News & Politics » Miscellany

Bad Signs

25 Reasons to keep Your Eyes on the Road



By Jack Clark

My all-time favorite Chicago directional sign was on Ridge Avenue, just northwest of Hollywood. O'HARE FIELD, it read, and an arrow pointed straight ahead.

The sign was there for years and years, decades actually, and you had to wonder how many people tried to follow it, and if they ever made their flights.

Once upon a time there must have been other signs strung along whatever route you were supposed to follow: Ridge up to Devon or Touhy, perhaps, in the days before the expressways, and then west to Mannheim Road and south to the airport; or later, out Peterson to Cicero, down to Foster, then west to the Kennedy and O'Hare.

But I don't remember ever seeing any of the other signs. They were probably gone long before I made it up to the north side in 1971.

But the sign on Ridge remained, rusting away on a light pole. And then a few years ago I noticed it was gone. Another victim of drunk driving, more than likely, or maybe just advanced metal fatigue.

But before I could really miss the O'Hare sign I was rewarded with a new favorite, a series of signs actually, and as it happens they start just around the corner from the old one, on Clark Street.

The first is just south of Ridge. LAKE SHORE DRIVE, it says, and an arrow points you straight south. A block later the street splits. The right lanes become Ashland Avenue, which goes south to 95th Street. The left lanes remain Clark Street, which curves southeast to the Loop and down to Cermak Road.

There's no sign to tell you any of this, of course. In Chicago it's assumed everybody is a native and they already know that Clark is the narrow, winding sort of street, while Ashland is that big wide one.

Not surprisingly, there's also no sign to tell you which branch to take if you want to follow that arrow you saw a block back.

But if you guess Ashland you will think you guessed correctly, because just after the split it offers an identical LAKE SHORE DRIVE sign and another arrow pointing south. There are two more of those signs on Ashland, one at Catalpa and one just south of Foster. And that's it.

If you continue on, following those four very trustworthy-looking arrows, you'll eventually go under the Kennedy Expressway, over the Eisenhower, past Roosevelt and Cermak roads, under the Stevenson Expressway, and down past Garfield Boulevard. Before you know it you'll be looking at a sign that says 95TH ST. But you'll never again be as close to Lake Shore Drive as you were the moment you saw that first sign and made the mistake of actually following it.

Of course, few Chicagoans would follow the signs for long. But what about all those out-of-town plates I see circling the streets of the north side looking for nonresidential parking?

In many ways the Lake Shore Drive signs are even better than my old favorite. The O'Hare sign was sort of pointing in the general direction of the airport. Sort of. And if you were trying to find O'Hare you could always stop, stand on the roof of your car, and try to figure out which way the planes were heading. As you got closer the planes would get lower and louder. Just ask the neighbors.

But no matter how big your car is, standing on the roof on Ashland Avenue isn't going to help you find the lake or the drive alongside it.

Anybody who's ever been seriously lost far from home can probably remember the relief they felt after spotting a sign pointing to some known road or landmark. It doesn't necessarily have to be where you're heading. It might be in the opposite direction. But if you're lost in some road nightmare--a neighborhood that looks like a war zone, say, or some twisting two-lane without an inch of shoulder, and the locals all over your ass, flashing their brights and trying to pass--that doesn't matter. Just get me out of here, Lord. Show me a sign.

I once got lost so badly in that endless maze of suburban New Jersey across from Manhattan that when I spotted a HOLIDAY INN sign I decided the hell with it. I checked in, had dinner, a few drinks, and then got a good night's sleep. In the morning I went down to the front desk to find out where I was.

I've traveled through 48 states and I'm not too proud to admit that I've been lost in most of them. I can remember numerous times when the high point of my day was one of those small red-white-and-blue signs pointing to some nearby interstate. Thank you, Dwight D.

Unfortunately, the city of Chicago doesn't seem to believe in those signs. Oh, they stick them right at the entrance ramps and string them along the highways themselves. But drive west on Chicago or Grand Avenue, or sit at the intersection of Grand, Milwaukee, and Halsted, and try to figure out how to get to the Kennedy Expressway.

There were thousands of cars doing just that a few weeks ago. The Ontario feeder ramp to the Kennedy was closed for some reason. There were no signs pointing to alternate routes. Just figure it out for yourself, pal.

Grand and Chicago were both bumper-to-bumper, and Milwaukee wasn't far behind. All of these streets go right over the Kennedy, but none has an entrance ramp. The entrance to the westbound Kennedy is on Ogden Avenue north of Grand, south of Chicago, just southwest of Milwaukee. There's a sign on Ogden, right on top of the highway where it's almost too late: WEST I-90 I-94. But try to find a sign on Grand, Chicago, or Milwaukee directing motorists to Ogden, or one pointing to the southbound entrance ramp at Lake Street. Some of those people are probably still trying to get home.

Besides not putting up signs when they should, the city doesn't always take them down when they're no longer relevant. DETOUR and ROAD WORK AHEAD signs are often left in place years after the construction is done. That's probably the story on those signs not pointing to Lake Shore Drive. I think they were part of an alternate route to the Drive during the rebuilding project a few years back. If I remember correctly, you were supposed to turn left on Lawrence Avenue. The sign telling you that is gone, of course.

A good example of a sign left too long after the fair is the one that hung over the ramp from the Eisenhower Expressway to Wacker Drive. STREET REPAIRS UPPER AND LOWER, it warned.

The sign was there for years, eight or ten I would guess, maybe longer, and like a stopped clock it was sometimes right, or half right anyway. But right or wrong it was pointless, because by the time you saw it there was nowhere to go except to upper or lower Wacker. Were they just trying to rub it in?

As the city prepared for the Democratic convention the sign suddenly made complete sense, though it didn't go quite far enough in describing the frenzy of street repairs around town. Instead of illuminating the sign with a couple of spotlights and bringing busloads of visiting politicians by to show them an example of true municipal foresight, the city instead chose that moment to take the sign down.

The sign was fairly big and it was rusted after all those years. I'd always assumed that one day--well into the 21st century--it would come down of its own accord, probably taking out a speeding taxi in the process.

That's how many of the signs in the city disappear. They just fall down one day, or the pole they are attached to gets knocked down in an accident. This probably doesn't matter much if the sign happens to say CLARK STREET or something innocent like that. But if the sign says LOW CLEARANCE 12'6", look out! Don't follow that truck too closely. It may come to a very sudden stop.

I know it can be amusing to see a huge truck wedged under a viaduct. But if you've ever driven a truck for a living, it can be a very sad sight indeed.

My friend Ralph was once pulling a double-decked trailer full of cars when he came to a sudden and very noisy stop under a railroad bridge in West Virginia. His first phone call was to his boss to inform him that he'd just quit.

"What do you mean, you quit?" the boss wanted to know. "Where's the truck?"

"It's sitting under that viaduct out on route 19," Ralph said, and the boss quickly and profanely agreed that Ralph had, in fact, just quit.

Many parts of the country, especially the west, present few low clearances, and it's not unusual to see a sign like this: CAUTION. LOW CLEARANCE FOUR MILES AHEAD. TRUCKS OVER 13'2" FOLLOW MARKED TRUCK DETOUR.

At three and then two miles before the overpass you'll see similar signs. The last mile leading to the overpass will offer signs every few hundred feet, often accompanied by flashing yellow caution lights. It's not unusual to find the overpass itself lit up like a Christmas tree: more flashing lights along with a huge sign warning about the clearance. In other words, they do everything short of posting a sniper to shoot out your tires as you approach.

In Chicago we stick a single sign up a pole a few feet before the low clearance, and after it's knocked down or blocked by a double-parked UPS truck or just overlooked by some far-from-home truck driver trying to find his way back to the interstate, we gather in little groups to point and snicker and ask each other how anybody could be so dumb.

When I was getting started in the business as a helper on a moving van, I remember a driver from California having a hell of a time getting his truck into our north-side warehouse. Actually, his truck was much too big to ever get into the warehouse, which had been built for horses and wagons back in the days before trucks. But the driver from California was having a time just getting into the alley alongside it. He finally set the brakes, opened the door, and got out and lit a cigarette. "I hate the east," he said.

"This isn't the east," I said. "It's the midwest."

"No. It's the east," he said. "You ever get on the road, you'll find out."

I didn't even have a driver's license at the time. But on slow days I started practicing with a straight truck in the yard, and before long I had my license and within a year I made my first trip.

And I found out that the driver was right. As far as trucks are concerned, Chicago is the east. The streets may not be as narrow or winding as Pittsburgh's, the drivers aren't half as crazy as Boston's, and the traffic might not be quite as bad as New York's. But we make up for that by placing most of our loading docks off those narrow alleys we're so proud of.

And worst of all, since we're the old railroad center of the country, everywhere you turn there's another viaduct, and many of them are well below 13'6".

Check the restricted clearances listed in Rand McNally's Motor Carriers' Road Atlas. The atlas lists low clearances on major routes throughout the U.S. Since most of Chicago's viaducts are not on numbered routes few are listed. Yet Illinois still ranks fifth behind Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio (all in the east, you will notice) in number of low clearances.

Texas is the only southern or western state that even comes close, just barely trailing Illinois. But Texas is nearly a third larger than the other five states combined.

The funny thing is, when you're out in those states with few or no low clearances, oftentimes you will find that every bridge is marked. It's not unusual to see a sign on a bridge like this: VERTICAL CLEARANCE 47'8". Just in case you ever want to take the space shuttle for a spin.

Not only is every bridge marked, but the sign is on the bridge itself. What is so difficult about this concept? Why does the city of Chicago keep putting up signs on light poles? And why can't they mark every bridge?

In Chicago the policy for years has been to mark only those bridges that are below 13'6", the statutory limit for trucks in Illinois and most other states. But this means that once the light pole is knocked down a trucker might reasonably assume that the bridge is at least 13'6". Many trucks have been destroyed and many jobs lost from just such assumptions.

Not only would it be safer to mark every bridge right on the bridge, it would seem cheaper in the long run. The sign department would not have to be constantly replacing low-clearance signs. A sign right on a bridge might stay in place for decades, like that sign pointing out to O'Hare.

But to be honest, I'm not so sure about the work ethic of the city sign department. (Actually the Sign & Marking Division of the Department of Trans-portation.) I remember the day of Harold Washington's first inauguration. I was coming in from the east coast and when I hit the city line at the Skyway there was the sign: WELCOME TO CHICAGO. HAROLD WASHINGTON, MAYOR.

Well, good work, guys, I thought. The city that works was going to keep on working.

Over the next few weeks I was even more impressed. Everywhere I went I saw new low-clearance signs. The sign department was really on the ball.

But then it occurred to me--why couldn't they have done this before? And as soon as I asked myself the question I knew the answer. They could have, but they were too busy lollygagging about, or working second jobs on city time. But now with a new regime coming to power, an outsider at that, the sign department was out doing the work it was paid to do.

Needless to say, this sudden spurt of work did not last long. Soon it was back to business as usual. The low-clearance signs began to fall, never to be replaced.

Before anybody gets the idea that my fascination with clearance signs is the result of a losing contest with a viaduct somewhere, let me put that notion quickly to rest.

Oh, I creased a few tops. It's almost impossible not to if you spend much time around Chicago. If the bridges don't get you, the fire escapes will. But I never had a serious encounter. I attribute some of this to the fact that most of my early training was in a yard that the Howard el ran through. Those corner braces were a constant reminder to watch your header.

I did have one encounter that some might consider serious. From my side it was nothing at all, but I wasn't the one who wrote the check for $2,500.

This was back in the summer of '75. It was the middle of the night when I pulled off I-65 to get gas. I was scheduled to deliver the following afternoon in Dothan, Alabama.

It was just a small truck stop, with some pumps out front I assumed were for automobiles. I pulled around back where the truck pumps were but couldn't find a gasoline pump. The signs on the ones I saw all said DIESEL.

A kid in a gas station uniform was fueling a tractor. "Where's the gas pump?" I asked.

"Around front," he called and I headed that way. I'll admit the canopy over the pumps looked somewhat low. But this was a truck stop, after all. And the kid had sent me that way. I crept slowly forward.

In most trucks you could just stick your head out the window and check the clearance. If you've lived in Chicago long you've probably seen plenty of drivers block traffic to do just that. But the truck I was driving had one of those coops over the cab and that was all you saw when you looked up. And it probably wouldn't have mattered anyway. As it turned out, I cleared the canopy. It was an I-beam about ten feet in that I hit.

I got out of the truck to check the damage. There was a small crack in the top left corner of the coop. A few days later I would spend about ten minutes patching it, and as far as I was concerned the truck was as good as new.

The I-beam that supported the canopy was bent and twisted a bit but it still appeared structurally sound. The impact, if you could call it that, had also loosened the posts holding up the canopy. But those just needed someone to tighten the bolts, I thought.

And as far as I was concerned it wasn't my problem anyway. It turned out the gasoline pump was in back after all. In fact the kid had been standing right in front of it when he'd sent me away. His story was that he'd been having problems with the pump, but it worked just fine when I finally pulled up to it.

The sheriff was on the scene in minutes and the owner of the truck stop wasn't far behind. He looked like he'd just gotten out of bed.

"Truck pumps are around back," the owner let me know.

I told him about the kid sending me around front.

"Well, it's 12'6"," the owner said. "Most trucks can get under it."

"I'm only 12'3"," I let him know.

"This isn't bad at all," the owner decided after checking the damage. "Last guy knocked the damn thing clear to the other side of the yard."

"Maybe you ought to put up a clearance sign," I suggested.

The sheriff and the owner conferred and then the sheriff informed me that I would have to stay right there until the van line I drove for got an insurance adjuster on the scene.

An orange-and-black sign was stuck to the dashboard of my truck. IN CASE OF ACCIDENT CALL COLLECT 24 HOURS A DAY, it said, and there was a Chicago phone number.

I called and got somebody out of bed. I apologized for waking him but he didn't seem to mind. At least it was only a fender bender. He took the information and my phone number, and about ten minutes later the insurance adjuster called.

I kept trying to explain what happened but he didn't quite understand it. "Damn," he said after a while. "I eat lunch in that place three times a week but I can't picture this canopy you're talking about."

I told him that the sheriff wouldn't let me leave until he came out and inspected the damage. He asked to talk to the owner and I handed the phone over. They talked for a few minutes and then the owner handed the phone back and the adjuster told me that everything was OK. I could leave and he would come out in the morning to inspect the damage.

I thanked him, got a cup of coffee to go, and got back in the truck. That afternoon I delivered in Dothan on schedule.

In Chicago I had to fill out an accident report for the van line. "In your opinion," the report asked, "was this accident preventable or nonpreventable? If nonpreventable, please explain."

I looked at the question for a while. For days I'd been telling anyone who would listen that it hadn't been my fault. But was it a nonpreventable accident? Of course not, I now had to admit. All I had to do was get out of the truck and I would have seen with my own eyes that the truck wouldn't clear the I-beam.

I checked the box next to preventable and mailed the form to the van line.

A month or so later I was called into the boss's office. "I thought you told me you just scratched that canopy," he said.

"That's right," I said.

He slid a sheet of paper across the desk. The insurance company had paid the truck stop $2,500.

"Son of a bitch," I whispered. "No wonder he doesn't put up a sign." And I wondered how much the truck stop had gotten from the last driver, the one who had knocked the canopy clear across the yard.

My boss was a reasonable man. He'd seen the damage to my truck with his own eyes and he knew as well as I did that there was no way I'd caused $2,500 damage while just crinkling the truck. I told the boss about the insurance adjuster eating lunch at the truck stop three times a week and I think we talked about calling the insurance company or writing a letter but we never did. It was still summer, the height of the moving season. We were both busy. And what the hell, it wasn't our money anyway.

At about two in the morning I left my office and headed up Lincoln Avenue on my bicycle, figuring to pick up the morning papers in front of the Dunkin Donuts at Lincoln and Addison. Both papers usually hit there at just about two. I was a block away when a big tractor trailer, a road rig, turned off Addison and headed north on Lincoln.

Those familiar with the intersection will know that part of it sits under Metra tracks. A sign on a light pole a block south warns 13'5" EXACTLY but on the viaduct itself another sign says 13'10". What do you say we split the difference and call it 13'7 1/2"?

A block north the Ravenswood el crosses Lincoln. This viaduct has no sign at all, though (not surprisingly) these are the tracks that really need one. It's only 13'2" or 3". I used to just clear it with a 13'1" trailer. But I've seen some bigger rigs creep under it, usually staying to the right where the street tapers down but not so far to the right that they'd catch the corner brace of the el. And I've seen plenty of guys scrape their tops here. If you look up as you go under the tracks you'll see the scratches and paint from the trucks that were a little too big.

As I pedaled past Dunkin Donuts I was relieved to see the truck's brake lights come on. A moment later his flashers began to blink. When I pedaled up I saw that the driver's door was open and the driver, a skinny guy somewhere in his 30s, had one foot out on the running board. The nose of the tractor was under the el and the driver had his eyes up checking the header as he crept forward.

"How high are you?" I asked as I stopped.

He said, "13'6"," and the truck came to a stop.

"Forget it," I said. "You'll never make it. Where're you heading?"

He smiled and pointed back down Lincoln Avenue. "Turned the wrong way," he said. "Wrote down right, then went and turned left."

"You going to the poultry house?"

"Florist," he said.

"Fertile Delta?"

"That's the place."

"About a mile," I said. "You pass the Shell station and it's about a half block down."


"If you get to the White Hen Pantry you went too far."


"You want help turning around?" I asked. "You could probably back into that side street."

He jumped down and walked back to take a look. "Ought to do it," he said. He got back in the truck and then backed it up a bit and then drove forward, angling the back of the trailer toward Patterson Avenue.

He was a much better trailer driver than I'd ever been. Two shots and he was coming straight down Patterson. I was waving him back when I suddenly realized I was backing him straight toward the el again. There's a viaduct on Patterson too. Leave it to Chicago.

I pointed up but he was way ahead of me. "I get under that," he shouted, and he didn't slow down as he backed easily under the tracks.

He stopped with his door in the crosswalk. I picked up my bike and walked it over. He set the brakes and opened the door and stood on the running board.

"How much I owe you for all your help?" he asked and he reached for his pocket.

I waved his hand away. "I spent about 15 years out there." I exaggerated a bit.

"I figured," he said.

We stood there for a minute shooting the breeze, and then he got back in the truck, released the brakes, waved, and pulled away. I pedaled back to the Dunkin Donuts and the Sun-Times truck was just leaving. So I didn't lose a minute and I still got to feel like a good Samaritan.

Chicago is a city full of good Samaritans. I've actually seen people risk their lives and run right in front of trucks heading for low clearances. Numerous overpasses sport hand-lettered signs painted by good Samaritans doing what should be the city's job.

So, Richie, if you find a little extra time maybe you can get over to the sign department (you know where I mean) and offer a few suggestions.

I know the suggestions I'd make. First, I'd put a clearance sign on every overpass in the city. I mean a big bright yellow sign. I would also place several signs in the blocks leading to all low clearances. Signs like CAUTION LOW CLEARANCE AHEAD. TRUCKS OVER 13'1" MUST DETOUR. And then it might be nice to mark a truck detour if one existed. And to offer signs suggesting alternate routes: TRUCKS FOR I-90 & I-94 USE ADDISON STREET, TWO MILES NORTH. Maybe the city could even lay out truck routes around town, the way Evanston used to do.

Metra recently added a new wrinkle to the local scene by hiding some of their northwest line's low clearances directly behind fancy new high-clearance viaducts. These are truck killers, plain and simple. Anybody who uses Fullerton Avenue around the Kennedy Expressway has probably seen plenty of over-the-road drivers fall into the trap. They creep up to the first viaduct--the high one--and stick their head out the window to check the clearance, then step on the accelerator when they see all that room. A second later they clobber the old low tracks lurking in the shadows, and an hours-long traffic jam begins.

It doesn't matter if the first viaduct is marked with the lower clearance. Truck drivers know that clearance signs are seldom exact. There's usually a few inches of tolerance built in to allow for a truck bouncing along, for repavement of the street, for a couple of million-pound trains passing overhead. So a driver with little or no room to turn a 70-foot truck around will usually pull up to eyeball the clearance first.

The best way to prevent drivers from falling into the two-viaduct trap is to hang a clearance sign on the high one down to the height of the low one. The owners of trailer repair shops are probably the only ones who will fail to see the logic of this suggestion.

It seems to me that I read somewhere that the city doesn't have the legal right to mark private railroad viaducts. My suggestion here is to hire some taggers on the sly. Hey, kids need jobs too.

Even if the city just marked all the CTA crossings, it would show that the sign department was doing something. (Richie, you should have seen those signs go up the first few weeks after Harold got in.)

The city's policy of marking only the overpasses under 13'6" is misguided for a couple of reasons. As I mentioned, if the sign disappears a driver might assume that the viaduct is clearable when it isn't. But that's not the only problem unmarked viaducts can cause. Trucks slowing or halting while drivers check the clearance cause traffic jams. And trucks making panic stops can destroy the road. I point to Halsted Street north of Fulton. As you approach Hubbard a railroad viaduct looms. At first it looks high enough, but as you drive closer, coming down a bridge, the clearance suddenly seems to shrink to about ten feet.

That's an optical illusion, but the bridge is torn all to hell and has been for years, and I'm convinced it's all those 20,000-pound axles bouncing up and down during panic stops. The clearance is probably about 15 feet, and if the city would just hang a sign up there it would save the road and the truck drivers' hearts plenty of wear and tear.

One good development in local signage: CROSS TRAFFIC DOES NOT STOP was recently added to the stop sign at Bissell and Dickens. In some cities every stop sign has additional information under it. If Chicago just put FOUR WAY STOP signs at appropriate intersections, the average motorist would probably save several hours of nervous idling a year.

It's too early to tell whether the sign on Bissell is part of a new trend. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that it was put up by a neighbor sick of listening to the horns, the brakes, and the crashes.

While I'm on the subject of city signs, wouldn't it be nice if the city would replace the NO PARKING FROM HERE TO CORNER sign that has been missing from Southport and Belmont for years? Anybody who's found himself trapped behind cars turning left knows it can take weeks to get through this intersection.

And I know the sign on Halsted says WILLOW 1740 NORTH, but believe me, Willow is 1800 north at Halsted. It's 1740 north a little further east.

And hey, wouldn't it be nice to mark out an escape route under Illinois Center for all those trucks that end up getting wedged under lower Wacker Drive? Think how much faster traffic would go without a truck trapped in the middle of the road.

And then there's the sign that sits above the stop sign at the east end of Aldine Avenue. BOULEVARD, it warns, and a north-south arrow indicates inner Lake Shore Drive. COMMERCIAL VEHICLES PROHIBITED.

The sign's been there as long as I can remember. I know truck drivers may not be the brightest people on the face of the earth (I did it for years, need I say more?), but I'll bet that in the decades the sign has been there, not one of them has ever decided to back the block and a half west to Broadway. Nobody's that dumb. The only other option, besides going down that prohibited boulevard or suddenly taking flight, is to plow straight ahead, across the local lanes of Lake Shore Drive, through the fence and the southbound express, over those pretty new flower boxes, across the northbound lanes, through one more fence, and then straight into Belmont Harbor.

Lord, you might cry, as you blow your air horn and sail away, get me out of this frigging town.

Show me a sign, Lord. Just show me a sign.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by MK Brooks.

Add a comment