Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

ELECTION day could not have come too soon, after what felt like many long and painful weeks.

It had been raining steadily, and the glorious reds and golds of upstate New York in autumn lay clumped and muted. On my way to work, as I do every day, I trudged by the large corner house that is covered in signs, some soaked and wilted in the rain, others protected behind the glass street-facing windows. Many of the signs were for Ann Marie Buerkle, the Tea Party candidate for New York’s 25th Congressional district.

We are new to the neighborhood, and I called my husband: “You know that house with all the Tea Party yard signs? The one on the corner, with like a million signs? They really make me mad. Right now I’m going to knock on their door and tell them how mad they make me.”

“They’re allowed to have signs; it is their house,” my irritatingly rational husband replied.

“And I’m allowed to have signs, too. I’m going to put signs all over our lawn!” I said. Later I spotted a giant sign for Carl Paladino, the Republican candidate for governor, in front of a vacant lot. I called my husband again.

“I wouldn’t worry. Paladino is down 20 points in the polls,” he assured me.

I honestly considered getting a sign for Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic nominee. But I just wanted the election to be over already. The rain kept coming down. And I kept tallying signs: Mr. Cuomo was nearly shut out; Howie Hawkins, the Green Party candidate, was doing well near the university; but the suburbs were Carl country.

I asked my mother, who lives in rural Otsego County, about signs where she lived. She reported a few Paladinos.

My mother didn’t have a Cuomo sign on her lawn either. Only an anti-fracking sign. Many upstate voters are worried about a plan to open up our area to hydrofracking, the highly controversial technique of using high-pressure water and chemicals to extract natural gas. In fact, my mother hates hydrofracking as much as my corner neighbor loves Ann Marie Buerkle.

“An election isn’t a yard sign contest,” my mother advised me. Yet I continued to notice more and more Paladino signs. Not only that, his and other Tea Party signs were often planted on public property: on street dividers, on the edges of parks and next to shopping malls.

Obviously, their supporters are excited about the election. I imagined them driving around in the middle of the night sticking up illegal signs, high-five-ing and joyful in their righteous anger. I felt no joy on my side. The lack of enthusiasm on the left has been widely discussed. But the despair about New York is longer and deeper than this election or recession.

What could help the economy of central New York, parts of which have been in decline since the Erie Canal closed down? I read that Mr. Cuomo would create upstate regional economic councils to help local businesses access resources and capital. Better still, he would appoint Daniel Wegman as one of the councils’ advisors. Wegmans, the beloved central New York-based supermarket chain, consistently lands at the top of the Forbes Best Companies to Work For list.

Compare that with Carl Paladino’s string of Family Dollar stores, the discount seconds franchise that colonizes run-down strip malls all over the region. Wegmans versus Family Dollar. Was there any chance New Yorkers would choose Family Dollar for their future?

That night, my mother called to say she had put up a Cuomo yard sign. “O.K.? Do you feel better now?”

After I hung up, I went out to walk my dog, and discovered a yard sign planted in the middle of my lawn. It said Dave Valesky for State Senate. I still didn’t know anything about my new State Senate district or Dave Valesky. I looked down the street. Who put this here? Was it some midnight Tea Partier, hopped up on Sean Hannity and “Fox and Friends”? I pulled out the sign, muttering to myself about plastering Cuomo signs all over my local Family Dollar.

When I got back in the house, I looked up Mr. Valesky. He turned out to be our Democratic State Senator and, from what I could tell, a sane person. I picked the sign out from between my garbage cans, went out into the rain and replanted it in my yard. So I ended up with one yard sign, albeit an accidental one.

Final results for upstate’s sign contest: the Tea Party won, hands down. It remains to be seen what else they’ll win.

Dana Spiotta is the author of the forthcoming novel, “Stone Arabia.”


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