Authors: Harry Bernstein
Morris laughed and said nothing further about the matter. It was true, however. He had picked a pocket or two in his youth and had been caught once and narrowly escaped being sent to jail. But that was all in the past. He made raincoats for a living and was a respectable family man, and he and Leah were still lovers and a pleasant couple to be with. I had always liked their letters, and my mother had too, and she had considered them the most promising of all the family to help us get to America and they were the first who had come to her mind when we were speculating as to who might have sent us the tickets. She had been thinking of that for some time, and probably couldn’t wait to ask what she did now. ‘So who bought us the tickets? Did you and Morris?’
The answer never came, because Morris decided we had to hurry. There was a cab waiting for us. We followed him and Leah to the taxi stand outside, and there it was, a Checker cab, and the driver waiting impatiently was Louis, my Aunt Ada’s husband, a tall, heavily built man with worried-looking eyes and very much in a hurry to get away.
He wasted very little time on greetings, explaining that the cop on duty had warned him twice already about being parked too long, and he’d get a ticket in another minute or two if he didn’t move his cab. He packed our luggage into the trunk, some of it on the top of the cab, then helped push us all inside, and how we all managed to squeeze in I’ll never know. But we did somehow, with several of us including me sitting on laps, and Louis finally took off.
As he did so another taxi, a Yellow cab, drove off from behind at the same time and tried to cut in front of him.
two cabs came to a screeching halt inches away from one another. Louis’s temper had been frayed long before this, what with nearly getting a ticket for parking, then having such a big load to get into his cab, plus the fact that he was not getting paid for this trip, since it was for family. There was something else. Recently there had been a taxi strike in which he had been involved as a striker. The Yellow cabs, however, had refused to join the strike. Now this one had nearly run into him.
Louis’s temper exploded. He leaned across through the open window and yelled, ‘You dirty yellow scab. I’ll cut your balls off.’
‘Go fuck yourself,’ the other driver yelled back.
‘Louis,’ Leah shrieked, ‘there are women and children in this cab.’
Louis ignored her. He leaned sideways a little more and spat, catching the other driver right in the eye. And then, quickly, Louis drove off and the rest of the drive was peaceful. But it was not what I would have wanted. I did not mind the cramping so much and having to sit on somebody’s lap, but I would have liked to see the city as we drove along. My view, however, was blocked by heads and shoulders and backs, and I could not see anything through the window.
I was glad when it was over. And so were all the others. It was just as hard getting out as it had been getting in. We tumbled out stiffly, and I found myself on a sidewalk alongside a building that had a high stoop. I scarcely saw the other buildings on the street, and we were led up the stoop carrying our luggage once more, then up two dark flights of steps until we got to the top where an open door
out a volley of noise that came largely from the chatter of voices.
It was the family in there, all gathered to greet us, to welcome us to Chicago, the aunts and uncles, the cousins, the in-laws. Scarcely had we stepped inside than they were all over us with hands around necks, wet kisses, shrieks, cries, a confusion of faces and voices that left me bewildered. The names too added to the confusion. I do not know if there was a shortage of names in those days, but so many of them in my father’s family were the same as the ones in our family. There was even an Aunt Lily, the same as my older sister, who had married the Christian boy across the street. She looked nothing like our Lily. She was taller and heavier, and she was several years older.
But I only caught snatches of people then. There were simply too many of them to be able to take in each one separately. Faces were a blur, coming one moment to smile, say a few words and disappear. I do remember wondering where my grandfather was. More than any of the others on that old sepia photo, his face stood out in my memory, with its dignified Van Dyck beard, the distinguished look on him, the silver-knobbed cane clasped between his legs. But he did not seem to be here. My grandmother was, however, and quite prominently too in the midst of all this noise and confusion, seated on a high-backed chair that was a bit like a throne, saying very little, a heavy, hulking woman as I remembered too from that same photo, with double chins, a huge bosom and necklace dangling from it, and yes, much jewellery on her hands and wrists.
She could not have been missed. I had been brought up
her, as had my brothers and sister, and she had moved her lips a little but said nothing that could be heard and her jewelled hands were clasped in front of her and did not move to touch a hand or pat a head or anything like what you might expect from a grandmother.
My mother had gone up to her almost as soon as we had entered and she had stayed near her several moments, saying something to her that I did not hear. And then it was my father’s turn. He seemed to have hung back for a little, as if afraid to approach her, which undoubtedly he was, and the entire room grew silent for a moment as this was taking place, everyone probably wondering what sort of greeting this was going to be.
Well, it amounted to nothing at all. He too murmured just a few words and she said something to him, but there was no rebuff, nothing to indicate that he was not welcome, and the room became noisy again and perhaps even livelier than before with the relief they all felt, and the relief, unquestionably, that my father felt.
It was very hot in the house. It had been hot outside but here it was stifling and some of them were fanning themselves with their hands and sweat showed on faces. The two windows were wide open, but no air came through. I noticed a chair empty near one of them and went up to it, grateful to be away from the crowd for a while, and also because it could give me a chance to look out and see the America I had missed thus far.
Nobody saw me as I sat down and leaned forward with my hands on the sill. There was not the slightest breeze coming from outside, and a rank odour rose up from below that reminded me of the smell that used to come from the middens at the back of our houses in England.
looked down and what I saw was vastly different from what I had been expecting, different from what we had seen of America in the picture shows, the columned houses with gardens surrounding them, and swimming pools and everything very beautiful. What I saw was a narrow alley with garbage cans lined up at intervals, some of them without lids and the garbage overflowing on to the ground. It was from these that the smell had come.
I saw this, too. Across on the other side of the alley were backyards with clothes lines strung across and washing dangling from them. And rising above were layers of back porches all piled on top of one another like egg crates, some with people on them lazing in chairs and gazing blankly across at me, and there were steps zigzagging down from one layer to another, reaching the ground.
My eyes wandered back to the alley and on top of one garbage can I saw something move. It was a rat, a large grey one, and it was feasting on the garbage.
I would have turned away anyhow. I felt sick. But just then a violent shout rose in the room behind me. It was my father’s voice and he was shouting, ‘Where’s me father? Where the bloody ’ell is he?’
During the time I had been sitting at the window, another one of my uncles had arrived. It was my Uncle Abe, the one who wrote telling us that he had three suits of clothing hanging in his closet and was doing so well, with a beautiful home and a wife who had electric lights and a bathtub.
As I turned round at the outcry from my father, I saw him sitting among them and he did not look prosperous.
wore shabby clothes and his tie was hanging loose from the collar of his shirt. There was a bottle on the table beside him.
This was the bottle that Abe had brought with him, and with the loose, uncontrollable laugh that came from him, showing broken yellow teeth in his mouth, I gathered that he had already sampled much of what was in that bottle. Yes, he had brought it in a brown paper bag and it came from the closet where he was supposed to have three suits of clothing hanging. Well, things had changed a bit since then. He had lost his job, and the wife with electric lights and a bathtub who had already given birth to three children was threatening to leave him. The three suits had gone. The closet now held a barrel of what they called moonshine. Abe had struck a deal with a bootlegger to store the barrel in his closet in return for the rent on the house.
It had saved him from being evicted with his family and it had also given him a free supply of what he liked best: whiskey. The bootlegger would never know if he helped himself to a bottle now and then. It was more than a bottle. Abe had never been sober since he made the deal and the family also had never been without a supply of liquor, and the bottle that was almost empty by this time had livened up the gathering still more and especially my father, who took to what was in the bottle like a man dying from thirst.
By this time my father’s brain was sufficiently inflamed by the raw liquor to give him the courage he needed to make himself heard in my grandmother’s home once again. Despite the haziness that must have come with the drinking, he had noticed what had struck
also before this: the absence of my grandfather. He had asked them in less violent tones but had not been able to get an answer, and now his patience was gone and he was demanding it in the way the liquor inside him commanded.
Hearing it as I turned round, I felt with a sinking sensation that coupled with what I had just seen we were back to what we had come from. I cast a look over at my mother seated among them. Her head was bent and I knew that she was thinking virtually the same thing. I saw also that my grandmother’s face had tightened, and she too may have been having similar thoughts in regard to her own experiences with him back in the days when he terrorised them all with his fists and his voice.
His fist came crashing down on the table and once more he demanded to know where his father was. This time Barney answered him.
Barney, the humorist of the family, was a short man. His nickname was ‘The Dwarf’ and he was close to being one. So was his wife. Sitting beside him now, she was as short as he was, but plump. Barney was never without a five-cent White Owl cigar in his mouth, making him look even smaller, somehow, than he was.
With that huge cigar sticking out of his mouth, but also with a slight twinkle in his eyes, Barney now gave him the answer: ‘He’s in New York.’
My father swung glaring eyes on to him. ‘What’s he doing in New York?’
‘He’s there on business.’ The twinkle was even more noticeable as he spoke and I saw his wife touch his arm, as if to warn him of something.
My father’s eyes remained on Barney. ‘What the
’ell are you talking about? What business? Since when was roofing a business? It’s a job, not a business.’
‘Who said anything about roofing?’ Barney asked calmly, puffing slightly on the big cigar, and once again his wife touched his arm and I thought I detected an uneasy stir go through the assemblage and people looking at one another.
‘Dwarf,’ said my father, beginning to grit his teeth as he always did when his rage mounted, ‘are you trying to be funny with me? Because if you are you know what’s going to happen. I can knock your eye out too.’
This last was a reference to Abe, whose nickname was Cockeye, the result of a bad injury to one of his eyes that had never been corrected and had been caused by my father’s fist also during an altercation when they were boys.
Barney was about to say something when his wife put a hand over his mouth. At the same time my grandmother rose from her throne and there followed then a scene that I would witness quite often in the future at gatherings of the family, when my grandmother had reached the limits of her endurance with the family and what there was of her generosity as a hostess had been exhausted.
Rising with some effort and finally getting her heavy body on to her feet, the jewellery resettling on her, the immense bosom lifting with her, she waved both arms about and shouted in a hoarse voce, ‘Go home! Go home all of you! I’ve had enough of you already. Take your things and take your children and get out of here and leave me in peace. Go, go, go.’
The obedience was swift and prompt, and it was
mostly in silence. In a few moments they were all gone and the house was strangely silent. My grandmother gave one last look at us before she left the room. It was a look that seemed to imply she wished we had joined the exodus.
We were all silent for a while longer. Even my father seemed subdued and said nothing.
It was my mother who spoke finally. ‘We mustn’t stay here long. We’ll have to get a place of our own and you must get jobs as soon as you can. Tomorrow you’ll start looking. We’ll be all right. At least we got to America.’
I WAS LUCKY
. I did not have to look for a job. In the autumn I would be going to school. Meanwhile, I had to find some way of passing the time. I missed my friends back in England, the games of cricket, or footer on the rec. I had no friends here. But I was not lonely. There was plenty for me to do. There was a whole new city for me to explore.
On the day after we had arrived in Chicago, I set out from my grandmother’s house to see what I had not been able to see from that window. The heat was intense and the sun beat down on me mercilessly, but I didn’t mind. I would perhaps have liked to do my sightseeing on one of the trams I saw going by in an endless stream, or better yet from the window of one of those elevated trains that roared overhead and showered dust on my head every time I walked under an iron trestle. But that cost money, seven cents a ride, and I didn’t have seven cents. But I was a good walker. I liked to walk and everything I saw filled me with wonder. I had never seen anything like it before: the long busy streets with their ceaseless flow of traffic, cars, so many of them, and a few clop-clopping
and rattling carts, and shops of all kinds with large windows that displayed all sorts of things and kept me glued to them for long periods, especially those with wax models in them that looked as if they were alive, real people who’d start walking and talking any minute. It was like Alice in Wonderland and all the crazy things she saw after she fell down the rabbit hole. I went on, but I paused once more at a street corner where a large crowd was gathered around a man who was standing on a ladder demonstrating something he had in his hands that he called a radio. I’d never seen one or even heard of one before.