No vacancy

In today’s Zippy, our Pinhead seeks signs … in signs, specifically at the West Motel, on Historic Lincoln Highway, 4040 Columbia Avenue, Columbia PA:


Lord, give me a sign! he cries. And as Zippy watches the West Motel sign, searching for something to believe in, there comes a sign: the NO of NO VACANCY blinks on; Zippy is no longer vacant.

Plays on the ambiguity of sign and on the ambiguity of vacant.

The crucial ambiguities. From NOAD:

noun sign: 1 [a] an object, quality, or event whose presence or occurrence indicates the probable presence or occurrence of something else: flowers are often given as a sign of affection | [with clause]: the stores are full, which is a sign that the recession is past its worst. [b] something regarded as an indication or evidence of what is happening or going to happen: the signs are that counterfeiting is growing at an alarming rate.

2 [a] a gesture or action used to convey information or instructions: she gave him the thumbs-up sign. [b] a notice that is publicly displayed giving information or instructions in a written or symbolic form: I didn’t see the stop sign.

Zippy seeks a sign in sense [1b], an indication of what’s happening now or is about to; and, as he understands things, he is given this indication, in a sign in sense [2b], the motel’s sign.

Also from NOAD:

adj. vacant: [a] (of premises) having no fixtures, furniture, or inhabitants; empty. [b] (of a position or office) not filled: the president resigned and the post was left vacant. [c] (of a person or their expression) having or showing no intelligence or interest: a vacant stare.

The sign tells is that the motel has no vacancy in sense [a], no unit that is empty of inhabitants. Which Zippy takes as an indication that he is not vacant in sense [c], devoid of intelligence or interest.

Signs from God. In both Jewish and Christan tradition, God sends signs to his people, and his people beseech their God for signs. In Christian tradition, the central such sign is the one foretold in the Hebrew Bible, in Isaiah 7:14 (KJV):

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

(Cue: the early sections of Handel’s Messiah, appropriate to this holiday season.)

The West Motel. The sign that appears in #1, and the motel itself:

(#2) The sign indicates a vacancy


Not far away, on a different stretch of the Lincoln Highway:

(#4) Lincoln Highway Diner, Historic Lincoln Highway, 1370 Lancaster Avenue, Columbia PA

Now permanently closed, the diner looks like an extraordinary piece of roadside architecture.

Columbia PA. From Wikipedia:

Columbia, formerly Wright’s Ferry, is a borough (town) in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, 28 miles (45 km) southeast of Harrisburg on the east (left) bank of the Susquehanna River, across from Wrightsville and York County and just south of U.S. Route 30. The settlement was founded in 1726 by Colonial English Quakers from Chester County led by entrepreneur and evangelist John Wright. Establishment of the eponymous Wright’s Ferry, the first commercial Susquehanna crossing in the region, inflamed territorial conflict with neighboring Maryland but brought growth and prosperity to the small town, which was just a few votes shy of becoming the new United States’ capital. Though besieged for a short while by Civil War destruction, Columbia remained a lively center of transport and industry throughout the 19th century, once serving as a terminus of the Pennsylvania Canal. Later, however, the Great Depression and 20th-century changes in economy and technology sent the borough into decline. It is notable today as the site of one of the world’s few museums devoted entirely to horology.

A long and significant history, though the place is now just a pleasant small town.

On the map:

(#5) SE of Harrisburg, SW of Reading, between York and Lancaster

And not far from the Maryland state line (dotted on the map), which is to say, the Mason-Dixon line.

This is family territory for me. My mother’s mother grew up in rural Lancaster County, and my father and I grew up in suburbs and the countryside just to the west of Reading. Meanwhile, Lebanon PA is where Lebanon bologna comes from, and Hershey PA is where the chocolates come from.

The Lincoln Highway. Columbia PA has another distinction, as a major stop on an early transcontinental highway, from over a hundred years ago (to put things in personal historical perspective, the highway was dedicated the year before my parents were born, and I’m an old man). From Wikipedia:

(#6) 1916 route map of the Lincoln Highway

The Lincoln Highway was one of the earliest transcontinental highways for automobiles across the United States of America. Conceived in 1912 by Indiana entrepreneur Carl G. Fisher, and formally dedicated October 31, 1913, the Lincoln Highway ran coast-to-coast from Times Square in New York City west to Lincoln Park in San Francisco, originally through 13 states: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California. In 1915, the “Colorado Loop” was removed, and in 1928, a realignment relocated the Lincoln Highway through the northern tip of West Virginia. Thus, there are a total of 14 states, 128 counties, and more than 700 cities, towns and villages through which the highway passed at some time in its history.

… The Lincoln Highway was gradually replaced with numbered designations after the establishment of the U.S. Numbered Highway System in 1926, with most of the route becoming part of U.S. Route 30 from Pennsylvania to Wyoming. After the Interstate Highway System was formed in the 1950s, the former alignments of the Lincoln Highway were largely superseded by Interstate 80 as the primary coast-to-coast route from the New York City area to San Francisco.


One Response to “No vacancy”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    One thing that puzzled me mightily about this strip was the phrase (repeated from the sign by Zippy) “Modern Rates”. What on earth is that supposed to mean?

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