An unexpected english lesson



So I walk into the little dry cleaners near my office and these are the first words I hear:

“Where were you? In bed with your—Polack!”

For a split second I’m stopped in my tracks.

I listened for a moment to the voice coming from some unidentified space between the full-length mirror and the ironing board. The invisible speaker was a woman, a familiar one at that, and boy was she angry.

The voice didn’t belong to the tailor and store manager, a warm Korean woman who beamed as she always does when a customer enters.

There was, of course, no woman behind the curtain. Readers of Lingua Franca will recognize Blanche DuBois’s contemptuous defense. Stella was in Stanley’s arms, while Belle Reve, the ancestral home, was falling out of Blanche’s. The family’s real decline from imaginary prosperity was unstoppable.

As for “the Polack,” well, Blanche was just trying to be hurtful.

Many stores have background music, but not this one. The shop wasn’t just a cleaners. It was a learning lab for English as a dramatic and literary language. Every time I’ve stopped in, I’ve heard recorded voices spilling out the splendors and miseries of American drama and dramatized fiction.

Along the wall was a pile of recordings, in uniform binding, many from the golden age of 20th-century drama.

On subsequent visits I’ve walked in on the Loman family and other great exemplars of articulate American confusion. It’s become kind of homey. I no longer feel like I’m intruding, even if Stanley is asking how long Blanche is going to be staying.

More than once Amanda Wingfield has overheard my request for help with a loose button. This year, during Cherry Jones’s run on Broadway as the redoubtable mother in The Glass Menagerie, I entered the store as the recorded Amanda was speaking about magazine subscriptions. I told the tailor that I had just seen the Broadway production and thought it was wonderful. She responded eagerly: She had tickets and had already read the play twice. Haltingly, she confessed that she had to read it one more time before seeing it.

How many native speakers of English would do that for Tennessee Williams? Or, to change the playing field, how many native English speakers would read a bilingual libretto of Don Giovanni—and pay attention to the Italian text—even once before seeing it live?

My Korean tailor was immersing herself in a a particular kind of Americanness, one that seems more elusive with each passing year.

Her commitment wasn’t just to audio, either. Once I caught out of the corner of my eye a half-erased whiteboard, the orange marker not so badly smudged that I couldn’t clearly make out the text of Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” each line spaced so that the poem filled the entirety of the board’s white field.

Do people still learn American English through a tour of iconic literary milestones? I would have thought not. But my adventures in dry cleaning tell me that Blanche and Amanda and Willy (and even Stanley), with their lives in a mess, can still teach English, even if they don’t know it.