Like most of us, I can’t help noticing the signs and notices people put up, even if they don’t apply to me. One which inevitably catches my eye is on a white picket fence I pass every day, while walking to or from my office. It’s a probably store-bought sign, and says simply, “No Dumping.” There are several odd things about this. First, I have never seen such a sign before, anywhere in town, where, except for our downtown commercial area, there are relatively few pedestrians – and certainly not outside an ordinary house on an ordinary street,
Secondly, there does not appear to be any particular reason why anyone should choose that particular spot to do any large-scale, or even small-scale disposal of trash, which is what that word “dumping” usually refers to. Of course, sometimes the usage is metaphorical. In the 1949 movie Beyond the Forest, Bette Davis made memorable use of the term “What a dump!” to disparage the modest house she shared with her husband, a small-town doctor.
But thirdly, I must confess that the very existence of that sign appears, to my devilish mind, something of a challenge. Without the sign, I’d never have thought of dumping anything there. But, since picking up litter is one of the few ways in which I attempt to justify my existence, and since, I sometimes have difficulty finding anywhere to dispose of it, why not just toss it over that white picket fence?
Forgive me for having such an evil thought. I don’t know who lives in that house. They may have had good reason for putting up that sign. The pity of it is that those words, in themselves, no matter how prominently they’re displayed, have no legal force. It’s like the much more common sign, “Beware of the Dog.” Dog owners think that it will protect them from liability. But the situation is actually much more complicated than that. In the U.S., laws vary from state to state – but in no state do those words alone have any legal validity. Nevertheless, they have a long history, going back at least as far as 79 A.D., the year when the Roman town of Pompeii was destroyed by a volcanic eruption. Among the artifacts buried in that disaster which have since been recovered, is a mosaic, evidently situated at the entrance to a villa, with a picture of a rather fierce-looking dog, and the Latin words: “Cave Canem” – an exact equivalent of “Beware of the dog.”
Another very common admonitory sign says, “No trespassing.” This always reminds me of the Lord’s Prayer, as I learned it in school, which says “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us” – although the now more common version says “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (commercially somewhat questionable, I would say, in an economy based on credit). Then there’s the irreverent version beloved of journalists: “Forgive us you our press passes.”
And people who don’t want to be bothered by the Fuller Brush Man or the Avon Lady, or all the other people who (especially in hard times) were wont to peddle door-to-door a variety of items, ranging from bath-soap to Bibles, are fond of signs warning, “No Solicitors.” There’s also the equally unfriendly sign, often found in public or commercial locales where people might otherwise like to gather: “No Loitering.”
The only member of this bunch of bans which has always been dear to my own heart is the “No Smoking” sign, which, by the grace of education and medicine, is now no longer so necessary – ironically being sometimes replaced by signs indicating the few restricted places where smoking is permitted.
But notices of what’s forbidden can of course be traced back to the Ten Commandments, eight of which can be classified as “Thou Shalt Nots.” And, for those tempted to disobey, we have, in George Orwell’s dystopia, 1984, the omnipresent warning of: “Big Brother is Watching You.”
All this makes me wonder why we don’t have more positive public messages. Wouldn’t it be nice to see a sign saying “Strangers Welcome” – especially if you happen to be a stranger yourself? And, if some might find even that objectionable, surely we could tolerate, if not embrace, signs reminding us to “be kind,” “be helpful,” – or simply to “enjoy life!” Who knows, such exhortations might actually lift our spirits, especially if, recalling what prompted these musings, we’re feeling down in the dumps.