You see, writing that sentence to me is kind of scary, in fact, it requires quite a bit of courage. In a few words it describes all I know – and I do not know – about a culture I lived in and that I breathed in for thirteen years. And then some. If you think “13” you’ll understand how well suited I was to be in that place, because it seems to me that it is more important to have an association to the fact that Ralph Branca wore the 13 that day, way back then, in 1951, than to even have been born at the time when Thompson hit that home run and the Giants won the game 5-4.
A long time ago a friend taught me my first real American phrase. This was after years of English classes at school had rendered me a perfect fluent, neutral speaker of a language that is so rich in tones and associations that my lack of sensibility for the colors of a certain word might have invoked an association equivalent to a machine’s translation of, say, John Updike.
My first real American words were: “How about them Yankees?” And we practiced them for a few weeks. We lived in the same apartment building on 95th Street at that time, and we would practice in the elevator upon chance meetings. Me: “Hi Joe! How – about – them – Yankees?” He: “Howabout’em?”. Eventually, I sounded somewhat more like I was asking what I was asking. Only, of course, I didn’t. Because I wasn’t. Asking. I had not the first clue about baseball. But I kind of started getting the gist of things.
Maybe you have guessed from the first paragraph what I am reading at present. I am still the academic speaker I was when I first lived in New York, fluent to a fault and with blank undertones to my speech. But then again, I have those in my original, my native language too, the blank undertones, speech that leaves no associations for the listener even if it seems rich with referrals and meaning to me.
But be that as it might, not for nothing have the years passed and have I entertained something that should be called, for lack of other words, an illegitimate affair with a language not my own but with a passion so strong that at least I feel like I have staked a small claim on a land that rightfully belongs to others.
And that claim should not be judged by my own ability to play the instrument,to speak the lingo, to actually ask about that homer, scary thought! – but by the fact that my ear is now catching all that it might have missed when I first listened to that tireless speech of the city, 95th Street, Columbus, Broadway. I read about the outfielder Bobby Thompson on that day in baseball history, Oct. 3rd 1951, in that landmark novel and I do not only think “Ralph Waldo Emerson” and “Shot heard ’round the world” from his Concord Hymn, something I might have done before (and something, fittingly, DeLillo never mentions, the “Shot heard ’round the world”).
I mean, I know this, but I can also actually picture the guys, J. Edgar Hoover with the torn newspaper and all, and I hear them as clear as I hear music from Mozart though I am separated from that in time and space and culture, too, and I get it. Or, let’s be honest and a bit humble, I think, I get it. I think I know who they are, these guys and their wives, like Nick and Marian, and where they come from and why it is inevitable that one of of them should head straight into cardiac arrest after the game, and I know that they are real and I might meet them out there one day and recognize them and smile at them. And they, in return, would not give a f- and would have no clue who that meager shadow was, passing by. Which would be just fine with me.
I get so much reading these pages and listening to them, so much detail that I didn’t get before that it delights and amazes me despite the fact that it is of no use to anyone including myself other than for its sheer entertainment value. Which is a result of half a lifetime of practice. There is something in there that tells you about how language connects us to a specific place and time and how obstinate and inefficient love insists on being.
I doubt I could pull it off, that question, asked leisurely in a conversation. As if it was something, one asked, conjuring up a feeling of common history, no matter where you stood. And, sorry Joe, I still have to ask someone in the streets about them Yankees, but I know what it means when I hear someone doing it, and I hear the city and its history and its people and their loans and their marriages and their kids at college. So, let me get back to reading then. Underworld.