Friday, April 8, 2011

Rattling the Stick: Dispatches from the Sunshine State VII

“Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket,” according to George Orwell. I am reminded of this as I drive along US Highway 19 through Pinellas and Pasco counties on the Florida Gulf Coast. I also recall the Baltimore bard Ogden Nash’s witty stanza from Songs on the Road (1941):

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Indeed, unless the billboards fall
I’ll never see a tree at all.

This stretch of highway, as it passes through St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park, Clearwater, Tarpon Springs, New Port Richey and a host of smaller communities, has got to be one of the ugliest clutter of strip malls, car dealerships, restaurants and fast food joints, liquor stores, trailer parks, pawn emporiums and t-shirt shops I have found anywhere in the United States. It has no soul whatsoever; nothing beckoning one to come here and stay. It is a road to be avoided at all costs yet a stream of traffic travels up and down it every day. Is there anything man can do to make this jumbled and muddled abysm of commerce even less inviting? Yes!

As one drives this route (and so many others throughout the state) one is confronted by a continuous phalanx of outdoor billboard signs. Here along US 19 they sing the praises of doctors who offer to lift your face, correct your sight, remove your ugly fat, and my personal favorite, provide you with a vasectomy without the use of knives or needles. Is this a great country or what? More often than not these offers are accompanied by the doctor’s smiling portrait and an 800 number and/or internet website. It is difficult to enjoy life as it is when there are all these constant reminders of how much better it can be. No thanks!

Add to this the numerous billboards advertising the friendly yet “aggressive” services of Florida’s ubiquitous personal injury attorneys who hope to cash in (“we only get paid if you get paid”) on what must be a growing problem here in the Sunshine State. One is left with the distinct impression that Floridians must be one of the most litigious populations in this country. Why else would one need so many attorneys? These guys must make a pretty good living. How else can they pay for all these billboards with their smiling faces (I thought they were aggressive?) and promises to fight for the rights of the little people?

Even in the unlikely event that all of these billboards somehow disappear, the chances of seeing any trees are negligible. This area of Florida has been pretty much paved over and the vegetation that has managed to survive is limited to a few scrubby bushes here and there and an occasional palmetto or palm tree reminding travelers that they are in Florida. Thankfully, as one leaves this urban blight behind, the billboards become fewer and farther between, and there are a few more trees, but one can never completely escape their clutches and promises of a better life.

Driving the highways and byways of rural Florida there are fewer billboards shilling for doctors and lawyers (they are still there, however), but now they tend to focus on retirement communities in Florida and beyond; antique stores purchasing and selling gold and silver; military surplus and guns; truck stops and “cheap” fuel, BBQ joints, and countless tourist traps selling citrus, t-shirts, fireworks, wind chimes, gator heads, jewelry, saltwater taffy, and souvenir bric-a-brac. There are billboards displaying American flags and “patriotic” encomiums while others offer Biblical passages and the promise of eternal salvation. There are even billboards advertising strip joints and “We Bare All.” You name it and you can probably find it on a Florida billboard.

Some rather strong storms swept across central Florida over the past week and one can see the evidence of their passing by the many downed trees and branches. Small planes were tossed about at local airports and roofs were torn from homes and other buildings. Trees and branches scattered about but nearby the billboards continue to stand unmolested. Not even Mother Nature can deliver us from this man-made scourge on the landscape. Frankly, I prefer trees.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

1 comment:

  1. I wish Ladybird Johnson had killed all billboards tho one of my Nevada-Reno students made his fortune from them and retired in his 40s to paint as an artist. Nice job, Steve