Billboards

“From start to finish I found no strangers.  If I had, I might be able to report them more objectively.  But these are my people and this my country.  If I found matters to criticize and to deplore, they were tendencies equally present in myself.”

One of our sources of information, wonder, and hilarity on our long journey across the desert was billboards, a form of mobile advertising for a mobile society. These days they even alternate; two or three adverts (a.k.a. advertisements) will cycle through on a single electronic billboard, just in case you happen to be sitting in traffic. They wouldn’t want you to get bored looking at the same ad for more than five seconds. These billboards are sparse, though still present, on the open road in the middle of long sections of still-wild land. But they build in a crescendo of marketing as you near what counts as civilization, until they reach their riotous climax in the heart of the next city.

We saw billboards advertising the newest models of pickup trucks: “It swallowed a luxury car.” “If it were any tougher it would be making its own license plate.” Steinbeck knew that American automobiles “are made to wear out so that they must be replaced.” (43) This is “the greatest selling appeal of all – one that crawls through nearly all American life. Improvements are made on these [models] every year. If you are doing well you turn yours in on a new model…if you can possibly afford to. There’s status to that.” (76) Not much has changed, apart from the ubiquity of the advertisements trying to convince you to trade up so you can move up.

But America has also moved into whole new realms of advertising. Even hospitals need billboards these days. We saw one depicting a man on a stretcher being lifted into an ambulance. He looked strangely content under the circumstances, and the slogan in huge letters across this incongruous scene read, “Take me to Swedish.” It was clearly his choice of hospital that made him forget his potentially life-threatening injury. A byline at the bottom of the billboard informed us that the emergency room is open 24/7, as if there were any other option.

You know healthcare is in a sad state when you need to pay for advertisements for hospitals. As if anyone who’s just been found bleeding copiously at the site of a serious car accident will say to the police or paramedics, “Take me to Swedish. I saw their ad, and their ER is open 24/7. Looks like a nice place.” Of course not. If you need the ER you’re going to go to the nearest one, because that’s the definition of emergency.

A billboard for a new wing at Presbyterian Hospital advertised their 34 new private rooms. Because who wants to share?

The highways are also blemished with dozens of billboards for personal injury lawyers. They even have blogs and websites with names like “justice for victims,” as if “justice” and “victim” are words that should be applied to car accidents. This is how important words and concepts lose all real meaning. You’re not a victim because someone accidentally rear-ends you at a stoplight; that’s an accident. That’s why it’s called an accident.

We wonder whether it’s too easy in America to lose sight of what real suffering is. We’ve even commoditized victimhood. The idea that you can put a price on justice is a fundamental misunderstanding of what justice is. Advertising becomes a way to borrow nobility and apply it to the ignoble random occurrences of life.

Together with ideas of justice and victimhood, the concept of need has lost its anchor in reality. At one point we drove past an enormous grey warehouse called the Windchime Center. Because you need a whole center devoted to something as essential as windchimes. Tourist routes in the Southwest are lined with rock shops. Just in case you couldn’t find a suitable rock on your own, Dave’s Rocks can meet all your rock-buying needs. Advertising no longer caters to our needs; beginning with Henry Ford all the way through its latest incarnation in Steve Jobs, advertising creates wants and repackages them as needs.

In no place on our travels was this invention of new necessities more evident than in Los Angeles. LA is packed from the Pacific Ocean to the San Bernardino Mountains, stuffed several stories deep with every conceivable thing its citizens could invent or imagine. When we revisited Denver, we noticed that many things had changed. There was new urban sprawl, new houses, new businesses. But revisiting LA, there was no room for new sprawl. The only way to go is up, and this is evident in the advertising methods, the huge number of billboards and sky signs and enormous banners towed behind tiny airplanes, all pushing some new artificial necessity of plastic, steel, or silicon. And somewhere, sometime, someone says, “Hey, I need that!”

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

“In my own life I am not willing to trade quality for quantity.”

In one small town, we stopped at a butcher shop to buy some steaks for the campfire. The walls were lined with a range of Italian goods, from tinned tomatoes to panettone, and the refrigerators were stocked with homemade fresh pasta in resealable sandwich bags.

We were greeted by a tiny man behind a huge meat counter.

“Hey, how ya doin?”

We smiled at his expansive personality.

“What can I do for ya?”

We asked for two of his best steaks.

“Great choice. Everybody needs a good steak. What are ya gonna do with ’em?”

“Cook ’em over a campfire.”

He nodded enthusiastically. “Best way to do it. I’ll give you sirloin. It’ll be best for an open flame. Not too thick. Cook more evenly. Inside’ll be done before the outside’s burnt.”

We asked where his meat came from, if it was local.

“Of course,” he squinted at us. “It’s my shop. I buy the meat. Buy it from a friend of mine down the road. Grass-fed cattle.”

We asked how long he’d been running the shop. He had come to small-town America from Italy 48 years ago, and he’d been running the same store in the same location for 40 years. He showed us an old photo. He still has the same haircut, although his hair is white now, and he still makes his own sausage with a hand-crank grinder.

“We passed a huge supermarket just a few blocks from here. Does that kind of place hurt your business?”

“Nah,” he said. “It’s a different thing. They don’t do what I do.”

“They don’t sell meat?” We were confused.

“Nah, nah, I mean it’s not the same thing.”

The looks on our faces prompted him to explain.

“Its about respect,” he told us. “You have to respect the customer. People don’t come back because the shop is pretty, even though it is; they don’t come back for the opera I play all day long, though lots of ’em comment on it; they come back because they like me and I like them. They come back because we have a relationship, and that starts with respect. That’s what’s missing in those giant wholesale discount places. Respect.”

In retrospect, that respect was absent from many of our interactions as well, even in the smaller towns. We reflected on one particularly warm afternoon, when we had passed a string of wineries along the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico. Since we’d never tried New Mexican wine, we decided to stop. After a quick wander, the very friendly woman behind the counter showed us their tasting menu. Prices were listed by the bottle or by the glass. We decided to taste several wines.

“It’s three dollars for six tastes,” she explained, “but you can share the tastes if you want and just pay for one. And if you buy a bottle you don’t have to pay at all!”

This sounded like a good deal to us. We participated enthusiastically as we talked to her about our travels, about the reasons for the trip, about the curiosity that enticed us to pull off the dirty two-lane road into her gravel parking lot instead of making tracks for Santa Fe.

“Sounds like you’ve had quite a trip already,” she told us.

We chatted for a while, but after our six tastes of six underwhelming wines, we decided we weren’t interested in a bottle.

“Thanks, but I think we’ll pass this time.”

Her smile disappeared as she pursed her lips. “Oh. Okay.” She whisked away our glasses and stabbed at the cash register. “That’ll be six dollars. Plus tax.” So much for respect.

In this consumer’s world of competition and commoditization, difference becomes a disadvantage. Stores focus more on merchandise and less on building relationships with customers. At the winery, the personal connection was nothing more than a sales tactic; the sale, rather than the long-term connection, has become the most important thing. This in turn drives standardization of products because no one can afford to be different. Hotel rooms, coffee shops, banks, are all standardized to the point of absurdity. There is certainly a sense of comfort in the sameness, the familiar sign that entices you to pull off the road, the familiar furniture inside, the familiar uniforms and colors and smells and tastes. But when you stop to think about it, the point of travel is to experience difference, and if everything becomes standardized, then the experience of travel, even the point of travel, is diluted.

Steinbeck noticed this in its early stages, with the standardization of language through mass consumption of TV and radio. Even our food has fallen victim to this tendency. “Just as our bread, mixed and baked, packaged and sold without benefit of accident or human frailty, is uniformly good and uniformly tasteless, so will our speech become one speech.” (82) He lamented this loss of regional accents and the homogenization of language. He also experienced the loss of regional foods and the standardization of cuisine brought about by the highway culture of fast, cheap hamburgers, the same in California as they are in New Jersey, all untouched by human hands. At the same time, he also acknowledged that the days before this standardization left something to be desired, despite the attraction of nostalgia. Mom’s home cooking was not always tasty or healthy, and the bygone days of fresh, unpasteurized milk were also days of illness and early death from unknown diseases. It is in our nature to protest change, even if it’s change for the better, but Steinbeck also argued that trying to hold it back would only result in bitterness, because it is a battle that can’t be won.

Even so, we hope the kind of respect we encountered at the butcher’s shop prevails.

Advertising and Consumption

“Having too many things, Americans spend their hours and money on the couch searching for a soul. A strange species we are. We can stand anything God and Nature throw at us save only plenty. If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick.”

Now you want a donut, don’t you?

Advertising is a funny thing, in that you are being told what you want. You don’t think you need anything until you get into the store or the mall, and then suddenly you’re bombarded with posters and displays and salespeople, and a whole wellspring of wants bubbles up inside your head, flows through your fingers, and spills over into your credit card balance.

Of course the irony is that you never really needed any of it in the first place. This over-consumption has reached such a pace that the storage business is booming. Americans have too much stuff to store in their houses, so they rent space elsewhere and fill it with the extras. It’s reassuring to know that you can take all that stuff to the local Fortress Self Storage Annex, evocatively named so you can be sure that all that crap that won’t fit in your house is safe with them. We even saw advertisements and billboards for a company called Got Junk. The phone number is 1-800-GOT-JUNK. You call them and they come and haul your junk away. Everybody’s got junk; they may not realize that’s what it is, but they’ve got it. And then the cycle repeats.

At the urging of an old friend we visited along the way, we spent several hours at a home consignment store in an Arizona suburb. The warehouse was in a rich neighborhood, where wealthy people compete with each other to buy even wealthier people’s castoffs: furniture, art, jewelry. The competition is the thing. It’s a high-pressure environment, with holds, second and third holds, better snap it up because someone else is looking over your shoulder and you don’t want them to get it. Our friend had a house full of paintings, some of which she didn’t even like, but she was buying more art, even though she didn’t have room to hang what she already had. The idea was to resell what she bought and make her fortune. In the process, caught up in the search for a bargain, she also bought tables and chairs, lamps and headboards. More furniture for a house already stuffed to the rafters. This is a different kind of mobility; the transience is in the objects around you. Everything else changes while you stay rooted.

“Look at this table! It’s a steal for $150.” But somebody else snapped it up, so she bought a similar one for double the price.

At this place we found a painting that we wanted to take home as a souvenir of our journey. It was a numbered print in a nice frame, and Alissa pointed it out enthusiastically to our friend.

She considered it for a moment with one eye and a certain amount of undisguised disdain. “But you know you’re never going to get any more than you paid for it, right? It’s just a print. It’ll never be worth anything.”

“But I’m buying it because I like it. I want to hang it. I don’t plan on selling it.”

“Oh,” in a confused tone. “OK.”

And that’s where the enjoyment lies for so many Americans, in the process of acquiring and disposing, not necessarily in the objects themselves. The thrill is in finding a better deal, a cheaper car, winning in the hunt for the best bargain. And on some level, this is acknowledged. In one shopping mall restroom in Phoenix, Alissa saw a sign that read: “Fresh flowers to enhance your shopping experience.” The experience of shopping has itself become commoditized.

Along with commoditization comes homogenization. Buying and selling used to be something that was done on a personal level: with a local shopkeeper, someone the customer knew personally and interacted with regularly; with a door-to-door salesman, who came into your home as your guest even as you became his customer; with members of a neighborhood community, people you knew in their personal as well as their professional aspects. Throughout America, this sense of personal interaction between buyer and seller is diminishing. Even in small towns, where main streets used to boast shops staffed by generations of the same family, shoppers increasingly drive to major discount outlets to get the best deal. For the consumer the bargain is the thing. For the seller, the customer is a number, not a face. That’s one thing we’ve found disappointing about this journey, how easy it is to be anonymous in America these days.