SHREWSBURY, Massachusetts – Someone with whom I once worked told me about a time when he visited New York as a youngster and went into a luncheonette to buy a drink. He asked the girl behind the counter for a bottle of tonic but she didn’t understand what he meant and he was at a total loss to explain that he wanted a soda as it was called there. The harder he tried to get his meaning across the more frustrated he became and the dumber he felt. He finally gave up, walking out both thirsty and ashamed.
What the incident points up is that seemingly simple and common items are known in different areas by totally dissimilar names, even being no more than 100 miles of each other. I’m originally from Brooklyn and whenever ordering an ice cream cone had always asked for sprinkles, those chocolate ant-sized things that are put on and cling to the top of the ice cream ball. When moving to Connecticut and requesting sprinkles, the girl in the ice cream parlor was totally mystified by my request and made a face when I described them as chocolate ants. What I didn’t know was that they were called “shots,” and when relocating to Massachusetts had to then learn that those same things were known locally as “Jimmies.”
As with my co-worker who could have died of thirst before being able to properly ask for his drink, what I always called a water fountain is known in these parts as a “bubbler,” yet another thirst quencher whose name I learned only after a painfully long discussion replete with gestures and loud talking. When traveling, knowing the colloquial names is essential not only for your own benefit but for that of others as well. I was once in a diner in Boston and overheard a man with an obvious New York accent unsuccessfully request a malted. Fortunately for him I was able to interpret and told the waitress to give the guy a frappe, which he immediately protested against since a frappe to him was a dish of several ice cream scoops with whipped cream, nuts, and a cherry on top. After assuring the foreigner of my multi-regional knowledge he gave in and happily got what he wanted.
My most successful accomplishment, however, was the time I was in Springfield, Mass. for business on a very hot July day with two other ex-New Yorkers. Dying of thirst I mentioned that I really could have gone for an egg-cream and though the others concurred, they scoffed at the idea of getting that chocolaty nectar in such a barbarous land. No one outside of New York knows about egg-creams and certainly not from the name since it contains neither eggs nor cream. Why it’s called that is a mystery which no human has ever discovered since one taste puts you in such a euphoric state that you couldn’t care less about anything.
Undaunted I grabbed my two parched colleagues and led our sweat-drenched parade to a nearby luncheonette where we sat down at the counter and beckoned the counterman to take our order as quickly as possible before we died of dehydration. Rather than telling the young man what we wanted I said for him to make three large ice cream sodas but to not put in any ice cream. The guy looked at me as though I was crazy and said he wouldn’t even know what to charge, to which I replied that we didn’t care about the cost but to just make the darn things, since I was ready to jump over the counter and strangle him in a fit of heat-induced madness.
We got the drinks in the nick of time and though they weren’t the real things they were close enough to satisfy our needs at that moment. A drowning man will even clutch at the tip of a sword.