Performing unscripted drunken operettas…

Word count: 433 words

Reading time: Less than 2 minutes

A great way to improve your writing skills is to emulate the work of others. That’s why, every week, I present a sentence that I’d happily imitate. Today’s comes from Taras Grescoe.

The first time I went to New York City, in 1984, I didn’t dare ride the subway. The city pulsed with danger  — especially to this quiet Canadian who was travelling alone. I wasn’t just being neurotic. Between 1966 and 1981, NYC had a reported crime rate more 70% higher than the rest of the U.S. I had friends who’d been mugged. Fortunately, I’ve since had the chance to go back several times (it’s my favourite city in the world) and of course I’ve now ridden the subway with respect and gratitude.

Ditto for London. Ditto for Paris. I love big cities and I adore efficient public transit systems. When my hometown, Vancouver, opened a rapid transit line between the airport and downtown in 2010 (in time for the Winter Olympics) I was enthralled. Once a week, I ride it to visit a client’s office.

After reading Taras Gresco’s book, Straphanger, however, I realize that I’ve been stuck on a rather slow bus. Tokyo. Moscow. Madrid. Copenhagen. Bogata. So many cities with such terrific transit systems. I agree with Gresco: it’s time we lost our stranglehold on the car and adapted friendlier more democratic forms of transit such as walking, cycling and riding public transit.

Taras Grescoe wears his heart on his sleeve in this book. It’s clear he has an agenda and he marshals his arguments carefully and convincingly. He’s also good at painting pictures in words. Here, for example, is his description of a line 3 station in the Paris Metro:

At the Republique Station, intimidating gypsy camps of clochards –panhandlers — clotted the platforms with their impedimenta of mongrels and plastic bags, performing unscripted drunken operettas for passersby.

I appreciate his use of the vernacular for “panhandlers” — I speak a tiny bit of French — at least enough to pronounce the word correctly — and I enjoy the feeling of the word in the back of my throat. I also like his verb “clotted” — something used more frequently for cream or blood than for individuals, but it’s apt here; the panhandlers at Paris Metro stations always seemed particularly aggressive to me. I also like the old-fashioned word “impedimenta,” which comes from 1600s Latin, referring to “baggage” (think: impediment.)

And, finally, I really enjoy the idea of a unscripted — and drunken — operetta. Perhaps it’s because I’m going to the Pirates of Penzance on Sunday, but something about the idea of an operetta being unscripted seems delightfully ludicrous.

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