“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 to access 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, Severino, who got more privileges because he had a license and owned the jumper cables.
Rarely would he let me use his driver’s license. But please don’t spread a word of this to local gendarmes.
As an aspiring teacher of journalism, 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 lending me the car. Notice how many requests for cars, money — anything — come couched in flabby words like “like,” “kind of,” “or something” and others.
Notice my first sentence contains the phrase, “I wonder if I could kind of like borrow” bleeds with flabby words that give dads of the world opportunities to cop out, to say, “Well, son, you’ve talked me and yourself out of turning over the keys to you.” Well maybe it wasn’t really a high-IQ study session that I planned to attend that night. What if I really wanted to pick up my date and show off our 11-year-old DeSoto?
I hadn’t used “flabby” or even thought about it for years. I believe the growing number of homeless people in Las Vegas, with the temerity to beg for coins along Las Vegas’ hallowed boulevards, has helped inflate the use of flabby language. A young man whom we probably all have seen, usually approaches me with, “I wuz wondering if you kind of like could like let me have like a dollar so I can like buy lunch.”
Count the flab! Even the mechanic whose company performed many bucks’ worth of work on our car this year, tried to break it to me gently (break the news, not the car): Whenever anyone in the service industry begins any sentence with “I’m afraid I have bad news. I’m afraid you’re going to need a complete transmission overhaul,” I panic, and after noting my pained expression, Señor Good Wrench modifies it with, “but I might be able to get you back on the road — good as new. Hey, Herb, bring me the duct tape.”
Even parents attenuate the tone of the news at the dinner table. “What are we having for dinner, Mom?” She’d answer, “We’ve having like pork with corn or something, kind of like maybe stirred together.” But in this case, I give her credit for devising a flabby term to describe our gourmet entrée, “leftovers.” And one time Mom surprised us by serving “dejaladas,” her term for leftover enchiladas.
As a voracious fan of how people phrase things, I keep track of the many ways people make requests. The most successful purveyors of poverty-speak are those who appear to be homeless and hungry. It’s not a joking matter, and I commiserate with the poor in our city.
However, I usually retain how they phrase their request, as that gives me ideas for this column and provides the mendicants a coin — usually a dollar coin. I can always claim that the many people whose palm I’ve greased with a coin are helping me write a novel. You readers might be able to identify some of the many ways of asking for a handout:
A neighbor who literally “has my number” uses the same approach every time. First, he recites a litany of car ailments and the need for 40 bucks to get it running. From him I get, “I was sort of like going to work today, but the rotator cuff promontory apparatus switch in my car kind of refused to make its appointed rounds.” Internally, I’m thinking of ways to compliment him for the outlandish request, as if any car today had a promontory. But because of the entertainment value of his phraseology, I give him a loan.
Another neighbor will show up with an empty container of medicine and trot out her little girl and make me feel the child’s forehead. I’m a softie when it comes to taking little ones’ temps, ill or not. And quite common is the traveler who needs gas money. I get to listen to like a recitation of his itinerary, a mention of every town he’ll go through, and how many like gallons he sort of needs. A similar case like that happened not long ago when I heard the dreary lament of two men at the Better Stop on Grand and Mills.
The pair gave me their story; I helped them out, transferring my pump to his car just as my wife, Bonnie, drove. I told her about my helping the two men. Her response: “Those destitute men are in the Burger King right now, laughing and having a great time inside.”
Bonnie busted me there. She reminded me that I must have the word “sucker” tattooed on my forehead, as I’m such an easy mark. Then she said she’d bet she could recite exactly what the guy told me: “I was like wondering if like maybe you could kind of like help me out with a little spare change so we can like get home.”
Bonnie’s version wasn’t precisely what the man told me, but she came very close to a verbatim account of what he said.
Art Trujillo is a staff writer at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached at email@example.com