Street Sign Language
by John Reinhart
The grant never came through. It never came back. Maybe it's still pending. Somewhere. But the upshot, where I wanted to start in the first place: independent of other people's money. Liberated from all but my own imagined vision of unreality. Make it tangible.
"On Monday, January 27, 2014 there were 5,812 homeless men, women and children counted in the seven county Metro Denver area. This number includes only those persons who filled out a survey and their family members."1
I drafted three signs. Three: triangular number of balance, intrigue. Everyone deserves a little choice.
struck by lightning
organic green love
making earth brighter
your name here in bold letters
"724 people were unsheltered (living on the street, under a bridge, in an abandoned or public building, in a car, camping, etc.) on the night of January 27, 2014."
Hit the streets. I know the corners. Downtown is a playground for the tired. My pockets full of fives and tens. And three signs. The gallery hadn't returned my calls. The hardware store gift card warmed my pocket in preparation for work later.
The first man, a familiar face, though he stared blankly at me, was friendly enough in that distant, looking-for way. Mike. I explained. Sign for sign, plus cash bonus. He agreed. No hesitation. Humor sells. Which was probably his hope too. I took his picture with each sign. Noting remarks a block away. The final result still tie-dyed across inner canvas.
"Of respondents, 437...served in the military. Nearly all were male (94.2%).Almost one-quarter (24.3%) or 106 veterans were identified as chronically homeless."
The second man. Enrique. Why are they mostly men? wanted to talk. Talk. And talk. Shelters are thieves' dens. Traps. Stabbed. Twice. Never done drugs. Hospitals. Might as well be shelters, they're all suits and talk, never meeting eyes. Wife. Girlfriend. No kids. Never kids. Sister somewhere. California in the winter. Or south. Never Mexico. Again. History of signs. "Hit me with a quarter." "Why lie? I need a beer." "You could be holding this sign someday." Lots of "God Bless" and "Anything Helps." His sign was simple.
Street haiku. Cliché. Cliché works, man. Familiarity sells. Still, for ten, he accepted lightning blossoms. Posed with signs. Back to work. Time is money.
No choices left. But good signs so far. I passed a few unpromising candidates sitting around tables in a park. Opting for Arvin. Man three. Big. Some modern urban George to my slight Lennie. Contrast here. Non-talking. Almost completely silent. Mute? Deaf? With shrugs and agreeable gestures. Signs exchanged. Photos. Done today.
"699 respondents were chronically homeless."
"One thing I noticed from being on the street is that, looking the other way, all of us are really - everybody in this room - is really just groping their way around in life. We grab on to things that tell us we've got it all figured out, but I bet if I ask for a show of hands of people who have just the littlest bit of doubt…I bet you everybody would raise their hands. So in that context it would be kind of presumptuous to know you could save the next person"2
Back at base. Three signs for three signs.
Laid Off - Need Work
Everything helps. Thanks.
down on my luck
25¢ or a burger helps
Six photos. Handful of comments. Three signs. Measuring tape. Protractor. Odd collection of scrap wood. Perfect. Odd collection of cardboard signs. 25 x 32", 27½ x 30", 12 x 23¾". Measure. Mark. Protract. Mark. Cut. Cut. Cut. Cut. No backing. Slighter nails at hardware store. Borrowed staple gun. Glue for security. Four walls. Security. More than those men have.
* * *
I don't have a connection with a gallery. I have a wooden fence. Already decorated. My own gallery. Strewn with scavenged art alongside my own creations. Framed wire collection. Batmobile made from garbage found along the highway. Wok. Two baking pans. A laptop screen. My son's 3D wooden collage - did he say it was a car? a truck? A lightbulb. Toilet seat, open to a shattered mirror.
Up went three new frames. Already worn from tired hands and long days. Glance into another world. Still ours.
1. All the quoted statistics come from "Metro Denver Homeless Initiative 2014 State of Homelessness Report: Seven-County Denver Metropolitan Region": http://mdhi.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/PIT-report-2014-6-17.pdf
2. Lee Stringer, in Like Shaking Hands with God: A Conversation About Writing, with Kurt Vonnegut, page 25
An arsonist by trade, eccentric by avocation, John Reinhart lives in Colorado with his wife and children, and beasts aplenty, including a dog, cat, duck, goats, chickens, pigeons, and probably mice.
His poetry has recently been published in Scifaikuest, Star*Line, and Punchnel's. More of his work is available at Facebook.com/JohnReinhartPoet