This was a new sight, a man with the face and hair of homelessness in a uniform and a bright yellow fluorescent vest standing at the intersection. He was holding two red flashlights crossed in front of him. The stop sign was gone. The man was the stop sign, so it seemed. Cars pulled to the intersection. The man stood there with his crossed red lights. The cars stopped. The cars inched forward. The cars found the way clear. The cars accelerated away.
His wife said it was a new program to get the homeless working.
“And how is it working?” he said. He was always the last to find out about anything. The city held an annual shredding festival, he missed it by a week. Street parking was changed to permit only, he was never notified — or claimed he wasn’t notified — of the change, and had to pay an expensive ticket.
She didn’t know how it was working. Her sources didn’t say, but she supposed it was working okay.
Sources. His wife had sources. He had a mortgage, two car payments, and insistent emails from the utility companies that he go paperless.
She supposed it was working okay because before the program, the homeless stood at the side of the road with their hand-lettered signs reading: “Veteran. Hungry. Please Help.” They had demonstrated the capacity to stand in the same place for hours, the city was only taking advantage of their talents; and they were being paid for it.
“Talent seems a bit of a stretch,” he said.
“Well, you know,” she said.
He didn’t know, but he said he thought it was a kind of reverse automation. His wife didn’t understand.
“They’ve put the signs out of work. I wonder if the signs are complaining.”
He had a difficult job, highly detail-oriented. He didn’t think a sign or a homeless man was going to put him out of business. He had to make sure that all the names in the credits of a film were spelled correctly. He made sure everyone was there and in the right order and the right size and the right place. If he made a mistake there was hell to pay. His stomach always roiled. His shoulders turned in from bending forward to read over the names. He had a collection of magnifying glasses of increasing power. He said the names aloud and spelled them out, a letter at a time, to make sure everything was correct.
Key Grip – Evan Mâkakôwskī. No, it should end in a “y” and not just a “y” but a “y” with a bar through it: “y.” He circled this and added it to his list of changes. How he hated the films that were shot with Eastern European crews. Names of tortured syllables with strange accents.
When he came home at night, a different man was standing at the intersection holding his red flashlights in a cross. When he walked the dog a few minutes before bed, yet another man had taken up his position at the intersection.
There were men at intersections all across town. The bigger intersections had more than one man with different colored lights — red, yellow and green. Now even the traffic signals were replaced.
An op-ed in the paper said this was coddling the homeless, giving people money to do nothing. People needed to be more self-sufficient, needed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. That old argument, he thought.
The men at the intersections didn’t talk. They held their sign light and stayed in position.
He caught another misspelling in the third draft. How did things that had been correct suddenly introduce a mistake into the workings? And such a simple name, a transportation coordinator named Smith had had the “m” replaced with an “n”. Was “Snith” even a name? He had to make four calls to track this down.
His boss called him in for a meeting. Upper management was looking to make cuts. The last three films had bombed. It seemed that no one was interested in seeing a movie about the aging members of a bar band or one about soccer players with head trauma or another about a public access station taken over by terrorists and everyone thinks it’s a joke. The box office was a joke. He was told to keep his head down. Work faster. Work cleaner. Don’t make waves.
A week later his boss was gone and he was told the department was reorganizing. Meanwhile, the nameless sign men stood at their corners, holding their colored lights. Cars stopped. Cars drove on.
His new boss was 20 years younger with a beard and tapered hair. The new boss said he wanted to find a better way to do the credits, a faster way, a more automated way. They needed to harness the power of big data and computing, the new boss said. He nodded at his boss, wondering all the while why any change was necessary when there hadn’t been a mistake in the last 10 years. The new boss asked for ideas and dismissed him back to his office.
“That’s all,” the new boss said.
Another month started and another film bombed, this one, an adaptation from a well-known novel where terrorists plan to release a virus that will destroy the world. Why would anyone have thought this would bring an audience in? He saw the film. The beginning was slow. The middle muddled. The end incomprehensible. Two hours and six minutes of his life that he could never claw back. He didn’t understand the choices. He understood less when he learned the film did well in Norway, a country whose favorite television show was the 7.5 hour journey of a train from one part of the country to the other shown in one long shot with a camera mounted on the front of the train.
He was certain he was going to be fired and that certainty made it impossible for him to sleep. His wife snored away softly on the other side of the bed. He watched the ceiling. He woke up exhausted and nearly hit one of the men with their red lights stopping traffic who waved his flashlights frantically trying to get him to stop.
He fell asleep at lunch, his feet up on the desk. At least his group hadn’t been relegated to the open plan for offices. He could still close his door.
He worked harder. He stayed later. After that first contact, he didn’t hear from his new boss. He checked the credits on every film. He checked the advertising. He approved the names in the posters and on the trailers and TV spots. He caught the misspellings and any other problems that might have been created by the guilds. Other people who worked around him wanted to be actors or producers or directors. They wanted to be higher up in the hierarchy, never satisfied with what they were doing now.
All he had ever wanted to be was excellent at whatever he was doing just then. If as a boy it was raking leaves for his father than he wanted to clear the yard completely. If it was doing laundry, he wanted everything properly folded. He imagined if he were one of the men with the red lights he would make sure the traffic came to a full and complete stop. That no one drifted past the limit line.
Finally one of the films caught on. A late night screening Thursday had been “boffo” the Trade papers said. People refreshed their browsers on the box office site, waiting to see the returns, willing the numbers to go up.
The film was about a space mission that finds new and deadly life. The biggest star in the film is killed off in the first 10 minutes, but for some reason this spurred audiences to stay and find out what happens next. When interviewed, they said they felt badly for the actor. They felt badly for the fictional crew. The box office numbers were amazing — and everyone at the studio breathed the proverbial sigh of relief.
There are many cars waiting to get through the intersection. More than usual though maybe, because he’s driving in the next morning a little later, the traffic is more extreme. The hot water has gone out and it took some time for him to figure out how to relight the pilot.
Finally it is his turn at the intersection and he notices the homeless men are gone. Back and restored to its usual position in a large red sign saying simply: