Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Talkin' Milwaukee

I can't leave Milwaukee.  And Milwaukee won't leave me.

I moved to the Dallas area with my family when I was 14.  Without putting too fine a point on it, that was decades ago.  And I'm still here - went to college here, became a homowner here, gave birth to a little Texan here.  But to this day, almost every new person I meet sooner or later (mostly sooner) asks me, "So where are you from?"  Because all I have to do is open my mouth, and people know I'm not from Texas.  They may not peg my flat vowels and laconic delivery as specifically Milwaukee South Side, but they sure as hell as know it's not, say, Amarillo.

Over the years I've gradually lost some of the more obvious Milwaukeeisms in my vocabulary.  It took a long, long time to stop using the term "bubbler."  You know what a bubbler is:

I finally started calling them "water fountains," mostly to keep Precocious Daughter from rolling her eyes at me.  (Still, the bubbler comes by its name honestly - check it out here.)

I have also bowed to local convention with regard to the rummage sale.  It's a garage sale or a yard sale, OK.  But the ones I went to when I was a kid were rummage sales. 

Over time I've also modified my pronunciations of certain words.  For example, "roof" rhymes with "proof," not with "hoof."  "Root" doesn't sound like "put," and it also doesn't sound like "route," which actually rhymes with "shout."  Got that?  Also, "creek" rhymes with "seek."  But where I grew up, it rhymed with "quick."  The creek was where you caught crayfish, and I don't care how they boil them by the hundreds and serve them up as crawdads in Texas, I'm not eating those filthy bottom-dwelling bastards.

I struggle to suppress Milwaukee sometimes, because it sticks close and doesn't want to go away.  Although I typically refer to all soft drinks as "Coke" - which is a Dallas thing and leads to exchanges like "I'll have a Coke" "What kind?" "Dr Pepper" - occasionally I'll slip and say "soda."  It's not the word that brands me as much as the way I pronounce it - imagine combining "sudda" with "sooda" very quickly.  Honestly, it even cracks me up when I do it.  And if you ask me where I'm from, I will very carefully enunciate all the letters in Milwaukee, lest it come out as "M'waukee." 

Over time I've dropped certain hometown idioms from my speech.  Maybe if I had stayed in Milwaukee they would have fallen away anyway, as I grew up and became a more polished speaker.  Living in Texas I simply fell out of the habit of using them because I never heard anyone else use them.  So I no longer say "borrow" when I mean "lend" (as in, "borrow me a quarter, hey").  When I want someone to approach me, I don't instruct him to "c'mere once."  And when a phone caller asks to speak with me, I've trained myself to reply "Speaking" or "This is she" rather than "This is."  (For the record, I never said "dere" and "dem" and "dose."  I don't think my mother would have allowed it.  But I knew lots of people who did.)

On the other hand, I haven't exactly adopted Texan as my native tongue.  I still address a group of people as "you guys."  I don't say "y'all."  Ever.  Not even when I've been drinking.  When I reminisce about family vacations I took as a child, I always say we went Up North, even though nobody in this part of the country knows where the hell that is.  Oh, and while I recognize that "gonna" is a corruption of "going to" that I employ far too often, there's no way I'm gonna say that I'm "fixin to" do anything.  I don't even know what that is or where it came from.

The way I talk is part of my cultural memory.  Like the big yellow arches on Kohl's Food Stores, or shopping at Southgate Mall, it is Milwaukee to me.  It makes me a walkin', talkin' ambassador of the city, hey.  And I like that.  Beats saying "Howdy," anyway.

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