OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

This column is called "Stuart Elliott in America", so for my summer vacation I thought I would bring that phrase to life and visit America - that is, cross the Hudson River, which residents of New York supposedly almost never do, and experience first hand that big, wide, wonderful consuming country out there that is the target of most of Madison Avenue's handiwork.

To Nick Brien, who in this space two weeks ago wrote that he was standing in for me because I was "in the Hamptons , all I can say is that nowhere in the 13 states I covered in my 17-day, 3,827-mile road trip - in that most appropriate of rent-a-cars, a 2003 Mercury Grand Marquis LS with "Precision Trac", as a plaque on the dashboard boasted - did I find anything remotely resembling that fabled posh summer playground.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Indeed, it was a delight to experience the mainstream consumer lifestyle that's denied to those of us who live on the crowded island of Manhattan because there's no space to build gigantic stores and no room on the stunted shelves of the miniaturised retail outlets we do have for most new products.

I got to ring up my own groceries at a do-it-yourself checkout stand at a Kroger supermarket in Lincoln Park, Michigan; roam the aisles of Wal-Marts and Targets; eat "steakburgers at Steak 'n' Shake restaurants; marvel over the existence of Pounce Tartar Control cat treats; and drink Coca-Cola's Dasani water out of cans instead of bottles.

TV commercials appearing on local stations were a trip in and of themselves.

You'll think twice about slamming a big-budget spot for a blue-chip brand from a major agency after sitting through down-home creations, such as a commercial for the South Florida Jeep dealers urging drivers to "Beep, beep in a Jeep! or a commercial for a mall grandly named The Gardens of the Palm Beaches that distills life down to three basic elements: "See. Be seen. Be seen shopping."

It was also fun to read the myriad billboards along the freeways and expressways. If I drove to work regularly, I'm sure I'd consider them nuisances or eyesores, but on a one-time-only basis, who could resist their appealing cheekiness and charm?

The highlights included a sign for Procter & Gamble's Tide detergent reading "Nice Day. Top Down. Bad Pigeon"; an ad for the South Carolina Aquarium with a picture of a frog next to the words "Formerly known as Prince"; a pitch for the steaks sold at Winn-Dixie supermarkets that was just three words long, "Love Me Tender"; and an effort to encourage churchgoing signed by God that proclaimed, "Don't Make Me Come Down There."

Speaking of billboards, one phenomenon I'd not known about before the trip was the arrival of ads for X-rated adult nightclubs and bookstores along the roads of the federal interstate highway system. Call me old-fashioned, but it was startling to glimpse signs pitching Southern "X"-Posure, a "premiere (sic) gentlemen's club in West Virginia; Cafe Risque, in Georgia; and Cafe Erotica ("We Dare! We Bare!"), in Florida.

That frankness was not limited to billboards. A radio station in Savannah, Georgia, ran a commercial promoting itself during which a disk jockey declared, "There's a word for our competition, and his sidekick chimed in: "Is 'crap hole' one word?"

You'd never hear anything like that in New York. Ever.

Sheesh. Everyone there knows it's two words.

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