When I first went to New York I was nineteen and I’d never been outside London.
So naturally I thought everyone, everywhere was just like me.
I found out they weren’t when I got a subway train to my art school in Brooklyn.
I knew I needed to change trains at Jay Street, and again at Hoyt Schermerhorn.
So when I got to Jay Street I did what I’d do in London.
I asked a member of staff.
I went up to the change-booth and said, “Excuse me, can you tell me which the platform I need for trains going to Hoyt Schermerhorn please?”
He must not have heard me.
I said, “Excuse me, could you point me towards the platform for Hoyt Schermerhorn?”
I said, “Excuse me.”
It was like I wasn’t there.
Then I remembered a friend of mine back home, who’d been doing A level French.
He said it was no good speaking French with an English accent.
The secret was to speak with their accent.
He said, although it sounded silly to us, you had to imitate Maurice Chevalier as you spoke.
The fat bottom lip, the shrugs, the whole nasal “Haw-hee-haw”.
So I thought, I wonder if that’s what I’m doing wrong here.
Speaking in English instead of American.
So I turned back to the man in the change-booth and shouted, “HEY BUDDY, HOYT SKIMAHOYN!”
He pointed and grunted, “Platform 4”.
There it was.
The words weren’t enough, you had to learn the language.
Later, in Brooklyn, I wanted to make a phone call and needed a dime.
I went into a coffee bar called Nedicks.
Behind the counter was a really tall black basketball player type guy.
I held out a quarter and said, “Have you got change for the phone please?”
At least that’s what it sounded like in my head, but I do have a London accent.
He said to me, “You wha?”
I said, “Can I get a dime?”
He looked puzzled, he said, “A duy–yum?”
I said a, “A dime.”
He shrugged and said “A duy-yum?”
Then he turned to an old Jewish cab driver, drinking coffee at the counter, for help.
The cab driver said to me, “Whaddya want?”
I said, “A dime, a dime.”
He looked puzzled and said, “A dow–wum, a dow–wum?”
He gave up and went back to his coffee.
I mimed dialling a number and holding a receiver up to my ear.
Eventually the black guy’s face lit up and he smiled.
He said, “Oh, you want a da-ahm, for the phone. Whyn’t you just say so man?”
I thought I had.
But apparently not.
I’d learned the language, but I couldn’t unlearn my accent.
It was pretty much like that all the time I was in New York.
I’d call up a creative director to try to get an appointment, and it would go like this.
The secretary would always ask who was calling.
I’d say, “Dave Trott.”
She’d say, “Dive Truck?”
I’d say, “No, Dave.”
She’d say, “Dive?”
I’d say, “Let me spell it: D – A – V – E.”
She’d say, “D – I – V – E?”
And I’d have to say, “No, first D, then A (the first letter of the alphabet) then V, then E.”
And eventually she’d say, “Oh you mean ‘Dave’. You sound Australian.”
Yup, I sound just like Crocodile Dundee.
It reminds me of a joke I used to hear about two soldiers in World War One.
An American soldier and a cockney soldier meet in the trenches.
They share a cigarette and start to talk.
The American soldier is very patriotic, he says, “I came here to die.”
The cockney soldier says, “I came ‘ere yesterdie.”
Which is why I always tell students, you can work anywhere in the world if you’re an art director.
Because visual language is pretty much universal.
But if you’re a copywriter you can’t.
Because spoken language isn’t.