Bumper stickers, membership badges, t-shirts, protest posters. We choose the words we wear so that others will know exactly who we are. And maybe we will even know ourselves.
I myself seem to choose particularly poorly. Or maybe my sense of humor is not what I imagined.
I finally gave up on one of these printed personality pronouncements, and last week removed what I thought was an alarmingly clever bumper sticker from my car. It was the creation of Chris T., the brilliant talk show host of the late Aerial View show on WFMU (and now the equally brilliant, I suspect, host of a show on Sirius satellite radio, but as I still live in horse and buggy days and lack satellite radio in addition to other twenty-first century technological wizardry such as television--whoops, wrong century--I can only guess that Chris has lost none of his acerbic edge). He is one of those people with a naturally aphoristic mind, who sees the idiocies of the world and can immediately encase them in a compact, diamond-hard bromide.
In other words, a natural at the genre of the bumper sticker.
He has a rather sour view of humanity, but this just adds the right soupcon of sarcastic humor to his observations. Besides, it is well accounted for by having grown up on Long Island and living now in New Jersey. If anyone is entitled to a sour view, it is he.
Chris made up his own bumper stickers as a rejoinder to this urge to display one's affiliations on the back of one's vehicles for all to admire, or as a caption to what must then be considered the cartoon of one's own life. What gives with the need to tell everyone what you believe in? Could it be that these folks doth protest too much? And what about the separation of church and car? Is nothing sacred?
So to this, he created a series that captures a certain dunderheadedness in the American road-going psyche: My Other Car Is Jesus; Kiss Me, I'm Jesus; Jesus Loves Drag Racing.
I liked these, but to display them always felt like it might be toeing a line beyond which was danger, of the keying variety, or perhaps the punctured tire sort. Somehow poking fun at others' weird professions of their faith made me a little hesitant.
So, because I had long ago given away many of Chris's other strangely funny stickers (I'd Rather Be Driving--get it? on the back of your car?; I've Never Eaten at Bay Ridge House O' Clams), I carefully thought about the remaining ones. I passed over the flag-emblazoned one that decreed Don't Blame Me--I Didn't Vote. I finally chose the one that both made me laugh and that left a vague scent of unease behind--the mark of the deepest-cutting humor.
Chris had seen, and obviously been annoyed by, the borderline self-righteousness of the Mean People Suck bumper sticker most often found on Volvo station wagons and Prius sedans. ("Oh, so you're one of the .5% of the population who's never been mean? Well, hearty congratulations!") This sticker might actually tell the truth if it simply said Republicans Are Mean People, and They Suck, but then this would be hurtful to the several Republicans who are nice.
Yet Chris calls it as he sees it, and you can practically hear him snort as he delivers his pithy and spot-on rejoinders. Because I know him, I hear him add a colorful "Hell!" before countering with this truism: Most People Suck.
From the minute I put it on the car's back window, I was stopping people dead in their tracks. One friend actually gasped and said, "Melissa, that's so negative." Hello? You haven't noticed that about me after years of friendship? It's like that beauty mark on my cheek; I can't get it off.
Pulling in at kids' soccer practice, I could fairly see the other mothers hugging their children to their breasts, away from this force of malevolence, this black station wagon of negativity. But it was the day my car suffered catastrophic engine failure, throwing valves and spitting belts--thirty-six hours after having gone in for a tune-up and being pronounced fine--that I started to suspect the power of bumper stickers. One person, a conservative and former Army man, voiced what was an inchoate, submerged, yet persistent feeling in me: "I have to wonder if your bumper sticker didn't have something to do with that."
He was probably not referring to the one that says Why Do You Love Animals Called Pets, and Eat Animals Called Dinner? And I sorta think he was not referring to Chris T.'s little joke, though perhaps that was the whetstone to the knife of the one he did mean: the one that goes Be Nice to America, or We'll Bring Democracy to Your Country.
Now, instead of making an acidic observation about the state of society, my window requests, nicely, Share the Road--with a Moto Guzzi. Can you argue with that?
Well, I suppose mean people could.
I had been warned previously against putting my "liberal" views on my bike (I had already taken off the car's Obama magnet, though I'm not sure why); I was reminded that most state troopers were unlikely to share my leanings. A maximum fine for speeding might be their commentary on my commentary, my friend suggested.
He and his ilk (with whom I am in complete agreement on this) sticker their bikes and helmets with the motorcyclists' own variety of religious experience: contra the bizarre, and ultimately political, belief that "loud pipes save lives." There are an almost infinite number of responses from the "civilized" motorcycle sector: Loud Pipes Scare Little Kids; Loud Pipes, Little Penis; and Loud Pipes Risk Rights.
The one sticker that never gets any response is the one I put on the back of my bike, the only one it sports. I made it myself, and it is near to my heart, as well as my head. I congratulated myself on what seemed to be its densely layered dual meaning; a conceptual bumper sticker, and I so rarely have concepts, you know. If you read it from a moving car, it reveals the immediate past. If you read it while parked, it shows the future. Both are certain, so long as I live and ride. This Too Shall Pass.