Shapes of Things

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It occurs to me just how much my passions in life were informed by shapes and colors, specifically signs. Growing up in Brunswick, ME in the 1970s and 80s, I was treated daily to great living examples of American advertising.

On Rt. 1 there was a sign for MaClean’s Restaurant, a gigantic vertical sign with

M
a
C
L
E
A
N
‘S

in block neon letters. I loved how the apostrophe kicked the S over to the side a bit. The MaClean’s sign was near a similar Texaco sign, thus giving me twice the visual joy.

In town on Main St. was (and still is) J&J Cleaners, with its canopy and butterfly sign with “j&j” in classic script. I seem to remember the j&j having flashing bulbs, but I could be imagining that.

Out by the Naval Air Station is Fat Boy Drive-In. Recently they replaced the classic neon and bulb sign above with a hideously bland LED sign, and I still haven’t quite gotten over this spiritual gutting.

I entered my formative years at the end of a great era in gas station signage. The old neon splendor of an angled Sunoco sign, an oval Amoco sign with torch flame on top and a Texaco star still inspires me. Those classics are unmatched in today’s era of generic LED signage. Fortunately I had family in New York City, thus giving me the opportunity to see the greatest gas station sign ever: Gaseteria.

Gaseteria stations were all over the Apple back then, and I fell in love with that American hamburger on the sign immediately. It was like a cross between an Amoco sign and a Burger King sign, and it meant that I was home in my other favorite place in the world, New York City. This was the beauty of the era: mass chain homogenization didn’t yet exist on the scale it does today, so I couldn’t see a Gaseteria sign anywhere but New York. Seeing that crazy sign made our trips much more special for me.

Most of these great signs of my youth are now gone, and I give in to nostalgia and lament at the change. Of course people my age no doubt called the old J&J sign vulgar and an eye-sore when it was first installed, and probably longed for the days of tin signs on storefronts. Fair enough.

But I was shaped into that landscape of vulgar neon dreams. I am of that great American cloth. Those old signs inspired in me a love of Americana, history and pop-culture, and I’m turning that into these snapshots and stories.

J&J Cleaner Image Source: RoadsideArchitecture.com
Fat Boy Drive-In Image Source: Bowdoin Orient
Gaseteria Image Source: Autoculture.org

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24 comments
  1. Yeah, come to think about it! I miss the Texaco Star.

    • Yesssss

  2. I love Diner signs, some are just so easy on the eye.

    • Right?!?

  3. Having hitchhiked across country more than once in my misspent youth, great signs everywhere and always welcome!

    • Man, I’d love to read your stories.

  4. Beautifully written, Brian. Really solid. The last paragraph is just *so* tight and compelling!

    • HappyHappyHappyDance!!!

  5. Rebecca Booth said:

    A great slice of Americana!

    • Thankyah!

  6. I dig this post extremely, Brian. I know what you mean about the Gaseteria sign, it does evoke that sort of Americana vibe, doesn’t it. There were a lot of signs that made me feel “at home”–the Burger King and McDonald’s signs (before they were EVERYWHERE), certain gas stations, any diners. It makes me want to travel back in time and take a road trip on Route 66.

    • Let’s GOOOOOOO!!!!

      • I call shotgun! I’ll bring snacks!

      • You, m’dear, are a keeper.

  7. Wonderful post, Brian. made me think about the movie “Helvetica” – all about typography and visual elements of culture.

    • Y’know, that’s been on my get-to list forever? Thanks for reminding me. Just might have to get on that one.

  8. Gaseteria sounds like just the right kind of place for a bean-eater like myself.

    • How did I know you’d be going there? Diseased minds think alike.

      • I think you wrote this blog post with me in mind. Gaseteria = CCL. Unfortunate, but true.

      • You were always on my miiiiiiinddddd…..

      • Even while you were in prison for tax evasion?

      • esPECIALLY while I was in prison for tax evasion.

  9. Reblogged this on brian westbye and commented:

    I’m taking this week off to re-charge. Here’s today’s Memoir re-run.

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