Many of the signs we see throughout our lives are telling us not to do certain things (whether we might want to do them or not). One of the most common says, “NO TRESPASSING” – although this might confuse some people, especially children, who are taught (as I was in public school in Toronto) to pray to God to “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.” In other versions the “trespasses” become “debts,” or “sins” – so you can choose whether your misbehavior has to do with legality, economics, or morality. (I have unfortunately been unable to trace the clever originator of the journalist’s version: “Forgive Us Our Press Passes.”)
Historically it was the – presumably more positive – sign of a cross, appearing in the sky, accompanied by words meaning “In This Sign, Conquer,” which are said to have inspired the Roman Emperor Constantine to convert to Christianity, and be victorious in battle.
In any case, whatever the misdeed, it seems ungracious to pray for forgiveness in advance – although that is exactly what certain Popes are supposed to have granted to soldiers setting out on “worthy” expeditions, e.g. Pope Pius xii, blessing Mussolini’s troops, setting out in 1935 to slaughter the Ethiopians.
Another very common prohibitory sign is “NO PARKING” – so it is nice to remember that on the traditional Monopoly board, one whole corner lot offers “FREE PARKING.”
Signs saying “NO SMOKING” are now blessedly rare, because they’re hardly needed. But of course, they were once very common. A British variety artist named H. Vernon Watson, seeking a new stage-name, looked around and, saw that sign on the wall, and from then on became the very successful performer known as Nosmo King.
Fortunately, some other noxious habits, which were at one time quite widespread in America, also no longer need to have signs forbidding them. You may have heard the story of the two ladies at a concert. One of them says “What is that piece they’re playing? The other looks around and sees a sign, and says, “Oh look, there, it tells us. It’s the “REFRAIN FROM SPITTING.”
Of course we are used to being told, in zoos, not to feed the animals, in museums, not to touch the exhibits, in libraries to be quiet (usually one word does that job: “SILENCE”) and in parks, not to walk on the grass. And there are signs which almost make one wish to be an “authorized person,” or to have special permission to “loiter.” But I do have a favorite sign – and only wish there were more of the same kind in other places:
Santa Barbara has a paved path running for miles along the inland edge of its fine beach. The sign has a heading of “BEACH WAY,” beneath which there are shown, in silhouette, a bicycle, a skater, and a pedestrian. Then come the words “FOR BICYCLISTS AND OTHERS – USE WITH COURTESY AND CAUTION.”
And indeed, you can go down there, and see all three kinds of uses being made of the same path at the same time, evidently quite safely. “Courtesy and Caution” could go a long way to make our world more livable – and, considering how many of our sidewalks receive very little pedestrian usage, it would make sense to extend the “Beach Way” concept to other appropriate locales. (There is nothing new about this idea. Some time ago, in Budapest, I walked across the Danube, on a bridge which was closed to motor traffic, but which was crowded with pedestrians, through whom, I was surprised to see, bicyclists were permitted to navigate at surprising speed, and with no special lanes, but quite successfully.)
But coping with the signs one encounters while travelling can be quite challenging. On my first visit to France, even though I’d been studying French at school, one sign which I came upon very frequently, usually inscribed on a wall, sometimes repeatedly on the same wall, had me puzzled. It said “DÉFENSE D’AFFICHER” – and I didn’t know the language well enough to understand that it meant “Post No Bills.” When I did learn the meaning, it seemed to me ironical that these ubiquitous messages often seemed as much of a defacement as what they were trying to prevent.
But, in closing, let us celebrate one widespread sign whose message one is generally glad to see, even though – another irony – it is designed to be trampled on. I refer, of course, to our traditional “WELCOME” MAT.