For a time, I had to travel somewhat regularly when I worked for a company in Nashville, I mentioned before that I was born and raised in the South, but not being saddled with the prejudices which seem to plague a few of my fellow Southerners, I enjoyed meeting people with different backgrounds and perspectives. True, I greatly enjoyed returning home, mostly to get back to my family, but also to get away from people who claimed I talk funny.
One particular trip had me traveling to New Hampshire to help a division that was moving in to a new building. I loved the area (it looked a lot like Tennessee) and the people were, for the most part, welcoming and friendly (even if “park” and “pack” sounded exactly the same when they said it). The only problem was, I was the only true Southerner a lot of the people I found myself around had ever met. An oddity to be contemplated.
Three days in to my trip I was sitting on the bare concrete of the bare concrete working on network cabling when I noticed the sounds of construction had diminished. The usual bustle of the site faded. I slowly tuned around and saw most of the various crews surrounding me against the wall in a rough semi-circle. I noticed the big, stupid grin on one of the foremen. I sighed, knowing what he was about to say.
“Say y’all.” It was a request he had made before (and I had obliged), but he had never gathered an audience. It should be noted that most people I know in the South don’t think I have much of an accent, but I must have sounded like Foghorn Leghorn to my co-workers that week.
I just kept looking at all of them, some of them leaning forward in genuine curiosity as if I was some sideshow performer. Step right up, ladies and gents! Hear the English language mutated beyond comprehension by the Southern sun! See a man drink tea with ice and sugar! Marvel at the lack of ending “g’s!” Be amazed as he eats biscuits coated in flour sludge!
I put off the moment as long as I could, knowing I could not deny them their fun.
“Ya’ll are stupid.”
I said it matter of factly and they just smiled.
“Go on, say something else,” they urged.
“Somethin’ else.” Now they roared with laughter. Who knew an apostrophe could be so entertaining?
“Talk some more!”
“I have a lot of work to do and I actually want to go home this week.” I turned back to work, but the booing and pleading to talk forced me back around.
“All right,” I said, “here’s the thing. When I come up here, you want to hear me talk. The Southern dialect is melodious and pleasing to the ear, a form of English that must be heard to be truly enjoyed. If you come down to where I live, we will kill you just to shut you up.”
I delivered the last line with the warmest, most open drawl I possess. They roared with laughter. They must have though I was joking (which of course I was . . . mostly).
The foreman shooed everyone back to work and clapped me on the back. He wanted to be sure I knew it was all in good fun. I did, but I appreciated the gesture.
“Would you like a Coke?” he asked.
“Sure, what kind?”
“A Coke, that’s what I said.”
“Yeah, but what kind?”
“A Coke, just like I said.”
“What kind of coke?”
We stared at each other for a moment, each of us trying to determine why the other had suddenly become a blithering idiot. Then the light bulbs went off and we spoke simultaneously.
“Coke is generic for “soda” in the South,” I said as he was saying, “You mean diet or regular?”
“Wait, what?” we both finished together.
I explained how “coke” was a generic term in the south, just like “band-aid” meant adhesive bandage and “kleenex” meant tissue, and how everything kind of went by the brand that got there first or was best.
“See, we dropped a few capital letters along with our g’s,” I concluded.
He peered at me a moment and said, “You people are a little strange.” I let it go. Southerners are nothing if not polite.
Exhausted by extremely long days and home-sickness (and a touch of real sickness), I was ready to head home at the end of the week. I had enjoyed meeting many of the people there, but definitely wanted to leave. As I was, the foreman gave me one last parting shot.
“You’re lucky you came this week. It’s peak leaf viewing now. Bet you don’t have it this pretty in Tennessee!” I just smiled. I didn’t have the heart to tell him it looked an awful lot like my drive on I-24 every day in the fall. See? Polite.
As I drove to the airport, I contemplated seeing my family, gravy on my biscuits, people who understood there was such things as country and city ham, and not being asked to speak for others’ entertainment. I had the windows down on I-95 and was looking forward to the flight home.
Little did I know that the plane would be eventful and that I would discover yet again that people from There think differently (not necessarily badly) of people from Here . . . but, that’s another story.