My native tongue is dying. UNESCO hasn’t listed it as such—though in my opinion it should—but there are so few speakers left, I’m sometimes left to wonder if I simply dreamed the time when I spoke it freely to whomever I encountered. I hail, you see, from a conquered land. One at least a decade lost to the wills and whims of outside invaders, though the takeover started long before that. Decimation of language, as any student of history will tell you, is a primary tool for successful colonization. My first language is Old Brooklyn.
In truth, it’s more of a dialect than a language, largely marked by distinct turns of phrase. People didn’t kiss; they “went” with each other. Nobody dated; they “kept company” or were “talking to” each other. People weren’t tough or snobby; they “tried to be hard” or “thought who they were.” Fuckin’, fokin’, and fuck are adjectives, verbs, and nouns. The base is American English, but turns of phrase and the lexicon itself are peppered with a hodgepodge of Yiddish, Italian, Caribbean, Spanish, Hip-Hop, and disgraceful feral-street-urchin slang not fit for a literary publication such as The Atlantic. At least not until now.
The Brooklyn lexicon I grew up with overindexed heavily on descriptive nouns. Particularly ones you could use to derisively categorize people. A not-exhaustive list of words with which you could tell someone—to their face—who they were and what you thought of them includes: a user (one who uses people to get things for themselves), a skeevatz (one who is gross in a sexual way), a poser (one who pretends to be someone they aren’t), a biter (one who copies someone else), an herb (someone corny), and, possibly worst of all, a beggar (one who’s always perceived as asking for things).
I’m not sure exactly when Old Brooklyn began to fall out of favor, but I’m haunted by the notion that people in my generation—Gen X, who came of age in the ’90s—are the last who spoke it purely. Before the ebb and tides of change came and the language of New Brooklyn washed most of the native speakers away. What I am certain of, though, was that I was already fluent in the language of the conqueror before I understood the conquest that was under way.
In the mid-’90s, after graduating from a typically large—but magical—Brooklyn public school, I moved to Providence, Rhode Island, to study at Brown. I realized quickly I was more equipped to have been dropped at a school in Moscow, where at least I could say “hello,” “thank you,” and “cross-eyed.” When my new roommate ate all my Chef Boyardee, I didn’t know that screaming “Stop being such a fucking beggar and get your own ravioli!” would be seen as aggressive. It would be months before I understood that in this new land, the right way to communicate my displeasure would have been to call home on our shared landline and complain, loudly and openly, that somehow, mysteriously, all of my beefaroni was gone. Later that same first year, I caught a floormate rifling through my underwear drawer and, quite deservedly, called him a fucking skeevatz perv. I somehow found myself in a mediation with a residence counselor.
Eventually, I learned the new language of this place and these people and survived and even thrived. Still, I ran home every chance that I could, to allow my brain the opportunity to relax, weary as it was from constant translation. I counted down the days to graduation—when I could finally return home to Brooklyn—like a captive who was finally released. And on the wondrous May day when I walked through the famous Van Wickle Gates, I discovered that nearly half of my class was also headed south on I-95, excited to explore life in New Brooklyn.
And so, it began. This made my ability to assimilate into New Brooklyn easier—I knew the language well, as others were just learning it—but also more painful. Because I immediately understood what it was that would be lost. Both in myself and in my home. I mean, I’m not Nostradamus. I couldn’t have foreseen that people would pay $1 million for an apartment that overlooks the Fulton Mall or that I’d stop drinking bodega coffee because they didn’t have oat milk. Or that the very name of the place itself would become an adjective instead of a noun: one synonymous with Edison bulbs and exposed black pipe and other decorative details I never, ever saw in my years growing up here. But I knew the distinctive language—the one I loved and that defined and defines me—would go the way of the Shakers. Destined to die out.
Still, I speak it whenever I can. I try to write it as much as possible. A preservationist, if you will, even as, much to my chagrin, my own life becomes more and more firmly fixed in the New. It’s a rare language of a declarative, direct, “decimate to motivate” culture. You tell someone what’s wrong with them in hopes of inspiring them to level up. In a culture of working-class people and kids raising each other on sidewalks and stoops, insults are a language of love. One that inspired thick skins, raw honesty, a sense of humor, and the ability to think on your feet.
Perhaps the thing I’m struggling with the most is accepting the possibility that New Brooklyn doesn’t require thick skin. When this place was predominantly home to blue-collar families and latchkey kids, there was more room for trouble. It grates me when people describe Brooklyn as having become home to a creative class, probably because some of the toughest kids I knew were painters or actors or dancers moonlighting as mechanics or barbacks, ready with a quick barb whenever somebody accused them of being “into weird shit.” Brooklyn has always been a place for artists.
I thought about all these things when I was working on my novel, Olga Dies Dreaming. It’s about a lot of things—gentrification, colonization, corruption, and class—but the hook, for many readers, is the love story. In it a lonely, middle-aged girl from Brooklyn meets a lonely, middle-aged guy, also from Brooklyn. When they realize this common fact, and that they can slip into the old language—with its honesty and lack of preciousness—it’s like the rest of the world falls away. It’s not a short book, but somehow I wrote it in exactly one year and when I think about the obsessive pace at which I worked, I realize I felt I was fighting a clock. Racing time to preserve my version of home and our mode of speaking love before it was completely extinct.
I like to ask people who speak many languages which one they dream in, and almost always it’s that with which they were raised. Certainly, it is for me.
Con mucho, mucho amor,