SOFT, CUDDLY, and LASHED TO THE FRONT OF A TRUCK
Although they're officially forbidden, you might see one on trash day if you're lucky. A handless Hulk Hogan. A desiccated Wile E. Coyote, remnants of his fluffy guts hanging out of a burst seam. A Hello Kitty with a hole in her head. Usually fastened firmly to the radiator with rivet-studded wire ties. People throw them out because they're broken. Yet to the garbagemen who pluck them from the trash they're "mongo"--found treasure. Particularly fetching mongo sometimes ends up adorning the bumper guard of their trucks, where it gradually turns grey and disintegrates in the soot-stream of traffic.
Ms. Ukeles, the artist in residence at New York City's Department of Sanitation, says the grille-mounted stuffed animals remind her of "spirit creatures accompanying the drivers on their endless journey in flux." That sounds a little silly to me, but isn't it wonderful that the NYCDOS has its own artist in residence? That's really why New York is the greatest city in the world. Oh, what I wouldn't give to tell someone I'd just met at a cocktail party that I was the artist in residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation.
Still, though I'm sure that Ms. Ukeles is very good at her job and otherwise absolutely marvelous in every way, I'm not entirely certain she's correct. My friend Kurt the anthropologist says the plush toys are heraldic devices--anthropomorphic forms that both proclaim and conceal the identity of a huge machine, like the figureheads on the prows of Viking ships.
Whenever Kurt mentions Vikings, I get a little suspicious; he's always been obsessed with them, so I ask my cousin Heather, who's been an assistant curator at an art gallery for three years. "It's a folk expression of the abject art movement," she says. "The filth, the distress. It's a little 90s, but still tres informe."
That's just French for insides oozing out. I don't know why I even asked; her gallery's latest acquisition is a scale model of San Francisco constructed from 15 different kinds of Jell-o. Heather calls it a "jewel-toned Jell-o masterpiece." I decide to ask Mrs. Bridgewater. She played canasta with my mother every Saturday for years, until her husband Gerald died and she decided to make herself useful by spending her weekends at the museum as a volunteer docent. "I think it's sweet," she says, "It's like an act of rescue. But the poor dears are probably embarrassed by their soft sides; that's why they can't keep them in the cab. It must seem more macho to tie them to the bumper and let them get all beat up like that."
Since Mrs. Bridgewater tends to relate all strange phenomena to unchecked machismo, I decide to ask my therapist. "It's a perfect illustration of a Jungian archetype of aggression," she says. "They're debasing these emblems of innocence. Rather pathetic, really. But more importantly, how do you feel about it? Do you often find yourself thinking about plush toys?" I change the subject. I think she has a knife to grind; she has three spoiled children who always call her cell phone during our sessions. She doesn't answer it, but I've caught her glancing at the phone vibrating on the accent table next to the box of tissues.
My friend Erik teaches social studies now, so I'm surprised to learn that he worked for the DOS for two years back in college. He laughs when I tell him about the stuffed animals. "It's simple," he says. "There's no better way to get the ladies to look twice at your garbage truck."