Desperately Seeking Whimsy
December 1, 2005
The story about hauling sugar beets generated more mail than I'm used to. A fellow in California told me how I might find the steering wheel I mentioned and a number of others told me stories about being raised in beet country; some had uncles or fathers who interrupted careers to haul beets two weeks a year. My brother-in-law and his son got email from old friends, guessing that it was their farm and their truck.
I received an email from a woman in Maryland, along with an article she had seen in the November 13th issue of the New York Times, about stuffed animals on trucks. She wanted to know if I had one lashed to my grille. I pixeled back that I didn't. But the article got my attention. It was a fine example, I thought, of how we working folk out here on the ground are perceived by the high-seated literati back there in the skyscrapers.
The story was titled “They're Soft and Cuddly, So Why Lash Them to the Front of a Truck?” There were a number of supporting color photos, shots taken by people other than the author, leading me to guess that professional photographers were involved in the piece. They were mostly pictures of stuffed toys on pickups and delivery trucks in the Brooklyn area. The author says of them: “. . . All are soldiers in the tattered, scattered army of the stuffed . . .” Army? Of the stuffed?
He assured us that “Grille-mounted stuffed animals form a compelling yet little-studied aspect of the urban streetscape, a traveling gallery of baldly transgressive public art. The time has come not just to praise them but to ask the big question. Why?. . . Whence the urge to debase an icon of innocence?”
The big question is Why. That's it. That's always it, these days. Some of us have noticed a great media laxity on the small questions of exactly the What and the Where and the When of things, and sometimes even the Who. The details they can slide around on, but, man, do they ever bear down on the Big Question. The Why is imprecise and speculative of course, and they sincerely want to make sure we all get their incisive and clear-eyed take on it , however wacky that might be. Whenever I get to the big Why in a story, a flag pops up inside my forehead that reads, “Caution - Large Words on Roadway Ahead.”
The guy went at this story with the gusto of a ferret, interviewing six drivers and some folklorists, art historians and anthropologists; they revealed to him that, although there were no easy answers, the Why is “a tangle of physical circumstance, proximate and indirect influence, ethnic tradition, occupational mindset and Jungian archetype.”
A couple of drivers said that chicks dig it. The anthropologist said the custom had a foot in the “vernacular cultures of South America, where the festive and the ghoulish enjoy a symbiotic relationship.” The art historian said they had roots going back to ships in the time of the Pharaohs, a “heraldic device to deny the fact of this gigantic machine. . . humanizing forms, anthropomorphic forms - a device that both proclaims the identity of the machine and conceals it.”
An artist stated she felt “they were like these spirit creatures that were accompanying them on this endless journey in flux.” She also mentioned a transference, and she said, “Binding a soft thing to a very powerful truck - there's a kind of macho thing about that.” I was not surprised that someone would toss that word in there somewhere.
As I wrote the good lady from Maryland, I've never had a stuffed animal tied to a truck, but I do recall that for some years I had a turkey foot lashed upside-down on the handlebars of my Harley Davidson, its knuckles forward. It resembled a hand with the middle digit extended straight up and the others curled back around the bar. I did that because I thought it was amusing. I wasn't sending a message and I wasn't trying to intimidate anyone. I didn't feel like part of a gallery of baldly transgressive art and it didn't make me feel macho. I'm sure I wasn't undergoing transference and I have no roots in a vernacular culture in South America wherein the ghoulish and the festive enjoy a symbiotic relationship. I just saw the turkey foot in a shop and liked it and tied it on my handlebars.
I never saw it as an icon of innocence or a Jungian archetype, and I never took it on an endless journey in flux. The foot didn't do much to proclaim the identity of the machine, either - the bike easily took care of that by itself - and it surely didn't conceal anything. If chicks dug it none ever bothered to tell me so. I could say I was just helping some poor dumb turkey flip a posthumous bird of his own at the world. Nothing there, you wouldn't think, to bring on the anthropologist, the sociologist, the art historian, the journalist and the photographer. I admit to being a very small aspect of the little-studied high-plains highwayscape, but there are good reasons why it is little-studied, and I'd not be bothered much if it stayed little-studied.
Of course the Times is permitted and encouraged to entertain its readers in whatever manner it finds makes a dollar. I have no problem with that. I'm all for it. But I will say I've never heard truckers sit and wonder about what people in New York might think about the big candy canes, wreaths, Christmas trees or Santas some have tied on the front of their Kenworths and Peterbilts this time of the year. Or about the shark teeth others have on there, or the dozens of clearance lights running along the roof lines of their rigs. Or about the murals of western scenes and eagles and grizzly bears on the sides of the cabs.
On the other hand, and in defense of the Times for making yet another wordy fuss about nothing, if trash and tree haulers in Brooklyn can get their names in the paper, as did Messrs. DiVittorio, Hernandez, and Argueto, along with a steamfitter named Maixner on Long Island, that can't be all bad. Their families were most likely tickled pink, and there are people who get their names in the paper for far less worthy causes. I for one thank these guys for taking the time to talk to the reporter. Even if all they did to bring on the publicity was to hang some raggy stuffed animal out there on the front of an otherwise ordinary old truck. Hang it out there to endure all that crashing along from pothole to pothole in the noise and the dust and the smoke and the mud.