Monday, February 18, 2013


I love signage.  Those of you (all three of you) who have remained my constant readers throughout the years know that I've written on signs and their sign(ificance) a lot -- there was the article in the East Hampton Star, titled "The Semiotics of Springs," that almost got my house firebombed twenty years ago, just because it traced the ongoing conflict between townies and weekenders to the unconscious ways in which they marked their territories.  I wrote on the unintelligibility of NYC parking signs on this blog a couple of years ago, and now they're being reworded (obviously Bloomberg is a fan).  And later, I took the town of Southampton to task for displaying mammoth billboards depicting a cop in combat stance aiming a pistol-like radar detector at motorists, which I found less than subtle.

But the above falls into the category of mere whimsy.  The device is attached to the wall of the room in NYU's Skirball Center where they give flu shots, though I'm sure it's used many other purposes than that, none of them obvious but perhaps known causes of panic -- doctoral orals?  Job interviews?  Theatrical auditions?

What, exactly, might the sign mean?

1) If you're in a panic, activate this alarm (and a doctor will come and give you a thorazine shot?).

2) If you're not in a panic but there's panic around you, and you want to put a stop to it, activate this alarm (and paramedics will rush in and slap everyone's face, the way they do in the movies to people having hysterics?).

3) If you want to cause a panic, activate this alarm (and snakes will start slithering out of the heating ducts?).

The most interesting thing is that none of these could conceivably be the real answer, yet I can't imagine what it is.   "Panic," in this or any context, would seem to be a bad thing, but is "alarm" a good thing?  An antidote to panic, not a synonym for it?  The sign itself is obviously home-made, stuck above the switch that it fails to identify, and urge to pull that switch, just to see what would transpire, was hard to fight down -- though I wouldn't say it alarmed me.

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