The Sign Man
by Dean Darcy
AS MAYOR Pam Powers approached the downtown exit she wondered again if the Sign Man lived in the two acres of woods that the off ramp curved around. As she inched along in the morning rush hour traffic she also wondered how many people in cars behind her and in front of her were thinking the same thing.
After she yielded to the right and was creeping into the dark, cool underpass she thought maybe when the weather was bad the Sign Man slept up there under the overpass. To Pam, this interchange was like the Sign Man’s home because almost every morning he would be at the off ramp, and almost every afternoon he would be at the on ramp.
She laughed at herself when she realized she was a little excited as she looked forward to seeing him. His signs were always close to the street and easy to see, but he was usually about twenty feet away, back by the fence that encircled another wooded area just after the underpass. His signs were Magic Marker on cardboard nailed to a board that was bolted upright in a five gallon plastic bucket. There was a chunk of concrete in the bottom of the bucket to keep the wind from blowing it over. She powered down the passenger window as she waited in line. The cars ahead of her would flash their brake lights and money would fly out the passenger windows into and all around the bucket.
Today his sign read CONTEMPLATING ETERNAL THEMES.
Finally her turn came. She threw a handful of change out the window, and looked over at him. He was sitting on the ground, leaning back against the fence with his boots flat and his forearms on his knees. His head was tilted back as he faced the sky, as if he were… contemplating eternal themes.
He had on his usual jeans, flannel shirt, and straw hat with green plastic in the front part of the visor. The sun, shining through the visor, created a soft band of green across the upper half of his face, and lit up the red and blond highlights in his beard and hair. She guessed he was about her age, thirty something, and not bad looking. His eyes were hidden behind sunglasses, but after she threw the money she gave a little wave, and he gave a little wave back. She was smiling as she drove downtown.
All day in offices in the city, people looked for an opportunity to use it:
“What is Mr. Jones doing?”
“I don’t know, but it looks as if he’s contemplating eternal themes.”
“Are you busy?”
“No, I was just contemplating eternal themes.”
In just a few weeks the Sign Man had become a local celebrity of sorts. His first sign had read, THIS IS MY JOB!
In the days that followed he brightened everyone’s mornings with:
HOMELESS BY CHOICE … BUDDY CAN YOU SPARE A C-NOTE? … MIDGET RODEO … SWANKING AROUND THE OFFICE.
Soon a tipping point was reached with a sign that read HOMELESS ROADKILL. That day the Sign Man sprawled beside the road and lay there all day looking for all the world like… homeless roadkill. The most popular morning radio program informed everyone about the sign, and took calls from listeners who were fans of the homeless celebrity. The Sign Man was building a following, so of course one rush hour morning a city cop stopped beside the sign (DON’T GLUMP…), turned his flashing lights on, got out of the squad car, and started toward the Sign Man. He got about halfway when cars started slamming on brakes and bumping into one another. The cop turned around as the cars began their rear-end cascade, and when he looked back the Sign Man had slipped through the fence and disappeared into the woods.
Mayor Pam Powers liked the Sign Man from the first time she saw him; she thought he added a little local color to downtown. When she heard about the cop incident she called the Chief of Police and they had a private talk resulting in an understanding that the Sign Man would not be bothered again. The Sign Man had no way of knowing that the Mayor had stood up for him, but a few days later he put up a sign saying MAYOR PAM IS A HOTTIE. That weekend she tried a new, more flattering hair style. No one had ever called her a hottie. Yes, she liked the Sign Man.
One morning the sign was USED JEWELRY DROP OFF. This sign brought the usual looks and money, however that afternoon with the same sign, but beside the on ramp, was a different story. Women in their cars waiting in line could be seen removing earrings, ankle bracelets and assorted body jewelry. Gold chains draped the rim of the bucket; silver trinkets littered the ground around the bucket. People laughed at the loot and at themselves as the Sign Man sat by the fence reading a newspaper.
On Friday afternoon the sign was PARTY TIME, garnering horn tooting and hand waving. Monday morning brought YOU LOOK NICE TODAY. Later in the week saw THE 8 BALL SAYS, then PORTABLE GRAFFITI and FEARLESS OF ILLOGIC.
One morning commuters were told NEED MAGIC MARKERS. That afternoon the bucket was filled with pilfered magic markers of every color imaginable. The next morning workers were treated to a huge, multi-colored mural that looked like something Peter Max would do. Around the words THANK YOU were wingfooted messengers, rainbows, shooting stars; it was beautiful. Late that afternoon a silver-haired man in a new Lexus stopped, lowered his window, leaned over, and yelled, “I’ll give you twenty bucks for the sign.”
The Sign Man yelled back, “I’ll take a hundred.”
The art lover laughed, got out of his car, and walked around to the sign. He looked at the picture more closely, then pulled a roll of bills from his pocket and counted out five twenties. He held the money up and the Sign Man pointed to the bucket. The buyer laughed, shook his head, dropped the bills into the bucket, and carefully pulled the sign from the board.
One especially hot day the sign read SUNHAMMERED. That night on the local television news program the weather man used the word ‘sunhammered’ in the weather report. People who didn’t have to were taking the downtown exit so they could say they had seen the sign, and the man.
They were never disappointed: SLOW DOWN INSIDE … DISENTHRALLED … PLAY THRU IT … YOU CAN CHANGE THE WORLD … CLAWING MY WAY TO THE BOTTOM. One night the local television news feature “On The Scene” opened with a shot of the sign (CREATE A NO WAKE ZONE) with a female reporter standing beside it. She was all smiles as she explained, “We came down here to interview the Sign Man but it seems he would rather let his signs speak for him.” This was followed by a short video clip of the Sign Man looking over his shoulder at the camera as he slipped through the fence and disappeared into the woods. The reporter kindly voiced over with, “Maybe the story here is the messages — not the messenger.”
This was followed by a clip of signs that had been seen over the last several days: DONATE: YOU’LL FEEL BETTER … IN THE FULL GRIP OF… DON’T GET TETCHY… HIGHER ORDER ABERRATION… ARE YOU UNDERACCESSORIZED? … TREASUREABLY BAD …BUMPER STICKER PHILOSOPHY. His reluctance to be interviewed endeared him even more to many of the viewers.
The next morning the sign read, OHNE MICH, which is German for “leave me out.” Soon after that the Sign Man did something he had never done before. He posted a political message: NO $ FOR ISRAEL. The reaction of his fans ran from encouragement to disappointment; from thumbs up to middle finger up. There was elation, but also shock, confusion, and anger. It was all anyone wanted to talk about on talk radio.
The next morning there was no sign. But there was yellow crime scene tape, squad cars, and policemen everywhere. By noon everyone had heard: The Sign Man had been found at first light hanging by his neck from the overpass with his hands tied behind his back, beaten and bloody.
Mayor Pam took the afternoon off and went home. That night she called her father, Senator Powers, and told him the story.
Senator Powers was about to retire from public service after a long and distinguished career. He was one of the most popular and admired men in the country. A few days after talking to Pam, he stood in the Senate and delivered an iconoclastic speech. He started by saying, “Gentlemen, a few days ago a man was killed in my home town because he publicly stated that America should stop giving aid to Israel. Osama Bin Laden once publicly stated that the World Trade Center was destroyed because America supports Israel. Other terrorists around the world have stated that they hate America because we support Israel. Gentlemen, it doesn’t have to be this way…
“If America used the billions of dollars it now squanders to arm the world to instead implement a foreign policy based on benevolence rather than violence we could eventually bring peace to the world. America has the resources to go into any country that requested aid, and inventory what that country really needs; clean water, hospitals, roads, schools, whatever, and then just give it to them. No strings attached. No hypocritical demands that they become democracies, when half the countries in the UN are not democracies. No bullying about what kind of weapons they can or can not have, when Israel has more weapons of mass destruction than anyone except us. Unless we change the way we spend our ‘foreign aid,’ we shouldn’t be doing it at all.”
The members of the Senate were mesmerized when near the end of his speech he said, “The only way to accomplish a change of this magnitude is to first pass meaningful campaign reform legislation, with real teeth in it; reform that will make it impossible and illegal for any foreign lobby or multinational to buy or influence our legislators. We can do it, and when we do we will be on our way back to a government that truly represents the people, and not just the people with the most money. And we’ll put an end to innocent people being killed in America for expressing their opinion.”
As the audience rose to loudly applaud and cheer Senator Powers, the few Jewish senators, their underlings, and those known to be owned by the Jewish lobby, stood up and walked out.
On the one-year anniversary of the Sign Man’s death there was a ceremony at the underpass. The Sign Man’s identity had not been discovered, nor had the identity of whoever had killed him. The Department of Transportation had moved the fence back, and the City Parks Department had created a rugged little park where the Sign Man used to station himself. The right lane was blocked off for parking and the media were there.
Hundreds of downtown workers walked to the site at noon and listened as Mayor Pam said a few heartfelt words about the Sign Man, then introduced her father. Ex-Senator Powers was being courted by his party and the public to run for President since his moratorium on foreign aid had passed, but he didn’t mention that. He just said a few words about the power of the individual before unveiling the life-size bronze statue of the Sign Man.
The unveiling was met with applause and tears. On a slab of concrete two feet high and eight feet square, purposely left rough and unfinished, sat, literally, an exact replica of the now world famous Sign Man. The artist had created a backdrop with a curtain-like section of fence behind the statue, and had installed an old antique-looking street light off to one side. The Sign Man sat appearing to lean back against the fence with a rolled-up newspaper in one hand, his head tilted back as if looking heavenward. A crescent of green plexiglass had been worked into the brim of his hat, and a cool green band of light covered the top half of his face. The replica of his bucket was by the street, but instead of a cardboard sign there was now a brass plaque that read YOU CAN CHANGE THE WORLD.
Every morning people still stop, toss money at the bucket, and throw a little wave to the Sign Man.