Moodswing - Get right with God

Searching for signs, great and small

You wouldn’t think there were cool things about living in a crack neighborhood, but there are.

Take your neighbors. Seriously. Not all of them are criminals. Most of them are so glad you’re not another crack dealer, addict or whore that you can get away with practically anything, I swear. It’s not like in the suburbs, where I was once ostracized just because I owned ugly dogs.

In crack neighborhoods, people prefer their dogs ugly, and nobody bitches at you if your car is dented and has a sticker on the bumper — put there as a practical joke — which reads, “Teenage Prostitute to the Stars.” You could even decorate your garden with dozens of severed doll heads on spikes, which is what Chris actually did, and it hardly garners a side-glance.

I mean, sure, there are the gang fights and the gunfights and the occasional copulating in public for profit. But, hey, at least in crack neighborhoods you can paint your windowsills purple without the risk of being run out of town by torch-wielding villagers. At least there is that.

For us, the true test came when Grant dropped by with a sign as big as a Winnebago, made from wood and roofing tin, with bulky green-and-red letters that blared, “GET RIGHT WITH GOD” on both sides. He propped it up on the side of our house, covering almost the entire wall. I would have moved it, but it weighed as much as the planet Mars. So it stayed there, like a big beacon of ugliness, rusting in the rain for nearly two years, and not a single neighbor complained.

Thank God, because that sign has history for me. Grant wasn’t even playing another practical joke when he put it there. The three of us — Daniel, Grant and I — had found that sign years ago during a retarded road trip in which it took us 11 hours just to get to Soddy Daisy. And I swear I still have no idea where Soddy Daisy is; I just know it’s not very far from Atlanta, because when the counter girl at the QuikTrip told us where we were, Grant laughed so hard he bent over double.

“Eleven hours to get to Soddy Daisy!” he kept laughing. Of course it was his fault. Grant told us when we started out that he’s allergic to the interstate, so we let him tool us through every side street and highway he wanted. We ended up wandering in the fog, passing a church marquee that said, “Courage Is Fear Combined with Prayer.”

In Soddy Daisy, we opted to continue driving until Daniel’s ass got tired from sitting on the tiny jump bench tucked behind the bucket seats in Grant’s truck cab.

That led us to desolate Dayton, Tenn., where we ate at an Italian restaurant called, curiously, the Golden Monkey. The name was in commemoration of the famous “Monkey Trial” of Dayton, in which Clarence Darrow defended a teacher named John Scopes, who was prosecuted for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution. Waiting for our spaghetti, we looked around the restaurant, which was decorated with about a billion dusty, stuffed carnival-booth monkeys.

“You know,” Grant said absently, “courage is not fear combined with prayer. Courage is fear that said, ‘Fuck it.’”

The next morning, we departed Dayton and remembered why we started the trip to begin with — to search for authentic roadside religious signs. This was back when Grant collected them, before he started painting his own .

We didn’t see our first one until the second day, but it was a beauty. Grant and Daniel spotted it immediately and began whooping like frat boys at a beer rally. I was blind to it at first, even though it was bigger than the community satellite dish for an entire trailer park. The sheer hugeness of it is probably why I couldn’t see it. Roadside religious signs, generally, are no bigger than the top of a coffee table, so when you’re looking for something that small, it’s often hard to see the big stuff. It took all three of us to carry it to the truck, and even then it was so big it wouldn’t lay flat on the bed. We had to angle it sideways, and that’s how we drove home, with a giant “GET RIGHT WITH GOD” sign sticking almost straight up in the back of the truck.

Years later, Grant would temporarily move to Mexico, and I would come home to find that sign propped against my house — a departure gift. “GET RIGHT WITH GOD,” it trumpeted boldly. None of my neighbors complained, so we left it there until it was time for us to move as well, which is when Chris lugged it to the backyard and leaned it against the fence.

Chris and I now live in Grant Park, where our neighbor grumbles about our dog and our dented car. We still own the other house, though someone else lives in it. And last I looked, the sign was still there in the backyard — faded, rusty and covered with foliage.

“GET RIGHT WITH GOD,” it still blared like a beacon. And I couldn’t believe I ever missed it the first time.

Hollis Gillespie’s commentaries can be heard on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” To hear the latest, go to Moodswing at ??