Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sign Language

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign - blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind. Do this, don't do that. Can't you read the sign? (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

When I moved to Ann Arbor 15-years ago, it was quite a shock for me, a small-town boy from the fruit farms of northern Ohio.

Where I’m from, the only thing remotely resembling diversity went something like this: “Do you grow apples, or peaches?" Differences of opinion, if there were any, were discussed at the local coffee shop. For the most part, life was harmonious and we all got along. Certainly no one asked, or cared, whom you voted for in the last election, or where you stood on the major issues. We focused our talk, instead, on fertilizers and insecticides.

That all changed when I rolled into Ann Arbor, the “capital of diversity” a decade and a half ago. It wasn’t like I was that na├»ve. I mean I didn’t ramble into town in an old Ford pickup wearing overalls and smoking a corncob pipe. Heck, I’d even been to college! But nothing in this world quite prepared me for the Ann Arbor experience – which, I might point out, is different for everybody.

For example, I don’t drink coffee - never have, never will – so imagine how much of the A2 experience I’m missing out on there? Also, I really hate soccer – strike two! And, believe it or not, I don’t have one single bumper sticker on my car, and I’ve never actively participated in a protest.

Steeerrrike threeee!!! Yer out!

How could this be, you ask? How in the world could a non-coffee drinking, soccer-hating, bumper-stickerless, 44-year-old man live in this town?

Well, I am a curious sort, and I do like to read - not that you’ll find me hanging out at one of the roughly 1,500 bookstores in Ann Arbor. No, I’m more a connoisseur of the short read, and thanks to all those bumper stickers and protest signs that propagate so freely in this town, it seems I’m never at a loss for good reading material.

If I can’t satiate my quest for word play at my local intersection, all I have to do is head for the Federal Building, Kerrytown, or the “granddaddy of them all” – The University of Michigan Diag – where I’m sure to be bombarded by a library’s worth of unique phrases and catchy political slogans via the protest sign.

That’s the cool thing about Ann Arbor. On any given day, at any given place and any given time, you’re likely to encounter some sort of protest. And the one thing a protest has over bumper stickers is originality. That’s not to say that bumper stickers aren’t original or quirky, they’re just not all that unique since they’re mass-produced. Protest signs, on the other hand, are generally made one at a time – sometimes right on the spot!

And with every passing year, the signs seem to get more and more creative – and bigger! Often times a simple little sign may blossom into a gigantic banner, a peace dove, or even a float! But last week’s TEA (Taxed Enough Already) Party protest on the Diag, definitely took the cake when it came to both the number of signs, and the diversity of the signage.

The ultimate sign? (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

Of course, as with every protest, all the usual suspects were there, and by that I mean the true signs of the times. Right away you know who the President is - who likes him, and who doesn’t. This protest was no different in that regard, but it was different in that the sheer number of the signs, and their varying degrees of cleverness, seemed to take away from the actual message.

For every “Give Me Liberty, Not Debt” sign floating about, there was a “I love Puppies!” (and who doesn’t, really?) For every perfectly cut, and printed, “We will REMEMBER, in NOVEMBER” there was a sloppy, handwritten “Bring Back Led Zeppelin.”

It was hard to estimate the crowd size, because most were holding at least two, sometimes three signs. And gazing out over The Diag, it was hard to actually see the people hidden behind the giant wall of Magic Markered poster boards.

It got to the point where folks were making them up on the spot. One UM student even brought an entire package of blank poster board and a black Sharpie with him, stood behind the main speakers on the library steps, and tried his best to became a performance art piece as he cranked out these beauties, “For? Against? I don’t know – I just like to protest stuff” “I was promised a free hat” and “Waffles are delicious!”

Even the president of the college Republicans, who was standing next to me at the time, had to agree, “Well,” he said, “I have to admit, waffles are delicious.”

By the time we got to Woodstock! (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

Somewhere along the line, the protest turned into a party for those who only came for… well, I’m not sure why they came – maybe it was the nice weather. Three Woodstock wannabe girls punctuated that point by dancing barefoot through the crowd to The Who’s “We Don’t Get Fooled Again” (hardly the group, or the song I would associate with Republicans) that was blasting over the PA. And when tempers did flare between opposing sides, one student simply penned a sign that said, “Be Nicer!”

What a concept! (photo by Lon Horwedel)

In my 15-years as a small-town boy covering protests in Ann Arbor, it was by far the oddest I’d seen to date. But in the end there was one thing I knew for sure: no matter what side of the issue, if any, the protestors chose, each and every protest sign there that day was 100% recyclable!

This is Ann Arbor, after all.


  1. Great read. I knew that soccer wasn't you thing by the passion in your writings about baseball.

    Waffles ARE indeed delicious!! I really like the malt waffles best!

  2. AnnArbor is definitely a unique place.