Mike Wilson: A conversation about garbage cars

Published 12:00 pm Thursday, May 2, 2024

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Sorry, this is not about the Yugo or the Gremlin or the Corvair (my first car), but is rather devoted to my toddler grandson’s current obsession with “mighty machines” including bulldozers, excavators, cement trucks, school buses, and — most importantly — garbage trucks. He is truly in his glory when I stroll him down the street following the garbage, then recycling, then brush collection trucks most Friday mornings so he can marvel at their size, noise, and mechanical efficiency. All the drivers know him now and smile or wave and sometimes honk at him. I can’t wait until he is old enough to understand that I was a garbage man in 1978 Back When Men Were Men: there were no rolling containers placed at the curb by homeowners nor mechanical lifts to empty them. We had to collect the trash from behind each house with a big barrel on a cart and then hoist them hundreds of times a day to dump them out. When that day comes, I will be elevated in his pantheon from Aba to Action Hero!

Fortunately, there are several massive construction projects (pleasant meadow with hardwood border converted by magic into 500 more townhouses, etc.) hereabouts, including one 100 yards from his home, so he can watch heavy equipment to his heart’s content. In his high chair he bends his arm up like a swan’s neck, cups his hand like the bucket of a backhoe, and merrily digs at his watermelon pieces, usually juicing up the joint quite a bit in the process. He pauses occasionally to give tours of the fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars on his bib.

At the tender age of 20 months, he really displays amazing elocution in general. (Okay, I’m a doting granddad, but also an objective linguist.) Caterpillar, butterfly, Panda Puffs, salamander: you say it once and he will repeat it and remember it much later. He can actually articulate “truck” flawlessly (most toddlers offer scarier versions not suitable for mixed baby company), which is all the more reason I wonder at his insistence on “gahbage cah.” “TV green gahbage cah” is the signal to put on one of his favorite YouTube videos. Please don’t think he sits and watches all day long; we just know that we can sit still for 15 minutes with him right before lunch…

I recently read an interesting piece on what biologists call “soft evolution.” While we tend to think of the evolution of species as requiring millions of years, researchers have discovered that, when they injured the heads of fleas, the next generation had harder heads. (I am incapable of imagining the delicacy of their instrumentation.) I suddenly realized the source of Ollie’s quirk of pronunciation: my own sojourn in Massachusetts from 1972 to 1981.

My ears were assaulted immediately by that Boston accent, one I had honestly never heard even in movies (The Town and Good Will Hunting were still decades away). Among my friends were two men from South Boston — Charlestown — whose r’s were even more finely untuned. I knew one as “Ottie” for weeks until I saw his name printed on a football roster: Artie. The other one–a hockey player– was almost expelled when he was attacked by nine teeagers one night on the town green and he beat them up. When I was a TA giving Spanish 101 at UMass, I had students who routinely inserted spurious r’s at the end of words that actually just ended with a stressed “a.” Amazing.

Clearly this is a case of soft evolution. The effect of my protracted immersion in that atmosphere skipped a generation and now manifests itself tin my poor little grandson’s phonetic system. He is also learning Modern Greek from his dad; it will be interesting to see if Southie-ese interferes there as well…

Mike Wilson is a former Hampden-Sydney Spanish professor and 13-year resident of Prince Edward County, who now calls North Carolina home. He can be reached at jmwilson@catawba.edu.