All the scuzzlecrafts were out and about. The view through our man’s windshield showed the completeness of the system as he went flying from level to level of the city, drooping, soaring, twisting and canoozling (if he had ever chosen to be daring). The skyscape was never as beautiful as it was at rush hour. The sleepy sun was almost beneath the ocean and darting wizzerskids alongside leviathan autowoofs rose above its electric amber glow casting shadows on the clouds above. The skyfull of shiny cylinders shooting below mulberry and barley colored clouds, going to and fro all in a hurry to get home before . . .
The radio cut in, “Reminder: Today’s color is purple, purple day means purple night, purple night means after ten no light.”
It was 9.15 and Phillomen J., in his orange scuzzlecraft passing the tea factory, wasn’t worried about a sanction. Phillomen J. hadn’t received a sanction (not even a minor one) since the last election (over 20 years ago) when the system was introduced. Phillomen J. had passed by the donut factory every purple day at 9.15 and made it home by 9.45; he wasn’t worried.
Phillomen looked down and saw gridlock on the lower leveled high-ways. “Too bad”, he thought plainly. For those caught on the high-ways after 10.00, the road lights were cut and anyone found navigating was given a heavy citation.
Like a metallic river navigating a mountain range, the wizzerskids and swoofboats again and again lifted and lowered in the air and navigated between buildings that swayed safely in the wind. Rising in-between high-ways, matte-slate towers were garnished with olive colored rectangular window panes that stood as witnesses to wizzing and weezing vehicles all in a hurry and a huff.
But no one noticed the beautiful intricacy of it besides Phillomen J. who could afford the moment of reflection. All the other drivers kept their eyes on their tick-tock watches; none of them could afford another sanction.
The radio cut in, “Reminder: at the end of the month all Level 9 citizens with four or more sanctions must report to the Office of Polite Affairs. All Level 5-8 citizens with three or more…”
And so it went until our man turned it off.
For Phillomen J. and his contemporaries, what ‘was’ and what ‘wasn’t’ was all there was. If something ‘was’ then it was good, if it ‘wasn’t’ it wouldn’t be anything for much longer.
It had started off easy enough. A few new words were introduced to make conversation easier, less people would be offended, terms were to be sharpened.
Before, on the street they would often say:
“The current system reeks of colonialism.”
“Alice don’t use such passé language, you know his father was a….”
“I don’t care if you were joking John. How could you say such an insensitive thing? She’s like a mother to our children.”
The scholars advanced that the old jargon just wasn’t going well with the demand and intricacies. It became so bad that any conversation was marred with potential for disaster and misunderstanding.
The old stuff was what ‘wasn’t’ and the new stuff was what ‘was.’ At first the rules only applied to people. The more scientific ‘female’ was preferred over ‘woman’ to avoid the social connotations and expectations of the latter. But ‘female’ didn’t come without its share of difficulties. ‘Male’ and ‘female’ separated the world into two spheres and left no room for the gray areas that now existed. Words such as ‘female’ were evidence of a narrow-minded era and couldn’t last.
Events didn’t stop there. Special interest groups for the working class suggested that the terms ‘robot and ‘android’ (not to mention ‘rust-bucket’) were too derogatory. The working class didn’t appreciate the classification.
“These are some very advanced pieces of machinery!” explained their lawyers.
The term ‘lustrous individual’ was eventually settled on. And the floodgate was opened.
But it was Dr. Liediough who took this crusade of words into academia. He proposed that the word ‘past’ was just “too darn isolating. It fails to connote that events can still be going on. It insults the historians who study something characterized as futility!”1 The change of ‘past’ to ‘yesterday’ allowed these men to think of their work as continually relevant. The word stuck and many scholars found new excitement and achieved many great things as a result. The word revolution was heralded.
With such a great and complete system, adherence to it was de rigueur. Using anything other than the approved nomenclature was impolite at first and then a nuisance. The nuisances added up to frustrations and lawsuits and black eyes and broken springs so that it became law, punishable and reportable to the Office of Polite Affairs who would issue the appropriate sanction. But why end there?
In a dark room in the third level basement of the Office of Polite Affairs Headquarters sat a small man with big ideas. S. Hairns never made it far before but his idea to make the world a less offensive place would take him beyond. For him, not only were certain words dangerous but also comparisons between words, comparisons between people, were bound to cause problems. Now, mentioning his own insecurities and flaws would be verboten and the constant references to people better than he would soon be over. His insecure higher-ups loved the idea and the revolution was completed.
S. Hairns thought that if words could cause such problems, so could their tone, their inflection, their accompanying facial expression. On December 12th of the following year, the Office of Polite Affairs issued this statement with full backing of the government:
“Due to recent concerns on the stability of our union, the OPA has decided that certain changes must be made. To regain our stability, anyone heard using inflection, stating preference with explicit comparison to a lesser or greater individual or insinuating mockery through any of these means will be cited and, if uncooperative, removed on the spot. For an example of appropriate behavior, see an index of Gregorian chants at your local library.”
Some people took very well to this. Accountants seemed to thrive, as did subway conductors and tenured college professors. Standup comedians disappeared literally overnight in an OPA raid across the nation. From there the power of the OPA was official and they could make any rules they wished in the name of their oppression against intolerance and insensitivity. Being late, enthusiastic, critical or showing a preference in general all fell under ‘wasn’t’ and promptness, sociability, and predictability became what ‘was’. Violators became what ‘wasn’t’ along with their antiquated speech.
Phillomen J. was. Everyone knew it and certainly more would know it after he received his commendation. His voice hadn’t altered pitch in 20 years, nor had he been late, insensitive or unpredictable during that time. Phillomen J. arrived at his house at 9.45 on the dot. His front door slid open and peaceably, flatly, expectedly, a voice welcomed him in.
“Hello, Phyliss” he droned.
“Good e-.“ She stopped herself, regained her composure and started again, “Hello, Phillomen.” ‘Good evening’ was recently added to the list of ‘weren’t’s and many were still adjusting. She was lucky she wasn’t in one of the monitored rooms.
“Do you feel anticipation for the banquet tomorrow.” Phyllis droned back. She was taking the food plates out of the reheater when Phillomen walked in and she was now placing them on the table.
The J. family table was a white rectangular plastic structure with clear corners and four half spherical concavities that the food plates fit flush into. Similar depressions held cups and silverware so that once the table was set even the wooshing of a low flying wizzerskid wouldn’t shake the arrangement.
“As much as I can I could look forward to it suppose. I feel a certain amount of ambivalence to receive such a commendation. I feel simply that I have done my duty to the city and hope that my life continues to remain well received and that my ways remain not as hindrances to others.”
“The OPA doesn’t normally pick out individuals but they feel you serve as a representation of many more and have allowed it,” she said to assuage his ambivalence of his commendation.
“We certainly feel proud of you,” she whispered.
Phillomen put down his coat and didn’t respond.
The children arrived with normal porcelain expressions to say hello to father and take their seats. In yesterday’s terms, Phyllis would be described as having a soft face and apprehensive eyes. Her blonde hair would have been brighter outside the olive city light but even today it kept its bouncy curls that sprung doubly when she was excited; a titillation her face could never show and her husband could never appreciate. Her eyes had avoided wrinkles through years of non-expression yet her face looked worn and haggard from years of over-tension and restraint.
The children were placid and didn’t share their mother’s worry, like all those born after S. Hairns’s revelation. Phillomen was able to adapt unusually well. As was to be expected, he wore what was formerly called a ‘mandarin’ collared shirt and his hairline was what used to be called a ‘widow’s peak’. His cheeks puckered in like an old goldfish’s and his ears pointed slightly up, and made him resemble a retired elf.
Even citizens such as Phillomen had a hard time with the new way. His two sons had recently passed their elementary school exit exams and the parents were shown their confidential marks. He would have taken pride in this and congratulated his sons if it weren’t too risky. Sometimes his emotions converted these innate desires in a tapping of the finger or a twitch of his eyelid but these were easily concealable. Phillomen steadied his leg while letting his wife continue the conversation.
None of their faces showed that they were pleased with the meal; “To do so would only undermine the meals after which no visible sign of pleasure was seen.”2
And so the night was. And it wasn’t allowed to be anything different.
The conclusion of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow will run in the Sept. 6 issue of the Voice.
1 Liediough, Harris “Chicago Lectures.” University of Chicago. December 1993.
2 (OPA Penal Code Section 3230.38 b).