EMMANUEL FRESHLY, 62, EAST VILLAGE
EMMANUEL FRESHLY, 62, EAST VILLAGE
WORD ON THE STREET: How often do you look up words in the dictionary?
EMMANUEL FRESHLY: Very rarely. Believe it or not, even though I’ve been living on the streets, I was raised by the white community in Staten Island and I know a lot of words. I used to be a playwright.
Is that to say white people know more words than non-white people?
Please—the whole vocabulary is totally different. Black English is different from white English. I’ve discovered this difference basically by living in a white community and moving, homeless, into a black community. Black people say, “Thems over there.” Their whole English language is twisted. [Laughs] That’s honest.
Do you speak differently to better adapt to your black surroundings?
I say, “yo.” [Chuckles] [To two passing black men:] “Yo!” [Both look over their shoulders; Emmanuel laughs.] That’s about it right there when I’m dealing with blacks.
You don’t ever say “yo” to white people?
Have you ever heard a white person say “yo” to another white person? Never.
… Are you kidding? I say “yo” all the time.
Oh, no no no. Never.
“Yo” is also a great, attention-getting word. My own dad uses it.
No, no. A white person doesn’t say, “Yo, m’man—c’mere!” A white person says “Excuse me, sir” because whites are more polite.
Hmm. So do you often wonder about the meaning of words?
No, because I’m a writer. I’m trying to get another play together, but in the meantime I’m waiting on my social security. I’m 62. It’s very… next question.
What’s the last word you misused?
Oh, that’s a great question. I actually don’t remember.
The last word I wondered about was “portrait.” Someone said that the word doesn’t include photography. Of course it does, but I looked it up to be sure.
Exactly. A portrait is an important thing because you see the facial features…. Myself, I don’t have a black person’s nose. I don’t talk black, I don’t act black, I don’t walk black.
You don’t have a black person’s nose?
But do I?
I think it looks pretty black.
Not it doesn’t, all at. It’s more Semitic, like Arab or Jewish.
Huh. You still look like a black guy.
I do? Thank you. [Laughs]
What’s a word that’s commonly misused?
[Points at passing black people] They say, I “sees” them.
When’s the last time you corrected someone’s use of a word?
Never with the blacks. You cannot even imagine their language unless you are involved with the black community. I usually try to stay intoxicated enough not to realize it.
In different situations do you ever change the way you speak?
Yeah. When I get an off-the-books job and I’m working around black people, I don’t say the same words I say around white people.
What would happen if you approached a black man and said, “Excuse me, sir?”
It wouldn’t seem normal.
Why, because you approached the person with manners and courtesy, and respect?
I thought respect was a big deal to black people.
[Covers his face with his hand.]
[Laughs for effect.]
What’s your favorite black English word? How about “Knawmsayin’?” That’s fun to write out.
Themsome: “Those people over there.”
What’s your favorite black English noun?
Oh, I hear this word a lot: “hut.”
Hut. I used to work at a children’s camp where a lot of black people were, and two blacks arguing would say, “Don’t let me get in that hut.” He wouldn’t say “your room” or “your area.” To me, a hut was something that goes back a thousand years ago.
Is that a back-to-Africa thing?
I don’t know. Now you’ve got me curious. But do you know how normal your English is? If I was talking to a black guy it would be totally off the wall. The black guy would not talk like you.
You talk like me.
[Laughs, to passing man]: “Excuse me, sir, could you spare a quarter?” [Man shakes his head no]
You should have said, “Yo m’man!” Let’s try a little experiment.
Oh, no. That would have been totally offensive. Some people spit in my face. Would you believe it? When I panhandle out here I notice things. Russian immigrants—they’ve adopted a lot of white racism very quickly.
… Do you think that gives them more leverage against other immigrants?
No. I remember when I was in high school, a lot of people who came to the United States said they were Jewish, but I think it was just a way for them to get out of the Soviet Union. I think they may have married just because they wanted to get out of there that badly.
What’s your favorite bit of Yiddish?
A lot of Jews use the word Schwarz, or “black,” I don’t know if it’s derogatory or if it’s just, like, something you would just say. People just say things, just as some people call all Spanish-speaking people “Mexicans.” It’s not an intentional or ugly attack on someone.
When did you first encounter black people?
When I first when to Harlem, when I was 12 years old, everyone was like, “Nigga-Nigga-Nigga!” I thought nobody said that word. No. Body. Said. “Nigga.” I just didn’t realized it. I was stunned.
Have you since adopted the word?
Since I’ve heard everybody say it, unfortunately, I do use the word. But “nigga” has become a normal word.
Does the ending being either “-a” or “-er” of importance?
How do you feel about Middle-Eastern/American youth calling each other “niggas”?
I’ve never heard them say that. You gotta be kidding me!
Yeah. They’ll speak in Arabic to their fathers and call each other “nigga.”
Are you serious?
Indian-American dudes say it, too.
[Laughs] Get out of here. I give up.