Hopper and Fonda went looking for adventure and whatever else would come their way on their epic cross-country odyssey. Borat set out to find the heart and soul of America, plus any part of Pamela Anderson he could get his hands on. Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson have a different objective in mind as they motor across the country this spring in their '97 Nissan Sentra.
They chase the misplaced apostrophe, the disagreeing subject and verb.
The horror (as opposed to "horor") of a courthouse sign, engraved and erected at taxpayer expense, omitting the first "o" in "meteorological." The "desserts" unjustly advertised as "deserts" on a restaurant wall.
They seek, in short, to do for America's public signage what spell-check software has done for interoffice e-mail: smarten it up and make it easier on the eye. Their weapons: Wite-Out, markers, ink pens, tape, and nerves of steel.
"I figured, Steinbeck had his dog and Kerouac had his drugs. I'd have my typos," said the 28-year-old Deck of what he calls his Typo Hunt Across America tour.
Deck, speaking by phone from somewhere in the Deep South as he and Herson rumble westward, says the point of the trip isn't to wag fingers at those who commit or ignore signage errata. It's to raise public awareness around an issue - a plague, really - that typically elicits a blank stare or shoulder shrug, if that.
"We're not going after people in a self-righteous manner, like fashion police. Or trying to make them look stupid," Deck said. "Instead, we're addressing specific errors like confusing 'its' for 'it's' or 'you're" for 'your.' Finding and correcting these, even every once in a while, is incredibly satisfying."
Deck left Somerville on March 5 and picked up Herson in Maryland, a few stops down the road. Since hitting the highway, they've put many hundreds of miles on the Sentra getting to such places as Hoboken, N.J.; Lansdowne, Pa.; Silver Spring, Md.; Virginia Beach, Va.; Morehead City, N.C.; Charleston, S.C.; Atlanta; Mobile, Ala.; New Orleans; Galveston, Texas; Albuquerque; and Flagstaff, Ariz.
Typo-correction kit in hand, they've targeted signs at shopping malls, banks, parks, and roadside cafes, among other venues. Errors of logic ("NO REFUND or NO EXCHANGE on any SEASONAL or SALE ITEM"), agreement ("Referred to as the 'Golden Apple,' lemons flavor and preserve foods . . ."), spelling ("Cakes for All Occassions"), and punctuation ("Cars will be towed at owners expense") have been identified and, in dozens of cases, corrected to proper English.
When confronted, store managers and other respondents have been good-natured about it, Deck said. For the most part.
"There's been no manhandling or fisticuffs, at least not yet," he said. Sometimes, he added, "when a typo is literally or figuratively out of reach, like behind a locked, chain link fence, there's nothing you can do about it anyway."
The itinerary was plotted around springtime weather. However, Deck and Herson also picked places where they can stay with friends for free. Their plan is to reach San Diego by April 1 before starting a three-week trek up the West Coast, then return East along a northerly route, arriving in New England in mid-May.
Herson, 28, had planned to leave the tour in California and head back East to hike the Appalachian Trail, but now says he's considering joining Deck on the return leg. Meanwhile, Deck will be picking up two more traveling companions over the next couple of weeks: Josh Roberts and Jane Connolly, Deck's girlfriend. Connolly has been overseeing the website (jeffdeck.com/teal) where Deck and Herson are blogging on a near daily basis, each entry capped with a tabulation of typos identified and corrected since the previous entry.
According to Deck, the idea for the trip came to him in the shower. At that moment, he said, he thought about how irritated he'd become at the profusion of grammatically challenged signs. Here a "they're," there a "their," everywhere a "there" but where it ought to be.
"It's easy to overlook and dismiss the misuse of apostrophes," he said. "But there came a point when I couldn't hold it anymore. I decided to make this a national campaign, although I was kind of looking for an excuse to travel around the country anyway."
Herson, who was working in a Borders bookstore in Virginia Beach when he got the call from Deck, didn't need a whole lot of persuading. "The typo thing was just goofy enough to seem like a lot of fun," he said.
A Manchester, N.H., native, Deck graduated from Dartmouth in 2002 with a degree in creative writing. He and Herson, a Dartmouth classmate, later moved to Washington, D.C., where Deck worked for an academic publishing house and as a magazine and journal editor. In 2006 he relocated to Somerville, taking an administrative job at MIT's Center for Global Change Science. A published short-story writer, Deck has applied to several graduate programs in creative writing for next fall.
Have any regional or geographical patterns emerged so far?
"Every place we've visited has its own weaknesses," says Deck. "Generally, though, sole-proprietor signs are more error-prone than national-chain signs are." The tradeoff, he said, "is the city having a soul."
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.