Tuesday, October 21, 2014

On Accents

I was at my regular coffee house in need of a cup of the wakeful.  Two blonde skinny women in expensive yoga clothes were ahead of me in the line.  (Don’t jump ahead.  Stay together, People!) Their children sat on the stumpy chairs that are too small for adults and give one the sense of balancing on a defective Lego.™  The women debated whether to have a short or small decaf, a poppy seed mini muffin or a cranberry mini scone.  The children sagged, burdened with the knowledge that this decision merits a ten-minute caucus.  I watched in wonder.  Had they no sense, the adults, that there were other people in line this workday morning, and that perhaps they might move the proceedings along?  In short, did they have as much sense as their children?  No.  Was their slowness due to smugness or stupidity?  Or, perhaps it is normal for people to stare at pastry, as Galileo no doubt gazed upon the phases of Venus.  The eye wants to linger upon the beautiful and the sublime. 

The young man behind the counter (Clerk? Barista?  Clarista?) was sweetly patient and asked them what they would like to order.

Blonde #1 said: Oh! I love your accent.  Where are you from?

(Ah.  Stupidity.  Mystery solved.)

The young man said quietly and wearily: London.  East.

London!  East!  She squeaked and I sighed because I knew what came next.

Clarista knew the script, too: Have you been to London?

And now it was Blonde #1’s time to shine:  Yes.  I lived in London.

You did?

Yes, I lived there when I was in college.

My Friends, I object.  I object to this entire exchange. 

First, no, you did not live in London when you were in college.  You did not live in the place if you did not have to order the electricity and the gas service, identify new vermin, or learn how to operate strange and flammable appliances.  You were put up in London.  Or, London put up with you.  You crashed on London’s couch.  And London was cool with that for a while, until the day London got tired of you because you are a lightweight and a weepy drunk.  London kicked you in the ribs at six a.m., gave you a mug of orange juice and two aspirins and said that if you are going to vomit in the kitchen sink, then you are going to wash the dishes.  And turn off that Smith’s disc.

Second, it is impossible to say, “I love your accent” without sounding like a fool.  I grew up in earshot of an English accent.  I must have heard an American say, “I love your accent” every week of my life. No one has ever replied, “Oh, thank you” and meant it.  I can tell you, from an insider’s perspective, that the possessor of that nightingale song never respects the person who tells her that they love her accent.  Never. Why?  Because while your observation of and compliment of the accent is your attempt to signal to its Golden Source that you recognize that she comes from parts elsewhere and that you approve of this elsewhere, that you think that elsewhere is a bit better than here, that people from that elsewhere, the same elsewhere where the Dulcet Mouthpiece is from, are more polite and intelligent, while you beam in pride of your own worldliness, this person who acquired her speech by the regular accidents of birth, geography and education, thinks you are a sucker and a rube who doesn’t know a Cockney from a Geordie from a toff.  You would say, “I love your accent” to Amy Winehouse, Trevor Howard, or Dame Edna and not know the difference. 

Blonde #1 and Blonde #2 smiled glassily at London! East! and adopted the skinny girl, scissor stance.  You have seen it.  The boot clad legs, crossed tightly, feet planted parallel.  The intended goal of this posture is to emphasize one’s thinness, and therefore dominance, over nearby females, but it smacks of anxiety and incontinence.  The last time I stood with my legs crossed so tightly, I was four years old and I was trying not to wet my underpants.  Also, it is not a stable stance.

Come on, you say.  Admit it: You are jealous of their blondness and their thinness.  You are harping on these qualities an awful lot, aren’t you?  You envy the hand life has dealt them.  You want the proper leisure to give pastry the consideration that it deserves.  You can’t imagine what it must be like to be so confident that your opinion on all topics would be received with anything other than gratitude.  You envy people who can survive on decaf.  If these two are so vacuous, so worthy of mockery, why do they bother you so much?  Move on with your day and forget about them.

Friend, you raise a good point. I can’t let every silly person interrupt my thoughts and consume precious real estate in my brain.  I should take deep breaths, chant mantras, draw zentangles and move on. 

I will tell you why I was bothered.  Because as I considered what it meant to “live in,” a place, as I remembered my mother’s disgust every time she received a compliment about her accent because, to her, she wasn’t English, she was American and wanted to be recognized as an American citizen, not as a British subject, as I tried to recall the planets Galileo observed and the proper spelling of “Geordie,” I was still in the goddamn line waiting for my coffee. 

Blonde #1 and Blonde #2 continued to occupy the front.  Their blockade was impressive, but I was not the only casualty of their privileged bitchery.  On the other side of the cafĂ©, there was a man and his dog.  The man stood patiently and waited to get past them.  The dog, tired of his master’s solicitousness and possessed with more sense than all of the humans in the room, pushed past Blonde #2 with a good whap with his back flank that almost knocked her over, to the delight of the children.  How fierce are you really when a Scottie can take you out?  East London leaned around the counter to ask me what I would like. 

I ordered a medium latte, whole milk, please, and adopted a military “at ease” stance, that emphasized my width and mass.  I like to think it a solid, authoritative stance, a stance that says, “In the event of famine, I will last for years.” 

The Blondes were dazed at the abrupt interruption of Life.  They blinked at each other, then at me, then at the line that had formed behind me and out the door.  They were surprised by our presence, as if we had risen from the floorboards like ghosts.  They sat down and the children stared into their hot chocolate and gave us the nod: “Yes, it’s over now.  We will make note of your patience in therapy this week.”

And then I moved on with my day.