I shared a moment with a genie today. Maybe you've seen him, the handsome young local boy in the gold turban and harem pants, dancing on the sidewalk in front of the cash-for-gold store on Main Street. Usually I'm driving by and can't afford a good look, but today I was stopped behind several cars at the Main and Market intersection, directly in front of the Maui Gold Genie. That's what it said on the sign he held in both hands. He seemed to be having so much fun, bopping and bouncing to the music in his earbuds. I was charmed. When our eyes met and he realized I'd been watching him, he grinned even wider and let out a good-natured laugh. It made me laugh too, and want to pull over, jump out and join him for a dance or two.
So far, Gold Genie is my favorite human billboard, more animated than the sign-twirling Statue of Liberty on Wakea Avenue, and certainly happier than the poor guy wearing the mattress on Hana Highway. Come to think of it, I haven't seen Mattress Man in awhile. I guess his box springs wore out. I wonder if he knew what he was in for when he got the job. I can just imagine that conversation. "I thought you said I'd be ON a mattress all day!"
Actually, I should clarify; the genie is my favorite real-life human billboard, or human directional, as they say in the business. It's hard to top the image of Willie K as a 7-foot-tall pineapple and Eric Gilliom as a giant banana, luring passers-by to a fruit stand in the movie "Get a Job." Tropical Fruit of the Loom, as Willie's character says in the film.
I love seeing grown men in silly costumes. OK, I love silly costumes, period. But put a full-grown man inside a fruit suit or turn him into a stuffed animal, and I'm Silly Putty in his paws. Give me two and I'm in heaven. One of my favorite sitcom episodes is "Fish Story," from the first season of "WKRP in Cincinnati," in which the WKRP mascot, smarmy salesman Herb Tarlik in a carp costume, gets into a bathroom brawl with the obnoxious pig from rival radio station WPIG. I've got the DVD and whenever I need a good belly laugh, that scene is a surefire remedy. The sight of a giant fish flopping his tail and finally tapping out with his fin beneath a mutant Porky Pig gets me every time.
Although it's a relatively recent development here on Maui, the history of costumed human advertisements dates back to 19th-century London. Enterprising entrepreneurs began employing sign-holders when the government started taxing poster advertisements in the 1820s. Charles Dickens described the so-called sandwich men as "a piece of human flesh between two slices of paste board," according to Wikipedia.
Isn't it funny, at a time when information like that is a few computer keystrokes away, and newspapers and radio stations are struggling to survive, that businesses are reverting to this low-tech form of advertising? I don't recall seeing human billboards on Maui when I was growing up, but I do remember seeing sandwich signs on TV and comic book characters. Apparently, the practice is effective, even in this day and age. There are companies devoted to training twirlers and supplying human directionals and their signs to other companies. And it has become so prevalent that some Mainland cities have banned sign-twirlers from the streets, citing concerns over distracted driving.
We hear the same worries expressed about political roadside sign-wavers, which is apparently a local phenomenon. Each election year, the argument resurfaces over whether candidates should be allowed to campaign in this way, vying for the attention of drivers. Remember how the late Council Member Tom Morrow used to sit astride his horse and wave at Hana Highway motorists? And state Rep. Kyle Yamashita's super-enthusiastic "gotcha!" point-and-wave?
I don't know what the statistics say on how many auto accidents have been attributed to sign-waving. Personally, I don't mind the spectacle, whether it's a roadside army of supporters or a lone candidate with lei and sign. In fact, I'd like to see the campaigners take the next logical step: silly costumes. I think the candidates should wear outfits depicting their platforms or identifying issues of importance to them. And not just Uncle Sam suits or clever slogans on T-shirts. I'm talking marijuana reform candidates as giant joints. Gambling advocates wearing lottery tickets. It would give them a chance to show us their creativity as well as their politics. Honestly, if I saw Linda Lingle dancing on Kaahumanu Avenue dressed as the Superferry, she'd have my vote. Just for making me laugh.
* Kathy Collins is a performance artist, broadcaster and freelance writer whose "Sharing Mana'o" column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is email@example.com.