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Get the Message? : Laundry Sign Offers Weekly Nuggets of Homespun Wisdom

June 18, 1989|BETTINA BOXALL | Times Staff Writer

It is an improbable source of mom-and-apple-pie wisdom: a laundry company's sign board on a dowdy strip of Anaheim Street at the edge of the Cambodian business district.

Yet there, week in and week out, year after year, Nuway Linen and Uniform Rental Service of Long Beach dispenses doses of homey sayings in four lines of 80 characters or less. Drivers never know, cruising down Anaheim, what gem of Ann Landers-like advice will confront them, encouraging, teasing or sermonizing.

"If you worry about missing the boat, remember the Titanic," Nuway counsels the keep-up-with-the- Joneses set.

"To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing," the laundry instructs the sensitive.

"Macho isn't mucho," it informs would-be tough guys.

"Keep flaring and you will burn out soon," it warns the angry.

The drive-by homilies have been appearing on the board since the 1950s, when Nuway erected the sign. But it was not until the 1970s that they became the board's regular fare, attracting a faithful following of readers who comment, offer their own slogans, and even kvetch if a boring advertisement too long replaces the tips for living.

The musings are, in their down-home way, of course, a far more memorable advertisement for the commercial laundry than a "give us your dirty sheets" entreaty could ever be.

"Nobody knows where Nuway is, but if you say I work where the sign is, they know," said Rod Chandler, the company office manager who 11 years ago turned to one of his employees, Gini Conner, to take over the tradition of free advice.

Conner, a Nuway worker for 13 years, feels the weight of her responsibility. After all, she has a reputation to uphold.

People tell her they drive down Anaheim just to read her thought of the week. She has received fan letters ("They are not the ordinary, trite, cutesy quotes in the least," wrote one devotee), has been invited to a bar by someone who wanted to buy her book of slogans (she didn't go and doesn't have the book), and had people walk in off the street to declare the rightness of her slogans.

"I would love to say they came out of my head, but it's not the truth," concedes Conner, who works in the accounts receivable department.

Ever alert for the appropriately sized quote, Conner snatches them from the Reader's Digest, greeting cards, books and anybody who gives her one she likes.

A middle-aged widow and mother of two grown children, Conner has her standards. The phrases can't be too political, too religious or too far out. By and large they reflect a "plain ol', every day, apple-pie, baseball and American-flag philosophy." It just so happens to be hers, and she says, "I think a lot of people still have those ideals."

Only twice, Conner recalled, has anyone complained about the slogan of the week. One was perceived as anti-feminist. It was something about women and grocery lines.

Only once can she remember being stuck for something new to put on the board. That was a few weeks ago, for Mother's Day week. She headed for a nearby drugstore, browsed through the cards and found something. "I didn't buy the card," she confessed.

She tinkers with the idea of putting together a book of all the sayings she has used. People already think she has one. In fact, a teacher called her once, asking for a copy for her students, and got irate when Conner told her there was no such book.

"I've gone to the library and looked at quote books and I know I could do much better," she said, adding that they tend to be full of long-winded quotes from long-dead men, such as Thomas Jefferson.

The laundry firm dates back to the 1920s, and although it was bought out by a national company in 1981, Nuway executives seem to like the old-fashioned flavor reflected by the sign board.

Where else can they declare, as the board did: "Conference, a meeting of the bored."

After hearing complaints that the board was devoted to advertising a truck Nuway was trying to sell, one of Conner's bosses told her to change the sign.

"The boss told me to change the sign, so I did," the board read the next day.

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