Authors: Harry Bernstein
It was a black box with dials in the front and a handle to hold it. When he turned one of the dials music started to come out of the box and the man, who was tall and skinny with a long neck and spoke with a voice that was hoarse, probably from a lot of talking, was saying, ‘Folks, that music you hear is coming from a thousand miles away, from New Orleans, Louisiana …’ There were murmurs of amazement in the crowd and they edged closer to get a better look at this magic box. ‘It’s a radio, folks, and the time isn’t far off when every home in the country is going to have one. I can let you have one right now for the unbelievable bargain price of …’
The price was ridiculous for me. I would have given my right arm for one, but I didn’t even have seven cents for a streetcar. I continued my walk and my mind was soon distracted by other things that I saw. Eventually, I came to the Loop, and here my mouth really opened wide with amazement as I looked up at the clusters of tall buildings that seemed to reach up into the sky. Back where I had come from the tallest building in the town
the jam works, four storeys high. So you can understand how I felt when I saw my first American skyscrapers. It was sheer fantasy to me.
But then after walking through the Loop and coming to Michigan Boulevard and beyond that stretching incredibly before me Lake Michigan, a sea as wide and as blue as the one I had crossed a few days ago, I realised that Chicago not only had the ugliness that I had seen from the window but this beauty also.
I would come back after that day. I could not get enough of Chicago. I walked and walked every day during that hot summer, and I saw the city’s beaches and its parks and the river that flowed through the city, and I would come back to my grandmother’s house, exhausted but exhilarated, my shirt damp with sweat, my feet tired, but my mind filled with all the things I had seen.
The heat never seemed to lessen and in fact grew still more intense as the summer went on, and all of us suffered from it. The nights were perhaps the worst, when the heat became even more oppressive and no air stirred. The house inside was like an oven and when night came we stayed outside as long as we could, sitting on the stoop and slapping at the mosquitoes that buzzed around us – another of the tortures that we had never experienced before. And in addition to all this an evil fetid odour crept over us and over the entire city, coming from the stockyards on the south side where thousands of animals were slaughtered every day.
We went upstairs to bed at last. We had to. We were all tired and somehow, despite the sweating and the mosquitoes there too, we managed to get to sleep. Except this one night. I slept in the dining room with my two
– once again in the same bed, which was a davenport, as sofa beds were called in those days – and once again at their feet. It may have been an involuntary kick from the feet of one of them in his sleep, or perhaps the heat and the mosquitoes, but I awoke some time during the night, sweating and hearing that familiar buzzing around my head. I lay for a while uncomfortably, slapped a few times, and then I thought I heard a sound of murmured voices coming from the kitchen. My grandmother slept in the bedroom that led off it and I wondered if she could be in the kitchen talking to herself. But there were two voices. And then I heard a strange clinking sound that was like coins.
I waited, listening further. There was light showing in the cracks of the door that separated the dining room from the kitchen and I knew for sure now that people were in there. It was none of my business, but my curiosity got the better of me – I couldn’t sleep anyhow – and that clinking noise intrigued me. I got out of bed, making sure I did not wake my brothers, and went softly to the door. I opened it just an inch or two and peeped in.
Yes, there were two people sitting there at the table. One of them was my grandmother in a robe and her hair down at her shoulders. The other I did not recognise at first. It was a man, a bearded man wearing shabby clothes, looking almost like a tramp. In front of them were stacks of coins of different sizes, and scattered there too were other coins through which they were sorting with heads bent close together.
I must have made some sort of noise with the door, because instantly their heads rose and my grandmother called out sharply, ‘Who’s there?’
I thought of turning and running back to bed, but I knew she’d come after me, so I opened the door wider and stepped in, blinking against the strong light and rubbing my eyes, and stood there not knowing what to say.
The man spoke. ‘Is that Yankel’s son?’
‘It’s the younger one,’ my grandmother said and I could tell from her tone that she was angry. ‘What are you doing here?’ she demanded.
An excuse had come to me quickly. ‘I’m thirsty,’ I said. ‘I came for a drink of water.’
‘Then go to the sink and take it,’ she said. ‘And then go to bed.’ And I heard her mutter in a low tone, ‘They’re all a damned nuisance.’
I went to the sink, poured a glass of water and drank some of it, and was about to leave, but the man said in a kindly tone, ‘Come here.’
I went over to him and he put an arm round me and drew me closer. ‘Do you know who I am?’ he asked.
‘No,’ I said.
‘I’m your grandfather.’
I said nothing. I could not somehow see him as the distinguished-looking man on the sepia photo, with the neatly trimmed Van Dyck beard, the cutaway coat, the silver-knobbed cane clasped between his legs. This man was ragged in comparison, the beard was scraggly and grey, he needed a haircut too. The rest of the face not covered by the beard was red and weather-beaten. But it did have a pleasant, half-amused smile.
‘He’s a big boy,’ he said. ‘How old is he?’
‘Twelve,’ snapped my grandmother, and then to me, ‘Go to bed.’
In the meantime she had done something strange. She had taken a cloth from a drawer and spread it over the coins on the table. She had just finished doing it as she snapped at me and the old man chuckled. ‘What are you afraid of,’ he said, ‘he’ll steal it?’
‘Be quiet,’ she said angrily, then once more to me, ‘Go on, go to bed.’
‘Let him finish his drink at least,’ my grandfather said. ‘What’s the rush for bed? Let him stay up for a while longer. I want to talk to him.’ Then he asked me, ‘Do you like toffee?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Does Mrs Turnbull still have her toffee shop on your street?’
I nodded and sipped at my glass, only pretending to drink and at the same time keeping a careful eye on my grandmother. She was getting angrier by the second.
My grandfather chuckled. ‘You must miss her shop,’ he said. ‘But you’ll find plenty of toffee shops here. Buy yourself some.’ He dipped his hand under the cloth and brought out a quarter. She tried to snatch it away from him, but he managed to avoid her hand and thrust it into mine. Then he said, ‘Now you can go to bed.’
I went hurriedly, clutching the quarter, aware of the glaring eyes of my grandmother on me. I closed the door after me and slipped into bed, still clutching my quarter.
I heard the murmur of their voices again, my grandmother’s still sounding angry, and there was more clinking of coins before I finally fell asleep.
I slept late. When I awoke they were all at breakfast. The kitchen door was wide open and their voices came to me
along with the rattle of crockery and the smell of coffee. It was a Sunday morning. Everybody was home. I could distinguish some of the voices, my brothers’, my sister’s, Aunt Lily’s, Uncle Saul’s and the hoarse one of my grandfather. I remembered it from last night, along with the chuckle he gave occasionally. I did not hear my father’s voice, though, and gathered that he was still in bed.
It gave me more incentive to join them. I hurried to dress and went into the kitchen. They were all seated round the table talking animatedly and my entrance was hardly noticed, save by my mother, who hurried to serve me as soon as I had slipped into a seat among them. My grandmother, who was helping with the serving, frowned darkly at me, evidently remembering last night and the quarter I’d been given.
My grandfather seemed to be doing most of the talking and I gathered that what he was saying amused them all, because there was considerable laughter. His own weather-beaten bearded face was wreathed in laughter and he gave vent to his chuckles now and then. He seemed to be enjoying himself tremendously, and they too. Uncle Saul once reached out a hand across the table and pressed his father’s hand in a gesture that showed his affection. Aunt Lily seemed to have the same feeling towards him. They were two of the three in the family unmarried and still living with my grandmother. There was a third, Eli. He was missing and I should not have been surprised. In the two weeks or so that we had been living here we learned that Eli was often not home, and if he was he slept until all hours of the day. He had never worked, and when he came home from the nights and
that he was away he was bleary-eyed and still sodden with drink, and could barely make his way to his bed. He had been an alcoholic since he was fourteen. He was the youngest member of the family of ten.
After my grandfather finished with what he had been telling them, he turned to me and said, ‘Ah, here’s the night owl. Did you buy your toffee yet?’
‘No,’ I said, although the quarter had been the first thing I thought of when I awoke and it was safely tucked away in a pocket of my trousers.
I was sitting close to him, already spooning the oatmeal my mother had put in front of me.
He reached out with a hand and ruffled my hair. ‘He’s only twelve,’ he said. ‘But already he’s as big as a man. Soon you’ll be getting married, I suppose.’
I said nothing and went on eating. My mother smiled. ‘He’s not ready for marriage yet,’ she said. ‘He still goes to school.’
‘Ah,’ said my grandfather. ‘And what is he going to be? A lawyer too, like his Uncle Saul?’
Uncle Saul grinned. ‘I’m not a lawyer yet, Pop,’ he said. ‘I’m just hoping I’ll be one.’
Uncle Saul was the only one of the family who had graduated from high school in America. He had planned on going further and studying law, but my grandmother had thought differently. He now worked as a door-to-door salesman selling magazine subscriptions. Now and then, evenings, I used to see him buried in a big thick law book, but those evenings had grown fewer and fewer, and he spent his time more often at the basement club to which he belonged and on taking girls out.
My grandfather nodded at his comment and said, ‘Yes,
you will be one’ and for a moment he seemed to sober and the laughter died out. But he quickly recovered and turned to my brothers. ‘And you, Joe, and you, Saul? What are you going to be?’
Joe answered promptly, ‘I’m going to be a journalist.’ It was something he had wanted to be in England when he was even younger than his present sixteen. Despite the fact that he had been thrust right into one of the tailoring shops after he left school, he had continued to have this ambition.
Uncle Saul, who was sitting next to him, clapped an arm affectionately round his shoulders. He had taken quite a fancy to Joe and had introduced him to his basement club friends – the Rover Boys – and to some of the girls who frequented the club.
‘Don’t you worry about Joe. He’s going to be all right. I’ll see to that. Tomorrow I’m going to break him in to selling subscriptions. He’ll make a good living until he becomes a journalist.’
‘And you?’ my grandfather said, turning to my brother Saul, who had been sitting there uneasily with his face cast down, fearing the question because the answer would make people laugh at him.
It was my mother who answered for him: ‘Saul is going to be a rabbi.’ She said it with pride, her face lighting up. It had been talked about before. Saul had always been devoutly religious. Since his barmitzvah he had taken to wearing tsitsis, a prayer shawl with long fringes that stuck out of the tops of his trousers, and every morning when he rose he put twilum round his head, a small leather box that contained a prayer with straps that fastened round his forehead and one arm. He held a
a prayer book, in his hands and, rocking to and fro, he said the morning prayers.
We had sometimes ridiculed him for it, but he persisted and evidently it meant a great deal to him. The tsitsis fringes showed quite clearly now, and my grandfather was looking at them and nodding his head, as if he approved.
‘The rabbi business is very good,’ he said. ‘People commit so many sins there is a great need for rabbis to give advice and forgive. I too wanted to be a rabbi once.’
‘You!’ cried Uncle Saul and Aunt Lily, and they both burst into laughter.
‘Yes, me,’ the old man said gravely. ‘Why not? I had a good start, a beard. And I knew all the prayers. My father taught them to me and he beat me if I didn’t say them, first thing in the morning, before every meal, after every meal, at night before going to bed. That was not counting the prayers I said in the synagogue. I was a regular prayer man.’
It was hard to tell whether he was serious or joking. Only the eyes seemed to have a glimmer of amusement in them, and my grandmother gave a sound of what seemed like contempt and I heard her mutter, ‘He should live so! A rabbi, no less!’
But now, suddenly changing the subject, my grandfather turned to Rose, who was sitting opposite me with that distant look on her face that she always had when she was among us. There was a touch of haughtiness mixed with it that separated her still further from us, and that she had affected along with an upper-class British accent ever since the days when we played at being rich in our empty front room that became a shop. Very little
changed with her since then, and it was obvious that she did not like the attention suddenly focused on her and by his question.
‘So how about you, young lady? What are you going to be now that you’re in America?’
‘I have no plans that I care to discuss,’ she said stiffly, then rose immediately from her chair and went out of the room with her head held high. There was a brief pause, then my mother said, ‘She’s trying to get a job as a dressmaker.’