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Jewish World Review Oct. 18, 1999 /8 Mar-Cheshvan 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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The signs are talking to you; Are you listening? --
METAMORA, Ill. The billboards by the sides of America's highways are there to sell you something.

But sometimes, almost in spite of themselves, they tell you something.

The billboard -- placed by a major airline -- said: "Last Chance to See 20th Century Europe."

As a slogan, it wasn't bad at all -- playing off the idea that the century is coming to an end, and that there are places to go.

But, as much as all the Y2K talk, as much as all the summations of the great events of the last 100 years, the words on the billboard have a strange lingering power.

Because in a few months, it will, indeed, be the case: 20th Century Europe will be gone. It will have drifted into the category of 19th Century England and 17th Century France -- something faded, something irretrievable.

And if you haven't gotten there yet -- if you haven't been able to see 20th Century Europe--your time has just about run out.

Not that everything will change overnight: The fabled cities will look no different in January than they do now, the museums and monuments won't collapse and turn to dust as the last day of December is torn from the calendar.

Yet the idea that 20th Century Europe -- which today is available, ready for anyone to take a look, as mundane as a cheeseburger -- will, very shortly, be beyond value, because it's gone . . .

The idea that if you don't get there soon no amount of money and no amount of ambition can ever get you there . . .

Well, it's just a billboard. Billboards are always promoting sales -- last chance to buy this kind of washing machine at this price -- but some thoughts stop you. 20th Century Europe: going out of business.

"Plea Bargains -- $129.95."

Those were the words on the billboard next to a highway in southern Missouri. I saw it last summer; my apologies if I got the dollar figure wrong -- I was so stunned by the idea that the billboard was unapologetically there that I didn't write down the exact amount of money. Could have been a little less, could have been a little more.

But this much I know: A law firm was advertising for clients and using those words. The law firm was saying that for a set fee, its attorneys would go into court and cut a deal for you.

There probably was some accuracy in the words; on minor crimes, especially certain traffic crimes, prosecutors and judges do not like to take up courtroom time, and the charges are often bargained down.

Still . . . the nakedness of the offer . . .

We have come quite a way from the days when there was great controversy over whether attorneys should be allowed to advertise at all -- whether advertising demeaned their profession. Today it is difficult to watch late-night television without seeing a succession of lawyers beckoning you to their offices, like so many carnival barkers outside a worn canvas tent.

This sign was merely the logical extension. The majesty of the law, the grandeur of the justice system: "Plea Bargains--$129.95."

The billboard was advertising a brand of luxury automobile. Here were the words that passing motorists saw:

"Be the Person the Chat Room Thinks You Are."

Even five years ago, that billboard would not have been possible -- not enough people would have understood the reference. Not enough people were addicted to their computer screens.

People tell lies in chat rooms. That is the implicit understanding behind the words on the billboard: People, in the anonymity of computer chat rooms, exchanging messages with strangers from around the globe, using code names and aliases, can be wealthy, can be handsome, can be exciting, can be successful. Even if they are none of those.

In the chat rooms, no one will ever know the difference.

It has become so much a part of life that a car company can now base its sales pitch on the thought. Are you rich and dashing in the chat rooms? Seem like that in real life, too -- purchase our car, and people will think that you're on top of the world.

It's just exchanging one illusion for another -- being judged by the life story you invent for yourself on your computer, being judged by the car that surrounds you as you cruise down the road -- but now it's a part of everyday commerce.

Be the person the chat room thinks you are.

What would they have thought about that in 20th Century Europe?

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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