Urban Elements: If Firetrucks Had Feathers

Firetruck Falcon Collage - Tim Gemperline   Falcon courtesy Mike Girone

It’s a summery day, pristine enough for the cafe’s garage door front to be open and the patio full. Converse to our seasonal clothing  pattern, the trees are thickly garbed, in full leaf and, at least the ones outside the cafe, lamps with white fabric shades. Round rimmed cups clink against doubly-wide saucers which in turn fill the even larger shade-sphere the umbrellas project. It’s, one taking in and fully appreciating the moment might call, a nice day.

It is only fair to be warned on a day like this day, and it was kind enough to do so. That’s how it is designed to work. The sound segues into  the chatter, mentioned porcelain clinks, and passing car hum. It is heard and the mind registers it and passes it along to memory and  recognition, but for now it is ignored, relegated to the pile of least concern in the constant data flow of the senses. Everyone knows  what it is, anyway.

So it increases and grows steadily, testing how loud it must be to get attention, like a child at that age where they begin to command tantrum volume as a tool. And like the parent, the patrons ignore the rising auditory flood until it reaches the right level in  the ear canal. All becomes sound.

And lights, too. The lanterns hung poshly from the trees and the umbrellas stenciling the patio could be Chinese paper. The lights,  then, should be the quick, bombastic bursts of gunpowder and ferrous metals, the mediums of a fireworks display. That’s the look; The  effect is like hearing about Ali v. Foreman for weeks, all the build-up and publicity, then turning the TV on to see the knock-out  punch in the seventh round, only to have the tube go out immediately after.

But here it is, sirens, the patented message of red and blue strobing lights, and the white gloss-paint and chrome shine of the  engine. People talk away until the last moment, then mouths rest, all pupils redirected toward the one, big window left behind by the retracted glass garage door. Without a second to spare, and lasting only as long, the blurred firetruck absolutely fills the frame and the attention of everyone in a unifying event.


The sound and sight of a firetruck is one known to everyone, and a common one to those who live in the city. I always find it  interesting that another sense, smell, is the sense with the strongest connection to memory; it seems almost a background sense, a sense in passing. Elements like firetrucks are the same way; they are familiar and common, processed at the moment then dismissed, but represent a major part of our environment. They are also a unique  element, in that they move, almost filling some gap, between large, stationary buildings and ambulatory, compact people, at least in a broad, physical lineup.

The amazing firetruck, a blocky hulk of a mobile, fulfills this role similarly to a bird, an equally astounding cohabitant (even if simply because they can fly – how long did we dream of that, how little time have we known how, and still never as elegantly?…) that likewise is placed in the gaps of our view of our environment, despite (…but, we know the secrets of flight now, any golden age of it is long gone, half the clouds are contrails; ho hum). Yet, they are the two regular passersby outside my window that halt what I am doing, both with the welcome familiarity and frenetic uncommonalities.

After becoming familiar with a ‘population’ of firetrucks (I imagine this is what Burt Lancaster’s character would have done, looking out between bars in ‘Bird Man’, had he been transfered to an inner-city prison that birds knew better than to hang around), the terms ‘behavioural patterns’, ‘territories’, ‘routes’, ‘vocalizations’, ‘markings’, ‘nests’ don’t sound so absurd and actually make themselves readily apparent. The array of noises the emergency vehicle communicates even matches a bird’s set of songs. Though less complex more cacophonous, these noises define the urban environment. Take a bird’s voice away, silence the siren, and the space would be noticeably off. Of course, there is the question of which would really be missed, but the make-way! wail is a defining track to any city soundscape.

The forests and fields have flecks of feather iridescence, beak-spouted audio, and specialized flocks. Well, the city has its own flashes of light, loud-speakered communications, and purpose-ingrained fleets, in the distinct fashion that humans mimic nature in design and organization. ‘Concrete jungle’ is more than allusion, it is a model, and firetrucks, police cars, ambulances are a fleshed-out detail of it.

The jungle is rich, it is diverse, stuff happens constantly in it. That is the allure of the city, and stuff happens in it, too. Even when it is thriving, not all of that stuff is good. Both birds and emergency vehicles act for survival, but of different varieties. In that way, the excitement of watching a firetruck roar past with building shaking momentum is tinged with voyeurism; the haste is not for show – it is for life and limb. There is an intrinsic link to destruction in these vehicles, there is an intrinsic, constant link to destruction in nature and in cities.


Another window-framed view to a flash of motion, but no foreshadowing sirens; in fact, all sound is muffled by snow that replaces the white of the previous vignette’s porcelain coffee cups with its albedo. Through the drifting and downy texture of already chubby crystals, I remember one big flake of grey precipitate from above, coming to a soft stop upon its predecessors. The structure and quality of snowflakes and feathers are poetically akin, these mediums of loftiness. The peregrine falcon lay wings spread, Meal,-Ready-to-Eat beneath its mess kit of talons and the tablecloth of white.

Without plunging into philosophy, life and destruction are entangled. It can have a structure and gracefulness to it, though. There is a difference from decay.  Yes, that firetruck that you and everyone else pulled to the side of the road for is either going to or coming from something of some degree of unpleasant, a negative of reality. But is it not reassuring to know that integrated into the habitat you live in is a means to contend with it, that in the way everyone knew to make way, the way the speeding creature moved with purpose, that there was a wider understanding and coherence to the objects and roles in the city we created? Both the firetruck and the raptor rush in parallax towards a point of destruction for a reason that is meaningful and beautifully integral to the larger environment they stem from. The firetruck is one of the small, tangible ways a city provides in the background, like a clock tower chiming every quarter hour in an oppidan language to everyone.

Firetrucks are not birds, buildings not trees, roads not rivers; when extraordinary, integral elements around us are relegated to just superficially noticed commonplace elements, a different perspective, be it biomorphic or otherwise, can bring a new appreciation for them. Such correlations and views might even help evolve their design and roles. Regardless, it is nice to see birds and firetrucks out my window, for the nuances and value they contribute from under a masterful front of admirable excitement, these flashing and feathered friends.

Support Firefighters!:   http://www.firehero.org/donate/

and those they help:  https://www.redcross.org/donate/

In the UK:  https://myfirefighterscharity.org.uk/donate

Adopt a bird!: http://www.horizonwings.org/adopt_a_bird.html


Literature: Karen Russell’s ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’ and Cows’ Red Silhouettes in Green Water Under Obscenely Blue Skies

Vampires in the Lemon Grove - Advance and Cover - Tim Gemperline

Looking back on some previous reads, it’s perfectly easy to associate an illustrative style or cover image with the text; Quentin Blake’s loose and light scribbles for Roald Dahl, golden age comics for Chabon’s ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavelier and Clay’, moments of German expressionism in Pynchon’s ‘Gravity’s Rainbow.’ At times while reading stories in Karen Russell’s ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’, to be released tomorrow [Feb. 12, 2013], I couldn’t help but to think how Edward Gorey would flesh out the scene. If he was alive, wouldn’t it be great if he signed on to dot the collection with his crosshatching and starkly unaware faces? But that would be a misfit; what defines Russell’s stories is an absurdly humored kind of Victorian horror with a strong but unassuming magical realism, and while this may be the same bent as that of Gorey, Russell crafts a contemporary fiction that itself crafts it’s own illustrations.

And these images that coalesce between the reader and the text (without any such illustrative help) are quite stunning.

Sometimes a change in weather sucks a bat beyond the lemon trees and into the turquoise sea.

It is a simple sentence, one a precocious child might lay out to elucidate his peers on things he noticed during spring-break vacation, if so prompted by the teacher, described from his unique vantage point and select vocabulary. The most arresting images in this, the eponymous story, and the others are delivered just this way, and their simplicity belies their craft. A sparseness of objects each draped in a singular color and connected by a minimal, lively action. Russell can fill a frame this way, even with sound; a rooster’s morning crow is simply, astoundingly ‘gargled light, very beautiful.’ Very beautiful.

The color especially stands out in her description. The second story ‘Reeling for the Empire’ strings colorful lines of silk, produced by ‘some kind of hybrid creature’ silkworm-workers, across the set; not unlike the infinite rivers of stories in Rushdie’s sea, but if Murakami penned it for the pages of 1Q84 (both interestingly have some similar themes, flow, and strange cocoons). Taken in another story to Fedaliyah, Iraq, she gives us  a cow’s red silhouette on green water as it shoulders an ‘obscenely’ blue sky.

Silkworm-workers. That is to say, Japanese girls tricked into drinking a potioned tea that adds quite a few characteristics of a kaiko, a silkworm caterpillar, to them. She can add cats to walls, too:

Sleeping cats had slotted themselves between the stones, so that the walls themselves appeared to be breathing.

In the same story, of a soldier receiving message therapy on his ‘Dutch master’ tattooed back, one that changes despite honoring an unchangeable, done-and-over day, well over a dozen animals are mentioned, from mastodons to jellyfish. Across the whole collection there is a small zoo’s worth of animal similes, comparisons, and images draped in equal measure in primary colors.

Another reason Gorey wouldn’t work; his visions are mainly of grim mishap and death, Russell’s are motifs of life and its requisite learning. Black versus primary colors. Animals throughout, winds that suck like the whales inhaling plankton in another of her stories, Suns that don’t evaporate lakes but eat them; she can remarkably instill life into even grand concepts, like the future:

A new crop was pushing into the spaces that the tractor had abandoned – husks hissing out of the earth, bristling and green, like the future sprouting new fur

Even when she does deal with death, she makes flowers out of it:

…Humvees were always getting blown to bits on it. I saw it happen right in front of me, fireballs swaying on these big fucking stems of smoke.

‘The Barn at the End of Our Term’ goes so far as to take past American Presidents, decidedly, documentedly human, and make them all horses instead (Rutherford Birchard Hayes is a skewbald pinto with a golden, of all things, cowlick). And even then, as horses, they must strive to figure things out and learn. Her plots and characters, her settings and style are imbued with a greenness, a wilderness that naturally promotes a level of optimism, even if covered in undergrowth and past falls’ leaves.

Except in ‘Proving Up.’ Not since meeting Harold in ‘Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’ as a 3rd grader in a shuttered closet (not good for eyes, but good for effect) have I been so on edge from a story trying to put the reader on edge. This inclusion was previously released as ‘The Hox River Window,’ but has an eery coincidence of length in this collection; at the zenith of realization of the horror this story mesmerizingly builds to, the page turns to white. On the recto; abject terror. On the verso; an even more shocking blank. The story ends, to the very, bottom margin on that last right-side page, zero visual foreshadowing. The next, empty page is no mistake, but the full, blindingly white gravity of where Russell leaves a young boy on a desperate errand. Here, whether the editor’s work or Russell’s, is a great arrangement. Here is where a paper book in hand, quick-tempo, carriage-return reading of each line, page after page flipping culminates; and just as amazingly, shockingly the collection continues to Rutherford B. Hayes in a stable. And after that? A man I can only picture as Yukon Cornelius, cheering on plankton in the Antarctic.

More than a title, ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’ is an aphoristic ingredients list for Russell’s work. The young, already labeled prodigious writer matches all her imaginative plot and characterization with controlled tone and well cropped imagery. Some questions of carrying one or two stories too long or being, frankly, a bit downing, slide to the book’s gutter in the face of the creativity and masterful storytelling present. By the end, she always seems to scrape away any fallen foliage and undergrowth to reveal an inherent vivacity and life:

The [scarecrow’s] torso looked weirdly reanimated now with the tiny rabbit digging sideways into its soft green interior, palpitating like a transplant heart.

Russell creates her own emerald landscape, opting for it to be a wild and wildly imaginative garden instead of a city; she eschews things of tin and machinery, instead giving the scarecrow a heart. Karen Russell is her own Great and Powerful Oz in contemporary American fiction.

‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’ by Karen Russell, published by Alfred A. Knopf    ISBN: 978.0.307.95723.8