Where My Pop is Not My Father
By Irv Eisenberg
Though I have traveled to many parts of this country, mostly along the eastern seaboard, I have lived my entire life in New York, in case you couldnít tell. I was raised in New York City, first on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where as a young Jew growing up in the tenements, I got my mandatory training as a comedian. Then, later on, we moved to the seashore community of Rockaway Beach, where I acquired the skills of a beach bum, something that may come in handy when I eventually move to Florida, which is a fate I apparently cannot escape. Try as you might, sometimes you cannot avoid your destiny. The majority of my life has been spent on the Island of Long, nestled between the Long Island Sound and the Great South Bay of the Atlantic Ocean. I learned nothing of value, by the way, from this part of my life, having acquired all the skills I am apparently capable of before I arrived on these rocky shores.
I never gave much consideration to what kind of an accent I possess as my use of language changed with my environment. When I went to college in Brooklyn, I acquired the popular phrases of the day. Such as, "Might" and "Might ever" which could mean the same thing or the opposite depending on the context it was said in and the tone of voice. The sarcastic tone would mean that you meant the opposite of what you were saying. I know itís confusing which is why you had to be there. Since most of you werenít, youíre just going to have to take my word for it. I havenít steered you wrong yet, at least not that you know of. Besides, I wouldnít lie to you unless, of course, it got me somewhere. Though people throughout the world associate Brooklyn, NY with certain abuses of the English language, such as pronouncing words that begin with the letter "T" as if it were in fact a "D" (dems and dos for them and those) and adding an unnecessary "se" to words that end in "ou" such as "youse guys." Another classic example of Brooklynese that is typically portrayed in movies and on TV is to pronounce words with "oi" in them as if they were "er" such as "Iíll berl you in earl." And of course, we mustnít forget the classic line, "Meet me at toirdy-toid and toid" (thirty-third and third). Sorry to disappoint those of you who believe this stereotype, but frankly, in all my years of living, working, and going to school in Brooklyn, I never heard anyone ever utter such phrases. Oh yeah, and they donít grab their crotches and yell, "Frigginí A," or "I got your salami right here!" Alas, Joe Pesci, the quintessential Brooklynite, is actually from New Jersey, where they do really talk like that.
That isnít to say that New Yorkers and Brooklynites do not have their own peccadilloes when it comes to speechifying. My late wife, Diane, who was Brooklyn born and bred, used to deny having any accent, but I always loved to tease her about the way she said certain words. Especially plural words that end in "S." She used to pronounce them as if they ended in a "Z" instead. For example, she would love to eat cheese and crackerz. I also loved the way she pronounced the word ears, though I am not sure I will be able to spell it so you will get the proper inflection. She had sort of a Bostonian elongated sound to the e and an h to the r so it came out like eayehz. So, if I was committing the cardinal sin of scratching the inside of my ear in public, she would lambaste me with, "Get your fingehz out of you eayehz. I wish we had sound here so you could hear my dead-on impression. Actually you can hear it at the Web page. Now my parents and their cronies who come from the East Side of New York City use the "z" ending for only two "s" words that I am aware of. And they elongate it a bit, too, but just a tad. They pronounce the words bus and gas as buuzz, and gaazz. My two lovely daughters were raised on Long Island but to hear them tell it you would think they were born in the Chemlawn plant because they came from Lawn-Guy-Land. What can you expect from two Jewish American Queens? They skipped the princess stage and went right to the top.
I never really fully understood the regional differences in American speech until the first time I went to Saginaw, MI in December 1999 to meet CheyAnna(a.k.a. Carol OíConnor) for the first time. We met in a chat room for single middle-aged people who were dissatisfied with the available pool of potential mates in the local area who were vacuous, empty-headed bimbos and bimborinos, who lacked the verbal skills to fill out a rebate ticket for a box of Skittles, and who had all the charm and appeal of a pregnant possum at Christmastime. In other words, we were desperate. However the fates put us together, it was my first time in Michigan and the furthest west of New York that I had ever traveled. Prior to this, my furthest venture toward the setting sun took me only as far as western Pennsylvania. So now I was practically in gold rush country.
The first time I ate in CheyAnnaís home, she offered me a beverage. As I recall the conversation, it went something like this.
CheyAnna: "What would you like to drink?"
Irv: "Iíd like a soda if you have any."
CheyAnna: "Whatís the matter? Donít you feel well?"
Irv: "I feel fine. Why do you ask?"
CheyAnna: "Because you asked for soda."
Irv: "O.K. I should have been more specific. I meant a diet soda like Diet Coke or Seven-Up. What do you drink with lunch?
Irv: "My pop is in Florida. (This was beginning to sound like an old Abbott and Costello routine like "Whoís on First?")
CheyAnna: "No, here we call it pop."
Irv: "Then what is a soda, and why did ask if I wasnít feeling well?"
CheyAnna: "Because here soda is short for bicarbonate of soda like, sometimes used as stomach antacid like Alka Seltzer or Bromo.
Irv: "I see. I had no idea I would need an New York to Michigan dictionary or I would have purchased one on Amazon before I left."
Because of this and other subtle differences in what we call things and how we speak, I was beginning to understand that New York and Michigan were two states separated by a common language. The only prior similar experience that I had was when Diane and I took my kids to Disney World in Orlando, FL in 1988. We were ordering food at a Damonís restaurant and Diane told the young waitress that my daughter, Elana, will have the childrenís special, the frankfurters. The waitress was dumbfounded and had no idea what we wanted. I, of course, thought the problem was Dianeís Brooklyn accent when, a la Joe Pesci, she pronounced it "frankfuterz." Alas, that was not the problem. After a grueling interrogation, it turns out that this young Orlando born and bred lass had never heard of the term frankfurters, though I though that was the common name for that particular sausage considering that it was allegedly invented in Frankfurt, Germany. When we changed the order to hot dogs, as it was listed in the menu, she immediately understood our translation. I asked her what else she calls them and she replied, "Wieners."
I suppose I should not have been surprised at the regional differences in our language because even within our own state they have different names for things. When I was in college, my friends and I did some traveling around New York state and went as far as Buffalo in the western corner of the state. You may have heard of this place which is famous for its wings. They are small. kinda like chicken wings, but spicy and served with a ranch dressing. Anyway, as we were traveling north from New York City, I began to see signs advertising something called "Red Hots" all along the highway. As we left the New York metropolitan region, wherever we went there were signs for these red hots. I had no idea what they were as they seemed to be associated with roadside stands. When I was a kid, Red Hots were tiny red candies that tasted like peppery cinnamon. Surely they could not be serving that as a meal, could they? Finally, while stopping for one of our mandatory bathroom and gas breaks, I asked the attendant what a red hot was and he informed me that it was a hot dog. Go figure. I lived in New York all of my life and never heard a hot dog referred to as a red hot. But then again, those weird people from upstate New York also put mustard on their hamburgers while we downstaters would never do such a thing. It would be a desecration of good meat.
Speaking of sandwiches, I also learned that our traditional hero sandwich( a long Italian roll stuffed with meat and cheeses or sausage, peppers, meatballs, mozzarella, etc.) goes by different names in different areas. It has also been called a hoagie, grinder, torpedo, submarine sandwich, and probably a host of others that I have not yet heard about. A popular sandwich in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls area of New York is called Beef on Weck. It took me more than thirty years to find out that it is a roast beef sandwich on a Kaiser roll, since we donít have any "weck" in our delis downstate.
I have since learned that a big Ivy League college( I have also since forgotten which one) conducted a study as to which parts of the country say pop and which say soda. They confirmed that if you live on either coast of the United States, you are more likely to order a soda with your burger and fries, and if you are from the middle states you are a pop drinker. Then there is the South. It seems if you are from the South or even visiting the South, no matter what type of carbonated beverage you are drinking, son, you are drinking a Coke. I am sure the Pepsi people are not too thrilled with that.
My pop lives in Florida, and for the purposes of that survey, Florida is in the South. (In reality, since 90% of the people who live in Florida are from either New York or Michigan it cannot be considered a southern state even if it is located in the South.) So when we go down to visit my folks, instead of popping open a pop, or sipping a soda, I guess weíll all be doing Coke. Since Iíll be going down there next week to visit, Iíll be sure to say high to the folks for you.
And THAT, was my two-cents plain!
* * * * *
The Irvmeister (aka Irving Eisenberg) was a genuine Long Island Sleuth for fifteen years before he broke free from his government handlers and went solo. Now he spends his time hunting for missing socks and pictures of lost loves. When he is not composing old fashioned rock and roll love songs, he finds time to write about the things that irk aging boomers and boomer wannabes such as downsizing of toilet paper, death squads of the Census Bureau and alien proctologists. He also manages to squeeze off a round now and again at his family, himself, and anyone else that manages to get in the way. But a word of warning, he is liable to get you to do some thinking so if that hurts your head, stay away.
For more of the Irvmeister, visit his website. The Long Island Sleuth
Copyright 2004 Irving Eisenberg