The Victim of Words

I don’t know how many of you can say this, but I spent a week in a famous psychiatric ward in Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital called Bulfinch Seven, a restricted area that was also sometimes reserved for the victims of words.

I had parked my rental car on a hill while visiting from Mexico, and I had neglected to turn my front wheels left and then roll back, anchoring the back of the wheels against the curb. A policeman had pulled up beside my car, a Toyota Prius, and asked me my name as he wrote out the ticket. I thought it a good moment to make a point about his more than likely monoligualism and I said to him, “You mean, Cómo te llamas, come lagañas! don’t you?”—What’s your name, go eat eye boogers!”

The policeman said, ” You can tell me in English, or I can increase the fine—for civic insolence.”

I doubted that there was a law having to do with “civic insolence,” and so I said. “Qué te importa, Mr. Policeman, tu hermana, la gordota!”—What’s it to you, Mr. Policeman, your sister, the great big fat one?

What started out as irritation on his face changed and became a detached, even scientific look. And so I thought it wise to inquire, “Qué te pasa, naranjada?”—What’s up, orangeade?

I had noticed—I admit, too slowly—the man’s complexion, and thought he might be Sicilian from the North End, or a Sikh from the South. And as my fortunes would have it, he answered me in—of all things—Spanish.

“Nada, nada, limonada.—Nothing, nothing, lemonade!” he said, with a perfect accent.

He was smiling, but still looked detached—a fact that gave me pause.

“I’m going to ask you to get into my pinche patrulla,” he said—in a reasonable tone—get into the goddamn patrol car.

Hard to explain, but I gave him one more blast. Plus, I didn’t intend to get into his pinche patrulla. After all, I was on my way to a reading—therefore, by implication, a writer of possibly some note. And so I gave him my cleverest shot.

“Güero, güerumbo, de un pedo te tumbo, de dos te levanto y de tres te retumbo!”—Pale face güerumbo (gware-rumbo, a nonsense word that gives sound and cadence), I can drop you with one fart, pick you up with the second and put you on the ground again with the third.

Not exactly the most delicate school boy taunt, but I was, I suppose, much worked up about reading from my novel and about the fawning looks I hoped to elicit from exciting young women half my age.

Before I knew it, he had cuffed my hands behind me and had me—the real güero güerumbo—in the back seat of his patrol car. And that is how I landed in Bulfinch Seven.

But it so happened that my agent—that’s literary agent—had driven up behind us and then followed us to the Bulfinch looney bin where they gave me a small pink pill. With a few calls on his iPhone my agent, one Henry Salisbury, arranged to have my waiting audience of twelve people shifted to the hospital, where I—now a calmer self—read to them and to the rest of the patients from my novel about a modern detective sent north into the United States to try to retrieve territories stolen by that country. Though their applause was not as strong as I would have liked, and everyone in my original audience was at least sixty, one unofficial attendee sitting in the back of the ward clapped with some enthusiasm—who was none other than my arresting officer, who later told me he was a distant relative of Santa Ana, the president-general that lost one leg to the French in the Pastry War of 1838, called himself His Most Serene Highness, blocked American invaders at Saltillo in 1847, delayed obese General Winfield Scott’s advance on Mexico City from Veracruz and, in the end, essentially lost half of Mexico to the Americans with the Treaty of Guadalupe in 1848—for fifteen million dollars.

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