Meet Jane and Michael Stern, who commemorate it in a book

BOOSTING BAD TASTE

November 25, 1990|By Jean Marbella

You bowl. Your pants are polyester and your hair is bouffant. You eat Jell-O with Cool Whip and a maraschino cherry. You think unicorns are beautiful, Tupperware darn handy and Cadillacs truly luxe.

You have bad taste.

Sez who? Sez Jane and Michael Stern -- she's the one wearing the leopard skin hat and he's the one in the flamingo tie.

But the difference is that they know this stuff is in bad taste. It's ironic, get it?

"There is a difference between being connoisseurs of bad taste and wallowing in it," says Michael, planting himself in the former.

"It would be fake for us to live in a mobile home with a sign saying, 'God bless our mobile home,' " says Jane. "We are Ivy League-educated people. We were graduate students in fine arts."

In Baltimore last week to promote their book, "The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste," they found themselves in the midst of much of what they were writing about -- a bar devoted to Elvis memorabilia, houses decorated with ceramic knickknacks in the windows, bowling alleys and beauty salons galore.

Despite their staunchly middle-shading-to-upper-class pedigrees, the Sterns, both 44 years old, have spent the past 20 or so years, well, slumming. They've trolled the country in search of the weirdly wonderful and the artfully awful -- diners and largest-balls-of-twine and similar roadside attractions -- resulting in 16 books, a regular newspaper column and numerous magazine articles celebrating everything from trucker culture to road food.

And now, to codify it all, they've recently published a 331-page, A (accordion music)-to-Z (zoot suits) guide to the lowbrow around us, in our homes, our wardrobes, our amusements and our meals.

"There was no shortage of material," Michael declares.

"We could have written an Encyclopaedia Brittanica of bad taste," agrees Jane. "We could have gotten into bronze baby shoes, toilet bowl deodorant, velvet tapestries of the Kennedys . . ."

"We also limited it to just American bad taste," Michael adds. "There's a whole world of bad taste out there -- the political art of Maoist China, papal souvenirs . . ."

"I think Dan Quayle is collecting all that stuff when he travels," Jane says. The Sterns, who met in graduate school, happened into this field -- others have called it "cultural anthropology," and they think that's about right -- after completing their degrees and not really knowing what to do with themselves. She was going to be an artist or lead some other gallery-type existence; he was going to make films (although he did spend his freshman year at Johns Hopkins University, thinking he'd like to become a spy).

Instead, they became fascinated with truckers, rode with them a bit and ended up writing their first book, "Trucker: A Portrait of the Last American Cowboy." That naturally enough led to their next book, "Roadfood," and regular work as sort of modern-day de Tocquevilles of two-lane America.

And, in some ways, they are tourists in their chosen country.

"We both grew up in repressively middle-class homes. Michael's parents are people of extremely good taste, and my mother wouldn't let me play with Barbie dolls," Jane says to explain their fascination with the lowbrow. "We are kind of able to see it from more of an analytical distance."

In part, they are reacting to what they see as a basic imbalance in cultural coverage.

"I'm not saying we don't like high culture, but high culture is such a drop in the bucket but so much is written about it," says Jane. "But low culture is so profligate, yet no one bothers to comment on it. You don't see Picasso stuck in someone's front lawn.

"Everybody doesn't want to be Martha Stewart," she adds, referring to the stylish cookbook author.

The Sterns seem to remain genuinely fascinated by this stuff; they haven't lost that childlike, isn't-this-neat enthusiasm of discovery. It's what Jane calls, "the wonder of Wonder Bread," and it makes them fun to be tourists with.

"Oh, Michael, you can do the rest of the book tour yourself, I'm staying here," Jane marveled as they drove down a street in East Baltimore. They braked for a taxidermist shop, thinking they might find a Christmas present for an editor there, but instead entered into a slightly surreal discussion about a deer head mounted on a heart-shaped plaque.

Yet, they were slightly intimidated by Baltimore, the city's down-scale, unpretentious image already carved out by filmmaker and trashmeister John Waters. In a sense, they felt they were in the shadow of the master of bad taste here, so they treaded lightly.

"I feel a little shy about being here," Jane says. "John Waters has already anointed it as a bad taste capital. I'm such a fan of his, and I think he's got Baltimore pretty well covered."

But then, there's always enough bad taste to go around. Their encyclopedia is full of this stuff.

As with any "best of" kind of compendium, there will be disagreements over what they included and what they left out.

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