Dan the Man

By Michael C Keith

True success is to labor.
–– Robert Louis Stevenson

For five years, Dan Clover had served as the assistant manager of the appliance department at his local Sears. It was not where he hoped he would be in his 34th year. At the very least, he figured he would be the store’s general manager, and perhaps even a regional manager. Since graduating from college in 1966, he had performed with distinction for the national retailer, but promotions came slowly and prospects for advancement looked bleak.


Dan’s biggest fear was that he would not break the pattern of underachievement long established by the males in his family. His father, uncle, and grandfather remained low level workers their entire lives and consequently harbored contempt for those who accomplished greater things or had ambitions to do so. He was not exempt from their animus, which deepened when he received his college degree. The resentful words of his father still echoed in his head and haunted him.


“My son the big shot with his hotsy totsy diploma. Better than your old man now, huh? Well, let’s see what you do with it.”


Compounding Dan’s angst about his slow career advancement was his friends’ rapid climb up the ladder of success. His boyhood chum, Jay Shepherd, had caused a stir with his book, The Virtues of Deceit: A Phenomenologist’s Perspective. Dan felt at odds with the volume’s premise, and Jay was too caught up in exploiting his new-found notoriety––i.e., bedding all the women he could, married or otherwise––to discuss it at any length with his friend. Nonetheless, Jay had achieved a level of renown that was hard to deny, even if his path to the brass ring struck Dan as disingenuous.


Another longtime friend, Leo Johnson, had become a rock music impresario, discovering two local boy bands that climbed the recording charts with a series of hit songs. Dan had hung out at the studio with Leo on a few occasions and took note of the fact that his friend was interested in more than just the business aspects of his young protégés.


What galled Dan the most was the impressive rise of his ex-finance, Heidi Bosworth. Since their breakup four years earlier, she had gone from the assistant director of a small art gallery to the curator of the Belton Arts and Crafts Museum. Thinking back on his relationship with Heidi, he understood how the union was doomed from the start. What high priestess of culture would want to be married to a chain store appliance salesman? Dan sulked.




Dan had all but given up thinking he would achieve anything significant in life when an idea occurred to him. It came after watching the old Judy Holiday movie It Should Happen to You. In the film, the lead character, desperate for fame, has her name placed on a Manhattan billboard. Not having the money to replicate such a feat, Dan decided on another approach. He would cover the city with a piece of graffiti reading––‘Dan the Man.’ He would do it in his best cursive handwriting employing an array of eye-catching primary colors. When it caught the attention of the media, which he felt confident it would, he would reveal his true identity. While his actions would surely raise the ire of local law enforcement, Dan was willing to incur its wrath in exchange for the notice he would achieve.


Over the coming weekend, Dan purchased several cans of spray paint in the most striking tints he could find. He had decided on his initial targets. The first was an abandoned factory he passed on his way to work. For several years he had watched the site fall into disrepair, and this caused him dismay. It was where his father had worked when Dan was a small boy. Before it crumbled completely, he would put his mark on it, and in doing so bring renewed notice to the disintegrating edifice…and to himself.


Dan’s next target was a vast plywood fence surrounding a construction site a few blocks from his employer. The large surface faced a rotary giving it great visibility to passing traffic. After that he plied his missive on the rusting railroad bridge a mile from his house. By Sunday evening he had managed to paint ‘Dan the Man’ on a fourth target, and he felt his star begin to rise.


During the coming month, he scrawled his Day-Glo manifesto on another twenty-five surfaces around the city. It was becoming impossible to travel the metropolitan area without encountering Dan’s handiwork. He wondered when it would catch the attention of the press and kept his eyes on the television screens next to the washers and dryers in his section of the store.


“Hey, Dan the Man!” rang a voice behind him.


“What . . .!” blurted Dan thinking he’d been found out.


“Whoa, take it easy, buddy!” replied a store associate from furniture. “Just talking about all the ‘Dan the Man’ graffiti out there.  You’ve seen it, right? Hell, you can’t miss it. Guy must be a nut case, huh?”


“Yeah,” replied Dan, his heart returning to its normal rhythm.


“Pretty cool that he hasn’t been caught yet, though. Stealthy dude. Got to admit that.”


Dan redirected the conversation and his fellow employee soon returned to his own work area.

Well, ‘Dan the Man,’ you’re sure being noticed, he thought, happily.




Over the next two weeks, Dan continued his campaign to adorn the city with his bright scribbles. Only once did he come close to being caught when his ladder fell against a car, causing its theft alarm to go off. He quickly departed the site, leaving several cans of spray paint and the ladder behind. After the close call, he decided to put his project on hold for the time being, expecting his enterprise to inspire notice at any moment…and it did.


The noon news on Channel 8 was the first to mention the ‘Dan the Man’ graffiti, reporting that police had found the tools of the perpetrator’s trade. The broadcast included interviews with an assortment of people regarding their views of the ubiquitous message. While some felt it was sullying the landscape, most appeared intrigued by it, and one person referred to the graffitist as something of a super-hero intent on brightening the drab spaces of a city that sorely needed it.


The evening news repeated the report with even more interviews expressing approval of the citywide scrawl.


“I think it livens things up and points out just how run down and neglected a lot of places are around here. Good for ‘Dan the Man’,” proclaimed one person.


Dan was thrilled by what he heard and decided to reveal his true identity to the media the next day. It was his time to bask in the glow of his achievement, and he couldn’t wait.




The next morning Dan sat in front of the television sipping his coffee and eagerly awaited any additional news about his bold action to draw attention to the city’s declining appearance. In the intervening hours since the first public mention of his efforts, he had come to embrace the notion that his Krylon painted scribbles were, indeed, a statement about the sad state of the place he’d grown up in.


To his great surprise, the ‘Dan the Man’ story led the news…but with a twist that sent Dan’s mood into free fall.


“The person responsible for placing graffiti all over the city has come forward. Dan Coleman, an aspiring songwriter, has confessed to writing ‘Dan the Man’ on dozens of buildings and structures. He claims he did so as a protest against the decline of urban areas throughout the country. Mr. Coleman was arrested but quickly released from jail after a group sympathetic to his cause raised bail. The ‘Dan the Man’ behind the colorful graffiti has apparently struck a chord with people sharing his concern. Even a member of the city council…”


Dan shut the television off and tossed his empty cup into the sink, shattering it.


“He’s a fraud! I’m the real ‘Dan the Man!” shouted Dan, dashing from the kitchen to his car determined to expose Coleman’s lie and claim the spotlight that was due him.


Dan drove directly to the police station to make a confession and inform them of the imposter who claimed to be him.


“Good morning, sir,” said Dan to the officer sitting behind counter. “I’m the legitimate ‘Dan the Man,’ not that phony who confessed to my graffiti.”


“I see,” said the officer, casually.


“My name is Dan Clover, and every single ‘Dan the Man’ out there is my work, and my work alone.”


“Well, Mr. Clover, I’m afraid you’re the fifth ‘Dan the Man’ who’s made that claim this morning, so why don’t you just leave me your phone number, and if we have anything to ask you, we’ll be in touch, okay?”


“Fifth!” said Dan, incredulously. “They’re all phonies trying to cash in on my work.”


“Yeah, I know. That’s what they said, too. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have other crimes to deal with,” replied the officer, turning away from Dan.




Over the next two days, the news was abuzz about the individual claiming to be the actual ‘Dan the Man.’ He was portrayed as an activist and hailed for his actions to raise the public’s awareness of the city’s blighted areas. Incensed by being cheated out of his moment in the spotlight, Dan walked out on his job when the television sets adjacent to his department brought further news of the graffiti interloper.


“Because of the attention ‘Dan the Man’ has brought to the problem of urban decay, charges have been dropped against him. In fact, the mayor’s office has commissioned Dan Coleman to add his iconic graffiti to the scroll of local heroes in the city hall lobby.”


Extremely agitated by the bad luck that had befallen him, Dan experienced insomnia. He tossed and turned while churning thoughts of how fame had been stolen from him. As he lay in bed in the early morning hours of his second sleepless night, an idea occurred to him. He would begin a new campaign designed to discredit the phony ‘Dan the Man.’ The following evening he would commence spray painting ‘The Real Dan the Man’ across his original graffiti.


With his spirits renewed, Dan purchased the material needed to execute his plan of retaliation. As he anxiously waited nightfall, Dan decided to trace the trajectory of his first campaign. When the time came, he returned to the abandoned building where his father once labored. There he began to scrawl ‘The Real Dan the Man’ over his previous art work. Halfway through he was startled by what he took as the gruff voice of his long-departed parent.


“Come down right now before you fall, son!”


The ghostly admonition caused Dan to drop the can of spray paint and freeze where he stood.


“You’re under arrest. Now get down before I come up and bring you down.”


Dan suddenly realized that it wasn’t his deceased dad but a policeman standing at the base of the steps leading up to the wall he had defiled for a second time.


“Now, son! Right now!” barked the officer.


“I’m coming,” replied Dan, descending the steps in disbelief that he had been caught on his very first attempt to rectify the injustice against him.


“I was just…” began Dan, as he reached the waiting policeman.


“I’ll do the talking,” interrupted the officer. “What are you doing up there? Don’t you know defiling property is against the law? You’re trespassing, too.”


“I was trying to…”replied Dan, attempting to answer his inquisitor, who again cut him off.


“What’s your name, son?”


“Dan Clover. I’m the real…”


“Don’t tell me. You’re the one who started it all, right? The guy who did the original ‘Dan the Man’ graffiti. The one that’s a big hero now. That who you are…huh?” asked the officer, skeptically.


“Well, yes I…”


“Don’t give me that bullshit! You’re just a pathetic copycat trying to get your fifteen minutes of fame riding the coat tails of the real ‘Dan the Man.’ There’s been a bunch of you creeps claiming to be him. So who are you anyway?”


After a long pause, Dan answered.


“I’m no one…no one, at all.”



Michael C. Keith is the author of an acclaimed memoir and two books of short fiction.

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