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We see the messages, now meet the inspiration

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY -- Go ahead and admit it.

Every time you drive past the Maryland Fried Chicken location on North Slappey Boulevard, you glance at the sign out front.

One of the current messages?

"TRAFFIC LIGHTS TURN BLUE TOMORROW"

OK, now what in the heck is that supposed to mean?

Richard King, whose family moved from Macon in 1968 to take over the franchise, is the editor in charge of those puzzling pieces of prose.

"About 12 years ago I decided that I wanted our signs to be interesting, something that might make people think about things in a different way," King said. "Ninety percent of the (messages) are song lyrics. Some are lines from movies. Some I just make up.

"But they are all meant to get your attention and make you think."

Over the years, King says, customer reactions have been mixed.

"I can't say (the messages) have helped or hurt the business," King said. "I haven't heard many negative comments. But the sign is really all about getting people to open up their minds."

King, 62, is firmly rooted in the late 60s and early 70s. He sports a gleaming shaved head and bushy white white beard. He is fond of wearing Tiki Barber's number 21 New York Giants jersey and cargo shorts.

If he sounds different, it's because he is.

At about the same time he also began putting up his cryptic messages, King painted the album cover art from Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" on the drive-thru side of the building. He began selling classic rock T-shirts -- Jimi Hendrix, The Allman Brothers, The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, Phish, and Widespread Panic among others -- in the store.

And Maryland Fried Chicken became an Albany icon in the process.

"That period of my life was the hippie counter culture," King recalled. "This is just a reflection on what was going on in my life at the time. We were going to change the world, but I don't think much as really changed from then.

"What happened to our values? We're still lost in greed and that wasn't part of what we were thinking then. I still remember the good parts of that time.

"I guess I really never got over it."

King has been described as eccentric, off-beat, out there and slightly off-center. How would he characterize himself?

"Probably as an open-minded free-thinker," King answered. "I think to get all the facts, examine them and do what I think is right."

And how does he think his wife of 21 years, Beverly, would describe him?

"I think she would say I was honest, well-meaning and believe in what I feel," King said. "And she would probably say that I believe in what I believe regardless of the consequences."

King has run the family business for more than 40 years, with some early stints "to find out what blue collar work was like. What I found was that I didn't want to do it," King said with a laugh.

Yet he's also found that being his own boss is definitely a mixed bag.

"I don't have a boss, so that's good and bad," he said. "I don't have someone to give me directions. I have to make all the decisions myself - pay the bills, scheduling, ordering, hiring and firing.

"It's something all the time."

King has three children, Ricky, 31, who is a chef in New York City; Josh, 28, who works with him at the store and Courtney, 17 who is a rising high school senior.

Despite being more than 30 years removed from the counter-culture scene, he never lets his mind stray too far from the past.

"Oh, yeah, that era is still very much a part of me," King said. "Even to this day I think there has got to be more to life than just money and prestige. The change was palatable back then. It's made me what I am today."

Like Jerry Garcia says, "what a long strange trip it's been."

And if you were still wondering what in the heck "traffic lights turn blue tomorrow" means, it's a line from the Hendrix hit "And The Wind Cries Mary."