Authors: Harry Bernstein
And my father growling, ‘Why the bloody ’ell don’t
go in the bedroom and get it over with?’
Then there were sudden shouts of protest among the men at the table. My father swung his head round in time to see Eli tilting the bottle to his lips. He was going at it hard, sucking like a baby on its bottle. My father jumped up and swung a fist, knocking the bottle out of Eli’s mouth. Someone grabbed it quickly enough to keep most of the liquor from spilling out.
In the sacred front room they saw none of this and heard nothing. Phil was performing for them again, to their great enjoyment, this time with his mandolin, strumming and singing a song that was a great favourite all over America. And we joined in, with Uncle Saul grinning, thumping out an accompaniment on the piano. I remember that song:
Barney Google, Barney Google,
With the Goo-goo-googly eyes
Barney Google, had a wife three times his size …
And now that I think of it, in spite of all the rows, the fierce quarrels that often took place there, sometimes fights breaking out among the men if they were drunk enough, and despite the usual outburst from my grandmother towards the end of the evening ordering them all out, we did have some good times at my grandmother’s house.
IT WAS 1923
, a year after we had come to America, and in August of that year a tall, taciturn man by the name of John Calvin Coolidge became President of the United States, and all the country seemed to be benefiting, and times were getting better, and people were working and buying the newfangled radios that let you hear voices from thousands of miles away, and the newfangled Victrollas that made voices sound as if they were right in your living room, and cars too, more and more of them, little black Fords and Nashes that could go as fast as forty miles an hour. The roads were full of them. The roads were even becoming congested in spots.
For us it was becoming more like the America we had always dreamed of. All the family were working. They had all found jobs. Joe, still maintaining that he was going to be a journalist, just as Uncle Saul insisted that he was just marking time until he became a lawyer, kept on selling magazine subscriptions door to door, along with Uncle Saul, growing more and more proficient at it and making enough money – as my mother proudly put it to the relatives – to get married.
Saul, despite the fringes of his prayer shawl sticking out beneath his waist and refusing to take off his hat, which had always discouraged prospective employers from hiring him, at last found work as an order picker in the giant Sears Roebuck & Co. My father too found work tailoring with an equally large company: Hart, Schaffner & Marx, the leading clothing manufacturer. And Rose got her wish, a place at Madame LaFarge’s high-class dressmaking establishment. The wages were so low that she barely had enough for the car fare after all the expenses were taken out. But it didn’t matter. The fact that the wife of the Secretary of the Treasury came from Washington to have her dresses made there, along with a number of prominent socialites and a very famous actress, made up for everything, and she held her head up high and was more aloof than ever, and her high-class English accent grew more and more affected and less understandable.
But there was much more to add to it for her, and a chance for my mother to make up to her, however belatedly, for the loss of the parlour in England – and to us as well. It had been in my mother’s mind all these years as part of the dream of coming to America, and now that they were all working and bringing money to her she lost no time in fulfilling the promise she had made to us.
First we moved out of the leaning house, away from the stable and the smell of rotting fruit and vegetables mixed with that of horse manure, away from all that for ever, my mother vowed, and we found a new place on the north-west side, near where Barney and Rose lived, near Humboldt Park, near streets that were clean and quiet, near heaven itself.
Compared to where we had lived before, this was a high-class neighbourhood. The building in which we rented a flat was, true, very much like the one in which my grandmother lived, three-storey brick with a bellied front that curved out like a pregnant woman’s stomach, with a high stoop, and on the third floor as well. But then, half the apartment buildings in Chicago were like that, as if the same architect had designed them all, and ours had been freshly painted and the steps were swept clean every day by our Polish landlord who lived on the floor below us.
The rooms were big and light and airy, and there were electric lights, of course, and a bathroom with a toilet and a bathtub and a sink. And what’s more, the previous tenant had a telephone, and it was still there though disconnected, and after much argument with my father – who saw no bloody reason why we needed a telephone, why anybody needed one – my mother prevailed and we kept the phone and had it connected. Every time you wanted to make a call you put a nickel in the coin box and that’s how it worked.
My mother was simply trembling with joy. A telephone, no less! She had me write a letter to Fanny Cohen on our street back there in England, telling her of our new acquisition. In England no one would have dreamed they would have a telephone in their lifetime. The only one we had ever seen in the whole town was in the jam works. We used to see it through a window, and we’d stare at it for a long time and wonder what it was like to hear a voice come over one of those big black things. And here we had one to ourselves, although it took a long time before we dared use it.
The first to do so was Joe and it was to call a girl he had met to ask for a date. That first time was a big event in our lives. We all gathered round him as he sat down to make the call, with no thought of giving him privacy. He didn’t want it anyway. He was so nervous at making this first call and needed the support of our presence.
He dropped the nickel into the box with a hand that shook a little and missed the slot at first, but found it the second time. And then, all of us listening with open mouths, we heard him say shakily, ‘Hello. Is this the Friedmans’ house? … Can I speak to Janice – I mean, Frieda?’
In his nervousness he had asked for the wrong girl. But that was corrected. And finally he spoke to her and everything worked out well. He had the date. He turned away from the phone, his face flushed with triumph, and we all shared that triumph.
Well, everything was big and new and important for us during those heady days when America became the kind of place we had always dreamed it would be. There was this new flat still smelling of paint, with electric lights and a telephone and everything, and there was all this new furniture that we had bought on time payments, two dollars a week, from Michael’s Furniture Emporium on Division Street. Best of all for me, it included a davenport that was my bed at night, giving me a bed to myself and relieving me of having to sleep at the feet of my two brothers in one bed and fight for a bit of space.
But it also included the parlour that my mother had once promised us. It was not exactly the same. It did not have red plush divans and a red plush carpet. Michael’s didn’t have that kind of furniture – my mother had asked
it, wanting so much to make every little thing she had promised come true – but the furniture she bought was good, solid stuff: big, comfortable chairs and matching sofa, a floor lamp with fringes on its big shade, and the carpet – my grandmother had been consulted about the furniture, advising my mother to get a carpet that was the colour of dirt so that when people walked on it nothing would show, but my mother chose a light brown colour to match the furniture, even though she knew she took the risk of offending Grandma. But it was as close as she could come to red plush and the whole thing delighted her. But wait, there was the pièce de résistance yet to come.
One day, passing a piano store on Division Street, she halted to look in the window. She had looked before but had seen only pianos that cost a fortune. She could never afford one, even though she wanted to add a piano to her parlour more than she wanted anything else in the world. And there, that day, right in the centre of all the other pianos that were being displayed, was a big, bulky upright piano with a large price tag plastered on it that said $25. She could hardly believe it. It was still a lot of money to have to spend, but not for a piano.
She hurried in, and the salesman tried to draw her attention to other more expensive pianos, and better looking ones certainly. ‘Who is the piano for?’ he asked her.
‘My daughter,’ she answered. Of course, who else could the piano be for? And in her mind was the thought that a piano more than anything else could change Rose’s attitude towards her.
The salesman looked aghast when she told him who it
for. ‘My dear lady,’ he said, ‘I wouldn’t mind if it was for a man or a boy who wants to pound out some jazz. But a girl, a young lady! How would she look sitting at that piano playing some Chopin? It would never look right.’
My mother didn’t know that the old upright in the window was what is known as a ‘come-on’ and was there simply to lure people inside so that the salesman could sell something more expensive. But she resisted all his efforts. She was adamant. And finally she had her way and the piano was delivered soon afterwards, hauled after a mighty struggle by two brawny men up our stoop and two flights of stairs and into our parlour. And there it was, big, heavy, ugly, but the great pride and joy of my mother.
She could hardly wait for Rose to come home from Madame LaFarge’s high-class dressmaking establishment. She came in as she usually did, without any greeting and heading immediately for her room. But my mother stopped her. I was home at the time. I saw Rose’s face stiffen as my mother spoke to her.
‘Come and take a look at something,’ she said.
I thought for a moment that Rose was going to ignore her and continue walking to her room, but after some hesitation she followed her into the living room and saw the piano.
There was no comment from her. She simply stared at it for a long time, then to our surprise she sat down at it on the bench that my mother had persuaded the salesman to give her along with the piano, and plunged both hands down on the keys with a thunderous discordant sound. And again and again, moving the hands
the keyboard to create other, equally loud and even more discordant sounds.
We would see this often later. She would sit there crashing out deafening noises that she may honestly have believed was piano playing, and she would sit erect and with a dreamy look on her face, as if she were a great concert artist performing before a huge, silent, spell-bound audience. Then she would leave and go into her room, which was what happened that evening, without any comment to my mother.
It did nothing to change her attitude towards Ma. It remained as frozen as it had always been, and it would never change. But my mother derived some comfort, I am sure, from knowing that she had kept her promise to us, that she had finally given us our parlour and a piano to go with it.
It called for some letter writing to England, to Fanny Cohen again telling her of the piano and to my sister Lily, with whom we had been corresponding steadily since our arrival in America. Fanny Cohen had kept us abreast of the latest gossip on our street, telling us that the bagel maker had made a great hit with his bagels, and that even people like Mrs Turnbull and her boarders and the Greens and the Humberstones were buying them, and people had come from all parts of the town to buy the bagels, and the very smell of the bagels when they came out of the oven in the mornings was enough, she said, to drive you mad.
My mother laughed when she read that. She was glad that the little man she had argued with over the shop had made such a success out of the place. But in America, she wrote back, bagels were nothing new and people ate
just as often as they ate bread, and what’s more, they had cream cheese and smoked salmon on their bagels. There was a bit of rivalry going on in the letters. I could see that. But I said nothing as I wrote. I was still the letter writer, except that now in America writing to England, I no longer used an ordinary pen but one of the new fountain pens that were made by a company called Waterman, one of which I had received as a gift on my thirteenth birthday from my mother.
I boasted to Lily about my new pen in the letter to her, and she wrote back saying that she too had one and they were beginning to sell them in England. She had much more than that to tell us, mostly about little Jimmy and how he was growing fast and able to walk and talk. My mother smiled and nodded when I read that to her, and in turn, in her answer to that letter she told Lily about how her baby was growing up fast too and how little Sidney could now walk and talk also.
But there was something she could not write to her about but that she did put in the letter to Fanny Cohen and it was, ‘There are so many good things here to tell you about – I only wish you were here to share them with me – but best of all, we don’t have anybody across the street to call us “Bloody Jews” … Here there is no such thing …’
No, she couldn’t have written that to Lily because Lily was married to a Christian and she could well have been upset by it. But I was thinking of something else as I wrote it for my mother. I was thinking of an experience I’d had a short time before. I had been walking along Division Street into an area where I had never been before, an area that I would later learn was one that Jews did not go into,
much like Back Brook Street near where I had once lived in England. Only this one was known as ‘Little Poland’. Suddenly, as I walked I found myself surrounded by a bunch of Polish kids all yelling, ‘Dirty Jew, Christ killer!’ Then they sprang on to me, knocking me to the ground, and kicking and punching me. There was nothing I could do. They rifled my pockets, took the bit of change I had in one of them and finally let me go. I didn’t want to upset my mother and said nothing about it, and to explain my rumpled clothes and some marks on my face said that I had slipped and fallen.