Saturday, May 4, 2013

I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends

In the early eighties I lived in Europe for a few years. One of the peculiarities of European truck drivers, at least at that time, was that many of them decorated their trucks (lorries) with stuffed animals. Most commonly, they would be lashed to the bumper or grill, sometimes fixed to the antennae, often on the dashboard, and once in a while on the rear bumper.

Why? you ask. I am not sure, but I feel compelled to do the same thing.

Yes, he is hanging by a clamp on his ear. But he doesn't appear to be unhappy about it.

It's not only a European thing. I came across a New York Times article titled: "They're Soft and Cuddly, So Why Lash Them to the Front of a Truck?" On November 13, 2005, writer Andy Newman asked truckers the "big question: Why?" The answers he received not only cast light on the human predicament, but, even more importantly, could tell you something about me.

(From the article): Like all adornments, of course, the grille pet advertises something about its owner. The very act of decorating a truck indicates an openness on the driver's part, according to Dan DiVittorio, owner of D & N Services, a carting company in Queens, and of a garbage truck with a squishy red skull on the front.
"It has to do something with their character," said Mr. DiVittorio, 27. "I don't see anybody that wouldn't be a halfway decent person putting something on their truck."

 I totally agree. It's about character. Only a decent person would put a squishy skull on their garbage truck. And only an even more decent person would put a green stuffed space alien at the power take-off control of his garbage truck.

But there apparently is a somewhat more Freudian explanation out there among garbage haulers:

One prevalent theory among truckers is that chicks dig them.
Robert Marbury, an artist who photographed dozens of Manhattan bumper fauna for a project in 2000 (see, said he had once asked a trash hauler why he had a family of three mismatched bears strapped to his rig.
"He said: 'Yo, man, I drive a garbage truck. How am I going to get the ladies to look at me?' " Mr. Marbury recalled. 

I know. I have found, just like this gentleman, that once you affix a cuddly animal to your garbage truck, the ladies find you almost irresistible. I need to lock the doors so they don't try to climb into the cab.

Be that as it may, it's not for the babes alone that we do it. We are part of an ancient tradition reaching back to the very dawn of civilization.

Monroe Denton, a lecturer in art history at the School of Visual Arts, traced the phenomenon's roots back to the figureheads that have animated bows of ships since the time of the pharaohs.
"There was some sort of heraldic device to deny the fact of this gigantic machine," he said. "You would have these humanizing forms, anthropomorphic forms - a device that both proclaims the identity of the machine and conceals it."

This is clearly true. There is no question that we garbage haulers roll along city streets in our titanic machines whose unconcealed power would otherwise strike terror into the hearts of all who see us. Therefore, like Pharoahs and Vikings, we anthropomorphize and mask the raw power we wield.

Given the obvious fact that garbage haulers are deep and mysterious repositories of the collective psyche, whose work manifests historical, anthropological, psychological and philosophical phenomena, it is both refreshing and (frankly) about freaking time that somebody decided sanitation departments need an artist in residence.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, the artist in residence at New York City's Department of Sanitation, said that when she noticed the animals on garbagemen's trucks in the late 1970's, she "felt they were like these spirit creatures that were accompanying them on this endless journey in flux."

So we are artists. Our spirit creatures accompany us on our endless journeys in flux. Pretty much. But wait, there is more.

"I always felt," Ms. Ukeles said, "with these creatures that they withdrew from the garbage and refused to let go of, that there was an act of rescue involved."
That is certainly true for Julio Hernandez, a laborer for Aspen Tree Specialists in Brooklyn.
The GMC chipper-truck he rides in is graced with 11 figurines, each defective in one way or another - Hulk Hogan with both hands missing, a Frankenstein monster with a hole in his head, a nearly disintegrated black rubber rat. "People throw them out because they're broken," Mr. Hernandez, 38, said in Spanish. "They catch my attention." 

That's it, we are rescuers, saviors of a sort. Our compassion cannot let these little ones be utterly destroyed. No wonder we pull them out of the trash and bond with them. But then we strap them onto our trucks where they are tortured by the elements, not to mention the stench of the spoiling slurry of the trash...

This is the true mystery of the grille-mounted stuffed animal, and it is here that the terrain gets heavily psychological and a bit murky.
Ms. Ukeles, who claims to understand sanitation workers fairly well, having shaken hands with 8,500 of them during a three-year performance project, said they identified on some level with their mascots.
"There's a transference in this," she said. "There's this soft, flesh-and-bone sanitation worker, who knows very well they could be crushed against this truck. The creature could be the sanitation worker in a very dangerous position, so the animal could be a stand-in."
(Stuffed animals, sadly, are verboten on city garbage trucks and nearly impossible to find these days; they were against department regulations even in the 1970's, but perhaps sanitation men are not the free spirits now that they were back then.)
At the same time, Ms. Ukeles said, the trucker, perhaps uncomfortable with his soft side, may feel compelled to punish it.
"Binding a soft thing to a very powerful truck - there's a kind of macho thing about that," she said.
That double identification with both victim and agent of violence may reflect the driver's frustrating position in society. Stuffed animals are found mostly on the trucks of men who perform hard, messy labor, which, despite the strength and bravery it demands, places them on the lower rungs of the ladder of occupational prestige.
The motley animal, then, can function as a badge of outsider status, a thumbed nose to the squares and suits. In that case, the cuter the mascot, the more meaningful its disintegration.

Not so much compassion, then, as sadism. We transfer our vulnerability and trampled egos onto these critters and attempt to recover our dignity by trashing theirs. Where are the fawning ladies now? But wait, it gets worse.

"That is part of the abject," he said, "this toy that is loved to death quite literally."
The externalization of an indoor object is another abject trope, Mr. Denton said. "An important aspect of the abject is the informe, the lack of boundaries," he said, using the French critical theory term, "the insides oozing out."

Turns out, I am the stuff (with my stuffed animals) of a French-critical-theoretical trope. No question. Let us therefore not romanticize being in garbage, however cute and cuddly we try to make it.

Still, there is love. Each time I go out to haul trash, my ten year old daughter asks me to bring something home from the garbage. All the animals on the dashboard came home and went in the wash. Now they are on her bed with her 300 other animals. Cherished just as much. The white bear stayed on the dash. I needed to keep one there so that my frail sense of dignity, compassion, heroism, machismo, French sadism--and whatever else--might remain intact...