My brother was set to marry a young woman from El Salvador. Rosie's parents were coming for the wedding, and they didn't speak any English. Wanting to make them feel more at home, I decided to take an introductory Spanish class. A little is better than nothing, right?
So I enrolled in an adult-education class in Cambridge, Mass. The instructor, who had a reputation as a renegade, taught basic concepts in eight languages. Showing up for the first class, I found a tall, barrel-chested man with a mop of wild black hair, wearing a biker's leather jacket and pants. He stood in the doorway, his arm grandly sweeping the preceding students out: "French go out, Spanish come in."
There were about 10 of us in the class. I was expecting to learn practical things, such as "The bathroom is down the hall," or "Would you like eggs for breakfast?" But I quickly found that our instructor had other ideas.
One of the first things he taught us was a phrase that made us all laugh but wasn't particularly useful. But fun was his whole point.
"¿De qué color es tu ropa interior?" (What color is your underwear?) We went around the room, some of us blushing with embarrassment, our voices hesitant; others practically crowing.
And so on, until we got to the smart aleck who said, smirking, "Nada" (Nothing). Whoops of laughter. More blushing. A few students didn't return after that class.
Our next phrase was, "El presidente en la Casa Blanca es loco." (The president in the White House is crazy.) Given that the president at the time was Ronald Reagan, that this was during the Iran-contra affair, and that Rosie's father may have had ties to El Salvador's military, I wasn't going to try this one out.
So when her parents came, I hadn't learned much useful Spanish; however, I didn't need to do any translating. Rosie took care of it.
The class did teach me a few other, more basic words that I salted away on my internal hard drive and soon forgot. But a few years later, when I was at a restaurant in New York, waiting for a friend to join me, what little Spanish I had learned proved invaluable.
It was the lull between lunch and dinner, and the place was pretty quiet. I saw a suit-clad manager interviewing a prospective employee in a booth. The manager had a sheet of paper in front of him and was asking questions of a nervous young man who didn't seem to speak English. The manager was raising his voice, as many people unfortunately tend to do, in an attempt to communicate.
"Where. Do. You. LIVE?" the manager repeated, with rising inflection. He appeared to be one question away from ending the interview.
The young man shrugged and grimaced. He said something in Spanish.
I thought, "Hmm. What might I do to help? What Spanish do I know? What's 'Where is'?" I thought hard. And it came to me, floating up from the recesses of my memory: "Dónde está."
The word for "you" came fast on its heels: "su." But what was "live"? I could not remember that verb. I wildly reached out in all directions, summoning something, anything close. I came up with "your house": "su casa." That would have to do.
Because the manager was starting to tap his pencil and look irritated, I walked over and jumped in:
"¿Dónde está su casa?" I blurted to the dark-haired man being interviewed, standing right in front of him. Both men looked up, startled.
"Brooklyn!" the young man said.
"Brooklyn?" said the manager, suddenly eager. Perhaps what he'd wanted to know was not the young man's address but the borough in which he lived, to make sure he could get to work on time. Brooklyn was close.
My friend arrived and we got a table. As I walked away, the two men were smiling, and the prospective employee was filling out the application. I was smiling, too. What I'd thought was a failure of a Spanish class had proved useful after all. Four words were perhaps enough to help someone get a job.