The poem describes four people held together for a moment at a red traffic light. There are two scavengers - garbagemen 'on their way home' after their round - and two 'beautiful people', an elegant couple 'on the way to his architect's office'. The garbagemen's day ends where the young couple's begins. The poet compares the two pairs in detail, then seems to ask - at the end of the poem - whether America really is a 'democracy'.


The poem's structure is fairly free. The poet doesn't use punctuation; instead, he begins a new line when he wants us to pause in our reading. This slows the poem down and gives us time to appreciate each idea. The poem appears very fragmented on the page. Do you think this might suggest the fragmented or 'broken' nature of society?


Here are some of the ways in which the poet's language choices help to convey his ideas:


  • The title shows us straight away that the poem will be about the contrasts between two pairs of people. 'Scavengers' is a derogatory term for the garbagemen because it suggests that they live off the rubbish of others - a scavenger beetle lives off rotting flesh. However, 'Beautiful People' is a compliment. So, right from the start, we feel the garbagemen are at a disadvantage.
  • However, the garbagemen are 'looking down' (line 7) into the Mercedes. At face value, this is clearly because the garbage truck is taller than the car, but is there an ironic message too? You might have expected the rich couple to 'look down on' the dustmen, not the other way round.
  • The descriptions of the four people are very visual, making it easy to imagine the scene. Appearances tell us a lot. The rich couple are very fashionable: he has an expensive 'hip three-piece linen suit' (line 11), while her blond hair is 'casually coifed' (line 13). On the other hand, the garbagemen are 'grungy' (line 17). The younger one has 'sunglasses & long hair' (line 24) just like the 'Mercedes driver', which forces us to compare the two.
  • The poem is written in the present tense. This gives a sense of immediacy - we feel that the poem is happening now. From a wider perspective, it also suggests that the huge gap between the rich and the poor is a problem now, too.
  • The language is modern, simple and sometimes colloquial (eg, 'cool couple'). There are short cuts - '&' is used instead of 'and' (lines 12 and 24). Why did Ferlinghetti choose this style?
  • What point is Ferlinghetti making about American democracy? Has it failed, because there is still an obvious gap between rich and poor? Or would it be unrealistic to expect a perfect democracy, free of class distinctions? What do you think the political views of the 'Two Scavengers' and the 'Two Beautiful People' might be?


The garbagemen are riding 'a bright yellow garbage truck' (line 3) and wear 'red plastic blazers' (line 4); later on we find one of them has 'grey iron hair' (line 19). These are strong colours. The couple in the Mercedes, though, are almost colourless: he wears a 'linen suit' (line 11) - natural linen is a cream colour - and they both have blond hair. Is the poet suggesting that the garbagemen have more colour in their lives? Are the young couple actually colourless and boring?

The older garbageman has a hunched back and looks 'like some gargoyle Quasimodo' (line 22). This simile is striking: Quasimodo is the Hunchback of Notre Dame in Victor Hugo's novel. He is a tragic figure: kind and loving despite his ugliness, he finally dies of a broken heart. Quasimodo means almost finished or half made. Do you think Ferlinghetti compares the dustman to Quasimodo simply to help us imagine his appearance, or for other reasons?

The garbagemen stare at the young couple 'as from a great distance' (line 27). They are actually close together, stuck at the red light. Does the image suggest the 'distance' between the lives each pair lead?

For the dustmen, looking at the couple is the same as 'watching some odorless TV ad' (line 29) - the ways of life portrayed seem impossibly perfect. To the garbagemen, the couple are almost unreal and their lifestyle is out of reach.

The closing lines of the poem involve a metaphor about the sea. If America is the high seas, the distance between the two vehicles is a 'small gulf' (line 35) or narrow mouth that should be easy to cross. Yet we also think of the other meaning of gulf - a deep chasm or abyss. It may look possible to cross, but really it is impossible. The lives of the two pairs may cross 'for an instant' (line 31), but they will never be genuinely close together.


Ferlinghetti uses repetition in his poem. Individual words are repeated, for instance, 'elegant' (lines 8 and 9) and 'scavengers' (lines 16 and 26), as well as phrases such as 'as if' (29 and 33). What is the effect of this?


The ideas in this poem are to do with the extreme divisions between rich people and poor people in a supposedly egalitarian society, and the effect these divisions have on how people perceive each other.

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