Replies and rejoinders to recent columns. . . .
"GYPSY CABBY." I used this phrase to describe a driver who cheated a Boston woman out of $120 on the snowy night of Feb. 18.
His "cab" had no information painted on the outside. Inside, he displayed no license or list of fares. When he picked up the Boston woman (at Union Station), his cab was parked several blocks away. And he never told her how much he'd charge to take her to the Bethesda Marriott.
I thought the phrase "gypsy cabby" fit like a glove. I used it without a second thought.
More than 100 readers took exception. They pointed out that the phrase was born of racial prejudice. They pointed out that gypsies were exterminated in large numbers by Hitler's Germany. I'd never use a phrase with another ethnic slur embedded within it, they said. So why use this one?
Because this one no longer implies anything specifically ethnic.
The phrase is in the language and in the dictionary.
It refers to any cabdriver who flies by night and flouts the rules.
A "gypsy cabby" can indeed be a gypsy. But he can also be Hispanic, black, or as white as Wonder Bread. He can be anyone. The driver in the story I published was African -- hardly a gypsy at all.
So the phrase has no sting. If it still had any, I would never have used it.
Let's compare "gypsy cabby" to similar phrases that began life as defamatory and are now universal.
For example, "getting your Irish up."
Once upon a time, that might have suggested that Irish people are more excitable than others, or that they're the only ethnic group that flips its lid. Today, "getting your Irish up" can apply to anyone of any ethnic group.
For another example, "whistlin' Dixie."
At birth, this was clearly a putdown of southerners. But today, "whistlin' Dixie" can be (and is) used to describe New Yorkers and Canadians, too.
To all who chastised me on this one: Thanks for your passion and caring. You keep us both honest. But we all have to recognize when there's an active pellet of hate inside a phrase and when there isn't.
Many times, I've written about how I despise (and refuse to repeat) "Polish jokes." Reason: They still do contain a specific racial message. You can't tell a Polish joke about a Hungarian.
In New York City, "gypsy cabs" have that phrase written on their doors, in many cases. The expression is so common that it wouldn't make a Geiger counter twitch.
PARENTS WHO INTERFERE: One day in March, I wrote about parents who micromanage the lives of their college-student children -- to the point of ordering pizza for kids who are 800 miles away.
The next day, I wrote about a 13-year-old Girl Scout who set a record for selling Scout cookies -- by full-court-pressing her mother's office.
"What's the difference, Bob?" demanded Bill Patton, a reader from Gaithersburg. "Either a parent should stay out of a kid's life or she shouldn't."
The difference is seven years, Bill -- between a 20-year-old college student who's plenty old enough to call up Domino's and a 13-year-old who's still too young to wear lipstick.
The first doesn't need or deserve a parent's direct help. The second does -- especially if the kid does the actual work.
In the case of the Girl Scout, all the mother did was to set the table. She didn't actually sell the cookies (as I've seen many parents do in many workplaces). What's wrong with a mom providing an opportunity for her still-young daughter? Absolutely nothing.
USHERS AT MOVIE THEATERS: Why do so few of them step up and enforce the rules? Because they're teenagers -- sometimes to the young side of 16, I wrote. To ask such young people to stand up to a gang of unruly patrons is to ask for more courage than most possess.
Actually, said a dozen or so readers, the reason is more fundamental:
Ushers don't earn enough of them to make it worth laying one's life on the line.
According to Jeff Brown, who "ushed" for three summers at the Lee Highway Multiplex in Merrifield, teenagers are "the only ones willing to work for a dime above minimum wage."
It's bad enough having to cope with "popcorn 'butter,' hot dogs and other concession ickiness," Jeff said. Taking a left hook when the boss doesn't offer health insurance wouldn't make much sense.
Of course, the boss would do something about these ills if patrons yelped loud enough. Why don't they?
Would they rather keep going to theaters where young boys catcall throughout, throw lit matches at other patrons and shout sexual taunts at every female in the place?
NEIGHBORLY LOVE-MAKING: I wrote about a Northwest Washington woman whose neighbors are noisily and repeatedly passionate -- almost always at 3 a.m. She can hear every murmur. She says love and lust are dandy -- but not when she needs to sleep. She asked for ideas about how to fight back.
The best came from an e-mailer named "ngoma1998."
"Here's what I did with a loud couple," ngoma1998 writes. "I taped their sessions. Then, at various times, I played it on my stereo at a very high volume. They got the message."
Seldom can I say: "That's an absolutely perfect idea."
I hereby say it.