Sign Spinning 101: Jesse, The Human Directional


“When I moved to California I noticed there were Human Directionals at almost every intersection. In Chicago they had people holding onto signs but they didn’t have the same enthusiasm or sign twirling skills as Jesse. They looked bored, holding onto the sign like it was punishment.”

Jesse says he does this day after day and he no longer sees himself as a person, but as an object. People throw everything at him. Soda bottles and cans. Lit cigarette butts. A shot gun spray of loose change. He says, “It sounds harmless but when junk is thrown at me at high speeds I can’t help but see myself as a victim.”

Jesse stands at the corner of a busy intersection in Berkeley. He wears a black t-shirt, black jeans, and skateboard shoes. His headphones have been tucked under his shirt. The earbuds sprout out from his collar and dangle across his chest. He holds onto a sign shaped as an arrow. The sign advertises a new housing development that offers condos in the low $200,000. He swings the sign around his body like a baton. He flips it up in the air. The sign spins like a rotary mower. He catches the sign with his elevated foot. He says, “Always make sure the sign is pointing in the right direction. That’s sign spinning 101. Make sure the motorists know where to go.”

Cars honk. Jesse smiles and waves. He kicks the sign up in the air and grabs it with his hand. I tell him he makes sign twirling look easy. Jesse informs me it’s not easy, it takes time and practice. He also corrects me and says he prefers the title Human Directional to Sign Twirler.

Not Jesse.

Jesse is a young twenty-something. He listens to rap music. He attended college for one semester, but didn’t return because he couldn’t afford it. He’s also accumulated a bunch of credit card debt. He says, “It was a stupid thing to do and I didn’t know any better.” He signed up for several credit cards while on campus. When they arrived in the mail he went on a shopping spree and maxed them all out. Now, he says, he’s broke and works full time as a Human Directional to pay off his debt. He tried other low paying jobs but nothing kept his interest. He says, “Everything else was either standing in front of a cash register or preparing beverages. Being a Human Directional was right up my alley. I’m not much for standing around.”

When I moved to California I noticed there were Human Directionals at almost every intersection. In Chicago they had people holding onto signs but they didn’t have the same enthusiasm or sign twirling skills as Jesse. They looked bored, holding onto the sign like it was punishment. The same way adolescents are court ordered to stand on a street and hold a sign stating how they were caught stealing.

In California when I stop at an intersection I can’t help but be mesmerized by the hypnotic twirls and body movements of the Human Directionals. Something to pass the time as I wait for a red light turn green. Each individual is providing a performance.

As I searched the web I learned Human Directionals and sign companies take their jobs very seriously. Some companies require all trainees to attend sign twirling boot camp to learn the ropes. Others have secret sign twirling moves that have been trademarked so other companies can’t steal them. There are YouTube clips on sign spinning competitions and articles on how sign twirling has been banned in some cities for being a distraction to motorists.

Jesse explains the sign is made of corrugated plastic. The advertisement was silkscreened onto the sign. Corrugated plastic can endure tough weather conditions like rain, sleet, or snow. The image won’t crack. The sun beating down on it will not make the advertisement fade. Over time the sign will begin to deteriorate, but so do all great masterpieces that hang in museums.

Jesse spins the sign and flicks his wrist. The sign pops up in the air like a propeller. He spins his body. He catches the sign and throws it up again. He bows down and the sign lands on his back. He rises. The sign slides down his spine. He kicks it with his heel. The sign pops up. He twirls his body and catches it. He breathes heavy and says, “That move took me a month to learn. When I’m not working I go home and practice new moves. I don’t even skateboard anymore.” People walk out of the local Starbucks and clap. Jesse bows and says, “Thank you.”

Jesse explains the only downside to being a Human Directional is the stuff people throw at him. Not everyone is a jerk, but sometimes he feels he’s target practice for others looking to let out their frustrations while stuck in traffic. He’s been hit with leftover cartons and baby toys. He’s been cursed out and has been flipped the bird more times than he can count. “The cool part,” he says, “is sometimes chicks in the back seat will pull down their pants and moon me. That’s when I feel like a rock star. Other times passing motorists make feel like garbage.”

I would be lying if I said Jesse was a real person because he isn’t. I created Jesse about a year ago. He’s a character in a book I’m writing. He is a mosaic of actual Human Directionals I have passed on the road holding onto signs that advertise cell phone deals, going out of business sales, and new housing developments in Berkeley. Jesse is a figment of my imagination, but the sign spinning skill he possesses is very real. Drive around and you’ll see Human Directionals performing moves like the Airplane Propeller, the Wind Up Toy, and the Street Tornado.

In our current economic times it’s hard to have a good time while working. Human Directionals make it look simple as they dance and flip a sign proving if they were performing on stage or at a theme park they would be considered Gods. But on the street corner they are nothing more than people trying to make a buck like everyone else.


Rumpus original art by Lucas Adams.

Deleon DeMicoli is the author of White Belts. When he isn't writing he's training in Krav Maga, boxing, and grappling. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook. More from this author →