Sign Man

Irvine is a pretty square place.

This isn’t always a bad thing. I mean, all the neighborhoods are nice–there are no “bad” areas of town. The schools are the best in the nation (Irvine has a University of California campus, a private university, and a junior college). The Spectrum, Irvine’s business district, is one of the largest high-tech meccas in the United States. There’s a lot of greenery, lakes, parks, and people always smile and say hello to you on the street. If I try really hard, I can probably think of worse places to live.

But the cookie cutter “planned community” aspect of Irvine gets old after a while. For example, it’s hard to find small, quirky, one-of-a-kind stores. One of my favorites, a small sandwich & liquor store called Mesa Foods, is closing at the end of the month. Why? “Too little business,” the owner told me.

I was so sad. They make the best sandwiches, and the people who work there are real characters. One of them is an over-bleached, blonde, gum-chewing transplant from New York, replete with accent and attitude. Another one is more down to earth, very chatty, and always knows the regular customers by name. Every time I pop in for food or a Coke, she takes the time to ask what show or concert I’m working on. You just don’t get that kind of thing in a national chain store.

Now that I think about it, all my favorite quirky Irvine people are gone. One of them was a moderately well dressed middle-aged woman who, despite the bundle of cash she carried around, would walk through the parking lot at Alton Center begging for enough change to buy “a small iced tea with lemon”. She must have asked me for change a hundred times on a hundred different days. Hot, cold, sunny, stormy–it didn’t matter. She always wanted a small iced tea with lemon, and she always bought it at Togo’s. And by God, when she finally did get the tea she was the happiest person in the world. I always meant to ask her why she didn’t use her own money, but I thought that would somehow be sacrosanct.

Iced Tea Woman was great, but the all-time best must have been Sign Man. As far as I could tell, this old guy was completely insane.. He would always appear on a major street corner carrying large rectangular signs which said things like “will maybe required” or “and that’s how now sometimes” or “some things you know”. They made absolutely NO sense, but he was out there just like those 16 year old kids who get paid minimum wage to wave signs touting the newest housing development, sale or grand opening. Okay, they were on roller blades while he sagged pathetically against the light post, but you get the point.

Sign Man’s appearances seemed to coincide with the hottest days of the year. He had a long white beard, and beneath his cheap hat looked like a cross between Dr. Gene Scott and George Bernard Shaw: unconventional, brash, vaguely intimidating, certainly brilliant in some cosmic way, and definitely off his rocker. For a while, I even convinced myself that Sign Man and Iced Tea Woman were an item. Was he ever forced to drink tea when he really wanted milk or water? Did she understand his signs?

I could never determine if the signs were supposed to be of a religious nature, or if they were just completely random. Maybe he wasn’t crazy at all, but like so many people just thought Irvine needed a square peg for a round hole. I don’t know why he went away, but after a while he just stopped appearing. Maybe he wasn’t getting the response he was looking for. Or perhaps God told him to go somewhere else. Whatever the reason, according to a friend he’s recently surfaced near her home in Tustin carrying the same old signs. So I’ve made a mental note to drive by there next time I’m in the area.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a hankering for some iced tea.


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