Like a Pay Car Passin’ a Tramp
by C.K. Thomas
My last post introduced many 1930s sayings I learned as a child from my mother, who grew up in a household with four older brothers. Her language reflected the boisterous speech of the boys and her farmer father. It’s fun for me to reflect on the meanings behind some of the expressions I heard from my mother’s lips and to realize I’ve adopted some of my own.
I often envision the image a particular expression conjures. For instance, consider the title of this blog post, “like a pay car passin’ a tramp.” Picture a guy without a job walking along a rail line to the next town where he might search in vain for “gainful employment.” His clothes are ragged and all his possessions are wrapped in a bandanna hung on a long stick, slung over one shoulder. The poor guy jumps to the side of the tracks as a freight train barrels past, blasting him with hot air and cinders.
He sees the armored car tucked among the ones hauling pigs and ducks to market and knows a locked safe resides inside, one full of money for men who already have jobs. Almost before he can blink, the length of the train has passed him.
It’s a sad picture, one born out of this country’s Depression and Dust Bowl era when men, young and old, left their failing farms and hopped the freight cars in search of jobs to feed their families. The expression became a way of describing a person running scared. Someone might say, “At midnight, he heard that ghostly howl from the graveyard and ran out of there like a pay car passin’ a tramp.
From that same era came this phrase, “Write if you get work.” In our family, when someone abruptly gets up and leaves a discussion with no explanation, we might use that expression just for fun. It reminds me of a story a friend told me about her aunt’s husband. One evening he said, “I’m going out for bread and cigarettes.” It’s not much of a story unless you consider that he didn’t come back for eight years! And, yes, she did take him back when he returned, amazingly enough. After my husband and I heard that story, we began using that phrase whenever one of us leaves the house without revealing a particular destination.
It’s fascinating to me how these little tidbits of language creep into our speech. It could be a story like the one described above or even a movie quote that catches our imagination. My husband tells a story about the first medical ship, HOPE, being outfitted for service. By some misadventure, a load of rice was dumped in the ship’s hold where some of the medical instruments were stored. As the crew sailed and discovered items missing from their inventory, they would say, “It’s under the rice.” This has become our go-to phrase whenever something comes up missing, especially after a move to a new home.
A movie quote that tends to invade our vernacular with a bit of revision is, “Hey, I’m walkin’ here.” We use it when one of us happens to be slow at doing some task. When the one who is waiting gets pushy about the time the task is taking, the other one says, trying for the same emphasis as Dustin Hoffman in the movie, Midnight Cowboy, “Hey, I’m workin’ here!”
These expressions make us smile and even ease tensions in some situations. We use the same ones again and again, and in a way these words bind us together with our own original secret code. Their meanings sometimes remain a mystery to those around us, and they are a pleasure to explain, when asked. Writing about this topic makes me once again realize the power of words and the reasons I love to string them together into stories.
C.K. Thomas lives in Phoenix, Arizona. Before retiring, she worked for Phoenix Newspapers while raising three children and later as communications editor for a large United Methodist Church. The Storm Women is her fourth novel and the third in the Arrowstar series about adventurous women of the desert Southwest. Follow her blog: We-Tired and Writing Blog.