“You sound like the operator,” I say through a large grin.
“Like the operator…the woman in the phone!”
My mother looks at me for a moment and then asks, “Whadduya mean?”
“When you talk on the phone, you sound funny. Like the woman,” I reply.
She considers this and is about to say something when I interrupt, enunciating every syllable my 6 year-old voice utters:
“Hello, this is Anita Harrison, Marlen Harrison’s mother. Marlen will be absent from school today because he is ill.”
I stop for a moment and giggle. My mother begins to smile. I continue with my right-hand pinky at my mouth and my right-hand thumb placed to my ear…
“Please have his teacher send homework home with our neighbor Andrea Burns.” I mimic my mother’s telephone voice in a posh, female tone. I tell her, “You sound different when you talk on the phone.”
“Yeah! You try to sound fancy.”
* * * * *
Both of my parents come from New York. My mother was born in Brooklyn, and my father in Buffalo so I like to think that here’s a little bit of New York in my blood. When I spend time in “The City”, I feel at home, and when I’m not in “The City”, I long for it.
Having grown up in South Florida, the land of “the third exodus” as I like to call it (the first was when the Jews left Egypt, the second was when they arrived in New York, and the third was the final immigration back to the sands – Miami Beach), I was always surrounded by a variety of accents. Sometimes the accents were tinged with Spanish rolled r’s, but more often than not, the “o” in dog was substituted by an “aw” that almost morphed into “or”.
These sounds were sweet and funny, and for a while during my childhood I wondered why everyone didn’t sound this way. Sometimes, however, I had a hard time figuring out just what people were saying and so I had my own take on commonly repeated phrases. For example, my Nana’s typical phone closing was “Give Mary Gods”. I always wondered who Mary was and why we were giving her Gods. No matter who Nana spoke to, she always asked to give Mary Gods. When I finally inquired about this curious phrase, it was explained that Mary Gods was actually “my regards”. At that time, it still didn’t make much sense, why should one thing sound one way, but actually be something totally different? I reasoned it was easy enough to say “my” with the hard “I”, and “regards” with the hard “r”. Afterall, not everything Nana said was always spoken the same way.
As a college student in rural Appalachia, I sometimes told people I was from New York. My family was from New York, my friends’ parents were from New York, my teacher was from “Lawn-guy-lend”, and the rabbi’s wife was from “Joy-z”. I felt more like a New Yorker than a Floridian, especially when many of my friends sounded like their parents even though they were growing up in Florida. So, Florida didn’t really seem like Florida, aside from the flying cockroaches, hurricanes, and ‘possums in the pool pumps. Our bakery was Flakowitz, our deli was Wolfies, and every Italian restaurant featured a typical Italian name followed by “of New York”. When faced with being from boring old Florida and exciting New York, I wanted to choose New York as often as possible. One way I could choose this identity as New Yorker was through the sound of my voice.
I’ve always had a tendency towards the dramatic; surely some of it comes from observing my parents. My father was the type of man who could sound like a native anywhere he went. He would develop a Southern accent with Carolinians, throw in some Spanish with the South Americans, and end his sentences with “guv’na” when in the presence of the Brits who lived next door. I always found this very amusing – my father, the showman. So it was not surprising to me when I first realized I was performing New York for my friends in the Blue Ridge. I could turn it on and off at will, and vacations home to Florida only brought it out more. But with time, I found myself desiring to be part of the community where I was living – Boone, North Carolina – and changing my speech from the dulcet tones of Flatbush to the tender twang of highland folk.
It was probably towards the end of my second year of college when the Southern accent began to take over the Brooklynese. Instead of “you guys” I had drifted towards the ever-popular “ya’all”. This clearly marked my allegiance and understanding of Southern dialect and rather than stand out as unique with a random utterance of “oy vez mir”, I felt great talkin bout the “junebuuuuuhhhhgs buuuuuhhhzzin” round the porch. Not only was it fun, but it kept people guessing where I was from. At a time when I was coming to terms with so many facets of my identity, the pliability of my speech in reaction to where I was and who I was speaking with allowed me to experiment with various personas.
About a year later, I moved to England – bloody fantastic, that…another world of accents to play with. Not only could I choose among a variety of English accents, but I could be a vocal acrobat, twisting my prosody and inflection until I was finally asked in earnest what part of London I was from. Not only could I lend someone a quid and thank salespeople with a cheers, but I was learning just how profoundly I could influence the impressions I make by playing with the sound of my voice.
Throughout my twenties, I would play with a Baltimore “hon”, switch between Osaka and Tokyo dialects with “O ki ni” and “arigato”, lapse back into “plotzing after schlepping around the mall” with my mother in Boca, or turn on the Afro-flame with a strategically placed “You go girl!” The contexts are varied and the sounds diverse, but one thing I know to be true is that they all come from the little actor within, bound to wearing linguistic masks dependent on the audience watching the show – the Marlen show – and I suppose the only question truly left unanswered is “who exactly do I wear the masks for?”; do I give Mary gods in order to put my listener at ease, or do I speak to ya’all in order to make myself more comfortable? Whatever the answer is, the one linguistic mask that I’m most conscious of is the one marked as homosexual, and of all the sounds I’ve uttered, this is the one style I’ve consciously repressed. The sad fact of the matter is that this is the part of me that is closest to my core self and the one that I understand the least. Perhaps all the other sounds, dialects, and accents serve to cover the sound that is the truest me?