(Over the years I’ve published various poems and essays in Chronogram magazine. This one remains my favorite.)
Searching For My Bumper Sticker
I grew up in a suburban family with a lively sense of bumper stickers. First the Rambler, then the Plymouth station wagon, and finally the Volvo had bumpers quilted with stickers from vacations, political campaigns, New York sports teams, passing fads, and my mother’s perennial favorite: “Trees Are America’s Renewable Resource.” (Her family wealth that helped pay for the cars came from owning timberlands. Back in the Seventies, loggers wanted the public to know that they were environmentalists, too.) Our stickers didn’t even need to agree. For one election, my mother’s side promoted “Scoop Jackson for President,” while my father countered, “Nixon’s the One.” But we also had stickers for cave tours, lobster restaurants, funny cars, little league, and whatever else captured our fancy. Those that didn’t make the bumpers appeared on the refrigerator, pinned by watermelon magnets, alongside New Yorker cartoons and my father’s diets. (Years later, I recovered one from a crowded drawer of family memorabilia: “Simplify, Simplify, Simplify–Thoreau.”) As a family, we weren’t the most direct communicators about emotional matters, but we shared lots of brash opinions, pungent jokes, and bad puns. The bumper sticker suited our way of thinking. My favorite was a gift from a prep school classmate that my parents let me put on the Plymouth: “Servalacha Power.”
“Sir, vi, what?” In parking lots everywhere, from the beach to the supermarket to the tailgate picnic before my parents’ summer stock Shakespeare, someone invariably stopped to ask about this sticker. Was Servalacha a folk dance? An eastern European province? A new meditation movement?
“Ser-va-lach-ka!” I pronounced with flair.
In truth, it was my classmate’s family joke. His father, an attorney in Washington D.C., had invented his own whimsical cause complete with Institute letterhead and bumper stickers. Servalacha was nothing more than his made-up word for the act of rolling your hands together the way you would under a hand drier. Demonstrating this motion, I savored the attention of these strangers, who smiled at having been lured by their curiosity into this silly humor. In some ways we were an outcast family in the suburbs. We arrived late at events, didn’t belong to any country clubs, and never barbecued with our neighbors. But we certainly weren’t anonymous in our station wagon. We had Servalacha Power.
Then came the Dark Ages. For sixteen years after college, I lived in the greater New York City metropolis as a pedestrian who cheered for passing bicyclists in T-shirts that read: “One Less Car.” The woman I married, born and bred in Manhattan, never learned how to drive, nor did she need to. My own driver’s license expired once or twice. Bumper stickers? The only ones we noticed indicated that many cabbies read Hindi. The City had too many other fleeting messages: tabloid headlines at newsstands, guerrilla posters for movies and concerts plastered around construction sites, subway car placards for wart removals and podiatrists. Mere bumper stickers couldn’t compete.
In 1996, I left Manhattan and my marriage for a new life in a Catskills log cabin. As Thoreau wrote: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Unlike him, I also needed a car. Fortunately, I found a 1990 Nissan Sentra at an affordable price with the simplicity I preferred: a stick shift, roll-down windows, and a tight steering wheel. All that was missing were good, honest bumpers. Instead of chrome bars as solid as guard rails, like the bumpers on the old Plymouth station wagon, this Sentra had rubbery black molding more appropriate for an amusement park ride. Where would I stick my bumper sticker?
After living so long in urban exile, I wanted one. Old favorites stirred in my head: “U.S. Out of North America,” “Back to the Pleistocene,” and one I’d cherished on a VW bus that puttered around my college town in the late Seventies: “Reunite Gondwanaland.” Though this call-to-arms sounded related to thee protests against South African apartheid then roiling our campus, I knew it was a geology joke referring to a continent that drifted apart into South America, Africa, India, Antarctica, and Australia 120 million years ago. But now I wanted to look forward, not backward. I’d choose a sticker I hadn’t seen before.
Within weeks of driving again, I learned that most Americans didn’t believe in bumper stickers. The New York State Thruway was a parade of shiny anonymity. The silver sedans, black SUVs, and forest green minivans all sped by without a trace of opinion on their smoothly rounded, look-alike bodies. At best, they had a vanity plate (“2SASSY”) or a picture plate promoting lighthouses, woodpeckers, or whales. Were they afraid to express a pungent opinion in public? Or was their opinion simply their brand? They belonged to the All Wheel Drive tribe of Subaru, the Lexus elite, or the Range Rover suburban safariests. Or their Ford Expedition was the Eddie Bauer signature edition. A lot had changed in the sixteen years since I last roamed the highways. The Eddie Bauer of my youth had made sleeping bags and chinos.
Off the highway, I finally found thriving bumper sticker enclaves. The village of Woodstock, a bastion of graying Sixties artists, entrepreneurs, and weekenders, had parking lots that were a gold mine for sticker wit and wisdom. “Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons/For you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup,” warned a King Arthurian blue hatchback, which also had dashboard trolls and rearview mirror worry beads. You could easily spot cars from a dozen other sub-cultures of Woodstock Nation, such as Eastern spiritualists (“My Karma Ran Over My Dogma”), earthy activists (“Visualize Whirled Peas”), angry activists (“If you’re not outraged/You’re not paying attention”), competitive cat owners (“My cat is weirder than yours”), and proud absurdists (“A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Have”). Most had solved the rubber bumper dilemma by placing the sticker high on the hatch batch metal of their old Honda Civic or Mitsubishi Mirage. The underlying message was that a heap of imported metal with rust spots did not define their life. (“My Other Vehicle is a Flying Saucer.”)
Farther into the Catskill mountains, where trailer homes and trout fisherman in baggy waders were common sights along the valley roads, the tenor shifted from enlightened whimsy to redneck braggadocio: “Keep Honking, I’m Reloading,” “My Juvenile Delinquent Can Beat Up Your Honor Student,” and “Cats: the Other White Meat.” Even the women were tough. (“I’m out of Estrogen/And I have a Gun.”) Although I lived in the heart of the mountains myself, I never shared the resentment behind this humor, which might be summarized: My pickup is my kingdom, so back off. Or, parked once in front of the village hardware store: “If You’re Not My Hemorrhoids, Get Off My Ass.” To me, the Catskills were a wilderness park, a refuge from metropolitan sprawl, but to them the region was an economic backwater, an old frontier conquered and forgotten. Maybe Westerns were dead, but they could still be verbal gunslingers.
Rather than something political (“Friends Don’t Let Friends Vote Republican”), strident (“Meat Stinks”), or smug (“Blame GE”), I wanted a sticker that would be funny and fresh, one that delivered a smile as well as a message. In my glove compartment, I kept a pocket notebook for recording unusual sightings on my travels. In the Hasidic Catskills, I saw: “This car runs on gas, not on Shabbas.” At a kayak race: “Think Rain.” More than once at my post office: “Fishing Forever/Yardwork Whenever.” In New Paltz: “Life is a Witch/Then you Fly.” And, on my way to a backpacking vacation in Death Valley while stopping at an Army surplus store in the Mojave Desert to buy myself a fourth canteen: “Earth First: We Can Log the Other Planets Later.”
Alas, I was a procrastinator. Three years after settling in my cabin, I had an entertaining file, but still no sticker on my car, which I’d driven now more than 60,000 miles, from the potholed streets of Manhattan to the dirt logging roads of the northern Adirondacks. I’d also abandoned my glove compartment notebook now that friends e-mailed me lists of bumper sticker jokes. (“Who Lit the Fuse On Your Tampon?” “100,000 sperm and YOU were the fastest?”) What had begun as a lighthearted but earnest search for a friendly sentiment to share with the world had deteriorated into a lazy hunt for cheap laughs. I needed help. I arranged to meet Paul McMahon, the bumper sticker laureate of Woodstock.
In another town, McMahon might have been dismissed as a creative gadfly, but in Woodstock, he was respected as a versatile artist. On the Sunday morning radio talk show, he performed as the Rock ‘N Roll therapist with an uncanny knack for making a caller’s problem sound even more ridiculous through his improvised lyrics. (The show’s host claimed a 100 percent cure rate.) At poetry open mics, he delivered rapid-fire, quasi-philosophical rants that wavered between manic genius and alien channeling. And he was the mastermind behind the ubiquitous green “Welcome to Woodstock” bumper sticker series. For example, “Welcome to Woodstock…Just Kidding,” “…Now Leaving the Known Universe,” “…Wannabe Indian Reservation,” “…Mid-life Crisis Center of the Northeast,” “…Better Than Bellevue,” and dozens more.
All this activity didn’t generate a sizable income, so McMahon had been riding a bike since 1996. But that seemed appropriate for a bumper sticker impresario. “Creativity is 99 percent inspiration, 1 percent perspiration,” he explained, as we chose an outdoor cafe table for our takeout coffee. His oversized blue overalls highlighted his skinniness and his blue eyes, but he wasn’t young any more, not with his short gray hair and gray goatee. But Woodstock itself wasn’t young anymore. (“Welcome to Woodstock…Still No Concert Here”) At the next table a blond man with a boyish bowl haircut and crow’s foot eyes was gossiping about having posed as Andy Warhol at parties.
During our rambling conversation, I learned that McMahon’s formative influences included the Sixties classic “I Brake for Hallucinations,” but that his taste now ran towards minimalism. “‘CAR’ is one of my favorites,” he said. “It’s so hilarious to see a bumper sticker that says ‘CAR.'” While listening, I leafed through his thick portfolio. Not only had he extended the “Welcome” series (“Welcome to Saugerties…The Original Woodstock”), but he’d coined many other wonderful one-liners: “Honk If You Love Honking,” “Inner Child In Trunk,” “Save the World, Win Valuable Prizes,” and “How Dare You Assume I’m a Homo sapien?” His most popular one I already knew from sightings around town: “I Brake for Turtles, Frogs, Snakes, and Big Leaves.”
Which was me? Having procrastinated this long, I wanted the perfect match, the message I would have written myself, if McMahon hadn’t done it first. I flipped through the stack a second and third time, then finally picked: “Welcome to Woodstock…Roll Up Your Windows and Please Don’t Feed the Poets. ”
I appreciated the wordplay on pigeons, that maligned animal that bore the brunt of Manhattan’s hostility to unmanicured nature. If you put aside the “flying rat” jokes and honestly looked at them, you saw rock doves in handsome shades of gray with iridescent green and purple tints on their flannel necks. They certainly had more dash than businessmen in plain gray suits. And their orange eyes were bold as lady bugs. As a Manhattanite, I hadn’t paid them any mind, either, but now that I lived in the forest with diminutive juncos and kinglets, I paused for a moment on City visits to sit on a bench and admire these cocky urban creatures. I even composed a haiku:
The sidewalk cement
dried with a pigeon’s footprint—
More than pigeons I liked poets. Moving into the cabin, I hadn’t considered myself anything more than a dabbler at poetry. After all, I hadn’t written visionary verse at seventeen or committed suicide at twenty nine. And I still didn’t understand poems in The New Yorker. In my twenties, I’d been a blocked novelist, followed by a better adulthood as a freelance journalist for environmental magazines. In my mid-thirties I’d written several poems almost as a lark, a relief break from journalism to compose something short and punchy that didn’t demand any research or fact-checking. (Before then, my only memorable verse was for my Manhattan answering machine: “We ain’t got time for no fancy message rhyme/So rap, attack it, unpack it/We got the beep, ya dig?” It was so good that some of my friends, expecting to hear a well-bred WASP, assumed they’d gotten the wrong number.)
In the cabin, I still made my living by journalism, but my rent was low enough that I didn’t need to write all the time for money. My surroundings amid hemlocks above a babbling stream were conducive to personal reflection, so I found it natural to turn to poetry. Gradually, I developed the patience to keep revising, then the fortitude to keep submitting through endless rejections. Now, in my early forties, I’d had a few poems accepted, no small accomplishment after such traumas in my twenties when I tortured myself over every page and never completed a chapter. Granted, the world at large might not read my poems in such obscure journals as Hedge Apple, Potato Eyes, Atom Mind, or American Jones Building & Maintenance, but I felt more pride in publishing these pieces than in my journalism for national magazines.
What I’d learned was not to take writing too seriously. Even with troubling subjects, such as my divorce, I needed to have fun, needed to feel the flow. Unlike my twenties, when I desperately wanted to be an accepted novelist, I wasn’t writing poems meant for literary importance. I was writing them for play. What better reminder of this lesson than “Roll Up Your Windows and Please Don’t Feed the Poets”?
McMahon approved. “Poets are frightening and dangerous creatures,” he deadpanned. “They only seem endearing to people who don’t know them.”
At home, I wiped clean the right corner on my trunk above the brake light and applied the sticker. Finally, my car made a statement: I was a Hippie Poet, even if I had short hair and rarely drank anything harder than birch beer. With my move into the cabin, my friends had expected me to become Thoreau or the Unabomber, but I surprised them, and myself, by becoming a poet, instead. For weeks, I proudly pointed out the sticker to friends, and recited it over the phone. Even my ex-wife chuckled. (She still hadn’t learn to drive, or I would have given her: “All men are idiots/And I married their King.”)
On the road, though, my sticker was disappointing. Nobody honked or waved a thumbs up. In parking lots no one stopped and smiled. Even at the Robert Frost Poetry Festival, which I attended in northern New Hampshire, nobody said a word. Were they offended? In Woodstock, our best poets also ranked among our leading comedians, but in other communities I knew that poets had more solemn and revered reputations. After all, they still understood the ancient arts of meter and rhyme, they survived in a field famous for suicide, and they could explain why April is the cruelest month. Also, unlike lawyers and economists, they didn’t have enough wealth and power to enjoy self-depreciation.
In keeping with tradition, the Robert Frost Poetry Festival leader was an Eastern Orthodox Church Deacon with a white beard down to his belt. He didn’t crack many jokes. Rather, he preached that sympathy wasn’t mindless, intelligence wasn’t heartless, and what wrecked us made great poetry. As much as I enjoyed the festival, by the second day I was parking with my trunk end in the bushes.
Maybe poetry humor was too arcane. Other hobbies were fit for obvious jokes. (“Wrestling & Marriage: Two full contact sports/That both require a ring.”) Or maybe people simply couldn’t read my sticker. The print beneath “Welcome to Woodstock” was awfully small, while the way it folded down over an indentation in my trunk meant you had to bend from the knees to read it all.
So my sticker remained a message to myself. But I was satisfied. Wherever I parked, from Manhattan piers to the Kingston mall, my Sentra stood out from the crowd. The green stripe admitted me to the community of free spirits. I wasn’t an anonymous brand promoter: a Yukon, Durango, or Cavalier. I was a witty country poet, the author of pieces about porcupines eating brake linings for the salt, a bear traipsing across a waterfall, and Rip Van Winkle waking up to the world of Viagra. Of course, I also wrote plenty of poems about cars, starting with “The Rambler,” an account of the first time I pretended to drive, so small that I sat on phone books to peer above the steering wheel, and sputtered my lips for the sound of racing cars. To know the story behind my bumper sticker was to know the story of my life.
McMahon made a good product. In the ensuing years, his “Welcome” never faded. The green remained as bright as winter moss. It was the Sentra, itself, that aged from the wear of road salt and winter slush, spring pollen, summer dust, and acid rain. Over many months, the tan metallic body grew rust boils and lesions, while the seams inside the trunk spread with rust stains. Eventually, pieces chipped off in my hands like tree bark. At 210,000 miles, my mechanic announced that the underbody had rusted so badly that the car wouldn’t pass its next state inspection.
I felt sad about saying good-bye to my Sentra. It had been my trusted companion for countless trips in the Catskills, Adirondacks, and beyond, including my first visit to Walden Pond, where I saw that Thoreau had lived within walking distance of town. (Not that he would have appreciated cars. “I have learned that the swiftest traveler is he that goes afoot,” he wrote.) But nothing lasts forever. My new car would be one of the gas-electric hybrids that got 60 miles-per-gallon and promised adventures of its own.
For a respectful disposal, I donated the Sentra to the American Lung Association to sell for parts. The way I figured it, my car had caused enough air pollution on cold mornings with blue smoke wagging from the muffler that I owed the lung defenders whatever money they could get. On the final morning I left it parked with the keys on the driver’s foot mat for the Association’s representative to pick up later. As a farewell gesture, I snapped photos of my Sentra from all sides, including a close-up of the sticker. But the joke about begging poets had gotten stale. Recently, I’d won $500 in a national contest, real money by the standards of the poetry world. It was time for a new message. Maybe I’d call Paul McMahon to see what he had for nouveau riche rhymers and bards.