A New York State of Mind: Where Y’at?
As many of us await a COVID-19 vaccination appointment, spring may have finally, and optimistically sprung. While we are not out of the woods yet, there has been more hope. That means more walks in neighborhoods, a renaissance of outdoor activities, and additional opportunities to engage with others — even at a still-cautious distance. And, 1,300 miles from Greater New York City, a greeting of care, “Where Y’at?” sounds exactly like a native New York dialect.
The first time I heard “Where Y’at?” I mistakenly believed I was with my mom’s family, sitting on the stoop of a brownstone in the Brownsville neighborhood where she grew up. The accent and voice of the man asking me this question sounded exactly like my Uncle “Tex,” who in contradiction was not from Texas at all but favored cowboy hats. Anyone from Greater New York City knows the accent – the “caw-fee,” the “tawlk,” the “ra-gardless.”
But, this was not a New York moment. I had just taken a nail-biting drive across the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway Bridge, the longest continuous bridge over water, from New Orleans to the Northshore of Louisiana. Once on land again, the blood started circulating again in my hands that gripped the wheel as if it were the giant safety valve to one of Manhattan’s main sewer lines. My pounding heart settled to a normal rhythm after driving over water for twenty-six plus miles and my stomach grumbled, betraying my hunger.
I stopped at a breakfast and lunch place that called itself a diner. It did not have the booths, almost 24-hour service, cake displays of half-eaten cheesecakes, or a 14-page menu offering everything from omelets and pancakes to chicken parmigiana at the Mirage Diner on Kings Highway where I would take my grandparents for lunch when visiting them.
This diner, Liz’s Where Y’at, has peace symbols, brightly colored graffiti, tie-dye t-shirt wearing staff, and hand-painted inspirational signs for sale. There are no bagels and lox, nor any whitefish salad with a little schmear on the menu. Instead, I ordered the Bayou scrambler – Louisiana crawfish tails, mushrooms onions, and cheese — served with toast and grits. The tasty scrambler was delicious.
Although I have watched the cult-favorite movie “My Cousin Vinny,” where Joe Pesci presses a witness over the length of time to cook grits, I never really enjoyed eating them. But, I found my taste buds so overwhelmed with how delicious this cornmeal porridge tasted. So much so that I asked if I could speak with the owner, Liz. While Liz laughed and said she gets asked no fewer than four times a day the secret to her perfect grits, she did explain the meaning of “Where Y’at” to me. Where Y’at is a common phrase used to ask people how they are doing.
By background, the Yat dialect in New Orleans sounds a lot like a very pronounced New York City accent. Linguists have equated the commonalities to a shared port history — from similar immigration patterns of Europeans to the business people and travelers from New York who would regularly travel through the area. Dialect shifts based on gentrification are happening all across the country and the Yat dialect is indeed evolving and becoming less pronounced.
The adage “Hope Springs Eternal,” never felt more accurate than right now. As many of us have struggled with jobs, schooling and mourning those we have lost to COVID-19, it has been difficult to know exactly how to respond to “where y’at.” That in the face of the adversity we have all faced in the past 13-months, there is new hope this Spring that activities may resume over time – like the daily bustle of city activities and that the lights will shine on Broadway in New York. In New Orleans, we look forward to the day when our many festivals and Mardi Gras parades “will roll again.” And, next time you head across one of the world’s longest bridges from New Orleans to the Northshore of Louisiana, be sure to stop in and visit Liz; one bite of those grits and you’ll know “Where Y’at.”
Jennifer S. Bankston, a native New Yorker who now resides in Greater New Orleans, heads Bankston Marketing Solutions – a strategic marketing and communications company.
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