I have driven past sign spinners countless times without ever thinking I would someday become one.
And I know my parents didn’t exactly see this in my career path when they invested in my college education. Yet, I found myself holding a sign for a flooring company on the corner of a busy intersection in Port Orange for nearly six hours on Saturday.
The men and women who hold up signs for businesses along busy roadways have always held a certain curiosity to me. Some look understandably miserable. Others baffle me with their ability to dance, smile and wave for hours on end in the heat.
“Just why do you want to be a sign spinner?” A manager named Rob asked me when I walked into Floor Pros Flooring Outlet in Port Orange, the fourth business I had visited to inquire about a sign-spinning gig. All the other businesses had been full.
“Well my car broke down and I need something to hold me over until my next paycheck,” I answered honestly.
Even to my closest friends and family this was a painful omission. I’m a working professional but here I was applying for a job to hold a sign for $9 an hour. I’m well aware of how I could have avoided this situation, but that would have meant cutting out life changing trips to Peru and Cuba in the last year. And when life handed me some unexpected lemons—a vet bill worth the price of my car and a blown alternator in the same month—I found myself living dangerously close to the edge.
And apparently I’m not alone. Nearly half of all Americans say they wouldn’t be able to afford an unexpected $400 expense, according to a recent Federal Reserve report. That alarming statistic made me pause and consider my lifestyle and income.
There are probably a lot of side jobs I could work that require a higher skill level than sign spinning but I wasn’t looking for long-term employment. It was a Craigslist ad I saw earlier in the week that gave me the idea to pick up a quick weekend shift because I wouldn’t have to wait around for a paycheck.
I showed up at 10 a.m. at Floor Pros on Saturday not quite sure what to expect. I had lathered up on sunscreen and brought a water bottle and headphones in preparation of a long day out in the sun.
When I thought of sign spinning, I figured I’d actually be flipping a sign around for effect. But this sign weighed about 10 pounds and was much too large to spin. The yellow and red sign advertised cabinet prices 20 to 70 percent off, with a “Buy today, install tomorrow,” guarantee.
I hauled the sign across the shopping center at the corner of Dunlawton Avenue and Nova Road and marked my post with uncertainty. I stood awkwardly for a few minutes wondering how excited I should look about cabinets before I was greeted by a second sign spinner named Paul who was working for the same company. He crossed the intersection and gave me the low down.
He instructed me to stand in the shade as much as possible and turn the sign to face incoming traffic as it changed at the light. When I asked what his signature move was for attracting customers, he whipped out a yellow rag and spun it above his head like a helicopter.
Paul resembled a kind grandfather who periodically checked in on me through out the day to make sure I was drinking enough water. He holds signs for Floor Pros six days a week and works an evening shift as a sign holder for a nearby Italian restaurant, which totals about nine hours a day.
We were also joined by a man named John who spins signs for a mattress store. John looked like he was in his late 50s or early 60s but swore he was only 25. He likes to pass the time by listening to music and audio books by philosophers. Paul likes to listen to sports games on AM radio.
“I might be here holding a sign, but in my mind I’m in Vegas,” John said.
I decided to adopt a Vanna White-style for my sign displaying technique—giving a Miss America wave and tossing my head up so that my hair would fall gracefully down my back. I’m pretty sure I just looked delusional but striving to be Vanna White helped occupy my mind and gave me a goal to work toward.
I also passed the time by listening to a 90s playlist on Spotify, revisiting songs from my middle school days by Mariah Carey and Chumbawamba. I couldn’t’ bring myself to dance at first but by mid-day I was desperate to do anything that could help pass the time. I also caught up on podcasts by This American Life and Ted Talks.
I kept telling myself that sign spinning was a lot like being on a long road trip and zoning out to the radio, only I was standing on a sidewalk and it was 90 degrees.
I got occasional honks and even fewer catcalls, but for the most part drivers seemed the least bit interested in me.
At one point I received a text message from one of my editors at work asking if I had a twin because he just saw someone who looked exactly like me holding a sign by the road.
I had intentionally saved a reinforcement for later in the afternoon when I hit the 4 hour mark. To really brand myself as a sign spinner I knew I would need to think outside the box, so I had stopped at the Dollar Store earlier that day and picked up a giant bubble wand.
I wasn’t sure how this would go over but I figured that everyone likes bubbles so there wasn’t much to lose. I held my sign in one hand and used the other to hold the wand up in the air each time a gust of wind came, sending a steady steam of bubbles into the intersection.
I’m not sure if anyone was amused but I was enjoying myself, making it a challenge to see how many bubbles I could produce in one gust.
The last hour and a half was the hardest. My bubble wand was now empty and my phone, which had all my music on it, died. It was now just me and the glaring afternoon sun. My legs buckled and ached in the same way they feel whenever I have run long distances.
Fatigue mixed with pure and utter boredom left little energy for my Vanna White smile and wave. I was now counting down each minute.
I had hoped to make it till 4 p.m. but when Paul and John started packing up at 3:30 I decided to end things there. I couldn’t bare even half an hour without my fellow sign spinners who motivated me to keep going.
At the end of my shift Paul asked me if I was living out of my car and if so, did I need help?
Luckily I have a roof over my head, a fridge with enough food in it and a steady paycheck on the way. And while my career as a sign spinner was short lived, I have a newfound respect for people like John and Paul who get out there and hustle each day with a smile on their face.