Sunday, July 12, 2009

My younger sister, Karen, warned me when I came here to be careful, that I have a tendency to pick up characteristics of different people. She was specifically referring to an autistic guy I worked with in the states for awhile who would spontaneously clap his hands and do a high pitched screech at the same time. A kind of fun, amusing characteristic to imitate at times – or, at least I thought so.

After living in Ivory Coast for 2 ½ years and then in Ghana for another 2 ½ years I decided to return to school, and wanted to live somewhere in the north – I really wanted WINTERS again (even though I’ve really come to love hot dry and hot steamy weather). I ended up in Chicago. I needed to take my GRE, and wanted to focus just on that and on finding an apartment before looking for a job. But, things have a way of working out on their own, and it doesn’t matter all that much. I went to look at one “wonderful”, probably “deluxe” studio apartment that ended up being another trash heap, and on the way back to the EL saw a help wanted sign in what turned out to be – after I stepped back to look up higher at the wall – a West African restaurant. How to resist? I had just come from 5 years in West Africa. I went in and Grandma took my name and number to pass onto her son-in-law. That night I received a call and ended up being hired as manager of this restaurant, which then became a main and wonderful part of my life and experience in Chicago. Those first few months of mine in Chicago I was only working in the restaurant 6 nights a week. Grandma (the Nigerian mother of the owner) was the main chef, and the person with whom I spent most of my time. We’d take buses and subways to museums and other places from time to time. People would look at us and think, “hmmm, maybe . . .”. After all, I called her Grandma; her father was Scottish, so she’s fair skinned; I’m fairer skinned (my ancestors a mix of English/Polish/German/Danish/Swiss) – but I could see people’s minds working – “hmmm, maybe - -- -- - - - who knows? A couple of generations, blah blah blah, blee blee blee.”

As is customary in my blogs and conversations – I digress.

I managed Ofie (the restaurant - it's now closed, though, so, sadly, no good website to refer you to) throughout my time in Chicago. This also involved being the host, the busboy, the waiter, occasionally dishwasher, the salad maker, inventory taker, etc. (it was a small restaurant). In waiting on tables, I could always overhear customers discussing me, wondering where I’m from, etc. etc. Some had the courage to ask me – thinking South Africa, Boston, East Coast, Australia, U.K. and I forget where else. No one ever guessed Wisconsin.

My sister is right – I pick up the characteristics of people I’m with. I don’t really think of it. Sometimes it’s just mannerisms that I like. Sometimes, behaviours that amuse me. Sometimes maybe just too much exposure. This goes for speech patterns, as well as behaviours and mannerisms. While working in the refugee camp and spending a lot of time up/down in the truck to hospitals and wherever else, I always listened to BBC. People I met often thought I was from the U.K.

Della –

a wonderful guy here - - -he’s the focus of this blog entry (and it’s only taken most of one page to get to the focus). I think he’s my age. I think he might have been OK educated at one point – his English is better than some of the caregivers/staff. I think he lived in Accra for awhile. I also suspect that maybe he drove trotros or taxis or was a mate or somehow was involved with transportation. He LOVES cars, trucks, caterpillars – if it has four or more wheels and a motor – he’s in awe and over excited.

If I walk with him in town, there’s regular comments along the lines of, “Steven! Look at the Caterpillar! Nice one.” (The “Caterpillar” can be any rusted junk heap of a tractor – it doesn’t matter – it’s always a “nice one”, and it’s always worth getting excited about.)

Della has great, imitate-able and useful expressions. If the smallest thing – like a bead – falls down, or if you’re walking and take a step off the main sidewalk (intentionally or not), Della will call out, “HEY! Accident!” (I don’t think he says this if a serious accident really happens – like if someone really gets hurt or if something really gets damaged.) There’s another guy here who, for some reason, Della doesn’t like at all. He always tells me, “don’t mind him – don’t mind John.” And if someone is really disturbing him, he tells others to call the police – or better yet, he just shouts out, “POLICE!!” If Della likes the shirt you’re wearing, or if you’re wearing something new, he’ll come up to you and say, “Look at your shirt! NICE one!” If I’m with him, there are constant questions (sounding like demands) of, “Steven! What is this!”, “Steven! Where is your key!”, “Steven! Where is your bowl!”, “Steven! Where is my money!”

The answer doesn’t always matter – I can tell him, “your money is in the TOILET!”, “my key is in the TOILET!”, “the policeman is in the TOILET!”, “the driver is in PRISON!”, etc. and he chuckles and says, “NO!” and then proceeds to tell me where and what the thing is he’s asking about.

So many Della-isms and Della speech patterns (emphasis on certain parts of a sentence, sing-songing other parts, etc.) have become a part of regular dialogues I have with other workers here at PCC. I use them, they use them, we don’t even think of them, and it’s all understood and always good for a smile or laugh (if we notice we're doing it, which isn't always the case anymore).

I probably won’t continue using them when I get home, though – even though my sisters Karen and Rose would be entertained for a moment or two, and my mom would be annoyed for a day or two, and some of his expressions and speech patterns would entertain at least me if I said them – especially the “HEY! Accident!” one. But, just like the clapping my hands and doing a high pitched scream at the same time behaviour quickly faded when I saw that I was the only one amused by it (other than my sister Karen . . . at first) – I have a feeling the Della-isms will fade in time.

Della, in his "office" at the workshop: "Steven! Look at my office!"


At 5:55 PM, Blogger MJ said...

Good thinking not to use them when you get home--we all will appreciate it, although it might not hurt to give us a sample--notice the word "a sample" as in ONE and only ONE.

At 6:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Steve -- You have no idea how many
times I think of you and all of the SMAs. I looked for you in the crowd while watching President Obama's visit there. I love reading about your work and your witty writing. I kept my AOL free account but have a new e-mail address
Take care and good luck
on your new job,

At 10:17 PM, Blogger p-mommy said...

i'm LOL cuz i 'get it'!!! from working with the deaf and special needs kids for over 25 just can't help but pick up characteristics! however, it does go over better with my fellow collegues, as opposed to casual acquaintences. (they think i'm being cruel)'a sort of an inside joke..and in no way meant to be demeaning! I LOVE IT! great to hear your update! talk to you soon! p-mommy

At 3:19 AM, Blogger Karen Solas said...

Hmm, I don't remember the clapping screaming thing quickly fading... in fact, I think it went on for years, and still occasionally makes an appearance. This whole post made me laugh and laugh and laugh - in part because my problem is that I pick up from you all the little weird things you've picked up from others! Even just talking to you on the phone I can't seem to not pick up whatever new thing you're saying - "ok, ok, ok, yeh, yeh, yeh" for example. Anyway, I can't wait to see you and start saying a whole slew of new weird things!

At 5:48 PM, Anonymous Fran said...

Steve, I enjoyed reading your blog and will share it with others in the Mission Office. I especially enjoyed your Chicago story and your musing about taking on the mannerisms of others. You do have a gift for entering other people's lives!

At 5:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

LOVE this story.... thanks Steve! When are you next in DC?? -- Christine


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