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I found myself walking along a thoroughfare in another Rust Belt city Friday while my truck was in the shop.

There’s nothing like walking with no particular place to go to get a feel for someplace. On the uncommon occasions when I visit large cities—Philadelphia, Charlotte, Portland—I check into my hotel, put my running shoes on, and walk for hours. At times I’ve found myself out past where the last buses run; other times, I’ve found myself looked at suspiciously by creatures clad in the trappings of haute couture.

Friday, I was not in a large city but rather in a small city whose better days are a memory and for whom better days are a dream. Most of its fortune left on long-abandoned railroads whose tracks crisscross the city in rusty cuts. The stretch I was walking along was perhaps a mile long with a traffic signal at intersections at both ends. One of the intersections was busy, with new-car dealerships and a Pepsi distribution center. Between it and the other intersection were houses and businesses that surely were more appealing in years past. The second intersection was at a street where the residential section started transitioning into the downtown business district.

It was cold—30 degrees, cloudy, with a frosty breeze—and I was underdressed for a walkabout, but I stubbornly continued, going all the way through the business district before turning around to retrace my route. On the way back along that mile-long strip, I realized how much of the history of that roadway—indeed, that city—was told by signs.

“No trespassing” signs were predictable—Sharpie scrawls on cardboard sheets—given the dilapidated houses they hung on. A glance around showed why the signs were needed: a dog-end of a hand-rolled cigarette on the sidewalk, a tall can of unopened malt liquor tucked behind a fencepost. To the homeless—like the unshaven man in dirty clothes who rode a tittering bicycle past me on the sidewalk—or to crackheads, or whores and johns, or kids looking for a place to party, these houses looked like easy marks.

Half a block away stood an empty, run down house with a big sign on the side. The sign called attention to passing DEVELOPERS! about this busy roadside location with—as the sign said—“Lavish potential.” In this neighborhood, the word was particularly out of place, even though on both sides of the street, many homeowners and renters were doing their best to preserve a sense of neighborhood dignity by keeping up their homes as best they could.

Three minutes farther along, a clearly hand-fabricated metal sign clung stubbornly atop a cast-iron pole. The yellow paint was faded but still easily deciphered, with words and a font the painter clearly thought had cache: “New York Motors.” The lot behind the sign was vacant. Half of it was grown over with rude grasses and weeds; the other part was gravel, the plants worn away by vehicles repeatedly turning around there, evidenced by tire tracks.

I crossed the street. Another, larger sign—clearly professionally made—stood atop a taller, stouter post. At first, I thought neighborhood vandals had perforated it with BB guns or maybe a .22, but on second look, the holes formed a pattern. They were places where neon light tubes had been affixed to the sign. The holes were bordered with rust, and wind and weather had stripped much of the paint away, but there, at the lower left, stood a phantom“A” and a washed-out “U,” with an old “O” at lower right. Another former car lot—a once-substantial one, judging by the size of the sign and the big vacant lot behind it.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get any bleaker, the next abandoned building had a large neon-orange sign on the front door: Condemned for multiple code violations. The building was made of bricks that had long been painted over in a gray that matched the day. Judging by the large overhead doors at one end and the showroom-sized windows at the other, it too had once been an automobile dealership.

I neared the intersection, having long since run out of sidewalk, when I spotted something dirty but slightly shiny in the stubby grass alongside the worn gravel track I was walking on. It was a black letter—an A—painted on a sheet of clear acrylic perhaps 5 inches wide and 10 inches tall. It was obviously a letter from the ubiquitous roadside signs that come with an assortment of letters and numbers so merchants can make custom advertising out front, at their curbsides. A few steps later, I spotted another letter—an I.

I turned off the street and onto the one leading to the garage where my truck was being worked on. Somehow, it seems those two acrylic sign letters symbolized all I’d just seen—a stretch of road in a city where the wind had blown prosperity away.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 8th, 2014 01:53 am (UTC)
Really easy to see what you saw; thanks for taking me on that walk with you.
Dec. 8th, 2014 01:50 pm (UTC)
Glad to have you along for the stroll. I wanted to write that post, or something like it, the day I got home, but it didn't happen. I needed to let it simmer for a while; I knew I had something. What was going to be a sweeping look at the entire city, and about what it must like to be homeless in such a place, and the sights on that long walk, boiled down to that single stretch of road.
Dec. 11th, 2014 12:01 pm (UTC)
Somehow, it seems those two acrylic sign letters symbolized all I’d just seen—a stretch of road in a city where the wind had blown prosperity away.

a perfect final sentence
Dec. 11th, 2014 01:26 pm (UTC)
Thanks very much, and thanks for reading. I hope all is well with you and yours.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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