Route 9A in Elmsford is an unlovely gasoline alley of axle grease and razor wire, a typical American strip that serves the sundry needs of the automobile. There is nothing unique to this light-industrial province but for the leering, bearded giant who stands guard at the BP gas station, just off the interstate exit ramp.
You have seen him and probably wondered about him — the 24-foot tall fiberglass figure of the mythical hero Paul Bunyan. He has been there for a half-century or so, a fixture in an otherwise ever-changing landscape. He is a beacon for the westbound traffic headed for the bridge, a green-and-yellow incandescent oddity, a monument to roadside kitsch.
“It’s a landmark,” proclaims Leo Zulfikar, a jovial Turkish immigrant who bought the gas station in 1996 lock, stock, and giant — minus his right arm and signature lumberjack’s axe.
“I have no clue where it is,” Zulfikar says. “When I came here, he had just the one arm.”
Story has it that the limb was severed in a storm and stolen. Its whereabouts are a mystery and the stuff of local legend (one rumor being that it was dumped in a Yonkers landfill). About seven or eight years ago, catastrophe struck again when a truck accidentally banged into the big guy and knocked off the remaining arm.
When I first met Zulfikar, he was in the back office, lunching on a cheese pizza (of which he kindly offered me a slice). Outside, the giant double-amputee resembled a bearded Venus de Milo. ”Everybody complains about the missing arms,” Zulifikar said.
But there was good news: Zulifikar salvaged the left arm from the truck accident and kept it in safe storage, with a plan to have it repaired, repainted, and reattached. Listening to Zulfikar, it was obvious he took his stewardship seriously, that the preservation of his Paul Bunyan was nothing less than a civic duty, akin to restoring the torch on the Statue of Liberty. Heck, the roadside giant was an objet d’ art.
“Customers, they come here, some of them 60 years old, and they say, ‘My father and mother used to bring me here, and we would look at Paul Bunyan and take a picture.’ I love it. Everybody knows this station because of Paul Bunyan. It’s historical.”
It is also rare and highly sought-after. Somebody from Vermont once offered Zulfikar $17,000 for Bunyan, despite the obvious arm issues. “No deal,” Zulfikar said.
Created in 1963 by the now-defunct International Fiberglass Co. of Venice, CA, the Paul Bunyan giants could be found wherever there were auto-body and muffler shops. Fittingly, they were generically called “muffler men.”
Over the years, most of the muffler men fell into disrepair and were dismantled and junked, or they were destroyed in accidents similar to what befell Zulfikar’s Paul Bunyan. It is said there are about 180 survivors spread over the country — and most have been identified online by impassioned fans. Every muffler man has an itinerant history — like the Paul Bunyan who originally stood in front of the Oregon pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair and ended up at a miniature golf course in Lake George, NY.
Often, the Bunyan clones are cleverly repurposed, depending on what’s for sale. Instead of an axe, they may be found holding, say, an oversized hotdog, a bucket of fried chicken, or a rolled-up carpet — like one in Jersey City, NJ, which, incidentally, can be spotted in the opening credits of The Sopranos.
In Stephen King’s horror novel It, the giant is a leitmotif: “For a moment, something swam in his own mind, something about that Paul Bunyan out by the City Center. But that had only been a dream, for God’s sake.”
For God’s sake, there is something, too, about that Paul Bunyan in Elmsford — perhaps it is simply the “eternal optimistic grin of the myth-hero,” as King put it.
When I returned to the station this winter, I was pleased to see that the giant’s left arm had been reattached, as Zulfikar had promised, thanks to the careful handiwork of Juan Calderon, a Bedford landscaper and jack-of-all-trades.
Zulfikar plans to put an object in the lumberjack’s upturned hand, “something nice,” he says. A flag? A sign? He wouldn’t be pinned down.
After all, that would be going out on a limb.
The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.