The Billboard, Part 1

“I kinda feel like flinging my phone into the ocean,” proclaimed the billboard.

It was the middle of May, 1988. She was driving down Santa Monica Boulevard when she saw that billboard. She glanced up and was frozen in shock. It had her name on there, attributing the quote — though she didn’t recall ever having said that.

She tried to take it all in, but it was too much to process.

Her eyes raced all over the billboard. Toward the left, in a circle, there was a black-and-white picture of her, holding a guitar. Her name was printed right below that. Toward the top, there was a large horizontal picture of that same guitar. Then, that strange phrase: “I kinda feel like flinging my phone into the ocean.”

Just in time, she saw the car in front of her stop. She slammed on the brakes of her own car. She barely didn’t collide with the car in front of her. She decided to focus on her driving.

She passed the billboard, and got into the right lane. She made a right at the next light, then another right, then kept going for five city blocks. She made another right and then a final right, so that she was again going along Santa Monica Boulevard in the same direction as before. As she approached the billboard for the second time, she parked her car, got out and walked toward the billboard. It was the strangest thing.

She was startled as a car honked loudly while driving past — then another car, too. She looked at the drivers. Their faces were smiling; they didn’t seem upset. She heard yet another car honking behind her. She turned to see the driver smiling while looking up at the billboard. Then she saw the small print across the bottom of the billboard: “Honk if you like this.” On the billboard, in the bottom right-hand corner, next to a picture of a small red heart, was a small counter, like an odometer. Every time somebody honked their horn, the odometer presumably clicked up by one more number. The number, she assumed, thus indicated how many people so far had liked the billboard. The number was high: more than a thousand.

She looked more closely. She saw some additional small print on the billboard, inviting people to comment. This puzzled her even more.

Also puzzling was that alleged quote – something she couldn’t recall ever saying. It didn’t make any sense to her why she would want to fling her phone into the ocean. She lived in the west part of LA, and the phone company in that area was General Telephone. She was pretty sure GTE wouldn’t appreciate her doing that. Besides, she felt no need to do that. She couldn’t understand why anybody would feel that need, much less to comment on it publicly.

When she got close to the pillar supporting the billboard, she noticed that there was a sort of public bulletin board attached to one of its pillars, by the sidewalk. While she was watching, somebody walked up to it, and approached a container that held thumbtacks, pens and pieces of paper. She looked more closely. Each paper had evenly spaced blocks into which letters could be written, such as when sending a telegram. The paper made it clear that there was space for only 280 characters. Using a pen from the container, the stranger wrote something onto a such a slip of paper, then used a thumbtack to attach it to the billboard, below several dozen similar such slips of paper. The stranger seem pleased as he walked away. She approached to read when he had just written. Even though he’d had lots of space available, he had just written a brief phrase. It seemed to imply that he felt the same way too. Her eyes scanned others’ comments. They all seem to be focused on that quote, and were chiming in with various perspective and opinions. It was all so very strange to her.

And why this focus on a telephone? The breakup of AT&T had happened not that long ago, and lots of little phone companies popping up, but that still didn’t seem to reconcile with wanting to throwing one’s phone into the ocean.

Au contraire: too often she felt lonely, too isolated. Her phone was actually a way of reaching people. It provided her access to somebody to talk to. Ideally, it’d be a long-distance lover, she thought. Better yet would be a lover in person … but if distance was a problem, then a phone would be a great way to stay in touch.

Wanting to get rid of her phone seemed to imply that she was tired of being approached — which was the exact opposite of how she felt, while looking at that perplexing billboard.

She pondered the issue. Of course, she had many people in her life, but it was all too often a superficial connection. She did indeed crave some kind of deeper connection. She liked the idea of being able to have long and complex conversations, ideally in person but failing that, yes, a phone would be a good second choice.

She was startled out of her musing when another car drove past, honking. She had time to look up just in time to see the odometer on the billboard increase the number by one more yet.

Her mind was reeling. She felt overwhelmed. She tried to find an explanation to the strange phenomena. Then she saw another billboard a couple of blocks away on the other side of the street. It seemed to have a similar structure. There was a picture toward the left, also in a circle. Below that, there was somebody’s name. She didn’t recognize the name. Similarly, there was a large picture across the top. She heard more honking some distance away, near that billboard. Whatever was written as a quote on that billboard, a nearby driver evidently liked.

She walked toward that billboard. It also had an odometer and a bulletin board by the sidewalk, so that people could comment. They were several comments, on similar strips of paper. Another container offered pens, tacks and blank strips of paper for strangers to take so as to comment on the message on that billboard. She looked up at the quote on the billboard. It voiced a not-so-insightful political opinion. Several people seemed to agree, given their comments. Each person’s name appeared by his or her comment. She noticed that there were also comments, in reply, by the person whose name was on the billboard. The replies often had much back-and-forth, most of it benevolent — and superficial. She frowned. She hadn’t noticed a similar dynamic on the bulletin board by the billboard that had her name on it. For the latter, people were commenting to her but she wasn’t replying. That puzzled her. She walked back for another look.

Why no intellectual discourse? Indeed she was painfully shy but responding in writing seemed to be the perfect medium. It allowed precision too, and she wouldn’t have the time pressure of having to “think on her feet.” She tried to find a comment to which she’d replied — even though she couldn’t recall having done so, nor for that matter could she recall anything about these strange billboards. Everything about them was a perplexing surprise.

She scanned the various strangers’ comments. A few were actually somewhat insightful and probably merited a reply, which might have lead to an interesting dialogue. Yet she hadn’t replied. Then, she noticed a slip of paper with her name pre-printed on it, and “thank you” by her name. She had so much to say, so it seemed odd she’d be limited to that.

She wished she could reach out and have a conversation with some of the people who sounded interesting and insightful. She craved intelligent conversation, and true connection. These few individuals seemed to be potential candidates. She took a pen and a slip of paper with her name on it, and tried to write some more words next to the pre-printed “thank you.” The pen didn’t work. She next tried the specific pen that she’d seen the stranger use a few minutes before. That didn’t work either. She took a blank slip of paper and tried to write on that. The pen didn’t write on that, either. She felt frustrated that all she could viably express was gratitude. She put the pen and paper back, exasperated.

A handsome stranger in his mid-20s walked up. He glanced at her. He seemed to have no interest in her personally, just in the public persona on the billboard. He actually stared up at it wistfully. Then, he took the pen and paper she’d tried, successfully wrote something, and tacked it below the long list of pre-existing comments. After he’d left, she approached and read it. It made reference to him being infatuated with her, and about a music video she’d been in, the year before. She blushed at how sexually explicit his compliments were. It was so strange that he would focus on her as a public persona, and yet ignore her in her capacity as an actual person.

She was so amazed that for him, the pen and paper worked, and for her it didn’t. It was like the pen and paper in combination enabled others to comment, but she couldn’t. What a terrible fate that would be if it were the case. She had so much to say; she craved meaningful human connection so much.

She read some more comments. How ironic it was that she could be popular and liked yet feel lonely all at the same time. She tried one more time to write. The pen still refuse to write.

“You may as well stop trying,” said a cold female voice. “It’s never going to work. My curse won’t permit it.”

She turned towards the speaker. Halloween was still several months away, yet the speaker was dressed in black, as an evil witch. The witch was glaring at her in a way that was openly hostile. She seemed to be in her mid-20s, with short red hair. Otherwise, she looked a lot like the actress who’d played Mary Lou in the movie The AllNighter, the year before.

“Not-so-nice to meet you. Hello there. I’m the Evil Witch … at your disservice,” the witch said to her.

She stared at the witch. None of this seemed possible but it didn’t have the strange dreamlike quality that could help her realize this was all a figment of her imagination. It all seemed normal … just perfectly normal enough to feel real, yet with these strange events.

…to be continued. Spoiler alert: happy ending

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