The sign in the tavern, which abutted a motel, intrigued me so much that I stole it. “No rooms after bar closes” the crayon-scrawled piece of cardboard announced.
As I left the bar with friends, I nonchalantly pulled the grimy square from the wall. For several years, it held a place of honor tacked above an overstuffed chair in my friend’s nearby lake cottage.
Frivolous thievery aside — I hope it’s a forgivable offense — the sign’s meaning continues to fascinate me. Now it could have been something as mundane as the hotel/tavern tenders not wanting to open the cash register once the night’s receipts have been balanced. No fun in that.
I, however, wonder if it was a moral directive, much like their “No Guns Alloud” sign, which, tempting as it also was, I did not take. Perhaps, I think, they wanted patrons, particularly couples, to know that any decision to stay the night needed to be a sober choice. Either that or they were happy to send drunken revelers out onto the dark country roads, a not-so-moral directive.
You see the problem. A simple sign, many interpretations.
That same bar had other linguistic puzzles as well. “Help,” a member of the group said as she returned from the bathroom alcove, “am I a goose or a gander?”
The “beer, wine and ammo” sign I spotted above a store along the road to my friend’s Michigan cottage was also one that gave me pause. I knew what it meant but not what it presaged. Was this a recipe for a perfect weekend or a tragedy in the making?
Such ruminating wordplay, however, is not for everyone. Once, as I perused an aisle of books at a local Goodwill store, looking for some cheap paperbacks, two women stopped before the shelves. “Lots of words,” said one with a note of concern, as though she feared an English teacher were about to swoop down and demand a five-page paper.
Her remark also called to my mind the warning on some movies: “Rated R for pervasive language.”
Wow, I thought, the first time I saw this movie rating. Language itself? Words themselves? If a film is rated R for “pervasive language,” does that mean there’s too much talk and not enough action? Too many lengthy theological discourses? Or does it perhaps feature a character like Jar-Jar Binks, whose patois was more than annoying?
Perhaps the MPAA is going for a shorthand take, so “language” becomes code for “cussing a blue streak” or “throwing F-bombs” or “words that would make your momma blush,” much as “adult” often means “has dirty pictures,” and “dirty pictures” doesn’t refer to a lack of hygiene.
I simply don’t know what was in the minds of those who try to judge a movie’s suitability. But as one who works with “language,” whether good or bad, I appreciate its fantastical uses. Consider, if you will, the political ramification of words used as labels. Is gay okay but queer not? Is mentally challenged acceptable but retarded an insult? And what, dear Freud, do we women want? Spinster, single, involved, free to be you and me?
Despite my appreciation for our living language, it also bugs me, because I can’t understand the young Asian man who’s laughing endlessly as he chats on his cell phone while he crosses the campus parking lot. Perhaps, I think, someone is reading instructions to him that have been hilariously translated from English to Chinese, a Mandarin version of “Place phone in ear to talk in hand.”
For me, alas, his words are a closed door, his speech a language I can’t crack, a meaning I can’t discern. I want into the room, but the bar is closed.
Carol Schaal is managing editor of Notre Dame Magazine.