Recently, a flurry of studies, books, anecdotes, and urban legends claim that swearing is a sign of authenticity, honesty, and even intelligence. I don’t know. In most instances, I find that swearwords, used judiciously and with the all-important element of timing can be expressive and effective. I don’t recall when I began swearing, but it was a long time ago, and I haven’t let up yet. There are times, however, when a curse can be a curse.
I had finished my first novel and had secured an interview at KPFK, Los Angeles’ Pacifica station. At the time, Pacifica was going through a bitter internal war and they had long been at war with the Federal Communications Commission over the use of profanity. Pacifica had recently broadcast George Carlin, that beloved commissioner of swearwords, performing his infamous “Seven Dirty Words” routine. Well, to coin a phrase, the shit hit the fan. An ensuing lawsuit went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court that ruled that the FCC had the authority to censor “indecent” language during hours when children were likely to be among the audience.
I had been invited to speak to a progressive news talk person at KPFK about this new novel and to read a few passages for the audience. The novel was set in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s and its characters often found profanity to be as expressive and effective as I do. When I arrived at the station, Sonali, the interviewer and I spoke affably about the novel and the nature of her questions. She told me she planned to videotape the interview and upload it to the Pacifica web site. She introduced me through the soundstage glass to the control room engineer, a lovely woman named Shana. She also described the ongoing tension that existed between the Pacifica Network and the FCC and asked that I take particular care to avoid any profanity that might be lurking in the text of my tale.
I assured her that I was a seasoned reader and would be sure to skip any dirty words that might spring up in dialog. She suggested I might want to highlight any indecencies as a precaution but I confidently repeated that such a precaution wouldn’t be necessary. After all, I had written the f—ing book and was intimately acquainted with every paragraph, sentence, and word. And so we began.
The Q & A went well. She asked about my motivation for writing the book. I wanted to set the record straight about what the New Left was all about. She asked what qualified me to write such a book. I told her of my participation in both civil rights and antiwar movements and my studies in American history. We talked about the outcome of the antiwar movement, the confusion between hippies, the counterculture, and the political Left wing, and more. She invited me to read.
I opened to a scene set at the 1968 Democratic Convention. For the audience, I explained that Madeline, one of the story’s protagonists and underground newspaper stringer is interviewing Roger, a romantic but confused infantile leftist and informant. “You think these kids out here . . . ” Roger swept his arm across the park, where a flood of people streamed onto the grass with each turn of the traffic light. “You think they want to strike a deal with a cop out like ‘Clean Gene McCarthy’? Man! They see us with him, they’re gonna think we’re ratting them out. And we will be.”
“Why?” Madeline scribbled furiously without looking up.
“Because,” Roger snapped. “McCarthy may wear flowers on his tie, but he’s still a stooge. They elect him, you think we’ll stop bombing Hanoi? Shit, man. He’ll just wring his hands harder than the others. The fucking guy’s sucking the fire out of a bunch of kids who think electing stooges to the Presidency is the answer.”
I became aware of a large, sweeping movement just beyond my peripheral vision. I looked up. Sonali was waving her arms at Shana who was staring intently at the audio board and twirling dials. I stopped reading. “What happened?” I asked.
Sonali ignored me. She spoke into her microphone to Shana. “Did you get it?”
Shana raised a thumb.
Sonali turned to me, eyes blazing. “Luckily, the time delay saved us. Keep reading. We’ve got dead air right now.
Yikes. I had blown it. I hadn’t even noticed my taboo boondoggle until now.
Feeling terrible, I continued reading. “Okay,” Madeline said. “Who’s got the answer?”
Roger eyed her with suspicion. “You’re with me, aren’t you.”
“I’m interviewing you, aren’t I.”
“Okay.” Roger lowered his voice and leaned into her. “I got the answer.”
“Okay,” she replied, leaning toward his warm, blond features. “What is it?”
Roger grinned. “Stop the fucking thing. Stop The whole fucking machine. Now. Right here. Shut it down. Do the Rosa Parks thing. Stop the buses, stop the work, close the gas stations, boycott the subways, turn off the television, quit writing letters to Congressmen, stand up and kick ‘em in the moneybags.”
“Damn, man.” Madeline closed her notepad. “You sure know how to talk dirty.”
I looked up. Sonali’s head was buried in her forearms on the desktop. Shana was twirling dials.
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Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles.
Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.