Just past one of the high schools Elton the sign twirler—although he doesn’t usually twirl so much as sway back and forth as he holds an umbrella—is standing in his usual spot. I’m not sure how effective hiring someone to stand in front of your business holding a sign is because even though I say hello to Elton every week I can’t for the life of me remember what the sign he’s holding says.
“I’m Elton. Like Elton John, only without the fame or fortune,” he said in a strong Tennessean accent upon introduction.
“Or rhinestoned glasses,” I added.
“I could take care of that,” he said. “I have a glue gun at home.”
He seemed so delighted someone had actually stopped to visit with him that I’ve made a point of doing it every week since. I wonder how many people not only miss Elton’s sign but miss seeing Elton altogether.
I think Elton sees everyone.
“Howdy, neighbor!” Elton always says when he sees me coming down the street. I ask him if he’s managed to stay somewhat dry and warm lately, and he says he’s happy to have finally been able to pull out his sunglasses (which are still lacking in rhinestones). He told me once that he worked as an engineer at Boeing for years, but then developed problems with his right hand and was no longer able to work there. He says he goes to regular physical therapy and that it’s slowly getting better. But for now he holds his sign.
“Have you always lived in the Seattle area?” I asked last time I saw him. Washingtonians say you can spot non-locals by their umbrellas. After all, Real Washingtonians pull up their hoods and charge on through the rain unabated without the aid of umbrellas. But even locals would pull out an umbrella if they were standing in one spot holding a sign all day, so it’s the accent and not the umbrella that gives him away.
Elton tells me that he grew up on a farm in Tennessee, said he wanted to see the world once he was done with high school. And he did. “I was a pig farmer in the Philippines,” he tells me.
“Oh, really? How did you end up doing that?”
He says it was his wife’s farm, so when they got married they ran it together.
“I don’t think I’ve don’t much else,” he says. “I mean I lived in Japan and Canada, but that’s not very interesting.” However, I imagine that the story of how a small-town farm boy from Tennessee traveled the world, met and married a pig farmer in the Philippines, eventually moved to the Seattle region to work for Boeing and is now holding a sign next to the high school where he tells me his son attends contains a lot of stories that are, regardless of what Elton thinks, interesting.
“Did I tell you ’bout how I hired someone to come split some of my wood?” he asks. I say that I don’t think he has, so he tells me about how the people who stop by to chat with him are usually homeless and one time one of the men asked him for money. “So I told him if he was willing to help me with some work I’d be happy to pay him ten dollars an hour. He came over and we split wood together for most of the day, and then I had him stay for dinner. He comes over regularly now to help with things around the yard and we have dinner together.”
I notice how it doesn’t sound like charity when Elton talks. He doesn’t say he now regularly feeds the poor homeless man because he’s such a great guy; he says they have dinner together. I can tell that to Elton the man isn’t “a homeless man” or a member of “the needy,” he’s a person.
Sometimes Elton will mention factually how he’s hoping to finally land himself a better job soon. I’d hire him in a second if I had the money and any reason to actually hire someone; partly because he’s so nice and friendly even when there isn’t a supervisor peering down their nose to check on his customer service, and partly because I’d love to get him out of the rain. But I can’t hire him. So I wish him luck. I really hope he finds a job he likes soon, but I’ll miss him when he’s gone. One of these weeks I’ll get to his usual spot on the street corner and he just won’t be there anymore, no one will say “Howdy, neighbor!” And I’ll hope it’s because he’s finally found himself a place out of the rain.
My acquaintanceship with Elton is a little imbalanced; it isn’t quite fair. You see, I know more about him than I’ll allow him to know about me. He stands there holding his sign every week, so I know what his job is. I know his life probably isn’t going according to plan right now. But he doesn’t know where I’m going.
He doesn’t know that when he sees me once a week it’s because I’m walking to counseling. He doesn’t know my life isn’t going according to plan, either. He doesn’t know that sometimes I bring my rhinestone-free sunglasses with me so that on my way home he won’t know I was just crying. He doesn’t know that even though the sun is out and we’re both sporting our sunglasses just how much darkness and cold has worked its way into my life.
He doesn’t know how much is hiding behind the smile I always put on, even when things are bad, with the hopes of adding a little sunshine to his day because I can see how much it means to him that I stop to say hello. And I might be the only person all day who does. Besides, he’s not being paid enough to play therapist for me.
“Where are you off to today, neighbor?” he says.
And I respond with my usual, “Oh, you know, just running some errands.”
He nods towards that fire ball in the sky we so rarely see around here and says, “A good day for errands.” I agree.
“Try to stay dry this week,” I say, turning to give Elton one last wave as I continue my walk to counseling.