6.27.2013

After 80 Years of Service.

We were in downtown Pittsburgh for an exploratory and perambulatory retreat and we found this polite paper sign hanging in the window of the Smithfield Cafe (which had served Pittsburgh for (as you can see) 80 years prior to our arrival).  I was full of nostalgia for a past that wasn't mine.   I had a little surge of righteous indignation that probably the cafe had to close because of chain restaurants and multinational conglomerates subverting local economies. And I'll admit to a little temptation to make a jibe about how 80 years of "buisness" -- if the Smithfield Cafe regularly had such tiny errors (accounting and spelling being related?) -- could also be to blame.  But my feelings of empathy and loss eclipsed my temptation to be snarky.  On the other hand, was the sign a final futile passive aggressive attempt to make the passers by think about why they hadn't done more before it was too late?

As you may know, signs that have outlived their usefulness, along with all manner of other faded glory, are some of my favorite things.  And those faded-glory, meaningless-signifiers belong to a different category than the category of Polite Paper Commands which is also (of course) a favorite thing of mine.    This sign? Has *both* qualities!

I love polite paper commands usually because of the way that they suggest a wider distribution of power than formal and officially manufactured signs connote.  I like the ways that polite paper commands build on the conventions of signage and policy and enforcement, but in ways that are usually creative, sometimes laughable, but always a bit more improvisational.  This improvisational quality draws our attention to the impermanent and re-inventable nature of social life, to the ongoing performative requirements of sustaining any social enterprise.  People make paper signs because the official signs aren't clear enough about the new ways that behavior is emerging.  People make these signs out of paper because they don't have to go through an official legislative and bureaucratic process.  But they make the signs LOOK like signs in order to suggest: Yes.  This is Real.  And we need you to Comply. And they make these signs polite because they recognize that without the force of bureaucratic process and the material evidence of a carefully manufactured plastic or steel or wooden sign, they really do need to appeal to the goodwill and well-mannered behavior of the reader.

See how complex these signs are!?  See how performative and fragile the social life that surrounds them?  See how precariously they help channel behavior in productive ways?

Which is why this sign could read like a passive-aggressive, guilt-inducing, final rant from beyond the (Smithfield Cafe) grave.  Because polite paper commands usually signify something about the ongoing social world.  Something we should *do* now.

And here's where I actually think that this sign is particularly revelatory.  Not just about Pittsburgh, or confused passers-by, or the Smithfield Cafe, but about faded glory, drifting signifiers and the inevitable end of everything.

In some ways? Every sign comes too late.  By the time the sign is fabricated and dye-cast or by the time the sharpie marker touches the blank back of a recycled memo:  no matter what, signs refer to what we knew in the past.

And their makers hope that future behavior will benefit from our understanding of past behavior, but this is only occasionally right.  Because the world is always changing, and the past is forever "so five minutes ago" and the future is always so much more pregnant with possibility and hope.

When I think about what it is to be middle aged and disappointed, I read the sign with an even greater sense of empathy:

After eighty years of service....

There's a rich repository of memory, an incredulity about the loss, a bitterness that braids the memory and incredulity together.

We are now out of business.

This is the healthy next step of grieving that we call *acceptance*.  There's nothing we can do to change this loss.  This loss is real.  The past is unrecoverable.

Thank you.

Well here's where it gets tricky.  This could be the bitter "Thanks, but no thanks." or it could be the genuine gratefulness of someone who recognizes that ending is in the nature of everything.  Life always fades.  Glory days are always temporary.  Function always ceases.  Rituals always shift.  The world is always ending.  So thanks for sharing this particular world with us.

I prefer that reading: that kind of mature, happy ending.  Not a "happily" that goes on in some kind of imaginary blissful "ever after" but a happily grateful goodbye.

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