An old weathered sign stands as sentinel in a San Francisco marina. I stand and look at its wrinkled surface and bits of playful graffiti. Its edges are frayed and worn. Tiny bits of lichen sprout from its sides, reminding me of the hairy ears of an old man. I figure that the sign has been performing its duty of quite some time.
The sign's message is clear. "5." It is a model of efficiency and understatement. Could any of us simply utter "5" without provocation and have anyone anyone comprehend us? But the sign is big and effective in its old age. It is there to slow the boats down and to protect the small harbor. In the United States this, of course, means that the speed limit is 5 mph. But a sign like this need not explain itself. Standing in the fog, rain, wind, and blistering sun it needs no apology nor definition.
A motor boat roars up from behind me. I am on a spit that separates marina from bay. I turn around to watch it. The old boat is on its way back to its slip and, from the sound of the eager engine, the pilot is cold and tired. But, as it confronts the sign it slows down with impressive immediacy. The boat settles down and rocks, unable to keep ahead of its own wake. The boat passes the sign in slow reverence, as if it were a senior citizen acknowledging the continued survival of another. I watch the boat obey the five-mile-per-hour speed limit and then look back up at the sign. I decide the sign is worth honoring and photographing. I kneel low and look way up at sign and sky. While I make my image I notice that its graffiti reminds me of a tattoo. Tattoos on elders always surprise me&emdash;as it does here. I look back up and see that the boat is now gone. I silently wish a longer life the boat and sign, two old friends in this San Francisco morning.