Paul Greenberg: An innocent abroad

Dear Guide in Tashkent,

I regret I never learned your name, but your language, heard from the back of a tour bus, remains a thing of curious beauty and a joy recurrently remembered. You could call it English, though more strictly speaking it was American, and a distinct subset of American at that. Not just Midwestern but Chicagoan, and not just Chicagoan but the Chicagoan of the 1930s.

You yourself had never been out of Tashkent, but thanks to one of those remarkable Russian secondary schools where all subjects are taught in a foreign language -- German, English, French, pick the fluency you want to acquire -- you could have just walked out of Chicago, and not just Chicago but the Chicago of 1933.

Yours was as perfect a copy of that distinctive patois as one of those medieval manuscripts scrupulously copied to preserve every jot and tittle of some saint's commentary on the Scriptures.

Only the text you'd devoted yourself to was James T. Farrell's "Studs Lonigan" trilogy. Here in the middle of Tashkent's minarets and Mongol ruins, you had another language down pat, the now dated language a visitor might have heard under the L tracks on Chicago's West Side decades ago. Maybe it was only the lingo of a minor punk messing around with the dames and cussing his life, but you knew it like the back of Studs' coal-grimy hand.

Listening to you, I could have been somewhere just off Lawndale Avenue near Roosevelt Road and Independence Boulevard in the no-man's land between Depression-era Irish and Polish neighborhoods -- the Chicago where I'd spent boyhood summers visiting the family.

Ours was a large, extended family by then, for that was where my grandfather had settled when he came over from the old country at the turn of another century. A Jewish neighborhood squeezed into an ethnic patchwork. Yours was a remarkable feat, comrade, to master so different a language and traverse so much time and geography.

Russian language schools are like that. They specialize. Intensely. The sweep and vision of the foreign country whose language is being taught may elude the students, but their mastery of a particular dialect of it, like Studs Lonigan's, can out-native the natives.

In Moscow, our guide had studied American history through a similar peephole. She knew nothing of the whole panoramic sweep of this country's past, or anything at all about it before or after the presidential election of 1912, but that election she knew with a detail we'd scarcely touched on in my graduate seminar on the same subject. Confuse TR's New Nationalism with Wilson's New Freedom, and she'd correct you in a Moscow minute.

Who knows, our guide in Tashkent may have made it out of Russia after Comrade Gorbachev presided over the dissolution of the Soviet empire. Talk about a completely unintended Russian thaw. He was just going to reform Communism with a little glasnost and perestroika, you may recall, but blew up the whole thing instead. He hadn't realized that just letting a little light into that well of darkness would explode the entire, criminal enterprise. As a single lit match will ignite a tank of gasoline.

I can see our guide from Tashkent in Chicago now, trying to figure out where Maxwell Street's pushcarts and Al Capone's tommy guns went. Nothing stays the same here, or perhaps not even in Russia. And in both countries and societies, language can be telling.

So if you ever did make it to America, Comrade, welcome, Even if Studs Lonigan no longer lives. But in you his language did that day in far Tashkent.

Do svidaniya. To you and the lingo of a vanished Chicago, wherever both of you are now.

--Inky Wretch

(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is pgreenberg@arkansasonline.com.)

(c) 2014 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

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