A great exterior sign on a transit vehicle conveys empowering information with just a few words. In the last post, I suggested we could learn a lot from the way San Francisco does it.
Among the many excellent comments, Matt Johnson shared an example of a Prince George's County (Maryland) sign that's typical of what many other transit agencies do. To me, it overflows the bounds of wayfinding and can only really be appreciated as poetry, so on a rainy Saturday morning, I'm going to let myself riff on it a bit. The text:
That's six pages of one-line text. Matt says each line displays for 10 seconds. That would mean it takes a minute to see the whole sign, which must be an exaggeration. Matt probably means "each line displays for what feels like forever," and usually 2-3 seconds are enough to create that effect.
Obviously this is a limited sign, apparently not able to hold more than 12 characters, but as we all know, formal constraints like length limits are often liberating. Much of the joy of art lies in watching creativity press against some kind of limitation. If you didn't learn this from reading sonnets or writing haiku, you've probably learned it from Twitter.
In the literature world, it's common to see great poetry published with some kind of annotation that helps pry the piece open for the reader. So just for fun, I thought I'd do one on this. As literary critics like to say, there's a lot here.
The poem begins with a burst of masculine energy, ambitious, thrusting upward, perhaps with a tinge of hope?
In one line, the poem explodes into many dimensions of significance. Indeed, we could say that this is the line where the sign reveals itself as a poem.
First of all, the artificial separation of "Mount Rainier" into two lines, technically called enjambment, recalls some of the great suspenseful line-breaks of modernist poetry. William Carlos Williams, say:
So much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
In "RAINIER/IKEA" the slash (/) could be a meta-poetic reference. When we quote poems in the middle of a paragraph, we use the slash to indicate the line breaks ("So much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow …") So the slash used mid-line in poetry signals a winking inversion of that convention. As in many arts, postmodern consumers know they're looking at an artifice, so the artwork gains credibility by saying "I know I'm just a poem," or whatever. The mid-line slash could be a clever way of doing that.
Has any punctuation mark become as meaningless as the slash? In signage it can mean 'or' (as when it separates two alternative destinations served by branches), or it can separate two descriptions of the same thing, or it can mean "between" as in "from one of these to the other." Here, the poem doesn't let on what it means. Only patient contextual research has established that the relevant meaning here is "between." This bus runs from Mount Rainier to Ikea, or from Ikea to Mount Rainier.
Still, the ambivalence invites us to imagine other possible relationships between Rainier and Ikea. For example, we can notice the strangeness of conjoining a permanent-sounding placename with the name of a business. What would happen to this sign, and this route, if the Ikea moved or merged? Mountains don't move, we note, which is why we name neighborhoods after them.
As if that all weren't enough, "RAINIER" in all caps can't signal that it's a proper name, as "Rainier" would do. Is the bus promising to take us somewhere where it rains more than it does here?
Parentheses are unusual on electric bus signs, and they're not too common in poetry either. Literally, parentheses mean "this might be interesting but don't let it distract you." So to use a parenthesis on an entire line of text, which forces itself on your attention for a few seconds, contradicts the basic meaning of a parenthesis. As always, that's how we know to look beyond the basic meaning, to look at the sign as a poem.
Yet the visual look of parentheses also suggests a kind of protective enclosure, like two hands cupping a fragile little idea. Is this bus insecure about being northbound? Is it afraid that "northbound" is not what everyone wants to hear?
Compass directions are tricky, of course, because not everyone knows them. I'm told that on the North American prairies, where all roads are north-south or east-west, some people develop such a compass-based sense of space that they'll refer to the southeast burner on their stove. This bus isn't in such a place, though; suburban Maryland has lots of diagonal and curving roads at various angles, so perhaps the parentheses are apologetic in the sense of "we're actually going north, but if you can't think about that, it's ok. We're not trying to seem that we're smarter than you. Like Mister Rogers, we like you just the way you are."
All this nuance and richness would have been lost if the sign had tried to tell people what the bus does. In that case, it would say either MOUNT RAINIER or IKEA, but not both, depending on which way it's going. That would be Zen in its transparency, but this poet has already signaled that Zen is not his genre.
A what? Again, the line break creates suspense. Am I going to like this? Should I be hopeful or scared?
Comforting, unpretentious closure to the suspense. Yet even here, we can wonder. "NICE DAY" displays all by itself for a few seconds, so if you see the sign then, it seems to say "It's a nice day!" If the bus says "NICE DAY" as it comes at you through a blizzard, you might get a deeply spiritual message: "Whatever's happening, this is a nice day, because it's the present and that's the only thing we have." (The saccharine level in this sentiment is easily turned up or down to suit your taste; that's the liberating quality of the simple "NICE DAY.")
Here we thought the sign was just for us transit customers! In fact, it's talking to motorists! Poems often take dramatic turns by suddenly enlarging or shifting the audience. It's as though we thought we were in an intimate space walled with warm curtains, listening to a poetry reading, when suddenly the curtains drop and we're in the middle of a stadium. T. S. Eliot was a master at keeping us wondering where we are and who's watching, and playing with our desire to be sure about that. Who is the audience, really? How big and diverse is it? For that matter, is anyone paying attention? Great postmodern questions, all, and in the poem's climactic moment, we finally confront them.
The sentiment is finely tuned. Like "HAVE A / NICE DAY," "DRIVE SAFELY" is strategically commonplace, as though the bus company is trying to assure us that it shares our values. Still, "DRIVE SAFELY" refers to the possibility of danger. You can read it as plaintive ("Please don't run into us or our customers!") or as confident, maybe even with the necessary toughness of the policeman ("We've looked danger and tragedy in the eye, and we're trying to protect you from it, so don't mess with us.")
This, of course, is the basic ambivalence of every bus's stance in the modern city, especially the noisy diesel bus. As a bus operator, you know that your mass, noise, and vibration aren't entirely welcome on most streets, yet you're trying to perform an essential service. Firefighters are in that situation too, but you can't command the deference that fire trucks do, because it's your job to be routine and predictable even though that almost implies being unappreciated. How can you get some appreciation? Say what people on the street want to hear. "HAVE A / NICE DAY / DRIVE SAFELY." Who can argue with that?
And who cares if, while that message is playing, nobody can tell which bus this is? That's how you know this is poetry.