He’s breaking up the scenery
A Pleasant Valley resident uses his U.S. Highway 395 frontage as an opinion column
In the early morning hours, Gerry Larrivee heads to the production area in his garage. He chooses his letters and words carefully, then screws them onto a large piece of melamine. Then he carries the board to the back of his property. Horses look up at Larrivee with brief curiosity.
He hoists his sign into a tree with a homemade pulley device and steps back. Now, 40,000 people a day driving at least 50 miles per hour can read Larrivee’s suggestion on how to punish the World Trade Center terrorists: “Retaliate. Give ’em Booze and Porn.”
This sign is by no means Larrivee’s first attempt at public discourse via signage. Larrivee’s guerrilla propaganda has earned the 49-year-old quite a reputation in Pleasant Valley.
"[The signs provide] an anonymous, sagely bit of advice,” says Harry Thomas, who commutes from Washoe Valley. “Almost godlike. It’s cool. It’s like one of those Magic 8 Balls. You never know what’s going to pop up next.”
Larrivee started putting up his opinion signs in October 2000. His first sign was comment on the gaming tax hikes in the Legislature proposed by Sen. Joe Neal, D-Las Vegas: “Yea Joe Neal!” Larrivee tells me that he believes that the people of Nevada should benefit more from gambling.
The white sign with spray-painted letters sits right in front of Highway 395 through Pleasant Valley and changes at least every week. The sign gives Larrivee a chance to do some occasional self-promotion. “Gerry’s Bobcat Rocks,” touts his own land-clearing business. He calls this sign an “expression,” not an advertisement.
Larrivee is a retired firefighter from Cranston, R.I., where he and his wife Carolyn lived until 1995 when they heard the call of the West and moved to Nevada.
“Rhode Island is a crooked, crooked, crooked state,” Larrivee tells me, shaking his head. He’s wearing a faded blue Cranston Fire and Rescue T-shirt. His beard is touched with gray, and his tanned face is mapped with laugh lines. I watch as his dog, Murphy, runs around the back yard.
Not that he thinks Nevada is without problems. He tells me the state is “like a Third World country with better medical care.” Many of his slogans, which he tries to keep up-to-date, show his displeasure with some political issues. Besides the Sept. 11 tragedy, his signs have addressed the leukemia epidemic in Fallon and what he describes as the last botched presidential election.
What does Larrivee hope to accomplish with all this sign painting and hanging?
Well, he does want to get people thinking. He also invites conversation.
Sometimes he posts his phone number, but it is rare to get a comment he can run with. Most people call to say how much they like the sign, but no one really has anything negative to say.
“I try to make them smile,” he says. “I try to make them think. I want to tickle their imagination. If I make someone think for five minutes, that’s more than some teachers are able to do.”
He also tries to stir up a little controversy with signs like “Leave Your Screamin’ Babies Home” and “Curb Your Barkin’ Dogs.”
After Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson made comments blaming the Sept. 11 attacks on the actions of gays and abortionists, he thought up another sign idea.
The sign said, “A Poll: Has God Quit Us? 849-7760.” He received no calls.
“What I put on a sign is not going to change the way this state is run,” he says. “It is not going to change the way the nation is run. I just want to see where people’s heads are.”
As the president of a land owner’s association, Larrivee is concerned with the growth that encroaches on the valleys south of Reno.
By studying local traffic counts, he determined that 40,000 drivers a day drive past his signs. He agrees with predictions that the traffic in this area will double by 2011.
But he’s not just concerned about local issues. An article he read in his old hometown paper, The Providence Journal, mentioned that if President Bush had taken the money he sent to the American people as a tax relief and had instead given it to the nation’s nursing homes, all elderly people in nursing homes would now be fully funded.
It’s issues such as these that really get Larrivee’s blood boiling.
“I have a lot to say about a lot of things. If something hits me, out it goes. Maybe if I am publicly loud, something will change.”
Though Larrivee has his fans, not all commuters appreciate the signs screaming at them as they drive past every day.
“In the beginning it was fun,” says Toni Overhouse, who also commutes from Washoe Valley. “I liked his ‘Give Life. Give Blood’ sign, but he’s gotten out of control. It’s been too much of a good thing.”
Sometimes Larrivee uses his signs to show support for the working man—and the working woman.
Since Larrivee’s wife, Carolyn, is a nurse at Saint Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Reno, Larrivee uses his melamine voice to stand up for nurses. But he also gives kudos to fire-fighters, and one sign he painted declared, “Pay Teechers” with the intentional misspelling.
Carolyn says she appreciates her husband’s signs.
“It’s a good idea,” she says. “It’s creative, and I’m glad he does it.”
Larrivee tries not to be malicious with his public comments and tries not let his signs cause financial harm to any company he may have a beef with. He wants to be controversial, but he does not want to find himself in court.
“I don’t want a lawsuit, but I also don’t want someone to [impinge] on my freedom of expression,” he says. “It is not what I say; it’s how I say it.”
He admits, though, to using the sign concept as a scare tactic once. When he had trouble getting a pump for his home spa, he told a company executive, “I have a highway billboard and property with 40,000 people a day going by. If you don’t want it to read ‘Never again a [name of spa company withheld],’ you’ll send the pump.”
“I got the pump in two days,” he boasts. Larrivee says he doesn’t know how long he’ll be exercising his freedom of expression. He shows no signs of fatigue, as far as coming up with new slogans goes. Besides, it gives him something to do.
“I try to do something new every day,” he says, laughing. “I need a challenge. My wife says I have adult-onset ADD, but I just need something to amuse me.”
Besides provoking controversy and inspiring conversation, Larrivee would really enjoy some national attention for his signs, he says.
He’d love to get on The Today Show.
“I want Matt Lauer’s job," Larrivee says.