- Photo by Sam Zide
- Emerson's Hook-Up Truck is short-term rental space for trysts on the go.
Performance and conceptual artist Spy Emerson is hitting the streets of the East Bay again with her "Hook-Up Truck," the rolling social experiment and mobile safe-sex adventuring space that sparked local, national, and social media frenzies several years ago. The Hook-Up Truck is exactly what it sounds like: a four-wheeled, short-term rental space for sexual trysts on-the-go.
After a feverish year of news coverage from 2014 to 2015, Emerson took a hiatus from the Hook-Up Truck for the next two years, turning down two offers from production companies wanting to option reality TV shows about her life. Now, she's back to tell the story of the truck and her unexpected departure.
"My horoscope told me to not sign any contracts," she joked. "But really, even though I was being offered total creative control over those projects, reality TV felt exploitative. It's a system of manipulation that I don't agree with at all."
A career Bay Area artist of the absurd, Emerson is lauded in the underground scene for her vaudevillian, burlesque-esque performance series Happy Forever and her conceptual art projects, like Dystopic Horizons Realty, dealing with greed and the housing crisis, and Gutterbunny in Chinatown, a spiritual performance about a rabbit that escapes a Chinatown butcher.
But it wasn't until her creation of the Hook-Up Truck in 2014 that she was thrust into the national media spotlight (she was featured on CNN and CBS and in Time, GQ, Glamour, San Francisco, and New York magazines, along with the San Francisco Chronicle, Huffington Post, Breitbart, and AOL). The problem was, at the beginning of the media pandemonium, Emerson didn't actually have a Hook-Up Truck, or any truck for that matter — just the idea. Her inspiration came from the stories her friends told her about their experiences using dating and hook-up apps.
"With apps like Tinder and Grindr, people resort to having sex in the street, in their cars, between their cars, in bathrooms, in alleys — putting themselves at risk legally and physically," she explained. "The truck is far more hygienic than a BART restroom, or an alleyway, or your average hotel room."
Emerson created a website pretending that the truck was already running, and within hours she was being contacted by CNN and Time. "I really needed to find a truck," she laughed. "I had all of these reporters asking me about my business, my employees, what they got paid — keep in mind, at this point, it was just me and the concept."
Emerson embarked on a frantic hunt for the perfect hook-up-ready vehicle. Soon, she found the perfect one: a decommissioned 1987 U.S. Postal Service mail carrier. Boxy, innocuous, and unpainted, the truck was rescued from the historic Ace Junkyard in San Francisco by none other than Burning Man cofounder "Flash" Hopkins — a friend of Emerson's. She offered to trade Hopkins her 1971 Volkswagen Bug in exchange for his postal truck, which she transformed inside and out.
Today, the Hook-Up Truck's cargo space, once meant to hold letters and parcels, is a red-lit room with a bench, condoms, hand sanitizer, lubricant, tissues, temperature controls, and a camera for couples who want to commemorate their experience — as you might on a theme park rollercoaster. On the left side of the truck is its logo and on its front end are emblazoned the words: "Make Love."
Emerson hit the road, though it would be a bumpy one. Word about the truck spread quickly in 2014 after the idea made the rounds on social media. Emerson planned to debut the truck at the Oakland First Fridays street fair, but when she arrived at the event, she was barred from entering. Parked on the street right outside the event, the truck was instantly mobbed by onlookers and reporters who had heard about "the sex truck."
Emerson operated the truck for one year, touring festivals, private parties, and public gatherings — even weddings and office functions, one time surprising a military husband with his wife inside. Everywhere the truck went, a flurry of cameras, couples, and cops followed — some curious, others critical.
"I was changing my routes all the time to avoid them," she said. "People were trying to take me down for the fun of it."
But during this time, she also received tons of fan mail and social media posts thanking her for the work she was doing, requesting the truck at parties, festivals, and art shows.
During the truck's year of action, police shut it down several times in Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco, but it kept on rocking and rolling.
Then, the truck suddenly died.
Emerson's own road in life has been rough. One of her most distinct memories was, at age 7, finding a dead body stuffed into a trash can at a nearby park.
"It was two legs, really stiff, sticking straight up out of a 55-gallon drum," she recalled. "When you find a dead body as a kid, it's hard to be like other kids — it wasn't scary, just weird. But I wouldn't change it, because it gave me a certain perspective on death."
At age 14, Emerson left her childhood home. She fell in with Manhattan's Club Kid scene, partying through the apex days of the infamous Limelight nightclub. Murdered celebutante Angel Melendez even sits smiling in the corner of a photograph snapped at her 18th birthday party.