Better Signs in Sunnyside



Sunnyside, Queens, NY 11104

Neighborhood: Queens

Happy Thanksgiving: One of Nelton
Small’s hand-painted signs at Home Depot.
(Photo: Sabine Heinlein)

In September 2008 my husband and I bought an old house in Sunnyside, Queens. Due to unpredictable but steady cracks, leaks and drafts, we spent much of our first year at our local Home Depot. While some cunning pigeons who had moved in to Home Depot ravaged the seeds in the gardening section, we emptied the shelves in the paint department. Hardly a day passed when we weren’t preoccupied by the intricacies of weatherproofing and contractor psychology. If it hadn’t been for the turkey on one of Home Depot’s sale signs, Thanksgiving might have well gone unnoticed.

Laden with caulk guns and ceiling tiles, we stopped to marvel at the fat bird: Someone had drawn a magnificent turkey and painstakingly colored its wattle and each individual feather with thin markers. Despite his limited tools and colors, the artist had created a lively and accurate depiction. The carefully hand-drawn letters, oddly nostalgic, completed the sign.

Across the aisle from the turkey I noticed another original. The banner’s drawings of Roybi drills and DeWalt circular saws were meticulous in their details. Its slogan had a quaint air. “WANT TO CUT IT. NAIL IT, ROUT IT, SAND IT, DRILL IT, PLAIN [sic] IT OR BORE IT?” the ad asked. “Whatever the Job, we have got the TOOLS.” (And we bought them.)

The holidays had passed and the cracking and leaking had somewhat abated when I approached sign maker Nelton Small in his tiny, cramped corner in the back of the store. Small put down his T-square, ruler and markers and emerged to give me a brief tour. He wore a white ivy cap and a bashful smile; his dark skin faded into the dark of his clothes.

A 62-year-old Jamaican immigrant, Small lives with his sister in Westchester. He says he loves Picasso and on the weekends attends the Bronx Baptist Church. Five days a week at 6:30 a.m. he embarks on a two-and-a-half-hour journey to get to his workplace in Queens. At night — after another tiring two-and-a-half-hour journey back home — he sometimes lies awake as he tries to come up with new, catchy slogans. If something original crosses his mind, he gets up to write it down.

“From when I was small I liked to draw,” Small said in his whispery voice as we walked. I had to prod and praise him until he mentioned his graphics diploma from the Jamaica School of Art. He shyly led me through the store to show me his Glacier-Bay-toilet and Restyle-Your Kitchen signs.

Small worked as a sign maker in Jamaica for 15 years until he left for the U.S. in 1999. In the decade since his arrival he has lived the American Odyssey with all its unpredictable ups and downs, its gritty jobs, and the occasional silver lining behind stormy clouds.

He started at Sam’s Club grilling chickens. When he lost his job after the company moved, he endured a “lean spell.” Walking around town asking strangers for work, he found a job at Home Depot. For a while he wrangled shopping carts and kept the parking lot clean. Then he was promoted to the lumber department. It took over three years before Ken Richmond, the store’s manager, discovered Small’s talent. Noticing some elaborate drawings sticking out of the pocket of his orange apron, the manager was impressed.

“It was like pictures of people and some writings,” Richmond remembered. “And I said, ‘Hey, would you like to make signs for us?’ ”

While every Home Depot has someone assigned to paint simple sale signs or operate the sign-printing machine, Small’s expertise and dedication stand out. Richmond thinks that Small’s masterly work also pays off. He attributes the overwhelming success of Home Depot’s first “Ladies Night” to Small’s flashy campaign (think high heels, champagne flutes and power tools).

“Customer appreciation!” Richmond said. “People come in and they comment. They say, ‘Wow, who’s doing that?’ That’s every day. Ever since he has been doing the signs.”

Small’s humility belies the commitment to his craft. “If you get a stencil, it’s going to cost a lot more money,” he said as we returned to his hidden niche. “So I do it free-hand.”

Maybe once he finishes the ornate letters trumpeting “Behr Paint, The Name You Know and Trust!” Nelton Small will briefly return to the front and, from a safe distance, observe customers admire his signs. “Sometimes I wonder what they are saying,” he admitted, engrossed in his thoughts, before he returned to his modest tools.

Click here for a related slideshow.

Sabine Heinlein is the author of the narrative nonfiction book Among Murderers: Life After Prison (University of California Press, 2013). She has received a Pushcart Prize, a Margolis Award, an American Literary Review Award and fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell and NYFA.

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