He stands outside waving at passing cars 315 days a year. You might have honked and waved back if you’re the congenial sort and had your coffee.
My habit is to flash a peace sign at these harbingers of healthy commercialism. His work space is under a shady tree near 10th and Front Street in downtown Medford. For 12 months a year, six days a week he is a smiling, animated advertisement for Medford Mattress. Meet Mike McKernan, human billboard. “You can say I’m in outside sales,” he laughed.
I’d planned to write a column about these creative sign dudes for a while. When a reader wrote in suggesting a story on this guy in downtown Medford who’d been on the same corner for years, I knew he was the one.
Today, as we visited, he earned the attention of passing motorists wearing a large tie-dyed T-shirt draped with a striped, long-sleeved shirt, a bright-blue baseball cap and reflective shades. He shows up early, has never called in sick, and is heading into 11 years in the same location. At 64, he may be nearing retirement. “I do this to pad my Social Security,” Mike explained.
Mikey, or Mr. Mike as store owner Rod Brodreson refers to him, hasn’t always twirled signage and lured patrons. Once upon a former boom he worked for almost 30 years in a local lumber mill. Mike was a machine operator and supervisor before the layoffs began. In fact, he and Rod worked together in the same mill. That’s one reason Rod offered him the job. Come to find out, hiring someone reliable to “float plastic,” a slang term used in the biz, is not easy. Too many give way to other motivations, shall we say. But not Mike.
The thermometer read 71 degrees and the sky spread over us was bluer than blue. But like a postal worker, he’s out there rain or shine, bundling up when it’s cold and donning a raincoat when necessary. I asked about our recent smoky summers. “I wear a mask when it gets real bad, but I’m a smoker so I don’t really notice any difference.”
Mike loves football. “I’m a big football fan. I’m a Niners fan. Also a big Ducks fan.” He enjoys family — his mom, a sister and several nieces and nephews live nearby.
I asked whether I could give his job a try. With my purse slung over one shoulder (hardly good form for a serious plastic floater), I smiled and waved at passing cars, looking like the phony I was. One lady smiled at me because she was polite and was cornered at a red light. I received no honks or waves — hard-earned rewards. The sign was heavier than it looked, and I knew I didn’t have the stamina it took, but just sort of blended in with the landscape.
I don’t know about you, but I’m strangely put off by those tall, twisting, writhing tubes with eyes, full of hot air and meant to draw attention to a business. More than likely I’d avoid the place. I wouldn’t care to walk near the unpredictable gyrations and risk meeting it face to face. Giant inflatable gorillas don’t do it for me, either, ever since King Kong got blasted off the Empire State Building. I still grieve.
No, give me a living, breathing human being every time. It’s good to see that technology hasn’t replaced humanity at Medford Mattress. Thanks to Rod for allowing me time with Mike, and to Mr. McKernan for putting himself out there on a daily basis.
I asked Mike what message he wanted to share. “C’mon in and buy a mattress!” he replied without hesitation. He’s a company man all the way.
Reach freelance writer Peggy Dover at firstname.lastname@example.org. For photos, visit her Facebook page.