October 04, 2004

Triple Hymn of the Republic

"You know, the one with the triple door," I hear her saying.

I'm in trouble. Not six months into my stay in the US, still a green grad student getting used to American accents and ways, here's this woman saying something I can't understand at all. She has called to ask me out to dinner: big boost to my male ego. She has suggested a restaurant we can eat at. I haven't heard of the place. So, to help out, she tells me: "The one with the triple door."

"Triple" door? Do such things even exist? And why would a restaurant have three doors anyway?

Give some thought to the circumstances I find myself in. Yes, I'm still new to the country. New to accents. New to the delicious feeling of being asked out by an attractive, vivacious, curvaceous young lady. I want to seem cool and collected, like this has happened to me a hundred times even though it hasn't, not once. And yet at practically the first thing she says after suggesting dinner, I am baffled. I am left to wonder what she said, nervous about asking her. Not cool and collected at all, oh no. Not impressing the lady at all, definitely not.

"I don't know," I say finally, and hesitantly, "any restaurant with a triple door."

She begins to laugh. Long, trilling laugh that goes on and on. When she slows for breath, she gasps: "Not triple, silly! Pripple! PRIPPLE!"

Enlightenment should have struck, but no. "Pripple"? The restaurant has a "pripple" door? But then I say it out loud -- well, not so loud actually, just in a whisper to myself so she won't hear me actually practicing the word -- and when I say it out loud, it suddenly makes sense. "Purple." Ah. Only, she says the word in her succulent, curvaceous, fruity Noo Yawk accent: "Pripple."

Restaurant with the purple door. Of course. The one on Wickenden Street. Now I know just which one she means.

She keeps right on laughing. On the phone. As I hang up. When I ring her bell to pick her up. All the way there in my rattletrap '72 Dodge Colt. Yeah, I can see the humour, but this may not have been the best start to our date. At any rate, it is doing some damage to my fresh-off-the-boat ego.

Nevertheless, dinner is fun. The restaurant turns out to be a warm, cheery place; friendly waitresses and clientele. The company's good, so's the food. Best of all, there's a man playing the guitar and singing to entertain us. Several tuneful standards -- Dylan, Jackson Browne, Simon and Garfunkel, Joan Baez. I lap it all up, thinking this is America! This is the American life, this friendly restaurant with its musician playing these songs that have only been tracks on a LP to me before today.

Then the man finishes a tune, leans toward the mike and asks, "Any requests?"

I have one. The man has been singing Joan Baez, surely he'll know this tune that I've only ever heard Baez singing? You know, "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord ..."? Wonderful song, I always thought.

So I put up my hand and shout -- getting the hang of being American, aren't I now? -- "Please, could you play Battle Hymn of the Republic?"

There's a moment of complete silence. Then a familiar sound starts slowly, and has soon swept the entire room. Laughter. Laughter like I heard trilling on the phone earlier, then in the car. The whole damn place is laughing at me. Guitar man drawls, "You from the South, man?"

As I wait for a hole to open and swallow me up, I notice one person isn't laughing. In the same fruity accent, she explains the Civil War significance of the song; why it's odd, at best, to request it in a restaurant in this New England heart of Yankee-dom.

Months later, I realize that this was the moment the green grad student feeling started to wear off. To this day, I'm grateful to her for that. Triply grateful, even.

4 comments:

Nurse Mia said...

What a moving description of the awkwardness of acclimating to a new environment. It's great that you are able to have a sense of humor about the trials of culture shock.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Thank you Mia. It was an interesting evening! Thanks too for your previous comments that I should have responded to, but I've been travelling a lot. I will respond, though, perhaps via email.

Anirudh Karnick said...

D-Mama,
I jsut wanted to tell you that I have been visiting your blog but haven't had anything to say and therefore, the "illusion" of my cyber absence.

Aurojit said...

Was this in Providence, RI by any chance, Wickenden St. sounds familiar...

Aurojit