Willie Baronet is looking for a sign.
He pulls his Prius out of a coffee shop parking lot near SMU and heads south on Central Expressway. He goes east on I-30 and, after a mile or so, pulls onto the service road. He slows down at each overpass, craning his neck in both directions.
“It’s rush hour,” he says, a bit frustrated. He’s 53, tall and lean, with a carefully crafted goatee and a faint Cajun accent. “You think they’d be out.”
But it’s also 98 degrees outside, according to the car thermometer, and the streets and sidewalks are close to empty. Baronet turns the car around, then loops through East Dallas for 10 minutes before heading back to I-30. He still doesn’t see what he’s looking for.
Then, just as he’s talking about going to the other side of town, he pulls up to a red light and spots a man standing along the curb. From a distance, Baronet can tell he’s thin, wearing a tank top and a white hat, and holding something brown and flat in his hand. As Baronet approaches the corner, he pushes the button on his door and rolls down his window. Up close, the man on the street looks gaunt. The sweat on his shoulders—dripping from his ears—shimmers in the harsh sun. His ball cap is filthy. His cheeks are scored, and his chin is pecked with white stubble. His eyes are glassy but fixed, present. The cardboard in his hands reads:
GOD BLESS U
Baronet comes to a stop in front of the man. The stranger steps to the open window, expecting a donation.
“Hey, man,” Baronet says from inside the car. “Can I buy your sign?”
The man on the street pauses for a moment and looks down at the tattered, worn sign. He squints at Baronet. But the hesitation doesn’t last long.
“Sure,” he says.
“How much do you want for it?” Baronet says.
“How much would you give me for it?” the man says.
Baronet looks at the sign, at the folds and letters and the smudges on the soft edges, and he purses his lips. “How about …” he stretches the words, contemplating his bid until the very moment the words must leave his mouth: “… ten dollars.”
“Okay!” The man doesn’t conceal his excitement.
Baronet pulls a $10 bill from a small stack he’s got folded and jammed into a slot on the door handle. The man smiles wide—he’s missing a few teeth—and hands over the sign. Baronet hands over the money.
“Thanks!” the man says as he folds the cash into his pants pocket. By now, traffic is building behind the Prius. Baronet slowly pulls forward, under what has been a green light for a few seconds now. Soon, though, he pulls over to the side of the road again and puts the car in park to examine his purchase. It’s about 12 inches wide and 10 inches tall, with deep lines from where it’s been folded like an accordion.
“See, the actual wording on this one isn’t particularly unusual,” he says. “But look at this texture. Look at how weathered this is, and how soft it is from being folded over and over.” Baronet explains that because Dallas has laws against panhandling, most of the signs here are small and easily concealable. Unlike, say, Austin. “I’ve bought some huge signs down there,” he says, “full of color and everything.”
He lays the sign as flat as he can on his lap and photographs it with his iPhone. Then he lifts it up for a closer inspection.
“Look at the lettering,” he says, running his fingers over the indentions. “It’s thick, but it was done with a thin pen. Someone spent a lot of time making this, pressing into this.” He points out the patina, the layers of build-up, like an archaeologist discussing an ancient scroll.
Baronet has been buying and collecting signs made by homeless people for 20 years. He doesn’t claim to be an expert on the homeless or homelessness. He’s an artist, an advertising professor at SMU. For 15 years he owned his own advertising design firm, then sold it in 2006 and went to graduate school. When he started, he says, signs by the homeless weren’t so prevalent. Before he started buying them, he had the same mixed feelings a lot of us have. He didn’t want to look at them. He didn’t want to see the people. He didn’t want to read their messages or think about their problems. He made up stories about them and wondered what they’d do with the money—or if it was okay to wonder that. Just seeing homeless people asking for money made him want to avert his eyes. It felt like a very subtle violation, like someone exploiting a loophole in the social contract. And he felt bad for feeling that way.
He has found that in focusing solely on the signs, thinking of the interaction as a commercial transaction for art, he makes brief but real connections. He shakes hands. He isn’t afraid or disgusted or offended or embarrassed. He feels like now it’s a content producer—an outsider artist—and a broker, looking to negotiate a purchase.
“It’s easier to marginalize people until this shift happens,” he says. “Until you see them as human beings. I think to myself, ‘What’s the difference between me and them? What does this concept of home really mean?’ ”
Baronet started driving around, searching for signs. When he told his friends, they were so fascinated by the concept that they were eager to try it, too—and they often send him signs in the mail. (He has a standing offer: if someone sees and buys a sign, Baronet will pay the cost of the sign plus the shipping.) He makes trips to Austin, just to get new signs. He takes a wad of cash, like a gambler heading to Las Vegas. The price usually ranges from $4 to $25, and he tries to let the seller set the price. He’s had three people turn him down at $25, but he says he had to set a cap somewhere (though he did recently buy a sign for $40). He jokes: “I didn’t want to be the first guy on the street who was there because he’d bought too many homeless signs.”
The sign-buying adventures give him little rushes, too. Once he’s looking closer, thinking about the world differently, he’s excited to see what he’ll find—the thrill of the hunt. Each sign is different, with different textures, scripts, materials, and messages. Some have Bible verses. Some have emoticons. Some are funny. Some are crude. Some are sweet. Some are sad. Detached from their original context, some read like perverse poetry.
NEED $$ FOR
Lots of Problems
Lost My Job
If You Don’t
HOME & JOB
Donate Your Change
•••Willie Baronet has never lived on the street. He has never felt compelled to stand at traffic lights and ask for money. But if a home means stability, a refuge from the stresses and dangers of the world, he has certainly been homeless. He grew up the oldest of eight in South Louisiana, in a family that fought a lot. His father was, as Baronet says, “old school.” He didn’t much care for his oldest son’s fascination with the visual arts. As he talks about his family, Baronet slips into modern psychotherapy terms. “My dad just had absolutely no idea of emotional awareness,” he says. It was a big family, and there wasn’t much money. His father “struggled to make ends meet,” and “bottled up his anger.” When the anger got to be too much, Baronet says, “he would take it out on me and my siblings and my mom.”
There were visible bruises. There were dented doors. There was much worse—he’s been rebuilding his relationship with his father and doesn’t want to rehash the gory details now. There was fear. There were nightmares. “Let’s just say: I didn’t feel safe,” he says.
His escape was always art. He’d open up a sketch pad and vanish into another world. He would get obsessed with the way things looked, with the tiny details he’d see when he focused intensely.
He moved to Dallas in 1984 to work at an advertising firm before starting his own successful company. In 1993, he sat down and wrote a long letter to his father, confronting him about his childhood. He said he wasn’t going to be afraid anymore. He said he wanted a different kind of relationship.
“I wanted to know about his hopes and his dreams,” Baronet says. “I wanted to know about what was really going on inside of him for all those years.”
Three months later, his father wrote him a five-page letter he tells people is “the most prized possession I own.” The elder Baronet confessed his regrets and apologized. Son and father began to see the world through each other’s eyes, and they both saw things they’d never seen before.
That same year, 1993, he bought his first sign from a homeless person. He can’t say with certainty when or where it was, but he thinks it was the Field Street off-ramp along Woodall Rodgers. He just saw a man with a sign, felt all those complicated things and—“it just sort of happened.” It was such a thrill, such an improvement over the mixed feelings he’d had before, that he wanted to try it again as soon as possible. He started noticing interesting little things about each sign: the different surfaces (a variety of different cardboards in a variety of conditions and colors, and more recently, thick, weather-proof plastic), the different types of markers and lettering.
He has collected hundreds of signs over the years. He lost count long ago. They fill his life, from the walls of his office at SMU, to the stacks all around his studio in Oak Cliff, to the piles in the backseat of his car. Each has a provenance. Each tells a story.
There’s the one-legged woman he met in Austin, with an incredible tale of a boating accident in her 20s. She had come remarkably close to death, and she was hilarious. Uplifting even. Her sign read: ON MY LAST LEG. There’s the guy who was so interested in this ambiguous art project Baronet spoke of that he held up traffic. And when the cars behind Baronet began to honk, the man flipped off the other drivers and screamed obscenity-laden directions to go around. “He really wanted to talk about art,” Baronet says. And the vet outside the pawnshop who sold him the exact same sign twice—and almost a third time. There’s the thin woman he met along a highway once. She was crying as she talked about her sign, explaining that it was made by her late husband. “She flipped it over and showed me his name,” he says.
Other people send him photos and articles and anything related to signs made by homeless people. He recalls a project he saw that involved college students holding signs along the side of the road that said things like: NOT HOMELESS, JUST WANTED TO SAY HELLO.
Baronet sold his business in 2006 and decided to go to grad school at UTD, for an MFA in arts and technology. It was there that he began turning his strange hobby into something more. In 2009, he had his first solo art show at Hal Samples Gallery in Deep Ellum.
“It felt like I was coming home,” he says. “For me, art—artistic expression and creativity—that’s where I’ve always felt safe.”
There were a lot of different parts, but it all involved his homeless signs. Some were attached to mirrors. Some were hanging from the ceiling, dangling right at eye level. Some were glued to the floor, and Baronet watched as people stepped on them and recoiled, worrying that they might scuff one of the battered, craggy signs. He paid a homeless man to hang out at the opening and mingle with members of the art community.
“He had a little wine,” Baronet says. “He had conversations with a lot of people who are not used to talking to homeless people.”
The idea was to have people think about the concept of home and to think about what they don’t like to think about and why. Since his first show, he’s had several more. He has also invited friends and students to participate in what he calls “interventionist art”—in this case, having dozens of friends, colleagues, and students hold signs together along the side of Central Expressway. He got to experience what it was like to watch people avert their eyes. He photographed young, attractive, scantily clad people holding the signs in public and called the series “Can You See Me Now?”
He’s not sure about the ethics of all this. He knows it’s complicated. He questions whether selling him their signs is in the best interest of the homeless people. “I honestly don’t know if, in that moment, they have another sign, or if they have access to supplies,” he says. “I don’t know what they’re going to do with the money. I leave that up to them. It’s presumptuous for me to think I know anything about this person or their circumstances. I want to respect their privacy. In the end, it’s none of my business.” He stresses that he really doesn’t want to exploit anyone. He wants people to see the things in life that we usually avoid looking at.
Not long after buying the accordion sign from the gaunt man in the tank top, Baronet is across town, checking the underpasses of I-35. At the Mockingbird exit, there’s a tall man with a long white beard and stark Confederate tattoos. Baronet pulls up and begins his routine.
“Can I buy your sign?”
“How much?” the man asks.
“How’s five bucks?”
“You got it!”
Baronet pulls out a $5 bill.
“You’re really gonna buy my sign?” the man asks. “The cops usually just take them and tell me to fuck off.”
“I’m working on an art project,” Baronet says.
“Oh,” the man says. “Do you want me to sign it?”
“Sure!” Baronet says. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Jerry,” he says, signing his first name to the cardboard with a pen.
“Willie. Nice to meet you.”
There’s a firm handshake, and Baronet pulls away.
The sign is a small square. On one side, with a lime-green map pencil it says:
On the other side, an older draft of the sign has been cut off. It says:
“Oh, look at this,” he says, tracing the letters with his index finger. “It would be great for hanging. Look at this bright green coloring. Look at this side, with the larger letters. It looks like it was cut from a larger sign.”
He tells people that over the years, these signs have become the signposts on his own journey of self-discovery. He doesn’t know the answers to the questions he’s raising—or even if answers exist. He just knows it makes him feel good to do what he does. He’s enamored with the signs. He can’t stop. As he turns each sign, examining and photographing it, thinking about the effect it might have on people.
He’s writing a book. He’d like to apply for a grant and travel the country, buying signs in every major city along the way. He gave a talk at TEDxSMU, and he’s done various storytelling performances around town, sharing his experiences. He was recently approached by a speakers’ bureau, where he was invited to speak to corporations and conferences. He talks about creativity, and what the idea of home means to him. Of course, he talks about the signs and seeing the unseen.
Most of the time, he closes with a quote from one of his favorite movies, The Wiz—the 1978 reimagining of The Wizard of Oz starring Michael Jackson. It’s from the end, when Glinda the Good Witch explains that home is a state of mind. The words guide him. They’ve become his philosophy for life.
“If we know ourselves,” he says, “we’re always home, anywhere.”