Casual: Queens English

(From the May 14, 2007, issue of The Weekly Standard)

I was being interviewed recently by a woman who had mistaken me for an expert of some kind. I am an authority on several subjects–how best to pack the family car for a road trip, for example–but an expert, sadly, on none.

The session began with small talk, and after just a moment or two, the woman said she guessed she didn’t need to ask where I was from, given my British accent.

Yeah . . . about that. I am not actually from the British Isles. The Island from which I come is Long. And we have no queen. But we do have Queens.

This has happened before. In the past I’ve waved off the confusion by explaining that I am a pretentious person too ashamed of my working-class roots to let my speech betray them. It’s not a right response, it just happens to be more efficient than the truth. And the truth is that with great effort I have deliberately removed from my speech most, if not absolutely every trace, of Noo Yawk.

I remember as a child determining that I did not want to grow up sounding like I was from Queens. It happened in Woodhaven, a working-class section not far from Brooklyn. My family and all my cousins were spending the day at my grandmother’s house. Before Woodhaven, she’d lived in upper Manhattan and had run a little candy shop, the only remains of which were several large glass jars now stuffed with packs of menthol cigarettes. It seemed we went to Nanny’s almost every weekend. While the adults talked and smoked and drank enough coffee to fortify an army of night watchmen, the children would play out back or sit on the stoop. One day, two of my cousins and I went to the park to play handball.

Three or four tough guys, probably in their late teens, were stepping off the court for a break. After some begging on our part, they said we could play while they drank their beers. The image in my memory is one of bright morning sunlight, tall Budweiser cans, shirts with the sleeves cut off, cigarette smoke, and angry open mouths. And from the mouths came a foul guttural stream of curses, insults, threats,
and general viciousness, all spoken in the thickest Queens accents I had ever heard. In their conversation, women were sluts or bitches, disagreement was expressed by f– you or f– that, and everyone in sight was an asshole.

My cousins and I played a couple of quick games before being told to f– off. On the way back to Nanny’s, one of my cousins said, “David, you live in Queens, how come you don’t talk like that?”

I am from Queens–and I’m not. When my wife overhears me tell someone I’m from Queens, she guffaws, as if to say, Yeah, maybe . . . from the Queens public library. Then she does this riff about her husband growing up on the Mean Streets of Queens, before describing my family’s large suburban house and the pretty tree-lined hill on which we lived. It’s one of those husband-and-wife skits that can be performed on short notice. It’s funny. Really. My wife, I should mention, happens to be from a well-to-do town on Long Island whose name suggests no violence greater than that of a vigorous tennis match. But I digress.

After that day in the park, my relation to my accent grew more complicated. For a while I was a theater student, which involved several classes a week in voice and diction. The squeak in my short A’s went away. The long E at the beginning of “eleven” became a short I, and I began to sound like a reader on the i-leven o’clock news.

Since then my speech has been a shifting hodgepodge of accents. I have my phony intellectual accent, my self-important D.C. accent, and some weird English Department accent that takes over when I go into writer mode and, though I’m speaking aloud, try to compose really fine sentences. I call this my voice of literature–and perhaps it was this accent that threw off my interviewer.

One thing I regret about losing my Queens accent: In voice and diction class, I always had to take out my retainer, which was keeping my teeth straight after my three years in braces. Otherwise I would whistle my T’s, or in acting class make the characters I played sound like parodic homosexuals. But, taking out my retainer so often, I’d lose it, and then I’d feel awful, and my mother would yell. So, I stopped bothering with the retainer, and my teeth grew crooked again–another reason, along with the way I pronounce coffee, that I may sometimes seem British.