The Taxing Business of Sign Waving By John Watts



Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”

“Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike we’ve all come to LOOK FOR AMERICA!”  Paul Simon
Signs.  Everyone is just waiting for one right?  A sign to guide them through the thicket of pretenders and heavy hitters and political candidates that we are all perennially stuck with.  One that points the way for some basic truth.  One that justifies a particular decision.

Of course we may complain about them and their insidious intrusion; we may cry “FOUL” at the imposition of too many; but our nervous systems all eagerly rely on signs for our direction and permission to move safely about our planet.

This leads me to my story.  It started a long time ago.  In fact by now it seems hardly possible to have been such a long chapter of my life.  In fact by now, it kind of IS my life.

But almost from the first week on, I became deeply committed to the authenticity and professionalism of the Sign Waving trade.  Now I view it as more of a calling and a mission than a vocation.

By sign waver I don’t mean as a protester or anything remotely political.

It was all done in the name of good old fashion capitalism.

In short I waved alluring signs at motorists on busy highways in the hopes of attracting business to the places I worked for.  If pressed I guess I would tell you that we were really marketers — in less formal parlance, “wavers.”  I say this proudly, like those Farmers Insurance commercials on TV that have that dignified “bum ba bum bum bum bum” tag line after the “We are FARMERS” announcement.

It’s funny that I say “BUM.”  Because when I was at Lady Liberty, we hired the most diverse, and equal opportunity work force imaginable.  In fact every year 5 to 10 percent of our employees were homeless, and in some cases, they were even allowed to sleep in the alley behind the Lady Liberty Tax office using the TAX banner as a blanket or bed—depending on their preference.

In my SIGN WAVING heyday I worked for 3 companies in one year: Uncle Sal’s Sub Shop, Softie’s Mattresses, and Lady Liberty Tax Service office.

I think what made me so hot in the sign waving business was my utter sincerity and conviction for every second I was blessed to wave my sign.

Heck I would have done it for free if there weren’t bills to pay.

It was more than just expedient for me.  It was more than just a job.  In my mind, it was a privileged opportunity to greet others and to be in this mission field.  I took it all very seriously—the body language, the choreography, and especially the attentiveness towards the motorists.  This was what mattered most.

But hands down, Lady Liberty Tax Service was by far my favorite; though it was only seasonal and offered no benefits.

That’s what I am technically supposed to say anyway.  But really, Lady Liberty had the MOST benefits for me.  It was at Lady Liberty that I came into my own and was encouraged to be as athletic and creative as I wanted.

But that all comes later in my life story.

I guess I should take you back to the beginning to set the stage properly.

I earned my associate degree in Business Marketing in only 4 short years at the local community college which happened to be in walking distance from the sub shop, mattress store, and tax office that I worked at and only 3 miles from my house.  I had been sending out hundreds of resumes or furthering my career.  Eventually I gave up pursuing any proper career paths as instead of rejections, I just got the silent treatment.  I also didn’t have the money to transfer to a more expensive college.

But just towards the end of my last semester at the community college I happened to be walking home by the shopping center and noticed the HELP WANTED sign at Uncle Sal’s Sub Shop.

It wasn’t what I expected.  They needed no sandwich makers or clerks.  What they wanted was a special breed of worker.  One who could wear a gigantic foam sub sandwich outfit, complete with protruding red onions and pickles, and leap about on the shoulder of the road so as to attract hungry sandwich eaters of every age, size and persuasion.

So I did.

At first I did so reluctantly, almost sheepishly.  Having Sal’s sandwiches thrown in for free didn’t even help that much.

After all, this was the same highway where my professors and classmates would drive by on the way to and from college.  I was mortified to find myself displayed out in front of all the commuters in such a silly manner.

But eventually I grew to relish my situation as a sandwich reenactor and soon could be seen on the highway shaking my contents all over and gesticulating wildly towards Uncle Sal’s Sub shop.

I figured if I was going to be out on the highway for 8 hours, not including breaks and lunch, than I might as well put my all into it.

After graduation, I continued full time at Uncle Sal’s, rain or shine, except for Christmas and New Year’s Day.

I also branched out to laying annoying Special Combo deal paper flyers on car windshields.

I even convinced the managers to try out a bold idea that I concocted on my own; serving tiny samples of sub sandwich specials at the traffic lights with toothpicks in them.

This was a huge success I am glad to report until a few toothpick injuries were reported by motorists that led to some messy distracted driving incidents.

After a year my pay increased from 6 dollars an hour to a whopping 8.

It was really going great for the short term which of course is all I wanted to do it for.

But I kept on working at Uncle Sal’s until my ship came in and took me off to exciting ports of great career fulfillment.

Unfortunately my ship never came in.

My 5 year life plan for what I would be doing after community college was soon scraped also.

But fortunately for me, another funny thing happened.  I became smitten by the dead end job of being a SIGN marketer.  First with Uncle Sal’s Sub shop, then with Softie’s Mattress Company, and lastly, Lady Liberty Tax Service which I will get into soon.

I guess when God closes a door He opens another one (or two or three)!

At Uncle Sal’s, I was briefly offered the chance to hand in my foam sandwich outfit so I could learn the craft of sandwich making.  There were even whispers going around that I could get on the managerial fast track for a SUBstantial future after that.

Soon, however, I found my mind wandering when I would look out the window.  It was apparent to me that younger, less qualified WAVERS were obviously not putting 100% effort into their sign waving and sandwich wearing.

In fact they were plainly just going through the motions.  This cut me to the quick and offended my sensibilities for what I thought a professional waver should be expected to do.

Eventually, after several long hours, I had seen too much and knew I had to report the misconduct of these new slackers out on the street.  So while on my lunch break, I covertly took pictures, while riding by on my bicycle, of both men sneakily talking on their cell phones and texting; while thinking they were undetectable behind one of the large layers of SUB ROLL on the sandwich outfit.  I did this without hesitation for I knew that this broke the cardinal rule of being a Sign Waver.

You are there for the public.  It is a prime directive.  You don’t divert your attention.

Soon I was back on the street as a sandwich waver as Uncle Sal himself realized how irreplaceable I was in that capacity.  This great news was not, however, without some remorse.  For it turns out that one of the men that I had fired for their lackluster ways, was actually a senior citizens of limited means who had served his country admirably in one of our many overseas wars.  It seems that he had not been texting and talking on his cell phone at all while wearing the vaunted sub sandwich outfit.  The man actually had a screw loose or two and had actually been pretending to talk on his dormant cell phone to anyone around that would listen.  I became convinced of this weeks later when I saw the same man on the sidewalk, back in civilian clothes and unemployed, talking to himself frantically, with just a banana in his hand.  Still, he should have asked for help before it got to this point so I can’t say I feel too bad.


Softie’s Mattresses was my next big career move as a sign waver.  And I liked the fact that it offered a fresh kind of departure from the SUB business.  For now I had foamy and billowy mattress outfits to climb into that gave me added insulation and protection.  I could even do back flips and land securely on my back side with no aches or pain thanks to the Softie’s promise of horizontal comfort.

I took this role very seriously.  I dearly wanted each spectator to sense how truly soft and comfortable the Softie’s Mattresses really was.  So occasionally I would take artistic license in trying out new stunts to show this.  One of my most infamous ones was to lay down flat next to the side walk in my simulated mattress outfit and then drop items on myself such as bowling balls to show how absorbent the comfort coils were in the mattress springs.  I also would balance wine glasses on top of myself and then drink them to show not only how impervious the material was to movement, but also how well the wine stains came out with just a sweep of a rag.

I enjoyed my time at Softie’s and appreciated the fringe benefits I got there—especially the free naps in the back warehouse on used Softie’s King and Queen size mattresses while on my break.

But my favorite of all time was Lady Liberty Tax Service which I performed seasonally during every tax season.  Eventually it felt almost downright patriotic to do this job.  Here I was, in a fax simile version of the Statue of Liberty herself; urging and pointing the way to new citizens and tax payers.

To put it in a nutshell—my job was to draw customers into our nearby Lady Liberty Tax Service office. Almost all of us, except for upper management, were required to sport a sign, often consisting of an arrow pointing toward the office.  We also had our LADY LIBERTY statue outfits which I particularly loved for the anonymity it afforded me.

For a time I tried office work.  I answered phones. I filed papers. I cleaned. I made phone calls. I greeted customers and entertained young children. I learned communication skills, filing skills, computer skills, and customer service.  When I would arrive at 8 A.M, I was required to make coffee and organize the lobby for the comfort of the customers.

But it wasn’t the same.  There were no windows.  Only cold white walls.

Eventually they honored my request to move back outside.

And despite having no health care, due to it being a seasonal job, I happily pranced and danced in the coldest winter weather leading up to prime tax season.

I was paid only 8 dollars an hour but I also knew for me at least–being happy carried no magic salary level with it.

One year, you can imagine my surprise when me and my fellow wavers were interviewed by a reporter at the local newspaper along with the entire crew of wavers hired by Lady Liberty Tax service.

The interviewer took notes as he asked each of us “wavers” about why we do what we do in an effort to understand it better for his readership.

Of course I have kept my own clipping and hung it on my refrigerator.  Here is what some of us said: “It’s a job. I don’t know, it’s kind of fun,” said Tallaluian Bankster.  She then proceeded to do a colorful version of the Hokey-Pokey along Route 7 last week.  “Call me crazy,” she cackled.

“It’s good exercise,” said Wayne Goodman, who was working South College Road near the Northen Virginia Community College’s flagship office in the Baxter Building. “You get to be a little creative. I have a lot of people wave and honk at me — and yeah, a few catcalls and wolf whistles, even if I’m a guy.”

“I love it. It’s for my country,” said Quenika Fontaine, who augmented her costume with sunglasses with the lenses shaped like dollar signs. Fontaine was a veteran waver already at the tender age of 15: “I’ve even played Uncle Sam,” she said proudly.

“The wavers are the backbone of our marketing,” said Kristine McKay, team leader for Liberty’s South College Road office.

When the interviewer got to me, I think I startled him with my sheer zeal:  “It is the one thing I can control in my life when I step out there by the side of the road in my outfit.  I cannot let the people down who drive by just to recognize me.” I told him without a trace of sarcasm or rote trickery.

Like Mall Santa’s, our job is public relations.  We are expected to exude friendliness and good will towards passing motorists.  We like to think that we are actors once we grab a sign or put on a Lady Liberty outfit.  But to me it is definitely NOT acting.  It is providing a much needed powerful injection of community values and affirmation.

As time went on and I made it all the way to this new century, I had to adapt to all the challenges that came with the information age and instant accessibility.  Us sign wavers were allowed to augment our road side carnival barking with the help of ear buds and an MP3 player.  For most, it was an easier way to get through the shifts.

But for the really inspired wavers like myself, we learn how to improvise our own moves solely through sheer adrenalin and dedication.  Each motorists that approached is another opportunity for eye contact that I cannot pass up!

The bottom line is this: and you can ask anyone who knows me–I never flinched in my commitment to Sign Waving and the seriousness to which I applied it.

And this is what leads me to the last part of my story.  Dealing with all the many disingenuous new hires in our midst that were NOT abiding by the code of good costumer rapport in a 100% fashion.

In fact they were downright sneaky, and even in some cases, blatantly lazy.  The calling that I cared so much for-was becoming watered down and compromised.

For these new generation scofflaws were not just listening to background music on their headsets, they were hiding behind their outfits and banners and texting and surfing the internet quite fraudulently. Furthermore, they were masquerading by covertly texting on their hand held devices (a gross violation) while on street duty.

My radar picked it up almost immediately.

And I made it a point to call them out on it.

One time it meant me being on duty, fully decked out in my Lady Liberty outfit complete with torch and comforting an identically attired sign waver who I had caught crouching behind a street sign playing video games.  Long story short—the lunch time crowd on Route 7 was treated to the bizarre spectacle of 2 Miss America statues going toe to toe yelling at each other and making angry allegations.  And I am ashamed to say, during the heat of the moment, both of our Lady Liberty Tax Services Promo signs were dropped on the street and forgotten.  I ended up swinging my fake torch across the imposter’s fake Lady Liberty crown which temporarily staggered him to his knees.  The whole scene was covered by the local news.

The other incident revolved around my off duty time.  I was driving with my wife on the way to an early dinner at Outback Steakhouse, when I noticed a different Lady Liberty sign waver on the corner.  This guy had the nerve to lean on a fire hydrant and appeared to have long abandoned any notion of dancing or waving at the motorists.  He was just taking up space.

Something snapped in me when I saw this and I peeled my car wheels dramatically across two lanes of traffic until I was on the shoulder just inches from the violator.  He of course, was quite startled, especially since I believe he had been asleep, and his eyes widened in a frightened manner as he awoke to the sound of my car screeching to a halt with me jumping out of my car towards him.

He seemed to recognize me.  I remember him mouthing my name as I drew closer.  “Hal?”  “What are you doing here?”  “Aren’t you off duty?”

I was in no mood for chit chatting and began methodically stripping the phony of his Lady Liberty attire.  His gown was ripped asunder.  His crown and shield were broken.  His torch was extinguished.

In a matter of minutes, the man was reduced to just his undershirt and boxers.  As my wife pleaded with me to stop stripping the man of his dignity—and because she was hungry, I finally gave up my public display of disciplining the poor guy, and stomped off as the offender hurled epitaphs at me.

Apparently the word got back to my supervisors at Lady Liberty Tax Service.  Because they had lost their interest in me.  What I thought was diligence was viewed as merely excessive fanaticism by the company.  I was refunded back out on to the streets and forced to return my Lady Liberty outfit and props.

What followed was a domino effect of bad results.  Sal’s Sub Shop also closed its doors on me.  Softie’s Mattresses also dismissed me while insisting that I return my luxuriant mattress outfit, with every last layer of memory foam.

And citing my recent public run-ins and volatile mental state, my wife soon declared that our marriage was over and she too turned her back on me.

I was turned out of the apartment with no back up plans.  Worse than all of this, I now had a gaping void in my life due to the cessation of my public Sign Waving.  The highway seemed a lonely, cold place.  I felt like I had left all my fans down, all the loyal ones that had always waved at me and smiled in recognition of my dedication.

So after moping around, and sleeping in the back alley ways behind the Lady Liberty Tax Service, I decided to do something about it.

I went dumpster diving until I could stitch together my own makeshift, stunningly original outfit.  The urge to be a performer was too strong and I needed to do something about it.

And so there I was.  The following Monday after a weekend of preparation, there I was once again, standing next to Route 7, divorced and unemployed, but still defiant and decidedly not broken.  For I was back in the people business again as a sign waver.  I had thrown together my own version of a Lone Ranger/Batman type outfit complete with leotards and mask.  And what’s more—I decided I would use my street side pulpit as a means of transmitting positive messages to as many folks as I could.  So on the first day, I had duck taped together a HUGE cardboard sign in which I scrawled: “Honk If You Are Lonely Too!”  At first the results were minimal.  But after a few brave lonely people decided to toot their horn back at me then more quietly desperate people decided to speak up too.  After 4 hours the cathartic release of so many frustrated folks that had only previously known honking as a means of compliant; were all merrily chiming in.

The next day, if my memory serves me, I had written “You Are Headed In The Right Direction” which was a slogan I had seen on a fortune cookie once.  The outpouring of relieved faces on the drivers was quite gratifying as it probably led to hundreds of people deciding to scrape their GPS devices and trusting their instincts more.

The next day after that I had subconsciously forgotten the copyright rules and had accidently appropriated the message—“LIFE IS GOOD!” on my card board sign.  This led to the manager of the area “Life is Good” retail store to come by with a police officer to tell me to cease and desist using their slogan.

No matter.  The next day I had amended my slogan to “Life IS REALLY Great!” which got plenty of thumbs up and no legal complaints.

And on and on went each day.  When I thought of a more spiritually global statement: when I sported this sign one morning: “PLEASE HELP GOD  BLESS,” I got a very unexpected reaction.  Misunderstanding my message for encouragement; Passersby started handing out money donations directly to me when the red light lingered long enough or the traffic bogged down sufficiently.  Seems they thought I was begging for a different kind of help!

Still I was out doing what I loved.

And the best thing was I felt liberated in just representing myself and my transcendental, spiritual beliefs on people and the importance of informal contacts.  I wasn’t representing some tax office or a mattress store or some silly sandwich shop.

But then another funny thing happened:  in the midst of all the positive messages that I had been broadcasting from my homemade dumpster sign, I began to attract the attention of corporate America again.  Seems the “up with people” strategy and the overwhelming response from motorists in the form of traffic jams; led to a local CARPET store Manager to walk up to me personally on the side of Route 7 in the height of rush hour to make a proposition to me.  Why a carpet store you ask?  Well it’s simple.  In the midst of my barrage of positive messages, I had chosen to scrawl the life affirming latin slogan “carpe diem” on my cardboard sign one day as a social experiment.

Well the carpet store advertising team had put 2 and 2 together and decided that this was a wonderful angle in which to capitalize on and broaden their brand appeal.  So “carpe diem” became “CARPET diem” or “SEIZE the CARPET” loaded with the same urgency and distrust in putting off for the future as the original Latin.

Long story short—my life is starting to turn around again.  And I suffer no qualms or misgivings about selling out.  For this time I am dictating the tone of the messages and just so happen to also being paid handsomely by the local CARPET DIEM stores.  Of course, even in my most idealistic maverick moments—I knew it was only a matter of time before I started getting offers to promote some business and product again.

Oh and I should also mention some of the souls that decided to emulate me in my sign waving crusade.  Remember that first sign waver that I had gotten fired for not working to his full potential in that billowy sandwich outfit at Uncle Sal’s Sub shop?  Well believe it or not, I saw the very same guy waiting at a bus stop talking to that same banana very much in the same addle minded, homeless guy manner.  So I went out of my way to seek him out and see what I could do to help him.  After getting some long needed medical attention, I took him under my wing in rebuilding his sign waving skills in the hopes that he would show more integrity and work ethic as a sign waver.  After getting him to promise to never talk into his pretend cell phone or banana while on street duty, I ended up getting him a position at my CARPET diem wearing a suit of plush, head to toe, suede carpeting.

Sometime between my non paid days of sign sloganeering and my start with the carpet chain; I noticed that other men began showing up along the same stretch of Route 7 with their own signs. Seems my candor had influenced them.  One man had a big banner sign with a handwritten confessional on it-“I have lusted other women in my heart.  Honey please forgive me!”

No matter what I said to this guy—and no matter how many times his wife drove by and pleaded with him to stop–he was resolute in returning from dawn to dusk every day holding this sign for all the world to see.  It was some kind of penance that this poor soul decided he needed to go through.  One day he decided that he had had enough and simply stopped showing up.  I think he was also a bit disillusioned with all the male motorists that kept on honking in reaction to his message in a rather cynical, seedy manner which was not what he intended at all. That is the beauty of sign waving I guess.  It fits all kinds of needs for all kinds of people.

2 weeks later a lumpy man of around 50 suddenly appeared in a wrinkled suit and tie with an impeccably designed, commercially made sign made to order from the local FED EX store.  His sign stated “I USED TO WORK AT LADY LIBERTY TAX SERVICE” and scammed my costumers for thousands of dollars on purpose!”

Wow!  This was hitting home.  It was Harold.  Harold was his name.  The same Harold I had known for years when I worked as a sign waver with Lady Liberty.  Seems Harold had a lot to get off his chest.  So he continuously came back for weeks on the far shoulder of Route 7 as the traffic roared by.  Harold’s sign was meant to signify deep shame.  Just as the luster in his heart guys did.  To help him out, I spent hours helping Harold to wiggle and flip his sign around so that he could capture more sets of eyes and hence get their attention.  My tutoring worked.  For solid consecutive hours, motorists who resented this white collar criminal’s presence, honked the living daylights out of their car horns in complete condemnation.  As his hearing finally began to suffer, Harold gave up his crusade and shuffled back to his car never to return to sign waving.

But not me.  As I type this now, I am surely past my prime and not a young man anymore.  And sign waving IS most decidedly a young man’s game.

But I have a vision and a quest that the younger folks don’t have (plus I don’t really care for technology so I am never tempted to pull out a hand held device).  For while I am back to making money again, (recently I got a raise from 8 dollars to 10 dollars an hour) I have a foundation and a passion for what I do that transcends monetary concerns.

This is because I believe in the sacred trust between sign waver and sign receiver.  We will never know the full impact of what positive influence we have in someone’s life.  The informal acts of kindness and genuine hospitality long survive beyond the formal decisions made in hidden board rooms.

And for as long as I can wave a sign and draw a breath (and hopefully not descend into lunacy again over perceived violations from my fellow sign wavers) I am going to be on that front line witnessing and testifying to a new audience every day.  And who knows?  Perhaps my ex-wife will pull alongside me and admire my CARPET diem sign and want to seize back our marriage once again!  Until that day when my karma comes full circle, I am a firm believer that if you just wait long enough by any street corner, then good news is bound to come back your way.

Friendliness begets friendliness am I right?


About John Watts

I like to write transcendental community based essays and stories along with photo journalism pieces.
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