Monday, February 19, 2018

English May Be My Second Language

There are days when, as an English major, I believe I have a pretty good grasp on the English language.

Then, there are most days.

Take last Thursday, for example. I was in downtown Iowa City pleading with local bookstores to carry my self-published book, Scout's Honor. (Scout's Honor as in “that's the title of my book,” not “Scout's honor” as in “honorable promise.” Although I promise I am being honest about the title and the following story.)

I should mention up front that just being in downtown Iowa City has an unsettling way of making me feel . . . unsettled. And inadequate. With the University of Iowa being right there, downtown Iowa City is part college-chic/intellectual and part “hold my beer”/party town.

As I walked the block between Iowa Book and Prairie Lights, I was considering my good fortune – my meeting at Iowa Book had been delightful (they said yes!), and I had found a primo parking spot two days in a row. I wasn't sure if I should buy a lottery ticket or build a bomb shelter, but I was hoping that my luck would hold until after I'd been to Prairie Lights.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw a young man, no more disheveled than any other college student, exiting a bar/restaurant. Lost in my musings, I made eye contact. Small-town hick mistake.

“Excuse me, ma'am,” he said. (Ma'am? Ouch.) “I'm looking for a salad.”

His request threw me for a loop, both because I was daydreaming and because . . . salad? It was almost noon, and he had exited a pizza/bar place. In the “hold my beer” part of downtown, they may not serve salad. On the other hand, I think the intellectual/chic laws require all establishments to serve salad. Even fro-yo shops.

“Do you know where I can get some lettuce?” he asked.

Something about his tone of voice made me wonder if, in fact, he was talking about “salad” and “lettuce” as in “fresh, leafy greens that you eat.” I began to suspect he was talking about “lettuce” as in “dried leafy greens that you smoke.” Or even as in “leafy green bills that you spend.”

I mumbled an apologetic “No” and kept walking, but my friendly, inner small-town hick felt guilty. What if he really was looking for a healthy lunch alternative? Not knowing what he might have meant by “salad” also made small-town hick me feel very un-intellectual and un-chic.

I was still pondering the whole salad/salad conundrum when I walked into Prairie Lights. This legendary bookstore appeals to my inner nerd, while still making me feel unworthy. It's not just the books themselves, of course, but the great writers who have been there – the realization that you may be standing in the very same spot that Jane Smiley or Kurt Vonnegut or Toni Morrison once stood.

One incident in particular illustrates the depth of my feelings of inadequacy in regards to Prairie Lights and to downtown Iowa City in general. Years ago I was herding The Little Princess and Prince through Prairie Lights when I happened to overhear a woman, pushing a very posh stroller, ask her very quiet, well-behaved child if he/she would like to go to the coffee shop for a “cwaa-saaah.”

This obviously intellectual/chic woman pronounced “croissant” exactly the way the fancy French chefs on TV do. It was clear, even to a small-town hick that she was talking about “cwaa-saaah” as in “a delicate, over-priced bakery-store pastry” and not “crescent” as in “common, refrigerated, whomp-biscuit pastry small-town hicks serve.”

Prior to entering the store that day, I had bribed my children into three-minutes of relative un-monkey like behavior by promising them a package of crackers from the bottom of my purse. When they balked at the broken remains, I told them they were “oyster crackers” – as in “fancy, small crackers” and not “crackers made of shellfish.” The children counter-offered to behave in exchange for bake-shop chocolate chip cookies – as in “we can't be bribed by bread alone.”

That chance meeting plays through my mind every time I walk through the doors at Prairie Lights. I close my eyes, breath in that rarefied smart-book air, and BOOM! – I'm reminded that I'm a chocolate chip cookie trespassing in a land of “cwaa-saaah.

Last Thursday my “cwaa-saaah” inferiority complex was compounded by my “salad” anxiety, with a bit of parking meter angst thrown in, leaving me more befuddled and less able to speak coherently than usual. When the polite lady behind the big, book-piled desk asked if Scout's Honor was distributed online through “Ingram” I heard “cwaa-saaah” and may have said “Me write book gud. Please to sell?” (Ten minutes and two miles later I realized the correct answer was “Yes.” I think.)

Despite my inability to communicate verbally she agreed to carry my book. YAY! Of course she may have meant “carry” as in “use them to prop up the leg on that wobbly table.” Whatever the reason, I am grateful that both stores (and Burlington By The Books) agreed to carry Scout's Honor. However, I dread the prospect of trying to string together a coherent sentence when I pick up the unsold stock. In fact, I've considered paying someone to go to Prairie Lights to buy them out.

If only I knew someone who needs to make a little lettuce . . . .