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by Jeff Steinbrink

John Hancock and the Electronic Age.

My signature bears witness to the breakdown of civilization as we know it. My signature used to be a thing of beauty — of distinction, anyway — a march of erect and discernable letters, some of them half-printed, ending in a bold lateral sweep. It was the sort of signature you'd expect from a man of substance — a pirate or a cowboy or an astronaut. Now it's just a jumpy squiggle, a bad EKG readout, a worm. I have, almost all of us have, lost it.

My credit card ate my signature and in its place upchucked this senseless scrawl. There was a time when I could write my name as well as the next person and when a reader of discernment could tell that it was a signature and not an IOU or a note directing a bank teller to PUT CASH IN BAG NOW! I had worked hard on my penmanship in grade school, during several dreary years at the hands of the Sisters of Perpetual Torment, and took pride in a John Hancock as readable as John Hancock's. I'd beam with innocent satisfaction as the checkout guy at the supermarket or muffler shop or tattoo parlor held the signature on my Visa receipt up to the one on my Visa card. Admiringly, I thought.

Then awhile back I was with a friend who was buying paint at a paint store. He's the kind of guy who buys paint with confidence, with attitude. For some reason, paint leaves a paper trail like a controlled substance, and paint stores churn out big receipts, in triplicate, that customers have to sign. My friend signed his receipt by holding the pen at its far end, like a probe, producing a scribble that was somewhere between an "X" and that thing that used to be Prince's name. He did the same with his Visa charge, but of course the scribble came out different, sort of a sheep-shaped thing, emitting sparks. The paint store guy never raised an eyebrow, and my friend swaggered off with his paint.

I didn't let on that anything shocking — not to say illegal — had happened, but I did start paying attention to how other people were signing for credit card charges, and it was always the same:  little old ladies and I hunkered down and made real signatures. Just about everybody else seemed no fonder of the pen than they would have been of a rectal thermometer. They grabbed it off the counter, made a stab with it at the charge chit, and were rid of it all in one motion. The coolest customers made absolutely no attempt at signatures. The scrawls they left behind for the Visa and MasterCard beancounters gave no indication that they were familiar with the concept of written language. It was as if they had been suckled by wolves and then come straight into Crate & Barrel to buy margarita glasses and a cappuccino machine.

So I began to experiment. I was cautious at first, dropping a couple of letters off my Visa signature, not bothering to cross T's, that sort of thing. When nobody said anything I devolved to the squiggle. At first it was a plausible sort of squiggle, the kind of thing that might pass for the signature of the drunk or demented. Not a problem:  if a supermarket checker ever checked these things against the genuine, dead serious signature on the back of my credit card, she'd just hand them back to me with a smile and wish me a nice day.

Everything fell to pieces after that, and I joined the ruthlessly illiterate. The scribbles I made on sales receipts became as abstract and indecipherable as anything in MOMA. I made a row of slashes, like a cornfield in a strong wind. I made snakes and crawly things of every description. I made curlicues. I tried my left hand. I flatlined. Nothing made any difference. For all the salespeople cared, I could have dipped a hamster's tail in ink and sent him skittering across my charges.

My lovely former signature still graces my driver's license, but it's fast becoming as much a relic as the ancient habits of the Sisters of Perpetual Torment. I mean to send the Sisters a small acknowledgment of the pains they took with my handwriting — flowers, maybe, with a gift card whose mouse-tail scribble they'll recognize as the mark of Satan Himself. I'll put it on my credit card.

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Articles in this Issue

A Soul's Weight, by Mary Roach
Know Me Now, by Steve Lohse
Veterans, by Tom Bissell
A Field of Trees and Bones, by Kate Pickert
Circum-schism, by Grant Stoddard
Nutrition, by Benjamin Hart
Hospitality and Tourism, by Peter Olszewski
Horticulture, by Kathryn Small
Penmanship, by Jeff Steinbrink
Economics, by Robert Sullivan


Jeff Steinbrink teaches American Lit and Creative Writing at Franklin & Marshall College. His commentaries can be heard on public radio's Marketplace.

Where loss is found.

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