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Ominous Signs

For many college students, summer is the time to hunker down and get a job, save some money for books and clothes and a new school year.  For me it was a time to leave New York (where I was going to school) for a while and head back to Miami (where I used to live); to maybe get a job, to maybe save some money.  Maybe.

It was 1990, my third consecutive “lost year,” still in school but hardly dedicated, actively wondering but not actively searching for a life or career I might like better, or at all.  My clearly motivated girlfriend (also from Miami) headed down with me and quickly got two summer jobs, at the Body Shop (not to be confused with The Body Shop) and Ruby Tuesdays.  I dawdled, I drank a bit, and I lived with my sister in Coconut Grove.  I put off a decision as long as was comfortable.

It was still the month of June, still early in the summer, but after some prodding I got on the MetroRail and headed down US1, looking out the window for a place I could work that maybe wouldn’t be so terrible.  The previous summer I had stayed in California with a friend and only worked a total of ten days out of about 3 months.  That idleness combined with my usual tipsiness drove him nuts and ended our friendship.

I thought if I could find something bearable then maybe 1990 wouldn’t be such a bad summer for me (as was 1989).  Like many (I hoped) 20 somethings (I was 23) there was a lot of crushing self-identity tied to where one worked.  Even if it was, as in my case, just for the summer. The word “McJob” was still a couple of years from being coined but I grokked the concept early, and how.  I could be stopped from turning in an application by simply imagining myself working at the place in question.  “God I can’t work there,” I’d complain, “I’m supposed to be doing something (better, smarter, more successful – fill in the blank) a little more appropriate to my goals.”

My sister Laura drove me down US1 for a closer look at a couple of places.  US1 in south Miami is and always has been a busy thoroughfare, clotted like Elvis’ arteries not with cholesterol but with cars, cars, cars.  US1 was the many miles long but still dead-end appendix at the end of I-95, it seemed all the vehicular momentum from Maine on down south just bottlenecked right at Vizcaya and the lanes narrowed and dropped in elevation and everyone had to slow down (or maybe not) because all of a sudden drivers found they weren’t on a highway anymore.  Sometimes they looked left and right at each other, bewildered.

We searched about 3 miles south of that.  I couldn’t imagine working at a restaurant or bar because…. Well I just couldn’t.  If I dared comment about this Laura would remind me in ever steelier tones that I had to bring in a little money, not only for the fall semester in New York but for my own current living status, to contribute something – financial self-aggrandizement.

Looking, sigh, looking, sigh, there was a sign making place across from Dadeland Mall that seemed interesting.  After all I was an artist, at least I called myself that.  And maybe working for a sign company would get my foot in the door in the advertising world.  I imagined convoluted scenarios; I flipped it all over in my head and finally deemed it tolerable.  I could actually picture myself applying at this place so I did just that.

When I walked in there was a woman at the front desk, the placard on the front of the desk said FastSigns.  As she handed me an application I could see a production room toward the back with a tall and a short guy leaning over opposite ends of a table smoothing something out.  Hopefully this was not going to be labor intensive – for even in those rare times I let myself imagine filling out an application I always held out hope in my imaginings that I wouldn’t have to actually work.

A couple of days later I met the store manager Dave.  He seemed interested in me because they were short staffed and he had been forced to work on production some days.  It turned out later he didn’t really like to work either.  He hired me on the spot and somehow managed to mix in the fact that he hated the band Rush.  Looking at his business card I thought that was funny because the word Rush was part of his last name.

Awash in second thoughts, a few days later I boarded MetroRail at the Coconut Grove station for my 4 stop commute to Dadeland North, crossed US1 (like in the Frogger game) and reported for duty.  Dave was there with the two techs, Tall and Short.  Tall was named Greg and Short was Gaston.  All of the signs made there (then as well as now, probably) consisted of applied vinyl stuck to plastic corrugated boards.  I quickly learned that the lowly squeegee, a flat rectangular plastic wedge, was the signmaker’s most important tool. 

Greg and Gaston showed me their (very subtly) different techniques for removing cut sticky vinyl from its backing and applying it to the sign face without any bubbles.  Each “G” believed he was better at this than the other.  I liked that because it showed they liked what they were doing and by extension maybe I could like it too, eventually.

The G’s were both from Miami, Gaston was the son of a guy who was the VP of Gus Machado Buick (a major concern in that town) and Greg had recently come back home from college up in the Atlanta area.  Gaston was like many young Miami guys I had known (especially in high school), his family had some money and had granted their son a nebulous amount of time to fuck around in life before he had to really get serious about his career.  As silly as he could be I could tell he would eventually be serious about something, he was kind of creative like that.

In a different way so was Greg; I guess you could say they were both artists, Gaston a little more fine arts with Greg being more commercial.  Greg had become “Southified” in his time in Atlanta, speaking in a slight accent and needling me about going back up to “Yankeeland” in the fall. Greg was also the only guy Dave trusted with the vinyl cutting printer, a big plotter that would sometimes take hours to print very large banners.  Sometimes jobs would be programmed in and left overnight, with Dave or Greg locking up behind us at 6pm.  What would be an intolerable wait for us nowadays was still kind of fast in 1990 speeds.

Dave only trusted Greg for the heavy lifting because Gaston would come in late sometimes, a little hungover, or call in sick right when it seemed we needed him the most.  Maybe he was annoyed that Gaston used the word “ditz” as an all-purpose verb, though Greg and I usually found it funny.  “Hey are you ditzing those signs?” or “What did you guys ditz last night?”  Gaston was always making up words and trying them out on us.

He always came back in time to make up for his most egregious offenses to Dave.  He hung onto his job at FastSigns, it wasn’t even close really.  Though Dave would bluster at Gaston he would usually come back later, all apologetic and blame it on the Prozac.  Dave proudly and repeatedly pointed out that he was one the Prozac Pioneers and loved imparting details about its side effects, throwing things in his office, etc.  One of which he may not have been aware was likely a strong antipathy to Geddy Lee, Neal Peart and Alex Lifeson.

I liked these sign-guys obviously; those 3 characters really helped me stay in the same job all summer.  Greg and I would sometimes go to Hooters on McDonald and US1.  I stayed away from Dave socially, he was so freakin’ loud (claimed it was the Prozac); and Gaston had this whispery little conspiratorial thing going on with his girlfriend.  He also ran in different circles, yacht-y types I loathed anyway at that age.

There was a lot of loathing in those days, a feeling of otherness that was a mask for uneasiness I felt with my lack of certitude, my vague goals.  Everybody else I encountered seemed surer, more adult somehow.  Even kids.  I had self-doubt, I made it my own and used it as a springboard for further isolation.

When I wasn’t hanging out with my own girlfriend I was slowly getting sick of being back in Miami.  Being with Isabelle hit my reset button and made the floating futureless existence I’d carved out for myself rather pleasant.  But Miami was always so hot, and garishly bright, even in the morning as I made that short walk from Gifford Lane to the MetroRail station, passing the “early bird” hookers on US1.

Still there on US1, 25 years later.

Still there on US1, 25 years later.

It was always the same stuff with me, the same resentments.  And I strongly resented the idea of my definition of ‘sameness’ and the energy I spent doing so made it hard for me to think about what I wanted to do.  At least Gaston, who on the surface appeared similar, seemed to be having more fun.

Sick of seeing the same starched palm trees and of sweating through my shirts, no matter how thin the material, I’d enjoy the air conditioning of FastSigns until it was time for a cigarette break.  Dave made us smoke out back in the stale alley behind the strip mall. As the weeks went on I was lagging, losing interest, moving more slowly, and my energy was flagging.

We did big banners for Federal Express; later in New York on New Year’s I saw them on TV hanging in the Orange Bowl.  We did signs for special church events, or rich kids parties, Cami’s restaurant menu boards; some random stuff for the University of Miami.  Like cops we’d be bored much of the time and then suddenly really busy, and all about the deadline.  We’d come into work in the morning and check the pouch for orders, loving it when there was just the right amount to stay busy.

When it was the right amount of slow we would make little signs or bumper stickers based on pop culture fads or current events.  In August Iraq invaded Kuwait and Greg unveiled his newly designed “Nuke Iraq” bumper stickers (not for sale).  As the saber rattling continued that month Greg somehow talked Gaston into hanging a 15 foot “Nuke Iraq” banner off a highway overpass.  It was in the Miami Herald the next day, nobody seemed to ever figure out who did it.

Another time Dave commissioned us to make “Can’t Tuts This” stickers for his MC Hammer loving kids, and though we pleaded with him to change the spelling to something approaching acceptable slang, he wouldn’t budge and got a little angry.  Greg fed it into the computer and out they came.

Conditioned for boredom, like the latent teen I really was, my life in south Miami turned grey to me.  Some mornings I would make a quick drink before leaving the house, a little hair of the dog I guess; nothing too much to keep the vinyl off level, you know.  Anyway, I decided, that’s what pencils and rulers were for, to back me up.  Sober or not I prided myself on my straight level sign work.

I enjoyed having a little buzz in the morning, it put a little interest and color back into my world.  It wasn’t like I’d invented this; I’d been doing it a little in New York too, seeking control only where applicable.  Before I had a chance to get too bad or get too noticed (Gaston’s hangovers may have been my “Dave-Shield”) I had to pack my stuff and go back to my Brooklyn apartment share.  We said our goodbyes at FastSigns and Dave asked me to stop listening to Rush.  Thankfully Isabelle went back home with me, in those days, and with that me, I was never really sure how that was going to go.

Back in New York, enrolled at NYU, I again put off the idea of work.  This time I couldn’t excuse out of it because, I would actually be out in the street and without Laura anywhere nearby to save me.  I checked the Village Voice want-ads for FastSigns and turned up nothing.  But I did find a place called Manhattan Signs and Designs.  And though while at NYU I wasn’t doing art anymore, I could still feel a little creative pursuing my only-zero-degree-acceptable sign making whims.

The MS&D studio was definitely more sophisticated than anything FastSigns could muster.  More expensive equipment, a highly trained staff, they worked with metal, wood as well as vinyl.  Located just west of the Flatiron building on 22nd Street, it was of a walk-up design that looked like a private library, complete with rolling ladders.  The owner, Gene Nifenecker, sat up high an additional few steps above the production floor.  His carpeted lair was lit like a parlor and had a cozy non-corporate feel.  He was nothing like the bellowing Prozac-y Dave; he exuded a non-pharmaceutical self-assurance.  This confidence of his was surely derived in part from his ownership of a new Lotus Elan  Those times when we would do really good work he would take us outside to let us…….look at his car.  “Thanks Gene,” was our usual dutiful response.  The other sign-guys were by the book working types; they didn’t interest me like Greg and Gaston did back in Miami.  I was more insular by then anyway.

MS&D has moved on, same name but now in New Jersey.

MS&D has moved on from this location on W. 22nd St, same name but now in New Jersey.

My job was almost exclusively making Meyers Parking Garage signs, the kind you still see in midtown Manhattan and downtown parking garages; the ones with science fiction looking rates that nobody outside of New York have ever even believed were real.  “Parking ½ hr. $11.73” (and that was 25 years ago) always with those odd ending amounts in pennies.  For a while the signs still came out mostly straight though I was becoming decreasingly level, you might say.  I’d found a private little nook downstairs in the break room where I could make the occasional mixed drink before tackling another Meyers sign upstairs.

I lasted there a few months before the applied vinyl started picking up more bubbles (same squeegee, different results – G and G would have been aghast to see those bubbles); then the lettering started to lean off center to the right a bit.  Word got up to Gene and he talked to me.  Well, he said he wanted to talk to me.  He actually laid me off, he said that with the war on (Desert Shield and then Storm had started a few weeks before) business was really down.  As the last guy hired I had to be the first guy fired.  And I actually bought that for a long time, getting my story straight started as soon as I quietly descended those carpeted steps that afternoon.  My signs weren’t straight anymore but I’d learned my story always had to be.  It finally occurred to me a long time later that the TicTacs I continually popped there hadn’t worked at all.

It bothered me to lose that job, because of the way I had to lose that job.  Anywhere I went in Manhattan for years I was reminded by the Meyers Parking Company of my failure at MS&D.  In a weird way though my “art work” enjoyed longevity beyond what I could have imagined even as an art student at Pratt.  The garages were my galleries.

The staffs of the two sign shops kept going, the G’s surely moved on, even Dave and Gene went on to………something.   Finally, I did too; somewhere down the line I realized the simple insight that nobody knows, nobody is sure.  I was never different after all; maybe I just didn’t have a reason to hide it.  I had ascribed my limiting pseudo-perfection to things that turned out to be unreal.  Far from feeling like it was all a waste, it was in fact a great relief.  And though I never worked in another sign shop again I never lost my impulse to keep things straight, even jokingly calling myself “The Human Level.”  To this day I still go into friends’ houses and straighten their pictures, free of charge.

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