Work of Art: This water’s not pottable

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By Art Trujillo

Even a close member of my family struggles with the potable/pottable issue. Which is it?
You’ve perhaps read about the almost-give-away prices of effluent water in the city. If you’re among the purchasers of recycled water, you’ve seen and been a part of a small army of vehicles that line up at the treatment plant south of town to buy 1,000 gallons of used water for $1.25.
Sounds like a great deal, but one wonders whether anyone but a tanker owner could ever load up on the full amount that a buck-twenty-five buys. Likely, some of the people driving pickups, ask the providers, “Do you mind if I come back for the rest of the water later?” The current bargain-basement water rate translates to a quarter for 200 gallons, a nickel for 40 gallons and a penny for eight gallons.
Notice a number of pickup trucks with water tanks of all sizes, and the words, applied with Magic Markers, “Non Potable” and “Do not drink.” They should also scrawl “Non-toteable” on their plastic tanks, as few vehicles in the Meadow City are capable of toting all that load. Well, let’s see — if a gallon of water weighs about 8.3 pounds, a thousand gallons would weigh around 8,300 pounds, or four tons plus change.
But at those prices, you don’t have to be affluent to buy effluent. Now here comes the vocabulary lesson:
“Affluent” means having a great deal of money; “effluent,”  with the accent on the first syllable, refers to liquid waste or sewage discharged into a river or sea. At the price the city is charging to allow people to wet down their lawns, there’s proof you don’t have to be affluent to buy effluent.
But here’s yet another angle: An archaic meaning of affluent, in addition to being one of los ricos, is “water flowing freely and in great quantity.” So what is it, affluent or effluent?
Where a member of my family struggles is in the word for drinkable water. My wife, Bonnie, says it “just makes common sense that water that’s drinkable ought to be ‘pottable,’” with two t’s (rhymes with “knottable”). But it’s not. It has nothing to do with pots. The word is “potable,” with a long -o, kind of how we’d expect an Englishman to pronounce “portable.” Remember, the Brits often leave out the r’s in their speech.
Potable comes from the Latin word “potare,” to drink. Yes, it’s possible that the ancient Romans drank their water out of pots, but that’s not the origin of the term.
Even if you’re affluent.
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Ever see grossly exaggerated gestures, perhaps in the course of a game of Charades? Or, ask a person to gesticulate the act of driving a car. You’ll notice the imaginary steering wheel, the size of a jumbo hula hoop, and the enactor, arms stretched, turning the invisible wheel almost 360 degrees.
It seems to be the human condition, to exaggerate gestures, but who can blame them? That’s one way to make a point. Case in point: Watch an old movie of someone driving. You’ll see that the amount of “play” (the free movement of the steering wheel before the rubber wheels turn) is considerable, kind of like the school bus I used to drive to the nearby community of Los Alamos.
It was hard to keep it in a straight line. Then, a mechanic, Wilfred Sandoval, showed me that the “play” was about 90 degrees. A lot.
So, cars in the olden days, most lacking power steering, had lots of play, and a U-turn took several revolutions. Today, except for leaving our driveway, or while parking, we seldom need to rotate the steering wheel even once. And for years, cars with power steering have been extra sensitive to the driver’s touch.
That lesson in physics came clear to me Monday when I saw Lee Norman Gonzales, a former teacher and well-known local musico who might not even recall the reason for my reverie. Here’s what happened:
Lee Norman’s mother had one of the few cars in town back in the mid-’40s. She often drove from her house on Independence Street to visit my mother, on Railroad Avenue, bringing Lee with her. One time I noticed the little guy, who couldn’t have been older than 2, in the pilot’s seat. As Mrs. Gonzales drove up, she had her son seated inside the spokes of the steering wheel, his legs threaded through the openings.
“How did they manage that?” Mom and I wondered. Remember, steering cars of that vintage was tantamount to navigating the Queen Mary. Lee Norman’s mom must have made some extremely wide turns to avoid flipping him, unless she simply warned him when she was turning and impelled him to hold on.
I told Tony Martinez, a neighbor, about the loop-de-loops Lee Norman must have undergone, so we decided to conduct our own empirical research.
Tony, only about 5, wriggled himself into the steering wheel of an abandoned car in the Railroad alley next to the tracks, while I tried to turn the wheel, with Tony in it, to simulate Lee’s ride.
Nothing worked. Though easily supported by the steering wheel, Tony was way too tall to allow me to turn the wheel. Apparently, we’d forgotten that the height difference between a toddler like Lee and a boy about 5 was considerable.
At any rate, seeing Lee Norman and recalling his special place in his mother’s car made me wonder whether the boy actually rode that way the entire distance from his house, or whether Mrs. Gonzales, who used to enjoy teasing my mom, planted Lee there a block or so away from our house, and simply made a beeline.

Art Trujillo is a copy editor at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached by calling 425-6796 or by e-mail to artbt@rezio.net or atrujillo@lasvegasoptic.com.