Bob Berg is the wordsmith behind some of Macon’s longest-running text messages.
For the past 35 years, he has posted weekly puns, jokes, congratulations and food for thought on an interchangeable sign. His riddles and rhymes have made folks smile and giggle as they pass Sid’s Sandwich Shop on Forsyth Street, one of the busiest gateways to downtown.
The letters go up. The words come down. Call it poetry in motion. It might not be “The Marshes of Glynn” or “The Song of the Chattahoochee,” but Old Sid would approve.
Today is Sidney Lanier’s birthday. Sure, it’s also Super Bowl Sunday, but this native son is in a league of his own.
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Lanier is among the most celebrated American poets of the 19th century. Macon’s Lanier High School (now Central) was named after him, and the school’s mascot was the Poets. The state’s tallest bridge and largest lake are named in his honor.
Bob was introduced to Lanier’s poetry as a high school junior in Niceville, Fla. After college, he lived in Eastman before moving to Macon, where he became manager of the Macon Health Club.
In 1981, he opened a sandwich shop at 336 Second St. with Ted Butler, whose family ran the Butler House, a boarding house and restaurant on Washington Avenue.
On a wall at the Second Street building was a historic plaque that noted Lanier, his father and uncle all practiced law there in the 1870s.
Sid’s was the perfect name for the restaurant, especially considering the alliteration that followed.
“We sold soup, salads and sandwiches on Second Street,” Bob said, laughing.
Three years later, a second location opened on Forsyth Street in the former location of The Varsity and Cottage. It had a fireplace, plenty of seating and ample wall space for a shrine to All Things Lanier.
The Sidney Lanier Cottage, where the beloved poet/musician/travel writer/attorney/soldier was born, was less than a mile up the hill.
The now-famous marquee has been through multiple repairs, makeovers and replacements. The Varsity letters were painted over. When Sid’s first opened, an employee climbed a ladder and tweeted the old-fashioned way: “Get Down With a Sub.”
Bob soon learned the best way to promote business was to have a sense of place … and a sense humor. Anybody can put up a sign to advertise a special on chicken salad or the best tea in town. Have some fun. Hamming it up isn’t just for sandwiches.
“I’ve always been kind of corny,” he said. “One of my favorites was ‘Yesterday I Woke Up Grumpy But Today I Let Her Sleep In.’ ”
A few weeks ago, as the calendar flipped over to January, he penned: “New Year’s Resolution: Avoid Clichés Like the Plague.” Another recent quip was “My BMI (Body Mass Index) Charts Says I’m Too Short.” As Election Day rolled around last November, he lamented: “I’ve Been Making Baloney Sandwiches for 38 Years. I Could Have Been a Politician.”
Sid’s sign sits above a hedge at the bottom of Forsyth Street, where three lanes of one-way traffic barrel down the hill. Motorists come from Vineville across the Raymond Berry Oakley Bridge, and a steady stream of cars and trucks merge from the I-75 exit ramp.
His creativity once sold his stepfather’s pick-up truck. “Roast Beef Sandwich, $2,800,” the sign said, “Get a Truck Free.”
If the message is particularly clever or thought-provoking, Bob admits there are those who reach the top of the hill at St. Paul before processing it.
“I once advertised a ‘Honeymoon Salad: Lettuce Alone,’ ” he said. “People came in and ordered it, and I had to tell them it was a joke.”
Another time, a man circled back to ask the meaning of “Corduroy Pillows Are Making Headlines.”
English teachers have dropped by to point out a misspelled work or grammatical error. Occasionally, Bob has to bite his tongue and hold the mustard, so to speak. He has stepped over the line a time or two, so he now makes an effort not to post anything polarizing or inflammatory.
There are times when the sign takes a more serious tone. He routinely thanks veterans and sends out birthday wishes. After his son, Brad, proposed to his wife, Katie, two years ago, Bob proudly posted: “She Said Yes.” The couple struck a pose for the camera in front of the sign.
When Gregg Allman died in May 2017, the Sid’s sign was like an epitaph: “We Will Miss the Midnight Rider. Rest in Peace.” Bob is making plans to honor the memory of Dr. Robert Wright, an oral surgeon who died on Jan. 19. Wright’s practice was located next door to Sid’s and, for many years, he served as Bob’s landlord.
The employees at Sid’s have made their share of suggestions over the years. So have loyal customers. There’s never a shortage of good material.
Bob regrets not taking photographs to document every sign. The collection would have made a nice book. Remember those four decades of Burma-Shave signs? They inspired a book called “The Verse By the Side of the Road.”
Sid’s has a few classic verses of its own.
“Just Burned 2,000 Calories. Left the Brownies In the Oven Too Long.”
“You Can Tune a Piano But You Can’t Tuna Fish.”
“There Are Three Kinds of People … Those Who Can Count and Those Who Can’t.”
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.