ON THE MOVE
Tarrytown, New York
To the Editor of the Atlantic: —
My immigrant family moved into the ghetto of immigrants, the slums. We resented the extortionately high cost of even this minimum standard of living. Outgo in America was wedded to income, and the wolf was always at the door.
When we prospered a little, our instinct for security was utilized by highpressure solicitors for insurance and real estate. They misrepresented their products and terms of purchase and were actually fraudulent. We bought some nonexistent real estate and worthless insurance; when, realizing the error, we reported to officials, the attitude was ‘Oh, just some greenhorns stuck.’
This attitude toward elementary justice gave us our cue. Law seems profitable in the evasion, and Prohibition was on the books. Soon we were part-time bootleggers; later we were just bootleggers. Before this my father had had impressed on him the idea that foreign labor was just the wedge to force the native wage scale down. There were labor politicians whose function was to receive the tribute to work called dues, as well as to make speeches on occasion.
This environment provided vivid episodes that punctuated drab existence. Cupid’s work in dark hallways; no pretty speeches and flirting — more like the stealthy furtiveness of rats. Then there were stabbings and beatings and razor slicing, mostly among the Negroes and Latins. These were scarcely ever fatal, but always gruesome. The helplessness of men against organized force was dramatized by the systematic beating of men in a riot by police — terror and brutality are powerful weapons.
There were small tragedies and the free lunch in school. It was often the only consistent nourishment some children had.
There was the ignorant behavior of teachers and social workers, some of them from the suburban families who must have exceeded their earned income on clothes and cosmetics alone. They never could be made to understand that stealing fruit from peddlers might be from some motive besides frolicsome boyishness.
Then at last the keystone of society, my family, broke up. Bootlegging did n’t net a living because of the competition, and, when the oil of money was lacking to smooth troubled waters, family problems became acute.
My mother went to work in a suburban family and my father disappeared. I was sent to school in Maine to be educated on a semi-charitable basis.
By the time I got to Portland I knew I was in a different world. Portland’s speak-easies were hidden from the casual observer’s glance. In Newark we had n’t thought that necessary. People spoke like books — like the suburban teachers.
I learned that all Americans were n’t cops, teachers, grafters; that they were n’t snobs, rich, and a minority of the general population. It is difficult to believe how these facts surprised me.
Imitative childhood soon made me so Yankee that now I could claim to have come from any part of New England if no one present came from the same place. Textbooks spoke so often of ‘our Pilgrim fathers’ that I began to think of foreigners as ‘you foreigners.’
I have had confided to me by supernatives proposals to liquidate the ‘melting pot’ question. I’ve had to make an effort to avoid thinking in like manner.
I graduated from high school after seven years in Maine and entered the job market. I knew exactly what I wanted — a job that was creative or allowed creativeness outside itself. I felt sure I had the spark of creativeness, and I wanted to nurse it to a flame. There was no such job for me.
I considered technical training; technicians have better incomes than bus boys, soda jerkers, brush salesmen, auto line workers — my type of job for the last three years. I decided against it — technicians are hired men, not only hired for their services, but for their opinions, souls, and lives.
I’d be as well off even if I couldn’t recondition a Diesel. Out of the rut I might hit. If I did not, there was nothing lost in a position that it would be no loss to abandon.
What am I politically?
I am for anyone carrying the torch for youth. For instance, if one is old enough to work when eighteen to support oneself and be taxed, why not old enough to vote? Communism and Fascism woo youth; is democracy only for the ‘Ham and Eggers’?
What am I economically?
I am broke, capable of a day’s work — and there are plenty like me.
[A product of the Old World, Mr. Misik is fast becoming a citizen of the New. His experiences have given him an unusual knowledge of its variegated aspects.]
To the Editor of the Atlantic: —
When I was two years old and still unable to walk, my parents took me to a doctor and discovered that I was crippled. Nothing much was done about it, however, until I was almost six years old. My mother died then, and my father, being unable to care for us himself, put me and my two brothers, one of them my twin, into institutions. My brothers were sent to an orphan asylum, while I was put in a home for crippled children.
There, with the aid of two operations and a pair of braces and crutches, I was soon able to walk. Eight years of my life were spent there, during which I had very little schooling, owing to the fact that I was unable to attend the school to which the Home sent its children. It was a block away.
At the age of fourteen I left the institution and went to board with relatives. After one year’s attendance at a public school, one of the school nurses pursuaded me to go to a hospital and undergo a series of operations to make me walk better. I spent eight months in the hospital and went under ether eight times. At the end of eight months I left the hospital, again unable to walk.
A year later I entered another hospital and remained three years, undergoing three more operations. These operations were successful, enabling me to walk again with braces and crutches.
When I left this hospital I went to live with my twin brother in a two-room apartment. This, in my opinion, is when my troubles began. My father and my older brother were working and living together in a hospital. Neither was making much money, but my father agreed to pay our room rent. My older brother, Jim, refused to help. Tom, my twin, had a job which paid him $14 a week. This had to keep us in food, clothes, and incidentals. I cooked, washed the dishes, made the bed, and wrote stories for publication which were never sold. The landlady agreed to clean the apartment once a week for fifty cents more. Tom paid this. From the start this whole arrangement was a failure. Nearly every payday Tom would make the rounds of the taprooms with his friends before coming home, usually very late. As a rule our food supplies were low at the end of each week, so I spent many a payday without anything to eat. When Tom did get home, he would come in drunk and disgusted. He was in love with a girl who was engaged to another fellow. The engagement was finally broken, but Tom never tried to see her or take her out because, he complained, he did n’t have decent enough clothes or the money to buy them. When drunk he would blame me for this, claiming that if he did n’t have me to support he could get somewhere in life. He would rail against Jim for refusing to help support me. Many a time he threatened to walk out on me and leave all my support up to my father. Through all this complaining I would sit still and feel miserable. I would say nothing because I knew there was nothing I could say. I could n’t help seeing that there was much truth in what he said. It hurt me deeply to feel that I was such a burden to my family. Yet I felt helpless to do anything about it. For three years both of us endured this. Finally we moved in with relatives, where I am still living. I am much happier here. My father pays my board. Tom has since gone, because of a new job, to live by himself. Every payday he gives me spending money. I still write, and enjoy it; but I am sensible of the fact, since my father is getting very old, that if I do not produce something substantial in the way of earning my living, the future will not hold much for me. J.P.B.
[J. P. B., whose letter speaks for him and for other truly handicapped people, has lived all of his twenty-four years in America, his native country.]
PITY THE PEDDLER
To the Editor of the Atlantic: —
The bitterest dose of education I ever had to take has come to be the most worth while. But nothing in the world would have induced me to swallow the dose if I had n’t been hungry, desperate, and crazy-wild for a future — something beyond the next dish of mush. My husband and I were an infinitesimal part of that great depression parade of Humpty Dumpties — eggs on a wall! And to avert the fall which was becoming inevitable we took the one out: Selling. From door to door — a newspaper.
At each door, before I rang the bell or thumped my sore knuckles, I took a deep breath of free air and schooled myself thus: ‘If I make a sale we eat.’ Sometimes it was ‘If I make a sale we’re that much nearer to keeping our bed.’ Then briskly, with much bravado, I let it be known I was there.
Sometimes the door opened. Sometimes I heard people moving about and disregarding my knock, having seen that I held a newspaper in my hand. Sometimes I saw them around the edge of the blind pretending they were n’t there. But usually they opened the door to look down at me curiously and with distaste — like the queen examining a little green worm in her apple.
At the first few dozen doors I thanked the queens politely and considerately and walked away when they told me: ‘No. No! We take too many papers already! ’ It never occurred to me there was anything else to do. But I grew panic-struck with the fact that I was selling to no one. We had to eat! We had to make a go of this last job on the list or my husband would be done — like Humpty Dumpty. Since he had graduated from the university with distinction and was the possessor of a Ph.D. degree, peddling was rolling him precariously near the edge as it was! Luckily I was only a music graduate. My cup of failure was n’t so bitter. I was just plain hungry! So I began getting a little bolder with the ‘no’ receptions.
‘But this paper has your local news! Have you seen the quilt pattern in today’s? Look! And here’s a whole page of cooking hints. Stuffed pork chops, baked apples!’ Gurgle, gurgle. And to my delight, after much more talk about price and service, an occasional queen climbed down off her throne and consented to ‘try the paper for a month.’ But that was on an average of five women out of fifty. The other forty-five told me: ‘No. No! No!’ And I — the worm! — was left to crawl away or stand with a dusty, rain-spotted door in my face. Sometimes I did stand there — long enough to tell myself: ‘I’m me. I’m not a worm or a rotted cabbage — I’m me! Me.’ Then I could walk away with a semblance of cheerfulness in which to meet the next queen.
It was being cheerful that I hated most. I was n’t cheerful inside myself; I was panicky, I was hungry, I was desolate! But if I dared let even a corner of these tatters hang out I was all but spat at for bothering people, for toting discouragement to people’s doorsteps. The only way I made a sale at all was by pretending I did n’t need the money. I had to act as though I liked selling — just did n’t mind at all — in fact, enjoyed being a nice, patient, enduring worm!
For three months, from eight o’clock in the morning until five o’clock at night, my husband and I existed on the money we made knocking at people’s doors. The world was a queer place! It was made up of black doors, white doors, green doors, women who were great queens in dirty house-coats and bagging slippers, or women who, immaculate, thought themselves most clever in the art of dismissing little green worms from their doorsteps. All the nice people must have died!
At the end of the three months, when my husband was offered (now that things were picking up) a position in the research division of a big oil company, I thought surely it was I who had died. I could n’t believe I was still on the same earth! Everybody was nice. I couldn’t find a queen, I could n’t even find a sour face! It was amazing! . . . And hidden somewhere around in the bushes I knew I had discovered a valuable bit of human nature, worth keeping.
Peddlers have been coming to my door for over three years now. I seldom buy; I’d be broke in no time. But they never detain me more than a minute. A peddler is too happy to find a friend to haggle and run the risk of losing him.
[A Californian, a music graduate, and a wife, Mrs. Spohn speaks for the resilient nature of her state.]