We say "dude" because Horner likes to say "dude." He said "dude" several times in his original version of the essay -- along with several other turns of phrase that made his writing distinct and wonderful and fresh.
That was before Lindgren's pencil-pushers had their way with it.
It's still a charming little yarn about a family of Mexican immigrants who stopped along the side of an Oregon road to help a man change a tire. Nothing much special about it, except the raw truth of the moment conveyed by Horner -- who isn't even a writer. He's a graphic designer. He just happens to have a terrific natural voice.
The NYT notes that the essay was "adapted from a message board posting on reddit.com." So we went poking around for the original. It wasn't hard to find, because the Reddit community was abuzz with comments about the NYT's editorial process.
We're glad the NYT published the piece; it's sweet and likely to bring a tear to readers' eyes -- and not the first, probably, for regular readers who miss the multitude of staples (Randy Cohen's Ethicist, Deborah Solomon's Q-and-A, Virginia Heffernan's Medium column, Pete Wells' Cooking with Dexter) now gone to make way for columns called "Riff," "Look" and "You Are Here."
We'll leave those new features alone for the time being and let them evolve. A magazine is a living organism that needs time to breathe.
But in going through the two Justin Horner pieces carefully -- his has been referred to as "Today You, Tomorrow Me" on the web, while the NYT's version has been less effectively titled "The Tire Iron and the Tamale" -- we found ourselves disillusioned by the unnamed editor's excessive blue pencil.
The piece isn't ruined; far from it. But it sure ain't better, dude.
Here are some examples.
For instance, here's the graceful, evocative lede to the original piece that the NYT editor lopped off:
Just about every time I see someone I stop. I kind of got out of the habit in the last couple of years, moved to a big city and all that, my girlfriend wasn't too stoked on the practice. Then some shit happened to me that changed me and I am back to offering rides habitually. If you would indulge me, it is [a] long story and has almost nothing to do with hitch hiking other than happening on a road.
Okay, maybe it's not exactly on point. But we liked the way he moseyed into the topic, which he put on a Reddit thread on hitchhiking. Even without that context, there's a sort-of poetry to that line.
Then Horner wrote this:
Anyway, each of these times this shit happened I was DISGUSTED with how people would not bother to help me. I spent hours on the side of the freeway waiting, watching roadside assistance vehicles blow past me, for AAA to show. The 4 gas stations I asked for a gas can at told me that they couldn't loan them out "for my safety" but I could buy a really shitty 1-gallon one with no cap for $15. It was enough, each time, to make you say shit like "this country is going to hell in a handbasket."
But you know who came to my rescue all three times? Immigrants. Mexican immigrants. None of them spoke a lick of the language. But one of those dudes had a profound affect on me.
Which the NYT changed to this:
Each time, when these things happened, I was disgusted with the way people didn’t bother to help. I was stuck on the side of the freeway hoping my friend’s roadside service would show, just watching tow trucks cruise past me. The people at the gas stations where I asked for a gas can told me that they couldn’t lend them out “for safety reasons,” but that I could buy a really crappy one-gallon can, with no cap, for $15. It was enough to make me say stuff like “this country is going to hell in a handbasket,” which I actually said.
But you know who came to my rescue all three times? Immigrants. Mexican immigrants. None of them spoke any English.
Let's see: the editor changed "shit" to "things," "blow" to "cruise," changed the quotes -- presumably after the "fact checkers" couldn't confirm the conversations Horner had with gas-station attendants -- noted that Horner had "actually said" the line that "this country is going to hell in a handbasket," and cut the first of the piece's many reference to "dudes."
Then this became that.
This, in Horner's original prose:
I start taking the wheel off and, if you can believe it, I broke his tire iron. It was one of those collapsible ones and I wasn't careful and I snapped the head I needed clean off. Fuck.
That, in NYT-speak:
I started taking the wheel off, and then, if you can believe it, I broke his tire iron. It was one of those collapsible ones, and I wasn’t careful, and I snapped the head clean off. Damn.
Commas, small word changes, the deletion of an obscenity...small changes, true, but nonetheless altering the author's true voice and rhythms.
The rest of the edits go pretty much along those lines -- a shit here, a fuck there -- until we get to the ending. Here's where the NYT editor took one too many liberties with the language of the writer.
Dude just smiles, shakes his head and, with what looked like great concentration, tried his hardest to speak to me in English: "Today you.... tomorrow me."
Rolled up his window, drove away, his daughter waving to me in the rear view. I sat in my car eating the best fucking tamale of all time and I just cried. Like a little girl. It has been a rough year and nothing has broke my way. This was so out of left field I just couldn't deal.
In the 5 months since I have changed a couple of tires, given a few rides to gas stations and, once, went 50 miles out of my way to get a girl to an airport. I won't accept money. Every time I tell them the same thing when we are through:"Today you.... tomorrow me."
The guy just smiled and, with what looked like great concentration, said in English: “Today you, tomorrow me.”
Then he rolled up his window and drove away, with his daughter waving to me from the back. I sat in my car eating the best tamale I’ve ever had, and I just started to cry. It had been a rough year; nothing seemed to break my way. This was so out of left field I just couldn’t handle it.
In the several months since then I’ve changed a couple of tires, given a few rides to gas stations and once drove 50 miles out of my way to get a girl to an airport. I won’t accept money. But every time I’m able to help, I feel as if I’m putting something in the bank.
No argument this time. Horner's ending was better.
We're not against editing. But we're sorry to see the NYT Magazine simultaneously drop its classic column about language, and add elements so editor-driven that Lindgren felt it necessary to add ludicrous editor "bylines" to the ends of features.
What made previous incarnations of the NYT Magazine so special -- we're thinking back through its history, when writers from Leo Tolstoy to J. Anthony Lukas graced its pages -- was its commitment to voice.
We get that the NYT is a "family newspaper" and that family newspapers don't say fuck. But isn't it time for a re-think on that policy? We've been arguing for a while against the NYT's antiquated rules against obscenity -- which only calls attention to their absence, in a world where they've become commonplace in print. It's going to happen sooner or later; why not now?
Meanwhile, we hope that the Lindgren era that began today will eventually bring with it the commitment to language and style that was the essence, and point, of the column he killed. The Horner edit isn't a very auspicious start.