June 26th, 2005

Neo-neocon’s handy guide to northern New Englanders (Part II: signage)

I thought of an additional New England phenomenon, one I neglected to mention in my recent post on the subject.

Call it Fact F. It can be summarized as, “if you need to ask, you shouldn’t be here.”

It’s roughly connected to Fact C, “If you weren’t born here, forget about it,” but it has a somewhat different flavor. I’ll give you some examples of the way it operates.

Recently I was driving on a turnpike in New Hampshire (yes, there are a couple) when I came to a tollbooth with three “exact change only” booths, and only one booth with a toll collector of whom one might ask a question. And yet nowhere, absolutely nowhere, was there a sign informing the driver of the amount of the toll to be collected here. Not on the approach, not above the booths, not on the basket into which you dropped the money, nowhere.

In Maine, the is another toll road. It’s called, logically enough, the Maine Turnpike. They are better there at posting the tolls; the turnpike even has EZ passes now (a system for which New Hampshire is still gearing up). But the Maine Turnpike has its own problems. It has signs, yes, but some exhibit what I call passive-aggressive signage–that is, they tell the unsuspecting tourist (on whom Maine’s economy more or less depends) to go the wrong way–the longer way, or the way with the higher toll.

Then there is the northern New England minimalism about the street sign in general. Boston is typical in this regard. Although it’s a great city to visit (just don’t take your car), it’s renowned for convoluted roads and terrible traffic. There are signs on almost all the side streets, even the little bitty inconsequential ones, but many main streets lack them. It is assumed that everyone knows the main streets and only needs help with the more obscure ones. So the non-resident has the strange experience of being able to drive and drive and drive for many miles along huge thoroughfares, looking vainly at every street corner for a clue as to what street he/she might be on. I believe that, were a study to be done, about 25% of Boston traffic at any one time would consist of just such people (in the fall, when college begins, it would probably be closer to 75%).

The situation would be bad enough if Boston streets ran parallel to each other. But they most decidedly do not; they crisscross constantly in alarming fashion. This makes it difficult, even if one is on a main street like Beacon or Commonwealth, to actually stay on that street, or to follow directions, if one should be lucky enough to have some (or wimpy enough to ask—it does no good, believe me). There is that moment of truth when the traffic all comes together in one big unregulated mishmash (typically, there are no traffic lights at these free-for-alls), and you have to make your choice minus any guidance at all—and then drive on, vainly looking for proof that this still is Beacon Street, mile after signless mile.

But we love it.

10 Responses to “Neo-neocon’s handy guide to northern New Englanders (Part II: signage)”

  1. Stephen M. St. Onge Says:

          Gee, Northern New England (F) sounds a lot like the Sin Twitties.

          Here in MN, we’ve got streets where you suddenly come to a ‘tank trap,’ a curving curb with concrete posts that forces you to turn.  The street continues on the other side, they just didn’t want you to drive through there.

          We do have signs on most of the streets, but frequently too small, or only on one corner.

          House numbers?  ‘If you had any business being here, you’d know what house number it is.’

          Streets that suddenly turn one way?  Quite a few.  Then they turn two way again.  Then, sometimes, they turn one way IN THE OPPOSITE DIRECTION!

          And this is Minneapolis, of which almost everyone says: ‘But it’s much worse in St. Paul!’  Borjemoi.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    FLATTY FLATLANDAH said:
    Never mind the street signs,In this soon to be a no longer Littletown in the Far Northern reaches of CowHampsha,the town Fahthas can’t make a move without conducting a multi thousand dollar “Study”.Any IDIOT who drives a motor vehicle can see that we need a dedicated turning lane at a particular intersection so as to keep the flow of traffic moving along the main drag without studying it for a second longer.
    And that’s not even the worst of it. Try getting a tradesperson like an electrician or a plumber or a carpenter to come and do a small or moderate sized job for you. When we Flatlandah’s first moved up here we wanted to get central A/C in our wee humble cottage. I called an A/C tech. and told him what I wanted and how big the house was. I NEVER HEARD FROM HIM AGAIN!! (I hope he’s ok.)Another time I had a guy who own’s an excavation machine come by to look at the hole I needed dug to install the kids swing set. I thought that you just cement it into a few holes in the ground. But NO!!! you have to have so many inches of bark mulch or pea gravel so that if one of the kids falls off the swing at it’s highest arch and lands on his little crueller,he won’t split it open and require care and watering for the rest of his life. So the guy came and looked and said he’d get back to me with a price,,That’s right….!! I NEVER HEARD FROM HIM AGAIN!!!!
    Another time I needed a plumber to come over on a saturday afternoon to fix a leak that had sprung from the water pump in the basement.
    I called every plumber listed in the Yellow pages and finally one from Franconia NH called back and said he could be over in about 45 min with the valve I needed. He charged me $75. for about 35 min. work and I was happy to pay it.
    I NEVER HEARD BACK FROM ANY OF THE OTHER PLUMBERS!!! As far as they know,I’m still treading water in my basement.
    Something else..I’m as concerned as anyone about world hunger.
    We don’t need to send food or money to those around the world who are starving,
    We need to send those starving people up to Northern NH. I’ve been all over the world and I’ve never seen so many grossly overweight human beings anywhere else on the planet.
    What bugs me most is “Locals” bitch and moan about all the “Flatlandahs” moving in. I love the dumb looks on their faces when I tell them to STOP SELLING your LAND TO THEM!!!!!or maybe those dumb looks are present all the time and I just never noticed before.
    OK…enough,,don’t let me get REALLY started!

  3. Anonymous Says:

    I certainly didn’t love it. It was one of the things I loathed about Boston, and one of the several reasons I got the heck out for Seattle.

  4. Jeff Z Says:

    I lived in Boston for five years and saw unbelievable traffic outrages (there are several books devoted to this) almost every day. My favorite: The Boston belief that it is safe and legal to drive the wrong way down one-way streets as long as you are in Reverse (i.e. going backwards).

    My favorite Boston sign story happened the first time I drove there (from Providence) with some friends. We were actually going to Cambridge. We were driving down Storrow (spelling? I don’t remember any more.) Drive, which is on the Boston side of the Charles River. (Cambridge is on the other, so we could see it clearly.) We saw a sign that said “Arlington Cambridge” (Arlington is a town that is also on the Cambridge side of the Charles) pointing to the next exit. Obviously, we took the exit. We found ourselves driving pointlessly around Back Bay. Eventually, we found the entrance to Storrow Drive again. Got on. Came again to the “Arlington Cambridge” sign. Figured we must have missed something. Took it again. Lost in Back Bay again. Eventually found Storrow Dirve again. Came to sign again. Took exit again. Repeated process. Next time, we kept going. Eventually found a bridge to Cambridge. Later discovered that the Arlington and Cmabridge the sign referred to were streets in Boston. Did not seem to occur to anybody to identify them as such. Not sure it has yet.

  5. strcpy Says:

    Living in East Tennessee I get lost in flat places, I use hills and trees for location.

    Had some people from Ohio come work here and always wanted to know how many streetlights over to go – no idea but you go over four hills from the intersection. Nor are many of our roads straight, something I would call a “rise” would have been a named hill in much of the country making roads curvy. Illinois gave me a headache after being there a few weeks and I was constantly lost.

    Though, if you really want to get lost, go to some of the old coal mining counties. The mostly are very very poor. You go there with a great map but can’t find your road, ends up that the gravel road you passed on though was a driveway was actually the main road connecting two parts of the county. Come to a split or a driveway? Who knows!

    Though it’s not common, just in areas where the same family has lived there for generations and made money mining and the mine closed down. Maybe three or four counties in all of Tennessee, but if you are a land surveyor, as my family is and I was, it can be hell if you have a job there (land is cheap, plentiful, and in large tracts. Lost of people purchase it for summer getaways – great for bike or walking trails, hunting area, and general outdoors type stuff). Just in case you got the wrong impression the vast majority of Tennessee is just as modernised as any other place in the US and canada (been over both quite a bit, and I bet many other states have a few counties that are similar).

  6. triticale Says:

    Road name changes at town lines occur in the Midwest also. Evanston, just north of Chicago petulantly changes all of them except Sheridan Road. The most amusing instance is Crawford which retains its name thruout Chicagoland, north and south of the city, but is Pulaski within it. I also know of a residential street in Chicago which turns one way just past the residence of a certain connected individual.

  7. Pancho Says:

    A major advantage of living in Midland Texas, a little recognized one, is that almost all streets run either East/West or North/South. Most major streets are one mile apart…they were built to coincide with section lines, a section being one mile square. Additionally there are no distractions like hills or large trees to get in the way of navigation.

    We get confused when we have to drive in places that have trees, hills, or winding streets.

  8. chuck Says:

    What’s the problem. You are in Lexington and want to get to Concord? Take Concord Road. Conversely, take Lexington road from Concord and you will end up in Lexington. What could be simpler?

    Northern NE may be slightly more complicated.

  9. Bob Hawkins Says:

    There are other neat New England tricks. Like when roads cross from one town into the next, sometimes they keep the same name, sometimes they change. Sometimes they keep the same name, but the house numbers start over.

    A “square” is a place where roads meet at other than a right angle. You can even have a rotary in a square.

    Then there are streets that turn one-way in the middle of a block, sometimes but not always at a town boundary. Which are seldom marked.

  10. L.F.O.D. Says:

    I don’t think this is obviously a ME/NH thing, but rather a “cultural fringe/cultural center” thing. As a proud New Hampshirian, I frequently feel dictated to in cultural life (NH has up to 10% of it’s pop speak Canadian French as a home language, yet spanish is what is discussed in sesame street, the media etc) political life (NH is seen as a joke, despite the primaries, due to it’s low population) and economic life (as a state, we have a low GDP. I got news for ya, though, we have a tremendously high quality of life!) Our passive agression isn’t a way of charging flatlanders exorbinant fees (although that is part of the strategy), it’s more about creating a bulwark between our centuries old way of life and the homogenous latte sipping mass-culture that is pervasive. NH has no crack. we have no drive-bys. We effectively have no homelessness. We have communities where people know one another personally. Will ripping off flatlanders ensure this survives (despite what is increasingly insurmountable odds?) I don’t know, and I’m beginning to doubt it. But does that make us fooloish to try?
    It’s not that we are stand-offish, it’s that the collective “you” is invading our TV, invading our commonnparlance, and invading our small corner of the un(der?)blemished world. You are welcome to visit, but leave your latte and blackbury behind. If you do, you’ll be amazed at how friendly we can become!

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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