Bloody Mouth

Here’s a question that indelibly colors its speaker: “Where you at?”

Having lived in Metropolitan New York, I’ve doubtlessly heard it. Now relocated to Las Vegas the phrase echoes frequently. It insults my ears. It diminishes the level of regard the speaker will be held.

“Where you at?” sits among the worst of first impressions.

Like knowledge, grammar is power. Proof of that resides in Shakespearean soliloquies unto Martin Luther King’s sermons and speeches. Occasionally I laugh when some ardent present day patriot compares himself favorably with the Founders, then further blasphemes by ascribing Americans’ rights and comforts solely to the sacrifices of the armed services.

While meant to induce guilt and reverence, the point is wrong. We owe our rights and comforts to learned people whose persuasive language conjured arguments which calmed the anxious, corralled the disparate, and marshalled all into forsaking their individuality for common cause. Only then were soldiers, sailors, marines, and later airmen, moved to sacrifice.

English troops don’t resume their assault at Honfleur until Henry V rouses them through “once more unto the breach”; the Continental Army only exists as cross-purpose militias and ragtag guerrillas until irrefutable rationales erase differences and each coalesces around ideas which may demand their blood.

For all you Tea Baggers, draping your selfish selves in Gadsden flags and deluding yourselves as Patrick Henry reincarnates is insufficient. In that case, “real American” bona fides are bestowed if you’ve had a European basis here since Colonial times. Like Barack Obama.

Otherwise your people washed up in steerage after the Civil War. That is after Americans determined who we were and who you’d become.

“Where you at?” grates. Current usage doesn’t result from lack of opportunity at education. Instead it’s a headshaking phenomenon that insults those who’ve striven to raise a class of citizens. It mocks achievement and advancement.

Fair that I hear it repeated in Nevada. The state promotes its low tax rates, but its services, particularly education, only have Mississippi to thank from occupying the bottom. As the saying goes, low taxes have a price.

My parents grew up in the Jim Crow South during the Depression. To say they were disenfranchised and discouraged doesn’t do justice to exclusion. Nonetheless from nothing, back in the days when “nothing” meant exactly that rather than “disadvantaged,” both scrambled into the comfortable solid middle class.

Their schooling, such as it was, scraped the most minimal level. Even then they understood education was the key to elevation. So did those oppressing them. The rural facilities and resources serving my parents squeezed the word meager.

As they aged and my generation begat the procession disinclined to crack books and burn midnight oil, our sires shook their collective heads. Bad enough the next wave belittled curiosity and honest study for the cheap, shiny and ephemeral. Worse, they regressed.

While every segment and subset develops its own slang, the skylarking inheritors of America today and tomorrow have gone on a downward spiral. Slang has its benefits. Ask any waiter, waitress, counterperson or short-order cook at a diner.

Slang also includes and excludes. For a time until the terms become passé and are replaced through even cooler and more obscure variants their usage maintain subterranean social orders. Can anyone imagine Jack Kerouac novels, those conflicted teen movies of the 50s, or 60s counterculture films without their era-specific verbal tweaks? No Dean Moriarty or Jim Stark, and “Captain America” may as well have been nicknamed Bucky in Easy Rider.

So while merits can be argued, their development augmented the times. That isn’t the case with our current degradation of language.

I only have hints of my folks’ speech patterns when younger. Rustics as they were, country as they must’ve sounded, much of that sloughed off by my arrival. Listening to them one understood they adjusted themselves orally for Northern audiences.

Among friends, acquaintances, one another, they certainly spoke easier, looser, I guess. Nonetheless what came out of their mouths remained grammatically correct. I suppose accents were softer, diphthongs less stressed, and elisions ruled.

However, around strangers or in situations requiring a certain presence be exuded, softness stiffened, vowels didn’t roll, while an almost forced clarity spaced each word. Of course occasionally the Early Modern English (prithee think Shakespeare, sirrah) which still marked their respective childhood regions of Carolina crept in when least expected. Unconsciously, father now and then startled by saying “whilst”; and when mother declared she’d put someone down, it didn’t refer to euthanizing or disparaging another, but that she’d disassociated herself from them.

Growing up, knowing that eased comprehension of plenty of rhythm & blues records.

“Where you at?” is the basest regression. More so when propelled through an accent so corrupt it’s what a minstrel might’ve used.

The Nevada slur is an exaggeration of a minor post-Reconstruction black migration. (The major one, the one that darkened the complexions of Northern cities, didn’t begin until 1910.) The move nudged bolder Freedmen from Lower Dixie through the Ozarks and Texas towards California. Until Nelly and his fellow St. Louis rappers revived it, perhaps the best examples of those inflections perhaps lived on National Archive/Works Project Administration recordings.

Hearing it from contemporary speakers, one knows it’s an affectation. Used more to set apart than distinguish. Tonal Ebonics. Coupled with such improper grammar, isn’t it ignorance pure?

This being Nevada there isn’t anyone with sufficient stature to claim the obvious and maybe, just maybe, shame this silt back into its banks. Here is a matter of self-esteem, not style. No doubt the locale’s prime influencers – hotels and casinos – are pig in shit happy. Like me, they hear their upcoming workforce.

Given Nevada’s abysmal public education system (again only Mississippi keeps the Silver State from bottoming out), the chances of an exemplar escaping from this mire and becoming that sole inspiring galleons figure are, as Don King said, “… between Slim and None. And Slim has just left the room.”

There should be a new drinking game. Anytime some Nevada booster prattles about the state’s low tax rate attracting high-tech firms, the players need to slam yard-long drinks. No high-tech entrepreneur will set an incubator into this part of the Mojave. A manufacturing plant? If the device assembled lacks complexity. Warehouses? Certainly. But powerful prestige economy engines? Not hardly likely.

Know why Northern California and North Carolina’s Research Triangle, among other centers of innovation and science, draw the industries they do? The tax rate is immaterial. What’s most vital is the proximity of brilliance. Fertile minds create. An amalgamation of fertile minds midwife a great deal of intelligence.

Yet nurturing this talent takes far more than low taxes and real estate which can be bought for pittances. They have farsighted prerequisites. Many of which the Nevada hospitality and gaming community is predisposed to thwart because these are investments which will improve the state, yes, but won’t necessarily ever plump their bottom lines, if at all.

Education.

Nevada public schools are doing an exceptional job of readying their graduates for menial tasks. Menial tasks and marginal lives.

Hotel and casino sharpies hear and see it as I do. Oh, doubtlessly better than me.
Youth who know no better, will never know any better, recognize without suficient preparation, paucity of inspiration, their chances and choices are limited. College? Ha! The armed services? Since drawing down from America’s Mesopotamian and Unread Kipling expeditions, our military can restore standards. Tough break for Generation 420.

Hotels and casinos don’t require armies of Einsteins. Just interchangeable legions with nimble fingers and strong backs and stronger stomachs will suffice. Sanitizing restrooms and changing bed sheets, serving food and drinks, bussing tables, tasks for which college degrees are unnecessary, but simply degrees of servility.

And while honest labor should forever confer dignity, being profoundly grateful for 10 bucks an hour to clear vacationers’ leavings or bowing and scraping before guests seems a reach.

Yet by asking “Where you at?” where else can you go?

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