CAMBRIDGE, Mass. First it was Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, an inexpensive lager favored by poor rustic whites and immortalized in the country song “Red Neck, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer,” then adopted by hipsters. Then it was the music of Johnny Cash, whose rural noir look and tough guy attitude caught on with a generation of urban twenty-somethings more familiar with country clubs than country music.
Now another institution originally associated only with the sticks has come to the big city: tractor pulls, a motorsport in which self-described “po’ white trash” drag a heavy metal sled along a dirt track until they can go no further. The competition has come to urban centers with a twist, however; instead of snarling, turbo-charged farm vehicles, city “power pullers” are limited to hybrids such as the Toyota Prius in deference to the green prejudices of highly-educated post-adolescent types who live in zip codes where the only cash crop is marijuana.
“There’s no way I could keep my girlfriend Lilith if I drove one of those gas-guzzling carbon-spewing monstrosities,” says Evan Wilentz, a barista at the Central Square Starbucks who’s thinking of going back to school to get a masters degree in phenomeno-phrenology, the study of what the study of philosophy does to your head. “When she takes a cab she asks the driver not to idle at stoplights,” he recounts with an air of chagrin.
273.6 volts of snarling environmental sensitivity!
Tractor-pulling season typically reaches its peak in August around the country as the event is a staple at county and state fairs, and so the organizers of the first Green Power Pull in Cambridge history have followed suit to stage their event in unseasonably cool summer weather on Massachusetts Avenue, the busiest street in the town where brains are more highly valued than brawn. “We need our students to get in touch with the rest of America,” says Eliot Shawn, a retired dean at the University of Southern New England, a “Gold” sponsor of the event. “They’ll be bossing them around in a few years, so it’s important they learn how to relate.”
The finals pit Wilentz against Tynan Bigbee, a bartender at Paul’s Pub in Porter Square, whose Honda Accord Plug-In model has been modified, just like the midwestern tractor jockeys he sort of emulates. “I added a lot of cool stuff,” he notes with pride. “There’s a sun-roof, and a 6-CD changer and Blue Tooth.”
The two take their places at the starting line and, with the drop of a flag they are off, each dragging a sledge behind him onto which denizens of the Athens of America climb as their respective wussmobiles make their way down the street.
“I’m on!” squeals Melinda Pickets, a jewelry-maker who crafts earrings out of discarded bottle caps and road kill she finds in the street. “It serves a dual purpose,” she tells this reporter. “It gets ugly trash off the street and onto the earlobes of my customers.”
“You made earrings out of a dead pigeon? Awesome!”
“So am I!” shouts her friend Amy Fenster-Bender, a buyer at a used record store across the steet.
The two women are joined by others until the hybrid vehicles begin to slow, sputter and then peter out as they approach the Cambridge City Hall, famous for its outdoor musical chimes that annoy nearby residents at taxpayer expense.
“I’m gonna beat you!” Wilentz shouts at Bigbee over their engines’ whine, and it is indeed the Prius that triumphs over the Plug-In Accord by a nose.
But, like angry NASCAR drivers who have “swapped paint” down the straightaway at Talledega Superspeedway, the two are at each other’s throats as soon as the winner is declared, with Bigbee playing the part of the aggressor.
“You bastard!” he shouts and lunges at the Prius owner, grabbing him around the neck before an official from NEHTPA–the New England Hybrid Tractor Pull Association–separates them.
“What is your problem, man?” Wilentz counters, genuinely mystified as to the source of his rival’s anger.
“I woulda won if . . .”
“If I’d had a longer extension cord.”
Coming soon on amazon.com as part of the collection “From NASCAR to NPR: Bringing Blue and Red States Together With Purple Prose.”