Circa 1950s: When you grow up in Texas, you get used to hearing yourself called young lady if you’re a girl or son if you’re a boy.
It’s usually some old codger at the grocery store or the filling station who’s calling you that — somebody who clearly doesn’t realize how special and intellectual and deep you are. Somebody who’s patronizing you just because you’re young. It’s awful.
If you’re a rebellious and wild young thing, you probably go steal a motorcycle and terrorize some little kids and pigeons just to show the old coots they can’t push you around. If you’re introverted and skittish, you probably just break out in more pimples. You can imagine what kind of kid I was; I should have invested in Clearasil stock.
Circa late 1980s, early 90s: The years pass, and if you’re lucky, your face clears up. Nobody calls you young lady or son any longer. If you’re the weepy, nostalgic type, you begin to miss it. (If you’re the weepy, nostalgic type, in fact, you are capable of getting all choked up and missing anything, even a mild case of acne.)
I am, of course, one of those weepy, nostalgic types. This whole nostalgia bit got so bad when our kids were young that I sometimes found myself driving up to a nearby full-service gas station. There was a guy who was probably in his 80s who worked there.
“What do you need today, young lady?” he’d ask.
Young lady! This electrified the whole car. I’d ask him to fill it up, please, all the while luxuriating in being called — just one more time, just because I needed it that day, dammit — young lady. In the meantime, the kids would stop screaming and biting each other in the back seat. Instead, they began to howl with laughter. Their mother was being called young lady! Did the filling-station attendant need a seeing-eye dog or something?
Circa Now: Sure enough, the years kept on passing, the full-service gas station is now a restaurant, and our kids drive their own cars. Oddly, though, the phrase “young lady” is enjoying an unfortunate resurgence when it comes to my generation. It’s often used by youthful servers at restaurants in an attempt to — well, what? Be funny? Chummy? Cute?
I begin to get reports from friends our age about their potentially becoming fork-wielding rage-aholics the next time some bright-eyed, wise-ass waiter or waitress pulls that phrasing out of their fedora. Aside from Vietnam and all that, we are a non-violent generation, but we do have our limits. You can’t call us young unless you’re as old as we are — so we’re all in on the joke.
Or maybe, I think, it should just be explained gently: Young ladies, real or imagined, rarely tip well. Older women, in contrast, when served in a manner of respect or slavish devotion, pony up quite extravagantly. It might be worth your while to choose your words carefully.
(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Read about remembering the mind of a 23-year-old. You haven’t forgotten, have you?