Brenda the Foreigner
It’s Joe, the homeless man. (The one who doesn’t spend my money at Dean&DeLuca.) He’s shuffling across the street, straight through a red light, with one hand up like a traffic cop.
“Got a smoke? Gor a smoke?”
“Sure, Joe. No problem, no problem.”
Unlike Joe who repeats himself because of his illness (or because noone listens to him), I have a tendency to repeat other people’s verbal tics, not to mention accents. On contact. There was the summer I worked up at the Scottish bakehouse on Martha’s Vineyard. By day two, I had a burr so thick, customers would ask me to repeat myself because they couldn’t understand a thing I was saying. Wrapping up their sausage rolls and shortbread, I’d regale them with imaginary tales of my life on the Firth of Forth. They loved that. The Firth of Forth. (Now, my son lives in Scotland. One of his room mates is even a piper.) The point is, I recently read an article about a disease called Foreign Accent Syndrome. Apparently, it happens to people who’ve had some kind of traumatic head injury. They wake up from a coma and suddenly, hey! They’re like Russian or Pakistani or French. I’m thinking maybe that time I was toddler and peddled my tricycle down two flights of stairs might have triggered the onset of the disease. I even mentioned this to my husband a week ago. We were enroute to a dinner uptown and within minutes of stepping into the elevator, I was chatting away to the operator in his own native brogue. (It usually only takes me two or three words to determine a person’s nationality.) Ends up the guy was Lithuanian.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Ireland,” he says as the bell signaled our stop at the 14th floor. “You have such lovely accents.”
But all of this is neither here nor there because after I’ve given Joe a couple of cigarettes, he reaches out to touch my hand. He holds it. In twelve years, Joe has never held my hand.
“Your name,:” he says. “Your name is Brenda, isn’t it. I’ll call you Brenda from now on.”
“No, Joe,” I say. “Please.Please call me Cullerton”
“It makes me sound like an English public school boy,” I think to myself on the way home.