A love story
I JUMPED down from the train and was swept up by a pungent wave of pushing, perspiring passengers moving toward the station. The mass of bodies surged forward and then pulled back, lunged to the left and then began to lift me up a wide metal staircase. My suitcase got swung behind my back. I was terrified of having it ripped from my hand. When we got to the top of the stairs, the wave ebbed and flowed out into river- lets of people.
I was aware of the light pouring down on us despite being inside the biggest building I’d ever been in. It poured through windows high above our heads as if trying to make the dark mass of earth-bound bodies look up. When I did, a group of boys ran into me and started to swear. I didn’t care. Men, real men, had given wings to stone, making it fly over your head. These were the type of men I wanted to find and make my home with. For a moment, I was filled with hope. This was a place that welcomed everyone like kings and queens. Where had I come to?!
Suddenly, I was aware that a short, stout man with a thick, greying beard and neatly trimmed mustache was coming toward me. He wore a fine black suit, black leather shoes and a kind of hat that only gentlemen wear. My thoughts raced, trying to think what he could want with me. Was I standing in a place where immigrants weren’t allowed to stand? Did the train company find out I didn’t pay enough for my ticket? I didn’t mean not to pay. I just didn’t know. Then I remembered the $50 in my breast pocket and lifted my hand to my jacket to reassure myself that it was still there.
But the man only stuck his hand out and broke into a big smile. “You must be Will! Welcome to New York, son!” Behind him, running to catch up, was a short, waddling woman who made me smile. Her hands were clapped together in front of her face.
“Mr. and Mrs. Abramov?!” I said in shock. “Why, how did you know it was me?!”
They only laughed. “We spotted you the minute we walked in! Hope you haven’t been waiting long. And please call us Uncle Osip and Aunt Izzie!”
“Was it my shoes?” I asked. “Is that how you knew? My sister gave them to me and said . . .” But Mr. Abramov wasn’t listening. He turned to his wife and said, “Mother, the first thing we need to do is get Will some new clothes so he doesn’t look like a country bumpkin!”
“Father,” she replied with the warmest smile I’d seen since I left Alton, “the first thing we need to do is get him home and fatten him up! The wind will blow him off those steel girders in one puff!”
How they knew it was me I never did figure out. But I didn’t care. I was hungry—and not only for dinner, but for acceptance. Until they came to take their home, Uncle Osip and Aunt Izzie gave me both.
BY the end of the month I was working on a new office building. The building was part of a section of town that had been torn down twice already—not because the buildings needed to be torn down, but because it was New York. The old buildings lay in ugly heaps of glass, wood and concrete. “Where did all the families go who used to live here?” I asked the first time I saw them. But no one answered. They looked at me like I had said something wrong.
I was a part of a four-man team of riveters. Up on those beams, everything had to work as exactly as Uncle Elbert’s watch or the result would have been disasterous. Everyone had their own job and had to know when and how to move every minute. If one man on the team didn’t show up, the whole team stayed on the ground. You wouldn’t dare work up there with someone who didn’t know how to keep time. We worked six days a week and had three days of vacation: Thanksgiving, Christmas and the 4th of July. If you asked for more, when you got back someone was sure to have replaced you.
Three of us caught and hammered the bolts that held the steel girders in place (400 a day). The third man—a Polish Jew they called ‘Lazrus’ because he survived one of the camps during the war—made the bolts. He was a blacksmith by trade. He made the bolts as fast as we could catch them and pound them in. He tossed them to us with iron tongs like he was throwing us candy. The bolts were 800 degrees when he pulled them out of the fire and flew like fire past men moving the girders into place. The riveters caught the red, hot bolts with metal mitts. They were shaped like a funnel with a handle on the side. The chances of dropping the bolts and having them fall to the street below were less that way.
We had every nation and language you can think of up there in a place that, for 10 hours a day, made us feel like we were making a world of our own, a world less danger- ous than the one below. It was harder to come down than climb up those beams. I loved them for making me a real man. And I hated them because no man should have been asked to risk his life for $2.90 an hour.
CHRISTMAS Eve fell on Sunday that year. I was going to have two days off in a row. For weeks I had dreamed of all the things I could do in two days. I would take Uncle Osip and Aunt Izzie to see the Brooklyn Bridge, the angel of Central Park, and the new United Nations building. And after all that, we’d ride to the top of the Empire State building in an elevator. None of us had ever been in an elevator.
It had been a long, hard week. If you were lucky, that was the only kind of week to have if you were an immigrant in New York. You were lucky if you had a job that made you too exhausted to think. It was the only way to forget how much we missed home.
But in two days it would be Christmas. Christmas doesn’t let anybody not think.
As I climbed the last flight of stairs to the Abramov’s apartment, I couldn’t block out the loneliness. I wouldn’t be with my family on Christmas. For six long months I had wanted to go home, but couldn’t admit it to them or the Abramovs. I wanted them to think that I was important now and had “made it” in New York. I wanted to think that myself. I told myself up there on those horrible, narrow beams that I had found pride, self-respect and, at last, an identity. It was a lie. I was just a small piece in the machine called New York.
When I rang the bell I tried to put on a smile, but I couldn’t. When the door opened there were tears in my eyes. I blinked hard. It was Uncle Elbert staring back at me.
“So you think your Jewish Uncle would let you celebrate Christmas alone?!” he laughed throwing his wiry arms around me. His clothes smelled like paint thinner and clock oil. It was wonderful.
The Christmas of '53 with my Jewish family was best I ever remembered. Uncle Elbert had a suitcase full of gifts from the family: knit socks from Aunt Magic, shoe polish from Lara and Win, along with photos of the children. I couldn’t believe how much they’d grown. It made me feel like I had been gone forever. Lucia had made a hand broom for the Abramovs. The Shakers were famous for their brooms.
“The Shakers were the first to grow broom corn,” I said proudly. “Broom corn is like real corn, only a broom grows out of the top of it and not an ear of corn. You have to get all the seeds out of it before you can make it into a respectable broom. That’s the only kind the Shakers make.
“And, would you believe it, when they weren’t praying they invented things. They made a machine to make flat brooms. That made houses a whole lot cleaner after that. Most people don’t think about things like that, but the Shakers did. That’s why they respect their brooms. They hang them up when they aren’t using them. Lucia told me that in her last letter. It’s their way, you know, to respect everything. So they make respectable brooms.”
Then Uncle Elbert handed me a letter. The envelope said, “You’ll know when to open this. Don’t rush. Wait until you’re alone.” It was Lucia’s handwriting. I smiled and put it in my pocket where I kept Uncle Irving’s $50 fish.
In the end, we didn’t go anywhere. For two days, something held us to the kitchen table. Hour after hour we talked and ate, and sang and laughed, until our faces hurt and our hearts were content.
We took Uncle Elbert to the train station late Christmas night. I told him to tell the family I would be home soon.