The View From Away: Portland has a sign language all its own
I always wanted to live on a lake, thanks to memories of visiting my grandparents’ cottage in northern Michigan.
My first sight was the lake, a sheet of glass with a mist hovering a few feet above. It was like waking up in an enchanted forest – on a backbreaking surplus Marine Corps cot, in a drafty cinder block cabin with no indoor plumbing and inadequate screening – because as a Midwesterner, I had no business enjoying something that someone else may have missed, and as a Protestant, even my fantasies were filled with mosquitoes.
Despite being unable to enjoy it fully, the fantasy hung around in the background until last fall when some friends made it a reality. They asked us if we would do them “the favor” of staying in their beautiful lake house for the winter. Do them a favor? Lemmethinkaboutityes! Autumn was delightful. We had the still water and hovering mists, but not the insects. Indoor plumbing. It was five months of living the dream without having to buy the dream.
Getting Elizabeth to school every morning was a little more time consuming, although it was a nice change from driving the same stretch of outer Congress Street. I was weary of seeing the same strip malls and gas stations every day, not to mention trying to resist the siren song of Tony’s Donuts.
There would have been more time to engage with my daughter, except for the unspoken rule Elizabeth and I have developed about conversation in the car. I don’t speak, and that’s the rule. The longer silence, coupled with increased stop-and-go traffic on the new route, gave me a chance to observe the route, and I found myself increasingly drawn to the signage on the various businesses. An earlier contribution to these pages suggested how a few intriguing local businesses contribute to Portland’s unique personality. A completely unscientific study of how some of them choose to draw attention to themselves, undertaken from my car window on the way to my daughter’s school, confirms that unique character.
The main thing, no pun intended, is how un-corporate Portland is. I’m sure the long-time Mainers would disagree, but they’ve never lived in southern California.
L.A. is all about branding. On Ventura Boulevard, a car wash would either have an enormous sign conceived and executed by an out-of-work Disney animator, or a three-story tall pole dancer holding a sponge. You may run off the road, but you won’t forget it’s a car wash. Here’s what you won’t see: a smallish generic movable letter sign like one I saw on one of the lesser business streets. It carried the almost cryptic message, “Salt Eats Cars” with a hand drawn monster face poised over the word “Cars” like a Pac-Man with teeth.
What really got me about this place though – and I’m sure it was just an accident of timing – was that the sign always seemed to say, “Salt Eats Cars – Car Wash Closed,” as if the owners were saying, “Sure, we could wash your car. Washing your car is no problem. But the salt will get you eventually, so, what’s the point?”
I’m probably reading all this into the message, and I was simply driving by before they opened, but maybe, just maybe, this sign is brilliant advertising. It doesn’t fit the Western marketing model. Instead, it takes a Zen approach. By making it a challenge to find out when they are open, the business insures a customer base that truly wants their cars washed. It makes sense if you think about it, but not too much.
Another sign I love is the one with the dog drinking out of a stein. A picture is worth a thousand words. Portland is a dog-friendly city. I applaud that. You can feel comfortable bringing your dog into the club. The Snug on Munjoy Hill usually has several dogs roaming around. It gives the place a homey feel. I don’t go to bars much, but I like the thought of my local joint welcoming pets.
However. The dog is drinking out of a beer stein. I’m not saying it’s beer. For all I know, beer is good for dogs. I’m not implying any irresponsibility at all, but it’s a human beer stein. I have two dogs, I don’t even like it when they lick my face, because I’ve seen some of the places they go. So, I love the sign. I love how efficiently it conveys a message of warmth and inclusiveness, but I’m not joining the mug club. That’s all I’m saying.