Of all the things I learned by standing at the intersection of 23rd and Iowa last week trying my luck as a professional sign holder, the most painful lesson was that you need a tall stick to be in this business.
I’m sure you've seen the sign holders on that corner. Some days there have been as many as six people there at once, each holding a sign for one of two competing furniture stores. I’m sure you’ve all driven through the intersection, U-Haul trailers in tow, to pick up ridiculously priced mattress sets and sofas.
I know I have. The signs are hard to miss. But I never paid much attention to the sticks that hold up the signs. They’re long, and now I know why. Simply put: A long stick allows you to prop up the sign and keep it from falling over. A short stick requires you to actually work to hold it up.
I had chosen a stick that wasn't tall enough, but I was still going to try this sign-holding gig. Of course, being inexperienced and all, I didn’t even try to get a job with one of the furniture companies. I figured I’d go independent.
But what type of sign to hold? I guess I could sell my sofa, but I really didn’t want to. After all, where would I sleep? But then I came up with an idea. In my other job, the journalist gig, I sometimes hear grumblings, if you can imagine. I’ve heard a few about the proliferation of sign holders at the intersection. But are people really mad about this? The sign holders wave at you, after all.
So why not a little survey to settle this? For 30 minutes I would hold a sign that reads “Honk if you like signs.” For another 30 minutes I would hold a sign that reads “Honk if you hate signs.”
If my shoulders held up, I'd figure this out.
I scouted the location early in the day and got a bit of advice from Jac Peynetsa, who was just beginning his eight-hour shift holding up a sign touting PayLess Furniture.
“Stay hydrated and use the shade as much as possible,” Peynetsa advised.
That confused me a bit, because I was pretty sure the closest thing to a tree at that intersection was the pencil stuck behind my ear. I looked around and, yes, I was right: We were standing on an asphalt island surrounded by asphalt.
I still don’t know what Jac meant by shade, although the sign holders do take breaks occasionally in the nearby businesses.
Hydration was a key with all the sign holders I talked to. Music also was common. Most brought headphones. One brought a padded mat to stand on.
They all brought their waving hands, though. The standard protocol of sign holding is that one hand holds the sign and the other one waves at anything that moves. (In case you're curious, none of the four sign holders I talked to did fancy sign twirling or other sign acrobatics. Apparently that's a big-city thing, where folks have perhaps forgotten that if you’re doing jujitsu with a sign, it is a bit hard for folks to actually read the sign.)
Sometimes people wave back. In fact, one sign holder estimated that about half the people wave or at least smile. Maybe. I’m not sure I got that high of a percentage, but perhaps motorists don’t like a sign holder in a tie and cowboy boots.
Some people, Peynetsa conceded, do make a different type of hand gesture.
“I’ve gotten a finger here and there,” Peynetsa said. “But you know what? I don’t really care.”
About that time, a red pickup truck made the turn around the corner and gave a big honk and a wave.
“He does that every day,” Peynetsa said as he cracked a smile.
I asked him if he really remembers specific vehicles day after day.
“Oh yeah,” he said. "We remember the nice ones.”
Gary Lucas, an owner of Lawrence’s Bed Mart, swears by the sign wavers, known in the marketing world as a type of guerrilla marketing.
Plus, if you don’t like paperwork, it's your type of system. Sign holders don’t need a permit from City Hall, city officials said. Attempts to regulate the practice can be tricky, because the First Amendment makes it difficult for government to start telling people what kind of signs they can hold.
Lucas concedes that he does get a couple of phone calls now and then from motorists complaining about the sight of the signs and the distractions they create for drivers. But he has a simple answer for that.
“If people don’t like it, I suggest to them they look the other direction,” Lucas said.
Simple answers, in fact, are in good supply at the corner. I thought I could stump Peynetsa with a question: If you could hold any sign in the world, what would it be? Without a moment’s hesitation: “The one that pays the most.”
And that really does get right to the heart of what we want to know, doesn’t it? Why would somebody choose to stand for hours on end at what very well may be the hottest location in Lawrence?
Maybe the pay is great, but I doubt it. No one would reveal what he was making. Peynetsa said his decision to take the job wasn’t complicated.
“They were the only people who would hire me on the spot,” Peynetsa said of the advertisement he answered on Craigslist.
Others have their own reasons. I started to ask the sign holder standing on the mat a few questions before he pleaded shyness. I pointed out that was an odd trait for a man who stands on a corner waving at people all day.
“I hold a sign so I don’t have to deal with people,” he said as he turned his back.
I think that fellow really meant it, too. When I came back later in the day to begin my sign-holding exercise, I stood just a few feet away from him for more than an hour, and he never did say a word to me. Believe it or not, I’m not even sure he was curious about how my survey would turn out.
But I was: 30 minutes of "honk if you like signs" and 30 minutes of "honk if you hate signs." Which one would win?
Well, after 30 minutes, 18 people had honked in approval of the signs. I had a lot more that gave me a smile or a wave, and many of them did the same to the true sign holders.
There would be old women whose faces would light up as they gave enthusiastic waves. There would be young mothers with a gang of rambunctious young ones in the back seat who would manage smiles and waves. There were even a few men who cracked a smile and gave a quick raise of the hand.
On an assignment that was warm in a lot of ways, probably the most heartwarming aspect was that I discovered there are still a lot of people looking for an excuse to wave.
Then the next 30 minutes came. It didn’t take long to figure out which side was going to win. When I flipped the sign to “honk if you hate signs,” horns started going off immediately. I had two people stop and take pictures of me and my sign. No one took a picture of me when I was asking who liked the signs.
A few minutes in, I was at 10 honks, then at 15. Unexpectedly, I found myself rooting for cars not to honk. With 13 minutes left to go, I was at 24 hating honks.
I quit at that point. I could blame it on my shoulders or on the heat, but honestly I was starting to feel a bit bad. All the other sign holders could see my sign, and they could hear the horns, too.
It probably didn’t bother them. They didn’t indicate that it did. But it bothered me. Yes, holding a sign for a living is an odd job. But it is a job. One, as I can attest, that can leave a fellow holding the short end of the stick.
That’s worth at least a wave.