May 2, 2007

Reading the Signs

I drove to a client’s house this morning and encountered an unusual number of curious signs.

A major intersection is just over a mile from my house. Invariably, I encounter a line of cars there awaiting a change of the traffic signal. (Protected left turns from four directions lengthen the signal cycle time.) Today, I saw a new sign as I approached the inevitable stopped vehicles. The large, diamond-shaped orange sign said, simply, “BUMP.” A question immediately came to mind: Was the legend on the sign a noun or a verb? As it happens, the road I was about to cross is being resurfaced and recently had been milled, making it lower than the road I was driving on.

A bit farther along, I came to another intersection, just before which I saw signage that said “END SPEED LIMIT 35.” As the car passed that signpost, I noticed similar signage on the other side of the intersection announcing “BEGIN SPEED LIMIT 35.” What, I wondered, was the speed limit on the 500 or so feet of roadway between the two signs.

The next odd sign I encountered was one I have been seeing with increasing frequency. It is a tall, narrow sign placed in the center of the roadway at pedestrian crosswalks. “Reading” from top to bottom, the sign says “STATE LAW,” followed by a triangular yield sign, the word “TO,” a stylized figure of a pedestrian, and the words “WITHIN CROSSWALK.” By now, I know what the sign means, but, on encountering it for the first time, it seems more like a puzzle to be solved quickly as one is driving past, a kind of traffic rebus dreamed up by a Chinese engineer who does not have a full grasp of idiomatic English. Crosswalks seem to inspire this sort of thing, or am I the only person who finds the sequence of street markings "“PED,” “X,” “ING” just before crosswalks annoying?

Finally, I want to mention a sign I did not actually see on my car trip today, but which I did see while taking a walk this afternoon. In the window of a barber shop near my house—yes, it really is an old-fashioned barber shop, as indicated by the big “BARBER SHOP” sign overhead—there is a sign indicating when the establishment is open. The sign reads as follows:

Shop Hours
Wed., Fri., Sat.
9:00 AM ’til Closing
4:00 PM ’til Closing

If a customer arrives at 4 o’clock on a Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, or Saturday, what is the probability of being able to get a haircut? I have no idea what the answer is.

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