Wiz, wit-out apologies

4 10 2007

During this, the most crucial of weeks for the Philadelphia psyche, my original excuse for writing about cheesesteaks was going to be the cholesterol count I just had done — a number that should end up somewhere between the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

But now, Rudy Giuliani has, for the second straight week, given a splendid segway. Rudy G, no doubt craving some unshaven, combed-over, stained-T-shirt-wearing, heavily-accented, summer-teethed, jingoist conversation with the gruff portion of his constituency to go along with his lunch, ventured over to Geno’s Steaks in Philly.

Geno’s takes its fame not only from its chief good — a roll inside of which swims thinly sliced steak (and, if you desire, onions) in a cheese sauce (or Provolone/American) — but from a certain linguistic stance. In 2006, owner Joey Vento, the linguiphile that he is, put up a sign in the window that beseeched customers to “Speak English” because they are “in America.” Certain media outlets and special-interest groups did not seem to interpret Vento’s passion for Shakespeare’s canvas, the language that gave us The King James Bible and Everybody Poops.

I had a college professor, Renata Adler, who was known on campus as much for her epic blonde braid renata.jpg as she was for her often brilliant, always volatile whistle-blowing tomes with The New Yorker, The Times and in a few books of her own.

Her classes were exercises in extemporaneousness over preparation, stories over lessons, conspiracy over convention. And they were fun as hell. She once spent an entire class relating a story of when, while she lived on the Upper East Side in the 1980s, a bat found its way into her shoe. Eventually, so did her foot. The bat flew out, hung upside-down in the bathroom, and she called Poison Control for answers. They told her she could catch it, if she wished, but to be sure she didn’t lose it: They needed the head to test it for rabies.

A bike courier soon made his way to her flat, where he picked up the bat, put it in a bag, and pedaled it to the Center. We weren’t told if the bat was, indeed, rabid.

She then said, as she frequently did, “someone say something.”

But anyway, Renata once opened a class in quite a mood. She had been trying to solve a problem with her cell phone service, and had, of course, called the cell service for answers — much as she had with Poison Control.

The only difference in the receptions, a quarter-decade apart from each other, was that now, she was delayed by another automated voice. A voice that spoke Spanish. She hated this. A lot.

“I don’t understand why we don’t expect people to speak English,” she said. “When I was younger, you had no option.”

Of course we, the socially conscious students of Boston University, protested. You’re crazy, we said. You really can’t believe that — not you. Or, this isn’t the 1950s anymore! Or, even, you know, soon, native English-speakers are going to be the minority in America — you can’t take away their culture, maaaan. Et cetera. 

A half-hour later, she wrapped-up her come-from-behind victory in the debate.

Renata and her family immigrated from Germany when she was young. It was incumbent on them to learn, as fast as possible, the language of their new land. By the time she was an adult, she was writing for the world’s finest, most literate English-speaking magazine.

Now, agreed, her story’s something of an exemplary anomaly, if not completely one. This kinda stuff doesn’t happen outside of fairy tales and, well, America.

Her story isn’t necessarily a template, but her central point echoes. You can only rise so high in America, she said, if you don’t speak English. Outside of black market consideration, she’s right. Success in American business, society even, is only accessible with a grasp of the English language. It’s not that other languages aren’t good enough, or don’t have their place — but to step up to the plate in America, whether at a cheese steak joint or in a board meeting, English is a necessity.

The intersection of cultures imbues America with its energy, and the sound of languages weaving into each other is a beautiful one. But without a common ground, that intersection of culture can barely rise above collision. So maybe Vento has a point, just expressed in a bit of a…frank manner. What else could we possibly expect from a place where you’re kicked to the back of the line if you don’t know what ‘wiz wit’ or ‘wiz witout’ means.

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