Pipes, springs and gaskets: the stuff of Muffler Men

March 13, 1992|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

Muffler Man: He is a little known species found in the vicinity of area muffler shops, Meineke muffler shops in particular. Occasionally Muffler Man has a Muffler Dog in tow. Muffler Families have been sighted.

On Liberty Road within the Beltway, one Muffler Man, poised on coiled spring haunches, points a pipe-arm at traffic, hexing the mufflers speeding by. "We call him the 'Muff Man,' " says Jay Lerner, manager of the Meineke Discount Muffler shop where the statue made of welded muffler scrap resides.

Welding Muffler Men has become a local tradition. The mere shape of mufflers and their various parts -- pipes and springs and gaskets -- suggest body parts and are readily welded into human form. And for skilled muffler mechanics who are not necessarily challenged by their everyday work, creating muffler figures is a means of self expression, says folklorist Yvonne Lockwood, a scholar of occupational art based at the Michigan State University Museum.

In muffler and other industrial art forms, "Men are working with industrial tools and yet, it's not any different from a woodcarver carving a whistle or an Appalachian chair-maker making a chair, or a woman making a quilt. It all fits in that same realm of expression," Ms. Lockwood says.

Local muffler mechanics view their creations from a more modest perspective. "It's just a way of filling in the free time when you have nothing to do in the shop. That happens too often in the economy now," Mr. Lerner said.

The Muff Man is a beloved landmark. "Last year a gal came over during the Christmas season and put a beautiful scarf on him and a gorgeous wool cap," Mr. Lerner says. "She took a picture of the sculpture and made it into Christmas cards and mailed them out to her friends," Mr. Lerner says. The card said, "Have a cool Yule!"

The story doesn't end there. "That scarf stayed on him for a long time until one day a homeless man was walking on Liberty Road and [came into the store and] said it was very cold and could he have the scarf from the Muff Man. I looked at him and said of course. He needed it more than the metal man and he asked first," Mr. Lerner says.

The Muff Man is made of galvanized steel muffler scrap and rusts easily. "That's why he needs constant fresh coats of paint. We didn't make him out of lifetime mufflers, I guess," Mr. Lerner says. Newer, used mufflers are aluminum and weather the elements well, Mr. Lerner said.

The Muff Man stands alone. His Muffler Dog was pinched and with more than one muffler person, "Possibly you'd be violating zoning. You don't want to push the community by having a whole family," Mr. Lerner said.

Even so, family planning is a common goal among local muffler artists. "We had a family and everything," says Larry McKinney, a Meineke mechanic who used to work at the Owings Mills Meineke shop and is now at another shop. "I helped put them together: a father, the mother, one child and a dog."

The Muffler Family has disappeared from that shop. No one seems to know where it went.

Today, only a lonely Muffler Man, wearing a deflated yellow Meineke balloon beanie, lives in the waiting room of the Owings Mills shop on Reisterstown Road. He is positioned directly across from a pin-up calendar, which perhaps, explains his dopey grin. "We wheel him out in nice weather," says manager Bruce Salzman.

Gordon Palmer, owner of a Meineke muffler shop on Eastern Boulevard in Essex, remembers the Muffler "Husband and Wife" who once occupied the shop's parking lot. "They were stolen. A couple of days later, a lady several miles away called here and said, 'Your muffler guys are down in the alley next to me.' "

Mr. Palmer called the police. In jest, they threatened to charge the thieves with kidnapping. No charges were pressed, but the couple was returned, only to be sold for about $100 to a passerby who said he wanted them for his daughter.

Mr. Palmer is hoping to add a "baby or a small kid" to the Muffler Man and Pooch that now greet traffic in front of his shop. Asked for the muffler man's name, Mr. Palmer says, "We'll say his name is Horace."

At the Eastern Boulevard Meineke shop, mechanic Nedumpillin Mathai Kuriakose, known as Kuriakose by colleagues, welded the Muffler Man and Dog about seven months ago with an electric Mig welding machine. The Muffler Man is tall and gangly, with feet made of rotor brakes, a muffler torso and head, and limbs made of pipes and welding rod. He wears a painter's cap and grease-stained gloves. The Muffler Canine is a sort of mixed breed, with coiled spring legs, a head made out of a resonator, a small muffler found in some cars. He has spray-painted white spots.

"When we get the chance, we'll make a Muffler Lady," Mr. Kuriakose says. "We need to save a lot of parts for that." For example, a heat shield is necessary for her skirt, he says.

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