Gay Guns

Despite feeling snubbed by Kerouac, Unreal's wide awake, hammered, packing pink heat and looking for a sign from God.

Sign of Christ
For the past 25 years, University City photographer Sam Fentress has been hunting down religious messages on America's highways and byways and taking pictures of them. He's just published the findings in his new book, Bible Road: Signs of Faith in the American Landscape. Unreal caught up with Fentress while he was, appropriately, on the road.

Unreal: So do you see any signs right now?

Sam Fentress: Actually, I just drove past one on Highway 57 near Mount Vernon that says "Hell is hot."

Dan Zettwoch

How do you find these signs?

Sometimes randomly, when I'm looking for other things. When people found out what I was doing, they'd tell me when they found something. But a lot of times they'd disappear by the time I'd get there.

What do you regret missing?

Once I had directions to a sign in Pennsylvania. It was supposed to have a mushroom cloud juxtaposed with a message about the beginning of end times. That one precipitated a fight. I went to check it out with my family in tow — all eight of us. It was a detour on a trip to Massachusetts. The kids were hungry and tired and crabby. I told my wife I just had one more lead to follow. And we got there, and it wasn't there. I really regret missing that one.

Which one is your favorite?

The one in Suitland, Maryland — of Christ Did It All Beauty Salon. I took a lot of shots, but this one is my favorite: It's a close-up — it's more mysterious, the layering of it, the glass, the metal security blinds. The glass says "Matthew 6:33." It refers to the quote from the Sermon on the Mount about not worrying what you wear or eat. It's like they're advertising against their own product.

Which denominations do the best signs?

I see more Protestant than Catholic. It's rare to see something put up by an Episcopalian. You see a lot more by Pentecostals and Baptists. I don't see a lot of Jewish or Islamic signs in the U.S.

Do you think there's potential for a sequel, like Torah or Koran or Bhagavad Gita Road?

I'll leave that to somebody else. I'm ready to move on to the next thing. I've seen "Trust Jesus" on highway pylons so many times, it would have to be extraordinary for me to stop and look at it.

Callous Indifference
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road, Jack Kerouac's paean to the splendor of road-tripping across the U.S.A. You'd think that a book that crisscrosses the country from New York to San Francisco might contain some mention of our fair city; we are, after all, the Gateway to the West.

But apparently not for Kerouac's alter ego, Sal Paradise. He first crosses his beloved Mississippi River — in Davenport, Iowa. Oh, the indignity!

We do get a couple of brief mentions later on, though, as Sal starts heading home: "We arrived in St. Louis at noon. I took a walk by the Mississippi River and watched the logs that came floating from Montana in the north — grand Odyssean logs of our continental dream. Old steamboats with their scrollwork more scrolled and withered by weather sat in the mud inhabited by rats." And later: "The muddy cobbles, the broken steamboats, the ancient signs, the grass and the ropes by the river. The endless poem."

Harumph. Frankly, we expected a little more than a few images of decay. Kerouac himself once said that St. Louis was the birthplace of Beat — or at least William S. Burroughs and Lucien Carr did, which is pretty much the same thing, isn't it? Why the indifference?

We decided to look into it and learned that Kerouac had suffered from phlebitis (inflamed veins in the leg) since his days in the Navy during World War II, and that he had a particularly nasty flare-up as he passed through St. Louis aboard a Greyhound in the fall of 1947. In between all the necking with his near-sighted seatmate (which did make it into the book), he spent the rest of the ride trying to massage the pain away. Hardly romantic and hardly worthy of his image as the intrepid adventurer, but possibly just enough to taint his memory of our city forever.

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