Sign Language

by

11/16/2001

9th Ave & W 40th St, New York, NY 10018

Neighborhood: Clinton

Paul Williams considers it is a blessing that he was once a squeegee man. Not because he enjoyed the work — he didn’t — but because it was only through being a squeegee man that he became a cardboard man, and on that he has built a life.

Ten years ago, Paul was that familiar, slightly menacing fixture of the New York streets — the squeegee man. At 41st Street and Dyer Avenue, traffic-bound motorists avoided eye contact while he squeegeed the glass in front of them. His services were neither requested nor for the most part necessary, but an implied contract of the street suggested drivers should pay or have their headlights kicked in (a contract Paul did not uphold). The job was tense and full of headaches. Harassed motorists cursed him. They sprayed him with their windshield washers. There were turf fights with other squeegee men.

At the time, which he points out was under the Dinkins administration, Paul, who is 31, and fellow squeegee men Deon, Keith, and Ronald lived in cardboard huts on 41st Street.

“We all’s was like tired of washing windows,” Paul said during a lull in midday traffic last week. They began trying to think of a better way, and then one night it came to them.

That night’s inspiration, refined over the years, is still behind what Paul was doing on this day, when he stepped out into the intersection of 40th Street and Ninth Avenue, discharged a grin at a driver waiting out the light in a cream-colored Mercedes, and held up a tall cardboard sign with vertical lettering in black magic marker: “Relax I Don’t Wash Car Windows -OK-“

Next he gave his cardboard a quick spin to show another (vertical) sign on the back, “If You Could Would You ‘Help’ A Man With A Flat?” He had solid eye contact with the man in the Mercedes; a guy in a Lincoln was also peering over from the next lane. Paul paused a couple beats, moved to the music escaping the idling cars, and then opened the folded piece of cardboard like a book to deliver a double-size message: “I’m Flat Broke. Have A Heart.” The first driver seemed to smile in spite of himself and he poked a bill from his lowered window. Paul accepted it with a bow and an upturned hat. Had the driver cracked neither a smile nor the window, Paul would have reached for his next sign. He has many of them. After all, he’s a cardboard man.

He may be working only two blocks away from where he was washing windows a decade ago, but when asked during a green light to explain how far he’s come from his squeeqee days, he said, “We never want people to think this is about fear. This is not about fear. This is about love and concern. That’s the difference. You cannot do this is a meanful way.”

The first year was tough, as with any new business. The squeegee washers didn’t appreciate the cardboard men and things got ugly. A white scar inflicted by a squeegee stick still shows in Paul’s right eyebrow. Paul is slight, could shop in the boys’ department, and wears an oversize army jacket, a black sweater and work boots. He sleeps at the Open Door shelter on 41st Street. Talking to him on the sidewalk, you expect him to smile as much as he does in traffic, but no — he’s backstage now. As for his part in the dispute that brought him the scar, he says, “I’m not going to tell you I’m all peaches and cream.”

In the beginning his methods were simpler but so were the times. He originally had only one sign, “I Don’t Wash Car Windows,” with no flip side. And it worked, since people were simply relieved that he indeed wasn’t washing their windows, but soon that wasn’t enough.

“People started to like us,” he said. “So we had to come out with something more.”

Paul and his friends — who had begun to call themselves the Cardboard Crew — got to work. Their first success was Flat Broke, as Paul refers to his lead-off sign. The original idea came to him when he was helping a woman change a tire, but between the idea and the sign it became were many long rap sessions with his crew. They each contributed something as they tinkered with the wording night after night.

“It’s all parts,” Paul said. “Parts of them — Keith, Ronald, Deon — are all in these signs. And it’s all a part of me.”

There were tears in Paul’s eyes as he explained. Ten years after they banded together and took an oath (no stealing, no selling drugs and no disrespecting the people in cars), Paul is the “last footsoldier” of the original Cardboard Crew. One is dead, another in jail. Deon, the only other member who took the oath to heart, does his own cardboard work uptown. These days his friends are in his life only by being in the signs they all helped create.

Is it coincidence that the two signs he’s running today both contain a question? Hardly. In creating these signs, Paul found a back-door into a copywriter’s understanding of the world.

“The thing about a question is that people read it and want to know what? They want to know the answer.” Advertisers know what Pauls knows, he said, and pointed east on 40th Street at an Internet company billboard with a five story question mark in the center. “The brain, when it comes to a question mark, is curious.”

Paul was struck with the idea for the second sign he uses while sitting in a blood bank. He presents it with the same one, two, and-a-three rhythm as Flat Broke. First comes the question: “What’s The Best Nation In The Whole Wide World?” Then he spins in a circle and holds up the flip side, an oblong smiley face. This is an important pause, a little bit of friendly filler, which allows a weary commuters’ expectations to grow until the moment he unfolds the cardboard and delivers his kicker: “Donation–Have A Heart.”

Upon closer inspection, Paul’s signs read a little differently. For instance, ‘in’ is spelled ‘ni’ and ‘whole’ is ‘whrle’ and in his first sign, ‘broke’ is ‘broket.’ Paul is severely dyslexic but, it doesn’t curb his ambitions to write new and better signs. “I’ll probably have two signs comin’ out this summer,” he said. “One is about God and the other is about spirituality. It’s like takin’ it up to a new level.”

On this weekday afternoon, traffic poured into the city from the from the Lincoln Tunnel, and half a block of cars and buses waited for each light at 40th Street and Ninth Avenue.

“This here is good traffic, but it’s also your tougher traffic. A lot of these people have seen me during the week.” That said, Paul jumped into the street at each red light with his cardboard and his irregular letters and more enthusiasm than his assessment of the traffic seemed to justify. He avoided the limos (“They don’t give you nothin’ unless it’s New Years.”), but otherwise didn’t seem to care if a car was glossy-new or eaten through with rust. “It’s not all about cars. A car’s a car. I’m not interested in cars,” he said. “I’m interested in putting a smile on people’s faces. Sometimes people thank me. They say ‘Thank you, Mr. Cardboard Man.'”

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