Met the man who developed the system of international symbols we all know — woman with triangle skirt, straight-armed man, cigarette with “NO” slash-circle.
He was shoving yard debris into a trash can.
“Man, they’re everywhere now — Europe, the Vatican,” he said, taking off gloves. “You don’t make money when you work for the government, though. Wish I got a dollar every time someone used the bathroom.”
“‘Found the bathroom, here’s your dollar,’” I said, role-playing a person in a fair system where this man would receive residual compensation for the wordless vocabulary we use every day.
I was relieved. Often I emit weird, unexpected remarks when casually chatting, so I’m grateful when strangers play along.
He and his associates created those symbols at a New York design firm he co-founded in the 1970s. “Which ones do you remember designing yourself?” I said, standing at the end of his driveway, astride a junky bike that came with our vacation rental in Fort Myers Beach. “Like, literally you can remember drawing them?”
“The no-smoking sign. The baby-changing sign, I remember,” he said, looking into memory, face to the Florida sky. “But really, we all did it together. A lot of people worked for us at the time, and especially my partner and I, we’d lose track of who did what.”
Being in advertising and working with designers my whole life, I know that’s an ideal situation, an enviable creative state. Same with Nashville co-writing, or any partnership. There’s little good that comes from avid scorekeeping — I did this part, you did that part.
Still. [stagey, self-conscious throat clear] Some of us can’t help it. We know exactly who did what, pretty reliably. Yes, we know it’s not important which songs McCartney wrote, which Lennon wrote, which parts Holland or Dozier or Holland contributed. Of course, of course, we-who-are-aware admit it’s best when authorship/ownership dissolves.
Yet — we remember.
“Did he do this one?” my wife said that evening, walking through a handicapped wheelchair painted on the parking space next to the beach access.
“Possibly? I didn’t ask about that one,” I said, realizing unless she asks about the cigarette or diaper changing station, this conversation will repeat itself.
I do feel like I met an important person, though. I believe his name is Don Shanosky (although that’s mostly from Googling him; I’m not good at retaining names when I’m introduced astride a junky bike). The accepted international symbols for things! “We got the job because our peers in New York at the time voted us to be the ones to do it. It was by consensus they chose us,” he said. “Really an honor. All those design people, Massimo Vignelli — he was a very funny man, by the way.”
Wow. I’d interrupted his frond-chopping because, with houses all up on stilts, I’d been wondering how high the water actually got in storms. Fort Myers Beach is a pickle-shaped island, and seems vulnerable. He told me hurricane surge had only ever gotten a couple inches deep where he was — a couple-three blocks from the Gulf of Mexico, a couple-four blocks from the inland waterway.
“Well, you have a beautiful house.”
“I never tire of hearing that,” he smiled, drolly. It wasn’t a grand Floridian estate, just a very nice two-bedroom house above a garage with a nice sunroom over a carport. With a pretty yard. Elsewhere stood a-may-zing houses that probably belong to people who own patents or import/export firms. This guy, he traveled an hour and forty minutes from New Jersey to make his living in Manhattan as a designer, and happened into famous work for the government. Didn’t get filthy rich, not like whoever owns the big perfect houses on the bay, but made enough to have an architect design a handsome house on Mandalay street in Ft. Myers Beach.
Sure, I’d love to be him.
Though, to be clear, I envy his anonymous celebrity more than his house.
Just as I envy the anonymous celebrity of C. Carson Parks, whose daughter my sister befriended at Indiana University in the eighties. One spring break the girls were going to Florida and overnighted in Georgia at the Parks’s. “Welcome to The House That ‘Something Stupid’ Built,” Mr. Parks told my sister. He’d written the Frank and Nancy Sinatra hit.
Not his beautiful home on the bayou — I’m jealous that Mr. Parks and his wife could sit in restaurants where speakers above their heads might at any moment play something he made up.
“We’ll start with the calamari and, oh, hear that? I wrote that.”
[dreamy, jealous sigh]
I can’t get much more specific about what I want.
Some people make tubs of cash in advertising. Sadly, or selfishly (or foolishly) (or wisely), I’ve always pursued anonymous celebrity over Big Money. Sorry, kids. Early on, I was heavily influenced as a copywriting intern when my boss Joe had written a jingle for a newspaper account and told me how he stood in the grocery checkout behind a lady singing under her breath, “Grab The News, Grab The News, and let The News — grab you!”
He felt like a celebrity.
He was anonymous.
He got a kick out of it.
As a young guy who’d been assuming he’d have to agree to a dull or ill-fitting occupation in our capitalist system, as soon as Joe told me about his clandestine grocery celebrity I thought, “Welp, that’s for me.”
If only he’d described an enchanting Dow Jones experience.
My understanding is that people used to live happily in small towns in Indiana (unless they were warped, frustrated oddballs like George Bailey, pre-Clarence). My impression is most were content to be useful and friendly and make enough to get by. Is that true? Maybe not. I mean, there’s plenty of fiction about claustrophobia, constraints, and ruinous gossip (written by warped, frustrated oddballs).
Overall I guess my grandfather’s generation seemed satisfied by the quiet small-town life? [← uptalk, indicating hesitancy to commit fully to what I’m saying] Seems so. Is it? In the early- to mid-twentieth century, would I have been okay occupying an acceptable position in my town’s hierarchy and taking naps, reading Sinclair Lewis, swatting flies, mumble-singing in the Methodist choir and telling jokes until the day I realized I was fixated on Fixodent commercials?
If so, I’m going to say it would have been because of Decoration Day.
Mom was the one who made me understand the concept — before it was officially renamed “Memorial Day” in 1967, the whole town of Carlisle, Indiana, where she grew up, would go sit at the cemetery about a mile or two from downtown. They’d bring picnics and flowers to decorate graves, and spend the day among dead friends and family — telling stories. People were immortalized in story form, by “the horses got spooked, he fell out of the wagon and hit his head on a rock — remember his scar? That’s what it was from, you know.”
And everyone did know.
Confident in being thus preserved, the old or infirm could blink that last time and relax into the void (I guess).
But now, if you don’t believe in a vivid afterlife and can’t expect a sternum picnic, immortal yearnings can transmogrify into celebrity hankerings — giving folks somethin’ to talk about after you’re gone. That’s why reality TV came, and stayed, I believe, followed by social media “stardom.” Once we realize there’s not going to be any Decoration Day, some of us get hooked on second best: Minor and/or Anonymous Celebrity.
Methadone for our heroin addiction.
Not what you were jonesing for, but you have to admit, a little healthier. A little easier to get. A little more respectable.
Still, not a good thing to get hooked on.
Selling a song in Nashville would do it, though. That’s what I tell myself. Nobody would know my name, but my song would accompany their calamari.
Kind of an inversion of Ozymandias: the works over which the mighty despair remain, but below the trunkless legs the inscribed name is sandblasted clean.
Maybe it’s better to open Babbitt to the bookmark and settle in ’til bedtime, at peace with one’s position in life. Sadly, though, addicts don’t always do what’s better.
At my Dad’s funeral I had a couple new thoughts.
First, I realized we’re all just made of stories. That’s the form our ghosts take. That’s what ghosts are. Invisible sentences, conjured by the living.
Secondly, most of us just get one. After a couple generations, most restless wraiths are not summoned forth by two stories. For sure not three.
You, me, your wife, your kid. Each of our ghosts will be constructed of one (1) story apiece.
Also! You have no control. You might want, “Her laugh was infectious” but it’s just as likely to be, “She’d fart as she walked across the room — she had ‘a rubber asshole.’”
You don’t get to choose. Your Decoration Day story is like a nickname, in that way.
Also-also! Your story might simply be your job. An appositive. “Denny the Mailman.” “Our school bus driver, Betty Masterson.”
A few years ago I wrote a song for work, when a client asked us vaguely to “do something creative” as part of a new biz pitch. My band-friend, work-mate and coeval Evan Finch and I co-wrote a bunch of work-related song-snippets to compile as a fake TV commercial, where the titles scroll and you’d hear a little bit of each “hit.” Some of the bits I’m still proud of. Like Free Food: “There’s free food/In the kitchen/Free food/Left over from a meeting/Free food/(pause) In accounting/Everybody get some and get back to work.”
Once I tried to turn Free Food into a “real song” and wrote three verses and a bridge. Here’s verse two: “My great-grandfather could shoe a horse/My mom’s dad ran the town grocery store/ Even my dad learned an honest trade/ I think about the sacrifices they all made/ So I could sit and type on this old laptop/ Hoping that my friends will come and tip me off to / Free food, etc., etc.”
One story each: harness maker; kindly Great Depression grocer; Linotype operator; doggerel-composing office drone.
So, mind if ask? Any predictions? What’s your story gonna be?
For my Dad’s funeral we excavated closets to find family photo albums. We disinterred one my sister doesn’t remember making—apparently when she was in middle school she photocopied family photos, interviewed Mom and Dad, then typed captions. Here’s one.
In case you can’t read the caption, it says:
Brothers: Harv and Ed Maupin
Harv, called “Old Hickory,” was a locomotive engineer
in the 1800s. Ed didn’t do much with his life.
The casual cruelty.
The straightforwardness of a kid trying to wrap up a middle-school project.
We all want to be Old Hickory. We all fear we’re Ed.
Only unborn grandkids will know how we did. We’ll be preserved in their words. An oral mausoleum. A verbal haunting.
Our one (1) story.
Might be a song in there?
Some of the best Nashville songs are “story songs.” That’s one of the big appeals as a listener — even familiar music and worn-out hooks stay vibrant-enough when they follow the ancient contours of A Tale Twice Told. When my wife used to get into a phase where she was listening to country music (before our current red-state over-correction was made so unpleasantly manifest, and certain lyrics started to sound like gloating), she’d say, “I’m listening to my stories” like an old lady with a Philco tuned to soap operas.
What if that’s what she’s remembered for? “And this is a photo of your Grandma, who always used to turn on the radio and joke, ‘I’m a-listenin’ to mah stories!’” [turns photo album page, pressing my wife into dark flatness now that her story has been told]
Who knows. My wife’s a brilliant, skeptical, satirical conversationalist who every day is whimsical, creative, disciplined, sentimental, fierce, hilarious, thoughtful and occasionally unblinkingly, accurately blunt.
But we’ll never know what her story turns out to be (unless we gain full post-mortem knowledge of the multiverse in all directions).
So it might be nice to design a triangle-skirt woman-symbol. Or earn a cool nickname as a locomotive engineer. Or fund a family home from ASCAP royalties.
’Specially that last one.
A little somethin’ to remember me by! Maybe somethin’ stupid.
I can’t be more specific, more crystalline, more unwavering about what I want.
[sighingly] Maybe it’s better to just give up, accept eternal nothingness, and figure out how to earn enough for a huge house overlooking the inland waterway.
Ready for that methadone now.