You have seen them, I am sure, in front of suburban strip malls or along a city sidewalk—the folk dressed in ill-fitting costumes holding a sign, waved with varying degrees of enthusiasm. There are pigs. There are chickens. And perhaps most quirky of all there are the tax-time Statue of Liberties.
I have often wondered how those jobs get filled. Is it a regular employee who has drawn the short stick or is it a walk-on from the street? I generally imagine the latter. I drive past them with equal parts amusement and pity, never once having been enticed to pullover immediately to buy whatever they are selling. But thanks to a man in a pig outfit I do now know where Vernon’s BBQ is located. Mmm, mmm!
Tonight it was my turn. Volunteering at the food pantry at church, it was my turn to head to the sidewalk to hold the red and white “Pantry Open” sign. No costume was involved, though due to a change in the weather I would have been glad to have one by the end of my hour on the curb.
An hour on the curb. It is is no time at all for a shift of work, but it is a lot of time to think, if one is the thinking sort—to think of how one ought to best do this job of trying to make oneself seen, to think about the cars and pedestrians passing by, and, yes, to think of barbecue pig and chicken outfits.
Early on, as dusk settles, my friend Anne stops at the intersection in her blue Honda and peers over quizzically until her face breaks into recognition and into her lovely smile. She rolls down the window and reads the sign out loud. I raise it above my head and waggle it around a little, as I think I remember the Vernon’s pig doing and in what I imagine to be in keeping with industry best practices. She is amused and drives on.
Thinking of how high to hold the sign, of which way to best rotate its two-sided, two-dimensional message, are not the only thoughts I think of, of course. When I begin my piece of advertising-cum-performance-art, I think of the comparative situations of me and my porcine, poultry, and statuary counterparts. I am holding a sign offering a free service as opposed to one offering a bargain one must buy or even potentially a scam. I stand for a relatively comfortable hour and I stand voluntarily. Most pointedly I think of what I carry on my person compared to what I imagine the other sign carriers carry. I stand with a George Constanza-size wallet with cash and credit and health insurance cards, a wallet full of agency. I stand with a $600 cell phone slipped into my front pocket, my $500 bike parked inside the church, and my comfortable home just a mile to the north with my car parked in the driveway, which I had the luxury to choose not to drive today. I have no idea to what degree the pigs and chickens and, er, “Lady” Liberties have all these things or not, but the comparisons and contrasts occupy my thoughts. As I imitate them, I wish they were me.
I think, too, of other assumptions that I have as I watch the world stream by—in cars, on bikes, on buses—as I look along the sidewalk to anticipate potential takers. I am surprised as a Jeep Cherokee pulls up and a woman gets out. I welcome her and direct her to the side door of the church. Later, other cars also stop—cars with whining transmissions and in need of body work—cars, in short, which I deem more likely to have owners who might benefit from a food pantry. My welcome is the same, even as I reflect on my varying inner judgements. For the pedestrians, I make no verbal offer other than the offer on my sign. If it is clear they do want to visit the pantry, I welcome them, too, and direct them to the door. There is nothing so wide as the door of a church*, or at least that is how it ought to be.
I am a stereotyper and a prejudger—I expect that we all are if we are honest—and I am prone to making judgments and classifications as naturally as I breathe. It may be one reason that I am a halfway decent librarian. For the more negative aspects of this tendency, though, there is really no academic cure, I am afraid; the only cure is experience—experience and a reflective heart, a heart willing to be taught and to learn. I must quickly confess my heart is not always so pliable, as I choose to hold on to preconceptions or just numb it with comfort or distraction.
In truth, though, making judgments about folk visiting the pantry tonight did not really occupy as much of my thinking as it does so relatively in this short piece. In point of fact, I did spend a rather inordinate amount of time thinking about just how to hold that dang sign. And though I did happily avoid succumbing to distracting myself with my smart phone, I did take it out to take several “armies”—that is, a selfie with my hand and the sign. Then as the dusk deepened and the street light cast my elongated shadow onto Delmar Boulevard, serendipitously, there it was! I am the Statue of Liberty!
*I needed to look up the attribution of this phrase, because I knew it was definitely in my mind from elsewhere. The closest I could arrive at is this quote from the Bard himself when he puts these words in the mouth of a dying Mercutio talking to Romeo when he is gravely wounded: “Marry, ’tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door, but ’tis enough, ’twill serve: ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.”