Author Archive

Before There Was a National Speed Limit

Informant: So, this one I heard from an instructor at a summer enrichment class I took right when I was learning to drive–I think you hear this a lot when you’re learning to drive. But I learned later that this is a story that a lot of people tell.

This is a story about the nineteen seventies before there was a national speed limit, because you tell the story when there used to be a national speed limit. So at the time I heard this story, the speed limit was 55. So okay, so the story was told me when the speed limit was 55 and people used to talk about the time before the 55 speed limit like it was the old West. Because in the seventies, the speed limit in a lot of places was 75 even on two lane highwasy

The way I heard this, outside the small town where this person grew up, one semi was trying to pass another semi, so it was on a two lane highway in the passing lane at 80 miles an hour, and it timed the passing wrong and hit another semi head on. Two semis both going 80 miles an hour, which is like hitting a very thick brick wall at 160 mph. They hit sooooo haaaard that the metal of the two cabs fused together. If metal smacks together hard enough, you know, in this story, it does that. So they hosed out the remains of the two drivers as best they could.

Interviewer: Hosed them out?

Informant: Yeah.

And then they left the wreckage of the cabs by the side of the road.

Interviewer: That’s it?

Informant: No. A couple weeks later, the smell of these things got so bad that they decided they had to pull the trucks apart to clean them out better, so I think they used two cranes? But they might have been pulled apart by other trucks. So they pulled the two trucks a part and then, and then they found the station wagon with the mother and her children that had been squashed so flat that nobody realized there was a vehicle between the trucks the whole time.  You also hear this one about cell phones sometimes too, the two truck drivers are texting instead of trying to pass.


This cautionary tale might hint at the amount of time people spend driving, and anxieties about the potential dangers of it, and the necessity of laws to govern the roads we spend so much time on; it might also, as the informant suggests, be employed to put a little fear and respect into inexperienced drivers.


The Death of Mr. T

Informant: So my brother told me several times when he was in high school and college that he heard Mr. T was dead.  He’s still alive, by the way, he tweets a lot.

But my brother told me that he fell in a pool and all his gold chains weighed him down and he drowned and he died.  Told me at least four different times and I think believed it at least twice.

Analysis: it is possible that in a small, economically depressed farming town in the Midwest, a cautionary tale of sorts about a big, different-looking, fool-pitying, very tough guy drowning in the weight of his outward expressions of wealth and toughness was very appealing.  By emphasizing what they were not (loud, rich, tough, not-white) it allowed them to valorize what they were (quiet, hardworking, soft-spoken), deepening their connection to their own identity.



Britney Spears Story

The impulse to attribute outrageous sexual behavior to celebrities may serve as a way to differentiate them further from the people who make them famous in a vertical model of cultural production–perhaps establishing a binary between us and them.  It is also interesting to observe which communities tell this story about which artists: that this story hadn’t been popular since Queen was hot and new in Los Angeles, but that it was being recycled every few years in a small town in Eastern Iowa seems to say something about what kinds of behavior, and by whom, are considered beyond the pale, and where those lines are drawn.

Informant: Yeah, um, I realize I’m not sure I remember this correctly. I thought I was younger when this happened, but Britney spears was not a thing until I was finishing high school. But the story I heard was that Britney Spears did a concert near Iowa City and she had to go to the hospital and have her stomach pumped.

Interviewer: I feel like I’ve heard this about Freddy Mercury.

Informant: Are you gonna let me tell this or not?  So she was unconscious and she had to go to the emergency room and they pumped her stomach and they had to pump out six ounces of semen.

Interviewer: Freddy Mercury had a quart.

Informant: In Burlington, when they tell this story, it’s six ounces.

Interviewer: Who’d you hear it from?

Informant: Some guy in high school.

So I repeated this to my brother Aaron for some reason, and so Aaaron said, when I heard that story, it was about Rod Stewart, and he was saying that his friend at the time had a can of pop in his hand, and so they were able to eyeball what six ounces looks like.  It’s a lot.  And Rod Stewart is bigger than Britney Spears.



Protective Superstition: String in Mouth

You always hold a string in your mouth when someone is cutting or pinning something on you, and that way they won’t cut you by accident, or stick you with the pin.  I’m not sure how or why, but my grandmother was a seamstress and her mother was a seamstress, and you can bet nobody ever pinned or cut anything on me, when I was trying it on, you know, without a string in my mouth.  My mother and my grandmother, they just wouldn’t do it.  I don’t know why, it’s just how it was.


Informant does indeed come from a family of seamstress.  The interviewer was unable to verify other sources for this superstition, but it is clearly a sort of contagious magic: that if the person holds a string in their mouth, the wholeness of that string will somehow keep them whole.  It probably also serves a more practical purpose–reminding the person to stay still and quiet while the seamstress works on them.


The Flying Asshole

So I think I learned this in Cozumel, but I’ve seen it in Fiji and Palau and the Bahamas and here, too, when you’re underwater, or when you’re not underwater, but I learned this from other scuba divers, and it’s how I’ve seen it used, I’ve only seen it used underwater when someone’s, you know, landed hard on a reef and fucked it up, or kicked someone accidentally, or whatever.

But the flying asshole, it starts out as the ok sign, that circle with your forefinger and thumb, but then you wave the rest of your fingers and sort of bounce your hand across.

It’s the universal sign for, “I’m fine, but how about that flying asshole?”

Informant was an underwater photographer and for many years, and divers do have their own formal sign language, but an informal sign language has developed around the standardized one, particularly among professional divers–people who do it for money, rather than enjoy it as an expensive hobby. It seems to separate the sheep from the goats, the dabblers from the polished pros, while establishing the same sort of class division any other difference in dialect might.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Old age

How to Live a Long Life, According to a 102 Year Old

Informant is 102 years old, and has become quite practiced in answering the question, “what’s your secret for living so long?”

She was recently hospitalized after an operation, and the interviewer was able to record the following instructions for living to an old age:

Well, the thing is this, it’s all about the moderation.  And being consistent.  You don’t let anything fall by the wayside.

So everyone knows you move around every day, not to little and not too much, I like to climb stairs when I can and take walks.  Everyone knows about exercise  And you eat some vegetables every day and more is better than less, everyone knows that, but the thing my mother really believed in and that she learned from her mother who learned it from her mother and that I haven’t yet gone a day without doing is every day you have a little bit of chocolate, just a piece of it or chocolate ice cream or something.

Used to be we would come home from school for lunch and there would be maybe some cabbage soup or something, kasha and mushrooms or what have you, but always there was a piece of plain chocolate cake and a big glass of milk, and you don’t go back to school until you’ve had your cake and milk.  And on the weekend it was for breakfast.  But every day it was very important to my mother because her mother taught her, every day, you have a little bit of chocolate.

My mother was hit by a car so we don’t know if the chocolate would have kept her alive so long or not, but her mother, she lived for a long time, and she did it every day.  And I’m 102 and I do it every day.   And my sister, she’s 97, and she is in very poor health, and she never ate the chocolate because she didn’t want to be heavy.  But I tell her you can’t live on bread alone and she tells me that’s not what that means and I tell her who’s to say what’s living?

Folk Beliefs

Ouija Boards

Informant was asked if he’d ever seen anything that was haunted, and described an experience he had while on a playdate at a friend’s house.

Informant: My friend had a oiuja board, and he, like, he got real mad, got scared, he yelled at his mom, because she put it away and it was, like, it was inside the house and facing up, and like, you’re not supposed to do that, you’re supposed to put it away facing down and outside is better, they believe, because they think that then the spirit can get out., the spirit that is in the board and answering questions. Also if they tell you their name when you contact them, you’re not supposed to say the name of the spirit.  Not even to try to pronounce it or whatever.

Interviewer: Why? What happens?

Informant: The spirit gets released, and it–it gets out of the board.

Interviewer: And then?

Informant: Depending whether it’s mad or not, it’ll maybe haunt whoever released them.  And the board also, you know, there’s nobody in it then to answer the questions anymore.

Where are they from?

His mom is from Hungary, and she was glad when he pointed out that she put it away wrong because she believes it too.


License Plate Game

Interviewer: Long drive.  Do you know any games you can play in a car?

Informant: Just a game that you play but it’s not a real game.  I used to play it on the way to, like, football games and stuff.  But now I usually have my phone.  Anyway it’s not real, it’s not a real game.

Interviewer: Sure it’s real.

Informant: You want me to tell you about it? It’s stupid. I still do it sometimes. I don’t really do it anymore.

Okay, so if you see a license plate from another state, you get to punch someone in the car once, and if it’s from another country, you get to punch him three times, and rare cars count too—like you can do punch buggy so you punch someone if you see a VW bug as well. And the new ones count too. Not just the old kind. I don’t really play that anymore, though.  Unless I’m with little kids.  And then sometimes I let them punch me because it doesn’t hurt.

Informant is sixteen and lives in a suburb; admits that many of his waking hours are spent in a car.  His unwillingness to admit to playing the game might indicate that he is transitioning out of the group it’s aimed at, which, in his estimation, is young children.   The reluctance to even discuss the game, based on the idea that games are for kids younger than he is, may indicate him wanting to be identified with an older group; he might also see himself as too advanced to need geography lessons from his parents while in the car, and too sophisticated to be excited by the novelty of seeing a license plate from another place, or an unusual car.

Folk Beliefs
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

Prejudiced beliefs about Jewish People

Informant related this while at tea, when interviewer mentioned a Jewish holiday in passing.

First of all, I don’t believe any of this, but these are things my grandparents said to my mother and she said to me.

I did tell you before, didn’t I? How my grandfather used to take my grandmother to the opera, and he had a box because he was a successful early ad magnate or tycoon or what have you, and he would pick out the Jew in the audience by their pointed ears. I never asked for an explination because you know, you don’t need one with something that batty.

My mother grew up in Indiana and they had a cook and a maid and one day, you know, Mom and I were driving up at 19th and California, there’s a little tiny temple school, and my mother says in ths really sweet voice she used sometimes, “when I was growing up, my I was told by the maid that Jews took Christian babies and ate them and drank their blood.”

I think it must have been the German help because my mother never saw her parents and they tended to try to at least keep their prejudices, you know, tasteful. At no point did I ever press my mom for more details about this because, you know I was stunned.  Schtunned.

Informant’s grandparents are of English and German extraction, and their beliefs do reflect historical attitudes held by many Europeans at various points in time, generally emphasizing the otherness of a group of people who lived and looked different and may have, at times, competed for economic resources; by identifying the strangers as ‘bad,’ these groups may have felt more justified in protecting scarce resources for themselves during hard times; and the stories created for this purpose were then passed down through generations.


These beliefs, and other similar ones, are discussed in John Efron’s Jews: A History. Taylor & Francis, 2013.



The Black Angel

Informant: Hey, while we’re talking about college towns, did I ever tell you about the black angel of Iowa City?

Interviewer: No.

Informant:  Um, so it was a big deal when I was in college, there’s not much to the one I’ve actually heard, it’s just that if you ever kiss a virgin in front of this black statue of an angel in the cemetery near the university in Iowa City, it’s face will turn white.

Interviewer: Did you ever?

Informant: No one ever has!


This local legend/joke might be construed as emphasizing anxiety about sexuality and, for women at least, the fine line between being considered prudish and being considered promiscuous; for young men, perhaps anxiety about being considered manly enough.  The informant heard this first from a college girlfriend of his, and apparently it was not uncommon for couples to go kiss in front of the statue on a dare–playful proof of adulthood in the liminal space of college, when many students find themselves no longer protected by parents but also not quite independent.