Outside. Gazebo, waterfall, crickets. Late at night. No planes. At this time of night you can hear the whine of the highway in the distance. I wonder if it’s one of those sounds no one ever heard before the car was invented, just as the sound of the internal combustion engine was probably unique when the first one was fired up. All these sounds, waiting to be born. It’s likely we’ll never hear a fraction of the possible sounds; as societies evolve, they probably get quieter. Eventually even the shrugged-shoulder sound of an air-conditioner shutting itself off will be lost, just like the sound of a trolley rolling past. Occasionally you’ll meet a mounted policeman, and the combination of sounds – the creak and tinkle of the gear, the sudden muttered exhalation, the clop of the hooves – makes you feel as though you’d opened a time capsule unearthed from the ruins of a demolished building.
It’s remarkable how fast we forget sounds, and how quickly we recall them – when I was digitizing old VHS tapes, I realized I’d forgotten the series of labored sounds that preceded a show. The thick clunk of the tape dropping in the slot, the perfunctory whine of the tape queuing up, the pained inhalation of the motors as they rolled the spindles. It was the sound of Brave Modernity in 1984, and a tiresome reminder of old technology 20 years later.
Hit the car wash today. I bought a package that gives me unlimited washes, but I didn’t get the ultra deluxe option. They don’t do the interior. Fine; I don’t need to vacuum the floor rugs, because I don’t have any rugs. I’m done with rugs. Count me out of the league of rug enthusiasts. They get dirty, they curl up, they move around. The floor of the Element is ribbed for my pleasure, and I like its utilitarian appearance. Anyway: this means I get to ride inside the car while it goes through the wash. Once upon a time such a thing would fill me with claustrophobic dread; now it’s fun. Gnat likes it too. When we roll off the line the attendants swarm over the Element and caress it with soft cloths, and while I’m becalmed at the end of the line I see all the other fancy cars getting the interior-detailing treatment. One of them looks familiar. Sure enough: the Giant Swede walked into the bay, and gave me that open-palmed well who’d’a thunk expression. He’d seen the nose of the Element and the regrettably distinctive license plate number, I guess; since e had the super-extra car wash package, which meant he cooled his heels outside eating free fresh popcorn while they buffed his Saab to a blinding shine. But since I was driving and he was on foot, I had only one possible response. I rolled down the window and shouted “Get a horse.”
Where the hell did that come from? Why am I yelling grandpa slang?
Out of curiosity, I googled “get a horse” auto taunt, and a previous Bleat on that subject was the eighth result. I hate when that happens. It’s like Turgenev looking out the window while starting a novel, and a serf pops up his head and says “writing yet another elegiac, autumnal account of muted social tensions set among the aristocracy? Well, good for you, sir!” Except for the not-being-as-good-as-Turgenev part.
But the point remains: a piece of slang non-native to my generation or my parent’s generation nevertheless survived with its meaning intact, and came unbidden at an opportune moment. This means some geezer will say “it’s the shizzizzle” to a pal in 2103, and all the hip young kids in earshot will wonder what the hell he’s talking about.
No, I don’t think they will. some slang expires and decomposes. But the good stuff can be reanimated, with a little work. I do my part to keep some old words in play; at the grocery store, I’m invariably asked how I am, and I usually say one of the following: grand, keen, dandy, jack-dancy, nifty, or copacetic. Because it beats saying “good.” There’s a clever clerk at the grocery store, and the other day he asked me the difference between dandy and jack-dandy. If you have to ask, there’s no point in explaining, son. Today he held up a container of Carb Freedom yogurt and asked if I really felt free.
“Emancipated,” I said.
If I can make that kid say “nifty” to his child in 3 decades, I’ll have done my part. “Keen” we could probably lose. “Nifty,” however, is essential.
But we’re just playing with bones, really. You could take any scholar of the 20s back in time, put him on 23rd street at 11 PM, and he’d pick out the vehicles, the buildings, the mode of dress, and most of the slang; if he heard a song waft from an apartment above, he might know what it was. If he picked up a newspaper, he might know a tenth of the names on the front page. But none of the names in the back, I’d guess. And then someone would walk past and mention a bar he’d never heard. Down the street there would be a sound – barrels rolling down a staircase? Lumber unloading? If you go an inch beyond the stratum of things we know, the mysteries are as quotidian and innumerable, and lost. The past is the unrecovered country.
I think if you actually found yourself in a silent movie theater in 1926, your first impression wouldn’t be the architecture or the clothing or the candy or the conversation; it would be the way things smelled. No one knows what the 20s smell like.
No bus today again. Just didn’t show up. We waited and waited, then everyone slumped off to fetch the vehicles. I didn’t want to impose on anyone again so I drove her myself; I stopped in the office to tell them that that whole pick-up-the-kids thing wasn’t exactly working out as planned. They were either plussed or nonplussed; I can never remember. Probably the former, since I recall the word is counterintuitive. Somehow you think of “plussed” as being bothered or annoyed or surprised – back off, Jack, don’t plus me. But it makes no sense anymore.
Hah! Upon consulting my dictionary, I see that the new, incorrect meaning has taken over the old definition.
In North American English, a new use has developed in recent years, meaning ‘unperturbed’—more or less the opposite of its traditional meaning: | hoping to disguise his confusion, he tried to appear nonplussed . This new use probably arose on the assumption that non- was the normal negative prefix and must therefore have a negative meaning. Although the use is common, it is not yet considered standard.
Give it time.
Went home, wrote a column. The workmen came. They took out the old wall and got a good start on the new one. The old wall was removed with the John Deere (all JD construction equipment is yellow, I have learned; thanks to all who wrote in on the matter) and new stone piled up. Looks fine. After school Gnat and I went to the Rose Garden for the traditional End-of-Summer trip. She dipped her hands in the fountain that once stood at the head of Nicollet Avenue; we went into the Enchanted Forest.
“It’s smaller,” she said.
“You’re bigger,” I replied.
Then she collected a few leaves, just as she did last year, and rolled down the long hill, as she did last year. She stood against the sundial and posed for a picture. We examined the flowers, watched an old lady paint a picture of the gardens, then headed back to the car.
There. I’ve fixed the day in amber. If only web pages had a scratch ‘n’ sniff option, my work here would be done.