by Leigh Lundin
Once again I write about forbidden words but in a different context. As usual, however, they may not be what you expect.
Writers, I like to believe, see the world in a skewed way, and in articulating an odd-angled view, teach, entertain, wonder, or ponder. I suspect mystery writers, who imagine mayhem and crime around every corner, have a particularly bent perspective.
The following are true stories. They’re also a test of wits, but the clues are all there. In particular, after telling the first story, I’ve learned some people will say, "Huh?" and others will go, "Ah."
Many years ago, I consulted for a venerable company in the tiny blue collar town of Whitman, Massachusetts, south of Boston, not so far from Fall River (where Lizzie Borden took an axe) and Plymouth, land of the Pilgrims.
Although business in the town back then had pretty much dried up, its people remained steadfast. To outsiders, the village might look like a bulwark of beer, Boston Bruins, and bashing anyone who suggested otherwise, but small towns are deeper than that and Whitman was no exception. It wasn’t a bastion of education or the arts and, in fact, the school system was poor, but it was their town, and as such, what happened locally mattered. That why when a driver dropped her cigarette on the floor of her SUV and, in picking it up, crushed another woman against the bank wall, it became two tragedies, the town grieving for both the dead pedestrian and the girl who had killed her.
The pizza maker in the Venus Café was rumored to be gay, normally a hanging offense, but he made pizza that put the entire city of Boston to shame, and people respected that and left him alone. That was the thing about outsiders: If you proved yourself useful, you had a place among them. If you were shiftless, you were welcome to leave.
Bostonian/Stetson Shoe was a huge, rambling factory that had grown by accretion like a medieval village which had metastasized to encompass other buildings including a church and a cannery. It had crossed streets via bridgeways and stilts and gobbled up additional clapboard structures in its path. Manufacturing had long since ceased due to outsourcing to foreign lands, but inside, the business office still limped along. The remainder of the plant housed ancient cast iron machinery, attics of century-old furniture, an octopus of a furnace that Captain Nemo would have considered dangerous, and a telephone system Alexander Graham Bell might have tinkered with.
The plant was no place for a security guard who was afraid of the dark, and yes, of course, they had one. The night watchman lit up the buildings at night and dragged chairs to block aisles, just in case monsters were skulking the floors. Each morning following his shift, employees had to sort out their chairs from the barricades before they could settle down to their first coffee.
The company had a few problems with government regulations, particularly racial quotas, not really their fault in a financially depressed town where minorities had more sense than to settle. Happily, the company discovered one of the managers had a last name of Alvarez, albeit a man without any discernible Hispanic ancestors. They added Mrs. Swartz, although they failed to mention she attended the Presbyterian church. A couple of girls with middle names of Maria and Luz helped round out the list as well.
The company, struggling as it was, had a heart. I discovered that the job of one woman was to determine the quantity of shoes by size for each production run, which she submitted once a week. In college, we had studied statistical bell curves and, for the first time in my career, I realized I was staring at a perfect bell curve. Excited by my discovery, I told a vice president that I could write a computer program that could calculate the production run in a couple of seconds instead of taking a woman an entire week. The VP looked at me and said, "Yes, but if we did that, she wouldn’t have a job."
Like the clapboard structures, I have rambled on, but now I come to the reason for this tale. One of the clerks was a British girl who had married a local boy. She wore a locket with the initials A.S.S. on it. Knowing the letters didn’t come close to matching her name, I asked her about this curiosity.
She told me her husband had been highly enthusiastic about her becoming a citizen and, after pressure from his family, she knuckled down and studied hard for it. On her first exam, she passed and her husband was elated. He planned a celebratory dinner and invited family and friends. On the day of the ceremony when she was awarded American citizenship, he happily gave her a remembrance locket…
… engraved with…
This month, I’ve been responsible for processing articles. Deborah’s in particular were so easy to post, they almost snapped into place. One of the highlights was working with Jon L. Breen since it seemed I’d been reading him since forever.
I’m visual, so when practical, I went hunting for clip art to illustrate the articles. Normally, I use Google or DogPile, which, when they come through, save time compared to hunting through my clip art collections. Strangely, though, for the most recent of Melodie’s articles, DogPile kept plying me with warnings that I could be offended by explicit content.
I puzzled over that for a couple of minutes; after all, I was simply searching for a yellow Hummer to match her story. Then, it dawned on me that ‘Hummer’ has another, entirely different meaning which I had learned about in the back seat of a very different vehicle, my first car. Good Lord, I was being nannied by software.
It’s bad enough being censored, but being censored by software is a real slap in the puss. The first time I was reined in by software happened a few years ago in an on-line forum. I was writing about Valentine, my goffin cockatoo, a sweetheart of a bird. He often sits between my wrists when I’m typing at the computer.
When I hit
SUBMIT, the forum instantly rejected my article for obscenity. I was aghast since I’m not normally given to words that Salinger or even James Joyce might use. Frustratingly, the article was too long to easily spot where the problem lay.
A binary search is an algorithm used to locate an object rapidly, and I deployed this technique, breaking the article in half and then half again, narrowing the search until I located the troublesome word. Even after I found it, I scratched my head for a moment until I realized the offending word was…
Thankfully, I hadn’t gotten around to talking about my pussycat.