Being in a hospital makes me cranky. So when I saw the Jefferson University Hospital nurse headed my way Wednesday, her hands full with the “moccachino barium” solution I was going to have to drink for a CAT scan, I couldn’t help but curse to myself.
“Man,” I whined, “I hate this shit.”
The nurse’s face didn’t change, but something altered in her countenance. She stopped what she was doing, stood up straight, stared somewhat to the left of my actual eyes, but leveled with me in a completely unexpected way:
“Sir,” she said: “I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t curse in front of me.”
I went through a quick cascade of emotions:
• Anger. She doesn’t want me to curse, eh? I’m the patient here! I’m the one who has to drink this shit! Who is she to tell me how to behave about that?!
• Indignance: This is Philadelphia! How does she survive working in this town if she can’t handle a word like that?
• And, finally, horror: Oh dear. I’ve become exactly what my dad hates.
Yes, my dad. A good and decent and honorable man, one who has always hated profanity—he winced to hear me even use words like “gosh” and “darn” as a child. And during a memorable 1980s trip to Knolla’s Pizza in Wichita, the man got up from our table to ask three young college-age men to stop slinging curse words so frequently and so loudly in front of his young family. I was embarrassed that day, but on Wednesday I was embarrassed in a completely different way as I remembered it. I’d become the loutish college kids.
So I apologized, apologized again, and then tried apologizing again. “My dad didn’t raise me that way,” I said, and I meant it. The nurse was more generous with her prohibitions than her forgiveness, though, and she soon took her leave of me—I didn’t see her the rest of my visit to Jefferson.
But it made me wonder: Why am I such a pottymouth?
I’d like to blame Philadelphia, and probably nobody’d be the wiser. If you walk through Center City—or take a bus, a train, or generally go out in public—the odds on any given day are that you’re going to eventually run into somebody screaming an otherwise-unspeakable string of profanities into a cell phone. Somewhat more shockingly to me, nobody in this city ever seems to rein in the purple torrent because kids are around. As our son grew from infant into toddler, my wife and I realized we’d probably have to deal with that influence at some point.
Or maybe I could blame a lifetime in journalism. Newsrooms aren’t known for their gentility. One of my favorite editors ever was a gruff, gravelly-voiced redhead who could stretch the word “Christ” into several, near-symphonic syllables. It was something to behold, something to aspire to.
But the truth is this: I simply like to curse, love the feel of an expletive as it rolls around my mouth waiting to punctuate my point. Along the way, though, I became too casual about it, too willing to assume that my listeners were in on the joke, forgetting that some people really do live by a code that I don’t bother with anymore. Which makes me rude.
And the rudeness probably is a greater offense than the cursing itself.
I still think a well-placed profanity can be a wonderful thing. Consider this classic scene (NSFW) from The Wire, or pretty much any scene from Deadwood. But the good placement is the key to those examples; words deliberately chosen for an audience that knows what it’s getting. And in any case, I’ve always found the bleeped broadcast version of South Park funnier than the unbleeped version.
Me? I’m a writer. I should be able to express myself without automatically resorting to cheap vulgarity, right? So I’m going to try a little harder. It’s time I practiced some gosh-darned self-control. Just pray I don’t end up sounding like Yosemite Sam as a result.