The Only Difference Between a Poet and a Bum is Something to Write With and On.
For those who are not familiar with the phrase ‘flying a sign’ it is a term used for making money by displaying yourself prominently with a cardboard sign expressing your need. They can be simple like ‘HUNGRY ANYTHING HELPS’ or more intricate like ‘FAMILY KIDNAPPED BY ALIENS SPARE CHANGE FOR ROCKET FUEL’.
It was a place where art and science met. The science of human minds, math, traffic patterns, weather, mainstream tax returns and paydays, and the art of language, of humor, of sharpie angles and cardboard types.
There was no end to the lengths one could go to try to predict or entice the generosity of strangers. There was no rhyme or reason actually. The Lexus would fly by with a big middle finger but the mini van with three empty car seats would slow down to a stop, even on a green light and pass out money that could have been food in their children’s mouths.
My favorite place to fly a sign was everywhere I was, but the outlets of parking lots were particularly lucrative for me.
I did not invent my favorite sign to fly, I wish that I had. If you recognize it and you know who did I would like to shake their hand and when I publish a book I will pay them back half of what I estimate I made off of it. I can pay them back in beer and pizza and drugs and gasoline if that’s what they prefer, that was what the money went to back then (though besides beer in the front, the rest were not necessarily in that order).
My sign read:
A COUNTRY SONG
Most of my times with this sign are hazy to say the least but I remember the first time I flew it very clearly.
I was alone in Florida at a place where Fred Meyers’ traffic was bottle necked onto the only busy street. I thought this sign was so funny and was surprised when people started pulling over. Many people got out of their cars to come and talk with me. They were very concerned, they did not get the joke… I think if you have not lived a life like that then it is more of a sad then a funny thing. From where I was sitting, there on the curb, in the heat with my pack and my dog and my addiction and my pants that were so dirty they would stand up when I took them off, there was nothing not to laugh at.
Anyways, people got out of their cars to ask me if I was all right. I did not know what they meant. My pockets were filling with one-dollar bills from the cars that didn’t stop. I was drinking a soda cup of warm beer and had scouted the bush I was going to pass out in by the dumpster. My dog had food and I was finally numb after a shaky morning. How could I have been better?
By the end of the day I had four flyers for youth churches, two job offers from gas station managers, 35 dollars, a case of beer, I still knew which state I was in and I had eaten four cheeseburgers. I didn’t have to share either. That’s the upside of ditching your ten closest friends during yesterdays’ blackout.
Still at the end of the day I didn’t feel all that great. I had wanted people to laugh with me while they gave me all of their money. When I had a sign that said ‘ANYTHING HELPS’ plenty of people sped by and laughed. This one though, in this place, had people crying when they were passing the change out of a crack in the window.
Years later I became a one-person country band and I took the same name. I thought it was hilarious. People still didn’t get it. Maybe they did not understand country music. Maybe they did not understand disasters.
I wrote sad songs because I wrote songs about how a person can do bad things that make other bad things happen and then try to cover them up but the bad gets bigger and bigger until you’re buried in the bad and no light is visible and no one hates you more than you hate yourself and that’s saying a lot because everybody hates you something awful.
It was good country music.
At least the lyrics were good.
The guitar playing was terrible, painful even, so I tried to do it softly and I yelled all the lyrics. Three people were die-hard fans and came to every show I played.
Still at the end of the day something was off. Everyone always cried all the way through my set and it was not because of the guitar playing.
Sure it was sad but it was funny too. The funny was the ship that kept my soul from being swallowed up in a sea of hopelessness. In the time those songs reflected, nothing had been very likely to get better.
My one-person band disbanded. These days I want to make something that reflects that same hopelessness but keeps the song going through the time when nothing was likely to get better and into the time when it just so happened that it did. Because as wild as that time was, this time where I am alive and want to be….is much wilder.
Me and Chris Gaines..I guess we are still one disaster short of a country song.