Friday, July 18, 2003

Corollary: Signs of the Times

As previously mentioned in Media Diet, the security guard at 601 Montgomery St. in San Francisco is a bit of a wordsmith. Here is an article that a friend wrote about him. It's an amazing story.

Did you hear the one about the croissant?
One San Francisco security guard's commentary on life, the universe, and everything.
By Alison Overholt

Everyone has a morning ritual: for some it's coffee, for others a jog through the park. Mine is a little different. I think about the sign -- the one that sits next to the security guard station in my office lobby. Sometimes it makes me laugh, sometimes I just shake my head in confusion -- but I always feel that the day hasn't begun until I get the joke on that sign.

Take the day that it read, "Beware croissants of dubious origin." Usually the topic relates to current events (my personal favorite, from the week after the Enron scandal broke: "Note to Congress: Lay off Dick Cheney about Enron so he can get back to being President."), but this one had me stumped. My fellow nine-to-fivers tried to figure it out in the elevator -- had there been an International Croissant Incident of some sort that we'd missed in the morning news? When a second reading of the newspaper yielded nothing, I went straight to the source.

The source is Steve Kiernan, the 50-year-old site supervisor of security at 601 Montgomery. He's been sitting watch from behind the guard's desk from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day since 1987. Kiernan is a stout guy with close-cropped salt and pepper hair, wire glasses, and a tendency to stare just slightly off to the side of you when you're having a conversation with him. Even when he's sharing his life story, he doesn't take his eyes off the front doors of the building, and glances now and then at the security monitor set into the desk at his station.

I ask him about the croissants of dubious origin. "It's true, I usually aim for one of the 'Big Three' -- news, sports, weather -- but anything is fair game, even if it only makes sense to me," Kiernan says. It turns out that on this particular day, the line for breakfast at the Bush Street McDonald's was halfway down the block, so Kiernan bought food at a local bakery instead. Their croissants tasted foul, and the sign went up as soon as Kiernan arrived at work. "Above all, this entertains me," he says with a chuckle. "It's my intention to make people do double takes. Often they do triple takes." I got lucky with this straightforward explanation. People ask Kiernan what his jokes mean all the time, and he's often known to smile and answer vaguely with a comment such as, "Sorry, this is no-explanation Thursday."

The signs started appearing about eight years ago when the building manager gave Kiernan the board to advertise outside meetings on the 4th floor. The meetings business never took off, but Kiernan still had the sign - and suddenly, he was hit with the muse. "I had this board, and they gave me all these letters," he says, "so one day I decided to put up something totally off the wall."

That first message wasn't off the wall enough for Kiernan to remember it now, but he does have a few favorites from over the years, like this choice comment from the day that the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced: "Double homicide in CA is now punishable by a really big fine." Or this note from when the Unabomber's hermit cabin was discovered: "Also found in Unabomber cabin was O.J. knife, Amelia Earhardt & the 49ers pass rush." The messages, which began as occasional comments when something particularly funny struck Kiernan, are the talk of the building and have become a daily affair. You can even win compilations of his jokes from over the years by joining an annual holiday raffle.

Occasionally, Kiernan's signs take a serious turn. After September 11th when many struggled to find a reason to show up for work, Kiernan encouraged with postings such as, "Rally caps on, people!" More importantly, when anti-Arab propaganda appeared in the building's elevators, he responded immediately with a sign proclaiming that "Willful stupidity never did anything good for anyone." His familiar sign was a peculiar source of comfort as we tried to get back to the business of doing business.

Occasionally, Kiernan has tried his hand at longer writing styles. In 1981 the Examiner ran a weekly writing contest that lasted for 24 weeks and culminated in a serialized novel, and Kiernan won two of the segments. He's toyed with the idea of writing an entire novel, but says, "I don't have the discipline to sit down and do it. Being a security guard has a better stress-to-pay ratio." It seems that his creativity works best on a 12" X 12" sign, with a stash of white letters. His favorite form is the haiku, or what Kiernan called an "M-Stew-ku" a few weeks ago when he posted this gem: "Today on Martha/I'll teach you how to build a/nice legal stonewall."

The story was submitted to the San Francisco Chronicle but declined. Silly, silly Chronic. Herb Caen would've been all over this.

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