For a guy who drives a Hummer, Bob Tousignant sure owns a lot of stuffed animals. Proof that it’s not always wise to judge a man by his engine.
Tousignant, 58, is a semi-retired electrician and former Navy man. He lives in a modest, gray-shingled house at the top of a sleepy hill in Randolph with his wife, Jane. Glass wind chimes dangle from a light on the pathway that leads up to their front door. Beside their living room window, a small, unobtrusive sign reads, “USA.”
Upon first glance, the Tousignant’s home seems like a perfectly average, working-class homestead. Their driveway, however, could be a still from “Beverly Hills 90210.” A 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser and a 2004 Jeep Wrangler point grilles toward the road. Behind the garage door lurks a 2000 Corvette and a monstrous, 1998 H1 Hummer. And as if the shock factor weren’t enough, all of these macho-mobiles are yellow.
Why do the Tousignants love their cars? Where did they get the capital to buy them — as Bob claims — in cash? And what does their obsession say about the role of aggressive wheels in American culture?
On a recent Tuesday evening, the Tousignants welcome a reporter into their small television den. Bob, who has thin, silver-streaked hair, slouches unassumingly into a worn couch. He wears jeans, socks and a faded brown T-shirt that accentuates his slim arms. His wife, who is more animated, rocks back and forth in a small white chair. Her red T-shirt reads, “Sylvester,” after the cartoon cat. Behind her, montages of George W. Bush stream across a large television. The president is insisting, “Russia is not our enemy.”
Upon closer inspection, the décor in this home would make you think Old McDonald had just spent the weekend combing a dollar store for trinkets. The living room, for one, is filled with so many mini horses, pigs and dogs that it’s difficult to walk around without tripping. Each step of the Tousignant’s main staircase is emblazoned with inspirational sayings such as “Friends are made for sharing hearts,” or “I believe in angels.” A few snarky plaques on the walls provide balance: “Smile, it confuses people,” reads a wooden one by the kitchen doorway; “Professional smartass,” quips the ceramic one above Bob’s head.
When speaking of their cars, Tousignant and his wife assume an almost flippant tone. “Some people ask why we have so many cars,” Bob explains dryly. “If you have to ask, it’s probably more than you can afford. Right, hon?”
“Right,” Jane asserts.
“People ask me why I got the Hummer. Because I can. Know what I’m saying?” he adds. “What good is money unless you spend it?”
The Tousignants certainly practice what they preach: Their cars are like so many articles of designer clothing. Since 1994, they’ve presided over a rotating vehicular fleet. The last batch — 1978 CJ 5 Jeep, 2 Yamaha 4-wheelers and a 1997 Pontiac Trans Am — was all red. Now, yellow is their go-to shade. “It’s gotta be the right color to catch our eye,” Jane insists.
Bob chimes in, “I like yellow, Jane likes yellow . . .”
“We’ve thought about different colors . . . but then, no one would know us,” Jane says.
The Tousignants admit they like to be seen around town in their yellow cars. But unlike the Hummer owner whose wheels presumably function as an extension of inflated ego, this couple seems humble. You’d never guess from their mannerisms, or their home furnishings, that their driveway was filled with so much overstated luxury. When Jane comes in from the kitchen bearing slices of microwaved sausage-pepperoni pizza, she admits sheepishly, “It’s store-bought.”
Despite their cars, there’s nothing bling-tastic about the Tousignants. Both volunteer part-time at the local hospital’s thrift store. Bob is Junior Vice Commander at the Northfield VFW. He and Jane sometimes cruise for charitable causes, such as diabetes prevention.
These cars also promote family bonding. The Tousignants are especially fond of their 3-year-old grandson, McClaine, and they’ve taken him for rides in every one of their whips except the Corvette — seatbelt laws prohibit it. Bob reports that he’s thinking of taking McClaine around in the ’Vette for an upcoming 4th of July parade. “I suppose I could . . .” he muses. “He’s only going 2 or 3 miles an hour. He can give out candy, or whatever.”
As the evening winds down, Tousignant provides further evidence that his cars aren’t just frivolous accessories. With an estimated combined value of $200,000, their wheels are worth more than their home, which they bought for $20,000 in the early 1970s. In fact, Bob freely relates that the bulk of his retirement savings has gone towards horsepower. Since cars usually depreciate in value over time, that doesn’t exactly seem like sound financial planning. But Bob insists that if he can only hold onto the Hummer for a few more years, it’ll start to fetch antique-car prices. “I know a vehicle is the worst type of investment you can make,” he admits. “But if you’re gonna make an investment, it may as well be something you like.”
“You have to enjoy yourself and take every day as it comes, ’cause you never know,” Jane concludes.
For many Americans, Hummers are symbols of militarism and consumption. That’s because the truck’s ancestor, the “Humvee,” was designed for the U.S. military in 1985 to be a “light tactical vehicle” that could keep up with tanks. It was civilianized in 1992. And Hummers have one of the worst fuel-economy ratings of any vehicle on the road — Tousignant reports getting as few as 5 miles per gallon. These days, as an environmental crisis looms, progressives decry the car as the automotive anti-Christ. One website — http://www.fuh2.com — solicits photos of do-gooders giving Hummers the bird.
Does Tousignant, whose grandmother is a full-blooded Abenaki, buy into this culture war?
Hardly. He insists that while he has used his Hummer to intimidate another driver — an uppity Acura owner with Rhode Island plates who rubbed him the wrong way — he doesn’t think of his car as a power tool. And even though Tousignant’s Wrangler sports VFW plates, he doesn’t think of his cars as patriotic emblems. “Any kind of foreign cars, I think, are better made than U.S. cars,” Bob notes. “You don’t know where a car is made anymore — so what’s the big deal on that?”
Has he personally encountered any Hummer-inspired hostility? Not really. He says he’s been flipped off just once while driving his H1. “It doesn’t bother me,” Tousignant says of that encounter. “I could care less.”
What about the popular sentiment that Hummers are wanton contributors of greenhouse gases?
“What’s global warming?” he jokes. “Everyone has a car, right?”
Once the pizza has been polished off, Bob and Jane saunter out to the driveway and climb into their outsized ride. Since Jane doesn’t drive, Bob automatically takes the wheel. The reporter grabs shotgun. A cassette tape of Willie Nelson’s greatest hits lays on the console. “I would love to see Willie live,” Jane says from the back.
As the Hummer prowls through downtown Randolph, a steady drizzle spatters its windshield. Most pedestrians are scurrying in and out of stores to avoid getting soaked; none of them stops to stare.
Bob takes a left onto a side street and begins winding through some outlying farmlands. Out among drab, olive-green fields and ramshackle dairy barns, the Hummer’s color appears more pronounced. “I rarely take this car out in the rain,” he says with a wince, as if each drop could ruin the paint job.
In fact, the yellow “rig,” as Tousignant calls it, is equipped for much rougher weather. Thanks to a special air intake, he explains, it can ford 4 feet of water (which is roughly double the height sea levels are predicted to rise in New York harbor by the end of this century).
The cockpit of the Hummer is huge — at least 30 square feet — but it only seats four. The seats themselves feel surprisingly narrow, confining and uncomfortable. The cockpit is also a bit gloomy: Relative to overall size, the truck’s windows are smallish, presumably to shield passengers from gunfire. When Bob gets the engine roaring, noise impedes conversation, so he and Jane have to raise their voices slightly to communicate across the cabin. “What’s that joke about Willie Nelson?” Bob wonders.
Presiding over the Hummer’s helm, Bob looks smaller than he did when lounging on his couch. Still, the truck seems to put an aggressive sparkle in his eye. About a mile or two out of town, he pops the engine into overdrive just when the rain reaches a furious intensity. “You feel like it’s going to go off the road, right?” Bob says excitedly. But the speedometer only reads 55. “If it wasn’t so wet out,” Bob declares over the storm’s howl, “I could go 60 or 70 miles per hour like you wouldn’t believe.”
Once he’s demonstrated the engine’s power, Tousignant eases up a little. The Hummer lumbers into downtown Randolph. Somewhere on Main Street, a disheveled, elderly man looks out at the truck in disbelief from behind a rain-streaked laundromat window.
As Bob turns off the main drag onto Route 66, the storm tapers off. “This thing looks pretty impressive in the garage,” he observes proudly. “But on the Interstate, it’s a bulldog. It handles better than a regular car does.”
Then, as the Hummer climbs the hill that leads to the Tousignant’s home, his voice returns to normal volume. He confides, “You feel safer in one of these.”