It was a bad day to be broke. Then college student Lonnie Anderson didn't possess enough cash to gas up his car and get to work, so he called in sick. He found himself in his garage, staring at the few materials he did have. "A rolled-up green hose, a bag of yellow garbage bags, some duct tape and some old white poster board." It was Valentine’s Day.
He cut daisies out of the white poster stock. The yellow bags became their centers. And the hose evolved into the stems for a bouquet of 7-foot daisies. He left one on his girlfriend's car. Happy, she pulled out of her driveway and saw another on a telephone poll. She climbed on top of her car to collect it and “looked down the street. As far as she could see was just daisies hanging on telephone poles," Anderson says.
The daisies were the first huge project Anderson undertook for V Day so many years ago. Most of Anderson’s past girlfriends recall his large-scale valentines. Every year, he thinks beyond expensive dinners, 12 red roses and three-months salary worth of jewelry. Prizing those dull clichés as symbols of love—that's what advertising has done to us, he says.
Anderson should know. His career has been in advertising, and he’s worked all over the country developing ads for big companies such as Coca-Cola, Microsoft and Nike. In Albuquerque, he works on drunk driving commercials for the state. But that's not how he wants to be remembered. "I believe you have to be as creative in your life as you are in your work," he says. "I don't want to be known as the guy who got the most advertising awards for some faceless corporation—like, I sold the most tennis shoes or the most Pepsi. I'd rather be known creatively for using my talent on my family, my kids, my wife."
A few years ago, Anderson's wife, Anne Bolger-Witherspoon, pulled into her driveway after a long day at work to find a carousel slowly turning in her front yard, lit by the full moon. Anderson had a friend who had a friend who knew somebody who had a carousel. He met with the owners and asked if he could use it. The husband said no; the carousel was worth $100,000 and it took five guys half a day to set it up. "His wife was sitting right there, and I said, ‘I'm going to do it for Valentine's.’ She immediately turned to him and said, ‘Yes.’ "
That same woman ran the carousel, made the couple corsages and gifted them with a bottle of Champagne. "For nothing," he adds, "I didn't pay them anything to do it."
Not everyone can secure a carnival ride for free, but Anderson maintains that you don't have to spend a lot of money—or any money—to make a meaningful V-Day. He once walked around New York City and drew candy hearts in chalk with “Anne” written in the middle. Last year, he turned "For Rent" and "For Sale" signs into "I Love Anne" signs and posted flyers that said "I Love Anne" with little tear-away tabs that claimed the same. The 60 or so signs blended into Albuquerque's landscape, and as his wife was going about her day, she began to see them everywhere. Anderson even stood at an intersection holding a cardboard sign. He created a video showing all the places he'd written his message and held a private showing at Guild Cinema. The owner ran the concessions stand. "It didn't cost me hardly anything," he says.
Prizing those dull clichés as symbols of love—that's what advertising has done to us.
The origin story goes like this: When Anderson was a little boy about 7 years old, he went with his mom on Feb. 14 to the diner where his grandma worked as a waitress. She was the oldest waitress there, he says, and all the other young women were proudly displaying roses and candy. But his grandma didn't have anything. "I asked my mom, ‘How come grandpa didn't get grandma anything?’ " He found out later that his grandfather never gave his grandmother anything, not for birthdays or anniversaries. "It wasn't that he was mean or anything, but he just didn't do that, and he didn't think it was important." His mother remembers Anderson saying his wife would never feel the way grandma must have felt that day.
Bolger-Witherspoon says her husband doesn't do anything as legendary for birthdays or anniversaries, and she doesn't mind. For the 15 years they've been together, she's always had a huge Valentine's Day. "As much as it is a big production, it's never felt overwhelming," she says. "They've never turned me off. I can't imagine one without it now." She tried for a while to keep up. "I did a Valentine's that was a disaster," she laughs, "so I write him a letter, but I don't do any sort of gift. You just can't. You can't match it," Bolger-Witherspoon doesn't think he would want her to, either. "It's an invitation to do something from the heart."
She remembers their first Valentine's Day together. Anderson turned her tiny apartment in the Huning Highlands neighborhood into a giant game board complete with enormous dice. They were still getting to know each other, so to play, they answered questions like, "What are your three favorite desserts?"
Bolger-Witherspoon says she had a boyfriend who broke up with her on Valentine's Day, so she could have easily spent years dreading the holiday. She hopes their daughters (Hawthorn, 6, and Cheyenne, 2) grow up feeling appreciated on Valentine's Day. "It's such a lonely holiday, as much as we pretend it's all about love. There are so many people who don't get included. I hope they maintain the excitement around sharing and doing something fun and different for another person."
Anderson says there were times when he didn't have a valentine and so made one for someone random. "Sometimes it was very cool," he says. "Once this homeless guy looked at me like, Are you crazy? Why are you giving me this? I don't want this."
Most of Anderson's grand-scale valentines invite positive interactions with strangers. "People just come out of the woodwork, and they get behind you and help you if you have an idea." There was the family who showed up to ride the carousel because they thought there was a carnival; the old woman who saw him putting out an "I Love Anne" yard sale sign and struck up a conversation; the man in the monster truck who stopped when Anderson was standing at the intersection to thank him for the V-Day reminder; and on and on.
Bolger-Witherspoon doesn't mind that their private holiday has grown increasingly public, this year ending up in the newspaper. "Lonnie is always about being an inspiration for others," she says. "He gets tickled when someone's like, Hey! This year I did such-and-such."
We've lost our way, says Anderson. Handcrafting a valentine is considered something a little kid does with glitter and Elmer's glue. "That's not what an adult does," he says. "You go buy it, you know? But making one shouldn't be shameful. We should still be making things for Valentine's Day."