Sure He's Difficult, But He Wants To Help
- Rick Green January 29, 2010
I'd be hard-pressed to find a more reasonable project during these tough times than the task that Peter Quercia has embraced in Willimantic.
Out of work and disabled, he came up with the idea of refurbishing the aging metal vintage street signs that label many of the intersections of this old mill town.
"I've got Social Security Disability. But I thought I want to work. I thought of different things," said Quercia, who is 55. "I noticed the old street signs. They were just in horrible shape."
If only life in Willimantic were this simple.
Last year, the first selectwoman who is no longer in office told Quercia he could proceed with his project. After an extended disagreement, town officials agreed to pay him $20 apiece for repairing 20 signs.
The relationship deteriorated from there. Quercia didn't help matters. He asked for more money after initially saying he would do it for next to nothing. He took down too many signs and eventually was told to stop. He still has a car full of unfinished signs and a desire to keep his project going for free.
But Mayor Ernie Eldridge says Quercia must return the signs because the union that represents town employees objects. "The Teamsters … do not support having bargaining unit work performed by a volunteer," Eldridge wrote in a letter to Quercia.
Eldridge told me that while there are no plans to pay town workers to clean up the signs, he's not interested in having Quercia do it for free.
"A lot of the signs were coming down and not going up," he said. "It was just getting out of hand."
When I met up with Quercia, his hands were covered in spots of the black paint he uses to repaint the signs. The signs were in the back of his old Taurus in various states of repair, next to the cans of paint, a wire brush and a wrench he uses to remove the signs.
Quercia is a rumpled man in a baseball cap who carries around stacks of papers, faded photocopies and documents he has written urgently upon. He freely talks of his lifelong struggle with depression. He nearly died a few years ago during a hospitalization after an adverse reaction to an anti-depressant. He suspects he might have some sort of neurological damage.
His stories are a little confusing, as is his long-running fight with local authorities. It's unclear if he thinks he ought to be paid for his work, though he says he will now fix up the signs for free. Or maybe $10 per intersection.
I can see why a mayor or town manager might find this frustrating. But the thing is, with all the complicated problems in the world, all Quercia wants to do is fix up some old signs.
Town Manager Neal Beets, who has spent months trying to work out a deal with Quercia, told me he'd had enough.
"My principal problem has been working out the rules of engagement with Peter," said Beets. "He hasn't proved to be a reliable partner. His desires with respect to compensation have moved around a bit.
"There are some historic street signs and it would be nice if we could refurbish them. We can't work with someone whose story changes from week to week."
Quercia isn't giving up. He was still working on a sign at home on Thursday afternoon.
"I put 3 1/2 hours into each intersection," he explained. "I use Rustoleum. I put on three coats. They are vintage. I enjoy driving by and seeing what I've done."
"It doesn't make sense," Quercia said. "This is free. How can you argue when it's free? It makes me feel good."
A lot of this doesn't make sense. What makes sense is somebody who wants to help out his hometown.
There's got to be a way to let a disabled guy fix up the old street signs of Willimantic, even if it has to be one sign at a time, even if the union complains, even if Peter Quercia can be difficult.