My friend Tom is certainly one of the more unusual personalities I have encountered. Like most people, when I first met Tom it was hard to know what to make of him. Is this guy for real?
You see Tom's "thing" in life is to bring a smile and a little happiness to people, if only for those few moments when he touches their lives unexpectedly. My cynical nature asked - what is he REALLY up to? Why does he do these things?
In general Tom is one of those nice people that goes out of his way to try to help people. What Tom has been doing lately however, is to greet random people passing by on the street with a sudden and unexpected exclamation of "Hi!" Here you are minding your own business walking down the street. Suddenly you hear Hi directed at you by a total stranger. Although it is always refreshing to hear a friendly voice, in these days of "keeping your own space" this is often a bit startling. For a split second you wonder if this guy is running for a political office or something. Then there is also Tom's physical presence.
The first thing you notice is that this stranger is carrying a sign mounted to a long pole. The sign simply says Hi on it. Tom created the first sign in March of 1997. He made the sign from just a piece of plastic poster board screwed down to a long stick. He took some black tape and created a capital H and a lower case i on it in large block letters. Then he took it to downtown Chicago and walked up and down some of the busier streets with it. At this point Tom had firmly established in his mind the idea that he wanted to bring a little happiness into people's lives but he was still unsure how to go about it.
I hadn't really known Tom very long and I wasn't exactly following his daily activities. I had seen the sign but I didn't have any particular reaction to it. Tom ignored my lack of enthusiasm and he kept taking the sign downtown and walking around with it. Initially it didn't seem to get the kind of interaction he was looking for. He was a bit discouraged but he kept at it. Then Tom realized that perhaps he needed to become more interactive with the people he met if he expected them to react to him. He decided if he wanted other people to smile he had to smile too. Not just any smile would do. It had to be a big and obvious smile.
But not even Tom had any idea what was going to happen next. People starting responding instantly as he passed them by on the street. He started waving at them and saying Hi with a big smile on his face and they were saying Hi and smiling in return. The next day he babbled something to me about how he got all these people to smile. Really? How could something so simple be any kind of big deal? "But I brought smiles to 500 people today," said Tom. "Wonderful," I dead-panned.
Several weeks later Tom made another refinement to his sign. First he made the sign a little smaller. Then he reasoned that if he put one of those giant yellow smiley faces on it that would help his cause. Sure enough the people liked it even more. "I must have said Hi to 1000 people today," says Tom. "Uh, huh" I muttered. "No, seriously! People are saying Hi to me wherever I go. And several people who have seen me before are calling me the Hi Guy." Maybe they just think you ARE HIGH," I replied. "Yeah, I am Hi!! I AM the Hi Guy!!
"It doesn't really matter what they call me," he says, "...because I brought smiles to 1000 people's faces today. Whether they are laughing with me or laughing at me isn't important. What is important is that I touched people's lives." I am thinking to myself that this will blow over and next week he will be into something else. But nothing could prepare me for what happened next.
It's about a week later and Tom walks in with a MULTICOLOR BEANIE HAT that has a PROPELLER on the top of it! And he has crafted a little oval with the word Hi on it, and he has stuck it right on the front of the hat. "Take off that ridiculous hat. You are embarrassing me." "No! People love it." "Surely you must be kidding?" "No, I'm not kidding. I wore it downtown today and I got twice as many smiles today as I did yesterday."
Suddenly I realized what was happening. Tom was actually becoming the Hi Guy character they called him on the street. He was beginning to understand that if he was unusual looking it would draw attention to his message.
A few days later I see Tom with a white t-shirt and the letters Hi once again created with the black tape. A week ago I was starting to wonder if Tom was getting a little silly but I finally understood what was going on. He knew what his created character was all about and he knew what he was doing. I just hadn't been paying attention.
The next day Tom is absolutely beaming from ear to ear. "They love it!" he says. They love the hat, the shirt, and the sign. And people are asking to take my picture! Not only that - they want to know where they can get one of these Hi Shirts or Hi Hats for themselves! Tom and the Hi Guy were becoming one in the same and the people were eating it up.
Next Tom had a couple of Hi Shirts silk screened to look just like his original hand made one. "I want to give these shirts away so other people will be saying Hi to everyone all around the world." "But Tom, you don't have the money to do that. You could sell the shirts," I said. "I don't care about that," says the Hi Guy. "This is about getting people smiling and talking to each other and being friendly again." "But Tom you can't afford to give them away. You have to charge for them. It costs money to set up the screens and buy the shirts and store them and ship them and so on." "Then you do it," he said.
Tom is busy now - making more enhancements to the Hi Guy character. He knows each little enhancement will further his cause. There will be little Hi Signs, Hi Stickers, Hi Buttons, Hi Shoes, Hi bumper stickers and only Tom and perhaps God know what else.
I have witnessed the creation of a public sensation. And I suddenly find myself in the position of marketing Hi Guy stuff and making a web site for him. Even I have gotten caught up in this Hi frenzy. Recently Tom and I were talking at the local burger place and I drew a little smiley over the i where the dot had been. I said "Tom, if they like the addition of the smiley to your sign, why not add a smiley to the shirt as well?" Tom looked at what I had drawn and agreed. Now the dot on the i has been replaced by a smiley!
Tom is apparently exactly what he seems to be; part clown and entertainer, part preacher, part good samaritan, and just an all around friendly person. He gets his message across in a most unusual, but nice way – and it works. You see, people actually LIKE Tom for what he is. They wish him the best because they can see that he isn't a phoney. This isn't an act. Tom really WANTS people to smile and be happy. I have to say he has even touched my life and made ME smile, sometimes despite my best efforts to resist.
Tom greets people every day whether it be downtown or at the grocery store. All he wants is for people to say Hi to each other and smile. Tourists and regulars alike want to take his picture. And they don't just want to take his picture - THEY want to be in the picture WITH HIM! "Someday you will be famous," I tell Tom. "Yeah," says Tom. "...and people all over the world will finally say Hi to one another."
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