BUFFALO—A grocery store. I am at the deli counter looking for something to eat. We have been driving through Upstate New York countryside since this morning and I am hungry. If I could just secure a ham sandwich, I’d be in business.
The deli has fresh baked ham. Still hot. They offer samples.
“May I have a sample of that ham?” I ask the woman at the counter.
“Huh?” she says.
So I repeat myself.
She smiles. “Say it one more time.”
So I do.
Then she calls her coworker over. “Eugene,” she says. “You gotta hear how this guy talks.” Then she tells me, “Say ‘ham’ one more time.”
I’m waiting for a please in there somewhere.
“Go ahead,” she insists.
I clear my throat.
Eugene enjoys this very much. Apparently, I am a real knee-slapper.
“Teach me how to say it with two syllables like that,” says Eugene.
“Well, it’s very simple,” I say. “And I don’t mind teaching you, but first I’m gonna need a free sample of that hay-um.”
We get along famously. It’s great. They give me all the free ham I can stand. Then they point to objects in the store and ask me to name them. Among the words they ask me to say are: shopping cart (pronounced “buggy”), pen (“pee-yin”), chair (“chay-er”), fire (“fie-yer”), and chest of drawers (“that thar chifferobe”).
We get to the subject of Coca-Cola, which is pronounced “Ko-KOLA” by anyone who loves the Lord.
“I’ve never heard it said that way,” says Eugene. “We just say ‘pop.’ What would you say when you order pop at a restaurant?”
We wouldn’t. We would order sweet tea.
“But what if they don’t have tea?” he says. “Then what would you order?”
If a restaurant does not have sweet tea, we would ask to speak to the manager, reason with him or her, then set fire to the establishment. After which we would drive to the gas station and buy a Ko-kola.
My new friends and I also talk about the weather. They ask what the South is like during the summer.
“Humid and hot,” I explain.
“What about autumn?” Eugene asks.
“Also humid and hot.”
“Is winter like that, too?”
I’m not familiar with this term.
Our atmosphere in the Florida Panhandle is always 99.999 percent boiling humidity, with that last little percentage point being reserved for oxygen. And all that moisture makes my hair frizzy and curly.
My hair has always been curly. Most days, my hair looks much Greg Brady’s would look if he had recently survived a life-threatening lightning strike.
But here in New York, my hair is totally flat from the dry weather.
“Yeah,” says Eugene. “Your hair is definitely lacking body today.”
But aside from the dryness, the north is great. The only other minor drawback I can see is that almost everyone seems to be genuinely stand-offish. Not everyone is as friendly as old Eugene.
People are not like that back home. If I were to go to a grocery store located in, for instance, Mossy Head, Florida, eight or nine people would hug my neck and ask how my mama was doing. Then Miss Annabelle would tell me to swing by her house to pick up some leftover ribs because I was looking puny. Whereupon we would talk about her recent out-of-town trip to visit her oldest son, Leon, who just got a prestigious big-city job as assistant manager at the KFC in Dothan.
But many people up north look at you with suspicious glares. I met one cashier at a gas station who said she never heard any customer say “thank you” as much as I did. She admitted that she didn’t like this.
All I was doing was buying a Ko-kola.
Another go-to phrase my people use is: “We enjoyed it!” Which I don’t think would fly up north.
This phrase is always said at the end of a get-together, a church service, a party, or after invasive medical procedures, etc. It is usually the last thing we say before going home. We use it repeatedly, loudly, and we especially say it—this is very important—EVEN IF WE DID NOT ENJOY IT.
One Thanksgiving, my mother served one of her famous pies and forgot to add sugar to the recipe. It was like eating FedEx shipping materials with a fork. But everyone at the table—including her own brother—did not mention it. Instead they said, “This is DELICIOUS!”
Her sister-in-law said, “I’ve GOT to get this recipe.”
The preacher started praying in tongues.
We all choked the pie down with plenty of water until finally, my cousin’s girlfriend from Minneapolis said, “There’s something wrong with this pie.”
You could hear a collective gasp from the table. People hid their faces. My uncle jumped out the second-story window.
When my mother realized what had happened she was mortified. Then we all laughed about it and told her “We enjoyed it!” before we went home.
And when my cousin got married to that young woman, someone slashed the tires of her car during the ceremony. And I’m not saying I know who did it, but we did find a spit cup at the scene of the crime.
So some of these northern people don’t exactly have the warmest personalities. But in all fairness, some are nice. In fact, some are even kindhearted in their own stiff-faced, skeptical-of-everything-and-everybody-even-their-own-mother kind of way.
And when they ask me to say words, I don’t mind talking for them because it’s fun to embrace our regional differences.
Besides, deep down I’m a big old hay-um.