When a rube disembarks in New York city, he or she is immediatly confronted by a horde of gibbering taxi drivers sporting Bluetooth ear pieces. While half of them reach out to tap you on the shoulder, the other half press the ear piece farther into their heads, speaking in rapidly in a different language. Most tourists, cowed by the cacophony of Spanish, Russian, French and Arabic, put out their hand and allow themselves to led to a parked taxi.
I was already cognizant of my low funds, and I answered in Spanish that I wanted to ride the train. The Spanish-speakers of the group stopped for a moment and stared, bewildered that a white kid had responded in something other than loud, deliberately halting English. The fact that it was a relatively simple sentence (Yo quiero viajar en el tren) seemed to to strip none of the surprise from the answer, and I felt embarrassed as the taxi drivers' eyes followed me.
But I did not know where I was going, and in the seconds that I stood searching for a sign, one of the drivers called out to me in English: "You know, it will be a pain in the ass to carry that duffel bag on the train."
I turned to see a portly Dominican--he was wearing DR hat--smiling and indicating the parking lot across the street from the terminal. His teeth were pearl-white and his silver ear piece glinted in the sunlight. The bags slung over my arms were loaded with two months-worth of clothes, and the humidity made it seem as if my sweat was evaporating and condensing on the tips of my hair. I nodded and together we walked to his cab.
At first I tried to get in the front, but the driver's quizzical stare convinced me to get in the back. I asked him if we could do a flat fee and--to my surprise--he agreed right away. I said $40, to which he countered with $60. We agreed on $50 and drove off. On the highway, as Queens flowed beneath us, he asked me in Spanish where I was from.
"Soy Denver," I answered quietly, my eyes flickering behind my glasses.
Interpreting the low tone of my answer as a lack of confidence in my Spanish, he switched to English. Why was I in New York? To work. In what? Publishing.
He snorted at this answer, and I could tell he was thinking that such a destitute industry wasn't worth the trip. Did I miss home? I miss some things, but I'll see them soon enough. He nodded and turned up the radio, and despite the Reggaeton I dozed.
When I walked into my apartment, I could barely breath from the stuffiness. Someone--the landlord, my roommate--had left open a window and the heat had spread into every corner. I dropped my bags and changed into shorts before walking back into the street.
My belief had always been that Denver was precocious in the bilingual revolution, that the steady influx of Hispanic immigrants had rendered the city to the point where Spanish and English were spoken with dexterity. But walking around Washington Heights, I realized that the folksy Spanish I had cultivated at home was earthy and unrefined compared to the Dominican and Panamanian dialects that were fluttering around me. The rapidity of it, and the exclusion of any English substitutes, dismayed me. I walked into a Rite Aid to buy toothpaste and after automatically asking a question in English and being met with disdain by the clerk, I switched to the kindergarden Spanish that, if anything, was worse. The event repeated itself at the laundromat, and I walked home quickly, afraid that I might have to reveal my ineptitude further.
New York is a mammoth living argument for fluency in two or more languages. Though nearly every one speaks English, reliance on it ostracizes a person as one who his oblivious to a myriad of different worlds that flit around you. Yet people expect this reliance to the point of anticipating it, and subverting the expectation leaves speakers chagrined, like a comedian lacking in jokes.
There isn't any joy to this impulse of superiority, but a great deal of satisfaction. To biliguals, language is a priceless currency of which they can claim to have twice as much as the normal person. Logically, they are loathe to see this wealth emulated, and the awkward attempts of non-speakers to communicate in a foreign tongue serve as reassurances of well-being.
As the days commenced, I found that each one of my conversations devolved into subtle duels, verbal swipes that I found harder and harder to parry. Waiting for the subway one day, I was reading a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novella when the girl staning next to me asked in English if I was a regular reader of his. I answered in Spanish that I loved Marquez. In Spanish she asked if I had ever read him in Spanish. I hadn't, and answered to that effect. With a slight smile, she told me that that was too bad.
There is a hysterical theory that circulates among conservatives stating that in fifty years, English will be a secondary language, which is amusing because in many American cities it already is. While I'm indifferent to this line of thinking--English will never die out since it is usually the language that governs international affairs--the persistence by some people in resisting to learn a new language is peculiar. Why squander the chance to double or triple one's linguistic worth? I suppose that it's an instinct to try fortify one's current position rather than improve it.
It is immensely frustrating to learn a new language. Anything that reduces a person to an infantile state, and learning a language is certainly that, is repellant. But the small astonishment on the faces of the taxi drivers is indicative of its worth.