My New York Accent
by Anne Myles
Was evident on my voicemail, my friend said, and though she swore she was fond of it I recorded the greeting again and again until it no longer said seven oh nine faw. I think.
My New York accent makes my insides clench a little when I’m reading aloud and see a danger word approaching. Wawl, tawl, smawl. But there are others I don’t even hear. I have to kind of dissociate and not think about it.
Not think about what my students hear. A New York accent enthusiastic about the Puritans and Emily Dickinson. And the fast talking.
My New York accent is worse than my parents’ despite my fancy private education. It rolled its eyes at the high school classmate who spent the summer in England and came back sounding like a Brit. But when I went to England my throat tightened at the thought of speaking. I nodded and pointed, or whispered.
Another friend posted the quiz, “What food does your voice sound like?” Duh. Bagels and lox. Or maybe smoked whitefish, is that fancier? My New York accent marks me, as if I dropped some whitefish on my pant leg and hours later catch a whiff of it in public.
My New York accent is lonely for its vocabulary. I swallowed my Yiddish words in my first week of college, startled at how many there were. When they slip out, it feels a rush of delight and transgression.
My New York accent has a lot to say, but usually tries to hold back. Still, under duress it will tell you to go fuck yourself sideways. Not ladylike? I’ll give you ladylike.
Over and over people say, “You’re from New York, aren’t you?” and maybe it’s just a conversation-starter but I hear: You’re not one of us. All I can think about is how they’re putting my voice and my Yiddishe punim together and thinking Jew, Jew, Jew. And my New York accent wants to ask, so when the Nazis come, are you going to hide me?
It’s pretty skeptical about that. And ponders privately the ways I am and am not whitepeople. A conundrum.
It thinks about how little you know about me. I’m five boroughs and the mouth of the Hudson, and the cliffs of the Palisades. I’m full of the space between brooding mountains. The gentle rise and fall of farmland. The sage-smelling badlands out west.
I’m the island people sail away from, not the one they dream of coming to.
My New York accent is consumed by hunger, and not just for the memory of chopped liver, gefilte fish, Italian ices, flat greasy pizza slices on a paper plate. Oh so much more. It wants to hear the words beneath the accent, the syntax, the music. It wants to wail like the sirens on First Avenue in the middle of the night.
It longs to transcend itself, yet knows it’s faithful as a farting dog.
It runs helplessly after iambs, trying to remake itself as pure heartbeat. As if it could find a new way to speak. As if it could become beauty. As if it could find the proper language to ask the eternal question, but can you love me? Can you not leave?
Anne Myles is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Northern Iowa, and is currently completing an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her poetry has appeared in the North American Review, Lavender Review, Green Briar Review, Whale Road Review, and other journals. She lives in Waterloo, Iowa, and hopes to move back east within a year or two.