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Objet d’Art, and Violence

Our Town downtown
July 9, 2007

A vandalized car tells of bygone adventures, and that New Yorkers like to wreck things

I scour the roof of the parking lot at Pier 40 for a moving body. Not a soul. Silently, I flagellate myself for not being able to get my lazy ass out of bed. I’m twenty minutes late for the designated 8 a.m. meeting time. Have I missed him?
An athletic-looking guy rides up the ramp on a mountain bike. I step out of the shadows and away from the cars, to make sure he sees me.
I have absolutely no idea what I’m expecting, but from what I’ve gathered so far about Carter Emmart, I doubt he’d be as square-looking as this guy. The guy rides by, locks up his bike, and gets in his car. Not Carter Emmart.
Let me rewind. A few weeks earlier, I had gotten a call from an artist who parks in the parking lot at Pier 40, saying that I might be interested in a car there that had been vandalized. She didn’t know whom it belonged to, but this was no ordinary car.
A couple weeks later, I decided to check it out. By that point I’d lost the scrap of paper on which I’d jotted the car’s description and location. All I remembered was that it was parked on the top level, and something about a bubble in the roof. But that was all I needed.
From every angle, this car screams to be noticed. Painted on the back of the 1984 Ford station wagon is a waving American flag. The Colorado license plate reads ON2MARS. The bumper is decorated with stickers from the Burning Man festival dating back to 1993.
There is a hole in the roof maybe two feet in diameter, fitted with a Plexiglas bubble – an Austin Powers-esque sun roof.
Orange flame lick the sides, and on the hood, a faded, oversized Barbie in a body suit stands on tiptoe and watches as a mushroom cloud spreads over Los Angeles.
Neat stencil letters on the driver’s side door spell out: “LTC C. EMMART” / “PILOT.” Had this guy been driven over the edge in ‘Nam?
Inside and out, the car is in a shambles. The front windshield has been shattered and partially torn out of the frame, and two windows are missing. Both back tires are completely flat. The paint job is covered in juvenile graffiti: oversized genitalia scrawled on the hood, the word “Petafile” on the side door. Cassette tape trails from the doors and gathers around a tire like entrails.
I try the passenger side door. It’s open. I root around and find maps of Colorado, San Francisco, New York and Indiana, a bill from a Texaco in Boulder, a napkin with a couple names and phone numbers on it, and bingo: a bunch of business cards. They belong to Carter Emmart, Science Visualization/Artist for the Digital Galaxy Project at the Hayden Planetarium. I call him, he answers, we set up a time to meet, and now you have been caught up to date.
People often resemble their cars, so I had high expectations, but the Carter Emmart who shows up 45 minutes late, apologizing profusely, with traces of smeared lipstick around his mouth, and smelling of alcohol from last night’s Independence Day bash, blows them out of the water. This guy is a trip.
“PMS was here,” he sighs, pointing to graffiti scrawled on his Plexiglas bubble. He rolls his eyes and flips his long hair out of his face. “That’s creative.”
When Carter inherited this car from his uncle in the early 90’s, it was beige. “It was the only car I ever owned; I just decided I wanted to celebrate it.” At the time, he worked for NASA, which explains the Mars-inspired license plate and paint job, and the bubble (lying down in the back, he could look through the bubble at the stars). He used the car to travel between jobs, and every year, he’d make the trek to the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert.
“The participation in Burning Man is so positive and aggregate,” says Carter, pausing to let his emotions settle down. “For the most part, people that go to Burning Man sort of understand that it’s something you add into and help others build, as opposed to destroy.”
Carter calls his car an “Ode to America,” but much of that ode, like the atomic bomb on the hood and the gas-guzzling whale of a car itself, is critical. “For me, America is a mixed message,” he says, gingerly picking up the plastic oxygen container from Barbie’s space suit out of the front seat.
It was a continual work in progress. The flag in the back was “redneck control,” so he wouldn’t get his ass kicked in the Bible Belt – and he actually got a lot of thumbs up after 9/11, which he found to be strange. Similar rationale went into the “LTC C. EMMART” / “PILOT” on his door; he was actually saluted once in Las Vegas.
A few months ago Carter lost his wallet, and had his credit card replaced. He didn’t realize that the fee for the lot, which had automatically been withdrawn from his account, was no longer being paid. The lot figured his car was abandoned, and then – no one seems to know who did it or when, exactly – vandals went at it.
“That car that’s kind of funny looking? We don’t know who did it,” the lot attendant told me. “Security’s trying to figure it out. They think it was little kids or something.”
Carter has suspicions that the lot turned a blind eye to the vandalism because they thought his car was abandoned, and it was so freaking strange to begin with.
“I’m not sure what happened, but my feeling is that obviously that car called attention to itself. I think the aspect of it that hurts me is that, I understand that it’s still New York, and it’s not as bad as it used to be in that regard, but you know, people can’t admire something without doing something to it. You know, you always got to carve your initials into some shit.”
“Well, I called her Blazing Glory,” he says, fingering the faded words he and his dad had painted just above the windshield. “And she died a spectacular death.”