The poem is simple and uses easy-to-read, everyday language to describe a seemingly unimportant scene at a stoplight. Readers should have no trouble breaking down Ferlinghetti’s images to find the message at the poem’s heart —America is separated into different worlds. The world of the wealthy and the world of the working class. The two could not be more different in ‘Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes.’
Explore Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes
‘Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes’ by Lawrence Ferlinghetti is a poem about class differences in the United States.
The poem is set in San Francisco at a stoplight and features a comparison between garbagemen riding on the back of their truck and a wealthy, “elegant” couple in their Mercedes. The class differences and economic circumstances could not be juxtaposed to a greater degree. The poem ends with an allusion to the fact that the “gulf” shouldn’t exist within the United States.
You can read the full poem here.
Throughout this poem, the poet engages with the theme of class and wealth in the United States. The speaker emphasizes the differences between two garbagemen riding on the back of their truck on the way home from work (which started at 4:00 a.m.) and a wealthy couple in a Mercedes on the way to the man’s job as an architect.
There is a gulf between the working classes and upper classes that is incredibly striking and which is nearly impossible to cross or overcome.
Structure and Form
‘Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes’ by Lawrence Ferlinghetti is a four-stanza poem divided into uneven sets of lines. These lines are written in free verse. This means that the poet did not use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. For example, in the first stanza, the first lines end with “light,” “San Francisco,” “truck,” and “blazers.”
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Anaphora: occurs when the poet repeats the same word or words at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “And” begins the first line of stanza two and line five of that same stanza. “As” is repeated twice in stanza three.
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “garbage” and “garbagemen” in lines three and four of the first stanza.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. For example, “in a hip three-piece linen suit / with shoulder-length blond hair and sunglassed.”
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza.
At the stoplight waiting for the light
nine a.m. downtown San Francisco
with short skirt and coloured stockings
on the way to his architect’s office
He describes “two garbagemen in red plastic blazers / standing on the back stoop.” They’re standing on the back of their garbage truck, stopped at the red light. Nearby, the speaker elaborates is a couple in a convertible Mercedes. They’re “elegant.” This adjective with the description of their car makes it clear that they are very wealthy, directly contrasting with the garbagemen.
The speaker spends the rest of the stanza describing the “elegant couple.” The woman is blond with “casually coifed,” or coiled, hair (an example of alliteration). She’s wearing clothes likely to draw the attention of those she passes. The man is an architect. This provides readers with a source of information regarding where the couple’s wealth comes from.
And the two scavengers up since four a.m.
about the same age as the Mercedes driver
The garbagemen are described at the beginning of stanza two as “grungy” and “scavengers.” They’ve been up for hours working their route and are now on their way home. Their job is hard, unglamorous, and very working class. The divide in appearance and social class between the two pairings is very obvious.
It is expanded in the next lines by furthering the reader’s mental image of the garbagemen. One is older and with grey hair. He’s likely worked this job, or one like it, for years, fighting to make ends meet.
The man hunches down to look at a couple, and Ferlinghetti’s speaker compares him to “Quasimodo. “ This makes him appear old, somewhat withered, and tired. His companion, a younger man, is closer in age to the “elegant” architect driving the car. He has long hair and leads a very different life than the rich Mercedes owner.
And both scavengers gazing down
in which everything is always possible
The two garbagemen are so distant from the couple regarding class and wealth that it feels like watching “some odorless TV ad / in which everything is always possible” as they stare at the couple. They’re at a “great distance” on the other side of a divide that’s nearly impossible to breach.
The poet uses anaphora and alliteration in this stanza, describing in rhythmic language the workers’ contemplation of the couple. They’re seeing an image of the American dream, one that only exists on the television. It is “odorless” and unreal.
And the very red light for an instant
holding all four close together
of this democracy.
The final stanza is seven lines long and concludes the poem. The speaker describes, in more lyrical language than the poem began with, how the two pairs were at the light, existing in the same world, for “an instant.” The two worlds, high-class, wealthy white color workers and average, blue-collar Americans, come together to show how truly different they are.
There is “that small gulf” between the two within the “high sea / of this democracy.” The gulf is intrinsic to life in the United States, the speaker suggests. It is part of a country that asserts to be but isn’t, in fact, equal.
The message is that in the United States, which is supposed to be an equal democracy where everyone has a chance at happiness and success, there is a divide, or gulf, between the classes. The garbagemen and the Mercedes owners live in very different worlds which rarely meet.
Ferlinghetti wrote this poem to explore the differences in class and social experience in the United States. It’s quite simple and to the point in comparing working-class and upper-class people.
One of the garbage men is compared to “Quasimodo,” the hunchback from Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He’s disfigured in some way, or at least in the way he appears as he leans down from his truck staring at the wealthy couple in the Mercedes.
There are four stanzas in ‘Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes.’ The first describes the setting and the two pairs, and the second compares the two groups and emphasizes how different they are. The final stanzas bring the poem to a conclusion by suggesting that the gulf between the two is very hard to cross and shouldn’t exist within the United States.
The speaker is a third-person narrator who is analyzing the situation from a mostly detached perspective. He’s looking in on this scene, which could be playing out in most cities in the world (but is set in San Francisco), and telling the reader, quite simply, what he’s seeing.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Lawrence Ferlinghetti poems. For example:
- ‘Constantly Risking Absurdity’ – is a clever poem filled with figurative language comparing a poet to an acrobat.
- ‘Wild Dreams of New Beginning’ – is an image of our modern world and the ways in which we create meaning in industrialized landscapes.
- ‘Dog’ – explores themes of spirituality/religion and the free will of all living things.