Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Another Referential Misfire: On Vishvington

As in the last posting, I would like to recount an example of a language flub that I experienced not so long ago.

Like I wrote last time, we pride ourselves as superior to the apes for our use of language, among other things. And we are so accustomed to assuming we understand each other that when we do not, it throws us well off our pace. At least that happens to me sometimes.

Ten years ago, around 2000, I was in the thick of another publishing project that to me was very illuminating but onerous in its workload and responsibility. So there were times when I felt an exhaustion that had some effect on my reception of certain communications.

It was sometime in January-February of that millennial year. My ‘86 Nissan pickup was parked in the front lot of the building where I worked, in a section of New Jersey not far from Manhattan. It had begun snowing and sleeting rather heavily about 5:30 PM that night. By 6:30 I thought it was time to get back home before the roads got worse. So I jumped in the truck, started it, put it in reverse and let the clutch go. Nothing happened. I increased the gas to the engine. The truck barely moved. Uh-oh. Well I belonged to an auto club that was supposed to cover me in these situations. So I went back inside and called them to have them tow my truck to the auto repair placed I used, about ten miles from where I was.

“Is your truck parked and out of the way of traffic?” the lady on the other end of the phone asked. “Because we are keeping our trucks off the streets as much as we can in this weather tonight.” Great! When I need them, they don’t want to go out because it’s snowing. Well, the hell with them, I thought. I’m going to get this truck to the repair place if it kills me.

So I went back to my truck, got in, put it in reverse, floored it and let the clutch out. The truck began moving backwards very slowly. I finally got it into position to go forward, and it did . . . barely. By flooring it I managed to get going about two miles an hour. I barely made it up the slight incline to a stop light at the corner of the street whose name I forgot, but the light was red and I had to stop. By the time it turned green, the incline made it impossible to turn left like I needed to. I had to turn right, where the incline tilted downwards. So I did. It was a two-lane highway and cars were speeding past me in the fast lane, honking their horns while I plodded along at two miles an hour, the engine straining at full throttle, smoke beginning to come out of the hood. The sleet and snow had begun coming down even harder and visibility was bad. The road was very slippery. I was going the opposite direction from where I wanted to be. It was bad. I swore to myself.

Finally after an agonizing amount of time I managed to cover a half mile. There was a gas station on the right! It was a concrete island with two pumps and a little shack-like building where the cash register was. That was it. As I slowly pulled into the area to the side of the pumps, engine straining to the max, smoke coming out of the hood in billows, crawling along at a snail’s pace, the gas station attendant, a fellow in a turban and a longish gray beard, looked at me with some kind of perplexity and hostility combined.

I stopped the truck and got out.

He motioned to the truck,
“No service!
Gas only!
No parking!”

I tried to explain to him that my truck was in trouble and I needed to at least use the phone.

“No phone!” he shot back at me.

Then he motioned to a phone booth about 100 yards away, at the corner of the wide empty paved expanse.

“Pay phone!” he shouted, a kind of crazy look in his eyes.

I wasn’t going to argue. The sleet was falling in buckets. Luckily I had a lot of quarters in my truck’s ash tray. I got them and schlepped over to the booth, called the automobile club again and explained to them that I had tried to get the truck to the repair place but that it was disabled now in a spot where I was not permitted to remain.

“Where are you located?” asked the lady.

I named the town, and then realized I had never really memorized the name of the road I was on, even though I travelled down it every weekday. I told her to hold on, and walked the hundred yards back to the pumps, where the guy in the turban eyed me suspiciously.

“What’s the name of this road?” I asked.

“Vishvington!” he shot back loudly and angrily.

I plodded back to the booth, explained to the lady on the phone “I’m on Vishvington.”

“How do you spell that?” she asked.

“I’m not sure. Hold on again,” I answered and walked back the 100 yards to the guy. He was looking increasingly infuriated with me and I wasn’t sure why.

"How do you spell 'Vishvington?'” I asked.

That was the last straw. He flipped his veritable lid and screamed “VISHVINGTON!!! VISHVINGTON!!! DEEE PRESIDENT!!!!!”

Oh, shit. I was on Washington Avenue! I went back to the phone booth and told the lady. And you know what? We both started laughing uproariously. It was funny!! I had sooo misunderstood the guy. And it all just seemed so ridiculous, in the middle of this God-forsaken blizzard.

So I waited an hour over to the side in my truck and the tow truck finally came. It turned out the driver still wasn’t allowed to take me the ten miles to the repair place. So he ended up towing me back the ½ mile to my original spot, in the parking lot where I worked!!! After all that.

I had to call a cab and the next day the tow truck came back after work and took me to the repair service place. Turns out the clutch had failed all at once. That was what was wrong. They fixed it in a few days and I was back in action.

But to this day I still laugh when I think of that guy and the look on his face when he screamed at me “VISHVINGTON!! VISHVINGTON!!! DEE PRESIDENT!!!”

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