Most students’ desires to collect dolls or baseball cards ended in fifth grade with the discovery of the opposite sex. But others continued their passions for collecting when they got older, only directing them toward something much less benign. No, not that collection of “Jugs” and “Hustler” under the mattress of every freshman (okay, senior) boy, but stolen street signs.
Some students — yes, even the goodie-two-shoes at Yale — adorn their rooms with street signs of all shapes and sizes, which they have stolen from New Haven sites or hometown locales. Especially creative Sign Barons have made tables of their contraband and have even covered entire walls with signs. Although it is a misdemeanor to steal a sign, students seem to value their interior design desires over their fear of police prosecution.
Jeff Tierney ’08 began his life of small-time crime with just one sign that he found particularly intriguing. With his hometown friends as accomplices, Tierney has now stolen approximately 50 street and traffic signs. He now has a few of his favorites hanging on his walls in Vanderbilt while he waits for his full assortment of “decorations” to arrive from home.
Tierney said he and his friends take signs because they find them funny, especially those — like his favorite, which reads “Slow Children” — that reveal a clear lack of grammatical awareness on the part of the sign-making powers that be. The excitement of stealing the signs also appeals to them as an activity because there is not a lot to do in Montana, he said.
“It seems they make these signs to be stolen,” Tierney said. “They’re so funny and so absurd. Plus there’s the danger factor, the chance of getting caught.”
He said signs such as those for High Street (both of the Montana and Connecticut variety) and Dick Road (a Montana specialty) are popular finds.
New Haven Traffic Operations Engineer Bruce Fischer said that certain street signs in New Haven have been stolen repeatedly in the past because of their interesting names, such as Beer Street and Brewery Street. But he said sign theft is not currently a problem in New Haven.
Although at first Tierney & Co.’s sign-nappings were done at random, they quickly turned into an organized operation with teams of three or four people, various wrenches and a pickup truck. The signs are relatively easy to get down with basic tools, Tierney said, but since different signs are mounted in different ways, sometimes their theft takes a certain amount of ingenuity.
Tierney has never been caught stealing a sign, but one Timothy Dwight junior was caught red-handed carrying a sign — pole still attached — across campus last winter. The junior, who wished to remain anonymous, said he found the fallen sign on the ground in front of the Yale Law School and was bringing it back to his dorm when someone called the police. A patrol car arrived before he could get the sign through the door of Rosenfeld Hall. Although he had to return the sign, the student remains unrepentant.
“Taking the sign wasn’t going to threaten anyone’s life,” he said. “All of my other suitemates have stolen signs.”
The student said he wouldn’t steal a sign again after being caught once, even though he alone failed to add to his suite’s collection.
“It’s really cliche; it’s kind of skanky now,” he said. “If I were a skank or a freshman, then I’d steal a sign.”
Brent Godfrey ’08 said he has thought about taking a sign before but decided that it was not worth it, citing a sign’s weight and awkwardness as the principal disadvantages.
“There are a lot of practical considerations,” Godfrey said. “They are a lot heavier than you’d think, and they’re difficult to bring back.”
And unlike the passionate Tierney, Godfrey also said that road signs are too difficult to manage as dorm-room decorations.
On top of this difficulty, taking a sign is a prosecutable crime, said a New Haven Police sergeant who would not give his name. Some people might think it is fun to steal a sign and put it on their wall, he said, but it is actually larceny. While the theft of any sign is a crime, stealing a traffic sign such as a stop sign can be a bigger problem. If there were to be an accident at an intersection where someone had stolen a stop sign, the sergeant said, the sign thief could be charged with negligent homicide.
Yale Police spokesman Lt. Michael Patten said that it is obvious that stealing a street sign is illegal.
“If you have something that doesn’t belong to you, that’s considered larceny,” Patten said.
The theft of street signs can lead to considerable costs for local governments, said Fischer, because on average it costs between $50 and $150 to replace a stolen sign, including parts and labor.
The TD junior said he was never charged with a crime for stealing the sign and the officer even gave him a ride home to his dorm after he returned it. He said the officer did not mind that he had taken the sign.
“He was just doing his job,” the junior said. “We even talked about how it’s fashionable to take signs and put them on your wall — how it’s a triumph.”