When a Faded Sign Is Uncovered, You Can Hear America Singing

Workers demolishing a Sunkist packinghouse in Upland recently uncovered a sign hidden by a long-ago addition to the building. And that got me to thinking about American language in the landscape, where it goes, and what nearly unreadable signs mean.

Some painted signs (often those facing north, because they are less faded) offer products and services hardly imagined anymore: MILLINERY, FIREPROOF HOTEL, CLOTHES IN THE NEW YORK MANNER, SYRUP OF FIGS, TRUSSES, ARTIFICIAL LEGS, TAXIDERMIST SUPPLIES.

These signs -- some still asserting brand loyalty after a hundred years and some a palimpsest of competing sales pitches bleeding through the successive decades -- are more than a museum of past desires and least of all merely nostalgic.

Old signs are part of a dialog continually shaping American places, in the same way every neighborhood surviving its own era overcomes our habit of forgetting.

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America bristles with public conversations that aren't about you and me ... conversations that were begun without our presence and will continue after. Preserved public speech traces and retraces memory in the air above our heads. There's a connection between its tenuous survival and our own.

Neglected things, like old signs on the sides of buildings, are instances of sabotage against the forces of disposability.

In fact, the more worn and undecipherable the sign the more it resists our easy dismissal, the more it insists that its references be puzzled out, and the more personal it makes of what was once only public.

Walt Whitman understood that a distinctly American language was being concocted in the streets, in newspapers, and on the signboards of cities. He understood that the American page might have begun with the Word but that many words -- contending, fading, rediscovered -- would fill that page from edge to edge.

In bibliolatrous America, where encounters with the printed word still set men and women trembling in the 19th century to build utopias, it was impossible to constrain the promiscuous play of democratic language in the landscape, that public spectacle of the emancipated word.

Whitman understood that language abroad in the form of appeals and declarations, was our common speech and would be the way in which we would narrate our memories of the commonplace. They may not be noble or pure, but they are ours.

See a sign, Whitman might have said, and hear America singing.

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