You’re standing on a street corner in San Diego. It is summer in, say, North Park: the corner of 30th and University. Actually, you’re a good light-year away; you have to be; it’s brutally hot, and everyone passing by is a screwball of one kind or another. Half of them want to talk to you about God-knows-what, and you don’t feel like talking. You are sweating and miserable. You’re carrying a sign shaped like an arrow that advertises an open house at the Santa Palma Apartments a block away. The thing probably weighs, at most, a pound, but right now, after three hours of this, it feels like ten.
Keep moving. Keep moving. Get that sign in motion. It’s your first day, and you lied about being a professional dancer, runner-up for the Martha Graham Improvisational Award, and you’re no juggler. All you can manage, after three hours in this heat, is to wiggle the thing back and forth: arrow up, down, back and forth. A few blocks away, the guy from Liberty Taxes, wearing a green Statue of Liberty poly-foam suit and crown, can throw the thing in the air while it rotates slowly. He can catch it behind his back after a soft-shoe while the sign is airborne. But just as you were getting the hang of whipping the thing over your head a few feet and maybe catching it, the dehydration and heat exhaustion set in. Two bottles of the mockingly labeled Arrowhead was steamed off through your scalp an hour ago. Then the street supervisor came by and reprimanded you that the text on the sign was unreadable while it was in the air and that the sign is now covered in schmutz from the curb where it kept landing. At least you don’t have to wear a stupid costume while you’re doing this. The Statue of Liberty guy must be baking in that thing. Probably on meth, you thought, before you ever took the job — they’re probably all on meth; everybody else is. But you found no evidence of this with the other sign-spinners you’ve met so far. There is only one saving grace out here: The Walkman.
Well, it’s not really a Walkman, it’s a cheap Walkman clone, but it’s a lifeline to sanity. The only trouble with it is that sweat from your hair keeps sliding the cheap little earpieces off your ears, and you’ve only got two hands and they’re occupied. You only brought three CDs. The smart thing would be to get an iPod or something, but if you could afford one you wouldn’t be standing like an idiot on a street corner in the first place. Local radio blows, at least during the daytime, and while Jazz 88 is okay, your saturation point for jazz is about 40 minutes. So what have you got?
Your ex-girlfriend’s compilation CD of Bob Dylan is great, but you’ve been through that twice. The ’60s oldies CD was fun. Once. You still have the Leonard Cohen stuff, but that is definitely the wrong thing to be listening to out here. You only pretended to like Cohen for your ex-girlfriend’s sake — though he’s good and everything — but it’s more the kind of thing you want to listen to during a deep and clinical depression, locked in your closet, drinking flat beer, listening to “Suzanne” and “The Chelsea Hotel” and old Joni Mitchell stuff. Cohen is of no help whatsoever when it comes to moving your ass. Except maybe for that one, “I’m Your Man.” Your mind is wandering all over North Park.
You may tell yourself you are a pioneer of sorts. You are in the avant-garde of an occupation almost entirely new (its predecessor, of course, being those who carried sandwich-board signs during the Depression, signs that read some version or other of “Eat at Joe’s”), and you are among its earliest members. Your line of work is unique to your time in history, much the way chimney sweeps (though they are still around in some form) were emblematic during the reign of Queen Victoria. Yes, yes. Not a bad thought. You may be getting a second wind, and some of those Leonard Cohen whispery rap things do kind of move and they are cool: an old-guy beatnik kind of street-cred cool, a mellowed-out hip-hop hipster. Yeah, that could be you.
Lord, it’s hot.
The above is pretty much how I imagine the job would be for me, but then I can be a malcontent in the best of situations. Spinning signs at an intersection may not qualify, but most of those I spoke with do not find the work unduly oppressive. Where do the spinners come from? My preconceived ideas were more melodramatic, even sinister than reality presented. I had imagined much work for the homeless, and while this is indeed the case at times, it is hardly a universal truism. I imagined drug addicts but hardly thought it through: most drug addicts would not have the tenacity or attention span for a job that usually pays under ten dollars an hour. Surprisingly, many of these entry-level marketing execs found these gigs online: craigslist, for one, will deliver pages of contacts for work along these lines. Just enter “signspinners” into the search window. Alvin Bautista at the Healthy Back in Hillcrest advertises with craigslist occasionally, but the woman he has out in front on weekends was someone he already knew.
“Do you think juggling’s a mere trick?...‘an amusement for the gapers? A means of picking up a crown or two at a provincial carnival? It is all those things, yes, but first, it is a way of life, a friend, a creed, a species of worship.’
“ ‘And a kind of poetry,’ said Carabella.
“…‘Yes, that too. And a mathematics. It teaches calmness, control, balance, a sense of the placement of things and the underlying structure of motion. There is a silent music to it. Above all, there is discipline. Do I sound pretentious?