Signs of the Times


By Edwin D. Reilly, Jr.

For The Sunday Gazette


"The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic — their irises are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose."


                                                                                          — F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby


             The big eye on the billboard that one can't miss when driving southwest from Troy Road on the Crosstown reminds me of that quote from the greatest American novel. The billboard has only one eye, not two, and no spectacles, but its eye—which must be one of John Ashcroft's—brings back the sense of foreboding I experienced when I first read that passage many years ago. But that billboard would bother me regardless of its message; it is a blight on the landscape.

            This particular billboard is what logicians call self-referential—its message "Got an eyeful?" advertises nothing other than the sign company that put it there. But what makes it a billboard is not its size, however offensive, but rather that it hawks a product or service that is remote from its placement. In the early 1970s, Niskayuna banished such signs by proclaiming that they must be phased out over a period of five years. They started coming down as their land leases ran out, but the last one that vexed me, one on Aqueduct Road, pushed the time envelope. When I started to press the Town Board to force its removal, a sheepish Councilman (much beloved and now deceased) spoke up and said, "Ed, I hate to admit this, but I am one of the group of businessmen that owns the sign. Please cut us some slack until our lease runs out." So we were patient, and the sign is long gone.         

Proceeding "down" I-890, northwest toward GE, there is a clump of gigantic billboards that obscures the skyline of what would otherwise be beautiful downtown Schenectady. Two advertise beer, and four others tout a radio station, a TV channel, a distant casino, and a local hospital that offers to treat your asthma. Lady Bird Johnson would turn over in her grave except for one reason: at a spry 91, she doesn't have one.

            In stark contrast, one can continue on 890, curve to the west around GE, and follow the Mohawk river until you approach the turn toward the new Glenville bridge. What lies before you is the most gorgeous stretch of scenery within ten miles of Schenectady—a wide swath of blue water, an extensive frame of greenery, and, on a lucky day, puffy white clouds arrayed against a deep blue sky. But no billboards.

            Crossing over to Glenville and heading back toward Scotia, that town seemed pretty much free of the scourge until we entered the heart of this charming little village, slightly despoiled by a huge double-billboard high atop a bowling alley, with neither panel's message having anything to do with bowling.

            My mental image of Rotterdam was that it had lots of billboards. But I had to search far and wide for one that met my definition. I thought Altamont Avenue would be a prime hunting ground, but the only one I found was a double-panel one where Altamont meets Chrisler Avenue.

When, in the early '90s, I asked Colonie Supervisor Fred Field why his town tolerated billboards, he said that the firm that leased them had its headquarters there, so they weren't about to drive them out of business. That HQ is still in Latham, but is now part of a national chain.

            The downtown Schenectady billboard that bothers me most is the one at a pay parking lot on Veeder Avenue opposite the county office building. I don't understand why a facility so pressed for parking doesn't buy the lot, raze the sign, and use the enlarged area for limited-time free parking for the unfortunate souls who have to go to the building on business.

            I haven't always felt this way about such signs. I can remember proudly arranging miniature billboards all around my Lionel train layout to make it look just like the real world around me in Troy. And I still have fond memories of the billboard-studded outfield fences of Ebbets Field in Brooklyn and Hawkins Stadium in Menands, both, sadly, victims of a wrecker's ball over 40 years ago. Ebbets Field was noted for two signs in right field. One, a huge beer ad in which the 'h' of "Schaefer" lit up to signify a hit and the 'e' for an error. But the more famous one was a long, low ground-level sign just underneath the scoreboard. The sign advertised the haberdashery of Brooklyn borough president Abe Stark, and said "Hit Sign, Win Suit." But the ball had to hit the sign on the fly despite its being well-protected by outfielders, so hitters were much more likely to win a suit in court than on the field. The only recorded instance of anyone hitting the sign occurred on June 7, 1937, a feat accomplished by Dodger Elwood George "Woody" English, a shortstop who had only nine extra-base hits at Ebbets Field that year. But one is immortal, so I'm pushing for Woody's induction into the Hall of Fame. Stark, on the other hand, was raving mad.

            I'm also nostalgic for the small outdoor signs, now long gone, that were placed in sequence about 100 feet apart along country roads so as to tell a story. One set of five, from 1942, read






Burma Shave


The current-day equivalent would be






Burma Shave


Ed Reilly lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday opinion section.