The parts that stick out

What I love best about the city, and about wandering around in it at lunch, is discovering the little things that don’t quite fit into the grid that the city attempts to impose upon its parts. By “things” I mean business establishments, streets or alleys or other aspects of the built environment, even people. Maybe especially people.

In physics these things would be called salients. They are the parts that stick out from their surroundings.  They are oddities, but often only because they are remnants of some earlier built or cultural environment, or one that exists parallel to the mainstream. Take sandwich boards, for example.

Evidence that a human has been in the neighborhood.

Evidence that a human has been in the neighborhood.

This is not the normal channel of advertisement for corporate lunch establishments of the early 21st century. Subway and Quiznos advertise on television (or at least they used to and I assume they still do, although again — and I can’t stress this point enough — I wouldn’t know because I failed to “tech up” for the new age of digital broadcast). Corporations do things in the most efficient way to maximize the return (in dollars) on dollars invested, and the most efficient way to do that, in terms of advertising, is to attach one’s noise to the mechanisms of mass advertising.

A sandwich board is not directed at the masses. At least not television masses. It is directed at a quaint creature called the passer-by. (I love that word, and I love being that creature.) The ideer is still to reach masses of people, so their isn’t really a difference here of intent (everyone is just trying to get enough people into their eatery to pay the bills and make some profit), but by accident of size and of the sandwhich board’s physical nature, something happens that is, to my lights, beautiful.

Here in a nicked up board is evidence, on several levels, that a human being in my geographic community has been about and is trying to reach me. First, the fact that the sign is here at all means that someone toted it up the long stairway from Post Alley to the intersection of First and Columbia, opened it up, and set it down. I can see this in my mind, even if I can’t actually picture the identity of the person who did this. The sign’s presence brings with it into my subconscience the image of its placement there by someone. There and not somewhere else, in fact. Human agency in the deliberate positioning of the board is implied.

Secondly, the board is a physical thing that has been built. I assume it was a human being that assembled these boards together with hinges, one of which seems to have popped apart in the board above. Thirdly, the logo of the pizza shop is not a national brand. It is itself a salient in the topography of food establishment logos. Some person started this business and is probably still starting this business, every day. Another photo will demonstrate a fourth evidence of the propinquity of some human spirit. The picture on the board in the photo below shows the actual motions of someone’s hand in painting it. The swooping gestures visible in this sign make me feel that someone is waving at me, some jolly Cajun in an apron inviting me to “come on in! Eat!”

A gesture I can't ignore.

A gesture I can't ignore.

We’ll be talking about this kind of thing a lot because it’s the parts that stick out that make life navigable for what I call my soul. My belly could find a Pizza Hut by simply following the imperatives of mass media, nor is it picky about where it finds itself. But my soul is always looking for God, and I always seem to be lost. It seems to be a permanent condition (and it’s not necessarily the wrong condition, nor even a generally lamentable one, since it implies that there is then always a direction I can turn and move in that is Godward). As I get older I am beginning to understand that for me (YMMV) this predicament necessitates my reliance on other human beings, because — wow, didn’t mean to go here, but here we are — however God may be glimpsed in abstracts or in disembodied contemplation, it is in my human spirit relating with another’s that I most immediately experience God’s actual presence.

So the corporate mass-media-advertised lunch spots are fine for those — even me sometimes — who just need grub, but the sandwich boards placed here and there along the impersonal surfaces of the city, and other salients I encounter in life, are a trail of breadcrumbs that assure my soul that it is travelling a road that, by however long a route, leads back home.

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18 Responses to “The parts that stick out”


  1. 1 Kip August 10, 2009 at 20:22

    Now that is some good observationing, if you will pardon the creation of the word. I am currently earning my keep in the media advertising world…not MASS media, but media none the less. And in a world of radio commercials that all sound the same, it is surprisingly difficult to find a client that wants something away from the norm. (No no no! My commercial MUST have music behind it, all the other ones do!) These sandwich boards are really quite a bold form of adverts. The shopkeep really knows his customer, and knows who he wants to attract, and literally goes directly at that person. Assuming, of course, that the sandwich board is not just all said shopkeep can afford. But you are right, anything that does not necessarily fit in with what most see as an “add” will and should stick out, and with luck, draw in enough good folks like you so the lights stay on and the ovens keep cranking out good pizza, bbq or whatever the food may be.

    Maybe I need to stop thinking about advertising of any kind and just enjoy scenery for a while.

    And pizza.

    • 2 jstwndrng August 10, 2009 at 23:32

      They are kind of bold, aren’t they, these boards, and yet in a humble kind of way. I guess that’s one of the things I hoped to point out, is that their lowliness gives them a sort of spiritual relevance, whether or not their placers intend or realize it.

  2. 3 scott August 10, 2009 at 20:38

    “it is in my human spirit relating with another’s that I most immediately experience God’s actual presence”

    -Amen to that.

    • 4 jstwndrng August 10, 2009 at 23:34

      This is not my line. Well, it’s my line, but not my original thought. I learned to imagine this from my friend Mick, who said “God is relational”, and in imagining this I have found it to feel true to me.

  3. 5 Louis August 10, 2009 at 23:39

    Post Alley Pizza makes a fine pie.

    A true pleasure reading your ode to the sandwich board. It made me think of other forms of immediate advertising, that, while not having quite the personal touch of a sandwich board, still have a certain – to borrow a page from Kip’s book – “personability”. I’m thinking of the signs that usually hang outside a storefront to attract passers-by. For instance, a shoe repairman will have a giant shoe hanging outside his store. A dentist might have a big ol’ tooth hanging out front. Or any type of business might just have a big hand with finger pointing (jacket sleeve included)towards the store saying, “You’ve come to the right place! It’s in here!”

    It also made me think of the guy, who back in the 30’s-40’s, would wear a sandwich board and walk up and down the street, trying to drum up business. The image that comes to mind is usually of a stubbly-faced guy with a beat-up fedora, chomping on a cigar, wearing a sandwich board that says, “EAT AT JOE’S”.

    If I had been around then, I would have eaten at Joe’s.

    • 6 jstwndrng August 11, 2009 at 00:03

      You know Post Alley Pizza? In a word, “wow!”

      I think the sign you refer to, if it’s a tooth or a shoe, is generally called a “shingle” — as in, a young tradesman finishes his apprenticeship and his journeymanning, and then “hangs out his shingle”. In eateries and public houses, I think they were just called “signs” — as in “we tarried over a pint at the sign of the boar and fist in an alley off of High Street”. Yes, I love all that signery and shinglery.

      I think your bestubbled sandwich-board man has been replaced by individuals waving “New Condos!” signs while listening to their iPods and dancing on the sidewalk. Do they not have this species in Bahia?

  4. 7 Kip August 11, 2009 at 02:02

    Louis…and ofcourse Matt,

    While in Aspen almost 6 year ago, our little band of motorcycle riders stopped in Aspen, Colorado, and actually saw someone wearing a sandwich board as in days of yor. It was for a shop called Testosterone-yes a shop that catered to men. We thought it was so cool, that not only did we by some very expensive hats, but we posed for a picture with one of us wearing the board! If I knew how, I’d post the picture…after getting the necessary permission first! Maybe I could post it on my Facebook page…..

    • 8 jstwndrng August 11, 2009 at 16:01

      Kip, when did you become a “motorcycle rider”? I turn my back for ten years and you start slummin’ with bikers? What happened to the guy that cut his hair every time he came back to Seattle so that his mom would let him back in the house?

      I haven’t tried inserting an image in a comment, but if you post it somewhere else like on Flickr you could easily — and with my blessing (thanks for checking) — include the link.

  5. 9 Louis August 11, 2009 at 09:58

    Kip, I would love to see that pic! Matt, as there is much development going on here, the species exists in great numbers. They usually wear a uniform of some sort, and are either waving a flag or a placard. There is also usually a crew chief to make sure everybody’s in their place, equipped with a bottle of water and a cap, and putting some enthusiasm into their flag waving. Of course, during breaks in the action, some employees will congregate and start yakking. Perhaps two will start flirting. Others will just start to drift off and daydream while listening to their iPods. Then the crew chief has to come in and “reset”. It appears to be the classic student job in Bahia. If John Hughes or Cameron Crowe had lived in Bahia, perhaps they would have written a movie around this line of work.

    “The Boar and Fist”…I’m still laughing!

  6. 10 jstwndrng August 11, 2009 at 16:06

    Yeah, I notice that movement is a critical part of this occupation, because no one notices you just standing on a corner, even if you’re dressed as corn on the cob. I haven’t seen the crew chiefs you mention, but maybe I haven’t looked closely enough.

  7. 11 Louis August 12, 2009 at 10:47

    I should clarify that these kids are usually advertising a new condo development. So there will be about a dozen or so people waving placards and flags lining both sides of the street which eventually leads to the development. It’s a gauntlet of happy, youthful marketing! Another advertising gimmick they use occurs at red lights. A few people will walk out onto the crosswalk, stop and unfurl a large banner and stand there until the lights change.

  8. 12 Kip August 13, 2009 at 20:21

    Matt, I don’t really consider myself a motorcycle rider. I have owned 2 bikes, both only 750ccs….not really the Harley or Honda Goldwing one associates with riding. And I am currently without a bike for a number of reasons…well, 3 to be exact! But I have ridden, and the ride on which I met Ami was a 2300 mile trek through western Colorado, with the first stop in Salt Lake City. Where the magic began! I’ll tell you the whole story in person, it’s one of those good ole romantic tails. And I still get a haircut before Seattle, although William usually doesn’t! Plus, I think I’ll get a Flickr page up and going. Ami looked at me like I was an old man when I asked her what Flickr was, so I think that’s my cue to get into the 21st century. I’ll send you that info when it’s up and running, WITH the Aspen picture for Louis’s enjoyment! May take a few days, I am a bit of a procrastinator! Or, had you not noticed?

    By the way, I LOVE how a simple post on sandwich boards leads off on tangents. It really is like we’re all sitting around a fire telling stories and letting the conversation go where it may. No smoke, no marshmallows nor gritty coffee, but great friends and great entertainment!

    • 13 jstwndrng August 13, 2009 at 20:34

      I’ll want to hear all about that, ‘per. Actually, Angela will want to hear all about that, too, so save the romantic history until we can all meet up. I just like hearing how the guy tries to tell the story and the gal corrects his memory.

      Yes, this is fun. Reminds me of FNAK (Friday Night at Kip’s) only we’ve lost brother Jeffrey (may his journey be bathed in golden light) and we’re distributed across the entire latitude of the Western Hemisphere (Ben’s in Fairbanks near the Arctic Circle and Louis is in Salvador, Brazil).

  9. 14 Kip August 13, 2009 at 23:40

    YES! I was thinking the same thing! I must say that we’re lucky The Good Lord has blessed us with some very smart people, able to bring us the technology to stay in touch in almost real time (actually in real time if we so choose. I’m thinking Skype someday). Yes, the loss of the physical letter is lamentable…I know it is one of your laments…but I seem to be better able to stay in touch via this interwebby thing. I’ll bet it catches on!

  10. 15 Rachael January 3, 2011 at 17:49

    I followed Paul Dorpat’s link from Sunday’s Now & Then column, about the Savoy, and have discovered a trove of humanity in your blog! Kind, thoughtful people and ideas. I loved the above post; I, too, have had unexpected illuminations into the ways in which we humans connect, whether we ever meet or not. Which is, of course, the very definition of a blog, is it not? Thanks for your writing; I will be checking back in the future!

    Note the use of both the semi-colon and serial commas!

    • 16 jstwndrng January 3, 2011 at 20:57

      Rachel,
      Thanks for visiting and thanks for the comment, by which I feel very honored. Yes, the people who comment here are generally the kindest and most appreciative folks you’ll find anywhere, and they’ve made this journey one of much surprise and delight for me. I hope we’ll see more of you here.

      I’m sorry but I don’t get the serial comma comment, unless maybe you were referencing some discussion in another post, which is possible. My friend mpg and I disagree vociferously about the use of commas.

      • 17 Rachael January 4, 2011 at 10:51

        Yes, “serial commas” and semi-colons were the subject of discussion in another post. For the record, I love the semi-colon!

        I am now a subscriber, and will share your blog with a friend interested in starting her own, just to show her how cool it can be!

  11. 18 jstwndrng January 4, 2011 at 11:06

    Thanks for subscribing, Rachael. I’m all about the semicolon. Too often it gets stricken from drafts these days because managers feel that sentences longer than five words are “confusing”. Very well. I live to serve. (But I write to write!!!!) I will welcome your friend’s perusals here and wish her good luck with her own blogging.


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