests. There's a potato chip factory sign on Gravois that was painted back when we spelled the word "old" with an "e" at the end . . . oh, some of us still do. Sometimes you really have to study a fading sign, perhaps on a long-vanished restaurant in north Saint Louis, now advertising only the ghost of fried hog's ears.

And let's face it, nothing beats the joy of the hunt itself. The sight of a gawky man in clam diggers, pale red Steve Madden slip-ons, and Burberry sunglasses prancing down the side of the road with a phallus-nosed camera never fails to incite honking, shouting of obscenities, and the occasional projectile.

We won't capture them all, but it won't be for lack of trying. We can't halt the "progress" of the chains, but we might just save a little bit of our history. When they all finally disappear, we'll have to console ourselves with our next photographic project: cigarette vending machines. When's the last time you saw one?

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