And Then What Happened?: Who takes care of you?


For the Recorder
Published: 5/9/2022 4:52:44 PM

I work a lot.

I’m not complaining about that because my work lets me revel in being one of the world’s last old-school, paint-by-hand, computer-free sign writers. And more fun, I get to be an even rarer type of sign writer that my dad used to tell me stories about when I was a kid: an itinerant one.

Before the pandemic ripped happy events out of our lives, I made most of my living working music festivals around the country. (I also owned Elmer’s Store in Ashfield for 13 years, but that didn’t earn me a lot of money, that was just fun.) My festival job lies in stage design and site décor, and I write the signs presenting the musical acts and everything else throughout the site, from the welcome signs to the exit ones. It’s work I’ve done since 1985 when I was hired by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and it’s a job that excites my creative impulses and indulges me with a lot of travel, as I work on events from New Orleans to Greenfield and lots of places in between.

When the epizootic (as my 95-year-old neighbor calls the pandemic) hit the stands, the festivals closed up and went home, and lonely epizoodians decided that if they couldn’t attend a festival itself, they might at least have something that looked like their beloved events. People started ordering signs from me to celebrate anything that made them feel better. From all over the world people found me, and ordered festive-looking signs, hundreds of them, most of which needed to be shipped to places far away from Ashfield. Sign writing became my full-time job, even fuller than it had been before, and my early 2020 panic eased as I got busy with my new round-the-clock side-hustle.

It kept me going all the way through the shutdown.

With the dawn of spring 2022, festivals are rising from hibernation, and I’m back on the enthusiastic road, recently in New Orleans, designing stages and writing signs for the Jazz Fest again — and wait! The side-hustle has become bonafide! People are still ordering signs. By day, I work on the festival. By night, I write signs for people.

“You need an assistant,” someone told me recently.

Nope, I have an assistant and its name is the Ashfield Post Office.

While the U.S. Post Office may have its craters of present deficiencies in other states, in Ashfield, I could not ask for a better support system than the little office they have over there on Main Street beside Neighbors Food Convenience Store.

When I have (certifiably) 42 signs to mail out in an afternoon, I take them to the Ashfield Post Office and drop them off, where Postmaster Trish Libby and her gang keep my credit card in a little file box someplace. I leave the packages, allowing me to return to work, and Trish and the gang weigh the signs out, stamp them up, ship them off, charge my card and email me a receipt at their own pace between waiting on other postal customers. Never once have they used my credit card to go buy coffee at Neighbors — though they could if they wanted to, I’m so grateful to them for taking care of me.

When I’m traveling around the country, they gather all the mail I receive in a week, stuff it in an overnight envelope, and every Saturday morning they ship it to me wherever I might be in the world, even devising clever return addresses just to keep me entertained. (I always know who it’s from, though; I recognize their penmanship styles.)

When I’m in town, the Post Office is where I go for all my gossip — not from the staff themselves as they’re more professional than that; I get it from the other customers, meeting up in the parking lot or checking their P.O. boxes inside. I’m thinking about and encouraging the installation of an espresso machine, or even a bar there, so we can sit around, open our mail, complain about our bills, and talk about our neighbors and our health issues like people need to do.

Working the Jazz Fest while simultaneously writing and shipping signs for the upcoming Greenfield Bee Festival back north, I make frequent trips to the New Orleans Post Office, an institution that inspires even more appreciation for the Ashfield one every time I go. Now, it’s not that they don’t play funky music over the intercom system at the post office here, and dancing at the post office is always fun, but that’s all they’ve got. When it comes to efficiency and keeping prices honest and consistent, (“No, I mail these signs out every day and I know it doesn’t cost $28 to send one two states away.”) I think, “I would never give you my credit card to keep!”

That recognition drives the excited pull back home.

Nan Parati lives and works in Ashfield, where she found home and community following Hurricane Katrina. She can be reached at


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