Since marketing became paramount in medicine, or put another way, since Dr. Kildare gave way to P.T. Barnum in American hospitals, one buzz phrase after another has persuaded us that our lives depend on choosing the right one.
One of the most intense mantras was broadcast a few years ago. Doubtless, you remember it – these things are designed so you will: The ad ended with: “Insist on a Jewish surgeon.”
If you have lived in Louisville at all, you know that Jewish is a hospital with a fine reputation – I have great respect for it, in part because my family has had good experiences there – but also because it never has been owned by any corporation starting with the letter H.
But think for a moment of a first-time visitor to the city, a traveler on business or someone here for Derby or one of our cultural events, who plops down on the motel room bed, turns on the TV and by random timing, his first impression of Louisville is the city’s residents being implored to: “Insist on a Jewish surgeon.”
Now, reactions among people unfamiliar with the city’s hospitals would vary. My guess is there are three distinct varieties. The first traveler responds: “Well, of course, they’re all brilliant!” Perhaps, she admires the community for daring to speak such taboo common wisdom.
The second newcomer’s reaction is alarm, as he shoots up from the bed and declares: “Oh my God, the Zionist conspiracy has hit Louisville. Wait, isn’t Louis Brandeis from this town? Now it’s all becoming clear!”
Fear not, though, for the third person, in town for Forecastle or the St. James Art Show, has her 99 Percent sensibilities offended by this message and immediately pulls out her cell phone and fires off an e-mail to Louisvilleky.gov to protest this callous, insensitive stereotype, ending her missal with: “What next, Insist on a Chinese Laundry?”
All three, of course, are mistaken. Neither anti-Semitism, nor Hebrew-philia, nor Zionism prompted a slogan so vulnerable to misinterpretation. It’s testimony to Louisville’s unconscious and perfectly innocent penchant for colloquialism.
“What’s this ‘Belvedere?’“ asked an Atlanta-based editor of the wire service for which I worked a stint in the 1980s after I sent a story about a demonstration held on what I quickly revised to “a concrete plaza overlooking the Ohio River.”
At least I knew that “Churchill” or “The Downs,” though instantly recognized here, wouldn’t suffice to describe Louisville’s most acclaimed landmark to a nationwide readership (amazingly, we called it “The Downs” even while the harness racing track Louisville Downs also was operating).
Likewise, I know not to call our greatest cultural venue just “Actors.” I had the importance of this driven home to me when I did a story on labor struggles in Decatur, Ill. in the 1990s and was exasperated to continually hear about the strike at “Cat,” till I finally got someone to explain that Cat was the Caterpillar equipment plant.
Even when we use full names, a certain insularity immunizes Louisvillians from the potential for double-takes by outsiders.
It never occurs to folks here -- on either side of the river -- that the name Saint Mary of the Knobs, a Southern Indiana Catholic church, could produce laughter of Biblical proportions by out-of-town visitors.
Then, there’s a protestant counterpart on the Louisville side of the river called Penile Baptist Church. The seemingly countercultural name actually is a non-phallic awkward adaptation from a Biblical reference to a place in Jordan properly spelled “Peniel.”
And I wonder how many accident reports in Oldham County police files describe Interstate 71 drivers from Ohio, New York or Tennessee losing control of their vehicles exactly at the spot, it turns out, where the sign announcing the exit to Pewee Valley comes into view. Discounting the folks who know that a pewee is an insect-eating bird, not the bicycling kids show character who would be denoted by an extra e, the indifference we who live here show toward the name of the woodsy Oldham County residential city affirms Louisville’s innocence about our nomenclature.
We’re not alone, of course, but the bigger cities’ colloquialisms become household words to the nation: “The Mets at Shea,” makes perfect sense to sports fans from Seattle to Key West. But “the Cards at Yum?”
I covered local government, including occasionally in Pewee Valley, as a self-employed journalist for 17 years and the name’s provocative quality didn’t register with me during the rush to meet deadlines. I might as well have been writing and saying “Middletown” or “Hillview,” even though I knew that Bob Edwards made light of Pewee Valley’s name daily when giving weather reports to National Public Radio’s audience.
Of course that was the nation; this was us. And we just don’t get it.