Tag Archives: truck drivers

Rolling Coal: A Truck-Driver’s Prank

Context: I asked the informant if he would like to collaborate to work on our collection projects, and invited him to my dorm room at USC. We began chatting about various forms of folklore that would fit into our collections, and he informed me that high schoolers at his former high school school had a tradition of pranking people in their trucks. Essentially, he told me, there was a practice called ‘rolling coal,’ involving the exhaust of the car and a cloud of black smoke. Intrigued, I asked him if he could elaborate, and began to record.


WD: What’s like, that thing you were telling me about people’s exhausts in Memphis? What’s that called?

EG: Oh, rolling coal? I mean, I don’t really remember the mechanics of it or anything but…

WD: Oh, don’t worry, just tell me what you remember about it!

EG: Okay, so, I went to  high school in Memphis, Tennessee, so it’s a southern town with a lot of southerners. So, down there, what a lot of southerners take great pride in is having a big truck. I mean, people will spend… thousands and thousands of dollars…

WD: To jack that shit up, huh?

EG: Yeah, exactly, to jack their truck up, lift kits, and all this other stuff, new lights… a hook thingy…

WD: You know, bullshit.

EG: Yeah, bat-mobile type stuff. Um…. And so, there’s a group of kids at my high school who all did that. And, there’s also this other thing they do, mostly douchebags with trucks do, called rolling coal. What they do is modify the exhaust pipe on their truck, so that when they rev the engine hard enough, just black soot and smoke will come out. You can’t see through it, even, since it’s so thick.

WD: Kind of gross, but okay… then what?

EG: So, people at my high school used to drive around town, they would roll up to somebody on the sidewalk and ask them, “Do you like to smoke?” And even before the person can reply, all they do is floor it, and it’ll blast the person on the sidewalk with this disgusting, black smoke, and they just get totally obliterated.

WD: It’s kind of a flex though, because then the person will look in the distance at the souped up truck as it drives away.

EG: Yeah. It’s both a prank and a way to show off your truck, I guess.

Informant: The informant is a 19 year old student at the University of Southern California. He is from Memphis, Tennessee, and is Jewish-American.  He had both seen and heard of the prank, since a group of kids at his high school (he referred to them as the “Truck Kids”) found it funny. While the informant, too, thought it was somewhat funny, he also recognized the environmental impact that the prank may be having.

Analysis: While, on one hand, “rolling coal” is a prank, it’s also reflective of southern attitudes towards trucks and truck drivers. Truck drivers typically take great pride in their cars, especially in the South. Drivers will affix numerous accessories and upgrades to their vehicles in order to customize it to their liking, as well as show off their purchases to other truck drivers. Therefore, these sorts of modifications are normalized in the truck-driving community and, in turn, truck drivers will generally see their vehicles as superior to pedestrians and smaller cars. However, the practice of “rolling coal” takes this self-prophesied superiority to a higher degree. The point of the specific alteration is to spray an unsuspecting victim with the exhaust fumes from the truck’s engine. Most popularly, the practice is used on pedestrians, who are located lower than the driver’s seat on most souped-up trucks, further embedding the notion of superiority into truck-driving culture. While the prank may be funny for the driver and their passengers, it typically is not funny for the other person or people involved. 

Folk Metaphor

Zorrillo; Caballo; Paloma

Skunk; Horse; Bird (Pigeon/Dove)

These are common Spanish words for different animals, but for Spanish speaking truck drivers, zorrillo (skunk) means the highway patrol, a caballo (horse) is a policeman on motorcycle, and paloma (bird) denotes the patrol from the Department of Transportation (D.O.T.). Jorge learned these terms on the highways in Midwest United States—he simply kept hearing them in context, and eventually understood what they meant. When truck drivers are on the road, they use a radio to communicate with other truck drivers nearby. Interestingly, although they are not officially set apart, English speaking truck drivers and Spanish speaking drivers use different channels. He says he thinks that other languages might have their own channels as well, but he is not sure. These words are used mainly to warn others if they see patrolmen or police. Because the patrolmen and police have access to the radio as well, should they think to tune in, the truck drivers use this coding to avoid being so obvious.

Jorge thinks this shows a negative attitude toward the officers of the road. “It’s their job to give us tickets. If I can help another driver to not get a fine, that’s great.” He says it’s a way to be stealthy, but it is also a way to make fun of authority. “Sometimes we’ll say, ‘stupid horse’ or ‘dumb pigeon’ in Spanish.

I agree—naming the officers after animals is clearly a way to make fun of them. The Spanish-speaking truck drivers have code words for other things too, such as Romana (Roman) for the truck scales, but it is the terminology for road authority, in which they specifically make allusions to animals.

I think that there is a slightly different dimension to it as well—I think these terms also signify, in a sense, a feeling of power by the truck drivers. Truck drivers have little authority, on or off the road, but I noticed that when they are sitting aloft in their massive trucks, they feel powerful. In fact, sitting up there and looking down at all the other puny cars and buses one feels like king of the road, and the other vehicles do indeed look like creatures. While driving, Jorge would often refer to them as such, calling another car “that little thing.” An expert driver, he does not worry about making a mistake, but does tell me that if other cars break the rules, such as tailgating or cutting too closely in front of the truck, “they’d better watch out cause they’ll get squashed like a bug.” The patrolmen have authority over the drivers, of course, but sitting so high in their trucks seems to give them a slight sense of power, intangible as it might be. Black and white patrol cars really do look like little skunks, and the D.O.T. in their white cars do look like pigeons. Policemen on motorbikes, of course, do resemble a mounted horse.

Finally, I think these words are also significant in that they reveal how important it is for truck drivers to cooperate and support one another. More than people in other professions, truck drivers seem to bond very closely, they are generally very warm to each other. I have seen Jorge talk jovially and joke around with random truck drivers who pass by over the radio, and have never witnessed hostility or rivalry. It is natural, then, that they would want to help fellow drivers avoid a large fine, or a damaging record on their licenses. Driving for days at a time alone in a truck can get lonely, I suppose, and truck drivers seem to turn to one another for companionship, as well as for road information.