By William Safire

c. 1980 N.Y. Times News Service


Signs of the Times

The most threatened man in the English-speaking world must be named William Stickers. Throughout Great Britain, blank walls and freshly painted fences bear the admonition: "BILL STICKERS WILL BE PROSECUTED." His accomplice, Bill Posters, has also been widely warned, although in the United States the sign painter usually prefers the antimail "POST NO BILLS."

Time now for the first annual "Signs of the Times" awards, for the most engaging, cryptic or confusing notices posted on purpose by serious people. (From the injunction in the New Testament: "O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?")

The sign requiring the most patience: At the Howard Johnson restaurant near Cornell University, patrons are greeted with a notice reading "PLEASE WAIT FOR HOSTESS TO BE SEATED." Reports student Leslie Sara Goldsmith: "I waited patiently for about 10 minutes, but the young lady failed to sit down, and feeling rather neglected, I felt compelled to sit first."

The most glaring example of unparalleled construction: "NO BALL PLAYING, BIKE RIDING, LITTERING, SPITTING OR DOGS." Runner-up in this category is seen on Indiana highways: "WATCH YOUR SPEED / WE ARE."

The most imaginatively phrased, hand-lettered notice at City College of New York was submitted by Ed Early of Stamford, Conn.: "MAILMAN, PLEASE LEAVE BOOK WHICH WAS DROPPED IN HERE YESTERDAY WITH THE ELEVATOR MAN."

The most schizophrenic directive - actually, two signs that beat as one - was sent in by Thomas Clinton of the University of Pittsburgh: "NO SMOKING ON ELEVATORS / USE STAIRS IN AN EMERGENCY." (Mr. Clinton, a chemistry teacher, also reports he saw a sign in an eyeglass shop that advertised: "EYES EXAMINED WHILE YOU WAIT," which he finds "by far the most comfortable procedure.")

The sign that most evokes sympathy for inanimate objects can be found, says realtor Robert McKee of New York, on Connecticut's Merritt Parkway: "DEPRESSED STORM DRAINS." The sense of helplessness this sign summons is akin to "WATCH FOR FALLING ROCKS." Perhaps the sign writer means "fallen." Illinois motorists are still trying to figure out the South Lake Shore Drive advice: "DISABLED CARS REQUIRED TO PULL OFF ROADWAY."

Most ubiquitous mistake in a sign is "TEN ITEMS OR LESS" at speedy checkout counters in supermarkets. Perhaps we could do with fewer, or less, supermarkets. A more creative semantic foul-up is reported by Selma Fischer to be in Woolworth's on Seventh Avenue and West 50th Street in New York: "NO ERROR MADE WITHOUT CUSTOMER BEING PRESENT."

Graphic design takes an award at Harold's Chicken Shack in Hyde Park, Chicago. David Harmin describes a sign that has a large "NO" on the left, and smaller lettering on the right saying: "DOGS / EATING / BICYCLES." Though this may have been intended as an admonition against three sins, taken together it warns of an event that has not often been witnessed. (My pet, Peeve, munching a tire, acknowledges the regards sent from Paula Diamond's bete, Noire.)

Competition was keen for the sexiest sign. "SOFT SHOULDERS" was a frequently submitted entry; a subtler message was sent in by Fritz Golden of Philadelphia, who read a Kama Sutra meaning into the countertop signs at ticket windows: "NEXT POSITION, PLEASE." But the best can be found in Manhattan, at many intersections. "I picture people prostrating themselves in the crosswalk," writes Barbara Nicoll of Hartsdale, N.Y., "to be seduced or even just tickled by passers-by..." The romantic grabber: "YIELD TO PEDESTRIANS IN CROSSWALK."