Sign of the Times

While driving down a highway, you’ve no doubt seen those Adopt-a-Highway signs. It’s not the program I take issue with. Adopt-a-Highway, which operates in some form or another in all 50 states, according to the New York State DOT website, is an admirable endeavor: a public/private partnership that aims to make our roadways cleaner. That’s good stuff. Great stuff, in fact. It’s the signs I have a problem with.

I ran by one such sign today on the East Side Highway. A big, rusty blue sign announcing that Gabelli had adopted the next mile of road. A gold star for Gabelli for sending someone out there to pick up trash four times a year. Does that merit a sign? No. The sign is just another unsightly bit of pollution that should be disposed of. Why is such signage necessary anyway? I understand that the various departments of transportation across the country want to entice businesses and civic groups to participate in these programs. But really. Does Gabelli, which has like a gazillion dollars under management, really need a huge sign to acknowledge its civic charity? Does the Hospital for Specialty Surgery? Does Trump? (Ok, dumb question.)

Why do we as a society need more pointless signs? As it is, we’re crowded by them from every side. As if that weren’t bad enough, sports franchises and landmark venues trip over themselves to sell off their naming rights to the highest bidder–or just to any two-bit bidder (hello Citi Field)–creating yet more excuses for signs.

The larger issue, in the case of Adopt-a-Highway, is that we’re a society that needs acknowledgement to an obscene degree. Why can’t we just show up somewhere and pick up trash on our own volition? Why does it have to be acknowledged with a big garish sign? Surely we can do better as a people, no?

And that includes myself, of course. Not only did I run by the sign today, I ran past all the trash that carpeted the grass alongside the road (bang up job, Gabelli). Then I came home and took the mightiest of all mighty steps: I blogged about it. Nice.

Fortunately, not everyone is like me. Because when I had turned around and passed the sign again, what did I see but a woman in her 50s or 60s, walking with her lumbering bulldog and slowly picking up trash along the side of the road with her bare hands. Like she was tidying her own backyard or something. That’s the beauty of New York, really: Every now and again you see someone treating a public space so respectfully you’d think it was their own. And, of course, the point is that space was hers–and mine. Although I just ran on by.

Amazingly enough, she didn’t need a sign applauding her efforts. She just did it.