Street Signs, Confusion and Speed Means Go Slow

When I lived in New York City street signs made sense. They informed directly, clearly, left little if anything to the imagination of any driver, much less a shiftless driver up to no good. New York City signs said Stop, No U-Turn, Slow, Caution, No Parking, 35 MPH, 40 MPH, and so forth. Some signs were blisteringly clear in their intentions. For example, I saw signs on Sutton Place, a street for the well-heeled on the Upper East Side, that read, Don’t Even Think About Parking Here. Try getting out of a ticket for parking there. “You thought it fella,” the judge would say. “Now pay up.”

It was not until I moved from New York City nearly 20 years ago that I realized I’d been spoiled when it came to street signs. I foolishly thought all street signs were, by default, clear and succinct. I was wrong.

When I left the city I moved to Ellenville in Sullivan County. A beautiful area. The Center of Ellenville sits exactly 10 miles off a State Route 17 exit which blends you right into Route 209 which then leads you through several villages before bringing you to the heart of Ellenville.

Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, it is, for the purposes of this essay, relevant to note that in 1987, the year I moved to Ellenville, I was not yet sober. I was a heavy pot smoker. Now, when you are a driver and a pot smoker (not a wise or safe combination under any circumstances, by the way), you tend to drive with what you think is impeccable caution. You focus on street signs with what you think is a high level of diligence. You need, desperately, street signs that are clear, to the point. Anything else leads to trouble, confusion, dismay!

Let me say here and now that whoever did the wording for street signs in upstate New York was (or is) a pot smoker. I’ll show you what I mean.

I exit 17 and get onto 209. Initially I see signs that seem fine. Speed limit, 55 MPH. Good, I understand that. I drive 57 miles hour because my pot smoker paranoia tells me driving the speed limit exactly will be too suspicious. A mile or two over the speed limit will signal to any lurking patrol car that I am a, well, normal every day driver. Then I see a sign I’ve never seen before. It reads: Speed Zone Ahead. I think, Cool!, and punch the gas. After all, what the hell else could Speed Zone Ahead mean? Suddenly I’m in a world of confusion. No sooner have I hit the gas and, to my dismay, find myself barreling through the heart of the village, where there are the most people, thank you very much, than I see a sign that says 30 MPH. I quickly slow the hell down, wondering what the hell happened to the speed zone.

Now I see a sign that says School Drug Safety Zone. Now I know I’m not in Kansas anymore. It’s safe to have illegal drugs up here around the schools?! Are these people are crazy? I am beginning to second guess my decision to move from New York City.

Then, I see a sign that almost makes me bring the car to a complete stop. It says, End 30 MPH. But there’s no follow up sign! What’s the next speed limit? Do I just drive any damn speed I want? What the hell are these people doing up here, putting up one sign that tells you one speed limit has come to an end and not telling you what comes next?

All I can tell you is this. When you see a street sign, be careful. It might not mean what it says.

PASTOR BILL DAMROW

Billy Damrow would be my first real childhood friend. But I didn’t know this when I was a little boy and me and my friends were playing football in my yard and we noticed the new kid next door in his yard. He was playing with his dog, another new member of the neighborhood, who was tied with a long lead to a dog house. Bill and his family were my new next door neighbors

It bothered me he was by himself and I didn’t want to put him on the spot by shouting out an invitation to play with us so when he wasn’t looking, I tossed the football near him in his yard and ran over to get it. When he looked at me I said, “Wanna play?” And he did!

I liked Billy right away. Taller than me, he had a nice face and a smile so kind and warm if you couldn’t tell the source of his kindness and warmth was his heart, you weren’t paying attention. Billy lived with his mother and father. His father was a quiet, solitary man who was in the Navy and was at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed by the Japanese. I figured this was why Mr. Damrow had the ability to calmly eat hot Chinese mustard by the spoonful when he was reading. I mean, if you consider that the man lived through the horror of being bombed, it’s no wonder eating hot Chinese mustard by the spoonful didn’t make him bat an eye. Mrs. Damrow had the most beautiful face I’d ever seen. Her smile too was warm and kind.

Our modest back yards in Pearl River abutted a large tract of untamed woods. Together and separately, Billy and I each had our solitary side; we sought and found delicious refuge there. A wide and fast moving stream was a comfortable walk into the woods. It seemed to go on forever. Billy loved the woods like me. His dog was named Crockett after Davy Crockett from Tennessee who died at the Alamo.

We were joined in another way. We loved to read books and were able to safely confess this to each other. Billy told me about the Doc Savage books and I read them and really liked Doc’s sidekick, Monk. Billy’s second-floor room faced our house and at night we would send signals to each other with our flashlights.

While I have no doubt he is a wonderful pastor, years ago I visited him at his church and behind his desk hung a picture of Albert Schweitzer, who, like Robert F. Kennedy, was a childhood hero of his, Billy could have been a comedian. He could get me and my family laughing so hard tears would flow. My parents loved him. One day Billy was up in the tree house me and my Dad built and I was standing on the ground. I don’t remember what he said but he had me laughing so hard my ability to control my bladder vanished and I flat went ahead and peed my pants which, of course, made us laugh even harder.

We were friends from the beginning but our lives moved on. We moved and Billy and I lost touch. We reconnected in late 1988, four years after I was badly wounded in a hold-up in Brooklyn. I was living in Ellenville, New York. We were both still avid readers and the beautiful Steinbeck biography by Jackson Benson that Billy gave me that year sits on a shelf not far from where I write these words. Steinbeck is my favorite American writer.

One day that year we went back to our stream in Pearl River and wandered the paths we had traveled as boys. I took lots of pictures but the camera with the pictures in it was later stolen.

In 1991, Billy performed the ceremony for my second marriage. But it was in 1992 that I received a gift from Billy that I will treasure for the rest of my life. He gave it to me not long after my mother committed suicide on August 12, 1992. Her suicide shredded my soul and decimated my heart. While the sun still gave my days light, it no longer gave them warmth and comfort. I functioned, but barely. I notified people, including Billy, of her death. I carried the blood stained mattress she died from her house alone. I had never felt more alone. Not even when I was homeless.

Weeks after her death a memorial service was held at her church, the Palisades Presbyterian Church. I sat in the first pew on one side with my wife and daughter and my sister sat in the first pew on the other side with her children. The church was filled with mourners. The words good people said to me that day were like cold stones in the air.

The service ended and protocol called for all to remain seated while my sister and I, joined by those seated with us, rose and left the church first. As I turned to walk down the aisle it happened. It was glowing. It was the kindness and warmth of Billy’s smile. He was there, sitting right there in the church, looking right at me. His beautiful face lit by a gentle smile. I swear the air around him glowed and I think I said Billy! out loud. For the first time since my mother died I felt warm and a little bit alive again.

The gift of that smile and the loving warmth in Billy’s face is the one and only distinct memory I have of that day. It is a gift more valuable than priceless. And so, while it will never be sold, I thought it should be shared. I think Billy would agree. In fact, I think it would make him smile.