Monday, June 12, 2006

English Only in South Philly?

This is Geno's:

They're a decent cheese steak shack that has been around since 1966. The corner they occupy in South Philly is busy virtually all day and all night, with the line stretching around the corner around lunch, dinner, and 2am when the bar flies get thrown out. Recently, they've put up this sign:

Speaking as the son of an Italian immigrant, I find this kind of bone headed nativism to be all too common among my extended family, and working class white-ethnic immigrants in general. It’s more common among the second and third generation, but I’ve even caught first generation family members making the hackneyed slurs; Why don’t they learn English? They’re taking OUR jobs! Why don’t they go back to [insert unpopular country here]?

I find this whole situation revolting and sad. But besides soft racism and misguided pseudo-patriotism/nationalism, there is a real reason for this sign. Standing in line at Geno’s is a lot like standing in line at the Soup Nazi’s. There are two lines, one for cheese steaks (the long line) and one for drinks, fries, and everything else (the short line). If you’re in the steak line, the procedure is simple. With cash (only) in hand, you state the quantity you want, type of cheese you want, and the presence or absence of fried onions on the steak(s). One Wiz wit, or two provy without, or one American with, etc. If you don’t have cash in hand, or if you hesitate ordering when you get to the front of the line, you will be skipped over or moved back in the line by other impatient patrons, sometimes to the very back of the line, and sometimes physically. Attractive women and seniors get more leeway then others, anyone who looks like a tourist gets less.

The irony, of course, is that when Geno’s was founded, most of South Philly spoke Italian, and it was probably common for patrons to order in either English or their native tongue. I know for a fact that several of the people who work at Geno’s speak Italian, as I’ve joked around with them using my limited vocabulary. Spanish, especially simple every day Spanish, is really not that different. So the sign is clearly more of a statement then an administrative tool.

For the record, I prefer Pat’s across the street. They’re steaks are greasier and more juicy, and when I order “One Extra Wiz With” they give it to you drenched in oily Cheese Whiz, which is exactly how I like it.

Hat tip to Bizzyblog, who has a good roundup of the events around the situation here.
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