Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes

Lawrence Ferlinghetti's 'Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes' recalls a moment in time when a garbage truck and a Mercedes were juxtaposed whilst waiting at a red traffic light, and is built upon the contrast between the two sets of people in these vehicles.

This 'event' took place at nine in the morning in San Francisco city centre. The first stanza looks at the garbage truck and its occupants; the colours are very vivid: the truck itself bright yellow, and the men's plastic blazers red, echoing the colour of the traffic light that has forced them to stop. The two garbagemen are hanging on to the back of the truck, one on each side, looking down at the 'elegant couple' in the Mercedes.

Stanza two focuses on the driver and passenger in the Mercedes. Descriptions such as 'hip three-piece linen suit' (for the driver) and 'casually coifed' (for the female passenger) reinforce their elegance. Both are blond. The man, we are told, is an architect and the couple are one their way to his office.

The third stanza looks again at the garbagemen, who have just finished their work having been up since four in the morning. 'Grungy' leaves us in no doubt as to the state they are in. One is considerably older than the other, and Ferlinghetti uses the simile 'looking down like some / gargoyle Quasimodo' to describe the way in which he is hunched and peering down on the couple in the Mercedes. The description is not an appealing one. The younger garbageman, however, is about the same age as the architect and, like him, has 'sunglasses & long hair': they are similar in these ways yet worlds apart.

In the fourth stanza we are again reminded that the garbagemen, or 'scavengers', are 'gazing down' at the 'cool couple' in the Mercedes. Ferlinghetti imagines that it is as though they are watching an advert on television, an 'odorless TV ad', unreal, untouchable. But in TV commercials anything can happen, and perhaps they are waiting for something to happen.

The final stanza reminds us that they are at a traffic light, a 'very red light', caught for just a short space of time. The light is 'holding all four close together' although it is unlikely that such different types of people would come so physically close in any other way than this chance occurrence. As in the previous stanza, Ferlinghetti sees that it is 'as if anything at all were possible / between them': anything could happen because they are in such close proximity. The distance he describes with the metaphor 'small gulf', and then immediately employs another metaphor, 'high seas of democracy' to create an image of the bizarre juxtapositions that can randomly occur in what is supposedly a highly civilized society.

The lines of poetry here flow back and forth with large indentations, as though we are ourselves are looking back and forth between the garbagemen and the couple in the Mercedes. The spaces that are formed in this way make it quite difficult to distinguish between one stanza and another. The lack of punctuation adds to the sense of a continuous flow, a gaze shifting constantly from truck to car and back again in the short period of time that they were caught at the red light together.

Ferlinghetti has frozen a brief moment in time when we see the extremes of this society, the two garbagement, dirty and exhausted, and the architect and his female companion, beautifully dressed and fresh at the start of their day. The driver and the younger garbagemen are almost the same age, both have long hair and wear sunglasses, and yet they are worlds apart. This is a democracy, but as Ferlinghetti shows us, the gap between rich and poor is still a vast one. When we see the two together in this way, the contrast is striking.

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