On Watch by Marcus Fisk

On Watch: Signs of the Times

Another year has passed and, thankfully, we look forward to a shift in the status quo and, with the new year, we can hope something wonderful actually happens to give us a fresh start.

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By Marcus Fisk

Alexandria, VA – Sign, sign, everywhere a sign, Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind; Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?Les Emmerson – The Five Man Electrical Band

Another year has passed and, thankfully, we look forward to a shift in the status quo (1) and, with the new year, we can hope something wonderful actually happens to give us a fresh start.

Although I have lived up north in New England for six years, I remember fondly the 15 years I spent in Alexandria. Today, I eagerly follow Zebra articles about all the positive things happening back in our old ‘hood.

A recent Zebra article focused on a major issue festering in Alexandria. Whereas other municipalities across the country are wringing hands over lead-contaminated drinking water, Opioid-infused zombies wandering city streets, and the homeless setting up camps reminiscent of the 1930s Hoovervilles, Alexandria is fortunate to deal with a First-World problem like motor scooters (2). I’m sure City Council does have to address the former, but those issues lack the sex-appeal of Dockless Mobility Devices.

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I remember all too well how Alexandria’s parking problems grew as the town’s popularity as a tourist destination blossomed. When I was in high school, a trip to Old Town was similar to a dash through a combat zone. All that changed in the 80s, and with the emphasis on marketing tourism, Alexandria’s parking problems moved front and center. I recall many a night trying to park in Old Town to visit any of the nightspots that I enjoyed back then, only to be vexed by the signage on every block. Then Alexandria parking signposts comprised multiple signs with hours, restrictions, limitations, and other legally mind-taxing descriptions.

Recently, I visited the historic section of Newport, Rhode Island. The posted parking restrictions generated a terrorizing flashback to those days in Old Town. Returning to my car, I found a yellow citation informing me I was to contribute the sum of $50 to the town of Newport for a parking violation. A few days later, I wrote out a check and mailed it off with a short letter to the judge describing my confusion with their parking signage. I mentioned that, as a former Naval Officer, I once had to read and digest manuals for weapons systems that could bring death and destruction raining down. I also mentioned that I had to maintain and repair extremely complex electronic systems and main propulsion systems and did so on a daily basis for nearly 40 years. Nothing, I noted in my missive to the judge, compared to the complexity of the posted parking signs in Newport. A week later, my check came back in the mail marked VOID and a hand-written note from the judge excusing my “crime.”

In 2010, I received a similar parking citation when my bumper was six inches into the plane of a crosswalk at the corner of Prince and Lee Streets. Explaining my engineering prowess to the judge in a similar manner, I was not as fortunate. My check was cashed with not so much as a thank you for my contribution to the City’s coffers.

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Over the recent holidays, we flew to visit family. Sitting in the terminal waiting area, I realized just how besotted our lives had become with signs and their equally obnoxious aural cousins – announcements. I mean, how brain dead does one have to be to not know that “Luggage is not to be left unattended?” On the flight, how many times do we need to be informed that “Smoking on any flight in the U.S. is prohibited by federal law and is only permitted in designated smoking areas outside?”

Our sanity is also invaded by signage in both the terminal and on the flight itself, often mixing safety with marketing and advertisements. The tsunami of announcements and signs are now so eye-and-ear numbing that, should a real emergency arise, it would be like crying “Wolf!” And it is hard to ignore the lack of common sense that went into creating them.

To demonstrate the current lack of common sense in this country, at a recent stop at a drive-thru ATM, I reached over, inserted my card, and typed in my PIN. Then it struck me. Why are the ATM keys in Braille as well as standard lettering? Why is the Braille pad on the driver’s side? I felt like I was on the inside of a Steven Wright joke.

Another example is an interstate sign on I-95. Do we really need a sign, at government expense, that says Correctional Facility – No Stopping? How about the sign at the hospital Emergency Room entrance: Emergency Room. Emergencies Only. Emergency Vehicles Only.

I especially love Loading Zone signs. (3) In a town like Alexandria, where parking is at a premium, it’s always fun to see a delivery vehicle eating up parking spaces before and after the zone. And how about those City-issued temporary parking signs? The day before we moved, we dutifully applied for and posted our signs on Washington Street, as indicated by the City, and loaded our Penske truck. The next morning we were awakened by a frantic phone call saying that the police were sending a truck to tow the Penske because our City-designated loading zone was in the HOV Rush Hour Lane.

It will be interesting to see what the City does with the Dockless Mobility Devices signage. Most likely, it will come up with appropriately obtuse and verbose signage to add to the plethora of signs multiplying on city streets. One thing government can never be accused of is following the K.I.S.S. principle. (4)

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Isn’t it time for local governments and corporations to take a serious look at signage? A strict, common sense look at signage, wording, and sheer numbers could pave the way to a cleaner visual and aural environment, and prove a great savings to taxpayers and companies.

But, I forgot. This is America. We Americans haven’t taken common sense to heart since the days of Thomas Paine.


1. Another popular Latin phrase from days gone by in the same spirit as “E Pluribus Unum” and “Quid Pro Quo” but a lot more fun to drop at cocktail parties in the Metro D.C. area these days.

2. I’m sorry – I was wrong. In the fashion of a true government entity, the City Council has renamed them Dockless Mobility Devices rather than scooters or bicycles or any other non-pumping means of transport requiring no physical exertion.

3. The City does have a sense of humor. Many Loading Zone signs appear in front of some of Alexandria’s most popular pubs and taverns. But I don’t think it was intentional.

4. K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple, Stupid

Marcus Fisk is a retired Navy Captain, Naval Academy graduate, sometime actor, sculptor, screenwriter, pick-up soccer player, and playwright. He and his wife Pamela are former long-time residents of Alexandria and currently live in Connecticut, where they travel the New England shore in their 42 Grand Banks Trawler ADAGIO.

ICYMI: On Watch: Old Glory

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