1. First Impressions
When I walked out on Longwood Avenue the day after my arrival I first began to realize how new and different the New World really was. It was a warm summer day and the street was teeming with people who left their tenements to enjoy the sunshine and get a breath of fresh air. Children were all over the place, running, jumping rope, shooting marbles, and playing "potsy" in squares marked out with chalk on the sidewalks, all the while getting in the way of the adult pedestrians. The latter, instead of gruffly shooing them out of the way as would have been the case in the old country, showed great tolerance and stepped aside so as not to interfere with the games. The sidewalk belonged to the kids! The blue-coated cop on the corner, whom my first impulse was to avoid, exchanged jocular remarks with the passers by and the kids, whom he knew by name, while playfully twirling his nightstick. Everyone seemed lighthearted, without a care in the world, including the sidewalk peddlers whom the policeman now and then rather perfunctorily told to move on, which they did only after several admonitions by merely going across the street and taking up a position at the next corner.
One block away, at Westchester Avenue, was an entrance to the subway (which despite the name ran overhead here), and underneath the stairway there was a news stand. What a revelation this turned out to be! Stacks of newspapers in English, Yiddish, Russian, German and other languages; beautifully illustrated magazines displayed on racks; paperback books-- all available for pennies what a delight for me who had been starved for reading matter for years! I had already made up my mind to speak and read only English as far as possible in order to enhance my meager knowledge of it, so my first purchase in America was a copy of the Saturday Evening Post, for five cents. I also bought a little directory called "Red Book" which contained a map and an index of all the streets in Manhattan and the Bronx. It also listed the subway and trolley routes, as well as the noteworthy city landmarks I intended to explore New York, especially its museums and parks.
The next discovery was the library the Woodstock branch on 161st Street- four short blocks from my new home. Books, books, books, in every major language, on any desirable subject: history, science, politics, philosophy, travel, biography, novels, poetry and free to read not only on the spot but to take home as well. I could hardly believe my eyes! And what more, the librarians were eager to help, explain the indexing system, and give advice on selection of material. I borrowed only one book for a start a concise history of the United States, of which I had a rather vague concept. While browsing through these treasures my thoughts went back to my friends in Shershev, and I felt truly sorry that there was no way of sharing this bounty with them. I resolved to write to them that same day and give an account of my trip and of my first impressions of New York.
Upon leaving the library I took a stroll on Prospect Avenue and almost felt as if I were back in the Jewish quarter of Warsaw. Many of the store signs had Yiddish inscriptions next to the English ones; Yiddish speech interspersed with English words was heard all around; the Prospect Theater announced in bold lettering the staging of a Yiddish play, with names and pictures of the artists; and a gigantic transparency, stretched above the avenue from one side to the other, exhorted everybody to VOTE FOR BENJAMIN ANTIN. I wondered: could Benjamin Antin be a Jew? Are Jews in America really so uninhibited as to flaunt their aspirations for all the world to see? Isn't this resented by the gentiles? A feeling of pride surged through me at these thoughts, but not unmixed with a tinge of fear it takes time to acquire an instinctive sense of freedom and equality after having been subjected for years to oppression and discrimination.
After dinner that evening I raised the question of a job. I did not come here to be supported by relatives and was anxious to start earning money not only to pay for room and board, but also to be able to help my family in Poland, whose lack of the basic necessities appeared to me even more intolerable now, when I compared it with the "affluence" observed here. Since I had no trade or profession, and there was considerable unemployment, the prospects were rather dim. My aunt offered to make inquiries among her relatives and acquaintances, while I was advised to scan the "Help Wanted" columns of the Jewish newspapers. But before anything else it was necessary that I get some "American" clothes to replace my outlandish outfit that had been made from mother's wedding cape.
Uncle Philip rather disconcertedly indicated that the money for new clothing would have to come from my grandfather, whom I had not yet seen. Accordingly, on the first Sunday, the only day that uncle was free from work (I found out soon enough that most American Jews did not observe the injunction against working on the Sabbath), he took me for the long subway ride to Brownsville. Here I was mortified when I beheld a bent down, emaciated, tired old man, and found out what his "ice and coal business" was like. The image of my other grandfather came to me, with his upright bearing and healthy appearance despite equally hard work, and I realized the price Zeide Meishe has paid in his effort to provide for his family. I felt sorry for him, and guilty for having used up so many of his hard-earned dollars. I was furious with uncle Philip when I found out later that he took from grandfather fifty dollars for buying me clothes, uncle having been entrusted with this task because he was a tailor and presumably knowledgeable a mavin in these matters. Perhaps he was, but not to suit my taste or disposition.
On the way back from the visit with grandfather we got off at the Canal Street subway station and went to one of the streets in the neighborhood which was a center of the retail clothing trade. Here I again experienced a sense of keen disappointment and even revulsion. The street was lined with clothing stores, and in front of each one stood a shlepper who accosted every passer by with insidious urgings to come in and see the bargains at "wholesale prices" or even "below cost." Some of them were obnoxious enough to bar the way and grab people by their sleeve or lapel in order to force them to go inside. It was just like the kremerkes in Shershev trying to entice the peasants, which I found loathsome there, but even more so here in America. We did manage to buy a suit, a hat, work pants, a couple of shirts and some underwear, after sharp bargaining by uncle. Never again did I go shopping with him, or to that neighborhood I patronized only one-price stores thereafter.
What happened to that suit metamorphosed from a cape I do not rightly know. Most likely aunt gave or sold it to one of the itinerant "merchants" who periodically appeared in the back yards, calling out: "Old clothes! Cash for old clothes!"
2. Job Hunting and Exploration
A week went by in fruitless search of a job. I was up every morning at six, looked through the advertisements and went to two or three of the more promising ones, those requiring "no experience," only to find several other applicants at the first place and the jobs already filled at the others. Since there was no point in trying other ads after that, I spent the rest of the day in visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Museum of Natural History; the Bronx Zoo; and Central Park, making good use of my little "Red Book."
I knew of course that museums existed and that paintings, sculpture and other works of art were exhibited there, but whatever notions I had of them were based only on passing references and allusions in books. What I discovered was beyond anything I ever imagined. I was like a blind person suddenly gaining sight and beholding the reality of what Was formerly only a vague conception. The mere size of the buildings and the multiplicity of exhibits were staggering. I moved from room to room in a daze, encountering previously known names: Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens, da Vinci all now materialized in color, shape and form on canvas and in marble. Huge hieroglyph covered pillars from ancient Egyptian temples reached for the sky, dwarfing the puny humans at their base. Mummified remains of people who lived thousands of years ago rested in their richly adorned sarcophagi, defying the ravages of time. Greek deities in idealized human shape stood erect on their pedestals, waiting for the obeisance of mere mortals. lifelike knights encased in armor were astride their caparisoned horses, lances atilt, ready for the joust. Redskins in feathered headdress, tomahawk in hand, straight out of Mayne Reid, stood before their tepees watching over the squaws and papooses busy around the open-air fire. These and countless other sights brought visual realization of what was previously known to me only from description. I found no job during that and the following week, but added greatly to my education in this unforeseen manner.
The next Sunday I went by myself to visit grandfather, dressed in my new clothes bought with his money. He was flabbergasted at this accomplishment by the "greenhorn" who made the long trip from the Bronx to Brownsville all alone, after only ten days in the to him bewildering maze of New York. After all the years spent in this city grandpa knew only a few English words and did not trust himself to travel alone any distance away from his residence. He had cousins living in upper Manhattan, but saw them only on rare occasions when someone took him to them. Upon hearing about my job hunting he raised the possibility that the cousins might help because they operated two dairy stores. I proposed that we go to see them then and there, to which he reluctantly agreed after repeated assurances that we would not get lost. We did make the trip and were warmly welcomed, the cousins being curious to meet the newcomer and hear the news from the old home. They had no job for me, but promised to make inquiries from their deliverymen about any openings they might hear of on their rounds. I gave them the telephone of uncle's store (there was none at the residence) and took grandpa home, leaving him very proud of, and by this time full of confidence in me.
Toward the end of the same week uncle received a telephone call about a job that just became available in a delicatessen store. I rushed there the following morning and was hired as a clerk at fifteen dollars per week, plus meals. I was elated America accepted me and offered me a share in its abundance.
3. Meeting Americans
The store was located near Dyckman Street, in the Inwood section, almost at the northern tip of Manhattan Island. It was a thirty-minute ride from home by trolley. The trolley cars at that time were completely open during the summer, and one could enter anywhere along the side and take a seat on one of the transverse benches lining the interior. It was fun to jump aboard wnile the car was in motion by grabbing a hold on one of the iron posts that supported the roof, although this was frowned upon by the fare collector whose job was to notice those getting on and collect the nickel fare from them. It was pleasant to feel the cool breeze as the car went clanging along the half-empty streets in early morning. My working hours were from 6:30 A.M. to 7:00 in the evening, Monday through Friday, and until midnight on Saturdays. The store was not limited to delicatessen and also sold many grocery items, such as dairy products, canned goods, fruit and vegetables. The owner as well as most of the customers were non-Jewish, mainly of the working classes. This pleased me because I was anxious to meet "real Americans" and learn "proper" English from them. Learn I did, but not what I was looking forward to. I heard slangy expressions which I could hardly understand, and crude obscenities the meaning of which I could only guess, and which made me blush to the amusement of the speakers. It was all good natured banter, but it caused me to wince in distaste and embarrassment. 0llendorff did not include these vulgarisms in his book, and I realized soon enough that the literary language I was aspiring to would have to be learned from other sources.
My work consisted mainly in keeping the store clean, filling the shelves from the stock in the back room, and making deliveries. Many customers had standing orders to be delivered each or every other morning before breakfast: milk, rolls, eggs, butter, et cetera. I quickly learned how to make up these orders, stack them in cartons arranged according to the addresses, and then make the rounds leaving the food at the customers' doors, or ring the bell and collect the money from those who did not have credit at the store. Occasionally I was offered a tip of a nickel or dime which I at first refused as an affront to my dignity, but later accepted because of the puzzled reaction of the customers, some of whom even made remarks to the storekeeper about my strange attitude. I cannot say that I liked the job, but was glad to have it and earn my own living.
Upon receipt of my first wages I set aside five dollars to be sent to my parents, three dollars for personal expenses, and the rest to be given to my aunt for my room and board. We had quite a dispute about it, she refusing the money and I insisting that I want to feel independent, threatening to move out if she did not accept it. She finally agreed, under protest, to my great satisfaction.
4. Strange Interests
Aunt Esther was a genial, unassuming woman who treated me with motherly concern during the five years I lived at her home. She was thirty-five years old when I arrived, but the difference in age did not prevent us from becoming real friends. We took to each other from the moment of our first encounter and retained a warm relationship to the time she died in 1976. She and uncle Philip were married in 1909, and never reached a state of affluence. When I arrived in 1921 uncle operated a tailoring and cleaning store on Lenox Avenue, in the heart of the then Jewish Harlem. His earnings apparently were insufficient to support his wife and their three young children, so aunt Esther helped to supplement the family income by making paper flowers at home, devoting all the hours she could spare from the daily chores to this work. The children, Grace and Milton, twins, then eleven years old, and aunt's widowed mother who lived with her, all helped in this work. Even the youngest child Lenny, not yet six, assisted to the best of his ability. I heard aunt's mother on occasion bemoaning her daughter's lot, the hard life she was enduring. But I never heard aunt complain, except about the miserly pay she was getting for her work. With me she was always cheerful, offered helpful hints about American customs, corrected my English, and gave me encouragement when I was out of work, which happened quite often after I began attending City College. She cured me of a nasty habit I had of biting my fingernails to the quick while I was reading or studying in the evening. She advised me to wear gloves, and though it seemed ridiculous to me I followed her advice and got rid of the habit.
Uncle Philip was a simple, good-natured man wno displayed a cheerful countenance in an effort to hide his troubled feeling of not being able to provide adequately for his family. Not that he did not try but the only trade he knew was tailoring, and that brought in enough only for a hand to mouth existence. In contrast to aunt's conversation, which I found interesting and stimulating, his was limited to the day to day occurrences as encountered in his store or gleaned from newspaper headlines. In this he was no different from most of the people I encountered at that time. It was hard for me to understand the apparent lack of interest in spiritual and intellectual matters by men and boys I met, and the universal absorption with sports and comic strips which I found vacuous and not even humorous. It always amazed me to see grown men in the subway or trolley open a newspaper, glance at the front-page headlines, then turn to the sports pages or the so-called funnies, and then abandon the paper when finished with these subjects. It did not seem rational that these people showed no interest in matters that affected their lives and welfare: national and foreign politics, economic situation, educational news, business and finance, scientific developments, and other such important subjects. My strong critical reaction to the above observations is shown by the following excerpts from a letter written to my friends on July 13, 1921-- just three weeks after arrival:
" . . . It is very difficult to find work here. . . as many as thirty or forty people show up when only one job is advertised. . . . Under such conditions the pay is of course very small. . . hardly enough to cover the bare necessities . . . . Nevertheless, people here are much more relaxed than at home . . . they don't worry about tomorrow and are only concerned with the present . . . . They show no interest in general subjects which affect society as a whole, being absorbed only with the petty routine of the day. . . . Young people think only of how to earn a dollar, and what fun to spend it on once it's in their pocket. . . . A very popular diversion is the cinema-- moving pictures as it is called here-- and sports: baseball, which is somewhat like our chizhik, but played with a ball and much more complicated; and boxing, called fights. . . . About ten days ago all New York no, all America-
was in a feverish state. . . because of a fight between the American champion Dempsey and the French fighter Carpentier. Newspapers were full of the event for weeks before; a special arena was built for it; hundreds of thousands of bets were placed on the outcome; special trains were run on the day of the fight-- in a word, the world was turned upside down because of a half-hour battle between an American buffalo and a French bull. The fight was attended by over ninety thousand people, and when-- praise the Lord! --Dempsey. . . knocked Carpentier to the ground so that he couldn't get up, the jubilation surpassed all bounds. 'Our Dempsey won!' rang through the streets. . . . This is but one episode in the current which engulfs local society. . . at least that segment of it which I have been able to observe during the short time I have been here. . . . "
(Translated from Yiddish. Underline denotes English words transliterated into Yiddish characters.)
The last quoted sentence of the letter was of course meant to stress the narrow limits of my observations. Even as I wrote this negative report three weeks after arrival I knew that all Americans cannot be as shallow as those first observed. The people who built the magnificent museums, beautiful parks, the great City of New York with its skyscrapers, bridges and tunnels, and the country to which half of Europe would like to come these people must have been men of vision with much higher and broader interests than sports and comics. Though not yet fully understood by me, I was awore of the greatness of this society which proclaims freedom and equality for all people regardless of race, color or creed; which provides free education for all children; in which every individual has an opportunity to progress in accordance with his character and abilities; and which is humane enough to care even for people in distant lands who are in need, as exemplified by the largess of the American Relief Administration in postwar Europe, which came as a godsend even to us in the faraway forest and swamp bound little town of Shershev.
My critical attitude had its basis in my high regard for education, which was equated with the intelligentsia, the cultural elite. Knowing that education was free and universal in the United States, I naively expected everybody to be imbued with the high standards I associated with it. I did not take cognizance of the fact that the elite is everywhere a small minority, and that the broad masses have always required "circuses" to sweeten their daily "bread," and as an escape from the humdrum routine of everyday existence.
Notwithstanding my critical attitude towards the apparent paucity of cultural interests among the people I met, I found much to admire in them. The general friendliness and informality was a welcome contrast to the aloofness and suspicion with which strangers were treated in the old country. The absence of formal stuffy introductions, of fancy titles, and the use of the given name (usually in shortened form) at first meeting and regardless of age, sex or social standing impressed me as the first tangible sign of democracy. It took me quite some time before I could address older persons unself consciously as Joe or Lizzie (aunt's relatives whom I met upon arrival), and to get used to hearing myself addressed as Jack or Jake (I always used Jacob officially) by total strangers. I think that the universal use of the plural "you" in the English language to address individuals facilitates this attitude; whereas the use of the familiar singular pronoun in other European languages among relatives and close friends (du in Yiddish, ty in Russian, tu in French), and the polite plural among others (ihr, vy, vous) acts as an inhibiting factor. When my wife recently met her Russian-speaking niece, a woman in her fifties and only twelve years younger than Rose, it was impossible to persuade her to address Rose with the familiar "ty" she tried several times, turned red as a beet each time, and finally exclaimed: "I can't, honest, I just can't!"
Here, when I addressed my aunt's sister in law as "Mrs. Lipsky" she at once objected and told me to call her Lizzie. "You make me feel old!" she exclaimed. That was another peculiarity I noticed here: everyone tried to act young, as if differences in age did not exist, and whether or not it was becoming. Middle aged men indulged in unseemly pranks and mock boxing gestures; and engaged in baseball games though obviously not in condition to do any running. Older women imitated the young ones in dress and lavish use of cosmetics. Pale faces were apparently in vogue then, and women young and old sat in the subway cars, looking like the white-faced monkeys in the zoo due to heavy application of powder, while their jaws were in constant action chewing gum, like cows chewing the cud. Serious conversation, at least in public, seemed to be taboo, giving place to banter invariably sprinkled with the latest catch-words. No one appeared to have a care in the world, and everyone seemed lighthearted and gay. "Smile, and the world will smile with you" was the motto of the day. What a contrast this presented to the adults in my birthplace, with their worried faces, somber clothing, and constant preoccupation with their daily cares! Even young children were perpetually admonished to devote themselves to useful pursuits, such as studying or helping with the house chores, instead of running about pust un pass (purposeless). There it was unthinkable for a boy of ten to play ball, which incidentally was strictly a girls' game. Even whistling was taboo, especially in the street. I loved to whistle and was pretty good at it, but was admonished time and again not to do it it was fit for a sheigetz (peasant lad), not for a Jewish boy.
Lizzie Lipsky was the veritable incarnation of the to me "new woman." She was in her middle thirties then, the wife of aunt's brother Harry, and the mother of three teenage children. In Shershev she would have been a sedate matron, absorbed in the care of home and family even if she did not have to help her husband in earning a living. Any manifestation of levity or frivolity would have been unthinkable. Not so Lizzie! She was a frequent visitor at aunt's residence, and the place became filled with gaiety, light banter and laughter as soon as she appeared. Her cheerfulness infected everybody and was ably abetted by aunt's brother Joe, who was of like disposition. Lizzie's behavior was like that of a carefree young girl, and seemed so strange to me that I at first kept aloof from her and sat in a corner reading or studying. However, she soon undertook to reform or, as she put it, to Americanize me. She twitted me for being so serious, asked provocative questions to draw me out, and tried to overcome my reserve and shyness by flirtatious remarks and insinuations. We became good friends, and she helped me greatly to understand and adapt myself to the unaccustomed mores of my new environment.