I WAS a man, and stronger than most men. Yet my second childhood began the day I entered my new country. I had to learn life over in a brand-new world. And I could not talk. My first desire was for chocolate drops, and I pointed my finger at them. My second was for fishing tackle, and I pointed my finger at a wrapping cord and heaved up an imaginary fish. I used baby talk. ‘Price?’ I asked. And, later in the day, ‘Vatsprice?’ Saleswomen answered with motherly grimaces.
I never quite got over my second childhood. I doubt that any immigrant ever does — with his hasty, often harsh attuning to the new world. My first birth was distant and dim and unreal, for I was almost three years old when I awoke, and most of the shock had disappeared. The old world and I grew up together. We just grew in blissful ignorance of one another’s growing pains. And my first childhood stole upon me softly.
Not so my second childhood. I was born full-grown, so to speak, and, therefore, was aware of my new birth. I regressed to the greed of infancy. My curiosity was that of a child. My manners lacked the poise of adulthood. My angers, fears, and joys were fleeting and childish, and divided the new world into absolute categories — into good and evil. The new world cut into my clay and chronicled something which was not there before — another code of thoughts and feelings.
The moment I put foot ashore I dropped my sailor bag from my shoulder, awe-struck at my own puniness. For Battery Park lay like a deep valley under the towering cliffs and mountain crags of Broadway. A glance up at the columns of the Custom House and at the skyscrapers impressed me as no other world wonder could. The dome of heaven sighed over the crags and coulees like a huge seashell, and snow covered the majestic peaks of these man-made mountains.
The Atlantic blew its breath into the mouth of the harbor, straight through the Battery into the gorge of the Broadway Canyon. The snow blew its beauty over the wharves and warehouses, and over the ferries. On a moored barge a woman was pulling down a line of frozen washing. Kneedeep she shivered in the snow, her arms goose-fleshed, her hands red, and the baby clothes stiff as rawhide. Floating barges bulged with coal and steel rails, brick and ashes. A scow laden with dead horses, and another laden with scobs and foundry slag, floated by. Tugboats, with their smoke tails kinked and twisted by the wind, nosed their prows into the bulging hull of a ‘sea hog,’ rooting at the freighter like pigs taking suckle. Churning propellers hacked and prows of steamers clove through ice floes and snow broth.
And far above, the skyscrapers rose like cathedrals of alabaster, gleaming in the sun — Manhattan, the city of my second childhood.
I found shelter in Mill’s Hotel — a slender skyscraper on Bleecker Street, where I occupied a cell with a shelf to sleep on and a rope strung up for clothes. There I rested myself the first night, already quite detached from the past, and stunned with a crazy feeling that I was somebody else.
At early dawn I was out on the street again to gaze at the buildings, one of which was large enough to house the people of my home town, and at Brooklyn Bridge, which was thrice as broad as the King’s Highway running through Denmark, and at the trains above my head and under my feet that were ten times speedier than the narrow-gauge train of the dunes.
Frantic streams of sweatshop workers climbed the subway stairs, leaped out of street cars, poured forth from ferries, rushed down from elevated stations. Children carried box wood home from wholesale stores and market places. Bent old men carted bulky sacks of rags to their junk shops. Sailor tramps told doleful stories of shipwrecks in which they had lost their belongings, from the gold they had dug in Alaska to their mother’s Bible. Years later I found one of the same tramps on the same spot, telling the same tale. But only the first time did I urge him to accept a loan.
On West Street tangled teams and trucks and peddlers’ carts blocked the horse cars that clanged their bells with yowling petulance, while teamsters cursed, peddlers sang, ferries tooted. On one side of the street rows on rows of immigrant liners lay moored. On the other side old tilting rooming houses were crowded with dark-eyed children, and with women with Mona Lisa faces, and with men lamenting in strange tongues.
Labor bureaus shipped away immigrants to mines and mills and factories. The labor market was flooded. Weeping with gratitude they went. Every day brought fresh hordes ashore. For every man who found work a hundred others stepped ashore from the Ellis Island ferry.
I descended into a subway excavation, far beneath the traffic, where laborers ran in continuous gallop, balancing their wheelbarrows on narrow planks, and throwing mud and granite into steam shovels. When a man stumbled or rested to regain his breath, his foreman’s curses reverberated against the walls. My ambition was to build a subway. But foremen drove me away from their gangs of toilers, watchmen threatened me with arrest, explosives threatened my life.
My next ambition — and one that is not yet dead — was to drive an elevated train. But where could I find the owner? I rode to the end of the lines and stepped off at every station to find the owner. I pestered passengers, ticket-takers, conductors, and the men that repaired the tracks. But never did I find the owner.
Along thirty miles of water front I wandered in search of work, — around Manhattan Island, on the Brooklyn, Jersey City, Hoboken, and Staten Island wharves, — waiting through rain and sleet and snow with gangs of longshoremen to reach the boss before he finished picking the men he wanted. It took strength, when a steamer arrived, to break the brawny barriers and stem the tides of human muscles. Strong men crushed each other to the ground in their passion for work.
Thirty hours these longshoremen worked without a rest, while thousands of envious idlers watched from ashore. Their eyes were wild with lust for work. Tobacco juice mingled with sweat from their brows and froze into icicles on their horned moustaches. Cargoes of wheat and fruit, coal and brick, boxes, bales, and barrels, these tireless toilers carried, while their gang boss, yelling like a demon, drove them in a continual trot.
Accidents they ignored in their great urge for work. The paw of a hoisting boom struck a toiler to instant death; a cable swept a row of men off the deck, down on the drifting ice floes; a scaffold gave way under a dozen men, who tumbled down with their barrels in a bleeding heap.
On my arrival I was in possession of a twenty-dollar gold piece, five silver dollars, a pocket Bible, and a good watch. My sailor bag was full of working clothes. A six-shooter and a Spanish pistol, which I had bought in Buenos Aires the previous year, and a linen shirt which I had worn at the age of one, lay hidden on top among a dozen handkerchiefs. The next day sailor tramps borrowed my gold piece. And when the rest of my money was spent I took refuge in the open, cuddling up in a pile of straw that kept the cement from freezing on the foundation of a new skyscraper. There my sailor bag was stolen the first night. My baby shirt I saved, finding it in my pocket the next morning. I had mistaken it for a handkerchief.
One evening, as I cuddled up in the straw pile, an old Norseman — of the Amundsen type — lay down beside me. He swore at the aftertaste of the freelunch bologna on which the saloons kept us alive. ‘I may as well join the navy again, instead of starving to death,’ he grumbled. At the mention of the navy my heart began to pound. ‘Could a fellow who can’t speak English join the navy?’ I asked. I knew but a few curses and vulgar phrases that I had learned at sea. ‘Anybody can,’ he answered. ‘The officer asks if you speak English, and you answer back that you can’t, but you understand everything.’
I lay awake most of the night, repeating the answer, ‘I speak not much English, but I understand (yoonderstand) everything.’ At dawn I was walking back and forth in front of a sign upon which was printed the picture of a handsome sailor and beneath, in bold type, ‘Young Men Wanted for the United States Navy.’ Several hours I waited before the office opened. A sailor was sweeping the room. A stern-looking officer in uniform was sitting at a desk. He eyed me while I was busy whispering the answer to myself, my heart tugging fiercely. ‘How old are you?’ he asked. I knew at once that something was wrong. ‘I — I speak not much English, but I understand everything.’ The officer repeated the question in a louder tone: ‘How old are you?’ And I repeated my answer, also in a louder tone: ‘I speak not much English, but I understand everything.’ Then a flush of impatience darkened his face. He waved me out of the office, while the sailor grinned.
When a watchman drove me away from the straw pile, I took refuge in a Bowery hotel, where I was packed on the floor with other vagrants like herrings in a barrel. These were dime and nickel lodgings, and we lay sleeping, not only on floors and benches, but also in the halls and on the stairs, from roof to sidewalk. My watch I pawned for fifty cents. Many a night I was grateful to sleep on the stairs among drunken Bowery bums. We lay or sat intermingled in a solid mass that formed a large, sluggish organism with limbs stretching into every nook, whose breath was strong, and whose coughs and grunts, moans and snoring, were the weirdest music that ever touched my ear.
At dawn we disentangled ourselves from one another’s grip. And weaklings, who during the night succumbed, were shipped to the morgue and to the potter’s field — two places I followed friends to that first winter.
The Bowery hotels welcomed me, whether I had my nickel or no. They saved me from freezing to death. Why should I not be grateful? Yet they were like slave ships with cargoes of slaves sealed up under the hatches
And there were other wonders on the Bowery: the daily bread line with its soup, the Bowery Mission with its midnight teas, and the saloon freelunch counters — traps with cheese, where many a hungry rat was fed.
In the Bowery saloons the air was so strong from smoke and alcohol that I groped my way along the walls like a blind man, colliding against human beings who had hardly enough life left to stagger out and beg for another dime. I found mad orators, pouring forth their feelings to moping men. I met boys of many nationalities, engaged in petty stealing, boasting of their last police adventure. I saw the vile pander of the brothels and the effeminate pervert of the parks — two male types that made me shiver. And here I found the harlot in the last ditch — a stranded wreck of a woman.
I joined the bread line on the Bowery, which wound around the block, and diminished, when the soup was served, like a roll of wire chopped off into nails. Shabby were the men, gloomy their spirits. Like homeless dogs they were, skulking around for bones in back alleys, snapping and snarling if I stepped on their toes or squeezed them out of line.
At the Bowery Mission the pastor and his wife fed a strange family. I became a frequent visitor there, and among ex-convicts, drunkards, dope fiends, and not infrequently demented youths, testified in baby English about a benevolent Providence. We bragged about our sins, especially on Saturday nights, when wealthy American women went slumming. Here the blackest sinner was the hero.
The one person who gave me the heartiest welcome to the shores of my new country was a woman bartender, in a saloon near South Ferry. God bless her memory. The ferry and tugboat crews who frequented the place informed me that in her youth she had been queen among the sailors in the Red Hook district across the river. Although she was vulgar and seldom sober, she took a maternal liking to me from the moment I sauntered into the saloon, boiling me eggs and a pot of coffee, sending me to a Turkish barber shop in the neighborhood to get my clothes fumigated and my body steamed. She tugged me to bed in a hall room above the saloon and poured a bowl of burning ‘medicine’ into my throat. And for six weeks, while she was bartender and free-lunch cook, she nursed me back to health. Spring found me strong and full of hope, ready to tackle a job.
I worked on a tugboat and lived ashore at night. On Hamilton Avenue in the Red Hook district I lived. There women greeted me from hallways and gay sailor saloons, and from the curtained windows above. One night a man dragged me inside a brothel. A wrinkled, greedy-looking creature — the procuress — sat in a corner of the reception parlor, puling at her rheumatism. There were five young immigrant girls with her. They were all Scandinavians, tall and stolid, clumsy and mechanical in their charms. The youngest one had an eye unhealed from a stab by a sailor’s knife — a jellied film of an eye. I shuddered at the sight and forced my way out. But the procuress limped after me. She had a virgin hidden away in the attic, she told me — one fresh from Norway. I rushed away from the evil woman.
I was lonesome and drifted into sailor resorts on Columbia Street. Many ‘joints’ there were filled with girls, children almost, shockingly brave, stooping to all the tricks of seduction. I feared the bewitching creatures and was in a panic when I saw one coming toward my table. Young Jewesses and daughters of Italian immigrants sat down uninvited on my lap and wound their arms around my neck. They looked as innocent as my sisters in the old country. I patted their hands and fled.
I lived with a shipmate above a saloon across the way from the police station. Thérèse was young and slender, like Queen Esther, whom I remembered from a forty-pound illustrated Bible that I had bought from a book agent. She was my mate’s sweetheart — a bird of passage. And often she entered our room in the dark of night as calmly as though she were taking her bath, bargaining and gesturing. Me she hit a hard blow with her fist. ‘Dumbbell!’ she whispered, with furious scorn.
I found a sailor mission in the Red Hook district, organized by a strong Norwegian preacher who kept his countrymen active in the useful work of saving sailors’ souls. His followers were a healthy group of immigrants and not like the wrecks on the Bowery. On Saturday night the preacher held openair meetings among harlots and drunken sailors. I was attracted by the preacher’s magnetic face and by his megaphone voice. This earliest social centre — the Bethelship Mission — established me ashore. I should probably have drifted to sea had I not found it. The men who attended the sailor mission were strong dock laborers, and the women were robust servant girls.
I grew earnest about religion, as young men clo when they are lonesome. Physically I was very strong — and, for æsthetic rather than ethical reasons, continent, as well. America fascinated my flesh. Every fresh stimulus took hold. My urge for self-destruction was as strong as my urge for selfpreservation. Yet my senses were too sharp for ‘trenchant living.’ My comrades lived ten times more thoroughly than did I, and therefore died before they grcw up to tell.
It was not ‘salvation’ that I wanted so much as to know God personally. It was Jehovah, not Jesus, that I desired. I was not fleeing away. The new world and I were growing accustomed to one another. And, though I compromised daily, I was able to hold my own without losing my dignity. I was, therefore, not trying an escape, and sought, rather, a youthful adventure into a still newer world. But Jehovah ignored me. I did not come anywhere near that spiritual Kingdom which the sailors bragged about. Jehovah was out there, somewhere. And He simply ignored me.
I tried prayers — verbal and written — and kept a sharp lookout. In my pocket Bible I wrote versified incantations from Genesis to the book of Revelation, until the book was worn out. I still treasure its remains.
I tried ‘good works.’ Many a sailor tramp paid for my failure as a saint. I wandered up and down Hamilton Avenue, picking them up and dragging them to the mission. And if the tramp was too dirty for presentation I led him down into a cellar and washed his face.
I tried fanaticism and became a nuisance to the sailor preacher. Then I drifted over to other missions that abounded in the Red Hook district, to the Holy Rollers, Full-Gospel People, Tongue-Speakers — queer groups of sturdy Scandinavian immigrants who, unlike myself, were fleeing away from the new world.
During the meeting they fell in heaps on the floor, shrieking out prayers hysterically and rocking their bodies like Negroes in a Southern Gospel camp. And they were hard-working men and women — longshoremen, dock carpenters, and servant girls. They spoke with ‘tongues,’ uttering frightful sounds and noises. They ‘interpreted’ these ‘tongues’ with holy awe. They ‘prophesied’ about wars and shipwrecks to a startled sailor audience. They ‘healed’ their sick by touch. One — an old Swedish janitor — claimed that he had raised a child from death.
But Jehovah paid not the slightest attention to me, no matter how wild my efforts. I made it a coöperative task for these endowed Scandinavians to give me a lift. In vain they put their hands on my head, and shouted imploringly, and poured ‘three-in-one’ oil down my neck. Finally they consoled me by quoting Saint Paul: ‘Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles? Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?’ In the gray hours of morning I left them for my tugboat in the harbor.
I hoarded words like a coin-collector, and the language of my second childhood grew. Every day I found new words; for all the things and acts that I beheld in the new world had a name, and every name had many modifiers. I talked to myself as I had done in the rope spinnery during my first childhood — playing with my collection during all my leisure hours. I remember distinctly the day when four words which had grown familiar to my ear attached themselves to things that had grown familiar to my eye. ‘Was the boss satisfied?' ‘This is a rush job.’ ‘The whistle blew long ago.' ‘I ’ll O. K. your time slip.’ I was less of a child and more grown-up when these four words became part of my own living flesh. We had become partners, the new world and I, for we owned something in common.
My childish responses to the new world uttered themselves in my emotions. A bartender, giving me a plate of corned beef and cabbage, filled my heart with a rare joy. A park cop, poking my ribs with his club, made me angry enough to kill. A watchman, pointing his gun at me, gave me a fear that, literally, tasted salty. (Lot’s wife must have had even a greater tear.) The new world, with its new words and new feelings, grew into a corporation — like the Trinity, almost. First in rank came the new world; second, the new words — which were only symbols and were a kind of ‘substituting vicar’; third, the new feelings — which were like a ‘spirit’ that revealed and appraised its two triumviral peers, a sort of guardian ghost that told me the difference between good and evil. For the new world was neither all good nor all evil. I worshiped it with the faith of a child — that is, selfishly.
In Brooklyn I joined a public night school, where immigrants gathered to learn the language of their new country. The teacher was a young American woman of wit and refinement. She handled her forty husky pupils well. There was in the class an old, halfblind Italian doctor, who never learned to say ‘I’ instead of ‘me.’ There was also an English teamster, with black teeth and clothes that smelled of horses, who was learning a more limber handwriting. And there were many Swedes, who after the day’s work at the water front were tired and sleepy, and always lost the page in their primers when they were called on to read. A German would leap up like a Jack-inthe-box to show them the page and paragraph.
We read the very same fairy tales which in my childhood had bored me. Danish fairy tales, strange to say, had always made me sick at my stomach — especially ‘The Ugly Duckling.’ Perhaps I had been too sensuous for such kind of symbolism, though the parables of Jesus always affected me pleasantly. But in the night school here I found the charm of Andersen. The words melted in my mouth like liquored candy. And when the teacher read a phrase I beheld a familiar Danish landscape — in colors — inside my eyelids.
We were proud of our teacher and we were all in love with her — even the charming old doctor, whose office boy often came into the classroom between bells, rushing him off to a sick bed. The teacher accepted my offer to escort her home after the late school hours. And when the Britisher heard this he grinned equivocally. ‘I s’pose ye’re goin’ to marry ’er next, for to ’ave a wife to support ye?’ How wisely the other immigrants smiled! They would gossip, though not maliciously, and they would lower their voices when I entered the classroom. Once I overheard the Britisher say: ‘Sure, ’e is a sailorman, ’e is. And ’e ’as a gurrel in h’ivery ’arbor.’
One night she invited me to a Sunday dinner at her home. She wanted me to meet her husband. Her husband! Was she married? Surely she was married. She even had a little boy, whom her husband took care of while she taught night school. She laughed teasingly. She supposed that I was ‘through’ escorting her home? Certainly not, I told her. It would be an even greater pleasure. Why a greater pleasure? — not quite so teasingly. I grew confused and jabbered a platitude about ‘burning love’ versus ‘unending friendship.’
This visit was my début into an American home. She came to the door herself and with girlish gayety pushed me into the parlor, where her husband was crawling on the floor, playing with the baby. ‘ Here is my prodigy, hubby.’ She whistled a charming falsetto and ran into the kitchen. My teacher’s husband was talkative, but I understood little of what he was saying. Later he laid the baby on my lap — what finer sign of hospitality could he have expressed? — while he helped his wife in the kitchen. I side-glanced awkwardly at the little fellow — a new American too. So this was my teacher’s own flesh and blood! The baby eyed me, then welcomed me vigorously by taking hold of my hair.
At school the Britisher sat writing and panting and grinning. When I told him that the teacher was a married woman he opened his eyes wide and gasped: ‘Look out, my friend! ’Er man’ll kill ye yet.’ And the other immigrants tittered and poked each other in the ribs.
When the tugboat on which I worked was sold to a San Francisco firm, I was offered a chance to stoke her around Cape Horn, a great temptation to which I almost yielded. I found work in a parochial hospital, orphanage, and old people’s home. And my duties were various, such as carrying patients from the wards to the private morgue, pushing old people around the yard in a wheel chair, and keeping an eye on scores of orphans, who during their class recess flocked around me like a brood of chickens. They would close in on me, these motherless ones, in the woodshed, while I chopped wood for the laundry, and risk a scratch from the chips, begging for another sailor story. They would follow me down to the furnace, where I helped the redhaired engineer hoist ashes, and to the stables, where I gave the consumptive ambulance driver a hand, and to the laundry, where I turned the mangle for an Irish laundress. And they would enter my room, which I shared with an old saint, the chapel organist, to take a peek into my forty-pound Bible.
Often when the little ones in the middle of their play caught sight of me they came trotting across the grounds. From day to day our friendship grew. The Father in charge looked on gravely from his office window. And the young internes and nurses flocked to the ward windows, while the good nuns, much disturbed, came mincing to gather up their charges. The Father sent me down into the cellars, which were like dark, enormous dungeons of a monastery, to sweep up thirty years of dust, while the orphans called in vain. Then one day I was discharged—‘for the good of the service.’
Between Manhattan and Blackwell’s Island a bridge leaps across the East River and continues high above the massive jail buildings to Long Island City. On this bridge I balanced myself on a narrow plank, painting the underneath parts of the structure, and smearing barrels of red lead on rivets and steel beams. The other daubers were young and tough, and always half drunk. I worked too fast to suit them. And I was singled out because I received a quarter more a day than they. The gang boss, who had hired me especially for this job, shook his head and whispered: ‘Look out for trouble, you sailor. Don’t get them sore. They’re a tough bunch, and they’ll push anybody off — accidentally, you know.’
I was not brave with such a gang of boys over my head. And I did not know how to handle them. If I offered to chip in for a can of beer, they called me a ‘damned scab,’ a word that I was unable to find in my pocket dictionary. And if I ignored them my snobbishness irritated them. I had been in ships where one man was the target of the whole crew, yet no one had ever threatened his life. I knew that peace at any price was the cheapest. Either I must leave the job and run ashore like a presaging ship rat, or I must take my chances among the drunken desperadoes. I decided to quit.
But the same afternoon a foot struck my face a blow from above. The fight lasted but a minute. The boy was not quite quick enough to draw his foot away. I caught hold, and he came tumbling down upon the plank that swung in the ropes. I held on to his neck with one arm while I clung to the plank with the other, determined, if I fell, to have him follow. Others above battered my face. But I shielded it behind my opponent’s head, yelling for help, as a man with death in his throat, until the gang boss intervened and saved our lives. ‘I told you so,’ he said, as he paid me off.
A week later I met the Britisher of the night school, driving a coal wagon. ‘Good God!’ he exclaimed. ’I thought ye was dead. I thought ’er man ’ad killed ye. But did n’t ’e give ye an awful boxing, though?’
One morning a group of men crowded the sidewalk outside a factory, focusing their eyes on the closed gate with doglike patience. An employment clerk appeared and picked out three men at random. And I was one of the fortunates. He handed each a pass for night work. At dusk I approached the factory among large crowds. A whistle sounded, and men and women began to run as though they feared to be left out of Heaven. When I arrived the gate was shut. And the watchman — a jovial fellow, this one, with a badge on his chest and a club in his hand — advised me to return at midnight.
I sat down outside the factory gate and waited until he opened it again. He led me into an oozing, overheated building of ovens, benches, and small slicing machines. Men were making cylindrical phonograph records, dipping gold moulds into black wax that boiled in tanks over blue gas flames, and slicing the frail castings at the edge before the wax hardened. Women worked in the storerooms.
I worked on a crew of four — the dipper, slicer, inspector, and mould-carrier. And we earned a quarter each for one hundred perfect records, and paid a fine of a quarter each when a gold mould was scratched by accident and had to be recast. That was fair enough, I thought. I was the mould-carrier, and during a ten-hour shift walked a distance of nineteen miles between the dipper and inspector. The blue gas flames and the smoke from the wax ovens were like a million smoky candles. Half-naked men slid along the waxy floors like haunted ghosts. Vivid as the picture was, it resembled Hell — that Hell I later grew acquainted with through Dante and Milton.
The gold moulds — embossed on the inner edge by inverted titles — were protected by thick, water-cooled layers of copper. ‘Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,’ was the mould at our oven. I read the title many times and peered through the wax smoke at the toilers leaning over their ovens, flitting back and forth between the benches and ovens, and slicing off the edge of the records like black bologna. I chuckled at the irony. Yet, often the lights and shades held me breathless.
In the bins ‘Stifle Nacht, heilige Nacht’ piled up, until close on to Christmas — as I had anticipated — the crew was laid off. I spent my first Christmas Eve in the new world wandering through wealthy residential districts, looking in at the family gatherings, and hearing phonographs in the homes sing out the sombre melody, ‘Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht.’ My eyes blinked. I was a child.
I was learning a trade. Eagerly I harried another unknown territory in the new world. It was always an outward voyage — a flight away from myself. And although I failed to find the Holy Grail until after I returned to myself, years later, these quests of a strong, impetuous, lonesome child-man made life more than worth living. I was learning a trade. Is there anything more salubrious for the body than to have its ten fingers do its thinking?
Voltage and amperage were the mystery of the age. What else, therefore, should I choose than the trade of an electrician? I was a humble helper, cleaning motors in hundreds of sweatshops of lower Manhattan, hauling new motors from the repair shop, and carrying burned-out armatures back to Prince Street. Even after I had learned the rudimentary tricks of this semi-mystical trade —such as the methodical waste of time and material on repair jobs, and the short cuts of contract jobs — new wonders continued to thrill me.
I beheld the interior of Manhattan — flour lofts with sparkling, high-tensioned ozonators that bleached white flour still whiter; power stations with dynamos that blew the breath of life into the new world; factories with steam hammers that shook the ground as they flattened ingots into bars, and yet were sensitive enough to cork a bottle.
I knew the cellars and roofs, the shops and offices — the machinery and vital organs of a great city. I all but drowned in a roof tank while I was wiring a pump switch, losing my balance, and keeping afloat in nine feet of water. Once I got drenched to the waist in a grocery cellar by falling into a pickle barrel. In a roomy refrigerator I was once locked up the night long. Out of a flooded cellar on the East Side I helped drag a dead fireman during a fire. Once when an Italian butcher was too generous with his wine I fell off my ladder and was caught, dangling on a hook between two butchered steers.
And not only the shops and stores and factories did my wondering child eyes behold. Coney Island’s Loop-theLoop I kept ‘gorgeously bedizened.’ Chandeliers I hung in spacious halls to illumine the mural decorations there. An intricate signal system I helped to install in a skyscraper hotel. A millionaire’s estate at Long Branch I connected with private telephones. The arches of a Gothic church I strung with conduit. My hand controlled the stage lights of a Harlem club, amused by naked dancing girls.
But the part of Manhattan that I learned to know best was after all the sweatshop district. Between Canal Street and Greenwich Village I worked in several hundred shops: glove shops with rows on rows of sewing machines, and purring shuttles gliding out of and into thread loops, and the mad dance of glinting needles around a thousand tiny leather fingers; lace shops with looms growling appallingly, gears and pinions gnawing one another’s teeth, spindles and spools whirring, and shrieks from a jungle of belts; trouser shops with forty layers of cloth cut by a pair of creeping scissors, and long, clattering needle races along the inseams; handbag shops with dies, punches, and curved knives, bronze, silver, and gold hinges, and a cargo of warty alligator skins; feather shops with cellars of vats and blowers, airy drying lofts, and downy assortment rooms — all the shops crowded with bright-eyed immigrant girls.
And there were the rag shops on Hudson and Water Streets, where old, hawklike witches squatted on the floor and examined the rags and ripped them apart — piece by piece — and with clairvoyant gazes read a story in each. The rags of Manhattan went into the right baskets — silk and wool, cotton and linen, plush, serge, and broadcloth rags.
There were also shops with old, old men, stitching fur caps by day and sleeping on their sewing tables at night — red-eyed, undernourished dreamers, some of whom seldom, if ever, ventured down into the street, except on the Sabbath day.
And I found an artistic hat shop, owned and managed by a bearded Talmudic scholar. There was no rush in this shop; young girls had time to steal a glance at me and I at them, the air was cooled by exhaust fans, and there was a cozy, tranquil atmosphere, as though I had entered a temple. Etchings and epigrams decorated the walls. The boss was like a peaceful prophet, pouring forth wisdom and holiness. Even the motors, unlike the whizzing overworked ones in other shops, hummed harmoniously, and pulled the belts with ease.
One day I came upon a man bent over a sewing machine in a dingy sweatshop, a pale, thinly bearded Jew with the melancholy glow of his race burning in his eye. He had suffered his share in this life, having been driven from Moscow into the Siberian ice, during his student days, from whence he had made his escape to America. At noon we lunched together at a sidewalk counter, devouring — and relishing — a glass of synthetic lemonade and a nickel’s worth of doughnuts. I treated to ice-cream cones, though this extravagance was more severe on my resources than if, during my sailor days, I had treated a crew. My apprentice wage of a dollar a day barely covered the four essentials of Manhattan — carfare, clothes, housing, food.
My new friend was in a hurry to return. He was tutoring a youngster in mathematics, he told me. I held him back. Mathematics! The only language that made natural forces obey its command! The bridge between earth and the stars! The essence of voltage and amperage! He was preparing a youth for entrance examination to Cooper Union on the Bowery. ‘If I took lessons, could I also enter Cooper Union?’ I asked eagerly. ‘One dollar I’ll pay you every week.’ He looked me over from head to foot — especially my head. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I’ll teach you.’
That spring and summer I studied algebra and geometry with exuberant joy and tenacity. My books were always with me. In the morning on the trams from Brooklyn I studied mathematics. And when I walked along Broadway from City Hall to the shop on Prince Street I solved quadratic equations, often colliding with people on the crowded sidewalk. When I hauled a motor to a sweatshop and the wagon got stuck in a tie-up, I would ponder over circles and triangles. When my foreman forbade me to hurry a repair job, and often kept me loafing for days at a time in the cellars of Manhattan, my book was under a plumber’s candle, ready at a moment’s notice to be tossed into my tool bag. Even when I rode on top of an office elevator the day long, repairing the bell-wire cable between stops, my book lay hidden in my tool bag. And the diagrams I drew in my notebook were not of the broken-down bell system, but were geometric demonstrations.
Short circuits blew my screwdriver into molten drippings, my pliers into clouds of smoke, and my wrench into meteoric dust. Invisible currents swept through my tissue, some gripping me with ecstatic thrills, some taking hold as a surge seizes a ship, and some hitting me a hammer blow that stunned my senses. But I mastered my trade and my mathematics.
What a glorious second childhood!
(The January number will contain Mr. Jensen’s account of his American marriage)