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Why Can’t Guillermo Speak Spanish?

Even at a very young age I knew I wanted to be multilingual, or at least bilingual.  Having finally learned enough of my own language, by the 8th Grade I was able to take a foreign language class.  I chose Spanish, mostly because I had several friends I could practice with.  But I was already learning bits of different languages from kids around my school.  I asked around avidly because what I really wanted was to be able to curse fluently in any country in the world.

After all, we had such a multilingual school that I’d be a fool to pass up this opportunity!  And, being in Hollywood, I wanted to understand the bad words in foreign films (if I ever got into that genre).  I wished I could have gotten in to see “Caligula,” playing an endless run at The Cave theater (I erroneously thought it was a foreign film and that it was rated X for language), for some ideas, but that wasn’t about to happen.

Cursing in English was getting boring.  Once you mastered “mother fucking titty sucking two ball bitch” it was all downhill for a kid.  I quickly drew up a wish list from my friends; some of them were reluctant to help out, but some, like Ariel and Troy, were quite cooperative.  I needed to be able to say ‘cunt’ and ‘fuck’ in 5 languages, that was my first goal.  My friend Enrique, who at 13 was fluent in English and Spanish, liked speaking English at school because when he got home it was all Spanish.  This way he got to practice both.  I got ‘mierda’ and ‘maricon’ out of the way quickly enough.  I noticed when I said these words Enrique’s brothers would kind of giggle; I was getting laughs, whether for style or content I didn’t much care.  I was going to like this.

An Armenian kid taught me something that translated as ‘porkpie bitch cousin fucker,’ it was fun to try to pronounce but I couldn’t really use it in conversation.  I may not have used that one much but I was glad I had a secret way to make the Armenian kids laugh.  As I couldn’t learn ‘cunt’ in Armenian without it being part of the phrase ‘diseased cunt whore’ I eventually moved on.  My Armenian curse-tutor, at age 12, apparently had some women issues.

In the meantime I had started Spanish 1 with Miss Berdofe.  I sat at the back of the class and earnestly tried to learn something other than cursing.  Miss Berdofe was a young woman from Spain who carried around (maybe as some talisman) a wine bladder called a bota bag that she’d picked up in Basque country.  It apparently had a goat’s bladder inside of it.  She sure liked the Basques and that bladder (little did she know I’D turn out to be the real pisser). In no time at all I was learning sentence construction and verb tenses.  Everything made sense to me, I got A’s.  But instead of practicing by actually speaking; I walked around trying to curse kids out in different languages.

It could have been instructive.

There was a kid from Korea who was kind of innocent but seemed willing to teach. I asked him for ‘motherfucker’ and ‘cocksucker’ (I wondered whether they rhymed in Korean too) and he hemmed and hawed.  Finally he gave in.  He taught me ‘ootot’ and ‘baboy.’ Cool.  I needed to find another Korean kid to use as a sounding board.  Later I saw were several Korean kids standing together.  I said to them ‘ootot’ and ‘baboy.’  No laughter.  Was my pronunciation THAT bad?!  Finally Bom Sok told me they meant merely ‘fart’ and ‘pig.’

I learned that if a kid is smiling all the time and he wears his backpack on both shoulders it will probably be a waste of time to ask him for bad words.

My friends Ariel and Troy were from the Philippines.  Their efforts were instrumental in getting me to not only learn words, but also to string them together in a whole sentence.  They immediately taught me what would be a classic, ‘na nay moe calbow titi bognagna.’  Shit, I had to write that down.  They taught me all the names for the body parts that we usually keep hidden and how to interchange them with the words for ‘father’ ‘mother’ and ‘sister.’

Pure gold.

Troy taught me how to say ‘two’ and ‘three’ in Tagalog so the combinations now were practically infinite.  I was so happy to learn these words and to reliably get a laugh that I never asked how to converse normally, something that they would have happily and patiently taught me.

I could have been an honorary Filipino.  A much older but only slightly more mature me would regret this oversight.

My goofy, giggly cursing was bleeding over into Spanish class and starting to cause me problems.  Carlos, my partner in crime, and I were like an earlier generation of “Beavis and Butthead,” nothing could get us going like a kid speaking up and mispronouncing something simple, like ‘calle’ (because after all, we were so fluent and all).  I’d once asked him how HE had a Spanish name and was getting to take this class.  He told me that, though he was fluent in Spanish, he lied about it, so he could get an easy ‘A.’

His pretend mispronunciations were freakin’ hilarious because only we knew the truth. When a kid would stand up to say something we’d whisper ‘pendejo’ and stay stuck on the laugh train all class long.  After a couple of days of this Miss Berdofe taught me something new. Instead of calling me ‘Guillermo’ (my name in Spanish), as per usual, she’d shake her head and say “¡Que bruto!”  I didn’t know it at the time but that was a sign I was really getting on her nerves.

I started to branch out a little.  I wanted to teach foul language to kids from other countries, kind of my way of giving thanks for all I had learned.  I started with derivations of ‘fuck,’ like ‘fuckface’ and ‘fuckstick.’  The kids who asked me really loved it, other kids I tried to approach (the 2 shoulder back-packers) were not so interested.  I’d make up nonsensical words and share them to all who were into it.  Other kids seemed to be making things up too, and I could not stop myself nor stop laughing.

Then, Carlos and I learned that ESL students could be massively yet unintentionally entertaining.

My Spanish classroom was used during other periods for English as a Second Language class.  Kids who I thought probably didn’t give their teacher such a hard time, sat down at their desks and tried to label pictures in American coloring books.  They’d cut out the pages and put up their results on the wall, so Carlos and I could see them when it came time for our class.  This stuff was better than anything we heard in class, because they actually wrote it down wrong.  It was there in all its WRONG glory.  It was surely fucked up for us to laugh, but, hey, I thought, don’t put it up there if it’s WRONG!

One day there was a picture of an ice cream cone, and some probably earnest kid had written ‘nice dream’ next to it.  This had TWO ERRORS.  I knew I’d remember this in cinematic detail because I’d never laughed so hard in my life.  I thought I would really need a hospital because everything in my chest was frozen in place and I couldn’t breathe.  Carlos was laugh-crying and making these weird horsey sounds that made it all worse. It was made even funnier because there happened to be a new Cheech & Chong (LeConte kids LOVED those guys almost as much as Dr. Demento) movie out called “Nice Dreams” and the ‘ice cream’ kid probably didn’t get the humor of THAT either!  In our minds, this page now had THREE ERRORS; and we were off again!

I might have laughed less had I considered there might somewhere be a kid (say, from Mexico), laughing his ass off at my fumbling attempts at Spanish, especially if I had to write something down.  We had truly reached ‘brutisimo’ status with Miss Berdofe.

I got in trouble that day and knew I had to straighten up.  I paid more attention and tried to laugh less.  I did well, but I still underestimated the importance of conversational Spanish.  I didn’t know it at the time but that really WAS the key to learning any language.  I thought because I could have won a Spanish spelling bee that I was a hotshot. I asked Enrique to tutor me.  His normal cadence had to be slowed down 3 or 4 times til he sounded like a 78 record played at 45 speed.   I could understand a little bit then, but the slow speed would make me just start laughing again.  He’d call me at home but it always seemed to be during “Prisoner: Cell Block H” (a great Aussie show about a women’s prison that my family was addicted to) that showed on channel 13.  I’d make excuses and get off the phone.

One day the next year my mom drove me to Silver Lake via Sunset.  Enrique had invited me to his catechism and that was really an honor.  We were going to a Spanish service in a church not far off Bellevue, where he lived. I was serious and a little nervous.  I spent a few days trying to brush up on what little Spanish I had learned (though by some miracle Miss Berdofe had given me an A in Spanish 1) and I felt ok about my chances of not making a ‘baboy’ or, worse yet, a ‘titi’ of myself.  But I was scared one of his relatives would ask me “¿Como está usted?” and I’d come off like some dumb-dick gringo.

Looking out the window, I fretted out a couple of scenarios as we passed through the residential part of Sunset. Then, on the right side of the street, we noticed a really flashily dressed guy walking out to his car.  It looked like…..HOLY SHIT!  IT IS!!  It’s Rick James!!!

Rick James, fresh off “Superfreak,” wearing a red and orange sequined jumpsuit, his hair replete with beads (I thought, like Bo Derek in “10”).  He was putting something in the trunk of his car (we had no way of knowing that a few years later he would show a SERIOUS predilection for putting things in trunks of cars).  My sister begged us to turn around and approach.  We did, and she ran out to talk to him and get an autograph.  He was apparently very nice and they chatted for a few minutes.  This was really cool and I was glad Mary had the guts to go out and talk to him because I never did, in similar scenarios.  We got back underway, laughing and singing “Superfreak.”  My serious demeanor was gone for the day.

We ended up a little, but not too, late for the catechism.  I lay very low; still wowed by our celebrity encounter I’d forgotten all of my pigeon Spanish.  Luckily I wasn’t challenged and we got away after the call and response (I think that’s what it was, it was in Spanish).  After that it was just awesome Mexican food and smooth sailing.  I went to school that Monday feeling great, I had done something nice for a friend, and I always had more frontiers of foreign cursing to explore.

Ariel and Troy translated everything they taught me.  They never had a problem with that but some of it sounded funny.  Upon some reflection I deduced that some of these things were up to the imagination of the listener.  Ok, I got that, but for years I had this little nagging doubt that they were messing with me the whole time back in Junior High.

Well, 29 years later Ariel and Troy received their full props and my doubts were erased once and for all in a cavernous Whole Foods store in north Georgia.  I walked up to my coworker Jocelyn (a Filipino) and uttered these words without warning, “na nay moe calbow titi bognagna.”  Ariel and Troy were posthumously (actually they’re alive and well) vindicated when she turned a scarlet red and after a minute started to laugh, a little at first, then turning into the paroxysms Carlos and I had experienced back in Miss Berdofe’s class.

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