the chorister's c




2 Jan 1999

Mindprints from my driving trip from Northern Virginia to South Florida and back.

When I wasn't looking sideways out the windshield at the sky, looking for hawks, I saw a panoply of message boards. Some of the more interesting ones:

  • A series of billboards titled "Welcome to the Killing Field," that compared the number of deaths attributable to tobacco (by someone's reckoning) to those from automobile accidents, homicide, and the like.
  • A plain white board. Attached to its left half, a complete, three-dimensional household refrigerator, its doors open, and the fridge empty. The right half of the board showed only the logo of a local supermarket chain.
  • On northbound I-95, a hopeful sign whose text read Great Selection · Beautiful Wigs · Expertly Styled · Fashion Showroom · 7 Miles. I don't know about you, but the chances that I would pull off the interstate to go wig shopping are rather slim.
  • Advertisements for several topless bars named Cafe Risque. It seemed that there was exactly one such bar in each state.
  • A hand-lettered invitation to matriculate at a Bible college.
  • A billboard with a detailed painting of a mushroom pizza, the first slice being lifted out, cheese stringing. But for the rest of the board, just white underpainting.
  • Affordable Dentures.
  • A sign made with press-on lettering, the letters on one side long since slumped off the board into illegibility. In the rearview, I could read the verso: Motel USA.
  • Along a two-lane stretch of US 1, a group of green highway department signs. One word for each, so the message was spelled out Burma Shave-style: PATIENCE · PAYS · ONLY · 3 MINUTES · TO · PASSING · ZONE.

And, of course, the signboards without number for South of the Border.

Going south, I saw a full semi-trailer rig on its back, wheels in the air. It was still there when I came back nine days later.

I passed prisons everywhere. Of course, I was chasing birds, and therefore crisscrossing the isolated patches of the state. Exactly the sort of out-of-the-way places that I would park criminals if I were designing the penal system.

I wondered, what has evolution done to prepare a man to drive a two-lane blacktop road, at night, in the rain, when he's sleepy? What behavioral and physiological equipment does he have? What's to prevent this 4000-pound beast he's riding from rearing and plunging into the drainage canal?

I learned the stink of recycled gray water used to irrigate motel lawns at night.

Necessary things to be done in Key West:

  • Watch the sunset from Mallory Square.
  • Find something not too tacky in the shops. I almost succeeded at this one, in a place called Pandemonium.
  • Decide who is more annoying: the tourists from Kentucky or the tourists from Germany. A group of cigar-wielding Germans won this contest easily.
  • Drive to the end of U.S. Route 1, mile marker 0.
  • Count the fashion crimes on Duval Street.
  • Eat key lime pie. The pie in Willie T's is pretty darn good.
  • Watch the sunrise from Smathers Beach.

Once you're back home, you must read the Key West chapter of Jonathan Raban's Hunting Mister Heartbreak, "Land of Cockaigne."

Of course, everywhere in the Keys you see remnants of hurricane damage to property. Some was from 1998's Georges, and some could be from years ago, never attended to. The well-heeled chains like Home Depot still show some unrepaired signs, even now, two months after the storm. As if to say, "we're not some newcomer, fat-cat corporation from up north; we're real; we belong here, too."

I had two happy experiences of misreadings. Florida license plates at one time carried county names. Late one night, I pulled up at an intersection behind a pickup from HENDRY county. In my glazy eyes, the word wobbled into MEMORY. How fascinating, I thought, to label automobiles with abstract nouns.

Then, in the only Pizza Hut in Key West (I suppose one is enough), my waitress scrawled a thank you message across the back of my check and left it on the table, turned about. I read, upside down, "Happy Holidays and Have a New Year." What a felicitous sentiment, I thought: a wish for a new year, one of novelty and regeneration. Thank you, and I will have a new year, I resolved.

I picked up the check to read that she merely written, "Happy Holidays and Have a Nice Night." But the resolution is still with me.

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©1999 David L. Gorsline.
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