Feverishly, with his head down focusing on his project, his right hand clutches a marker that reminds me of a sewing machine needle darting up and down. Shocks of greasy hair jut out from under his dirty baseball cap. Seated curbside, he never looks up as if he’s uncomfortable being there as he continues to attack the cardboard with his markers. He is new to the area because I do not recognize his backpack, clothing or grizzled beard. Intrigued, yet from a distance, I watch. A rare passing vehicle will call out to him or toot their horn to hand him some spare change. He slowly stands and shuffles over to accept the gift, but quickly returns to his post and resumes attention to his piece of cardboard. Despite being in the middle of the hustle and bustle of rush hour traffic, he’s totally alone and appears to isolate himself from the environment by undivided attention to his cardboard.
I needed to learn more about him.
On my approach, he never looked up. His thick fingers wrapped around the marker were dirty with an abundance of filth built up under his nails and when he finally noticed my boots in front of him, he gazed upwards through squinted eyes. Crow’s feet carved in sunburned skin fanned out from the corner of his eyes and the gray whiskers surrounding his mouth were stained tobacco brown. A muffled “Howdy” came through his whiskers as I looked down to see his cardboard. Shyly, he had turned it facedown. I learned his name was Doug and I told him how I was curious about his concentrated effort marking up the cardboard and I asked to see it.
I expected the standard panhandler lingo of “Anything helps” or “Passing through and need rent” or “Wife has cancer and kids are hungry” or, the list goes on and on… One of my favorites, because it was totally true, read “Why lie, I need a beer!” Typically, there’s usually “God Bless” and a cross somewhere on panhandling street signs.
But, when Doug flipped his sign over, it was unique. Very unique. A cartoonish spaceship was angled as if taking off and the words beside it read “Spaceship broke down– Need money for parts.”
Not only was the content engaging, but the sign was also a piece of art. Instead of childish sloppy scribbling with black markers, Doug’s was truly professional in quality. He commented how a “sign guy” offered him a job but the man never returned. I looked closer at his sign and noticed his style of art used dots. Lots and lots of dots. These dots used in different concentrations gave a quality of shading that nearly made the artwork 3-dimensional. I was even more impressed when he said a better sign had been stolen from him. So goes the street. Dog eat dog.
I would encounter Doug from time to time and noted he was a loner and did not drink. Wherever he camped, it was a good spot since no one ever complained. Finally, one day I asked if he would make a sign for Rocky and, in an old fashion manner, we shook hands in agreement. As a down payment, I gave him a few black sharpies and some cash. Days later, I handed him a package of gel pens since his collection had been stolen. He excitedly explained his vision for K9 Rocky’s sign and then weeks went by without seeing him. But, one day he was at his post busy with a piece of cardboard which was the beginning of Rocky’s sign. He smiled and explained in grave details how he was using layers of color for various effects that were obviously learned by trial and error while perched street side. Wet winter weather came and went and I assumed Rocky’s cardboard sign was victimized from the moisture and Doug disappeared again. However, a few weeks later, Doug was at his spot. He explained being hospitalized for 10 days with pneumonia and he began to uncover a sophisticated wrapping of recycled white plastic tied in a variety of knots. He had protected Rocky’s completed sign like an overbearing mother. It was even bed side during his hospital stay and I handed him some cash to complete our agreement.
Rocky’s “street sign” was completed on cardboard from a beer box and done totally freehand. Lines are amazingly straight, letters are remarkably consistent in size and the numbers of dots are like stars in the sky.
Doug is not a nuisance and doesn’t ask for much and has a talent that I hope one day will be discovered to help him out of homelessness. And, I believe Rocky would give a thumbs up on the street sign he made for him.