scratches on wastepaper pulp. In some cases the signs were more visible than the person holding them. They were an attempt at a message to advertise a condition to inspire pity on patriotism. This theme has since had a resurgence every few years with the wars in the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. I bought my first homeless sign in San Francisco in the mid-’70’s. An impulse urged me to offer five dollars for the sign. The guy looked at me with surprise. He wondered if I was on drugs. He was asking for spare change but was offered a buy-out. He jumped at the offer and scurried off to find materials to make a new sign. “GOD IS GOOD, SO IS PEOPLE” He had changed from beggar to advertising artist in the course of one transaction. Over the years I kept buying the signs. The sign-people came out of the shadows and onto the back streets. In the ’80’s they went on from the back streets to the islands of major intersections. In the ’90’s the messages on the signs changed again from simple petitions into attempts at humor, sometimes pathetic, falling flat with a thud. “WHY LIE, I NEED A DRINK” “WIFE KIDNAPPED -SHORT 98 C FOR RANSOM” “NEED DOUBLE MOCHA NONFAT LATTE AND A CHOCOLATE AMARETTO ALMOND SCONE” “NEED FUEL FOR MY LEAR JET” Some went on to become true creative works of art. Some of the displaced sign painters began taking pride in their work and refused to sell their signs. One such man told me, “Sell you this sign, like hell, I made a hundred and eighty dollars with this sign yesterday!” I took notes on the evolution of the signs, and, because I traveled constantly around the country, began to notice certain slogans showing up in cities thousands of miles from each other. Code words began to appear such as using the term 4:20 Time to advertise for spare marijuana. How could these desperados, who were cut off from worldly communication, come up with the same sayings? The Rise of the Sign Pimp At a busy intersection in Austin one day I asked a man if he would like to sell his sign. “I can’t sell you this sign.” “And why not?” “This sign ain’t mine’ “Do you mean someone issued you this sign?” “I ain’t sayin …” I was stunned. This meant that some pimp was hiring beat-up looking people, issuing them a sign, running off the real homeless from the busiest corners in the cities and installing their people to work the traffic all day long. I found out that at the end of the day the workers would turn in their signs, receive a minimum wage and, if lucky, return to work the next morning. Capitalist ingenuity at its worst. The contrast between the migrant homeless and the status quo here in the world’s richest country is blatant. Big city dwellers walk past panhandlers every day with a brisk walk and eyes straight ahead. They never pause and never look back. To pause is to acknowledge the existence of the down and out. It is easier to walk on by. Those who are comfortable in the manicured lawns of the suburbs stay close to their walled cities and away from the back streets. They keep their power windows shut and their doors locked when approached at an intersection. They prefer the safety of shiny shopping centers where they can tell the difference between a pair of distressed Abercrombie jeans and the rags of a homeless man. Fashionable clothes full of rips and frays are inspired by gypsies and nomads with the irony being that young rich Americans will pay anything to dress like those more “experienced” than themselves. Were the rise of the homeless signs a prophesy of global depression? Did they warn of the Big Loss? The happy face scrawled on filthy cardboard. Held by a raggedy unfortunate soul down on his luck. Perhaps he was once more fortunate than he is now Safe in a purring car. Airconditioner blowing a conditioned hairdo. Radio playing West Coast Jazz. Kids in the back playing with plastic war toys. Shooting at the bum on the curb. Bang. Bang. Mommy why doesn’t that man wash his face? Why does he wear those dirty clothes? Why is he holding that piece of cardboard? Why is he standing in the middle of the street? Has he been bad? No one is really homeless. Home has always been a place of refuge inside oneself. But fear and anxiety can lead a drifter away from that refuge and on to a life of desperation. What is said on the signs is rarely the truth. Few could bear the truth. What is said is an advertisement. That life is hard. That bad luck happens. That wrong turns have been made. That survival itself is a realization of the need to be awake. “HOMELESS JEDI -NEEDS NOTHING” I’d like to offer a few dollars for that person’s sign. But the light just turned green. Damn. Life ain’t fair. Excerpted from SIGNS, #39 in the Pentagram Papers, by Austin’s Pentagram Design. E-mail [email protected] texas.pentagram.com for information. MAY 15, 2009 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 29
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