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TimeSpace: Half A Tank
TimeSpace: Half A Tank

Post photographer Michael Williamson is traveling across the country covering the economic situation.

Ghost Signs

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Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

WHEATON, Md.--Michael had told me about the strip of abandoned stores near his house, but it wasn’t until I saw them, a cluster of fallen dominos, that I understood why he wanted me to go there.

“It’s not a dead mall, but damaged for sure,” he said.

He had bought both his daughters' computers at the shuttered Office Depot and had lunched at the now closed Checkers more times that he wanted to admit. Even his TV was from the Circuit City, which still has its blaring red roof but is missing its characteristic circle logo. It was one of several modern ghost signs Michael would photograph– scarred, faded facades that only hint at what was once there.

“I can tell you the history of that mall,” Michael said, before talking about the cigarette butts left by employees now gone and the grease dripping beneath a take-out window that hasn’t seen a customer in months. “What are we looking at? Is Wheaton Plaza an example of the damage done or a hint at more to come?”

It’s not unusual for Michael to talk like this when we're discussing the recession and why we’re making this trip. He finds irony in the signs above the doors at a nearby out-of-business movie theater that read: “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas Anymore -- Dorothy” and “Welcome to the real world – Morpheus.”

What struck me hardest as we drove through that parking lot was not the abandoned stores but the carnival that had set up in front of one. “Welcome to the Fun Zone,” read a sign just feet from the store's bolted doors. Several families were waiting there at 8 p.m. even though the rides remained still and the booths closed.

Cecelia Alvarez, 32, had taken a 20-minute bus ride there with her 16-year-old son and 23-year-old friend. Her husband has been out of work for seven months but it’s important to have fun, she said in Spanish. She just didn’t know how much she could afford.

“It costs $2 to get in and so I don’t know if I’m going to have money for anything else,” she said.

“Maybe one” ride, her friend, Wendy Aguilar said.

They were among about a dozen people waiting there, hoping for a night of relatively affordable entertainment. But as a black sky replaced blue, it was clear the carnival wasn't going to open. It remained as still and dark as the lifeless buildings around it.

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By Theresa Vargas  |  June 2, 2009; 8:24 AM ET
Categories:  Sign of the Times  | Tags: Circuit City, Home Depot, sign  
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