Column 4 U. FREE!

How do I hate the congested, unlovely mean streets of metro Orlando? Let me count the ways—but I seem to have misplaced my calculator.

So let me start here: The hand-lettered and cheaply manufactured signs hawking everything from hot yoga and firewood to cheap divorces and used furniture. Stuck in weedy patches of ground and tacked on power poles, these butt-ugly pygmy billboards are the final insult to an already grim landscape—zits on a sea hag.

Paralyzed for long minutes by gridlock at major intersections, it’s impossible for the shell-shocked motorist to block out the commercial flotsam and jetsam screaming in his field of vision.

“I’ll Buy Your Home. Cash in 48 Hours.”
“Car/Boat Wraps.”
“MDP Nails 10% Off.”
“Junk Cars. Title or Not.”
“Expert Uni Sex Full Body Wax.”
“Divorce $99.”

It’s an assault on the senses and sensibilities that has me praying for deliverance to a kinder, gentler fate, like being covered in honey and lowered into a nest of fire ants.
Which, of course, is why these clever entrepreneurs put the signs there. They know we are hopelessly trapped and that a certain percentage of us—out of boredom or desperate need or perverse curiosity—will write down the number and make the call.
“By the time someone calls a number on a sign by the side of the road, they are pretty desperate to sell their home,” says Susie Reale, a licensed real estate broker who has been posting “We Buy Houses” signs for years.

Her number was on a bright (some might say garish) yellow hand-lettered sign in an empty lot on Orange Avenue near downtown. “Executive Home For Sale” it read with an arrow pointing the way. “I’ve made a fortune off these signs,” she says.
Juslene Aubrey, the expert unisex body waxer, has a website but has been using street signs for seven months and says they bring in as many customers as The signs have already paid for themselves many times over. “I’m spending nothing for them,” she says.

It may not be pretty or prestigious, but it’s clear that advertising on cardboard at tail-pipe level is smart. The poor man’s eBay. Why cough up a small fortune for a 30-second TV spot that viewers will fast-forward on DVR when you can pay pennies for a yard sign with a captive audience that renews every time the light turns red?

Having said that, there are some things, like a brain surgeon, child care, carpet cleaning or a divorce, that I would never shop for on “bandit signs,” as Reale calls them because they violate sign codes. But that’s just me.

But when asked, “Where did you find your divorce lawyer?” at least some people in Orlando can honestly say, “On the side of the road.”

I called the number on the “Divorce $99” sign and spoke to a woman who said “we are not attorneys”—their service “works with a few attorneys in Orlando” and also does tax preparation. And the attractive $99 price?

“That’s a down payment to get the divorce started,” she said. The cost of divorces they handle ranges from $225 to $300. That’s a suspiciously good deal since the court-filing fee alone is around $400. Caveat emptor on that.

I’m also squeamish about second-hand furniture advertised in the weeds. The sign offering “Bunkbeds All New Solid Wood $135” was, literally, in the weeds off Sand Lake Road in south Orlando. I had to get out of my car and part the jungle to see the phone number.

It seems I’m not alone in my squeamishness. The sign has been there five months, the seller told me. “You are the only person that’s called.”

I’ve never bought anything advertised on a bandit sign, but if I did it would be firewood from Neal Hughey. He put up the “Firewood 4Sale” sign painted in sky-blue, outlined in black, on a square piece of plywood, attached to a power pole on South Conway Road.

What we have here is harmonic convergence between product and mode of advertising. There are half a dozen others like it spread around the area—15 to 20 during peak firewood season, says Hughey.

Hughey has a tree-trimming service, but since 1987 the bulk of his income has come from selling firewood to Orlandoans.
“We’re not getting rich,” he says, “but we make a decent living.”

And I thought the guy who sold ice cubes to Eskimos was a genius. 

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