San Diego These days, oversized signs dance on street corners. Some promote housing developments, cell-phone companies, even pizza joints. All week, they twist, turn and bob musically, shouting for attention from hurried automobile drivers.
They do not do it alone. A holder (also known as "flipper" and "tosser") stands behind each sign and is paid to hold or draw attention to the sign. Don't scoff yet -- many teens and adults are giving up their free time to work as holders.
The primary incentive? Fast money, according to Mt. Carmel High School freshman Spencer Carey.
"I saw someone flipping and asked how much it paid," Carey said. Flippers are typically paid $10 an hour, and over the past five months of work for Events Extraordinaire, Carey has amassed enough money to purchase a car and stereo system.
On an overcast Saturday afternoon, he worked between Camino Ruiz and Carmel Valley Road. Carey admitted that he didn't wear a long hooded sweatshirt and beanie to only keep warm; he didn't want to be seen. "This is my favorite post because not that many people drive by, not that many people you know," he said.
In the past, not all drivers have been friendly, causing Casey to feel embarrassment. One time, a passerby chucked a 7-Eleven Big Gulp cup at him.
Mt. Carmel sophomore Kyle Craig, who also flips for Events Extraordinaire, takes the responses less seriously.
"It's kind of fun. I can get weird responses from all the people in the cars," he said.
Drivers often honk or wave and frequently stop to ask for directions. This is Craig's first job, which he has worked for the past two weekends. During shifts, he keeps busy by listening to rap and hip-hop music.
"I don't even care," Craig said. "I just chill. I like it, it's pretty fun."
Nearby, Mira Mesa High School junior Aaron Meyer-Abbott is working the intersection of Highway 56 and Black Mountain Road. A two-year tosser for the same company, he says his "friends think it's a really cool job, but none of them would actually do the job."
Meyer-Abbott recently received a raise and now earns $11 an hour. He plans to continue the job until he's out of high school because of the convenient working hours.
"The hours go with my school schedule: it's only on weekends, noon to 4:00, and it works out," he said. This benefit appeals to underclassmen who do not have their driver's licenses since their parents can drop them off for the afternoon. After working long-term, Meyer-Abbott has also had his fair share of battle wounds.
"I get a lot of waving and honking, but then again I get all the kids throwing stuff at me all the time," he said. "Water balloons, bottles full of Gatorade -- you get the picture."
Propping up a sign can get tiresome, too, and Carey sometimes sits down after long periods of standing.
Mt. Carmel freshman Ryan Roberts, who recently started holding signs on Black Mountain Road, decided to take a break for the entire day. After checking in at his post, he and his friends left to hang out, only returning before the shift ended. Roberts did not express any remorse and commented that many others had managed to ditch as well. Yet, tossers can't be too lax. Representatives at most companies will periodically drive by posts. If caught idling or leaving early, a tosser will lose his job.
On the other hand, representatives encourage tossers to perform tricks with their signs and will often raise a tosser's salary if he is seen acting enthusiastically. Adult sign holders do not have this advantage as much; they are paid a starting hourly wage of $6.50. Christian Smart, 42, has worked for Labor Ready since 2000 and recently began sign holding. Labor Ready provides temporary manual labor to light industrial and small business markets. Smart works eight-hour shifts, four days a week.
"I have owned my own business and have done landscape and construction work, but I feel pretty much comfortable doing anything I am told," he said. Smart moved from Tennessee to San Diego two years ago, because he "wanted to see something different." Blue-eyed and with shaggy gray hair, he carries a picture of Jesus (along with a Boys & Girls Club card with the name "Greg" on it) in his wallet and has retained his Southern drawl and love for the outdoors.
"I went to a junior college in Alabama, and I plan on going to a bigger school," he said. "I discontinued that because I found other things to do that are more important. That can be good and that can be bad. I have had and been in nice vehicles and nice apartments, but I'm a camper, an outside person."
Smart resides in Clairemont and sleeps in canyons. Holding a sign with his weathered hands on the corner of Mira Mesa Boulevard and Westview Parkway on one Sunday, his dusty appearance contrasted with the new shopping center.
"I think [Labor Ready] chooses busy intersections where people come more often," he said. "Only one supervisor will drive by and check at a time. I don't feel so bad standing out here," he continued. "When I don't have another person or a machine at hand, I speak to Jesus and thank Him for what he has done for me, and I ask Him for forgiveness for silly sins that I commit."
Another Labor Ready sign holder, Jack Gillespie, 50, feels differently. "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the money, not for the love of it or the art of it," he said. "I try not to see as much as I can, make the day go by as fast as possible. You know, sleep with your eyes open, turn the brain off, look at the girls.
"I know this job is just a legal loophole. You can't put the sign up and just leave it there, so you have to have someone hold it. They have a sale every day of the week, and they just move it all over the place."
Gillespie estimates that Labor Ready has approximately 12 sign holders posted around San Diego County each day. He has worked nine-hour shifts on and off during the week for ten years.
A Florida native, Gillespie majored in "Girls and psychedelics. Where did all the hippies go? Well, here's one." Gillespie tired of driving dirt and freight trucks around the country and came to San Diego. Since then, he has also worked at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard.
"I love doing my own thing; I hate being tied down," he said. "I wouldn't be holding this sign on the corner if I didn't like doing different things. I already tried that success thing; it was not all that it was cracked up to be. Living day to day. Can't look too far ahead; then you're looking like Mr. Bush does. Of course, he's making bullets and body bags: he wants to put a bullet in you and fill his body bags."
At the mention of going to war, Gillespie asked, "Do you want to shoot me? I don't want to shoot you, so what's the difference with anyone else?"
Gillespie returned to holding the sign by the street light. Another four hours to go. As he put it, "Standing on your two feet for eight hours, most people say it's easy, but it's different when you're actually doing it. Young feet stand up the same as old feet."