I don’t know about your part of the world, but in mine, Cobb County Georgia, the number of “sign spinners” standing on street corners helping hock everything from pawn shops to pizza parlors seems to be proliferating. After sitting at countless red lights watching so many of them display their talents, my curiosity overwhelmed me and I tried to befriend them.
It wasn’t easy, actually. Apparently, they often get approached by strangers and it rarely turns out well. The first sign spinner I met, nicknamed (no joke) Tony Baloney, summed it up well when I first walked up to him and said hello.
“Dude, I’m not buying any and I’m not selling any except for what’s printed on this sign, and I forgot what it said the second they handed it to me.”
I told him I was thinking of writing an article about sign spinners and then I learned my first lesson about this class of day laborer.
“We’re not all spinners,” said Tony. And he was right. Tony himself didn’t spin his sign, he danced…sort of. The “Baloney” in Tony’s nickname might have come from the fact that he appeared to have consumed quite a bit of the luncheon meat. He didn’t dance so much as shake and jerk and punch the air with his sign. Occasionally, he would launch into a wicked and reckless spin that would sometimes cause cars near the curb to veer or break out of fear Tony was going to fall into traffic. He always recovered though. He listened to speed metal on his phone, which made a lot of sense. Tony told me that the sign holders referred to each other as “Postmen,” even the women.
“I know Tony, man,” a Postman who called himself Ricker Rocker told me (turns out all of the Postmen have nicknames), “Tony Baloney is a legend because he makes more money than most of us. People can’t take their eyes of the dude. He’s like an accident waiting to happen but it never does. I bet that guy makes twice what I do and I have talent.”
Ricker wasn’t just bragging. The things he could do with a sign were pretty amazing. Unlike Tony, Ricker did spin his sign, but he could also flip the sign and whip it around his body in a manner reminiscent of nunchucks.
I tried to ask him more questions but he told me he just wanted to listen to his music and work his sign. He said I should talk to “Old Abe” a Postman down in Smyrna that had been working the same pizza sign for years. Ricker told me “Old Abe” was a clown.
And that’s exactly what he was, a guy dressed as a clown and holding a sign advertising a nearby pizza parlor. He was older than the other Postmen I had seen, but still younger than me, perhaps in his mid-30s. He was also less suspicious, and when I told him I was writing an article, he invited me to meet him at the pizza place, “when it gets dark,” and he would be happy to talk over beer.
A little over an hour later I was sitting with “Old Abe,” aka Donald Miser, who was no longer wearing the somewhat chaotic clown outfit but did, indeed, sport a Lincolnesque Amish beard.”
“So you’re curious about Postmen?”
I started to answer but he interrupted me.
“I came up with that, you know, ‘Postmen,’ because we are like sign posts and we also deliver a message.”
I agreed it was very clever, but before I could ask a question, Donald launched into a kind of tutorial on Postmen.
“There are basically five categories of Postmen,” he said. “You have your now classic ‘spinners,’ you have your ‘dancers,’ you have your ‘clowns,’ which is anyone who wears any sort of costume that isn’t full-body, and you have your posers, and the puppets if you want to count them.”
“Really?” I was surprised.
“Yeah, of course. We’re not exactly organized, but we have our lingo, you know.”
“Okay. I have met Tony Baloney and Ricker Rocket. Tony is a dancer and Ricker is a spinner, right?”
“Well, Tony, that kid is a hybred. You can’t call that dancing but he moves with a lot of energy and I have never heard of him falling down. It’s worked out for him. But if you want to see a real dancer, you should watch Lovely Linda, who has been working a We Buy Gold sign outside of old Marietta square, or Howard the Duck who is a block south of the Big Chicken landmark on Cobb. Howard works a car dealer sign I think, but he does the whole break dancing routine with the sign in his hand. Impressive. Linda does these sort of slow ballet things, very flexible.”
“I will definitely check them out,” I said. “Do you know when they usually work?”
Donald frowned at me, which made him look even more like Old Abe.
“Man, if we wanted to work set hours we’d be pulling shifts at Walmart. But you can never go wrong with rush hour, right?”
“Okay, yeah, I see. What about the others? What about spinners?”
“I’ve only seen Ricker work a few times. Last time I saw him he was working a real estate sign on 92. He’s a good spinner but not as good Timmy Two Time. I haven’t seen Timmy in months but he was working a jewelry pawn sign up on Roswell near Johnson Ferry for a long time. Timmy could spin and flip two signs at the same time. He was older than me and word was he was once a professional juggler. Man that guy could toss a sign like you wouldn’t believe. He should have been on stage somewhere or in the circus. Maybe that’s what happened to him. I hope so.”
Old Abe was lost in thought for a moment. I asked him about the “posers.” He shook his head.
“A poser is a postman that just stands there holding the sign and doesn’t do anything. Sometimes you get a poser who is a newbie, sometimes you get a poser who doesn’t give a damn and was hired by someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. But some posers come to it naturally, either they’re just so good looking or sexy they don’t need to do anything, or they have so much attitude or presence it just pours out of them and they don’t need to do anything else.”
“I don’t think I’ve seen a poser.”
“You sure? There’s Parker Posey, not too far from Tony’s corner. She pretty but it’s her attitude that works the sign. She dresses just shy of sexy but it’s her expression and body language that gets attention. It says, ‘Seems like you could just walk up and talk to me, doesn’t it? Go ahead then, try it.’”
“What’s her sign selling?”
“Usually a beauty parlor or stylist or whatever,” said Donald. “But I’ve seen her work clothing stores. There is Prad Bitts up in Kennesaw. Just stands there looking like a male stripper and holds a sign for a lingerie store. Dumber than a bucket of nails though, while Parker is working on her master’s degree.”
“What about the clowns?” I asked.
Old Abe brightened. “Well, the clowns started it all. Ten years ago there were no spinners or dancers. I mean, we might have done the occasional jig, but none of us were break dancing or jerking around to speed metal.”
“Are there other clowns around here?”
“Down in the city there’s a few. Vicky the Viking, dressed exactly as you imagine, has been working an All You Can Eat Buffet sign in midtown for years. Norman the Nerd works a computer repair shop sign on the perimeter. I have not seen another clown actually dressed as a clown in a long time.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“I think we make people uncomfortable, if you want to know the truth. We’re old school and clowns have gotten a bad rap, ever since that little clown attacked that kid in Poltergeist. That, and the puppets have taken our place.”
I’d forgotten about the puppets. “What’s a puppet?”
“The puppets are the foam suits, the full body costumes you can stuff anyone into and just tell them to move around and hold the sign upright. The puppets are usually just some employee of the advertiser trying to pick up more hours. They lack commitment and they don’t understand their role.”
“Their role?” Now I was really intrigued.
“Yeah, you might think it’s a Postman’s job to hold the sign and get attention, but it’s not. The Postman’s job is to make a connection. Even Tony Baloney, looking like he’s having an allergic reaction to something, looks up to make eye contact. All of us do, to one degree or another. And even when we don’t make eye contact with you we are making eye contact with someone or doing something human that says we’re just a person like you trying to make a buck. The puppets don’t make this kind of connection with anyone.”
“You think puppets are less effective?”
Old Abe smiled and then laughed. “What? Man, I have no idea. The day someone does some sort of actual ROI study, or whatever you call it, on all of us is the day we’re all out of a job. That’s what I think.”
He walked out of the pizza parlor, stopping to get his pay from the manager at the cash register. It was clear that, to the people who made the pizza, Old Abe was no more relevant that the neon “Open” sign hanging in the window.
I wished I had thought to ask him if he enjoyed being a “Postman,” but then I thought he would have very likely refused the terms of the question and asked me if I was happy writing about them.