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Professional dancers in San Diego twirl signs

Some can do it while snacking

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?

“…‘Make yourself calm. Cleanse your mind of all needless thought and calculation. Travel to the center of your being and hold yourself there.’ ”

— Robert Silverberg, Lord Valentine’s Castle

Thirty-two-year-old Pavle Ikonic is doing an oddly formal kind of four-step, a version of the fox-trot possibly. It is a dance movement from two generations ago: aristocratic almost, genteel. He is a tall and handsome young man with sandy brown hair and fashionable blond highlights that may well be natural rather than daubed on in a salon. He is sweating. Ikonic is from Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and has been sign-spinning (though he does not so much spin the advertisement but rather cradles and rocks it in time to his foot movements) since February of this year. Today is a cool and overcast Saturday in May. He started this line of work for H&R Block, which, unlike Liberty Taxes, requires no unusual getup. After tax season he went to work for Viva Pasta and its manager Florian Ritt on University Avenue near Sixth. Ikonic is wearing headphones and listening to something boss, either Couvine Bailey or Reeves Gabriels.

Ikonic has been in the United States since October of 2007. “I won a green-card lottery,” he says in his Eastern European Slavic accent that is not unpleasant. “Every year the United States government offers this all around the world. I was lucky enough last year. No money is involved. It cost me $700 to $800 dollars in taxes for receiving one. Then there were traveling expenses and airfare. Again about the same. But the green card enables you to work while you are here.”

Ikonic was educated in Belgrade, primarily in music and specifically jazz, but also has studied psychology. “I have also worked all kinds of job for a living. The economic situation in Yugoslavia is not that great. I have worked as an electrician for a while — the whole voltage thing is different here.” His musical instrument is guitar. He owns two electric guitars, a Fender Stratocaster Squire and a Carvin. “I also play a little piano.” Ikonic has taught music on occasion as well.

When asked who he likes as far as jazz musicians go, his smile widens and he says quickly, “Coltrane!” and laughs. “ ‘My Favorite Things!’ ” he adds and laughs again; it is a song from The Sound of Music, and Coltrane’s version is at least as famous as Julie Andrews’s.

As for the United States, “I love it. I was really surprised when I came here. The people are really nice. People are more polite here than in Yugoslavia.” I tell him that surprises me. The conversation reverts to music, and he tells me that much of what he listens to while spinning the sign for Viva Pasta is techno music. I tell him I am not a fan of the stuff, but I can see the utility of it for his kind of work.

“When I first started looking for a job over here,” he continues, “I would see sign-spinners all over the place, but it seemed to me most of them just stood there. I thought to myself, if I had to do this job, what if I did some [dance] moves? I remember thinking I would probably dance. Definitely. And then when I had my chance, working for H&R Block, I got my MP3 player and put in my Duran Duran and stuff and started dancing. I think I attracted more people than I would have otherwise.”

Did he ever study dancing? “No. I never studied, but I do actual dance moves, yes. I think of it as a musical thing. A musical job. Not marketing or advertising, although it is.”

Ikonic left Yugoslavia amidst much upheaval there. “Kosovo had separated from the rest of the country, claimed independence, and there were major demonstrations, major upheavals. Most people in my country felt that the right side of that issue was not our country’s but Kosovo’s. Even the American Embassy near me in Belgrade was stoned. They threw rocks because the Americans made this statement that Kosovo should be separate, and it really was a minority who disagreed. It is definitely a religious problem too. There are Muslims and Orthodox Christians involved. I am Orthodox Christian. It was violent. There was a lot of damage and many people were hurt, but mostly damage. It is not a very good situation over there right now.”

Does Ikonic get bored standing out on the sidewalk in front of this mini-mall all day?

“Not at all. I think it’s the best thing I can be doing right now. I am outside, and it is a chance to remain active. I remain moving, and it is a kind of self-expression.”

“Performance art?” I suggest, and he laughs.

“Yes. Performance art. I like that.”


Margaret Alvarez is 25 years old. She stands on the corner of University and Richmond in front of the Healthy Back. She holds a sign made of Styrofoam with the name of the store lettered in blue on white; it is lightweight but bulky and catches the stiff breezes angling off the intersection from all points of the compass. No elaborate dance moves or sign manipulation for the young Mexican-American, though wrestling the placard against the wind creates the impression she is brandishing the sign both deliberately and at random, but toward particular drivers. In fact, she may well be focusing in on one passerby or another at any given time, as she admits, “I like to watch people and their body language as they’re driving or riding by. I’m a people watcher, a people person in general.”

She may not be blatantly studying anyone from behind her horn-rimmed sunglasses, but the odds are, to one degree or another, she is. A college graduate from Seattle University, Alvarez studied both psychology and criminology. Undecided on a career, she is currently considering law school or work as a probation or parole officer. She works for the Healthy Back on weekends only. During the week, she will be working the phones at CVS Travel Agency. She lives in the South Bay with her mother and sister. Her headphones, this Sunday afternoon, are delivering the music of Irish folk musician Damien Rice.

While there is the occasional request for directions, or someone striking up a conversation (possibly about their aching back but equally likely it will be the weather) at random to “pass the time of day,” as one might have said in a less frenetic time, Alvarez contents herself for the most part with her lifelong fascination and “the proper study of mankind” as a famous anthropologist once said, and that is “man.” “It has happened more than once,” Alvarez concedes, “that some guy will shout out from his car, you know, like, ‘Move that thing!’ or ‘Shake it!’ ” One of her favorites is, “ ‘You do any tricks with that thing?’ ”

Music, for her, is indispensable, but she leaves any fancy footwork to those in the profession stationed at less windy corners. “With my luck,” she says, “the sign would end up flying across the street and into someone’s driver’s-side window.” She does, during her four- or five-hour weekend shifts, find herself listening to much “acoustic/indie–type folk music.” Damien Rice being one example. The answers to questions: “Do you get bored out there?” or “What do you think about out there?” are answered with a gesture to her portable CD player and headphones.

“Extra money” is her prime motivation, and saving, possibly for an education in law. She is not married and enjoys clubbing with her friends. “I like bars.” Reading is another interest: currently the novels of Janet Evanovitch and her stories about Stephanie Plum, the bounty hunter. “I don’t really have a set genre that I read,” she explains. “But I’m one of those people that will go into the library and come out with an armload, maybe 14 books.”

She has no burning compulsion to write herself, she says. “I wouldn’t know how to get into it.

“I think this job is actually more for people who like people,” she says. Where does she see herself in five years? “I don’t really know, but it will be doing something with people.”


Human Directionals “Sign Spinners” NEEDED!!!! (Cypress)

Reply to: [email protected]

Date: 2008-05-31, 8:04AM CDT

Fun & Easy Weekend Job!!!

I am searching for Energetic & Enthusiastic people who would like to earn $10.00 per hour by twirling and flipping an advertising arrow to attract attention for our client. Your main purpose as a Human Directional is to direct traffic to the project/property/

client you are representing at your corner location.

Requirements:

Must be 16 years or older! (Teens & Adults Welcome!)

Can legally work in the United States!

Must have reliable transportation!

Hours: Saturday & Sunday 12 pm–5pm

If you are interested in an interview, email me at [email protected] Please state if you are located near the Cypress area! Be prepared to meet for an interview to apply for the position starting next weekend!!!

SERIOUS APPLICANTS ONLY!!!

Please put a contact number in your email so that I may contact you ASAP to set up an interview!


Above is an ad from craigslist for a sign-spinning job elsewhere in the country, not San Diego. It is typical of dozens more like it on that site. Not the only way to get this sort of work, but a significant resource nationwide. In San Diego, two major advertising agencies put sign-spinners or sign-jugglers to work on our streets. They are Arrow Advertising and Masar-Johnston Advertising & Design (MJAD). Thirty-two-year-old Efren Acuna, a Mexican-American artist from Sonora, Mexico, via Chicago, Illinois, was hired in 2004 by MJAD Directionals in Mission Valley to spin an open-house sign for the Essex apartments/condominiums building on Park Boulevard near University Avenue. The Essex is behind the local landmark building the Egyptian. Previously, Acuna had been working for Why Not Productions out of Chicago as part of a crew on a mobile flight-simulation truck (one of the flights simulated was to the moon); an interesting enough sort of job, one would think, but one Acuna felt he could improve upon, while also exercising his artistic nature more fully, by spinning signs in San Diego.

“When they [MJAD] started the sign-spinning, that was when I started working for them,” Acuna tells me. He is a tall man and handsome, with short-cropped hair. We are sitting outdoors at the Urban Grind, a popular coffeehouse on Park Boulevard across from the Egyptian. “I was an instructor for all the guys. Some guys from Arrow saw me working, and they gave me their card — they’re from out of La Jolla — to come work for them. They are very professional. I had already gone to their office and gave them my CD.” Acuna is referring to his DVD, in fact, a demo video with four scenes of him executing impressive juggling techniques with a MOVE IN TODAY sign. Considering Arrow Advertising the more professional of the advertising agencies he has worked for, he tells me that Arrow has used the music of 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg in their ads that include signs. “The Essex,” he adds, “does not use sign-spinners anymore. They are sold out now.”

I ask him if this is because of the effectiveness of sign-spinning advertising, and he allows, “I think so.

“Two years ago, there were a lot more spinners on the street than you see now.” I ask him why and he tells me, “The real estate market. Properties are not selling as they were two years ago.” Acuna taught himself to manipulate signs in an eye-catching manner and has a repertoire of original, now much-imitated tricks such as “the Spiderman” and “the Helicopter.” These are demonstrated on the impressive video. Some of his tricks (though not on the video) consist of smoking a cigarette as he spins and sending the sign through patterns of smoke. “Sometimes I will eat a snack while I am spinning and use the snack like a prop. In this, of course, I am spinning with only one hand.”

Acuna’s childhood ambition was to perform in the circus as an acrobat (or juggler, though he does not juggle in the conventional sense). He absolutely considers the job a kind of performance art, even more so than Pavle Ikonic. “The idea of ‘circus’ was the reason I got into sign-spinning,” he says. While studying art and English at City College, an art teacher encouraged Acuna to create a performance-art installation consisting of a visual art piece painted or drawn by Acuna, one meant to be spun, displayed in motion in a manner consistent with the style and content of the rendered work. His instructor suggested he teach these tandem disciplines as well. To date, he has done several copies of works by Picasso, as well as his own conceptions, usually, he tells me, in black and white, pen and ink. I ask him if he is any good as a visual artist in the traditional sense, and he answers, “Yes,” in a way that is immediately convincing. He makes few distinctions as to the validity of sign-spinning and art in terms of satisfying a need to express himself. Most often, he tells me, “I think about the circus while I am spinning a sign.”

Acuna also listens to music through headphones while he spins: everything from rock to “Spanish music.” He further explains, “When I listen to slow music I perform smaller moves.”

With an onset of appendicitis, Acuna, after three years, was forced to abandon his line of work temporarily and is again applying with Arrow for a job.

His concern, he says, with teaching the art, is “safety.” The edges of many a sign, he tells me, have cut spinners’ palms. In one case that he knows of, a 14-year-old boy was severely cut. “I show them my tricks when I teach and how to do them safely. There is plastic on the edges of most of those signs, and they can be a little dangerous. There must be protection all the way around, as Arrow Advertising does. They make sure the right signs/arrows are provided.”

Unexpected perks sometime arrive at the job site. Acuna has been handed $20 bills and even cocktails as tips from appreciative audiences passing by. “One this size,” he says, and lifts his plain cranberry juice. “I couldn’t drink it. It was too strong.” He smiles, exposing remarkably good teeth. “Oh, I love your tricks, they will say.”

He has, he says, “Maybe ten tricks altogether. When I combine them all, the day goes very quickly out there.” Acuna will typically work for five to seven — or even ten — hours at a stretch, with 30-minute breaks. “If you like it…” He shrugs. “We have supervisors who travel around and bring us water.”

One problem with teaching, he points out, is that he often teaches himself out of a job. His students will get work that he might otherwise be hired for.

Acuna loves superheroes and has “a collection of action figures.”

When he was 17 years old, he was on the cover of the Gay and Lesbian Times for an article about teenage suicides, though he acted only as a model and suffered no such tendency. It is, however, an indication of Acuna’s showmanlike and photogenic good looks.

“Whoever is working hard,” he says, referring to Arrow once again, “will get bonuses. Twenty-five-dollar credit certificates,” for example. “Every week, they’re like VISA cards. You can use them for music or at restaurants, you know. Arrow also offers you a two-year contract, [during which time] you cannot spin for anyone else. Just for them. And a lot of people will move from MJAD to Arrow. That happens a lot.”


“We will teach you basics, one small thing at a time. Juggling is a series of small discrete motions done in quick sequence, that give the appearance of constant flow and simultaneity. Simultaneity is an illusion, friend, when you are juggling and even when you are not. All events happen one at a time…. Close your eyes…. Orientation in space and time is essential. Think of where you are and where you stand in relation to the rest of the world.”

— Robert Silverberg, Lord Valentine’s Castle


Joseph Ambert is a vice president of business operations at Arrow Advertising in San Diego. “There may be less sign-holders,” he tells me over the telephone, “and, that’s right, it has to do with real estate. The main industry that directionals [sign-spinners] work for is real estate. Things are going a little downhill there because of the recession we’re in right now. Luckily, we work with many other businesses: restaurants, car dealerships. We work with pretty much everyone.

“Human directionals, we call them, rather than sign-spinners. We mean the guys who will just stand there holding a sign. When you refer to Arrow, we go out there and actually spin the signs, not just hold them. We do tricks, capture people’s attention. The directionals don’t really qualify as sign-spinners.

“Across the country, we have about 700 sign-spinners, and we are in ten different cities around the country right now.”

Is this a passing phase, something that will disappear in a few years, like chimney sweeps?

“I would definitely say that a company like ours will be around for a long, long time. We’re here to stay. Now a unidirectional company will base their business more on real estate, and that’s tanking — so they’re tanking. But with us, we’re entertainment rather than just advertising. We’re combining extreme sports with advertising, and it’s really taking off, really catching on. People are so tired of standard forms of advertising, like billboards or pop-up ads, commercials. Now we have TIVO, things to try to get rid of TV commercials, or pop-up blockers on the Internet. With us, it is an entertainment: people want to sit at the stoplight for an extra minute or so and be entertained by the sign-spinner, one that is actually doing tricks. If you just have a human directional on the corner out there, it looks bad, for the community and for the business itself.

“I would say we have fun when we go out there. That is our main focus, to have fun. If we’re not having fun, it reflects badly on the advertising field and the company. A lot of companies will throw just anyone out there with a sign and their brand name, their company logo on it, and they don’t realize the implications, how it reflects on them. Whereas with us, we’re so image conscious that we realize that wearing a polo shirt adds a lot; a smile on your face adds a lot. It makes people really want to look at that advertising. We’re kind of a cut above the rest. We’re the premium service when it comes to advertising. We started this service back in 2002, and there are always knockoff companies like MJAD, companies who developed after watching us.

“It’s a guerilla form of advertising. We do some other things too, like promotional models and flyer services and things like that, general campaign events, but sign-spinning is something at which we’re going to continue to excel.”


And possibly Joe Ambert is right; sign-spinning may be here to stay, not a skill destined to become an anachronism, like the chimney sweep — although, as I am reminded by the Yellow Pages, chimney sweeps are, in fact, still among us. Yet not everyone who considers the sight of a man at a street corner waving a sign, no matter with what degree of skill, will sigh, “That’s entertainment.” A friend and neighbor of mine, when told of the subject matter of my investigation, said of the phenomenon, “I’d go back to prison before you’d catch me out there doing something like that. Of course, maybe if I was 25.…”

Then there’s a woman friend who, as we drove past a sign-spinner in Mission Valley a few years ago, exclaimed, “Oh God! I can’t look. That’s horrible! Don’t make me look at that!”

“Look at what?” I scanned the surrounding cars and street, registered the fellow at the corner holding an arrow-shaped sign advertising a jewelry store, I believe.

“That, that…twirly guy!” she said.

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“It’s so depressing.”

“You think?”

Some weeks later, I saw the same man with his sign again, this time in an elevator in a somewhat seedy downtown hotel where I was, being temporarily devoid of certain means, residing. Later, possibly in a sadistic mood, I asked my woman friend, “Guess who I saw the other day?”

“Who? Neil Young? The mayor?”

“The Twirly Guy!”

She clutched the side of her head wincing. “No-o-o, don’t tell me that!”

After placing an ad in the paper reading “Sign-spinners! Any good stories?” I was put in touch with Efren Acuna, and also a man named Lee, who told me he did not professionally spin signs but had once wielded a cardboard placard at a freeway ramp that read “Will Work for Viagra.” He was pelted with food and various objects, and an elderly woman admonished him from her car, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself, young man!”

Lee added, “I never got paid for it, though. Never did that, what some of us [homeless] call ‘kite flying.’ ”


“This hardly seemed juggling…but it was the event of the moment and he gave himself up to it entirely.”

— Robert Silverberg, Lord Valentine’s Castle

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The new game in plant-based meats is pork… and imitation spiced ham

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?

“…‘Make yourself calm. Cleanse your mind of all needless thought and calculation. Travel to the center of your being and hold yourself there.’ ”

— Robert Silverberg, Lord Valentine’s Castle

Thirty-two-year-old Pavle Ikonic is doing an oddly formal kind of four-step, a version of the fox-trot possibly. It is a dance movement from two generations ago: aristocratic almost, genteel. He is a tall and handsome young man with sandy brown hair and fashionable blond highlights that may well be natural rather than daubed on in a salon. He is sweating. Ikonic is from Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and has been sign-spinning (though he does not so much spin the advertisement but rather cradles and rocks it in time to his foot movements) since February of this year. Today is a cool and overcast Saturday in May. He started this line of work for H&R Block, which, unlike Liberty Taxes, requires no unusual getup. After tax season he went to work for Viva Pasta and its manager Florian Ritt on University Avenue near Sixth. Ikonic is wearing headphones and listening to something boss, either Couvine Bailey or Reeves Gabriels.

Ikonic has been in the United States since October of 2007. “I won a green-card lottery,” he says in his Eastern European Slavic accent that is not unpleasant. “Every year the United States government offers this all around the world. I was lucky enough last year. No money is involved. It cost me $700 to $800 dollars in taxes for receiving one. Then there were traveling expenses and airfare. Again about the same. But the green card enables you to work while you are here.”

Ikonic was educated in Belgrade, primarily in music and specifically jazz, but also has studied psychology. “I have also worked all kinds of job for a living. The economic situation in Yugoslavia is not that great. I have worked as an electrician for a while — the whole voltage thing is different here.” His musical instrument is guitar. He owns two electric guitars, a Fender Stratocaster Squire and a Carvin. “I also play a little piano.” Ikonic has taught music on occasion as well.

When asked who he likes as far as jazz musicians go, his smile widens and he says quickly, “Coltrane!” and laughs. “ ‘My Favorite Things!’ ” he adds and laughs again; it is a song from The Sound of Music, and Coltrane’s version is at least as famous as Julie Andrews’s.

As for the United States, “I love it. I was really surprised when I came here. The people are really nice. People are more polite here than in Yugoslavia.” I tell him that surprises me. The conversation reverts to music, and he tells me that much of what he listens to while spinning the sign for Viva Pasta is techno music. I tell him I am not a fan of the stuff, but I can see the utility of it for his kind of work.

“When I first started looking for a job over here,” he continues, “I would see sign-spinners all over the place, but it seemed to me most of them just stood there. I thought to myself, if I had to do this job, what if I did some [dance] moves? I remember thinking I would probably dance. Definitely. And then when I had my chance, working for H&R Block, I got my MP3 player and put in my Duran Duran and stuff and started dancing. I think I attracted more people than I would have otherwise.”

Did he ever study dancing? “No. I never studied, but I do actual dance moves, yes. I think of it as a musical thing. A musical job. Not marketing or advertising, although it is.”

Ikonic left Yugoslavia amidst much upheaval there. “Kosovo had separated from the rest of the country, claimed independence, and there were major demonstrations, major upheavals. Most people in my country felt that the right side of that issue was not our country’s but Kosovo’s. Even the American Embassy near me in Belgrade was stoned. They threw rocks because the Americans made this statement that Kosovo should be separate, and it really was a minority who disagreed. It is definitely a religious problem too. There are Muslims and Orthodox Christians involved. I am Orthodox Christian. It was violent. There was a lot of damage and many people were hurt, but mostly damage. It is not a very good situation over there right now.”

Does Ikonic get bored standing out on the sidewalk in front of this mini-mall all day?

“Not at all. I think it’s the best thing I can be doing right now. I am outside, and it is a chance to remain active. I remain moving, and it is a kind of self-expression.”

“Performance art?” I suggest, and he laughs.

“Yes. Performance art. I like that.”


Margaret Alvarez is 25 years old. She stands on the corner of University and Richmond in front of the Healthy Back. She holds a sign made of Styrofoam with the name of the store lettered in blue on white; it is lightweight but bulky and catches the stiff breezes angling off the intersection from all points of the compass. No elaborate dance moves or sign manipulation for the young Mexican-American, though wrestling the placard against the wind creates the impression she is brandishing the sign both deliberately and at random, but toward particular drivers. In fact, she may well be focusing in on one passerby or another at any given time, as she admits, “I like to watch people and their body language as they’re driving or riding by. I’m a people watcher, a people person in general.”

She may not be blatantly studying anyone from behind her horn-rimmed sunglasses, but the odds are, to one degree or another, she is. A college graduate from Seattle University, Alvarez studied both psychology and criminology. Undecided on a career, she is currently considering law school or work as a probation or parole officer. She works for the Healthy Back on weekends only. During the week, she will be working the phones at CVS Travel Agency. She lives in the South Bay with her mother and sister. Her headphones, this Sunday afternoon, are delivering the music of Irish folk musician Damien Rice.

While there is the occasional request for directions, or someone striking up a conversation (possibly about their aching back but equally likely it will be the weather) at random to “pass the time of day,” as one might have said in a less frenetic time, Alvarez contents herself for the most part with her lifelong fascination and “the proper study of mankind” as a famous anthropologist once said, and that is “man.” “It has happened more than once,” Alvarez concedes, “that some guy will shout out from his car, you know, like, ‘Move that thing!’ or ‘Shake it!’ ” One of her favorites is, “ ‘You do any tricks with that thing?’ ”

Music, for her, is indispensable, but she leaves any fancy footwork to those in the profession stationed at less windy corners. “With my luck,” she says, “the sign would end up flying across the street and into someone’s driver’s-side window.” She does, during her four- or five-hour weekend shifts, find herself listening to much “acoustic/indie–type folk music.” Damien Rice being one example. The answers to questions: “Do you get bored out there?” or “What do you think about out there?” are answered with a gesture to her portable CD player and headphones.

“Extra money” is her prime motivation, and saving, possibly for an education in law. She is not married and enjoys clubbing with her friends. “I like bars.” Reading is another interest: currently the novels of Janet Evanovitch and her stories about Stephanie Plum, the bounty hunter. “I don’t really have a set genre that I read,” she explains. “But I’m one of those people that will go into the library and come out with an armload, maybe 14 books.”

She has no burning compulsion to write herself, she says. “I wouldn’t know how to get into it.

“I think this job is actually more for people who like people,” she says. Where does she see herself in five years? “I don’t really know, but it will be doing something with people.”


Human Directionals “Sign Spinners” NEEDED!!!! (Cypress)

Reply to: [email protected]

Date: 2008-05-31, 8:04AM CDT

Fun & Easy Weekend Job!!!

I am searching for Energetic & Enthusiastic people who would like to earn $10.00 per hour by twirling and flipping an advertising arrow to attract attention for our client. Your main purpose as a Human Directional is to direct traffic to the project/property/

client you are representing at your corner location.

Requirements:

Must be 16 years or older! (Teens & Adults Welcome!)

Can legally work in the United States!

Must have reliable transportation!

Hours: Saturday & Sunday 12 pm–5pm

If you are interested in an interview, email me at [email protected] Please state if you are located near the Cypress area! Be prepared to meet for an interview to apply for the position starting next weekend!!!

SERIOUS APPLICANTS ONLY!!!

Please put a contact number in your email so that I may contact you ASAP to set up an interview!


Above is an ad from craigslist for a sign-spinning job elsewhere in the country, not San Diego. It is typical of dozens more like it on that site. Not the only way to get this sort of work, but a significant resource nationwide. In San Diego, two major advertising agencies put sign-spinners or sign-jugglers to work on our streets. They are Arrow Advertising and Masar-Johnston Advertising & Design (MJAD). Thirty-two-year-old Efren Acuna, a Mexican-American artist from Sonora, Mexico, via Chicago, Illinois, was hired in 2004 by MJAD Directionals in Mission Valley to spin an open-house sign for the Essex apartments/condominiums building on Park Boulevard near University Avenue. The Essex is behind the local landmark building the Egyptian. Previously, Acuna had been working for Why Not Productions out of Chicago as part of a crew on a mobile flight-simulation truck (one of the flights simulated was to the moon); an interesting enough sort of job, one would think, but one Acuna felt he could improve upon, while also exercising his artistic nature more fully, by spinning signs in San Diego.

“When they [MJAD] started the sign-spinning, that was when I started working for them,” Acuna tells me. He is a tall man and handsome, with short-cropped hair. We are sitting outdoors at the Urban Grind, a popular coffeehouse on Park Boulevard across from the Egyptian. “I was an instructor for all the guys. Some guys from Arrow saw me working, and they gave me their card — they’re from out of La Jolla — to come work for them. They are very professional. I had already gone to their office and gave them my CD.” Acuna is referring to his DVD, in fact, a demo video with four scenes of him executing impressive juggling techniques with a MOVE IN TODAY sign. Considering Arrow Advertising the more professional of the advertising agencies he has worked for, he tells me that Arrow has used the music of 50 Cent and Snoop Dogg in their ads that include signs. “The Essex,” he adds, “does not use sign-spinners anymore. They are sold out now.”

I ask him if this is because of the effectiveness of sign-spinning advertising, and he allows, “I think so.

“Two years ago, there were a lot more spinners on the street than you see now.” I ask him why and he tells me, “The real estate market. Properties are not selling as they were two years ago.” Acuna taught himself to manipulate signs in an eye-catching manner and has a repertoire of original, now much-imitated tricks such as “the Spiderman” and “the Helicopter.” These are demonstrated on the impressive video. Some of his tricks (though not on the video) consist of smoking a cigarette as he spins and sending the sign through patterns of smoke. “Sometimes I will eat a snack while I am spinning and use the snack like a prop. In this, of course, I am spinning with only one hand.”

Acuna’s childhood ambition was to perform in the circus as an acrobat (or juggler, though he does not juggle in the conventional sense). He absolutely considers the job a kind of performance art, even more so than Pavle Ikonic. “The idea of ‘circus’ was the reason I got into sign-spinning,” he says. While studying art and English at City College, an art teacher encouraged Acuna to create a performance-art installation consisting of a visual art piece painted or drawn by Acuna, one meant to be spun, displayed in motion in a manner consistent with the style and content of the rendered work. His instructor suggested he teach these tandem disciplines as well. To date, he has done several copies of works by Picasso, as well as his own conceptions, usually, he tells me, in black and white, pen and ink. I ask him if he is any good as a visual artist in the traditional sense, and he answers, “Yes,” in a way that is immediately convincing. He makes few distinctions as to the validity of sign-spinning and art in terms of satisfying a need to express himself. Most often, he tells me, “I think about the circus while I am spinning a sign.”

Acuna also listens to music through headphones while he spins: everything from rock to “Spanish music.” He further explains, “When I listen to slow music I perform smaller moves.”

With an onset of appendicitis, Acuna, after three years, was forced to abandon his line of work temporarily and is again applying with Arrow for a job.

His concern, he says, with teaching the art, is “safety.” The edges of many a sign, he tells me, have cut spinners’ palms. In one case that he knows of, a 14-year-old boy was severely cut. “I show them my tricks when I teach and how to do them safely. There is plastic on the edges of most of those signs, and they can be a little dangerous. There must be protection all the way around, as Arrow Advertising does. They make sure the right signs/arrows are provided.”

Unexpected perks sometime arrive at the job site. Acuna has been handed $20 bills and even cocktails as tips from appreciative audiences passing by. “One this size,” he says, and lifts his plain cranberry juice. “I couldn’t drink it. It was too strong.” He smiles, exposing remarkably good teeth. “Oh, I love your tricks, they will say.”

He has, he says, “Maybe ten tricks altogether. When I combine them all, the day goes very quickly out there.” Acuna will typically work for five to seven — or even ten — hours at a stretch, with 30-minute breaks. “If you like it…” He shrugs. “We have supervisors who travel around and bring us water.”

One problem with teaching, he points out, is that he often teaches himself out of a job. His students will get work that he might otherwise be hired for.

Acuna loves superheroes and has “a collection of action figures.”

When he was 17 years old, he was on the cover of the Gay and Lesbian Times for an article about teenage suicides, though he acted only as a model and suffered no such tendency. It is, however, an indication of Acuna’s showmanlike and photogenic good looks.

“Whoever is working hard,” he says, referring to Arrow once again, “will get bonuses. Twenty-five-dollar credit certificates,” for example. “Every week, they’re like VISA cards. You can use them for music or at restaurants, you know. Arrow also offers you a two-year contract, [during which time] you cannot spin for anyone else. Just for them. And a lot of people will move from MJAD to Arrow. That happens a lot.”


“We will teach you basics, one small thing at a time. Juggling is a series of small discrete motions done in quick sequence, that give the appearance of constant flow and simultaneity. Simultaneity is an illusion, friend, when you are juggling and even when you are not. All events happen one at a time…. Close your eyes…. Orientation in space and time is essential. Think of where you are and where you stand in relation to the rest of the world.”

— Robert Silverberg, Lord Valentine’s Castle


Joseph Ambert is a vice president of business operations at Arrow Advertising in San Diego. “There may be less sign-holders,” he tells me over the telephone, “and, that’s right, it has to do with real estate. The main industry that directionals [sign-spinners] work for is real estate. Things are going a little downhill there because of the recession we’re in right now. Luckily, we work with many other businesses: restaurants, car dealerships. We work with pretty much everyone.

“Human directionals, we call them, rather than sign-spinners. We mean the guys who will just stand there holding a sign. When you refer to Arrow, we go out there and actually spin the signs, not just hold them. We do tricks, capture people’s attention. The directionals don’t really qualify as sign-spinners.

“Across the country, we have about 700 sign-spinners, and we are in ten different cities around the country right now.”

Is this a passing phase, something that will disappear in a few years, like chimney sweeps?

“I would definitely say that a company like ours will be around for a long, long time. We’re here to stay. Now a unidirectional company will base their business more on real estate, and that’s tanking — so they’re tanking. But with us, we’re entertainment rather than just advertising. We’re combining extreme sports with advertising, and it’s really taking off, really catching on. People are so tired of standard forms of advertising, like billboards or pop-up ads, commercials. Now we have TIVO, things to try to get rid of TV commercials, or pop-up blockers on the Internet. With us, it is an entertainment: people want to sit at the stoplight for an extra minute or so and be entertained by the sign-spinner, one that is actually doing tricks. If you just have a human directional on the corner out there, it looks bad, for the community and for the business itself.

“I would say we have fun when we go out there. That is our main focus, to have fun. If we’re not having fun, it reflects badly on the advertising field and the company. A lot of companies will throw just anyone out there with a sign and their brand name, their company logo on it, and they don’t realize the implications, how it reflects on them. Whereas with us, we’re so image conscious that we realize that wearing a polo shirt adds a lot; a smile on your face adds a lot. It makes people really want to look at that advertising. We’re kind of a cut above the rest. We’re the premium service when it comes to advertising. We started this service back in 2002, and there are always knockoff companies like MJAD, companies who developed after watching us.

“It’s a guerilla form of advertising. We do some other things too, like promotional models and flyer services and things like that, general campaign events, but sign-spinning is something at which we’re going to continue to excel.”


And possibly Joe Ambert is right; sign-spinning may be here to stay, not a skill destined to become an anachronism, like the chimney sweep — although, as I am reminded by the Yellow Pages, chimney sweeps are, in fact, still among us. Yet not everyone who considers the sight of a man at a street corner waving a sign, no matter with what degree of skill, will sigh, “That’s entertainment.” A friend and neighbor of mine, when told of the subject matter of my investigation, said of the phenomenon, “I’d go back to prison before you’d catch me out there doing something like that. Of course, maybe if I was 25.…”

Then there’s a woman friend who, as we drove past a sign-spinner in Mission Valley a few years ago, exclaimed, “Oh God! I can’t look. That’s horrible! Don’t make me look at that!”

“Look at what?” I scanned the surrounding cars and street, registered the fellow at the corner holding an arrow-shaped sign advertising a jewelry store, I believe.

“That, that…twirly guy!” she said.

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“It’s so depressing.”

“You think?”

Some weeks later, I saw the same man with his sign again, this time in an elevator in a somewhat seedy downtown hotel where I was, being temporarily devoid of certain means, residing. Later, possibly in a sadistic mood, I asked my woman friend, “Guess who I saw the other day?”

“Who? Neil Young? The mayor?”

“The Twirly Guy!”

She clutched the side of her head wincing. “No-o-o, don’t tell me that!”

After placing an ad in the paper reading “Sign-spinners! Any good stories?” I was put in touch with Efren Acuna, and also a man named Lee, who told me he did not professionally spin signs but had once wielded a cardboard placard at a freeway ramp that read “Will Work for Viagra.” He was pelted with food and various objects, and an elderly woman admonished him from her car, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself, young man!”

Lee added, “I never got paid for it, though. Never did that, what some of us [homeless] call ‘kite flying.’ ”


“This hardly seemed juggling…but it was the event of the moment and he gave himself up to it entirely.”

— Robert Silverberg, Lord Valentine’s Castle

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