“But I wuz robbed”

I miss my dad. He died at age 94 — way back last century. He was long-lived and
clung on, despite some 25 hospitalizations of at least a week’s duration.

But before you surmise this column is going to be one of those “I Remember
Mama” themes, let me assure you it is not. Throughout most of life (his),
I was far from his favorite son (there were five of us children), and Dad’s
younger brother moved in with us on the death of their mother.

But I’m introducing too many characters into this play, so I’ll say only that
Tio Juan could take any two digit number and multiply it by another
double-digit number and have the correct number even before my sister Bingy or
I could work out the answer with paper and pencil.

A ran into a man today who said he often read my columns and had lived for
years on my block on Railroad Avenue, the area I call “Tough Street.”
Long ago I christened my street because my friends and I may have fought a lot
among ourselves, but if gangs from other parts of town came knocking, my
friends and I became instant cohorts. Continue reading

Don’t end sentence with proposition

As my wife, Bonnie, and I read Sunday’s Optic, she said, “Did you notice the grammatical error in one of the articles?” As a comma chaser for much of my life, I became curious.

She said that some people misuse words because they sound much like other words. She said she notices when people use “aggravated” when they mean “irritated.”

We noted how people often use “infer” when they mean “imply.” And my favorite is reading about people who say their car collided with a parking meter. That must have been a fast-moving meter.

We perhaps don’t read enough to recognize the errors in expressions like “Don’t end a sentence with a proposition.” Aside from the implicit humor in that command, we need to spell preposition correctly.

In academe we’re constantly exposed to grammatical errors. Even language professors use them. A writer for the Newark Advocate points out that “The word grammatical means . . . “according to rule or to the laws of grammar.” He adds that the term “grammatical error” is a contradiction in itself. How can it be grammatical and still contain an error? Continue reading

We sort of like help people

“Gee, Dad, I wonder if maybe I could kind of like borrow the car tonight. Some of the guys are planning an all-night study session for finals.”

That sounds and reads like a timid request for access to the wheels. It’s kind of like the request some pimple-faced teen might make.

But it was ME making the request (or, as my English teacher would say, “It was I . . .”) Yes, unlike today’s every-kid-has-a-car society, in those days, the ‘50s, my family was lucky even to have a car, a used one that gave us about 36 yards per gallon.

In my youth, car-borrowing was far from a many-splendored thing. I needed to compete with an older brother who, it seemed, got more privileges because he had a license and owned the jumper cables. Rarely, he’d let me use his driver’s license. But please don’t spread a word of this to anyone.

As a retired teacher of speech and English, I became fascinated by the use and abuse of language, more specifically how people tailor their verbiage, and like me, often come dangerously close to talking Dad out of letting me use the car.

Notice how many requests for cars, money — anything — come couched in flabby words like “like,” “kind of,” “or something” and many others. Notice my first sentence contains the phrase, “I wonder if I could kind of like borrow” bleeds with flabby words that give all Dads of the world more opportunities to cop out, to say, “Well, son, you’ve talked me and yourself out of turning over the keys to you.” Continue reading

What’s in a word?

A recent column on the use of profanity and obscenity drew quite a bit of reaction. I’d written about language and how it affects people.

The crux of the discussion was that identifying words that are too gross to appear or be uttered in public places is difficult. How do we sanitize language?

Coverage of President Trump’s verbal choices drew much fury in the press. I was a bit miffed at reading terms like s—holes to describe the topography and living conditions of people in Africa and other regions. A flurry of letters appeared in the daily press, analyzing the suitability of such terms.

And of course, my own sheltered existence — of which about 20 years were in a parochial (as in “parish”) school — may have tempered my attitude toward what some people call “fighting words.”

As I began the recent column on Trump’s use of language, I believe I made it clear that I would not engage in profanity. By that I meant that I would not use the actual words that offend; rather, I’d water them down in hopes of diluting the terms and sanitizing them a bit. But I found even that a big task. Continue reading

We can’t live on tips

How much might a person earn as a door holder opener? I can answer that in a heartbeat: exactly 25 cents.

Let me explain:

One day, as I was leaving a downtown restaurant I saw a man. a stranger, racing to hold the door open for a family of four. I heard the man in the group utter something like, “I’d like to tip you for that, but I don’t have any change.” I have no doubt a tip for such a simple act was far from anything the door opener was hoping for.

Then, as the patriarch of the old Katzenjammer Kids comic strip would say, “Gifs idea.” I thought I’d try it too.

But let me proceed with my myriad accounts: I certainly am not hard up; I don’t need the money; I realize more people carry plastic than loose change; I ask for a tip only to test others’ reactions; I’ve received only 25 cents in my life, and that was almost forced on me by a woman, a stranger, who insisted, explaining, “You have a right to earn a living.” And finally, I suspect she had wanted the quarter in her hand expecting her genial door opener to ask for compensation.

Additionally, I realize there are needier people, those who would benefit from a handful of quarters which might add up to the price of a meal or a snack. I certainly don’t want to compete with them. But the lady insisted, and I became richer for that. Continue reading

Grownups use childish taunts

When we were kids — and because we were kids — we used lots of taunting phrases, the most popular being the chant: “Nanny nanny boo-boo,” or something equally imbecilic.

Every kid I knew was familiar with that chant. We used it too in our Railroad Avenue barrio, and if the recipients could run fast enough, they made us pay. It’s on a par with youngsters engaging in p–sing contests.

Now, several decades later, we’re being exposed to grown-up (although not necessarily “mature”) taunts in which our own president is engaging in verbal jousts with Kim Jong Un of North Korea.

Pardon me for waxing eloquent, but can’t President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un end their “mine is bigger” feud? It’s on the par with two kids in the playground spoiling for a fight, ending each outburst with “mine is bigger,” But we never discover the object of the bigness.

Possibly the “bigger” item is a family, or an older brother, or a gang, or maybe a cudgel.
And speaking of taunting-leading-to-fisticuffs, I saw a brilliant commercial on TV during the height of the Vietnam War that raged in the ‘70s. We were living in a suburb of Charlottesville, Va., not far from our national’s capital.

The black-and-white ad showed two middle-aged men, double-chins-sagging, pot-bellies showing, wearing white shirts and marching into a forested area. Continue reading

What’s in a name?

I’ve been called a number of things åin my life. Some of the names, at least, have even been respectable.

Many old timers still call me Mannie. In my childhood, I must have been given that moniker by one of my parents. It stuck, and now, when someone (probably an alumnus of Immaculate Conception School in Las Vegas) calls me that, I generally recognize that person as a former classmate.

And there have been other names as well. In high school, when I wrote sports for the Optic, my name became Clark Kent. Remember that fellow who wore glasses, worked for a newspaper and doubled as Superman?

And there was also “There.” It’s a noun that comes from an adverb, and I give credit to Janice Odom, the former public information director at Highlands. I called her once, as her job had connections to the Highlands University journalism department of which I was a member. I introduced myself, and Janice responded with, “Oh hi, There.”

It didn’t take long for me to leave messages like, “Hi, Janice, this is your friend, ‘There.’” In fairness, the late Alnita Baker, to whom I delivered the Optic when I was 11, would also say, “Hi, There.” But it was Janice who got more mileage out of the Christening. Continue reading

Quitting ‘cold turkey’?

Don’t most of us use expressions that mean nothing, that can’t really explain why those combinations of letters come to mean something we agree on but don’t always know why?

I’m referring to the archaic expression “cold turkey.” Where did that come from? When I smoked for 25 years about 33 years ago, friends, family, doctors and others advised me to “quit cold turkey.” By that they meant I wasn’t to hide an emergency stash of Salems in the trunk of my car, or to allow myself just one cigarette in the morning upon arising and just one more at night, or to simply stop buying those cancer sticks.

Although cold turkey has no doubt worked for many, a great number of smokers choose to “taper off.”

I think quitting, when I did, in 1984 was as difficult as trying to ferret out a reason why the term “cold turkey” ever came about. I used to hear it a lot — mostly from adults whose bellows and exhalations filled our house. All eight of us Trujillos smoked for a time. Mom smoked Luckies, Dad smoked pipes and Roi Tan cigars. Uncle Juan bought a pack of Camels every day, and the rest of us smoked — my late brother, Severino, was a smoker, as was I. Our three sisters were no strangers to cigarettes, although my recollection is that they smoked small quantities, and not for long. Continue reading

Snippets of things past

My mom, the late Marie Trujillo, was certainly not a woman of limitless patience. And proof of that were the smiles on the faces of new-car dealers whenever Mom called them to complain that the car wouldn’t start . . . or that the car was out of windshield washer fluid.

The salespeople immediately thought “here comes a sale.”

I knew her for more than six decades (her being some 28 years my senior. I don’t think of her impatience as a detriment, although I never made a big issue of it and merely chalked it up as a way of getting things done.

Many are champions of revisionist history. Notice how those snippets of things past arise, usually when we’re all seated for a Thanksgiving meal.

Here’s one example: Turkey Day usually brings together friends and families who might not have seen one another in months, or years. That reunion makes it necessary to make conversations, to engage in the remembrances of things past, and for all of us to have a good laugh over the exhumed tales of things we did decades earlier. Continue reading

Got to be carefully taught

A 1949 Broadway musical by Rogers and Hammerstein, “South Pacific,” contains a profound song lyric.

The song is “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.” A few lyrics follow: “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear; you’ve got to be taught from year to year, it’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear; you’ve got to be carefully taught.”

The highly successful musical then lists things we need to hate and fear: “People whose skin is a different shade,” “People whose eyes are oddly made,” and also, “You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are 6 or 7 or 8, to hate all the people your relatives hate . . .” The words, clearly, are ironic.

I first heard those lyrics around 1950. Even at age, 11, I wondered why the lyrics hinted at prejudice — maybe even encouraging it. Hammerstein’s lyrics offended some, particularly music lovers from the Deep South. That didn’t deter the composers, who faced the issue of racial prejudice by keeping “Carefully Taught” as a major part of the musical. Continue reading