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385 Topics: Famous Playwrights – August Wilson; low-income housing; to keep in mind versus to bear in mind; goose down blanket and other bedding; beauty is only skin deep

 Cultural English 385

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 385.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 385. I’m your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California.

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On this Café, we’re going to continue our series on famous playwrights, people who write plays for the theater. Today, we’re going to talk about one of my favorite modern playwrights, August Wilson. We're also going to talk about what happens to people who don’t have a lot of money and need a place to live when they are here in the United States – we’re going to talk about low-income housing. And, as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

We begin our Café talking about famous American playwrights. We’ve only had one previous Café on this topic. That was in English Café 344, where we talked about one of the most famous American playwrights, Tennessee Williams. Today, we’re going to talk about a different playwright, perhaps not quite as famous internationally, but very well-known here in the United States among people who go to plays frequently.

August Wilson was born in Pennsylvania, in the northeastern part of the United States, right at the end of World War II, in 1945. Oddly enough, he was not born in the month of August, like his name, but in April. Wilson was an African American – a black person – who grew up during a time when there was still a lot of racism, a lot of discrimination against blacks. His family moved into a white neighborhood – an area where most, or all of the people who are living there were white. He had people throwing things at him, throwing things at his home. Eventually, the family moved away. When he was in high school, he was the only African American student in his school. After a while, he left his school as well because of that negative experience.

So Wilson had what we might call “firsthand experience” with racism in the United States. “Firsthand” (firsthand), one word, means direct experience, personal experience. You could have experience by reading a book. You can talk to someone who describes a situation for you. That’s another kind of experience. “Firsthand experience,” however, is when you are there. You are part of the action, part of the situation of the experience.

Wilson did not finish high school but he was what we would call a “self-educated man,” meaning someone who taught himself many things. He spent a lot of time in the library – in public libraries – reading a lot of books, including many by African American writers. He decided that he wanted to become a writer and he started to write some poetry. Eventually, he decided, however, that writing plays was something that was better suited to his talents. When we say something is “better suited (suited)” we mean it has a better fit for your talent or it matches your talents. It’s something that you have the ability to do, and that’s what August Wilson decided to do, to write plays.

I said Wilson was born in the state of Pennsylvania. He was born in the city of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, which is in the northwestern corner of the state of Pennsylvania. In the other side of the state, you have the larger, more well-known city of Philadelphia. Wilson wrote most of his plays, however, about his hometown, the place where he was born – Pittsburgh. And in fact, he wrote 10 plays that are sometimes called “The Pittsburgh Cycle.”

A “cycle” (cycle) is usually a series of artistic works. They could be plays. They could be books. They could be operas that are all connected by some general theme or general background. The case of The Pittsburgh Cycle is one where each play covers one decade or one ten-year period in the 20th century. Each play portrays or shows the African American experience, the way blacks have lived and what they have lived through during the 20th century. We sometimes use that phrase “(something) experience” – the “Asian American experience,” “the Latino or Hispanic experience” – to talk about all of the things that that particular group of people have in common or have experienced in common.

The August Wilson plays are about the African American experience in the U.S. The plays don’t all follow the same people or the same story, but some of the characters, some of the people, do appear in more than one play. The plays that he’s most famous for are “The Piano Lesson,” which talked about the 1930’s, and his most famous play, “Fences,” which portrayed African Americans in the 1950’s.

A “fence” is something you put up around your property, perhaps around your house, to protect it. The play “Fences” is about an African American man who, when he was younger, was a baseball player, but had gotten into some problems and gone to prison and was now working as a garbage man, a man who works for a company that picks up trash, picks up garbage from people’s houses.

The whole story is about the struggles, the difficulties, the problems this man has in trying to survive in this world where he doesn’t have a lot of skills. He doesn’t have a lot of advantages. It’s also about his bitterness. “Bitterness,” (bitterness), when used to describe a person or a personality, refers to anger, hostility, a very negative emotion, when something bad happens to you and you’re very angry about it, perhaps you think it is very wrong, very unfair, that it should not have happened to you. That situation can create bitterness. And the character, the main person in the play, “Fences,” definitely has that bitterness, which also affects his family.

It’s a wonderful play. In fact, it won a prize for one of the best plays of the year. “Fences” won what is called a “Pulitzer Prize,” one of the highest prizes given to writing in the United States. His play “The Piano Lesson” also won a Pulitzer Prize.

In the late 1970’s before “Fences” was written, August Wilson moved to my hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. He moved there in 1978 and received what is called a “fellowship.” A “fellowship” (fellowship) is sort of like a scholarship or an internship, where you are given money in order to do something, usually something artistic or scientific. In this case, Wilson received his fellowship from The Playwright’s Center, an organization in Minneapolis, which is the city next to St. Paul.

He also worked in part for the Science Museum of Minnesota. It was in Minnesota that August Wilson wrote his most famous play, “Fences.” The play itself was on Broadway. It went to the New York Theater District and it won what is called a “Tony Award.” A “Tony (Tony) Award” is an award given for some of the best plays in the country, specifically those (typically) that are performed in New York City. So, the play “Fences” was rather famous. It was famous for its Pulitzer Prize. It was famous for its Tony Award.

I saw the play in St. Paul, not in New York. It was performed in a small theater in the traditionally African American neighborhood of St. Paul. I happened to have a friend who was living right across the street from the theater, and I remember going to see the play in the late 1980’s. People in St. Paul were very happy to know that someone living in their city had won these awards and had become famous.

Unfortunately, Wilson left St. Paul in 1990 and he moved to another city – Seattle, Washington, on the western coast of the United States. Sadly, he died there in 2005, not an old man. He was only 60 years old. He died of liver cancer. Your “liver (liver)” is one part of your body that is responsible for cleaning out the blood in your body.

August Wilson, during his life, received many other awards and honors. He received two of the most famous fellowships in the United States, the Rockefeller and the Guggenheim Fellowships. These are awards that give money to aspiring artists. “To aspire” (aspire) means to want to do something, to try to become a certain type of person. A medical student is an “aspiring” doctor. He wants to become a doctor or she wants to become a doctor. She aspires to be a doctor. Wilson received financial support from these fellowships, as well as, of course, from the plays that he wrote. He is one of the most well-known African American playwrights, perhaps the most well-known African American playwright, in the United States in the 20th century.

Now let’s turn to our next topic which is low income housing. “Income” (income) is the money that you make from your job, the money you receive from working or from some other sort of investment. “Low income housing” refers to where we put people who don’t have very much money, where they live. Specifically, low income housing is typically a government-related or a government-supported program to help people who don’t have a lot of money find a place to live, to give them an apartment or some other place where they can live.

In the United States, we could talk about two different types of low income housing – “public housing” and what is called “Section 8 housing.” “Public housing” is where you have buildings where people live that are owned by the government. So, the government – the local state or federal government, national government – owns a certain piece of property. “Property” refers to a place where usually there’s a building. In this case, we would call it “residential property.” “Residential” (residential) refers to places where people live. A “resident” is a person who lives in a certain area. “Residential” refers to where people live – a house, an apartment, a condominium and so forth. The opposite of residential property would be “office property,” where people have their offices for their businesses.

In public housing, the government buys or builds residential property in order to provide what is called “affordable housing.” “Affordable” (affordable) means that you have enough money for it. You have enough money to pay for it. “Affordable housing” is housing – a place to live – that poor people can actually afford.

According to the U.S government organization responsible for most public housing, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are about 1.2 million households currently in public housing units. When I say “households” (households) – one word – I’m referring to the family or the people who live in one apartment or one house. That would be the household. So, there are a lot of people, more than a million, living in these government paid public housing “units,” we would perhaps describe them as. The unit is simply, the apartment or the house, or the condominium. Typically, they are apartment buildings.

In general, public housing has rather a bad reputation in the U.S. If you talk to someone about being in public housing, they’ll probably think, “Oh, that’s too bad,” or “That’s unfortunate.” A lot of people have the idea that public housing is dangerous, that there’s a lot of crime there, that there are usually old buildings involved with poor living conditions, small apartments that aren’t very nice to live in and so forth. That’s part of the bad reputation. Your reputation is of course, what other people think of you. You can have a good reputation or you can have a bad reputation. Public housing, definitely has a bad reputation in the U.S.

Part of the reason is that the government, in the 1960’s and 70’s, built a lot of these new buildings as public housing but they didn’t take care of them, and so the public housing “projects,” as they are sometimes called, began to deteriorate. “To deteriorate” (deteriorate) means to become worse, to begin to fall apart. Sometimes these buildings are described as “dilapidated.” “Dilapidated” (dilapidated) just means that they are falling apart. They are no longer in good repair. There are problems – the windows are broken, the doors are broken, and so forth. Sometimes people refer to public housing simply as “the projects.” And that term definitely is associated with dangerous, not very nice places to live.

The other kind of low income housing in the U.S is called “Section 8” housing. This is a different kind of affordable housing because the government doesn’t own the property. The government simply gives money to poor people who can then go out and find apartments with that money. People receive what’s called a “voucher.” A “voucher” (voucher) is basically a piece of paper that you can use as if it were money. It’s like a check that you can give someone. The government gives low-income families these vouchers so they can help pay for their rent.

There are more than 3 million low-income households that receive Section 8 money. So, almost three times as many people get Section 8 low-income housing help from the government. The Department of Veterans Affairs is responsible for people who were once in our military – our army, our navy, and so forth – has its own Section 8 housing program where it helps veterans, soldiers coming back from a war, to find a place to live. The Section 8 program is designed to encourage businesses, landowners, to build housing for the poor and to make it affordable, to make it so that it wasn’t too expensive, especially in neighborhoods and in places like Los Angeles, whole cities that are very expensive to live in.

You may be asking yourself, “Well, how do I get some of these low income housing?” Well, first of all, you have to be a resident of the United States. You can’t just fly in on a plane and ask for a free house, although that would be nice. You must meet certain eligibility requirements to get either public housing or Section 8 housing vouchers. “Eligibility” (eligibility) refers to what you need in order to get some benefit – in this case, help from the government. The government looks at how much money you have. They look to see whether you are very old. They look to see, perhaps, if you have some physical disability, whether you lost your leg or have some sort of illness, and whether you are a U.S. citizen. The agency – the government organization – also checks your references. They call people to find out that you are a responsible person. In most large cities like Los Angeles, it can take a very long time to get help from the government. In Los Angeles, it could be as long as one year before you are given money or given a place in a public housing project.

Now let’s answer some of the questions that you have sent to us.

Our first question is from Mitsuru (Mitsuru) in Japan. The question has to do with a couple of expressions, “keep in mind” and “bear in mind.” Mitsuru also wants to know the difference between the word “bear” spelled (bear) and “bare” spelled (bare).

Let’s take the first question, the difference between “keep in mind” and “bear in mind.” Really, these two expressions mean the same thing. “To keep in mind” means to remember, to think about something before you actually act. It means the same as “bear in mind,” which is something you could say in most of the same situations. “It’s important to keep in mind that this weekend it will be raining, so you will probably need an umbrella or a rain coat.” “Bear in mind that it will rain this weekend so you’ll need your umbrella.” The two expressions really mean the same thing. “Bear in mind” is (bear), by the way.

We can also say “to keep someone in mind.” “To keep someone in mind” means to suggest someone for a certain activity or a certain position. It’s a little different than “to keep in mind” or “to bear in mind.” “To keep someone in mind” means to remember someone for a certain purpose. For example, you’re looking for a new president for your organization, your volunteer organization. Someone may say, “Well, keep John in mind for that position.” In other words, don’t forget about him. He might be a good person.

The second question Mitsuru has is about the difference between “bear” and the two different spellings. The first spelling (bear) for “bear” can refer to a large animal that lives in the woods, that is usually black or brown. (Bear) can also mean to suffer. “I bear many burdens.” A “burden” (burden) is some difficulty, some problem. So, I suffer from many problems. “

Bear” in the same spelling can also mean “to carry.” It’s a somewhat old-fashioned way of using the word. Most often, you will probably hear it with the expression, “the weight.” “It bears the weight” – especially when you’re talking about a wall in a building, for example.

The other spelling of bare (bare) really has only one major definition and that is plain, uncovered, nothing on it. You could say that “The tree looked bare.” There were no leaves on it. There were just the branches. There was nothing on it. It was bare. For a person, we would say it was “naked” (naked). A person with no clothes on is naked. For emphasis, we sometimes use the expression “bare naked,” which really means the same as naked because “bare” means without anything on it, without any covering. So, a person who is “bare” would be someone who didn’t have any clothes on, but “naked” is usually used when talking about a person. If you’re talking about an object that is not covered with anything, you might use the adjective “bare” (bare).

Cyrus (Cyrus) from Iran wants to know about some words used to describe blankets, particularly the word “down” (down) or “goose down.” A “blanket” (blanket), you probably know, is something that you put on your bed, on top of you to keep you warm at night. “Down” (down) can be the opposite of “up.” We can talk about something being “up” or something being “down.” But as a noun, here, it means the feathers of a bird. Birds have these little things that come out of their skin that they use to fly with and that protect them. We call those “feathers.”

When you use those feathers, especially in a blanket, as a part of the construction of the blanket, as part of how the blanket keeps you warm, we would call those feathers “down.” “Goose down” then is a particular kind of feather that comes from the goose – one kind of bird, a large bird that lives on the water. So that’s the meaning of a “goose down” blanket.

A blanket is just one of the things that you can put on your bed, one type of what we would call “bedding” (bedding), which includes all the things you might put on a bed before you sleep in it. Bedding usually includes a sheet, which goes over the part of the bed you sleep on called the “mattress.” Bedding can include a blanket. It can include a much thicker blanket – a larger blanket which is sometimes called a “comforter.” The difference between a comforter and a blanket is mostly how you use it and how thick it is. A comforter is usually thicker. The blanket is usually is thinner, not quite as warm. Bedding would also include pillow cases. A “pillow” (pillow) is what you lay your head down on, something soft when you sleep. A “pillow case” is what you put over the pillow itself so it doesn’t get dirty. You then take the pillow cases off just like you take the sheet and other bedding off and you wash it, at least, oh, I don’t know, once a year, once a month? Probably more. I’m a man so, I wouldn’t really know.

Our final question comes from Hana (Hana), originally from Iraq, now living in Jordan. Hana wants to know the meaning of an expression, “Beauty is only skin deep.” “Skin” is the thin layer, what we would call the “tissue,” that covers your body. It’s a relatively thin tissue that covers the human body, this skin that we all have.

The expression “Beauty is only skin deep” means that a person’s physical beauty, how attractive they look, is really only on the surface. It’s what you can see. It doesn’t reflect the person’s character, whether they’re a good person or not. Beauty is something you see from the outside – physical beauty – but you can’t see interior beauty – beauty of one’s character.

Of course, just because you have a beautiful body doesn’t mean you’re a good person. That’s really the meaning of “Beauty is only skin deep.” The expression is saying that we should not look at a person and say, “Oh, she’s beautiful, therefore she’s also intelligent or therefore, she’s also a good person.” We say this and most people will agree that that’s true, that beauty is only skin deep and yet, of course, in the real world, in the business world and in the personal lives, we do often associate or tend to think, “Oh, well that person is very good looking, therefore he would be a good president.” Or “She’s very attractive. She would make a good person for this position.” We often make those connections even though, of course, they don’t really make any sense logically.

Notice the expression is “Beauty is only skin deep (deep).” Someone who is “deep,” if we use that as an adjective, is someone who has a very intense or great understanding or awareness of something. We sometimes use that word “deep” to describe something that is profound (profound), something that is very serious and has a lot of meaning – a lot of insight, we could say.

If you have an idiom, an expression, or a saying that you’d like us to explain, email us at ESLPod@eslpod.com. Bear in mind that we get dozens, even hundreds of emails every week, and we don’t have time to answer everyone’s question, but we’ll do our best.

From Los Angeles, California, I’m Jeff McQuillan. Thank you for listening. Come back and listen to us again, right here on the English Café.

ESL Podcast’s English Café is written and produced by Dr. Jeff McQuillan and
Dr. Lucy Tse. This podcast is copyright 2013, by the Center for Educational

firsthand experience – direct experience; personal experience

* Although Gina doesn’t have any firsthand experience with losing a close family member, she is a very sympathetic person to talk to.

African American experience – a phrase used to talk about how African Americans experience life

* Spike Lee and Tyler Perry are two movie directors who have made films about the African American experience.

aspiring – wanting to do something and trying to become a type of person

* Pierre works as a waiter to pay for his living expenses, but he’s also an aspiring rock musician.

public housing – buildings where people live owned by the government, usually for the poor

* Without public housing, many poor families would be homeless.

residential property – property and buildings where people live, such as homes, apartments, and condominiums

* Our real estate agent specializes in selling residential properties.

affordable housing – a place to live that doesn't cost too much, so poorer people can afford to live there

* The city is building more affordable housing as the price of renting a home in this area continues to go up.

to have a bad reputation – for most people to not like something or someone because they have a bad feeling about it or they have heard a lot of bad things about it

* Stay away from Julia’s brother. He has a bad reputation for the way he treats his girlfriends.

to deteriorate – for the condition of someone or something to get worse

* It’s a fact of life that as we get older, our health deteriorates.

dilapidated – in very bad condition and falling apart, usually used for buildings and other structures

* We tore down that dilapidated shed in the backyard to have room for a vegetable garden.

Section 8 housing – housing where part of the rental payment is paid directly to landlords by the government for low-income people and families

* If you live in Section 8 housing, you may get some or all of your electric and gas bills paid for.

voucher – a piece of paper that can be exchanged for money, things, services, or benefits

* As a promotion, the new store is giving out vouchers for a free TV for the first 10 people who walk into the store on the day it opens.

eligibility requirement – certain requirements that determine whether one can participate in a program

* One of the eligibility requirements to be on the school volleyball team is a note from your doctor saying that you’re in good health.

to keep in mind – to remember; to think about something before acting

* While you’re shopping for a new car, keep in mind the insurance costs for each type of car.

to bear in mind – to remember; to think about something before acting

* Thanks for your job interview advice. I’ll definitely bear it in mind.

goose down blanket – a warm covering for a bed that is filled with the soft feathers of a goose (a large bird that lives on the water, with a long neck)

* Kailie is allergic to the goose down blanket we bought her, so I’m exchanging it at the store for a fleece one instead.

beauty is only skin deep – a phrase meaning that a person’s physical beauty is only on the surface is not a good indicator of a person's character

* Lorna is certainly attractive, but beauty is only skin deep. I don’t like the way she treats her friends and family.

What Insiders Know
Squatters in New York City

A squatter is a person who lives in an area or a building that they do not have a “right” (permission) to be in. Squatters do not own, pay rent, or have any kind of agreement to use the place where they are living. Because squatters have no “legal” (allowed by law) right to be living where they live, squatting is usually not allowed. In big cities, such as New York City, squatters are usually quickly removed by police.

However, there is a large “exception” (a situation different from what is normal). In New York City. There is a “tunnel” (a long underground area where people or things can travel) that was built by a train company in the 1930’s. The tunnel was not used for very long. Once it was no longer being used, “homeless” people (people without homes) began living there. For many years there were hundreds of people living in the tunnel. People began calling the tunnel “the Freedom Tunnel.”

In 1994, the train company started using the tunnel again. The homeless people who were living in the tunnel were removed. The “shantytowns” (collection of temporary, rough structures that they had built to live in) were “destroyed” (torn down and removed).

Marc Singer was a filmmaker from Britain. He became friends with many of the homeless people living in the Freedom Tunnel. Before it was destroyed, he made a “documentary” (a film about real people and true events) to raise money for the homeless people living in the tunnel. He made a film called Dark Days. Later, Singer was able to get the homeless people living in the tunnel into “low income housing” (usually apartments that are free or very inexpensive for people who do not earn very much money).

Squatting is not legal in New York City. However, in 2002 the city allowed squatters to stay in eleven buildings that they had been living in. The city said the squatters could stay only if a “non-profit” (a group of people who help others without making any money for themselves) organization turned the buildings into low-income housing.