If you drive down MoPac Boulevard regularly, you’ve probably spotted Will Olmedo — or at least his bright yellow smiley face flag.
Olmedo, 38, stands on the Hancock Drive bridge, waving his bath towel-sized banner and flashing the occasional thumbs-up sign in hopes of enticing a smile or two from passing motorists.
He started the routine about nine months ago, well before the pandemic. But he senses a greater need for joy now, so he heads to busy places near his home two or three times a week to spread it.
“It pulls out a playfulness in people, and that’s nice to see because everything is so serious,” he says.
Olmedo, who was furloughed from his job at Upper Crust Bakery after the pandemic hit, purchased a few tiny American flags that attached to the hood of his car last year. Those were hard to see, though, so he bought bigger flags that attached to the side windows of his car.
“That stirred some emotions,” he says.
When his car was totaled, his mission transitioned to a foot-powered one. He bought the smiley face flag at Lady Liberty Flags & Flagpole in South Austin for less than $15. He bought another flag decorated with peace signs at Book Woman.
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At first, he waved the flags to simply connect with people. “But when the pandemic first happened and everybody was buying up all the toilet paper, I could feel that people were nervous,” he says. “I didn’t want it to go in a violent direction, with people fighting or looting.”
He posted himself outside the H-E-B in Allandale to cheer up skittish shoppers. Now he stations himself in places where he’ll get noticed. Sometimes he stands along Burnet Road, or outside a small business he thinks could use a boost of good energy. We all, he says, have something for which to be grateful.
“My whole goal was to find the most neutral way to connect with people,” he says. “The American flag brings up lot of political emotions, but the smiley face is just a way of bringing joy to people. It’s almost the same as a stranger smiling at you — you almost can’t be mad.”
Usually, he plans to flap his grinning flag for an hour or so. Often, he winds up staying three or four — or even seven. In return, he receives hails of tooting car horns and hollered thank yous.
“Once I go out and get feedback and honks and smiles, it’s hard to pull myself away from it,” he says.
Most people appreciate the gesture. Some pull over and tell him he’s made their day, or send him a message via his @austinflagman Instagram feed. A rare few flip him the bird.
“It really helps me as much as it helps other people, maybe more,” he says. “I’m kind of a sensitive person.”
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