Quite possibly the worst job at Powell's is changing the marquee. I'm not one to complain usually but each time I go out there to change it, something horrible and life-threatening happens. You see, our marquee is old. And dirty. And the gutters where the letters are supposed to sit are often warped or totally broken. I'm lucky if I can fit more than a couple words on each line. It's like writing haiku, but with less syllables. Somehow, yesterday, I was able to put a web address on there to promote our poetry contest. I was amazed at my achievement. But these rewards do not come without cost. Here are some of the dangers and nagging dramas I deal with in this somebody's-got-to-do-it position.
Faulty Suction: The tools are awkward yet simple. Some 12-inch tiles with black letters and an extendable pole with a suction cup on the end. The marquee is about 10 feet over the sidewalk — not high enough to warrant a ladder but high enough to strain your neck while you check your spelling. When I was trained to do this, I was told that I should spit on each letter or the suction cup part of my pole before slapping the letters up in their grooves. I did this a few times before feeling foolish and dehydrated. I inaugurated a new tool for this purpose: a small Tupperware tub with some nice wet water in it. Now I simply dab the suction cup into the liquid and, voila — the letters are now ready to be placed. Getting them up is usually easier than taking them down. To get them down, I have to smack the suction cup hard against the letter and lift it out of its groove. When I'm doing this I feel like I'm making a huge ruckus. Bang! Bang! Bam! (It usually takes me three smacks to get a hold of the suckers.) It must sound like gun shots to the people inside the store. Often the letters slip off the suction and slice through the air like a guillotine blade rapidly approaching me. I have suffered blows to my hands, feet, and somehow, yes, my ass. No workman's comp has been issued.
Pedestrians/Gawkers: I try to do the marquee work in the mornings when foot traffic is at a minimum. The sidewalk is narrow and sometimes I am afraid that my long pole frightens people. Sometimes people stop and look up, as if it's a laborious game of Wheel of Fortune. I am fully aware that drivers gawk at me as well when they're stopped at the red light on 10th and Burnside. There are busses that stop there, too. Window after window of dumbfound expressions. I try not to be bothered by this, even when the words I'm putting on the marquee are embarrassingly pithy or uninspired (for February, it said: LEAP INTO MORE BOOKS. Ugh!). Instead I'll imagine that I'm Vanna White, revealing each letter with a flourish of my wet suction cup. So far I have been lucky not to guillotine any passerby. The letters M and W are the biggest. They could probably do some real damage on someone.
Street Traffic: If a car hopped the curb just a couple of inches I'd be toast, but then again so would the Street Roots newspaper vendor who sometimes small-talks me to death. Plus, it's only a matter of time before a reckless falling letter causes a pile-up.
Grime: The letters are coated with dirt and grime from the elements. As I was finishing up yesterday I saw Michael Powell walk by. The man in charge. The legend! I wanted to call out to him, to show him my hands, but he was already walking quickly across 10th Avenue. Perhaps he knew I was going to
gripe voice my concerns about the state of the marquee. I have wanted to uncork my speech about how we should get an electronic marquee for years now. I know it may not pass city codes or some may think we're getting all Times Square, but it's worth a thought. Michael? (The comments section is open for business.)
When I am finished slapping up all the letters and bullying them into their place, I dump the Tupperware of water into the street. Then I slide the long pole down to its distended length, collect my stack of filthy plastic letters, and re-enter the book paradise that is Powell's. It takes a thorough scrubbing off of the grime before I am ready to handle books the rest of the day. The bad part of the day is behind me. The rest of the day is golden.
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Kevin Sampsell runs the small press section at Powell's and is the publisher of his own micro-press, Future Tense Books. His books include Creamy Bullets, Portland Noir, and the memoir A Common Pornography.
Books mentioned in this post
Kevin Sampsell is the author of A Common Pornography: A Memoir