For the last 34 years I have lived on Westminster Place in Alexandria, Virginia. The address, a cul de sac, was a happy accident, as a wonderful, affordable house just happened to be there and for sale the day after I asked my wife-to-be to marry me, but it has always given me pleasure. Westminster Abbey is third among my five favorite and most cherished places on earth, the others being Fenway Park, The Alamo, Disneyland, and the Gettysburg battlefield.
Protecting my address’s integrity isn’t easy. Everyone, from clerks to salespersons to the people who address our junk mail try to change the name to Westminister Place, only to be corrected by me, or when it happens to her, my anglophile wife. “It is Westminster Place, no “i”—you know, like the Abbey,” we say politely. The number of times the response is, “Huh? What abbey?” is a fact too depressing to relate.
Nevertheless, we refuse to let this constant attempted error pass. We have seen what can happen when illiteracy and ignorance are permitted to prevail and fester.
Just a few blocks away from us is the intersection known locally as Stupid Corner, where for decades the Waffle House there has sported a sign reading “WAFLE HOUSE.” The sign immediately lowers the IQ of anyone nearby: there mothers push their baby carriages into traffic, and pedestrians mysteriously forget where they were headed. (I just made four typos even writing about it.) When they repainted the traffic lanes—I’m not making this up—there was an arrow turning LEFT painted in the far right lane, an arrow point RIGHT in the middle lane, and an arrow pointing STRAIGHT ahead in the far left lane, when in fact no lane could go straight, since the road ends there. It was like a Stephen King story. “The Stupiding.”
Well, one of my family members who will remain nameless was going a bit too fast in their vehicle when they took the turn from the main street onto our cul de sac, and wiped out both a stop sign and the street signs. We paid for replacements, which took multiple phone calls and several letters to get them installed by the city. Finally, last week they finally went up.
Our address is now Westminister Place. I have no idea what the import of this is, in practical terms. Will it change the official name of our locale, if left uncorrected? Are we now obligated to start spelling our cul de sac the wrong way, so it matches our street sign? Must I say to cabbies, who never can find the place anyway, “We live on Westminster Place, no “i,” like the Abbey, but you need to look for the sign that spells it Westminister Place, which is wrong but if you look for the correct spelling, then you’ll miss it”?
That’s ridiculous. The sign just has to be fixed, doesn’t it? This mistake embodies a “broken window theory” of illiteracy. If I let it stand, who knows what will be next? Will my neighbors start using “ain’t” and their children start talking like Honey Boo-Boo? I can’t live with that on my conscience. What if the corner of my own street becomes another “Stupid Corner”? What if the Marshalls start watching reality shows and Ed Schultz, and start agitating for a third term for Barack Obama?
And yet it took over a year to get the city to replace the street sign when there was nothing. How much time and complaining will it take to persuade them to replace a sign with a misspelling that almost nobody realizes is a misspelling? Certainly this will seem like harassment and the rantings of a deranged fanatic. “Sir, the City of Alexandria really has higher priorities than fixing the typo in your street sign,” I will be told. Will that be fair? How do we know that the misspelling won’t spread, first turning up when I realize that I am watching the Westminister Dog Show, then eventually crossing the Atlantic and defiling the burial place of Chaucer, Darwin, and Browning? If that a happens, it will be my fault. Don’t I owe Western civilization more diligence and respect?
My neighbors on the cul de sac don’t care. I told one of them about it yesterday. “Really? Didn’t notice it. I don’t think nobody pays no attention to them signs anyway,” opined the retired Foreign Service official and Princeton grad who lives next to us.
Wait…what did he say?
Today I considered how I might be able to use matching green paint to pluck out the offending “i.” That would be destroying public property, however; illegal and thus especially unethical for a lawyer, even though I have a valid argument for an exception. But the resulting street name would be Westmin ster Place. Is that even an improvement?
What, oh what, should I do?