The 9.54 to Poughkeepsie

Sometimes, summer in the the city is too darn hot and you just need to get out of town. On Sundays in May, when classes finished, I started to take the MetroNorth to explore the Hudson valley with a friend. The train, which starts in Grand Central, stops at Harlem (my stop) and then winds its way slowly along the river 80 odd miles north to Poughkeepsie ( pronounced P’kipsy). It fills up quickly with couples and groups in their walking gear, and by Yonkers there is a pleasant buzz of conversation, like a party that is just getting going. The train runs right alongside the river at a sedate 1950s pace, and the retro feel is completed by Hudsonticket inspector with a deGaulle style cap clipping tickets energetically. No hanging chads on the 9.54 to Poughkeepsie.

This train ride will not appear in a guide book,  but for me it has become the perfect andidote to the sirens and noise of the city.

The Queen’s English


Nine months since I arrived and I am still linguistically intact. The first weeks I flirted with saying “take a left”  instead of “turn left”, but it didn’t take hold. I still say lift, not elevator, flat, not apartment, loo, not bathroom, and all the other Britishisms that amuse, irritate, or confound listeners. And I always forget how Americans say ‘data’ though I try that with what I like to think is an ironic eyebrow raise. ‘Italy’ is another one.

This is not due to any ideological stance or national pride: it is simply because I have been using those words so long that it would take a concerted effort on my part to replace them with their US equivalents, and I am using my concentration for other things now. It would also be fake,  as if I suddenly lost my Welsh accent and started to speak in Received Pronunciation. I know people have modified their accent for professional purposes, like Sue Lawley or Margaret Thatcher, but what happens when you stub your toe, or have one drink too many? Anyway, here my pronunciation is my party piece. People associate it with Downton Abbey or the Royal family (if only they knew). Recently a guy in the cafeteria was grilling chicken, and on hearing me ordering my  lunch, rotated his head at the speed of light and said ”  you sound like the Duchess of York” I couldn’t remember which of the Royals she was at first, but it didn’t sound promising and it wasn’t. And last week the hairdresser said as she lacquered the finishing touches , “Now you’re Princess Diana”.

It’s true what Shaw said about two peoples divided by a common language.  Many words are different and at times I get embarrassed when I can’t think of one.  For example, at the chemist’s when I needed some sticking plasters: “do you have something you put on a cut or blister?” (Band Aid – duh).  And when catching a train recently I blanked out completely,  ” which …er….what do you call the place where the train comes in?” (Answer: track). It’s a great exercise in circumlocution but I’m not sure your average New Yorker has got time for that.

As for erasers, that’s a whole other blog.

Terms of endearment

I am fascinated by terms of endearment, how they vary, how frequently they are used,  and how they are perceived in social contexts. When I was a child my father used to call me Dook. In my five year old mind I saw this written as D-O-O-K  (to rhyme with  hook),  but later realised it was actually D-U-C-K,  said in a Midlands accent which he had acquired working in Crewe when it was an important railway hub in the 1950s. Welsh mothers of a certain generation often used to call their male sons ‘Boy’ and this could persist until the boys were well into their sixties and seventies and begged them to stop.

In service encounters such terms can proliferate (but not in Waitrose!) and in Wales I have been called ‘love’, ‘lovely’, ‘flower’, ‘chick’, among others. London cabbies of the old fashioned kind still refer to all women under 90 as ‘Girl’. I vividly remember my Welsh driving instructor comforting me after I had failed my test for the second time “don’t worry, Flower, if you knew how many grown rugby players I’ve had crying in my car like you ” And surely part of the appeal of Motown songs was the liberal use of ‘Baby’ and ‘Sugar’. Such terms fell out of favour as politically correct sensibilities heightened during the 90s, but fortunately  they have always been accepted in the heartlands.

When I came to New York I became aware I had to be careful with my language choices. For example, I was mildly chastised by a male colleague for a quip I made about Man Flu. What I had thought was a healthy irreverence for the opposite sex acquired after years of living in a household with three men turned out to be potential grounds for a micro-aggression workshop. But strangely enough, a wide range of address terms seem to be used without any fear of litigation. In my disoriented first days here I felt very comforted by the female canteen staff and coffee cart guys calling me ‘Sweetie.’ The Greek lady with the peaked cap in Tom’s diner soothes me through my breakfast with ‘Darlink’. And there is one assistant at the college Starbucks who laces each encounter with endearments and changes them for each customer. That’s what I call service.

In the student residence I represent a bit of a New Yorkersociolinguistic challenge for the security and facilities staff because of my non traditional age, which seems to invoke some kind of polite address. Consequently I am called Miss or Ma’am, and my favourite facilities guy regularly chirps me up with his “Happy Friday , Miss Morgan!”.

I remember a line in the TV series the West Wing.  CJ, the  female press officer, reprimanded an aide : ‘Will you please stop calling me Ma’am? We’re not making a  western here.”  Me? Please call me Ma’am till the cows come home.

There’s something about tomato ketchup, or Instant Karma.

This semester is in full throttle and weekends are dedicated to study, so I have taken to easing myself into them with breakfast in a place called  Community Food and Juice. I usually go along quite early and take along an article to read over my coffee so that I’m keeping the standard of the insane work ethic around here. CF & J is quite pricey –  I could eat handsomely for six bucks at Tom’s across the road –  but it feels trendy and bustling, and it’s become a treat to myself and a nod to the leisurely weekend I would like to have.

I went along on Sunday morning jet lagged after my flight back the night before. It was already filling up and the server took me to the long community table.  I wanted to take the end seat,  but a woman sitting opposite said that it belonged to her daughter, so I sat in the next one. As I picked up the menu I unconsciously put my bag down on it, and the woman said again in a bald on record sort of way,”That’s my daughter’s seat.”.  I know rationally that this kind of unhedged communication is not intended to be rude. Once on a bus coming back from Harlem I sat down with a large bag of shopping to hear a loud voice “Ouch that’s my bad knee!’ I leapt up apologetically, and the woman behind me said without rancour ” alright dear just get it off my knee”.  The directness is cultural rather then personal. But this woman’s neurotic attitude towards her daughter’s seat narked me slightly. After all, it is supposed to be a community kitchen.

The daughter turned up and waiter brought their food. I had just settled down to read the article over my coffee when all of a sudden a large dollop of tomato ketchup plopped onto A Generative Rhetoric of the Paragraph.  I looked up to see the woman covered in red blobs  – in her hair, under her eye, and on her smart blouse. She had shaken the posh ketchup bottle without checking whether the lid was screwed on. The poor soul had to apologise to me for messing up Francis Christensen and remove the organic ketchup from her person at the same time. No problem, I said, smilingly, and tucked into my truffled kitchen.

God forbid

After a trip down to the the Apple store this bitterly cold evening I decided to pop into Zabar’s for some soul food, in this case,  a hot drink and a knish. I settled myself onto one of the stools at the communal table next to three older ladies. It was Maggie Smith meets Upper West Side.

A… did she go into rehab?…

B.  oh yes she did do rehab..

A. …because they say it isn’t always successful…

C. (unclear) ….I had therapy…

B. so did I.  I had wonderful therapy….

B. I had to have the operation but I didn’t sue the handyman though I was down on the floor before he said watch your step… but he would’ve lost his job. You know what?  I have a metal femur.

B ….Anyway it doesn’t get easier

A.  No sweetheart it doesn’t

B ….but we’re still here. I had to have surgery too my surgeon was excellent . His father was the one who operated on Kennedy…. his back.

C ….(conversation switches to food in a holiday hotel) I figured it was better not be tempted it’s hard

A…. well I’m with you and he’s kosher too you know?

C … it’s too heavy I know now what my mother meant.

( B  gets up to get some ice-cream)

C. I’m just looking at that coat..

A. I don’t wear a fur coat, no way,  but I understand people who want to…

C. I had a mink coat but you know what? I never wore it..

A. Oh I had a fox fur collar, leather coats and all that kind of crap …but of course then there was  the garment district..

( B returns ) can I interest you in some ice cream?

A.   No thank you so much but I appreciate it  (comments on  man at the bar) What kind of scones?  Whaddya think for Chrissake you’re looking at them

C I wonder if theres anything on TV tonight?


Semester two

Some people have signature phrases or words they tend to use, consciously or unconsciously. I remember from my childhood a local dignitary who was a frequent speaker at school events. He liberally sprinkled his speeches with the phrase “and if I may say so’, and all us kids would have fun counting how many times it occurred.
I have a few hallmark phrases myself; one of them is that pseudo-sporting metaphor ‘hit the ground running’. What started off as ironic usage has now unfortunately become part of my idiolect. But that’s exactly what life has been like the last few weeks, with the impenetrable red tape of starting a new semester, and getting back up to the world speed at which everything happens round here. During the same period Mike and Lilli came to visit so I had to prise myself out of my comfort zone – the square mile around the university – and go downtown, because that’s where people want to be. I have been a reluctant tourist so far, but, in my defence, study commitments don’t leave much time for that sort of thing. I am realising gradually that I will have to wait for visitors with a highly organised sightseeing schedule and explore the city with them.
In order to qualify for my international student visa I have to enrol in four classes a semester, which is a lot of reading and writing. This term one of my classes is Conversation Analysis, which studies how talk is structured into turns and sequences, and how speakers ‘get things done’. This involves a forensic analysis and transcription of people’s utterances, where we have to mark pitch change, micro pauses and something called ‘rush ons’. For a top-down person like me this attention to minute detail is challenging, and my first transcription was completed (semi-satisfactorily) only after a good deal of blood, sweat, and tears. But the classCA pic is conceptually very interesting and yesterday at the Nail Spa I found myself eavesdropping on two blokes having a pedicure (this is New York) and wishing I could record the conversation.

White Knuckle Ride

 Just when you thought you had conquered your fear of flying, you get a bumpy Atlantic crossing to get the adrenalin flowing again. I have always been an intermittently nervous flyer, but five transatlantic flights in a short period had desensitized me to being up in the air, and I was beginning to fancy myself as a born again jet setter. So when I boarded the Kuwait airways flight 101 to New York JFK, my mood was not one of anxiety, but mild frustration at the delayed departure, and curiosity about what the service would be like on this new airline company (for me). The crew seemed to be numerous, predominantly male, but pleasant and dapperly turned out. And the voice from the cockpit wasn’t Kenneth More’s, but the tone was urbane and reassuring as one would want in one’s captain, so I settled down in my flight socks to enjoy my refreshments.

For all my new bravery, though, a crumb of residual anxiety lurks when flying over the Atlantic because the ” ‘unlikely’ event of landing on water” suddenly becomes less unlikely, and that’s a road I try not to even go down. However, we were tootling along smoothly and I was in my serene flying self when things started to get rather bumpy, and the warning came to buckle up. Thereby followed almost an hour of severe turbulence, the kind that rocks you from side to side, up and down, and makes the plane rattle. It was very unpleasant, so I took a large slug of the rescue remedy that I keep in my bag for such occasions (it’s the brandy not the Bach flowers that help), and quietly repeated to myself the mantra ‘ it’s the safest form of travel’, and after one particular swoop, I admit it, The Lord’s prayer. But despite these props,  I could not unclasp my white knuckles from around the arm rests,and I sat rigid, my eyes closed, holding on for dear life. At one point, the older beveiled lady sitting across the aisle from me reached across and stroked my hand, which was a lovely gesture. But there was an eloquent silence in the plane apart from the man behind moaning softly and I thought of that line from the Woody Allen film : “I’m not afraid of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens”. Eventually I got used to the turbulence, as you do, but it was the shakiest flight I have ever experienced. It was very good to get to JFK, however late and bedraggled, and be triple-checked by immigration.

      I am now settling into my new room which is freshly painted and spacious. Unfortunately it has what they call euphemistically ‘ a courtyard view’, but with some mood lighting I think I can make something of it.