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Signs of the Times

Jonathan V. Last sees the signs

Jun 24, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 39 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Out in my corner of exurbia, businesses post a lot of signs. Not billboards or paid advertising, but little self-made placards that stick in the ground like the campaign paraphernalia you see before elections. They jut up lamely out of the grassy beds that run along the sidewalks next to strip malls and through semi-residential neighborhoods; they crowd the medians dividing the lanes of the bigger thoroughfares.

David Clark

David Clark

These are cheap, minimalist contraptions; just text on white or yellow corrugated poster board. No graphics. The typical sign will read “Haircut $10” and has a phone number printed underneath. Lots of them advertise “Junk Removal,” for some reason. Back during the housing boom days, I’d see signs boasting “We Buy Houses.” And then, once the bubble burst and people started improving the homes they were stuck with instead of flipping them, “Granite $33 sq/ft.” None of these pitches ever mentions a name or corporate entity. Just a phone number.

I’d always assumed these were actual—if possibly fly-by-night—businesses. Then a sign appeared reading, simply, “Childcare,” with a phone number. This struck me as so improbable that it had to be a hoax.

My part of the world is bursting with childcare options. Within a half-mile radius of where this sign first appeared are four large, corporate-run chain daycare centers. They call themselves learning “academies,” and one of them even has a fancy, Old World crest, presumably to reassure the parents that they’re starting their toddler on the road to Harvard and not emotionally scarring him by abandoning him to a Petri dish of disease and neglect. But that’s window dressing. They’re all daycare.

If institutional daycare isn’t for you, we’re just up the road from a large Marine base, which means that there are plenty of military wives and mothers in the area who do baby-sitting. They post on Craigslist and the local mommy message boards offering their services. In downtown Washington people devote months to nanny searches, and even a sitter with limited English and questionable legal status will run you a minimum of $24,000 a year. Out in the exurbs, if you spend a week poking around, you’re as likely as not to find a peer in the neighborhood who takes care of kids on the side for a few bucks an hour.

All of which is to say that no one in their right mind would entrust their kids to an anonymous phone number on the side of the street. Which led me to wonder whether maybe all of these advertisements were really just roadside versions of the Nigerian email scam. Maybe there weren’t actually any granite countertops or barbers at the other end of the phone. Maybe all of the numbers ring back to hustlers who then work some sort of con on a pre-selected group of marks who’ve demonstrated their gullibility by calling in the first place.

A few weeks ago a new sign appeared just down the road from a fire station and a nice middle-class Methodist church. It says “Divorce $189.” And there’s a phone number.

Looking for confirmation that these signs must be a scam, I went to the Internet, which knows something about scams. But when you Google “Divorce $189” you get a surprising number of results. It seems that, for a certain segment of the population—that is, people who shop for legal services in small-paper classifieds, on the Internet, and anonymous road signs—$189 is a fairly common price point for divorce services.

So maybe the ads are real, after all.

Truth be told, I’d like to believe they’re scams. If they are, they fall comfortably within the American tradition of sharpies hawking health tonics and hair dyes and “The Royal Nonesuch.” If anything, roadside ads are an improvement on the days when the snake-oil salesmen went door to door. Now you don’t have to escort them off your property. Consider it progress.

The alternative is that we inhabit a world where people actually do dissolve marriages with help obtained via anonymous placards planted in the grass down the street from church, for the low, low price of $189.

 

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