Common Tongue

Daniel Nester’s “The Sound of Philadelphia Fades Out” in the NYTimes Review  brought back fond memories of my first encounter with these unmatched, unimaginable sounds. It was August 1974. My dad and I were driving to the city where I was to start law school in a few days. I stopped at the tollbooth on the Walt Whitman Bridge and asked the man in the booth for directions to 34th and Chestnut, location of the University of Pennsylvania Law School. I don’t remember what he said, but I know I asked him to repeat it and had to listen really hard to understand him. As we drove away, I said to my father, “Oh, that poor man has such a dreadful speech impediment.” It took me a week or two of encounters with bank tellers, the odd campus employee, and a variety of folks on TV and radio to realize that it wasn’t an impediment, it was the way people talked.phila

I’d had a brush with something similar when I went to Vassar, but the accent around Poughkeepsie wasn’t as pronounced. I didn’t interact much with local people except on brief excursions into the city to buy fabric for theater productions and occasionally to stand in line at the all-night bakery waiting for the bagels to be done at 4 a.m. It was barely noticeable, especially compared to the Bahston accent I heard regularly at home in New England. This was worlds away.

Nester laments the disappearance of Philadelphia’s regional accent in movies and on TV. If he wants a refresher without traveling all the way to the city from upstate New York, I suggest he come to a UConn women’s basketball game. Coach Geno grew up about eighteen miles away in Norristown, and he always has a bit of the accent showing. When he gets angry or upset, those diphthongs and mashed consonants come out and march around just like the Mummers’ strut down Broad Street on New Year’s Day.

Though I never learned to speak Filuffia (Nester spells it Filelfia, perhaps a suburban variation), I became pretty good at understanding it over the fifteen years I lived in the city. I am proud to say that I was able to interpret every one of his “izzamples” without relying on the translation.

Nester included all my favorite phrases: the main one being “downnashewr” (down to the [Jersey] shore” and part of “jeet jet?” (Did you eat yet?) The only important item he omitted was the baseball team, the “Flees.”

And of course I took him up on the recommendation to listen to PhillyTawk, which brought back another favorite: the “De Inquar,” which used to be a good newspaper. Oh, and Sean spells it “Phluphya.”

Thanks for the memories, guys.

What I’m Reading Now

A library’s worth of books have passed through since I last posted any commentary. I’ll pick up with current selections, though I may double back on older selections.armitage

There are at the moment two items on the reading table. I started Where’d You Go, Bernadette? last night and will address it soon. Tonight, I’ll critique something completely different. Simon Armitage’s Walking Home: A Poet’s Journey came to my attention a year ago when he discussed travel options along the Pennine Way in the NYTimes.  I found the description of his book far more enticing than his actual experience of the walk. I can slog through marshes, jump over streams, and fight my way up hills strewn with wet rocks without spending a few hundred dollars in airfare. (In fact I’m about to do a minor version of same on Saturday’s Twain-Twichell walk).

The joy of reading Walking Home (sorry that the library obliterated part of the title) has far less to do with the walk and much more to do with Armitage’s magical language, language he uses, like the ancient bards, to earn his keep as he gives readings along the way to earn his bed and board. I was nineteen pages and four miles in when I encountered his first assault of self doubt, which makes him so human: “Failure seems unavoidable, with humiliation and shame the inevitable consequence.” It’s always refreshing for a writer to know that one of her fellows suffers from the same, even if it most of his had to do with walking another two hundred fifty plus miles.

It also didn’t take long for me to figure out that this is a very British book. In the first fifty pages I’ve encountered “yomp,” “Victoria sponge,”  “pac-a-mac,“ and “lurcher.” Will read from now on with a British-American dictionary. The maps, looking undetailed R.R. Tolkein, didn’t help a great deal. I’ll have to dig out something more representative.

My biggest complaint, however, is that Armitage breezes through his poetry readings: so many people, so much money – sometimes a couple of hundred dollars, sometimes almost nothing. But he never mentions what poems he read. It would be wonderful to know whether he tailored his selections to the location or to the mood or – maybe  – to the weather.

Anyway, it’s a perfect book to be reading on cold and rainy days and nights as New England has reverted from late April to early March.