Kurt Aram’s Experiences in America
( Abschrift aus “Die Gartenlaube” 1912 )
Translated by Rosina T. Schmidt
In the editorial of “Die Gartenlaube” of last summer the conversation popped up how a well educated German might fare today (in the year of 1912) if he immigrated to the USA without any resources since the circumstances have changed so much. In the past decade emigration from Germany waned extraordinarily and reached only about 20,000 people a year, while before three to four or even ten times as many Germans emigrated to America each year.
Is America for a large part of our people no longer the land of dreams, where one can become rich overnight? Or has a German under normal circumstances no longer a hope to become the rich uncle so admired back home by nieces and nephews who hope to inherit his rewards?
The conversation went back and forth in those lines until the proposal came to undertake a practical attempt. The magazine publisher came up with the idea to send a penniless but academically well educated German who was very knowledgeable in the Greek and Latin languages but not in the English, who excelled in the humanist ideas but had no practical knowledge, not even how to wipe his shoes.
My editors believed to have found in me the right subject for their plans. There were no English lessons, not even optional at the high school I visited and the editorial stuff were not deceived in my person as a unpractical “Green Horn” since I quite happily accepted such a plan.
So the “Gartenlaube” publisher pressed into my hand a coupon for a ticket for the steerage sailing to New York and also US $25.00 (equal to 100 Marks), without which America will not let anyone step on its shores, and he gave me additional 20 Marks. Out of it I had to pay for the fourth class trip from Berlin to Bremen, the accommodation there, as the steerage passenger had to be in Bremen two days ahead of the departure and therefore had to stay overnight. From the change of the 20 Marks I could from time to time buy on the ship a glass of beer or such or save it for America, because the meals during the journey are included in the price of the ticket.
The cost of the voyage was 180 Marks. If we include the 25 dollars (100 Marks) and the 20 Marks, therefore the total cost was only 300 Marks. Eight days or eight weeks after my arrival when I wrote or cabled from America asking for money it was the end of my expedition. The agreement was that when in America I was not to look for an intellectual occupation but only for manual labour of which I understood until that time nothing.
With those conditions I sailed off last summer and will now describe how a well-educated visitor to America fared who was without any means and no practical experience.
In the steerage during a stormy sea
All the steerage passengers, who travel via Berlin to Bremen, usually take the night train, which leaves the train station at Lehrt at 11.46PM. The train consists mostly of fourth-class carriages and it arrives in Bremen in the brightness of the day, therefore saves one night of accommodation.
I also took this train. Most of the fellow passengers were from Poland, Slovakia, and Jews from Galicia, which made themselves comfortable on the benches and on the floor, smoked, spitted, sniffed and smelled heavily after garlic and onion. Babies screamed and were put asleep with brandy. Toddlers were noisy and itched themselves all over, or they were searched for the cause of itching by their relatives, until finally all fell into a leaden sleep from which one was yanked off repeatedly teeth clattering as the night was freezing cold.
At the beginning I had the opportunity to see much of the vermin but nothing more happened. As it was cold they crept deep into the clothes, towels, boxes and crates. I must admit that at our last switching station at Stendal I was ready to break off the trip.
At Bremen the train station police, the emigrant agents and the Lloyd company employees awaited the hordes and steered them pack wise into the emigration halls and inns. I slipped out and slept in a small hotel to recover from the last night’s spook. It became only moderately successful after a few glasses of wine in the Ratskeller, the glass for 30 Pfennig.
At noon I swapped my coupon with the ticket and had to report at the Lloyds baggage hall with a medical card for the medical examination at 3 PM. Assembled were already entire flocks of men, women and children: southern Slavs and Poles, the women in colorful head scarves and red skirts; from Hungary with some of their women in high boots; from Russia in long skirts and thick caps; Galician Jews in shabby caftans and also about a dozen of Germans.
Two by two we were escorted before the doctors who were clad in white gowns and white aprons and looked somewhat like butchers, bared our left arm to be vaccinated, and had our eyelids yanked apart until they became full of tears. America does not let anyone step on their shores that has not been vaccinated or had been through all the illnesses already.
It was a pleasure to se how patient and polite all the employees were. Only the doctors were grumpy and to the point. The hordes were escorted back to their quarters and only a few Germans stood around for a while, looking suspiciously at each other and disparaged one by one.
At six thirty of the next morning again we assembled at the baggage hall and were loaded onto a special train to Bremerhaven. The First and Second class cabin passenger traveled later with two other special trains. First on board were the eastern countries folk while the Germans were handled more humanly, which was a sensible process that unfortunately was not implemented by all the shipping companies, as I have been reported later by my comrades. Not only humane and sensible, because even the least educated German towers high above the Eastern folk when it comes down to tolerable manners and cleanliness. It is a fruit of labor of the elementary schools and the compulsory draft.
The first acquaintances were made on the train. “Are you traveling to America? Going there for the first time?” Thus one was introduced and entertained. I met one older couple with four children in their teens. He farmed for 20 years in America and wanted to invest his savings in a co-op farm in West Prussia.
However, the many rules and regulations involved were not to his liking, and his children wanted under no circumstances to settle down in Germany’s backwoods. After ten days stay in Germany they quickly resolved to return immediately back to America, purchase a farm in the West and to send the older children to the city to work.
About one hour later we stopped directly in front of our giant steamer. The ship’s band played merry melodies, which did not fit well with my somber mood, and in no time the eastern folks with bag and pack filled in the whole between-decks steerage, the low-lying area between the elevated deck of the Back and the head of the ship, and the elevated deck of the First cabin in the middle of the ship, all except the Jews who like the Germans stood back.
It was a turbulent jumble of 400 men, women and children, into which the agents and the sailors brought some order only a long time later.
Once again the Eastern folks were placed first, then the Jews and finally the Germans. Included among the ‘Germans’ are the Austrians and Hungarians as long as they could speak broken German, and some Croats, who used the same broken language. Some of them were later sent to their fellow landsmen. But some hackers stayed with us.
At the front of our ship -whose name I shall not mention to be able to freely express myself, the same reason I will not mention the departure day- below the Back are two narrow and dimly lit corridors. The long one leads to the ladies washroom. The other goes to the washroom for the men. Between those two aisles is the kitchen for the steerage and some square holes, fenced off by iron chains to prevent one disappearing in a bottomless pit. Through these holes one reaches the stairs leading to the lower floor and the sleeping quarters for single men and quarters for families. Below the First cabin on the same level are the quarters for single women and another family quarters area. A floor deeper, two floors below the Back, similar rooms are located, which here were used as eating area by some of the passengers.
There were only 420 of us in the between-decks, even though the ship could carry 800. Therefore we had considerable more space than the springtime sailings on between-decks, when the majorities emigrate.
With other Germans I climbed to our room for unmarried men, quickly took the upper berth directly at the entrance and hurried outdoors, because the air down there took my breath away. In the meanwhile upstairs in the open and the actual ‘steerage’ area the Eastern folks made themselves comfortable with ‘child and bowling pins’ being as loud and exited like the sparrows. I climbed on one of the two chicken ladders on the Back, where between the anchor chains, ropes and things like that there was still some free space left.
“Are you sailing the first time to America?” asked an older, stocky man with glasses. I answered affirmatively and soon learned from him, a Silesian that he was only visited his daughter in Germany. By trade a carpenter, he put small automobile machine parts together in a factory in Albany, N. Y. Us joined a hefty West Prussian, who due to an inheritance had to go abroad.
For the last twelve years and worked as a foreman in a Milwaukee, Wis., factory. Both of them wanted to travel in the second cabin, but it was all booked out. This assertion has been told me so often, that I assumed it was just a pretension excuse.
Close by stood a cross-eyed, redheaded man. The West Prussian while looking at the man said that he had a friend ‘outside’, who recently was about to slaughter a pig and asked his neighbor to hold the animal. As the friend lifted the hatchet to attack, the neighbor called alarmingly, “if you hit where you are looking at, you will kill me and not the pig”. The Westprussion shook himself with laughter, but we became friends with the cross-eyed’s soon also. He was a Palatinate farmer, who for the second time around hoped to find at his friend’s factory in New York State his luck in America.
Al of whom I have mentioned were over their thirties, were familiar with America and had a trade and were better off than I did including the journeyman tanner from Torun, who was already American citizen and worked in a tannery in Wisconsin. All the other ‘Germans’ were all young people, some of them who were able to postpone their draft obligations for two years. But not one of them went over the Big Pond without a goal. Each one had a trade, was a barber, cook, farmer, factory worker or the like. And each one had friends or relatives there, who will take them under their wings and steer them on their way. Each one had more money with them than I did. The next poor beggar after me was a journeyman baker from Styria (Austria). He owned $30.00 and a train ticket to Chicago where he was expected.
As the ship was to be set in motion, a kind of cowbell called us between-deckers for dinner below. In our sleeping hall stood along the long wall in a double row 32 narrow iron bunk beds equipped with a stroh mattrace, which was somewhat thicker at one end to indicate a cushion.
On top of the stroh sack was a woolen blanket. Between the cushion and the iron bed bars was placed the pitcher in shape of a milk jug, a tin spoon and a fork. Below it the lay life jacket just in case. On the ship’s outside long wall stood a narrow wooden table, which looked like an ironing board. Another such table stood in the middle of the room. The tables were full with tin plates and in between them huge tin kettles. One was full of soup, another with potatoes, bread with the third, the fourth with meat. Like the others I too picked up the spoon and from under the pillow, and by the time the Silesian with the glasses was eagerly eating, I too began to eat. The food was strong and good, but at this first mid day dinner I ate not much but hastened to go back on the deck. It takes time to get used to all those tin plates, the smell of food and people.
Between-Decks at a Stormy Sea
Once again I stood at the ‘Back’, but did not absorb much of what was happening all around. I dreaded the first night in the sleeping and eating room below. When one fears the night quarters one cannot trust the nature or the people. Suddenly a loud voice called from below: “Are any kosher people there?” “Yes” came the answer. “Follow me” was the rapport. Only now were the Jewish people eating, separated from all others, as their religion requires. After it was noticed just what kid of food they ate, always herring, eggs and kosher sausages, the enviousness escalated, and the hostile atmosphere never left the between-decks. The Jews sensed it and were also not friendly on their side. They thought: not even on the ship are they letting us in peace. The Germans thought: Of course, they are getting even on the ship a better treatment and have it better than we do.
Only the South Slaves had no worries of that sort. The eight days on the ship meant for them eight days holiday. They had better night quarters than usual. They had better and more abundant food than they were accustomed to. And above all, they had no work to do. They had no worry about the future, because in New York their Agent sent them off, and when their contracted time was over, most often five years, they were sent back to their homeland unless a favorable opportunity came around to make themselves independent in America. I have been told that those folks have no responsibilities to the USA. The sole responsibility bears the Agent, who brought them in.
Coffee was served at 2 P. M. with bread and butter, which was not palatable to my taste. It tasted fine to my roommates, though. At five o’clock supper tea, to which I could not get used to, a meat soup, potatoes and bread were served. The highlight of the evening meals consisted of boiled potatoes and herring, but was served only once. For breakfast at seven in the morning: coffee, oatmeal, which I ate, as well as bread and plum sauce, which tasted splendidly. The food was strong and sour, of typically Northern German style, which was not always to the liking of the South Germans and the Austrians. Each meal was tasted beforehand by a ship’s officer.
One officer was always at hand to take any complaints and tried to correct them if needed. A translator was available between-decks at all times, a lively Hungarian, who spoke not only German but also all the Slavic languages. He was universally popular. One also could purchase for a small amount at any time apples, oranges, sardines, cakes, cigars and cigarettes. Only the beer, at 25 Pfennig for a small glass, was too expensive.
Meanwhile I made new acquaintances: an eighteen-year-old Badener, who learned the trade of cooking, a hairdresser from Vienna, who stood cheerfully in his parrot green slippers until the seasickness blew him down, a silent young man from Hanover, who headed to Nebraska to work on his friend’s farm as farmer’s helper, a pushy Croat, who spoke wonderfully German.
He made leather bags in a leather factory, as he said, and already after only a few hours flirted shamelessly with a girl from Vienna, who had a falling out with her parents and now traveled with a girlfriend to Chicago. We all knew about each other in no time. Only my person caused some headaches. I was not traveling in a worker’s clothes or such, than after a while no one would believed me a disguise. I left Berlin just as I was. Not exactly in a best suit. In my earlier, somewhat adventurous excursions I learned that one does best not to pretend to be more than one is. Otherwise the new circle will be immediately suspicious, because sooner or later one does betray itself. My hands would betray me immediately, which never did any handyman’s work. It is much more helpful if the exterior represents approximately that what a person really is, and then tries the act in the new role the new comrades assign to one. I soon realized that I was taken for a schoolmaster who must have committed a transgression, because he talked hardly anything about himself and had to go to America. It was fine with me, as my ‘misconduct’ was not taken as a serious matter.
As long as I could I stayed on the deck. Since the few benches were more than occupied and the Slavic women with their children made themselves comfortable on the floor, one could only make a few steps and stood most of the time on the same spot. Not only I felt it strenuous, because many others could bear it only till seven in the evening, stood up and disappeared to the sleeping hall. I held out until ten o’clock but had to flee the flooding water, which gushed over the deck in order to clean it.
Two electrical bulbs dimly lighted the ‘unmerried men room’, to which I belonged. One was next to my bed. In the bed below me the Silesian with the glasses snored already. There was no question about washing before bed. Handbags and suitcases were stored at the bed’s foot end. Most likely so nothing would be stolen during the night. I did the same. Some went to bed with boots and clothes on; the others, most often the Germans, rolled their clothes under the “pillow”. The others bound their clothes around the top of the bed’s iron rods. I did alike, and soon I lay in my bed. So tight and uncomfortable could only be a coffin for someone who committed suicide. My bed neighbour sat up and observed me closely. I did the same. Each hoped to read from the other’s face if he were a con man.
Since this is not so readily written on the human face, we watched cautiously and with forcefulness each other for quite a while, while the jackets and pants started tumbling on the ceiling. The windows were open and a soft breeze caressed my face. My berth was well chosen. Nevertheless my stomach was unsettled, as the air was thick like smoke. Specifically the sweetish garlic smell filled the room more and more. It came mainly from the adjoining room where the Galician Jews had their quarters. Came? The smell quelled out of all the crevices. I had chosen my bed badly.
I jumped up because I realized that I had a piece of soap in my suitcase. I took it out and laid it under my nose. My bed neighbor sat upright and observed me closely. Then we both laid down again. “Mr. Neighbor!” I turned to him. He pointed to the ceiling on which small and dark things swiftly hurried back and forth. “Those are called Swabians” he said. I nodded gratefully and drilled my nose back into the soap. Again I jumped up. What was that for a suspicious noise? It was just our room cleaner, sprinkling the sand throughout the room and to sweep it.
A commanding voice called from above: “Close the windows, make the Scots tight!” The keeper closed the shutters and made the bulkhead, to which we belonged tight. The whole of ship’s inside is divided in compartments, which can be closed individually, so that in a collision or emergency only one or the other of the ‘Scots’ would flood, while the ship, as a whole still remains somewhat maneuverable. The clothes at the ceiling began to move more meaningfully. The ship rocked from right to left. No one snored any more. More were awake like myself. About half-hour passed and I heard snoring again. Then I too fell on my soup asleep.
A highly unpleasant and completely new sensation woke me up. It was as if my body under the blanket was pulled like an accordion to soon fall on the stroh mattress, no, to be pressed into the stroh mattress again. A cunning ordeal. Here and there some of my sleeping comrades began to whimper and groan. Now one felt like one’s brain was pulled and then squashed back again. The ship no longer rocked but it began to stamp. It went against the wind and the waves and its bow went high up from the water to hit after a while the sea again. It was repeated for hours on end. The sailors called it an ‘unrully sea’. We called it a storm. I also fought a desperate battle.
Of the 32 passengers in our room only three remained spared that night of seasickness. The others sacrificed themselves. At least the Germans made an effort to practice their manners; the “Easterners” knew no regard for their fellow bedmates, the beds or the ship. Specifically the Poles and the Slovaks! And their wives even more so! There are no words of describing it and in the interest of the reader the effort will not be undertaken. However it must be reported how tirelessly and with much effort the maintenance stuff and the sailors kept the rooms and the deck clean to be fit for a human being.
It occurred to me that such a steerage voyage was for America a good preschool to an uneducated traveler. Through it he saves on education fees ‘inside’ (‘outside’ is Europe). If he does not survive this ‘preschool’ he might as well go straight back again. If he does not survive this temptation of fire on the stomach, the nerves and the drainage of energy, then he will succumb soon to what is awaiting him ‘inside’.
The next morning we thought to have the worst behind us, because the sea was cam again. Weak and miserable most laid around and swore, had they known they would never have sailed to America, and if there was any chance now to step out, they would immediately return back to Germany. There was no such opportunity. For my comrades the seasickness was the worst experience on this trip. If I would have became seasick, at the end I also would not feel otherwise. Alas, I was to learn much worse. Of that I shall write in my next letter.
In the previous letter we heard how us steerage passangers arrived on board and about our first night at the unruly sea. The letter ended with mentioning that there would be worse things for the scribe than the seasickness. It can be briefly summarized in the words:
In the fog on between-deck (steerage)
After that night forty-to-fifty of our seasick remained in bed and did not budge for three or four nights and days. Did one get used a little bit to the sleeping and eating quarters one could say that actually it was not much different than in a mess hall of a military barrack. But there was one major difference. We were passengers and not soldiers, whom one can order to leave the stroh mattress. If a friendly persuasion failed, then one had to leave the people just where they were.
In our room were three Hungarian and one Croatian youth of such kind, who had in their suitcases even brandy, ham, salami and crisp bread. It was hot down there where they were, and neither the people nor the food did get any better by staying there. None of the others stayed any longer below than it was an absolute must. There was also a smoke room down there, but it was fully occupied by the Poles and the Slovaks who were spitting everywhere, that one went out of the way to avoid it. The longer the trip lasted, the more were we solely dependent to stay on the deck and the stern.
The Eastern women and children made themselves comfortable on the Between-Deck. If they sill could eat, they ate oranges, apples, cakes and the onions, which they brought with them, throwing the peals around themselves. The male youth of those folks did the same, but spat with no end as well.
Two sailors, who alternated their shift every four hours, did nothing else all day but removed the garbage. They fulfilled their duty with unshakable steadiness day in day out. It looked not as bad at aft but it was too windy to stay there too long.
Already by four in the morning I left my uncomfortable sleeping spot to be among the first to wash, as at that time the washroom was still in a somewhat tidy condition. Thereafter one stood on the deck or in the narrow corridors almost without a break until eight or nine in the evening between the spitting, chewing, garlic and onion smelling Eastern ladies and gentlemen. One dared only to sit on the benches for a few minutes due to the vermin. All the Germans shared this fear. Actually I was less fearful in this regard, since I already experienced similar traveling conditions; and it was almost a wonder that us Germans were spared having lice in our clothes, made only possible through the captain’s insistence that his cleaning crew kept sweeping and washing the between-deck around the clock. From time to time one could stretch one’s legs if a passage opened between the masses of people. Otherwise out of twenty-four hours of the day at least fourteen were spent just standing around. It was a most unpleasant feeling and hard to bear in the long run, even worse than being seasick.
The body and soul became mindless and dull and without the ‘Kukai’ it would have been a nightmare. A young Hungarian received this nickname, because when the first school for dolphins was spotted far out in the ocean following the ship like a herd of pigs jumping in and out of the water, he kept repeatedly calling full of childlike enthusiasm and bewilderment “kukai, ribbi, ribbi!” (Look, fish, fish!). The ‘Kukai’ was our joker, interested in everything and being everywhere at the same time. He represented the pure unadulterated culture, finding even the smallest kind of joy on between-deck if there was any joy to be found at all, which was only noticeable with the Slavs.
There was a serious side on him also. Some of the American women in the first cabin observed us on the between-deck like a kind of wild animal circus, and could not keep their eyes away. One of them even threw a pair of old gloves down to us. Just as one would threw a worthless item into a friendly bear cage, to irritate the beast. As nothing happened, because except for me nobody paid any attention to it, she took an old stocking and threw it after the gloves. ‘Kukai’ saw it, rolled the items into a ball and threw them the lady in the face. She never came back again. Most likely she never saw a face as hot with rage as the face of our ‘Kukai’ at that moment. Good for you ‘Kukai’! Wish you well in Chicago!
In the evenings some sailors danced at our place accompanied by an accordion and a drum. From time to time some young girls and young men were singing together, the Swabians, whose parents settled in Hungary. The young people were no longer happy with their second home. Now they were looking in America for their third. They sang: “Am Brunnen vor dem Tore, da steht ein Lindenbaum” (In front of the gates a linden tree stands at the fountain). And in the evening of our last night on board even a band played for us. We felt very honoured. They played classical pieces, as they were accustomed to play in the first cabins. We would have liked a waltz or a cheeky march better. These are a few lighter points of our gray-in-gray boredom and increasing fatigue. But mostly we just stood around and counted the hours.
In bits and peaces one learned about one’s fellow traveler’s history. The West Prussian worked in his hometown in the city’s sand quarry. One time a very frugal civic engineer insisted that the streets could be paved less extensively and the West Prussian’s working hours were cut. This motivated him to go to America leaving the wife and children behind to join him later. His wife works at a laundry, the eldest daughter as a maid, so the family earned 80-90 dollars per month. Since in America “all were equal, and even on the trains there are no different classes” besides there are no taxes to be paid and no expenses for health insurance, retirement and disability contributions, they could live comfortable and even put nicely something away for their old days. That pleased him most.
They were all full of praise about America except the farmer from the Palatine. During his first stay ‘inside’ a new presidential election was just around the corner. The Democrats particularly made strenuous efforts to win, but the Republicans, who had more money, closed their factories for three to four days to re-open them again. The worker earned now only one third of his former salary. If that was not enough for him, he could leave; no one prevented him. For the workers it was a time of hunger. As per the Palatine farmer, the next presidential election was not until 1912 and until then he was sure to find a good job at a friend’s place. The others thought so too.
Thus the conversation went back and forth until an old sailor, who traveled between Bremen and New York for the last 30 years summed it up: “If one is not strong and healthy then for him it is better in Germany due to the health and other insurances. If one does not consider himself strong and healthy and he happened to be young, he has it better in America” he said sighing. All agreed. With this simple sentences the old sailor summarized the situation correctly, which should give our Socialists food for thought, and could give our government officials cause for concern.
Our interest for the Croat and the young Vienna girl became noticeable. There was something amiss. Someone told us that the two wanted to marry in New York immediately. We smiled not believing it. The girl, who most of the time was laying seasick on the deck and was cared for by the Croat, told me that they did get engaged. We shook our heads. I asked if everyone saw the picture of a lonely young girl, crying pitifully into her handkerchief, which was hanging on the steerage wall, a warning against the white slave trade? They nodded but were silent, not liking that I have made this comparison. One had his thoughts about those two but did not want to get involved.
Thus the hours crept slowly, one stood and stood making a few steps from time to time and stood on a spot some more. It became more and more uncomfortable, the limbs sore and the head duller. It rained but one did not leave the deck. And after the rain dwindled down, the fog came up. The fog was getting thicker and thicker creeping through all the clothes. Even so, over 300 people crowded the between-deck, pale, tired, freezing. Then high above our heads sounded a piercing, earsplitting roar, the foghorn, no longer a horn but a steam whistle. The children screamed fearfully and had to be rushed below deck to prevent almost epileptic temper tantrum screams, as the foghorn was repeated for six seconds of each minute for the next ten hours (I looked at the watch). And still the fog got denser. Some tried to converse loudly, to be heard against the nerve-racking steam whistle. They were ordered to absolute silence immediately. Because on the bridge all ears had to be fully open to hear if in the fog another steamer replied.
Mute and motionless stood, sat, crouched the three hundred steerage passenger in the narrow space, and if you tried to make a whispering remark the steam whistle blew the words apart. Thus passed an hour. Some of the women disappeared below, because they could no longer endure the roar of the foghorn. Others wept and jumped startled every minute. The others stared blankly ahead of them, the fingers firmly pressed into heir ears. Some young girls suddenly laughed out hysterically. A few Polish women began to pray their rosaries. Nobody paid any attention to any one else. A panic mood prevailed. Any suspicious noise, a call not understood, and the panic aroused. Punctually and monotonous blew the foghorn. Minute by minute. The brain vibrated in tandem. Minute for minute. The time between the roar seemed to be longer. One started to hope, but as the next howl came around we all were startled just the same.
It became dark. Many could stand it no longer and went to bed. When I came down, only our four dirt-finches were asleep, whom no power in the world could motivate to cleanliness. Some sat fully clothed on their beds. Others stood around and whispered. The shrill of the foghorn sounded subdued here, but one can hear it all right and because of it the air was full of nervous tension, even the strongest among us felt it so. We surrounded the room cleaner, who whispered good-end stories about ship collisions. What most of us heard from the horror stories was only the collision, and not about the rescue that the old man wanted us to hear. He soon noticed that his stories told to calm us had the opposite effect. Realizing his mistake, he used a different tack by working at his evening duty as if there was nothing-special happening.
The sand box stood in the corner. Taking some sand out he strewed the sand on the floor, the same way he did the work every evening. With the broom he swept the sand into the shovel taking it upstairs to empty it. The more timid among us followed quietly behind. After it was repeated often enough, annoyingly the old man said: “Have no fear. I will not disappear. I will stay here. You do not need to follow me like sheep. Better go to bed.” However those who were fearful ran the old man for a long time after, until they were too tired that they also crept into bed.
The foghorn shrilled minute for minute. The sea was only moderately turbulent but the iron bars seemed to creak in all their joints. The wooden planks sounded like they rubbed and whet together. One felt as if the ship would fall apart in all its joins like a thin box of cigars pressed together. The steam whistle continued to shrill, the ship moaned and groaned.
Our quarters were at the bow. If an accident would happen, we would be the first to feel the blow. My neighbor hastily grabbed his life jacket. “Let it be, Landsman, we are not there yet!” hollered at him the old sailor. But others followed his example.
Next door the Jews got up and started praying. From other rooms one heard the children screaming and crying. The panic escalated.
Up to this fogy hour no one felt that on this huge steam ship danger might be lurking. The fear spread embracing every soul. One could not see this danger eye to eye. There was something unfathomable, an unknown lurking to each one of us. One can fight with every enemy, even if only with the fists. But what was a weapon against this for us still unknown enemy, which announced itself insistently in shrilling of the foghorn, the ship’s moaning and groaning and the panicky nerves? What would happen if this enemy really broke all the wooden boards, which moaned and groaned so loudly? Each of us would use a different way to save themselves and at the same time because of it be the obstacle to each other. It would not be a big deal to destroy us all in such circumstances.
The Germans and the Jews felt it more or less clearly, because they were more restless than the Eastern folks, whose intelligence was not sufficiently educated and developed. Was it lacking on courage or apathy that the panic did not break out with the Germans and the Jews? In my opinion it was the fear that the others would see one as a coward.
I sat up. The others as well. Was it a mistake? Did the steam-whistle stop to roar? We strained our ears listening. No it was no mistake the shrilling had ceased. Our mood lifted; the paralyzing tension was over. As good as in the few hours until morning all of us have probably not slept for a long time.
A party atmosphere reigned the next day and towards evening even our dirt-finches crept out of the bed trying to tidy themselves a bit, as tomorrow we should be arriving in New York.
The party atmosphere did not last for too long to the steerage passengers who were not thoughtless like the sparrows. In front of us stood Ellis Island, the “Island of Tears”, as it was called in the American newspapers, the island, where the steerage passengers were investigated and inquisiterd before they were allowed ashore.
We were told of shuddering things about the treatment to which the immigrants were here exposed. The fear of Ellis Island grew, the closer we came to America.
We were getting closer to New York after the long and unpleasant hours in the fog, from which I told in my last letter, but now a new nightmare stood in front of us:
The fear of Ellis Island
Already in the early morning of our last day at the sea all of us donned our very best cloths on. The boots were polished and quite a few colorful headscarves were exchanged with a stylish feather hat. Only the poorest of the Hungarian ladies had their conspicuous folk dresses with the high boots on. We crowded on the bow and impatiently peered for the shore. On the port side a long, narrow strip of the land was soon observed A little while later one could see individual buildings, then whole villages. Long, dirty-yellow strips danced on the waves, a sure sign that the people’s settlements were not too distant away. A breathless waiting and observing while the boats rolled past, the steamships popped up, which took the same route as us or passed us at the high sea going to Europe, from where we sailed from.
On land before us appeared gentle hills with green grass and trees, which touched us tenderly as for the last seven days we did see nothing but water and the sky. The excitement grew. Where was the “Statue of Liberty”, the symbol of so many hopes and desires? Our eyes were sore searching for her. Finally, she came into our view. All the eyes were glued on her. Not a word was spoken. All of a sudden an ecstatic, passionate voice hollered in the festive quietness: “America, I kiss your soil!” from a Jew overflowing with passion. It went right through our heart.
As the ship would soon be anchored we had to go back down from the bow. We all stood crowded on the between-deck, from where we could only see a bit on both sides. Above us, on the first cabin deck the men and women gathered and crowded almost as much as us at the steerage. They waved flags and handkerchiefs and the gentlemen waved their hats. All of a sudden a strange noise rose, as if a swarm of twittering birds settled down close by. What could it be? The ship slowly made a turn in order to come closer to the pier. Now we could see that the chirping sound came from the pier from the hundreds of people who waved, called and swung small flags.
The calls from the first cabins became noisier the hats were swung livelier. We at the steerage remained silent. None waited for us here, no friend, no relatives; we still had to overcome the Ellis Island, the island with its many hospitals, on which we sailed past a few minutes ago.
As the first and second-class passenger went ashore, the between-deck was covered in no time with crates and boxes, with wraps and bed-blanket bundles, which threatened to burst in their seams trying to hold together the abundance of clothing and household items of all kinds, the ‘hand-luggage’ of the steerage passenger, who also wanted to go on shore.
This desire was for naught. The crates and the boxes had to be carried back below the deck, as it was questionable, if we were to disembark today at all. While it was not yet one o’clock in the afternoon, but it solely depended on the whim of the Ellis Island American civil service workers whether they still wanted to start with examination this afternoon or not. We waited for almost an hour for this decision, so for us the American ‘freedom’ started on the negative side.
Tor tomorrow also many more immigrants were expected, that the agents preferred to finish with us still today. So back on the deck with our boxes and crates and out of the ship into a huge hall, where the custom revision was ongoing. We lined up in long rows, our belongings in front us; and now us steerage passengers had it better than the other ship’s passengers. A short investigative touch into the crates and boxes and the revision was accomplished. What treasures could us poor beggars have to try to sneak through the customs anyhow? A small American steamer was to bring us with our bundles and bags to the Ellis Island. It took a solid hour, until we were all brought over, while the fear of Ellis Island grew. If we managed to pass the Horror Island by the skin of our teeth, all of us Germans wanted to get together for a farewell drink before we scatter in all four winds. It turned out differently, though.
We landed on the investigation island shortly after three o’clock in the afternoon. Two by two we lined up in endless rows, men, women, children, crates and bundles under one arm, the medical card in the other hand, and it went through a garden, which must have looked huge to all of us, and into a giant hall. I cursed now my hand suitcase, which contained only two suites and as much underwear as it could hold. All the others dragged so much more with them. Poor women with small children! It would have been so easy to arrange one small room where the steerage passenger could have deposited their hand luggage until the investigation was completed, but no, the between-decker should know right at the beginning that for the American authority he is of no interest at all.
At the entrance of the hall, which was decorated with huge stripes and stars shouted a gentleman in a stiff hat: “Hats off!” So one took the hat in the hand, which held the medical card and wondered about this brusque command in a country where all the people were equal and everybody else and everywhere one keeps its had cool. In order to meet the harsh command, one had to put first the chests and boxes down. But the same gentleman shouted immediately: ‘Keep the luggage in the hand!’ If one did not obey immediately or the order was not understood, he received a dig in the ribs by the other gentleman, who seemed to be standing around only for this very purpose.
With bag and sack, kid and ‘bowling pin’ in one arm and in the other the medical card and the hat, sweat on the forehead and indignation in the heart we climbed up a never ending staircase. Poor women, poor children! Is the American not known to be very considerate to women, even to the least of them? Therefore the Ellis Island does not belong to America.
At the end of the stairs each one was ordered in to a crammed narrow line-up and if one did not find the right line immediately, one quickly received again a strong dig in the back. By the end of the line one was to expose the arm to be vaccinated, without putting the luggage down. Impossibility. Nevertheless one received from all sides’ cheering-up pushes and shoves. Now one stood before the doctor. He only glanced at my vaccinated arm, and then tore apart my eyelids that my eyes were an hour later still full of water. The doctors in Bremen on the other hand were gentle lambs!
One received another push to a new pen, divided with iron bars. There were about a dozen of them and at the end of each stood a gentleman behind a desk. One was rid of the medical card, but the luggage one still had to drag around and woe those, who tried to put it down for a moment. There was pushing and shoving of a special kind. Such brutality I have never encountered yet. I craved to spit into the face of the brutal fellow, because I had no free hand. I forced myself not to act, because then my American trip would have ended right here.
When I came to the desk, I had to tell my name. For different reasons I travelled under a different name.
‘What are you?’ I was asked.
‘Nothing!’ was the answer.
The gentleman seemed not to understand, because he now asked about my ‘profession’.
I shrugged my shoulders.
“Where are you going to?”
“To New York!”
“What do you want to do in New York?”
“In what a profession?”
I shrugged again with my shoulder and my inquisitor called for a coleque, who understood better German.
“What kind of profession did you have in Germany?” asked he. At that time I still had difficulty to lie, so I remained silent. I was not nor prepared for this kind of inquisition.
“Do you have friends or relatives in new York?”
“Do you have an address where you want to go from here?”
They scrutinized me very carefully now, that I became quite uncomfortable, and I heard how the other one asked if I was indeed a gentleman. The one who was questioning me scrutinized my exterior and affirmed the question.
“How much money have you with you?”
I was prepared to this question. Actually, I wanted to tell the truth.
But because they were very suspicious already, my 25 dollars would not have made me less suspicious. I would have been interned and under none or some kind of pretext simple returned back. This I knew from my comrades, as I later found out that they were right. So I said annoyed, to let me kindly be, as I had one thousand US dollars with me and was in a free country and could do as I wish. The one thousand US dollars had immediately the right effect. So much so, that they fortunately not even asked to let them show the money.
They directed me to a different line-up. I turned to it, but was called back. Not it will come out, I thought ashamed. But I was only to go to a measuring stick, the two wanted to know how tall I was. Both stony faced turned into a slight smile with goodwill, because I am considerable tall and they dismissed me with kindness. I am mentioning this observation, because the length of my body was often of an advantage in America.
The new line-up ended at a staircase that led to a long corridor, which led in two different directions. On one ‘New York’ was written. I took that one, lonely and alone, because no other steerage passengers followed me. It seamed as the ground swallowed them.
Again I ran into the arms of a gentleman behind a desk. Once again a long inquisition, which ended by asking me to sit down until a agent would show up, who would bring me to the ‘German House’. I would have a better luck from there, would not be easily exploited and would find a job with no difficulties. A pastor was in charge there. Sitting on the chair I pondered. Under no circumstances did I want to go to the “German House”. Especially not because if a pastor was leading it he was an educated man. I was in such a desolate condition that I even distrusted myself. If I came into the hands of educated people, I could not promise that I would not somehow betray myself; and that I wanted to avoid at all costs. I possessed still that much energy. To carry out my mission I had to stay in circles that I had chosen. I could not use an encounter with an educated man now. The temptation would be too great.
The silent young man from Hannover appeared at the end of the hall, which I mentioned in my first letter and the beker, my bed-neighbor. I waved to them and they came to me. I explained to the official that I would not go to the ‘German House’ but would go with those two.
“Do you know them for a long time?”
“Yes”, I lied.
The agent measured the two suspiciously and thought it would be better if I go to the ‘German House’. Now I became angry and said that no man could force me to it, I would go with the two and nobody else. Someone arrived and fell over my bed-neighbo,s neck. The brothers had not seen each other for six years and were hugging and kissing each other. Then I was introduced to the brother and said resolutely that I wanted to join him. The official started to interrogate him and put me into his hands only after he wrote his address down. Raising his voice the agent said that I stood under the patronage of the ‘German House’ and the brothers would not fare well if something happened to me. – “All right!” said the American bother and finally we departed on the ferry, which leads from Ellis Island to New York.
As one can see it was now for me very difficult to escape the “German House”. Later I heard much good about it but it was nothing for me. A German immigrant is not left on the streets of New York to fend for himself any more but enjoys the protection of the institution for German immigrants, as I later found out often enough, by receiving at any time advise and support. Such an institution for the German immigrants could not be praised highly enough.
The ferry was full of people, but none of my ship’s acquaintances were between them. In Bremen they received the ticket for the ship and at the same time the railway ticket for their destination place, and if he was not held back each one left Ellis Island immediately on the ferry, which led directly to his train. This way no one stayed useless in New York and could thus also not fall into the New Yorker’s hands of thieves. I bumped only on the Croat, who was flirting so heavily with the girl from Vienna. He was furious like a Fuchs, because it turned out that the girl had a train ticket to Chicago and was sent there immediately, without setting even a foot on New York. The Croat however, had only a ticket to New York as it was reveled now and had to get off here. It could not be helped. Just how much harm may have been prevented with such a simple outcome? The immigration officials follow strictly those rules and regulations, in order to minimize the cost of the immigration to fall on the city of New York.
When we arrived at the New York harbour, I left, despite of all the requests of the two brothers and went with the lad from Hanover to Hoboken, who was expected there by a friend. Here, I left him also, despite his requests to go with him to Nebraska. He spoke quite eloquently, the silent young man. Even the West Prussian, the Silesian, the Palatine, and the journeyman from Thorn they all wanted to take me with them, when they discovered that I was not expected by any one in America, and not until I took their addresses and promised to write to them if I needed help, did they let me go. All of them are solidly good and dear comrades. Unfortunately I never did see them again.
The silent young man from Hanover and I shook our hands in farewell strongly, I took my suitcase again and walked on. Finally I found a small pub where German was spoken. The boss (publican) gave me for two dollars a room for a week.
“Write down your name in the register,” he said.
“What? Even in America visitors lists are kept?” I asked surprised. Without changing his expression he replied: “You can write any name you want”. So I wrote: Fritz Mueller, no profession, from Berlin, Germany.
After his arrival in New York Fritz Mueller without a profession, from Berlin, Germany, sat for a time quietly in his narrow chamber in Hoboken, as told in the previous letter. After eight days for the very first time I was all-alone. An infinite pleasure. The chamber contained a chair, a huge spittoon, and a chest of drawers with a sink and an American style bed of giant dimensions. In the following week this was often my only sanctury. After a while I wanted to use the sink, but the water was so dirty and smelled so unpleasantly that I dared not to touch it. To use such water ‘outside’ it would have been forbidden by the police; in New York I have never found a better. The cold drinking water was of a similar quality. Only it did not start smelling before it became warm.
At New York Harbour
As darkness fell I again took the subway to New York. For each trip, whether long or short, you pay in greater New York 5 cents (20 Pfenig). I wanted to look in New York for work. Every ship compatriot strongly discouraged it. I should go West as far as possible. But even if I wanted, I would not be able to do so, because with the scant 25 dollars I would not make it much farther behind Chicago and would end up there high and dry.
So I took at first a little walk around the harbour and came to Broadway, the main road, which now, shortly after 7 pm was almost deserted and dimly lit. The street was covered with bits of paper, straw and all kinds of garbage. The footpath was badly paved. To my own surprise however I liked the skyscrapers instantly. They are all so neatly streamlined and functional buildings, giving the city its own character.
After some time I went through a side street and arrived at a corner where a large electrical lamp was burning outside a pub like a round moon on a dark night, which was full of people. Since I was hungry, I went in but nobody paid me any attention, so I had the opportunity to take a closer look at this typical somewhat upscale harbour pub. Everything was exceptionally clean. The floors, the walls, the ceiling all were covered with bright ceramic tiles. Between them the brass shone and sparkled. The long narrow room was divided in two by a dark, wooden bar. Behind the bar two bartenders in white outfits were busy with bottles of all kinds and shiny beer taps. The guests who crowded in the front of the bar spat and drank whisky or beer.
In the other half of the room stood three fully occupied tables and a buffet with a few leftover dishes. At each end of the buffet table was a glass of cloudy water in which several forks stood. Watching one or the other guest take a fork out of the murky water, bring a bite of food to his mouth with it and put the fork back in the water, caused motions to my stomach.
A narrow hall with the ‘cafe’ connected the pub part; here stood well-occupied twelve tables, and along the wall a piano, played by a corpulent man who read a newspaper at the same time. Beside him another musician played the violin. All of them German songs! It was the West Street, the harbour’s main avenue.
In the narrow passage between the bar and the cafe stood a huge orchestrion. On the wall of each table hang an iron rifle. When the pianist stopped reading and playing a guest threw five cents in a can and the orchestrion belched American songs. A heathen noise!
Since nobody paid any attention to me, I stepped to the bar and ordered “one beer”.
“Are you already a long time in America?” asked one of the bartenders, a sturdy, handsome young fellow. “Since today”. “Oh!” Nothing more. After a while I invited the bartender to join me for a glass. He used a tiny glass, like out of a dollhouse. Now he invited me. Of course I accepted, even though I was baffled. It did not take long and a large circle surrounded me, mostly sailors, soldiers, Germans and Americans, most of them tipsy already. The American ‘maltreatment’ custom began. Any newcomer would offer a round of beer for the whole bunch. For the wallet and health equally fatal habit, but it is in the American’s blood and is accepted by the Germans. A glass of beer, large or small, costs five cents. Even though I tried to keep myself in check I soon was out of more than a dollar. I considered it as a business expense, because what I saw and heard was for me more valuable than a dollar.
Among the advice, which the tipsy fellows granted liberally, was at the top most, not to trust any one in this country. Here everyone just thinks on himself, here each one has only one friend, the mighty dollar. But at the very next moment almost everyone offered to help me. It was taken for granted that I would trust that person.
A stocky man with a mighty mustache joined us and began immediately to make fun over the Germans. All the Germans had a thick wooden board in front of their heads and the only thing that was missing, were numbers on the boards. I wanted to jump up but was held back. Not exactly gently. The fellow was not totally wrong. When the mustachio started talking about other things I tried to find out who this unusually looking person was. No one gave me an answer and they just smiled. “Since you just arrived from Germany, you must be interested who the gentleman is. It is Count du Paffy, who only recently escaped from a German jail.” My first thought was to immediately wire to Berlin. My second thought: to contact a German-American newspaper would be cheaper. My third thought, however: What does Fritz Mueller, a fellow with no profession, care about the Graf du Paffy, formerly a jailbird? Under no circumstances was I to fall out of the assigned role. At the moment I was not a journalist or a detective. Had I betrayed this imposter, I would no longer have been able to visit this pub because I was the only one, who could be accused of such a betrayal. As a greenhorn I realized I needed this pub. Moreover the companions around me looked quite foolhardy and I could trust them to do all kinds of unpleasant things. So I stayed Fritz Mueller and listened eagerly to the conversation trying to learn what there was to learn.
Next morning in Hoboken after the awful abuse by the bugs and mosquitoes I counted my liquid assets. I still had $21.00 and 20 Cents. $2.00 of the $25.00 went for the rent, the rest disappeared in the West Street and driving to and from Hoboken. Eventually I will write a break-down of my expenses based on my notes, as I assume, that it might interest the reader what I did with the $25.00
In the morning I stayed in my room, found another table and began to write the first of these letters. At lunchtime at 1 PM I ate for 20 cents at the pub downstairs a ’businessman lunch’, a good vegetable soup, a bloody (rare) stake with two giant potatoes, which were not quite as good, and one good cup of coffee. This pub was a lot simpler than the one in the West Street. It had no special “Coffee Shop” and was mainly frequented by the port workers and the Negroes.
I drove back to New York and bought for 15 cents my first “Correct Guide of New York” whose text I did not understand, but it had a map with whose help I was able to orient myself in the city. Following the map I drove for several hours around the city and did never get lost since.
Towards the evening I returned back to the pub in the West Street. “Hello, Mr. Miller!” Said the bartender, when I came next to him. He was blinking. “The detectives were here this morning because of Mr. Krueger but Mr. Krueger was already en route to Canada for quite some time.” ”Have you told them so?” He was so indignant that he refused to speak to me. But others welcomed me, who knew me from the last evening, but whom I did not recognize any more, because all had the same smooth shaved faces, which I have not managed to keep apart.
The soldiers in this acquaintance group all belonged to the same infantry regiment. Most of them were in civilian cloths and only a few in uniforms, but without a weapon. It was a handsome dark-blue uniform similar to the Austrian military model, just not quite so ‘smart’. In the eyes of Germans they had an unusually comfortable life. Only a few hours daily of duty, very good food – I ate twice with them in the barracks – clean and spacious accommodation, each cot having a mosquito net and depending on the rang 19, 25, or 30 dollars a month. For their uniform they paid $170.00 over three years. Most of them needed much less on clothes and boots, so that some were paid back when discharged about 80-100 dollars in cash. For those who decided to continue to serve the pay was increased. After 30 years of service and corresponding advancements the man received a pension of 100 dollars monthly, which he could use any way he wanted.
“Come to us!” they said. “I am too old”. They laughed at my ignorance, because for one dollar one could purchase as many papers in the harbour as one wished. There was nothing to it. But a former Zieten-husar had valid concerns. One had to be American citizen now; therefore five years living in the county, and one has to complete an English exam if one wanted to be a soldier. Therefore this career was not for me.
At 1 AM the pub was made dark, so it would look like it was closed. The ‘ladies’ had to leave the ‘Coffee Shop’ where all the lights but one were turned off. Meanwhile the waiter set on each table a plate with a piece of dry bread. The American law does not want someone to die of hunger during the night, but it also does not wish that anyone would get drunk after 1 AM (Saturday and Sunday after 12PM). Therefore it prohibits the sale of alcohol after that time. One does not pay for the drinks but for the bread, which is on the table even though it will not be touched. Its that easy to ignore the law, but it is successful only then if the proprietor pays from time to time the policeman on duty and the police captain at the police station under the table.
The manager joined us. The waiter came closer also, and the bartender, who was on the night duty, went up and down. Besides them there were three soldiers, who could only babble ‘happy days’ occasionally, one janitor who came from Westphalia, one black-eyed and black-haired wild looking person, a Hessian compatriot whose home was close to mine but whose career I have not been able to discover yet. He looked like a real bad guy out of a crime novel. Here was also a white haired farmer who had ‘made’ a few thousand dollars in the far West and arrived here in order to return tomorrow to his homeland in Hamburg. He sat there happily smoking his pipe one after the other and drinking a glass of brandy also one after the other. For forty years he struggled in the Wild West to reach this goal in his life. Happily smiling he dreamed about Hamburg and from time to time put a word into the conversation in broken North German dialect.
The black haired Hessian sighed, the manager sighed and started talking about the good old days in this country of twenty years ago. The Hessian lead the conversation. Those were real democratic times. At those times one caught the immigrants in the port and dragged them into the pubs. For each person brought in, one received a dollar, said my compatriot. They were made drunk in the pub and the money was taken away from them, as much as one could grab. The drunken person was dragged upstairs and the waiter and the bartender once again throughout searched through his clothes. After the drunken man finally fell fast asleep and if he happened to be of strong built, he was brought as a sailor on a sailing ship, which sailed to Africa or Australia or somewhere else. There he had enough time to reflect over his experiences. If the man was not sturdy, he was just dumped on the street. Oh, those were the times! One made plenty of money, money like hay. But today! – My compatriot cursed, and the manager sighed.
The farmer waived with his pipe and asked me: “What do you want to do in this land?” “Working!” I replied. He shook himself laughing. “See, then it will not be much with the dollars!” “But you worked too!” I replied. The farmer laughed. When he was still a greenhorn he was also working but not later, then he stopped. The manager explained that the man had fixed up farms with the help of inexperienced port labourers so they would look good and then resold them to a greenhorn as soon as he found one. With the work accustomed ‘outside’ one cannot make cash in this country.
The waiter’s opinion was that today the best opportunity would be to open an ice-cream store on Coney Iceland (the largest amusement park). One can still make plenty of money there. The Hessian turned to me: “If you have a few hundred dollars, then you can do that. I will bring you to an old Jew in the Bowery, where I also did learn how to.” And he described how fruit juice should be made to make plenty of money. One takes one gallon of water and two pounds of sugar besides some saccharin. A syrup is to be boiled from it. Adding some coloring. Oh, the Jew has all kinds of colours, which are added a little and no one can find the difference to the best of fruit juice; yellow or red, any way one desires. But one has to be careful with the colours, because they are damned toxic. Then one could earn with 20 cents 20 dollars.
But beware! In a store next door a boy wanted to fill himself up with ice cream and swallowed four servings. He was found dead in his bed the next morning. Of course the coroner came to the store and it cost the owner 50 dollars until the coroner said it had nothing to do with the ice ream. $50! Plenty of money! He never sold a customer more than two ice creams, because he has learned his lesson after he had to donate to the coroner $50.
I felt uncomfortable. A few heavily intoxicated drunks entered the dark room, staggered, pulled out a bundle of dollars from a ragbag and demanded champagne, which was brought hurriedly. Four and half-dollars they paid for the bottle of the stuff, and the waiter received two dollars tip. Now I understood why the restaurant was open over night and stood up to go.
“Well, I join you,” said my compatriot and also rose. The bartender whispered to me: “Be careful, he is today again…” He pointed to the forehead. It would have looked cowardly if I rejected his escort. If the scamp did not carry any weapons if it came to worst-case scenario I hoped to be able to deal with him.
From West Street I had to go with my escort through the Battery Park to reach the subway station, which I used. I recalled that I was familiar with the jujitsu grip: with a quick and powerful stretched out index and middle fingers of one hand to push the attacker into the eye sockets. “Don’t believe that I am uneducated”, said all of a sudden my escort, he made it up to fourth year of high school, run away to Switzerland and learned there the trade of a mechanic. He had it good there and made plenty of money and married young a pretty girl. He was quite for a few moments. Then he continued: “we were married three years. A beautiful women, but she was looking too much after other men, you know… I was away on a job working on a cable. In the evening I received a telegram: “Return immediately home!” I took the night train to Z�rich and rung the bell of my apartment. It took a long time, than my wife asked: “Who is there?” – “Its me”, I said. “One moment please, I will put the light on”, she said. It took a long time until she opened. “Where are you coming from in the middle of the night? Why did you not send a cable?” she asked. “Oh” I said, “one drawing has to be changed, I have to go first thing tomorrow morning to the office”, I replied and went into the bedroom pulling my coat off. There was nothing amiss. It was all as it should be. I went down the hall and opened the walk-in closet. There sat one and shaked like an aspen leaf, one old, skinny guest. I did not have a gun, pulled the man out and said: “You wait here, did you understand?” I hardly knew what I was doing. My wife cried. I locked the apartment; we lived on the third floor, a nice apartment, plenty of furniture and carpets. I went down the street to a policeman. “Officer” said I, “could you help me? There was a burglary at my place.” He came immediately. “Look, the man and the woman have to go to the police station”, said I. “Is that your wife?” he asked. “Well”, said I, “this is my wife”. And they had to go to see the captain at the police station. The captain was an educated person. “You have a handsome young husband, how could you do such a thing?” he asked my wife. My wife cried and begged on her knees I should take her with her. “No”, said I, “not in my house!” As you see, I was then divorced. But if I come to a place, in a garden or in a pub or other places, my wife sits there and laughs, to make me angry. Well, that is why I left for America to get rid of her. But would you believe I could get rid of her? I can not get rid of her.” He grinded his teeth.
The story touched me as it sounded very honest and came from a deep inner wound, which was still very much hurting. I felt sorry for this wild fellow. Silently we continued on our way. Then all of a sudden he lifted up his right hand and before I could cutch what was happening, is his knife stuck in my “Correct Guide of New York”, which I carried in my left inner pocket. It was life or death. Before he could grasp why his knife would not penetrate deeper, my index and middle fingers were firmly in his eye sockets. Firmly all right, then he fell down without moving. I hastened away. This was the only time in the New York’s weeks that someone wanted to get rid of me.