In the Valley of the Muffler Men
Muffler--A chamber attached to the end of the exhaust pipe which allows the exhaust gases to expand and cool. It is usually fitted with baffles or porous plates and serves to subdue much of the noise created by the exhaust.
--John Deere Fundamentals of Service manual
Muffler Man--A man made of mufflers.
They are quiet. They are unassuming. They stand rigid in all weather, baking in the heat, soaking in the rains; on rare occasions, tiny orbs of hail will fall from the heavens and bounce off their heads, making a soft pinging sound. Yet their smiles--be they of Magic Marker, spray paint or welded J-hook--remain true.
Some are shiny and bright, some the natural color of raw iron. Some proffer auto parts, some gesture grandly as if to say, "Hello, my friend! Though I cannot speak, let the body language of my metal arm bid you good day, a greeting my creator would gladly bestow were he not toiling in the shop beneath someone's vehicle."
They are the Muffler Men.
Chances are you do not think about mufflers too much until it's too late. As ignored necessities go, the muffler ranks right up there with the pancreas, with toilet paper, with air itself. That's right, air--the stuff that, as we all know, not only allows all life forms to exist on this planet, but goes into the precleaner of your car, where it mixes with fuel, then swoops to the air cleaner where it hangs a sharp right through the intake manifold to the intake valve passing over the cylinder to the exhaust valve, up through the exhaust manifold and finally through the muffler and out again into our lives.
But who would think that this mere air tamer, this loyal, unheralded foot soldier of the engine, could be anthropomorphized into the image of Man? Ah, who would think it but the men among us for whom the muffler is bread and butter.
So. Just who are these mechanics, these visionaries who have taken welding torch to mufflers with brand names like Cherry Bomb, Thrush, Borla, Dyno-Max and Flo-Master and given us the Muffler Men? What feelings are within the hearts beating under workshirt nametags, prideful but cryptic emblems that tell the world only that these fellows are Gary, Tom, Carlos, Barry and Teo?
Jimmy Buffett is warbling "Margaritaville" over the radio as I enter Ron's Radiator Service & Muffler Masters. Outside, greeting drivers whether they look or not, is a smiling, dot-eyed muffler man and his muffler dog. The muffler man holds a muffler in his hand. And some scamp has recently spray-painted what appears to be a vagina on the man, whose actual name I learn is Mr. Muffler Man.
I approach the boss, the man who created Mr. Muffler Man and his companion, Muffler Dog. His name is not Ron, but Barry Vignali. (Like Ruth's Chris Steak House, I tell him his place should be called Barry's Ron's Radiator Service & Muffler Masters. He says, "Well.")
"Look at that," says Barry, shaking his head in disgust. "They're defacing my Muffler Man again. People have no respect. None at all." I find that this sort of mayhem on muffler men is not unusual; the vagina is only the tip of the iceberg.
"A few weeks ago, they put a swastika on his chest. I had to paint over it. Mr. Muffler Man, he's all-American. He's an all-American man, and this is an all-American muffler dog." In fact, this is the second generation of muffler beings Barry has made; the first was stolen some four years ago.
And there have been other indecencies.
"I had clothes on Mr. Muffler Man for a while," Barry recalls. "I put a pair of coveralls on him, and somebody must have needed them. Naturally, putting them on him in that weird configuration [of his body] tore them up, but somebody stole them anyway. That's when I figured I'd just leave him naked."
Yet there have been moments of brightness in the painful saga of Mr. Muffler Man.
"One time somebody came by and kicked them over, and broke one of the legs on the Muffler Man," says Barry. "This happened on the weekend, and by about Wednesday I get a phone call from a little boy, he sounded like he was about 10 or 12.
"He says, 'Is this the muffler shop with the Muffler Man?' I says, 'Yeah, it is.' He says, 'I go by there every day, and I haven't seen him.' I said, 'I'll tell you the truth, something happened to him. He fell down and got a broken leg.' He said, 'Are you gonna fix him?' I said, 'If you want him back up, I'll fix him.' So I did it that afternoon."
And so stand Mr. Muffler Man and loyal Muffler Dog today, naked, smiling and unashamed.
They call him Jeronimo. He is a staunch beacon in front of Teo's Auto Glass (yes, they do mufflers too), painted a bright yellow with the grand black mustache of a Mexican nobleman. Immaculate and clean, he is tended to with obvious affection by Teodore Quintero, owner of the shop and maker of Jeronimo, who has been named for the Mexican patron saint of welders, Teo tells me through a co-worker.
There is a significant language barrier--we both know enough of each other's native tongues to say that we don't know anything else in each other's native tongues--yet Teo immediately grasps my wish to honor Jeronimo. He walks over and folds his muffler hombre in a large embrace.
Carlos Campos (of Charly's Auto Service, which he co-owns with his father, Juan) and I also encounter a difference in languages. But once again, the silent speak of the muffler man is universal. Carlos created "Moffles" two years ago, and he has stood upon the roof of the shop since then. But if Mr. Muffler Man was simple and forthright, and Jeronimo embodied the spirit of quiet warmth and dignity evocative of his muffler origins, Moffles is something of a joyous rogue.
Festooned with minuscule Christmas lights (a year-round tradition), he sports a lopsided grin and waves a radiator grill against the lightly clouded Phoenix sky. Carlos puts foot to mailbox and heaves himself up onto the roof to join Moffles for a crowning photo-op. As passers-by honk and squeal from car windows, Carlos lays his hands upon Moffles in a stern yet paternal fashion, illustrating a quiet bond that defines eloquence. I look at one of Carlos' co-workers standing next to me, and though we cannot understand each other's words, we smile and nod.
That is enough.
Moe is wearing size-13 purple Converse high tops and has sturdy work gloves attached with black electricians tape. Moe was born about a year ago of the hand of Gary Nickerson, proprieter of Discount Muffler.
Unlike other muffler men, Moe has been kept relatively vandalism-free; Gary ritually rolls him inside the shop at night. There is something jaunty about Moe, all blood red and chrome gleaming dull in the fierce sunlight. In his own way, he seems to bring a bit of ironic humanity to this bleak west Phoenix boulevard, his wide-eyed grin shining in this stretch of faceless Circle Ks and wind-flung garbage.
I ask Gary if there are any tales of intrigue he can relate concerning Moe.
"'Fraid not," he says.
But don't think that the father of Moe is without heart for his reverse-flow sentinel.
"Oh, yeah, I'd be hurt if something happened to him," Gary reveals. "He's part of the business. Once in a while, he takes a lick, somebody hits him with a car, and I have to weld an arm back on or something. But other than that, he's a pretty durable guy."
There are certain touches to Moe--the dramatically bent left leg, the saucy hand on hip--that make me wonder if Gary had any previous art experience.
"Yeah," he admits. "In school. Doodling and stuff."
And finally there is Tom Gannon at Meineke Muffler, caretaker of Muffler Man ("He has no name, he's just a man") and Muffin, the panting, silver-tongued Muffler Dog. Rick, MM's creator, is in a wonderfully sullen, van Goghish mood, manning the hydraulic lug-nut remover, refusing to comment on his work.
Muffler Man is third generation, Tom explains.
"We've been here like ten years, and we've had muffler men out in front, and the last remains [of the previous versions] is on the pole out there." Out there, only a small length of pipe exists. Sobering.
Now Man and Muffin are wheeled in at night.
"A couple years ago when the Suns were playing the Chicago Bulls, we had the Suns uniform on him. Somebody came by and roped him, tied him up and pulled him away. I heard he's at a muffler shop down on Buckeye Road, but I've never gone down there looking for him." (For the record, I did not find him anywhere.)
But Muffler Man cannot exist by muffler alone, Tom explains.
"His head is a catalytic converter. His hat is a rotor, his legs and hands are pipe. He has washers for ears, a J-hook for a smile, and Muffin has bolts for toes."
Once again, I stand in awe of yet another member of the Phoenix muffler man family. Humble or gaudy, small or life-size, abused or coddled, all have been given to us by men who do more than service that thing under the back of your car.
For me, one question remains; I present it to Tom.
"This type of stuff takes place when things are very slow."
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