It was the middle of the week and my wife and I were traveling down the New York State Thruway. She was driving while I read a Travis McGee novel. (The Empty Copper Sea, John McDonald, originally published 1987, Reissue edition (April 1996) Fawcett Books; ISBN: 0449224805) She pointed out the car in front of us – classic, old and very ugly. I didn't recognize it from the back but as we cruised past it I realized it was a vintage Edsel. I turned to watch the toilet-seat horse-collar grill recede in the distance, then decided I wanted another look.
We tried slowing down, but it was moving too slowly to ever catch up with us. "Pull over," I said, "Stop and let it pass us." She did, reluctantly, and we rode behind it for a minute or so, then slowly pulled beside it for a closer look. It was the color of mint ice cream, lovingly restored to a pristine gloss. It was horribly, wonderfully ugly. This time we got a good look at the driver. He was impeccably clean-shaven, apple-cheeked and wearing a straw fedora at a jaunty angle. He looked exactly like someone from a typical 50's advertisement. He waved and smiled, appreciative that we'd come back for a second look.
Salvador Dali used to complain that there wasn't enough surrealism in the world. He said it was a shame that when you went to a restaurant and ordered a nice piece of fish the waiter never brought you a flaming phone book. While most people recoil from anything out of the ordinary, Sal reveled in it. He knew the unusual made life more interesting, memorable and worthwhile. If he had been with us in the car that day he would have been delighted. The Edsel was an anachronism, slightly out of place and time, but the driver, with the simple addition of a hat, took it a step further and made it surreal.
The sidewalks of Downtown Albany are embarrassingly empty during the day, but this summer their population has increased by a dozen or so with the addition of life-size, life-like sculptures of people doing every-day things. A cop writes a ticket, a kid swings around a stop sign, a woman fights the wind and rain, a musician tunes his guitar, two men in suits have a conversation. A few common Albany scenes are missing - there is no sculpture of a politician stuffing his pockets or Albany cops beating the shit out of a black guy - but to be fair, such things are usually done in private, out of public view.
These solid citizens, always there, always frozen in their moment, add a welcome air of surrealism to the city. Some are slightly out of place – no musician would be foolish enough to play an acoustic guitar on Pearl Street, for instance – but most of them fit right in with the sparse population of downtown pedestrians. The strangeness, the surrealism, is a direct result of their realism. You don't notice them at first glance – they look like regular people in the distance. Then their stillness strikes you and you take another look. Something is wrong. The world is a little strange, a little unreal, a little surreal for a few moments. Then you realize you've been fooled. You spot another one, and this time the surreal moment doesn't last quite as long. You spot a third statue, and as you admire the detail it moves – you've been fooled again. The effect is refreshingly unnerving, at least until you become familiar with each statue. Then, unfortunately and inevitably, each one becomes a mundane part of the scenery.
Last week I walked past the now familiar statues, paying no attention to them, and into Dunkin' Donuts where the waitresses never, ever, serve flaming phone books. While I was waiting a very tall, nearly bald man came in and stood in the line next to mine. His head was shaved except for pentagons of hair dyed alternately red and blue, connected by lines drawn on his scalp. He had turned his head into a soccer ball, and as an extra bonus had grown a handlebar moustache and dyed it bright red. I tried to avoid looking at him, but afterward realized that was the wrong reaction. I should have stared, I should have pointed, I should have made some comment. I should have thanked him for making my day just a little more interesting, just a little more surreal.
© 1999 Dave Hitt
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