The Things People Say

I’ve been spending my me-time studying metalinguistic discourse and the limits of grammatical analysis in establishing meaning. It has made me a bit more aware of the comments made on our walks in the neighbourhood.

For instance, I was walking on the sidewalk near our house with the boy when a neighbour, young and meek looking, emerged from his house onto the porch bearing an acoustic guitar. An older man walked by, looked up to see the young neighbour starting to play his guitar and said with a chuckle, “Don’t see pompadours anymore.” The neighbour, who had an inelaborate hairstyle, gave a polite, if quizzical smile, perhaps not recognizing the malaprop.

More commonly, comments tend towards undiagrammable ramblings a traditional grammarian might just throw his hands up at. These are especially difficult for me to remember since I have no cues to hang anything on. Related to these are the ones where the grammar is more decipherable but the content meanders through the haze of the speaker’s mind—kind of like a drug-induced Benjyism. The most awesome of these could take up pages to record and I’m considering carrying around a reporter’s tape recorder just to capture some of these monologues, but a nice concise example occurred today when I was taking the boy to pick up the girl from preschool.

We had just passed the dealers on the corner and my mind was on their business when a man walked up to us at the stoplight. He said something that I couldn’t quite hear, but I thought I recognized the word “heroin” in the sentence. But he also seemed to be talking about my son, which made me awfully suspicious of conversing with him.

“Was brown but now it’s grey,” he said. I just looked at him assuming he would follow up with something to which I could more accurately respond. “Can you believe it’s 2012?”

“Not quite,” I said, which he could have taken as a comment on what I was able to believe and not a correction of his facts.

“In 2080 he’ll be an old man,” he said, motioning to my son. “I mean, I was born in 1967,” he said. The light turned green and he headed toward the bus stop across the street and we went straight toward my daughter’s school. “Alright, you have a good day,” he said as he started to run.

“You too,” I said, going over the conversation in my head again.

In some ways, this conversation isn’t much different than the first, it just takes a little more patience to appreciate. It’s like Bill Cosby versus Steven Wright.

The third kind of random DTES discourse fits more readily into the category of surrealism, à la Rene Magritte, where a common phrase is used entirely inappropriately, like a human-sized comb standing on a bed.

For instance, on our way to CRAB Park, I decided to walk down Alexander Street, which is often somewhat empty of people. My wife and I walk down it if we happen to be out at night because it seems less active. The buildings on the street are mainly low rent social housing and when I was taking the kids on it the blocks were buzzing with residents and others. We passed two men fixing rigs and I had to make sure I wouldn’t run the stroller over any used needles. The two men got up after we passed them and started walking behind us which got my nerves a little on edge. I was, after all, walking down that street to avoid the stoned and the drunk.

We passed by an older man with a white beard sitting on the sidewalk whose face lit up when he saw the kids. He waved and my daughter, who must say goodbye to everyone at the park when we leave it, waved back. He then said, “I love you.”

My daughter looked at him and smiled again, but I could tell that even she knew this phrase isn’t something one says to someone one has seen for the first time. There is a power to the phrase that, even though we throw it around in our house quite often, she knows doesn’t fit in every context. “I love you,” he said again, no less earnest than the first time, but also with a hint of impatience.

“I love you,” he repeated. Though the third time he said it was no different than the first grammatically, from a metalinguistic level, the third time is much different than the first. As Mikhail Bakhtin, the metalinguist I have been studying the most, explains, a sentence can be repeated, but an utterance cannot. These were three different utterances and my three-year-old daughter’s face told me that, though she cannot diagram a sentence or even explain the difference between a subject and a predicate, she was fully aware of the difference between the first utterance, the second, and the third, even if she couldn’t verbalize it.


About azlewis

I'm an academic living in the poorest neighbourhood in Canada. I also teach at a local seminary.
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