Paul Vlachos is a New Yorker who understands The West. And he is a New Yorker who understands New York. Wherever Paul goes, he finds signs of life…
From the beginning, the word was there. Some of my earliest memories are of my mom, urging me with the gentle imperative, “Eat, Paul…EAT.” I was a skinny kid and I would nibble on most things. I liked some things more than others, but I was not a big eater. I did like blueberry muffins. Put a blueberry muffin in front of me and I will always eat it. Actually, I’ll swallow it whole and grab at the next one before the first one is down my throat. I probably need to write about blueberry muffins one day, but this is not that day.
I could also do a whole column on signs that exhort you simply to “EAT.” They are all over the place and I have shot a few of them. They used to be more common, back in the middle of the twentieth century. Then, they became artifacts, of interest only to those of us with an unholy interest in the vernacular of road signage. Now, nostalgia and a passion for all things retro – a word, by the way, that arose in the 1960s, from the French “rétrograde” – have brought a bit of a comeback for “EAT” signs. And why not? It’s the one thing we cannot do without.
When all else falls away, as I have probably talked about before in this column, there is food. Love, glory, money and sex may come and go but, in the end, we are left with a plate of beans and a burrito. We sit at the roadhouse in front of a five-course meal or we are gnawing on a Ritz cracker and driving 85 miles an hour through the desert. I could go on, but I won’t. I won’t make this a column about “EAT” signs. I have written recently about donuts and my fascination with the American donut shop. That theme may return one day. As with all good things, why not pound the subject into the ground? In the course of going through my files for donut photos, though, I continue to come across other gentle reminders, scattered on the roadsides, along the medians, and near the off-ramps. I have shot many of these signs, so I’ll share a few today.
I tend to not collect sign photos so much as to shoot what speaks to me. I would be out there shooting right now if I tried to shoot every sign. For me to stop, though, it has to say something to me and the light has to be good. The internet has become filled with individuals and groups dedicated to older signage, architecture and advertising. That’s not a bad thing. I used to reflexively think of other road photographers as some kind of threat. I no longer do. We are all doing our own thing. When I first discovered the work of Walker Evans, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore and, lately, Steve Fitch, my spirit would deflate. My first thought would be “Someone has done this already. They did it before I got there. They shot THE SAME THING I DID, but 20 years earlier.”
I don’t feel that way any longer. Not only is that kind of thinking simultaneously egotistical and self-defeating, but it’s not accurate, either. I am not any of them and they are not me. I have always shot what spoke to me and what I enjoyed. Half of the fun for me with photography is the hunt. I don’t like categorizing what I shoot. I shoot what speaks to me. When it comes to these photos speaking to me, it might be my stomach that is doing the listening as much as my eyes. Of course, neither a stomach or an eye can hear, but I’ll stand by that sentence and move on to the photos.
1. This was Bakersfield, California in 2014. I like Bakersfield, even though I cannot avoid thinking about Valley Fever when I pass through there now. I wish I had never heard about Valley Fever. The same with Lyme disease. There are some things better left in the dark or they truly ruin the present moment. My germaphobic tendencies were embedded early on. No wonder I didn’t feel like eating when my mom used to pester me. That food might be contaminated. The other thing about Bakersfield, aside from Valley Fever and Buck Owens, is the dust. The sky is often filled with haze and it’s not always easy for me to get good shots, without a hazy sky in the background. Anyway, this particular place has it all: the “EAT” command, the arrow telling you exactly where to go, and the message that it’s a coffee shop, so all of your gustatory and road-related needs will be met. Whether they will be met efficiently and with a smile is a mystery. My guess is that you’ll walk out happy. There is only one way to find out.
2. I was driving through Louisiana last year and came upon this place. I don’t think you’ll find any reference to it on the infernal internet. The only reason I know it was shot in Clarence, Louisiana is that I snapped a photo of the local water tower so as to remind myself later in life, meaning now. That’s a pro tip, by the way, for you young photographers. I’m joking. I’m joking. I *should* keep a meticulous little notebook and record every shot, every location, everything about everything with every photo. I don’t, though. I’m usually moving too fast. I’m usually on my way somewhere. What I do remember about this photograph is that I had to turn into a driveway to get it. The sign was on a front lawn and the establishment was behind me and it looked like it was also a domicile. In fact, someone – very possibly Tony – was sitting on a lawn chair in front of the garage. I did not stop and say hello, as I am not the most outgoing human. This may explain why I enjoy shooting inanimate objects so much. I will say this – HAD they been open, I would have certainly gone in. My guess is that I would have walked out with a full belly and a changed attitude on life after eating that cuisine.
3. This was from the summer of 2013, in Virginia or North Carolina, on my way down to the Outer Banks. It was part of a series of three or four signs, similar to the Burma Shave signs, but with no unified message or rhyme. More like a Burma Shave laundry list. Still, there is something about the way “Fried Fish” is painted that makes me believe it was a pretty tasty fish joint. I’m sure the fish might feel differently, but that’s also another column, if not for another publication, then for another day. What were the other signs from that establishment? “Home made CrabCake Sandwich” was one, spelled exactly like that. Another was “SOFTCRABS Steamed Shrimp,” and the last one said “Oyster Sandwich.” Between this place, the Futuro House I had stumbled upon earlier, and the engine warning light that popped on later that evening, it was a full and rich day on the Great American Road.
4. This was on the Pacific Coast Highway in 2016. If you drive long enough on the PCH, you can subsist entirely on food bought from the back of pickup trucks parked in the turnouts. Most of this is grown or cooked locally. Most is quite inexpensive, and it’s usually pretty good. On top of that, you get to eat off the hood of your car with a view of the Pacific and, almost unfailingly, a nice breeze through your hair. What more do you really need in this life?
5. This shot is from 2010 and I’m fairly certain it was on the road near Yosemite Junction, California. Memory fails, though, so please don’t hold it against me if it was from some other part of the Golden State. This sign was also part of a series, and the other sign read “Heirloom Tomatoes – Buses Welcome.” This message disheartened me at the time, as “Heirloom Tomato” is a term that I associate with modern times, artisanal eating, and the death of everything I hold dear. I should do some research before spouting off on this term but, for the moment, I’ll choose to go with righteous umbrage over the facts here. It’s so much easier that way, at least in the short term. Facts usually come back to bite umbrage in the butt and, in fact, I actually enjoy “heirloom tomatoes,” but please don’t tell anyone.