Greenhorn in St. Louis

by STOYAN CHRISTOWE

1

THE tomato splashed at the nape of my neck. And it was rotten enough. The juice of it felt cold and clammy on my skin. I turned round quickly, and I saw a young face leering at me from one of the doorless hallways which opened directly onto the sidewalk. My hand itched for a stone, and it could aim a stone well, but there were no stones on a city pavement, so instead my hand went to my neck and wiped the mess there.

A man going in the opposite direction stared at me, and made me conscious of the invectives in my own language—Macedonian — bursting from my mouth like firecrackers. With clamped jaws and gnashed teeth I tried to suppress the tears. My eyes and nostrils smarted as if they were peppered, and I gulped some of the wrath that threatened to spill out in tears.

Crossing over to the next block, I became aware that my arm was pressing too hard against my lunch package, and I relaxed the pressure lest it should mash up the two fried eggs and the two bananas neatly wrapped in newspapers and tied with string. The eggs, fried on both sides (an American way), were ensconced by slices of bread to make “san’wiches.” Until I came to America three months before, I had never eaten eggs, or anything else, flattened like that between slices of bread — white bread.

As I kept walking I was on my guard, glancing back over my shoulder. I was like a dog that has wandered into a strange neighborhood. The sky was clear and the summer sun was above the flatness across the Mississippi River. There was a haze in the air, and black smoke was rising from the tall chimneys of the barnlike factories that flanked the nearby bank of the great river. The deep, prolonged siren of a steamboat was like a hand pulling at my heartstrings. The stench of a chemical plant across the street almost stopped my breathing. This was an utterly, radically different world I was in. Even the smells were different. I had never smelled such smells before.

I did not know where this world began and where it ended, where the center of it was, or if there was a center. I could find my way from the house where I lived to the can factory where I worked, and to which I was now going. But where the house and the can factory were in relation to the rest of St. Louis I didn’t know, or where St. Louis was in relation to other places in America, or what the other places were. I had no idea where America began or where it ended, what mountains rose athwart it, or what rivers ran across its face. On Sundays, and sometimes in the evenings before it got dark, I went down to the bank of the Mississippi to look at the mighty stream. But where it came from and where it went I didn’t know.

I walked down the bleak street and my heart was full of sadness. The tears still welled in my eyes, and I did not know whether they were tears of lingering anger or of loneliness and remoteness. The can factory was still five or six blocks away.

Blocks! Already I knew the difference between a “block” and a “street.” Ever since I set foot on American soil, I had been asking questions. I was like a person learning a complicated trade, who has to have some things explained and must deduce others for himself. And I was learning fast, from what was told me by the older immigrants and from intuition. I would find out about that tomato, too. Already I was beginning to perceive the wherefore of it. But I would ask my friend Lambo just the same. Maybe Lambo had had a like experience.

At the next corner I waited for a beer wagon to pass. The beer kegs piled high reminded me of a picture card some “American” had sent home to the village. The picture showed a real American drinking beer from a keg balanced on his stomach, which was bigger than the keg and was a pictorial proof of the bounty that was supposed to be in America.

When the six horses, big as haystacks, with heads like tree stumps, their hoofs pounding on the cobbles, had hauled away their load of beer, I resumed my walk. The tomato still hurt. The rottenness of it hurt. If it had been a stone it would have hurt less. Vaguely I suspected that it was not just a youngster’s prank, that there was a more profound reason for it.

I examined my clothing. Everything I had on was American — the blue overalls, the brown shoes that buttoned on the side, with their toes bulging up like fists, the jacket, the flannel cap, the blue shirt with the breast pockets and attached collar. The overalls, the cap, the shirt, were bought absolutely new, the shoes and the jacket my father had bought for me “secondhand” from the Jewish stores on Morgan Street. The jacket was not exactly my size, but it was American, and “sporty” too. I wore it to work but not while I worked. And look at the words I already knew — “sporty,” “stylish,” “block,” “bluff,” “two-bits.” They were not merely American words I had learned, they were new concepts to me. I knew nothing equivalent in my own language. I was not merely learning a new language, I was learning new things through the language.

My free hand went into my coat pocket and fingered there the little metal hook I used to button my shoes. I had acquired the knack of passing the hook through the buttonhole, catching hold of the button, with a deft twist causing it to pass through the hole. I looked at the single row of buttons, like beads, down the side of the shoe. I was not certain whether the shoes were “stylish,” since I had seen some shoes that laced.

Already my head was beginning to buzz like a hive with American words, and some of these words I could put together to make sentences: —

“Vat kind peple yoo?” I had learned that on the train which had brought me from New York to St. Louis.

“Vat yoo nem?” I looked around to see if anybody could hear me. Two Negroes were walking toward me but they were a block away.

“Ao ol you?”

“Semteen.”

2

AT the entrance to the factory — a four-story brick building — I stopped to wait for Lambo. My eyes scanned the faces, looking for one with dissimilar sides, an upturned nose, and a broad but low forehead. A lame Greek youth who spoke English like an American and operated the punching machine next to me said, “Good morning.” As he swung his lame foot upon the steps he looked back and said, “Who you waiting for?” I did not answer, but in repeating the words to myself, as best I could,

I had to contort my mouth and the result sounded to me like half barking.

Then I saw the upturned nose sniffing the morning air. “Say, Lambo, a sonababetch hit me with a tomato.”

Lambo’s black canvas cap with its shiny visor was pushed back so that the mop of black hair could be seen straining down the forehead to reach the eyebrows. The small eyes gleamed, and the right side of the face drew up. The other side seemed to be in a reverie. The words, like a pig’s grunt, came from the horizontal nostrils. “Yeah, and a rotten one, wasn’t it? A rotten one! Right in the neck, eh? But wait till you get an egg, a stinking one.”

“Why?”

Both sides of the face grinned, causing a distortion. “Because you’re a Dago, that’s why!”

“But we’re Macedonians.”

“It’s all the same. Come on. It’s time for the whistle.”

Lambo went downstairs to the galvanizing department. I climbed the two flights of stairs to the third floor, where the punching machines stood in rows like people at their morning prayer — with arms folded and heads bowed. An electric bulb in a wire cage, like an image lamp, hung before every machine.

When the whistle blew, the whole floor went into instant action. The axles and the pulleys began to whir; the belts slapped at the wheels. I put my foot on the machine’s treadle and my right hand started to feed the punch. So long as I kept my foot on the treadle the punch went up and down automatically, piercing holes in the pieces of metal and bending them so that they looked like ears. As the punch rose the pieces catapulted down a chute into a tub at the back. All that I had to do was to stand by with my foot on the treadle and feed the machine.

My whole body was tuned to the machine’s tempo, and worked with a cadence begotten of the machine. At times I was oblivious of the machine, and of my own function, which I could now perform with eyes closed. I would grab a handful of the flat metal pieces and my right hand would flip them into the mold beneath the punch one at a time.

If I missed and the punch fell down unprovided for, nothing happened.

I knew that now, and my movements were casual and confident, but on the day I started work, when the foreman — by actual demonstration — had shown me how to operate the punch, I had thought that if the punch did not fall on a piece of metal something dreadful would happen: the machine would break down, or an explosion would occur. As the foreman, after demonstrating for several minutes, had stepped aside and I put my foot on the treadle, I began to work faster than the punch. What with watching for my fingers, and fearing the punch might fall down on an empty mold, I slipped in a piece before the preceding one had been cleared. The punch came down on both pieces, jamming them together. The machine rumbled and shook.

“Slower,” said the foreman. “Take it easy. Watch me.” He flipped the pieces casually, like tossing peanuts to a monkey. “See? No hurry.”He stepped aside, watched me for several minutes, and walked away.

In a few days I was as good as the foreman. But the not knowing — not knowing the language, not knowing where I was in St. Louis, and where St, Louis was in America — extended to the work I was doing. There was nothing intricate, or difficult, or important about the work. The machine did the work. I didn’t even have to count the pieces the machine punched in an hour, or in a day, or in a week. The machine itself counted them; there was a meter at the top which clicked numbers as the punch fell.

Toward the end of each day a man came along to check the number on the meter. At the end of the first week another man came by and asked me my name. He handed me a little envelope with my name written in pencil at the top of it, I opened the envelope and found eight dollars and three shiny quarters. I took this to be my pay. I had expected someone to come along with a bag of money and hand out to me what was coming to me. Instead, a man carried a tray strapped to his shoulders, and in it the envelopes were neatly arranged.

I liked very much the idea of the envelope. It was the first money I had earned in America, or anywhere, and it was a lot of money. With this much money I could buy a horse or a team of oxen in the Old Country.

At the end of another week the same man came by and handed me another envelope. This one contained eleven dollars and some change. I deduced from this — I had to deduce a lot of things — that there was a connection between my pay and the number of pieces I had fed into the machine. And so my ken widened by yet another concept: “piecework.” The faster you worked the more money you earned.

I didn’t know what the ear-shaped metal pieces were called, where they came from, where they went, what eventual use they were put to, or why I was punching holes in them.

The ten hours I was yoked to the machine, during which I hardly spoke a word, and only heard the whirring of the wheels and the unvaried, rhythmic pounding of the machines, was a suspension of life, a kind of dehumanization. Of course it was bound up with the pay envelope. That little brown envelope represented six days of insulation from life. And it seemed to me I was paid not so much for doing hard work — for it was not hard work — as for not living.

In the Old Country work was a part of living. Work and life were inextricably bound up together. There was a union between the doer and the thing done. When you pruned the vines you knew why you had to do it, and you could see the sap running from the eye of the slashed vine like tears from a human eye. When you swung the scythe in the meadow you heard the grass sigh as it fell in swaths at your feet. The scythe itself hissed like a snake as it devoured the flowery grass. Whatever you did in the Old Country you understood. And there was an affinity between living and work, between the sweat of your brow and the tears of the vine, between your own breath and the earth’s exhalation.

3

DURING the lunch hour on this day I sat on a window ledge munching my egg sandwich and “reading” the American newspaper in which the sandwiches had been wrapped. On little flat hand trucks, on window ledges, on sheets of tin, in corners, workers ate their lunches in silence. The machines were silent, the wheels and belts and axles at rest. I pored over the paper, staring at words of which I knew neither the meaning nor the pronunciation. The gulf between spelling and pronunciation was so wide I failed to recognize words I already knew by sound. Still I “read.”

In four paragraphs of laborious reading I made out three words. This thrilled me. I felt as if the three words were the photographs of people I knew personally. And this tiniest ray of light, this spiderthread connection with the vast unknown which surrounded me, made me feel less alone. I kept poring over words, saying them in my mind over and over again, when I was startled by Lambo’s voice.

“ What’s in the paper? ” Lambo’s words thrummed at his nostrils like the sounds of a guitar.

“Oh — er — I was just looking at the pictures.”

Lambo’s overalls and shirt were spangled with silver, dried to the fabric. “Come on down,” he said, “I’ll show you how I galvanize.”

In the basement we walked between pillars of empty pails, fitted one into the other, bottoms up, and came to some huge caldrons along a wall, in which molten metal, the color of silver, bubbled and blistered continuously. With a pair of tongs Lambo clamped a pail and dipped it into one of the caldrons. When he pulled it out the bluish metal was no more and the whole pail glistened in its silver coating.

“That’s all there’s to it,” said Lambo. “Now it’s galvanized.” He put the pail on a rack to dry.

I looked at the pail for several seconds and suddenly reached out to touch it, but remembering in time that it must be hot I drew back my hand. “Look,” I cried to Lambo, “this is what I punch!” I pointed to the ears at the top of the pail where the bail would go. “I punch the holes in them.

I said this as if I had made an astonishing discovery.

“Didn’t you know that?”

“No! We have pails like these at the flat but I never noticed the ears on them. Just think, Lambo, I do that. I punch the holes. I help make these pails.”

“Gimminy, the way you talk for just punching holes! What of it?”

“But now I know what I’m doing. I know why I punch the holes.”

“It’s still punching holes. What’s so wonderful about punching holes?”

“All right, all right, it’s nothing.”

“Of course it’s nothing. It’s just holes.”

But as I retraced my way between the pillars of pails I could see only the ears and the holes in the ears.

The six o’clock whistle put an end to the whirring of the wheels and axles and the slapping of belts. The machines stood in silent rows. With my jacket over my arm I was walking up Second Street on my way home, but I kept feeding the machine with imaginary bucket ears. My body was timed to the tempo of the machine, whose metallic clatter kept going in my brain. Crossing over into the block where in the morning I had been struck with the tomato, I began to smart under a fresh wave of anger, and my eyes went to the hallway whence the tomato had come. There was no one there now.

4

JUST before reaching Plum Street, where I lived, I stopped for a minute to look in the window of an Assyrian coffeehouse. The narghile, the trays of baklava and Turkish delight, and the little copper coffeepots and tiny blue porcelain cups with gilt edges advertised a different world inside, a miniature Oriental world set up here to comfort the immigrants who spent their days in the factories. Sunday visits at the coffeehouse were as regular as churchgoing in the village. The men cut short their sleep in order to spend a couple of hours at the Balkan. It was the only diversion in the otherwise routine existence, if it were not itself part of the routine.

But the coffeehouse worried my father. Habitual attendance at the Balkan was the first step away from the strait and narrow path of work and save; away from the Old Country toward the temptations of America. To be sure, the coffeehouse was anything but America. In fact, it was very much the Old Country. But it opened the door to America. Not that my father had anything against America. In truth, he had an awesome respect for the America that printed the dollar bills and gave you a piece of paper which you sent across the ocean to the Old Country, where it was converted into gold coins. He knew the America that had built the locomotives and the big St. Louis Terminal was mighty, but what had he, or I, his son, to do with that America?

“The Americans will never give us the easy jobs, my son, my father had told me. “It’ll be coal shoveling, engine wiping for us. You can’t strike roots here. You’ll always be a stranger here.”

I felt sorry for my father. As soon as I had arrived in St. Louis I had noticed the change in him. A lean, wiry man with a small-featured face, but strong, there had always been about him a tough, tempered strength. Now he looked haggard. Two years in America with the tight, routine of travail and thrift had dwarfed him. He seemed stripped of his patriarchal authority and innate dignity. He looked weak and helpless. For the first time I felt bigger and stronger than my father, and wondered whether it was my own growth or America that had produced the diminution in my father’s stature.

My father had never wanted me to come to America; had written to me time and time again not to come. Yet I had become a victim of the Americamania that had possessed the people in all the villages. Dollars, pantaloons, neckties and silk shirts, pencils that needed no sharpening, and pens that wrote without being dipped in inkwells had acted like magic, had disturbed the lives of thousands of people. Good people who crossed themselves at mealtime, fathers and husbands, clean people. Godfearing people. America put greed in their hearts and cleverness in their minds. My father had become a victim of that epidemic. He saw the deception, but it was too late. He saw the dreadful things America had done to young men who had left the village with healthy bodies and clean minds. Look at them now! The blight was on them. He would go back to his own world, where he was a man, and he would build houses again.

Yes, houses! It seemed like a dream now, the engine wiper building houses. They were small houses, but they had windows and doors and some of them had balconies overlooking little courts paved with flagstones. He built these houses for people to live in, to live like human beings, as God meant for them to live. The houses had cupboards in them, and kneading troughs, and weaving looms, and fireplaces. What’s a house without a fireplace? A church without an altar. A man without a soul.

He would be a Maistor again and build houses, my father would. People would honor him and call him Maistor. He could lay bricks and stones and fit window frames into walls, rig up roofs and do all kinds of carpentering. He could hew out a plow from the crooked branch of a beech tree, or a wheel hub from a tree stump. And he could make wedding chests and flour chests, cart wheels, mill wheels, vats, wine barrels. His trousers might have been patched in the Old Country but his soul was intact. Here the pants must not be patched, even though the body may be fouled by disease and the soul moldering.

My father was here only with his body. His mind, his heart, his whole being, were back in the homeland where life had meaning for him, where life was rooted in decency and dignity. The man he worked for there was his host and not his boss. That was because he was building him a house to live in, or a barrel to keep his wine in, or a wedding chest for his daughter. He could sit down with him for a glass of brandy or a cup of Turkish coffee.

This America was boring into his life like a worm into an apple, hollowing out the soundness.

Those old-fashioned, “backward” immigrants like my father, who never spent a nickel without first, or afterward, thinking of it in terms of its equivalent in Old Country coin, Paskal, the proprietor of the coffeehouse, had dubbed the “Pharisees.” The others, the show-off treaters, the spenders, he called “Sports.” I came to know that those who deserved the latter appellation were in step with the place and the times; that, as much as possible, they were living and behaving like Americans. They worked to earn money with which to enjoy life, to have a good time, to wear good clothes. They were contemptuous of the Pharisees and their preachment of tight economy. In other words, being a Sport meant more than merely being a good spender and a good liver; it also meant, in a way, being an American. To the Pharisees it was just a fancy word for bum.

Even at this early stage I suspected that the Sports were not really Americanized but, being bewitched by the idea, played at being Americans. For one thing, was it really American to spend everything you earned? The Sports did that. Unlike the Pharisees, who cut each other’s hair, washed their own clothes, kept house on a cooperative basis, the Sports lived in furnished rooms, which was the height of extravagance, ate their meals in the restaurants, sent their wash to the laundry, and went to the barbershops to have their hair trimmed.

I could spot a Sport on sight. They all dressed “stylish,” spoke English among themselves, and hummed American songs. They carried American newspapers, folded up to fit into the coat pocket. It was obvious that this was for effect, since some of them, I knew well, couldn’t read our own language, let alone English, I had known most of them as plowboys and shepherd boys and as just plain village youths. Now they looked and behaved as if they had never seen a village. The Sports put on all kinds of airs, and had even changed their names. Vasil became “Bill”; Dimiter, “James”; Sotir, “Sam”; Kosta, “Gus.” They also had given each other descriptive American nicknames — “Shorty,” “Baldy,” “Slim,” “Hi there, Fatty!” Every gesture, every movement they made, the way they smoked, the way they laughed even, curling up their lips to show their gold teeth, bespoke America. They smoked ready-made cigarettes. When they went up on Broadway or Sixth Street they never took anyone along who was not a Sport, who might, by his mustaches, by not wearing a collar and tie, or by speaking his own language in the street, give them away as not being Americans.

The Sports played pool. Somehow I understood that pool was a gentleman’s game, not a game for peasants. To play pool with all the trimmings, the preenings and posturings, was an achievement and an eloquent proof of one’s removal from the world of the Pharisees into that of the Sports.

I was so taken in by the sight of erstwhile plowmen playing that no matter how interesting the conversations at the table, if there was a pool game going on I would rather be there to watch it.

5

EVERY time I went to the coffeehouse I learned something new. It was true that the people who patronized the place were not Americans. They were my own people. But all of them had been in America longer than I, some of them for many years. And they all knew a thing or two. They interlarded our tongue with English words and phrases, some of which were thrown in whole, without any change, like “datsol,” “surenuff,” “ ‘course.” Others were nationalized; “wipam enginia”; “feelam bad”; “workam na carshopo”; “drinkam Coca-Cola.” At the coffeehouse people spoke of other cities, where they had friends and relatives, from whom they received letters. Butte, Detrovitch, Milvoki, Indianapolis, Kalamazoo. Where were these places? How did Macedonian peasants ever find these places?

I listened to the conversation. Unfamiliar words, strange names, poured from the mouths of these familiar people grown different. One of them was a “molder,” another a “chipper,” still another a “coremaker.” All of them had been plowmen in the Old Country. One young fellow was a “busboy,” and still another a “ bellhop ” in a hotel. These two seemed to be in a class by themselves.

All of them gathered here on Sundays to exchange news, to discourse on politics, on things intellectual and sociological. They spoke of things which I vaguely understood. But I listened intently, devouring the new words. A young man with a shock of black hair and pockets stuffed with newspapers was saying something about “production,” “distribution,” “exploitation.” What did it all mean? Where did these people learn such words?

Paskal went from table to table, beaming at them. He patted me on the shoulder. There were other coffeehouses along Second Street, but they all had the stigma of “poolrooms.” The Balkan as run by Paskal was a high-class establishment. Here, too, there was a pool table, but it did not occupy the center of the floor. It was in a kind of alcove. For reasons of business, Paskal made you understand, he put up with a single pool table. It was the coffeehouse proper that was the main thing with him. And he took pride in the fact that his coffeehouse was the rendezvous for the “intelligentsia.” All these big words! Still Paskal did not discourage the patronage of simple folk, providing they came like “gents” and not in overalls and in shirt sleeves. If someone did commit such an error, he was not requested to leave. The learned Paskal had a way of looking at him which made a repetition of the indiscretion quite improbable.

Paskal did the same with those who tried to get familiar with the girl who served the drinks. You could look at the girl and enjoy giving your order to her. But that was all. She was there to attract business, and she was for everybody. For the colony was a man’s world, and it was a fine thing to have a pretty girl wipe the table and swish her skirt by you. Many gave repeat orders just for the pleasure of having the girl come over and look at them and say in her sweet voice, “What do you wish to drink?” And she always smiled.

On Sundays Paskal was in his element. He went from table to table bestowing compliments on his patrons. He was a shrewd man, and he had many clever ways of sponsoring customs and initiating practices which would redound to his profit. To bring people into the coffeehouse was one thing, to make them order liberally was another. And Paskal fostered the habit of “treating” by flattering those that indulged in it. He would sit at their table and accept them as his equals, which was no small honor, for Paskal was the intellectual leader of the colony. The light in which he viewed the behavior of people carried weight with everybody. People wanted to be in his good graces so as not to be spoken of disparagingly by Paskal, who had a bitter tongue and could make up stinging epithets. If Paskal despised you and called you “professor” you could be certain that you were regarded as a simpleton; but if he called you a “simpleton” or a “wooden philosopher,” that meant you had some intelligence.

And Paskal made it clear by his attitude that treating was modern, progressive, civilized, and typically American. Conscious of this, the “treaters” were something to behold. They blushed as those whom they treated lifted the glasses and bowed in their direction in acknowledgment of the friendly gesture. Until the next round of drinks they were in the spotlight, and they left all conversation to the others, or to Paskal if he happened to be at the table. And Paskal in his own ingenious way managed to turn the conversation to the celebrity of the moment, and pay tribute to his progressivism. He was never at a loss for a compliment.

Because of my youth I did not have to treat, but I well understood that if any of the older men were at a table where treating was in rotation and they did not fall into line they’d remember it with shame for many a day. So one treat begot another, and Paskal the begetter of it, acting as host, master of ceremonies, moral and social arbitrator, political commentator, and news purveyor, with his eyes on the patrons and his ears tuned to the ring of the cash register, went about from table to table with the benign air of a visiting bishop.

(To be continued)