View from Afar

The poet Walt Whitman claimed that he heard America singing. I hear America speaking, but in two languages-country talk and city talk.

Martin comes to my office for a counseling session. He speaks slowly and answers questions by first circling around them, “Well, in the waiting room I ran into an old friend-and we talked awhile.”

Slowly he zeros in on my questions and reveals the test results from his doctor.

Our one-hour counseling sessions in Chicago are as gentle and sweet as a morning drizzle in Kansas. His humor is sly and any mention of sex and violence comes through indirection and euphemism. He does not seem to know how to swear.

“Martin, listening to you is so much like it was listening to my father in Kansas,” I say.

“Well, maybe he was also from the country?” he says slowly.

Martin is African-American, and his life is now ebbing away as a result of 40 years of intravenous heroin use. He has been the guest in every prison in Illinois as the result of his career as a stick-up artist. But his language from the country is unchanged.

Talking “country” has never been a matter of race, class or region. From the Mississippi Delta, to the coffee shops of Marion County, to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation-there is a common cadence.

Country talk is slow. When a friend returned to Kansas after years in Seattle, he asked a friend for advice on how to be reaccepted in his native state.

“Well, for starters, talk about half as fast.”

Country talk has minimal greetings and farewells. If you are drinking coffee with the same persons for 40 years- there is not much need to get excited about someone joining you or leaving the table.

If the land is both eternal and expresses itself in endless seasons, then conversation does not need to be rushed-or even seen as of great consequence.

Because the city is rapidly shifting property values, new immigrants, and a Babel of languages, city-talk is short, abrasive, and rapid. “What’s new?” has an answer in urban conversation. In country talk-the general response is the ironic shrug, “Not much, how’s by you?”

I visited a friend-a country boy in New York City. He takes a phone call in his office from a recalcitrant repairman. In a matter of two minutes, he screamed that this repairman’s mother barks and chases cars, threatened to eviscerate him like a hog and implied legal action within 24 hours.

“Well, now I have his attention,” he said as he slammed down the phone.

“Hey, Tabor grads don’t talk like that,” I said. “They do if they are going to survive in Manhattan.”

When I was interviewing old timers on the Hopi and Cheyenne reservations, they would gently refuse to tell me about the missionaries.

“Oh, I don’t remember that.”

After we had drunk coffee together for a few hours, they would give me a detailed history. I was less of an outsider, and it was safe for them to “remember” awkward and painful stories.

City folks just make up the answers when they don’t know.

Country talk is the poetry of country-western music, the blues and bluegrass- long slow melodies, endlessly massaged.

The city is jazz and hip-hop -short, staccato, abrasive-sentences stripped down to their essence.

In movies and on stage, when the “Rustic” shows up, he speaks slowly-and is presumed to be funny and stupid because of his slow speech.

Country folks do this also and presume anyone who speaks more slowly than they must be the stupid cousins. Thus Kansans need Oklahomans, Oklahomans needs Texans, and so on-until speech ends up a bog of drawn out vowels in the Mississippi Delta.

National leaders from the South struggle with this perception. Thus LBJ and Carter were easy to imitate and thought not too smart. Bill Clinton was a country talker who learned to talk fast-and will forever be Slick Willie.

Our current president tries to be bilingual and speak both Texan and Connecticut. He hesitates between each of his native languages and thus subjects the English language to torments it does not deserve.

I have no facility for learning German, Spanish or French. I am still learning English-country style and city style.

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