Saturday, October 31, 2009


We may say we don't like being labeled, but what we really don't like is being labeled by others. We are eager to label ourselves, however.

Bumper stickers, membership badges, t-shirts, protest posters. We choose the words we wear so that others will know exactly who we ar
e. 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 h

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.

For more like the one pictured above, go to


Steve said...

It occurred to me that “Mean People Suck” was really not a very nice thing to shout from the back of a car, and as such the person installing it on the bumper may have been boasting (similar to a Harley sticker on the back of a car).

As far back as I can remember I have tried to be less noticeable. Sure, I’ve had some souvenir tee shirts, and I don’t wear a baseball cap very often, but when I do it’s difficult to find a plain one. But I’m not much for bumper stickers, partly because of the invitation of damage from someone that disagrees, partly because that would draw attention to me. In my riding life I find that if anything I am removing labels from view rather than adding; plain vanilla. The exception to this is my primary bike, simply mentioning the name has a polarizing effect; if only I’d realized ahead of time.

Assuming invisibility has worked fairly well as a survival tactic while riding. Maybe in my 4 wheeled life I can loosen up a little and put a sticker on the back: Share the Road--with a Moto Guzzi. If it made other drivers more motorcycle aware then it has served a purpose. And if it causes those that know me to scratch their heads and think, well, I guess that’s a good thing, too.

ren said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ren said...

I find some bumper stickers pretty funny, but I don't ever put any on my own vehicle. I even take off the license plate holder or the plastic stick-on from the dealer where I might have bought my car.

I figure that if I want to say something, I will pick the audience where it will do the most good, rather than inviting comment, physical or otherwise.

But what really and truly annoys me is that my place of employment requires a sticker that advertises to everyone and anyone where I work. They do this because it's easier for their own security people to make sure that we are eligible to park wherever we are parked, but . . .yech.

I do have a license plate holder on the back of my car that comes from Nevada's Extraterrestrial Highway and says:" I Was Out There." That seems to sum up where I've been and it makes for some good head-scratching. It used to glow in the dark too, but that faded long ago :)

M. Thanks for continuing to write such good, thought-provoking stuff.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Both of you, Steve and Ren, are self-possessed enough to not need the labels. And that's the ideal, of course. Maybe for most people there's too much noise, in general, to feel heard. Maybe what this is about.

If it hadn't become too popular, I'd maybe go for the bumper sticker that says, "What if the hokey-pokey IS what it's all about?"

Otherwise, we can all get too darn serious. And that's *bad*.

"I Was Out There"--good one. I'd go for that, too.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

I just remembered my all-time favorite: "Eschew obfuscation."

And I realized what's really problematic about (meanly) pointing out to others how mean they are. It's the same thing that's wrong with the state saying murder is so horrendous . . . we'll murder you for it.

Tina said...

This probably makes me a mean person, but my favorite bumper sticker is "My kid can beat the shit out of your honor student."

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Then I'm a mean person, too, Tina, because that made me laugh.

I always thought I should get one of those ones that says something like "My border collie can think circles around your honor student." Not so funny though--because it's true.

On my long ride today I thought maybe I'd have two stickers made, for the day my new/old Guzzi gets here: both would say, "My other bike is a bike."

Steve said...

"I Was Out There." and "Eschew obfuscation." have had me chuckling all afternoon. Thank you!

I neglected to say, Melissa, that your sticker for your bike is perfect; well done!

Mark M said...

Although some bumper stickers are amusing, I've always avoided having them on my car (or bike). Unless the message is completely innocuous--and then why bother--there's always someone crazy out there who might take offence. Also, I had a teacher years ago who said that most bumper stickers really just say, "I'm an asshole."

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Since there's no such thing as a statement that won't make someone, somewhere, mad, we can only surmise that is the final purpose of putting slogans on our vehicles. We want to make someone mad. And who is it who gets pleasure from others' anger? That's right. An asshole.

Right you are, Mark.

(And thanks, Steve. I am so transparent, aren't I? Sheesh.)

Chris Hunter said...

"Share the Road--with a Moto Guzzi." I love that. It'd look good on the support vehicle for my V7: my wife's Volvo wagon.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Now I've got to get another sticker: "Jealous of V7 Owners."

If I can find the name of the good samaritan who makes those stickers, who gave it to me at a rally, I'll let you know: the ideal addition to your wife's Christmas stocking.

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