Sign Of the Times 

A meditation on Apples, lobsters, and other mind-altering substances.

Apple Computer's brazen attempts to place an "internally illuminated" Apple logo on their proposed store in Saddle Creek Shopping Center reminded me why I have never eaten a lobster. And why the suburbs are, indeed, a superior place to call home, especially if you have the digital cable package or a good satellite TV connection.

Everybody's heard about the hoopla by now: Apple, the company that brought us such indispensable innovations as the Newton, the Lisa, and the icon, has long wanted to locate a coveted store in coveted Germantown's most coveted shopping locale. But when they submitted the plans for their Saddle Creek storefront to Germantown's Design Review Commission, Apple was sent packing for not conforming to the suburb's strict signage ordinance. It made national news, I think. I'm sure it made The Commercial Appeal, and there was no end of letters for weeks, all of them taunting Germantown for being short-sighted snoots or certified yokels.

Truth be told, Apple should have done their homework. Among the things proscribed by the ordinance, of course, are signs that are lit from within. That's why Germantown's shops and markets lack that blinding fluorescent glare that the rest of Shelby County enjoys each evening. We are a no-neon grove out here. We are subdued, tasteful, and restrained.

Had Apple done a quick study, they would have learned that such corporate giants as EXXON, McDonald's, and Cake's Kitchen had all toed the line.

But no, Apple had to send a senior vice president to town to try and snooker the Design Review Commission with a plan for a sign that would have involved fluorescent lights shining around the giant rainbow Apple logo. Or something like that. They argued the giant Apple logo wouldn't be lit from inside. It would be lit from -- the side. When commission members objected, pointing out that it doesn't really matter which direction the light comes from -- that a sign with light coming through it is, in fact, internally lit - - the Apple executive making the presentation kept saying, "That's your opinion." Over and over. You could just see the commission members seething at this. "That's your opinion." Whew.

In the end, the DRC basically told the Apple guy that he could take "His Opinion" right out the back door with him; they weren't going to have some computer-company swifty arguing semantics with them.

The Apple exec kept saying that the company would be at a disadvantage because people would have trouble finding their store if the sign weren't big and bright. And to prove my theory that there are a bunch of folks out there who have been brainwashed by subliminal messages implanted in the Apple OS AX operating system, many of the letters to The Commercial Appeal said the same thing.

Which is where I agree wholeheartedly with the DRC. I mean, really, how hard can it possibly be for a Memphian to find a shopping center in the middle of Germantown? If they get lost looking for Saddle Creek, they're morons and they have no business fooling with a goddamn computer in the first place. Besides, we have a number of diligent police officers patrolling our thoroughfares looking for stray Memphians to ticket, so I would urge anyone who thinks Saddle Creek is hard to find to just let the speedometer creep a mile or two per hour over the limit. Within minutes a police officer will magically appear to point the way. After he's pulled you over.

The Apple fiasco forced me to ruminate over some of the finer points of history regarding Germantown's signage ordinance. Some 25 or 30 years ago, when this was all being codified by the politicians and lawyers and ministers who ran the city, signs were no laughing matter.

I recall, for example, the Pappy and Jimmy's sign that stood for several decades at the corner of Hollywood and Poplar next to the steak and seafood establishment run by Pappy Sammons and Jimmy. The food inside was great, but the sign out front was one of the most frightening prolonged psychedelic stimulants ever produced in Memphis. On the sign were two giant lobsters rimmed in red neon, but instead of lobster heads they had Pappy and Jimmy heads, complete with horn-rimmed glasses.

Although admittedly scary, I'm told that the sign did some good in the late 1960s and early 1970s, because it was located on a thoroughfare which was traversed by all manner of people who had A) been drinking way too much at the Poplar Lounge or Friday's or the Bombay Bicycle Club in Overton Square or B) been snorting acid or dropping pot or whatever it was the youngsters did back then to get "high" at places like the Bitter Lemon or at the "rock" concerts at the Shell or the Coliseum. Like a Gorgon from Greek mythology, two-headed and glowing, with fiery pinchers burning the night sky, the Pappy and Jimmy's sign terrified whole carloads of intoxicated innocents into sobriety. No matter how hard they tried not to look, they couldn't help themselves. Here it came. Poplar and Hollywood. Giant lobsters. With eyeglasses. If the sign didn't actually scare them straight, it surely sent them into therapy, along with their children and their children's children for seven generations.

Okay, maybe it wasn't that traumatic.

At any rate, that sign is why Germantown officials, in the mid- 1970s, outlawed any signs that had fruits, vegetables, animals, and, especially, nearsighted crustaceans on them.

The reason the Pappy and Jimmy's sign is still so large in my memory is this story, which I heard many years ago: In 1972 or so, six or eight Germantown teenagers were headed home after attending an Emerson, Lake & Palmer concert at the Auditorium. They had been gobbling some sort of mushroom-laced Jungle Juice -- your standard-issue psychedelic potion -- and the driver, who was tripping so hard that he had practically become a work of pointillism, "imagined" that Poplar was just one long conveyor belt and that they were destined to ride the conveyor belt all the way from the river out to Germantown. To hell with the stoplights. Green, red, yellow, it didn't matter. To hell with brakes and steering wheels and accelerators. The conveyor belt would move them along according to its own ambitions.

They made it all the way from the Auditorium out to Hollywood before the engine died. The conveyor belt had ... stopped. The reason, the group in the car declared, was so that all six or eight passengers could finally attempt to understand the two bespectacled, human-headed lobsters. There they sat, the conveyor belt working in the other lanes, peering up at the hissing neon lobster construction until all at once they saw it: Both lobster-men winked at them! The car started and the conveyor sped them back to Germantown fast as could be.

And the way I heard it, these same six or eight kids grew up to become Germantown politicians and ministers and lawyers and they got together when they seized power in the mid-1970s and the first thing they did was pass the signage ordinance to make certain that nothing, but nothing, like that ever happened to them or to any member of their community again.

I had wanted to go to the DRC meeting to clarify all of this. I had also wanted to ask them if it is true that about 25 years back Germantown had tried to outlaw colored Christmas lights on the exteriors of houses and mandate that all outside lights be white. I had wanted to ask the Apple exec a few other things, such as: Who named "the Chooser," and what on earth were they thinking? And how come an iMac always crashes when you try to run a Microsoft program? And is it true that employees still commonly refer to Steve Jobs as "The Reality Distortion Field" and hide from him when he comes into their work areas?

But I couldn't ask any of this, because I ended up skipping the actual meeting and attending it "virtually" via the digital cable package on my TV. But when I saw the DRC hand the Apple exec his hat and send His Opinion packing, I figured I'd never get a straight answer.

Besides, as I watched the crestfallen exec leaving the chamber, I'm almost positive that he looked up at the camera and winked, right at me.


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