The CTA cuts through the clutter

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My older teen is a fusspot, who occasionally corrects my language — “Father, it’s notwhoam I talking to?” he’ll archly announce, “but towhomam I talking?”

I suppress the natural fatherly response — “Shut up you” — and say, “I’m allowed to use the vernacular,” i.e., our own native language, the way normal people normally speak.


This was a hard-won right. Once the elites spoke in French; prayers were in Latin.Common folk were low peasants, and expected to be ashamed of their low peasant ways.

That changed, thank you democracy, thank you mass media, thank you the general falling away of pious dogma and pointless rules.

When I saw the CTA courtesy poster headlined, “Your maid doesn’t work here,” and beginning, “Please don’t leave your crap behind,” my first, unfiltered thought was, “Good for you, CTA.” A slightly salty word, a bit of vernacular that might actually cut through the clutter and lodge itself into the mind of the rider, far better than the expected “Please don’t leave your litter or personal effects behind.”

Public transit exhortations almostdemanda little attitude to work. New York, which invented saucy signs (“Don’t even THINK of parking here”) started a courtesy campaign last year on its trains that suggests its riders are strippers: “Poles Are For Your Safety, Not Your Latest Routine.”

To be honest, I considered remarking on the CTA’s moment of courage, but then decided that I’m too biased. I swear like a sailor. I’m the guy whose personal blog is called “Every goddamn day,” accepting that for every 50 readers who laugh at the title, there will be one person squirming. Sorry, squirming person. I think the rules keeping obscenity out of newspapers and network TV are dumb. I think the “n-word” locution is an insult to African-Americans, suggesting they’ll collapse in a swoon confronted with raw history. I conform through gritted teeth, unwilling.

Maybe a few do. But those few always try to run the show.Rather than change their expectations, they want to force everybody to harmonize with whatever little girl’s ballerina music box they’ve got tinkling away in the back of their minds.

For instance, Lara Weber, a member of the Tribune editorial board, in a recent op-ed piece, chides the CTA for using its piquant word. She’s too clever to do so in classic, ruffled Margaret Dumont style, quickly admitting that her qualms are more a reflection on herself and her upbringing. She upbraids the CTA, anyway, because her mother didn’t use the word.

“JeezLouise, are we really using ‘crap’ on official printed signs now?” she asks.

Umm, yes, we are. And the president isn’t wearing a necktie at some official functions, which would have left people a generation ago aghast.

And — spoiler alert — Napoleon escaped from Elba. I’m sorry if I’m the one to tell you.

Yes, a writer wants to keep certain words in reserve. Notice that “Jeez” at the beginning of Weber’scri de coeur. A euphemism for “Jesus,” and, in this situation, an apt one. You want to reserve “Jesus,” not to shield delicate reader sentiment but for times when its verbal power is required. “Jesus, I am dying . . . ”

I’m tempted to chide the Tribune for being Ms. Grundy, again, the same publication that for decades tried to force simplified spelling down the throats of its readers — “thru” and “dropt” and “cigaret” — in the self-absorbed Teddy Roosevelt-esque notion that they knew better than their readers, and to bear the white man’s burden of tidying up the language of Shakespeare.

But the Tribune can be saucy, historically; it is the same publication that once emblazoned the word “C*NT” — the asterisk is theirs — across the front of its women’s section, in a story of how that British cuss word for female anatomy was enjoying a certain vogue. They lost their nerve at the last moment and pulled the section. But we across the street got a copy that wasn’t destroyed, and admired the ginger inspiring some ghost in the machine to even make the attempt.

People who write fail continually through caution; they should try to fail more on the side of boldness. Someone is going to be offended by almost anything you write, if you do it correctly; the key is to hold their interest while using the right word in the right place. The garbage that careless riders leave behind on the bus is “crap,” and the CTA should be lauded for taking a risk in trying to get rid of it.

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