Relajese, senor, su Egg McMuffin esta saliendo

May 23, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

ARE WE CLEAR now on the critical importance of having English-speaking servers in fast-food restaurants? If so, we are indebted to the brave whistle-blower William Donald Schaefer: former governor, former mayor, famous gourmand and fastidious grammarian.

At his neighborhood McDonald's one morning, Comptroller Schaefer flew into high dudgeon when servers could not engage in a nuanced discussion of the comma fault.

He loves to find his text in something he sees in the real world.

So, at a public meeting later, he declared his unhappiness over Egg McMuffins served slow by the linguistically challenged. As they say in the salons, the comptroller went off.

It was vintage Don.

There he was, living proof that a complete set of language skills is not necessary for good communication. Using verb-free and otherwise unparsable sentences, Mr. Schaefer has been a master communicator for nigh on to 50 years. His speeches have always been greater than the sum of their parts.

In this case, he knew he was saying what some feel but are afraid to say. The fearful did not include Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who took the debate up a notch in intensity. The fault, Mr. Ehrlich suggested, lay in multiculturalism, which some believe diminishes the national culture by allowing newcomers to avoid learning English. As taught on college campuses, the governor said, multiculturalism is "bunk." We are left to wonder what campuses he had in mind and whether multiculturalism could be taught in a way that did not earn these characterizations.

Meanwhile, cries of "Attaboy" were heard in the land. But not from every quarter. Some went teary-eyed at the thought of foreign masses yearning to serve fast food fast in multilingual sacks. A deeply divided nation revealed itself yet again.

We could go on. But here's another option. Let's turn to issues truly in need of sustained outrage:

The state's child welfare system. Recently, a 17-year-old mother, already suspected of child abuse, was allowed to go home with newborn twins. She is now charged with their murder. The family lived in circumstances unspeakable in any language.

Young people with high-powered weapons and no sense of common humanity. Students at Randallstown High School were wounded when shots were fired into a crowd outside the school. Does the relative absence of letters to the editor on this subject mean we have given up? Parents organized a prayer vigil outside the school. Prayer is good. But more action is needed. Did the governor or the comptroller want to comment at length on this carnage?

The Baltimore Algebra Project. Students protested the lack of funds for city schools at CEO Bonnie S. Copeland's office last week. Mr. Schaefer and Mr. Ehrlich did not join them -- nor did Mayor Martin O'Malley, though he did address a group in Spanish the other day, demonstrating his multicultural bona fides.

The loophole that allows some companies to avoid paying taxes in Maryland by creating shell operations in Delaware. Maybe some of that money would pay the salary of another child welfare caseworker.

Orioles starting pitchers. (Don't we need a distraction or two?) OK, Sir Sid finally had a good game. And Daniel Cabrera? Wow. Maybe prayer does help.

All of which is not to say that speaking English in this country is not important. It is. No one knows this better than the newcomers. But what about the other values Mr. Schaefer used to extol? Things like getting a job, working hard, attending to the needs of your family. He used to drive around the city finding people who'd done nice things in their yards. He inducted them, on the spot, into his Order of the Rose. I'm guessing some of the people who would still like to wait on him at McDonald's would qualify for membership.

He should go back and find out. By now, the newcomers will know what to say:

You want fries with that, Mr. Comptroller?

Sorry, it's Mr. Comptroller, Hon.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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