Jack McDonough had experienced bad years before, but nothing compared to 1989. At the time, he was fifty years old, a political activist living in Berkeley with his partner, Anne, and their young son. Jack made his living the same way he had for ten years -- putting up fliers for the Thumbtack Bugle, a postering service that specialized in getting the word out about local concerts, music lessons, lost pets, and self-help seminars.
Then an eviction sent the family packing for Oakland. Shortly after moving, Anne suffered an unexpected, massive heart attack. Jack was suddenly a single father, trying to raise a son on fliering wages. The black clouds that had settled over Jack's life had an even darker lining: The owner of the Thumbtack Bugle was looking to sell the business. He was about to be out of a job.
If it sounds like an inauspicious beginning for a postering empire, well, Jack's is a very small empire. But in the thirteen years since he bought the Thumbtack Bugle from his former boss, times have been good. Nearly every kiosk and coffeehouse bulletin board in Oakland or Berkeley carries Jack's wares. The Bugle's reach extends as far north as Sonoma and as far south as Santa Cruz.
Despite advancing arthritis, Jack does most of the posting himself. He covers up to five miles a day, his fanny pack loaded with staples and tacks, and his canvas bag laden with his neon-colored wares. Jack has a uniquely Bay Area approach to his art, one that is equal parts cowboy and karma. Before starting his rounds, he meditates, uttering a centering incantation designed mostly to help him not to go crazy in East Bay traffic.
"I sit in the car," he says, "and I tell myself, 'To drive is to practice patience.' I try to post with that in mind, too."
The enlightened approach to fliering has yielded dramatic results. Watching Jack on the boards is like watching Julia Childs on a baked ham -- the handiwork is quick, decisive, and graceful. For Jack, speed is essential, but he makes a point of spending a moment bonding with each area before getting out the thumbtacks.
"When I first see the board, I go up to it and I sort of address the board," he says with a grin. "And then I check it out. I try to see what's out of date, what's really tattered. Other ones I know have been up there a long time and have sort of had their life."
His competitors don't always take such a tender approach. For Jack, though, having his fresh fliers torn down or covered up is an occupational hazard he's learned to take in stride.
"There's no rules around posting," he explains. "It's just your own sense of consideration. Your own approach. People do come around with just one poster and cover the entire board with it. You can do that. There's no law. It's the Wild West."
Like the Wild West, the posting world has its share of villains. Jack had a series of ugly run-ins a few years ago with a San Francisco man who had taken it upon himself to keep fliers off the city's telephone poles. It started with an irate letter, but soon escalated.
"We got a call on the answering machine which was extremely obscene," Jack remembers. "He was saying that we were hiring people to put posters up on telephone poles, and that if he catches one of those punks ... he's going to f-- them. It was very scary. I didn't like doing it, but we actually called the police and made a police report. And then we got more locks for the house."
Death threats aside, the dangers of the postering life are usually pretty mundane. Jack's thumb has been pierced more times than a theme camp at Burning Man, and people can get vocally irate when he covers their posters with one of his own. The biggest problem, however, is just the wear and tear from being constantly in motion.
"I'm a little concerned about that at my age," he says. At 63, Jack has no IRA to fall back on, and money issues will probably force him to move to a cheaper part of the country when he is no longer up to the physical demands of posting. It seems unthinkable that such a local fixture would be forced to leave, but Jack has long since developed an affinity for living peacefully with difficult dilemmas. Those battles are tomorrow's battles. Today, the boards await.