MINNEAPOLIS - You know you've reached a level of comfort in your job when your brain takes a nap and your hands keep going.
It's like that for Randy Mueller.
"Sometimes he'll actually fall asleep while he's painting," laughs Patrick Moran, one of Randy's employees at Sign Center. "He continued to paint nonetheless."
Randy's hands have had plenty of practice painting paper grocery store ads for 55 years.
Just a high school art student when he started, Randy made a deal with a neighborhood grocer to paint the weekly sale signs that hung in his windows.
As orders began to pour in, Randy's business would eventually grow to a dozen employees.
"I'd be working 24 hours a day," Randy says.
Those were the good days for grocery story sign painters. Then mom and pop stores were replaced by big boxes. "And there goes another one of my customers," Randy says.
Where dozens of grocery story sign painters once worked in the Twin Cities, Randy says Sign Center is one of only two or three left.
The business he founded will continue, but not with Randy.
At 73, he has grandchildren to dote over and a wife who thinks he works too much.
In his last week at the store, Randy ponders his greatest work. It's not a sign at all, but Patrick, the man with a brush standing next to him.
Patrick is here because of Randy.
"Patrick has turned out to be probably the best sign painter I've ever had working for me," Randy says.
For 17 years Patrick and Randy have painted together. The relationship started when Randy took out an ad in the newspaper seeking a sign painter, then added the words, "Not College Bound."
Those were beautiful words for Patrick, who'd grown used to hearing less pleasant descriptions.
"The fellow students would say, 'You're stupid, you're so stupid,' and so I believed it," he says. "I believed I was stupid."
Patrick was born with a learning disability. He spent his school days in special education.
"I guess you could say I couldn't think of too many doors open for me at the time," he says.
But Randy seemed to know how teach him.
"He used to say that the brush is like a tractor pulling a semi-trailer," Patrick recalls. "You're the driver and you're turning the wheel and thing is following behind."
But why would Randy invest time and training in a teen who was so challenged?
Truth is, Patrick reminded Randy of another young man: his son Todd who also struggled with a learning disability, brought on by a brain tumor that eventually took his life.
"You can live with it, but you never get over it," Randy says.
Just a few months after Todd died, Randy hired Patrick, one of several workers with learning disabilities who would come to work at Sign Center.
"It allowed me to have a stable place to make money, then it allowed me to improve myself on the things that I found overwhelming and challenging," Patrick says.
The paychecks allowed Patrick to move out of his aunt and uncle's house and purchase his own mobile home, while his boss regularly treated him to breakfast with their favorite waitress.
"Pam and eggs is what we call her," Randy laughs.
When it came time to sell what was left of his business, Randy asked just one condition from the new owner: Patrick needed to stay on as a painter.
"It's the thing to do, isn't it?" asks Randy.
He doesn't wait for an answer. "Yes it is, it's the thing to do."
There was a time in the Twin Cities you couldn't drive down a street without seeing Randy's work.
But at a shop in Minneapolis, they are still the signs that bind.