Monday, October 31, 2011

Profiles in Florida: I DO AUTOPSIES

Florida might be the best state in the country for accidentally great billboards. In the past year, driving on odd little highways far from the interstate, I've lost count of the number of times I've kicked myself for not having a camera ready in time to try to snap an in-focus picture of some sublime artistic atrocity. I particularly regret missing the bloodied, manacled wrists of what I presumed was Jesus accompanying a vague shaming statement about marriage.

Rain, darkness or absent-mindedness have led me to miss one of the simplest and best signs, which stands at the side of a long, straight stretch of Interstate 10. It exhorts the driver to "DISCOVER THE POWER OF PRAYER" and shows two cadaverous, wrinkled gray hands emerging from starched white cuffs.

Every time you pass it, you can pick a new explanation for it. The artist had just seen the episode of Buffy with "The Gentlemen" and used them as a model. He was a huge Evil Dead 2 fan, and he depicted the severed, demonically possessed hand that tries to strangle Bruce Campbell. Someone ripped off a Charles Addams work and wrote the line about prayer over a happier tag-line, "Why thank you, Thing!" If you replace the cuffs with shaggy fur, both hands look like the sort of objects that fulfill your every wish with an ironically terrible curse.

Speaking of wishes, I sympathize with the Christian injunction to proselytize and save, and on a purely emotional level, I even find the billboard's message sort of heartening, once I get past the thought of the hands garrotting me in my sleep. But it just seems so badly premised, like it's going to reach someone from the south in some way that everything else about Jesus somehow screwed up. Hopefully a motorist will nod and gradually smile, his face dawning with slow epiphany, "Huh, prayer, you say. That thing that people have been doing for 2,000 years? I was going for bird divining first, but I can't make heads or tails of this ornithomancy textbook." Or, better yet, some truck driver slaps his head and says, "Waitaminute — just asking someone to give me all the shit I want? I'd have never thought of that!"

Still, as great as that billboard is, it pales — absolutely pales — next to this one:

Despite the larger text urging you to "NEVER SLEEP WITH YOUR BABY," I've been told by several people who've passed this that the first thing that jumped out at each of them was, "I DO AUTOPSIES," which also nearly caused each of them to drive off the road and die in an orgy of sudden unscheduled combustion, metallurgy and irony. It's funny, because that top line is so stunning all on its own. Perhaps it's the cultural saturation of shows like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit at work, but "sleep with your baby" is a much more loaded term today than it was 25 years ago. It's certainly the sort of expression that makes you read the whole need for an autopsy differently.

Of course, what this billboard is actually about is the dangers of co-sleeping, which is a practice that some doctors will adamantly urge parents never to do, while those into natural and alternative medicine tend to embrace it more eagerly. It is what it sounds like: you put your baby in your bed with you, and you both snooze. Billions of babies have been reared this way throughout history and will continue to be, especially in low-income areas or places where shelter, space, heat or safety are at a premium. Like a lot of debates about traditions, it largely amounts to whether you believe the practice to be one born of historical material necessity rather than actual value or choice.

Supposedly this practice can help babies and mothers get more healthful sleep because of the physical contact and unconscious reassurance of being in the same area. The response from medical doctors is fairly predictable and simple: apart from the touching, you can get the same results by putting the crib next to the bed, without entailing any of the risks. Those risks are, basically, smothering your kid by accidentally covering its face (whether with yourself, a blanket, a pillow or pushing it against something), rolling over and squashing it or pushing it out of the bed and killing it via a fall.

The potential for these kinds of deaths only increases with parents who are drunk or obese. And, while it's an ugly stereotype of people from the south, it's not exactly unfair to suggest that plenty of them can fall into either category. Or both. In fact, just to get into character for writing this, I put on 65 pounds and am drunk right now.

While that might be an explanation for the concept underlying the billboard, that doesn't explain why it was there in the first place, nor does it explain why it wasn't. Because that's the other odd thing about this sign: it moved. Repeatedly.

Earlier this year, I hung out with a group of people who traipsed all over Escambia and Santa Rosa counties as part of joint project for emergency rescue planning in the event of hurricanes, and they said that the sign disappeared and reappeared in different places over the course of months. I only got to see it because one person pulled over and dropped a GPS pin on her iPhone map so we could find it again.

Now, it's possible that someone owned multiple billboards in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties and "donated" un-rented billboard space to a local government or advocacy group out of the goodness of his heart, as part of community service or perhaps for a tax break. Maybe the sign moved because a new customer would come along and bump it to another vacant space in another part of the region.

Or maybe Dr. Minyard, Chief Medical Examiner, has finally lost it. Maybe she got too close to a case, and it's eating at her. Maybe she's gotta stop all the killing — all the madness — because goddamnit, she can't just wait in the office anymore until it's too late.

Or, worse yet, maybe there's been a horrifying spate of baby flattenings in Northwest Florida. Maybe there are hotspots of pancaked infant activity flaring up here and there, before the authorities can shut them down — great orbs of human meat possessed by an unconquerable force that rolls them atop children like fleshy katamaris on an unfathomable quest to accrete enough people to create the Southern Solar Density. God only knows.

Happy Halloween!