Driving past a cafe a couple of days ago, I noticed the sign painted on the window glass. It read:
HOME-MADE SOUP TAKE HOME OR SIT IN
Naturally, I knew what they meant. But what they meant was not precisely what they said. And I gave serious consideration to the alternatives offered. Which would I choose? To take their (doubtless inestimable) soup home ... or to sit in it?
It was a particularly cold day, and I wasn't immediately certain which course of action might prove the best use of the broth in question.
It is amazing how often signs, even those dreamed up by official bodies, lapse into unconscious double meanings or unintentional comedy.
On British motorways, which are forever under repair, the contractors have taken to making apologies in the form of large notices for the inconvenience their work causes. It doesn't help much when you are terribly late for something and immobilized, but it's a nice thought. They also stick up signs indicating how long you may be delayed. Signs like:
EXPECT DELAYS UNTIL NOVEMBER 1996
If you are sitting there in a line of slow-moving cars in January 1995, such a prospect is at least confusing. Do they mean specific delays - this delay that I am in - may continue for the next year-and-three-quarters? Or do they mean delays in general?
The road men have also long presented drivers with another warning sign that I find entirely baffling:
HEAVY PLANT CROSSING
I believe it may have something to do with large construction vehicles suddenly lurching across the road ahead. But I am not the first to wonder if those three words do not actually say that some gigantic squash or humongous cauliflower might at any moment cavalierly obstruct one's forward passage.
Cows, of course, are less surprising as obstacles. They amble along in front of you between the banks of some remote lane, nudge your bumper with their shins, slap your wing-mirror with their huge tongues, and will not be hurried for all the world. You are caught up in their meandering mass ... until the cows come home. Sometimes they even stop to graze.
The farmer accompanies rather than drives the herd, and he also seems determined that you will modify your pace to a country slowness. Such a farmer I know once put up a sign to celebrate this phenomenon on a blind bend in the road between his milking shed and his fields. It read:
DEAD SLOW CATTLE
Intended as a warning to drivers, it worked pretty well; but it could also be read as an incisive description of his cow herd.
My latest favorite double-meaning sign was hand written in amateur capitals and stuck up by the checkout at a local pet shop. It said:
SMALL ANIMAL BABY SITTER ... CALL 427-0962 ... (ASK FOR LAURA).
I asked the checkout girl who was charging us through the nose for wild-bird seed how Laura's business was doing.
``Really very well,'' she replied.
``And,'' I went on, ``is it Laura who is small or the animals she tends?''
But the checkout girl just laughed, so I still don't know.