The proper term for someone who holds an advertising sign by the side of the road is “human billboard.” It sounds like something from a bad 1950s horror movie.
It would be my title for a week as I held a sign to promote a going-out-of business furniture sale. I had been waiting at a temp agency and was desperate for quick work. The woman behind the counter noticed the job on an online posting site and mentioned it to me. I took it. She gave me instructions about how to get to the furniture-store parking lot, our central meeting place. I did not ask for more details.
After we met in the parking lot, our boss, a man in a pickup truck, drove us around to different corners of Knoxville. Most of us rode in the back as the wind blew on us.
My spot was just across the street from an eyeglasses store, near West Town Mall. The boss drove away, leaving me with my sign.
I’ve seen human billboards at work before, wearing sun costumes or dressed up as the Statue of Liberty. Some dance. But here, I had no costume and no one told me what to do. Maybe they couldn’t afford to be picky.
At first, I did nothing. I tried to keep the sign held high the whole time. No one had ever said anything about breaks, as far as I remembered. So I took no breaks.
When the scorching heat of that summer got to be too much for me, I crouched and reached down to get water from my backpack, all the while trying to hold the sign straight with my other hand. I tried not to lose any water in the process. I ate the same way.
A car stopped at a traffic light. The driver asked me if I was doing okay.
“Yes!” I shouted back, as much as my dry throat could shout. I wasn’t going to say “sunburned.” No, out here I was the voice of a company—a sunburned voice of a company that was going out of business.
Soon, I figured that I might as well do something. I danced a jig. I arm-curled with the backpack as though it was a dumbbell. None of what I did mattered anyway. I might as well have been a non-human billboard.
At the end of each day we rode back. Then we collected our minimum wage for the day, all of it in cash.
Usually, coming back felt relaxing. I enjoyed the cool interstate wind. One day, though, it rained. At first the storm was just a few drops. Then, sheets of rain poured, thunder roared, and lightning flashed. I ducked my head, shivered, and pulled my legs under my shirt.
Crack! Lightning split a tree. It fell from the side of the road but did not hit us. I screamed and wriggled, terrified that the lightning would fry me.
“Help!” I shouted. I banged on the truck’s back window.
An older, more rugged-looking fellow next to me laughed nervously. He seemed more scared of my crazy actions than the lightning.
The manager pulled over to the side and let some of us ride in the cab. A radio channel played blue-collar comedy routines. We rode to a homeless shelter to drop off the last of us. It was in a poorer part of town. Given that I went to college in Asheville and hadn’t been in Knoxville for a while, I didn’t recognize which part of Knoxville it was.
“Times are getting tough,” said the truck driver. “Of course that means more workers for me.”
“You mean furniture-store workers?” I asked.
“No, I don’t run the store,” he said. “People like them contract this sign-holding work out to me.”
“How did you get where you are?” I asked. If he was rich enough for satellite radio, he was better off than me.
“I was just like any of you until I dated my boss’s daughter.”
Many of my fellow sign-holders were homeless people. It surprised me, but it shouldn’t have. After all, they were often jobless and willing to do seasonal jobs. Also, some of them had practice holding signs. The manager seemed impressed that I was in college, even though it was for creative writing.
“You’re lucky,” he said with a smile. “You don’t really need to be here.”
Many accounts of the working poor and the jobless poor come from people like me, who happen to fall into that life, either by mistake or on purpose, but grew up well off. I tend to take notes every time I end up doing something like sign-holding, assuming it will lead to a good story. That’s probably not the way the other sign-holders saw it. I’m not an expert on being down and out. At least, not yet. m
Ben Pounds is currently working on a book about hiking. You can find out more by going to benandlarryincumberland.com.