Monday, August 20, 2007

Immigrants' story

I received a short story that brilliantly imagines what I was trying to get at in my last post. It's by my friend & neighbor Robin Hirsch, author of the excellent memoir Last Dance at the Hotel Kempinski & self-described Minister of Culture/Wine Czar at Night & Day/Biscuit BBQ at 5th Ave. & President St. in Park Slope, Brooklyn & the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village. The story appears in the Summer 2007 issue of Alimentum: the literature of food.

Read this one. It's a voice you won't soon forget.

By Robin Hirsch

I will tell you a secret. I am in love with my dishwasher. Not my Hobart. That's a machine, and only a fool or an anti-Semite can love a machine. No, I am in love with my Mexican dishwasher, Miguel. Now, this is no blind passion. I am sixty-three. The time for blind passion is over. No, he evokes in me mature, tender feelings for which the appropriate term, if I understand such things correctly, is love.
Now this understanding my wife Rose might question. After more than thirty-seven years of marriage, she might say, what do you know of love? That you leave your family every night for another, that you are never home, that your son, his first baseball game, you aren't there, when he walks, when he talks for the first time, you aren't there, when he becomes Bar Mitzvah it's a miracle that you are there and then only because the reception is in your vershtunkene restaurant. What do you, Samuel Grant, born Shlomo Ganz in Bialystok, Poland, know of love?
Ah, Rosele, my little Cracow sparrow, I know one thing—I used to love you, oh, how I used to love you, and some nights when it is late and I am still here and we are closing, I wonder, did it fly away, this love, has it gone for ever or one morning when I open up will it be there as it used to be, sitting on a broken railing of the park across the street, saying, "Don't forget. Don't forget. I didn't go anywhere. Things get lost is all, in this big city. But I'm still here." Where are you, Rose? My little Rosele, who saw so much, who said so little, what has become of you? Now, how you speak, how sure of everything you are, how you forget the past. The children, grown, strangers almost, strong, healthy, American, sure of themselves, that I can tolerate, I am almost even proud. But you, that I do not understand.
Oh, there’s no good reasoning with love. It comes out of the abyss and it hits you like a mugger. And then it vanishes around a corner and even the police can't find it.

It was my son, Sammy the Doctor, the apple of his mother's eye--Dr. Samuel Grant, Jr.--who gave my business the name it enjoys in my family to this day--Grant's Tomb, where his father, he said, fifteen vears old, the little chochom, goes to die. But he is wrong, they are all wrong, they forget too quickly. The restaurant I own, the little business we started, Rose and I, thirty-seven years ago, with the money I saved from driving a cab twelve, fourteen, sixteen hours a day, the corner luncheonette which grew so I could send the little pische to medical school, so his little sister Amy, Her Royal Highness, can now see her analyst four times a week at my expense and complain about the terrible things her father didn't do to her because he was never home, this little business which is not so little any more, is where I go to live.
Rose, once it was true for you, too. For you, it's over. For me, it's like yesterday. Thirty-seven years. My little Rose. We ate, we breathed, we slept, we dreamed success. Rose's Luncheon Specialties. We made our bed in the back and when we closed, oh, how you made it nice, with a candle and flowers from the counter. And how you begged me, "No, no, NO," when I had to leave, and how I loved you for that, and how your smell and the last look of you in your shift at the door lived with me in the cab on the dark streets and how I longed to be back with you in that hard, short, narrow, lumpy bed with your little breasts like birds in my rough hands. And when I came back at six in the morning there you were, up, ready, bright as the day, with the coffee and the steam table and the stove and the griddle going. But the fire on the stove was nothing compared to the fire in your eyes. Oh, Rose, where is that fire now?
Now--now she is happy in the suburbs. Peace she wants now. Only the best for her children--I want less? She would rather forget, blend in, no waves. For me, how's it possible, no waves? Every day I deal with the City, screaming, crying, shouting, tummling--cops, truckers, short-change artists, gonifs, not to mention our Italian friends who collect the garbage. I have every nationality under the sun, some good, some not so good, some hard workers, some not so hard. But this is America: you work hard, you shout, you scream, you push--you get ahead. Here in the city I come alive, out on Long Island I die. Rose is right. I have two families. Here, when I come in the door, Mike the bartender says, "How are you, Mr. S? What can I get you? Everything alright?" Nobody says, "Where have you been, why are you so late," everyone is glad to see me and I am glad to see almost everyone--and it is everyone. If you had known us thirty years ago you wouldn't recognize us now. The Madison Square Deli. How did we get so big? It's a long story--New York, tearing down, building up--I won't bore you. We're big, bigger headaches now, but underneath, she's right, it's still family--just a bigger family. And for every one of them I have a word and each one has a word for me. Even the dishwashers.
Now I say even the dishwashers, but I am wrong to put it that way. You think, if you don't know, that dishwashers are the lowest of the totem pole. But it's not true. If you want to know the truth, the heart of a restaurant, it's not the chef, although the chef thinks it's the chef, it's not the bartender or the manager or even the owner, it's the dishwashers. Because, if the dishwasher doesn't do his job, the whole meshuqqene edifice falls apart. And you want to know something else? If Reagan with his amnesty, which is just another way of rounding up illegals, is really going to send the Labor Department in to restaurants to check green cards, you can close just about every restaurant in the city. Because Americans can do a lot, but one thing they cannot do is wash dishes. I don't care what color they are, as soon as they become a citizen they forget how to wash dishes. The only people who can wash dishes, who are not afraid of work, are illegals. Like Miguel. And Ranulfo. And Plutarcho. All of whom I love. Deeply. But especially Miguel. Miguel, sweet, smiling Miguel, with his Yankee cap, who never complains. Miguel, if I were not already married, you I would marry.

When I came to this country I was nineteen years old. I came on a boat, packed like a herring, the crossing was terrible, but believe me it is better than a train. I had been in a place you had better not know. And there we arrived--hundreds, thousands--on a train. And ahead of us trains. And behind us more trains. And every train bursting. Unlike my father, my mother, all four of their parents, my brother, my little sister, my two uncles, my four aunts and all eleven of their children except my cousin Jakov, I survived. I was young and strong and lucky. By the end I was just lucky. If that's what you call lucky.
After it was over I spent my life in camps--from one camp to another. Thousands of us, bedraggled, spent, crossing Europe in trains--again, trains--like flies on a corpse. Europe was dead, the past, finished. In people's eyes I could see we were all dead. One day on a train, twelve of us in a compartment, I look into a dead man's eyes and I see my cousin Jakov, whom I never liked. But if you've survived what we had survived, it's a miracle and we kissed. We spent three months together, in camps, on trains. Enough is enough. In Vienna, they offered us we could go to America or we could go to Israel. I had seen the American soldiers, young, strong, healthy. My cousin Jakov decided Israel. I decided three months is enough. I decided New York.
America was the future. But when I arrived in Ellis Island they tell me the Land of Opportunity is not New York, it's Ohio, it's Mississippi, it's California. I say does it mean trains? In that case I stay. So I stayed. I got a job, any kind of job, a shlepper, a packer, a porter. And at night I studied English. And one night at a dance, a workingman's dance, I met Rose. What she had seen she wouldn't tell me. She couldn't tell me. She couldn't talk. What she had seen was so bad she had lost her power to speak. I thought first she was ignoring me. But she had a friend who said no, try again. So about the tenth time, she agreed to dance. And the words that came were only her name and Cracow: But I talked enough for two. And there was something tender and determined about her and over the next few months, gradually she talked and then I started driving a cab and the rest, well, you know the rest.
But New York, forty years ago, was a different city. There was still a chance. It wasn't all so written down, four hundred forms. For this you need a permit, for that you need a license. And the rents--well, two Jews from Poland could open a luncheonette. Now, forget it. If I were a Jew from Poland arriving in the City today I'd take a train and go to Mississippi.

I can deal with anyone except the City. And the union. I won't deal with the union--the minute they try and organize in here it's over, finished. I have nothing against the idea in principle, but it has nothing to do with principle any more. Bunch of fat cats lining their pockets, and nobody works. It's as bad as the City. And the City I have to deal with.
It's not the corruption--the corruption you manage. When we opened it was after the war, there was some cockamamie ordinance, no new gas installations--how can you cook without gas? I tell Rose I'll fix it. She is frightened. The uniform. I tell her don't worry. The Con Ed inspector comes over, he looks at me, I look at him. A hundred, he says. A hundred was a hundred in those days, a lot of money. A hundred? I say. He doesn't move. So I paid a hundred, I got gas. You see, I tell Rose, it works. But Rose was still frightened.
With the City you pay and pay and pay and you get nothing. I had to deal with nine city agencies to get those tables and chairs out on the sidewalk--nine--and then it took three years. In the old days you paid the guy something when he came around, he overlooked it. Now it's all cleaned up, you get nowhere. No, it's not corruption. You know what it is? It's dehumanization. That's right. They're not human beings any more--they sit in an office, no windows, terrible light, all that paper, dust, dirt--cages. They sit in cages. No soul, no spirit. When the phone rings, it's not a wonder they don't answer. Let it ring, what dc they care?
You know the biggest bribe? Rose taught me. She did it without thinking. It takes a little longer but it works like a miracle. It's not money. It's to take them in, give them a bowl of soup, listen to their troubles. It's to treat them like a human being.

Miguel is teaching me Spanish. Yesterday we had a celebration. It was July 4th. We always have a celebration July 4th, not so much because of America but because on the weekend which was July the 4th thirty-seven years ago Rosele and I opened our little luncheonette and, now, all these years later, it has become a big place, a landmark even. But also of course it is July 4th. I put out flags, we make sangria for the customers—very American, very Jewish--and I hire a band which plays on the street outside. In the old days Rose and I used to dance, and everybody would dance, it was a party. Now she rarely comes by, sometimes the children, but for them all this is too sentimental. Rose says I cling too much to the past. But for me the past is everything. Without yesterday there is no today. Without today there can be no tomorrow. So I keep up the tradition. Old friends come by, old customers, even the cops who give me a hard time the rest of the year. I give everyone a bonus, I work behind the bar, in the kitchen, on the floor. It's a holiday. The streets are deserted, everyone is out of town, the only life for blocks around is my little party. And by the evening it slows down.
So in the evening I went into the dishwashing station and told the dishwashers 'basta'. I told the cooks to feed them and I ran the Hobart myself for half an hour. I can still do it, but it's not so easy. They have their own systems, where everything goes--dishes here, glasses there, silver in a basket. It's become much more complicated, and I am slow, slow, compared to them.
Anyhow, the night is ending. I sit down with Miguel and Ranulfo and I ask them if they want a drink. "Anniversario," I say. They smile. "Drink?" Well, of course, any Mexican is going to drink if you offer, but not sangria. "Margarita?" "No, no." Miguel a tequila and Ranulfo a beer. "Cerveza," Ranulfo tells me. "O.K.," I say, “You teach me Spanish. I teach you Yiddish." I explain to them the restaurant, how I came here forty-three years ago, how I drove a cab, how today is the birthday of my business and of America. I have two children, both qrande. Ranulfo? He shakes his head. Miguel holds up three fingers--tres--and tells me their names, a girl and two boys. They are all in school. It is true, Rose, I am sentimental, an old fool--but to me it is amazing. We understand each other, we make conversation, almost with no words.
Ranulfo goes back to clean the kitchen. Miguel and I sit for another hour. He touches something in me. He could be a son. But he is also a man, a father. Rose has no patience any more, but for me this is America, this struggle, this coming together. I want my son the doctor to have half the dignity, the humility, the dedication, the sense of right, that such a man has, struggling for his family. Ach, enough. When I left for the night Miguel and Ranulfo were cleaning. I gave them each fifty dollars. "Once a year," I say. "Todos los años," says Miguel, smiling--"every year." And I smile, too. But, who can explain it, in my car when I drive home I start for the first time since . . . I start to cry.

Plutarcho was drunk tonight. One of the waitresses came upstairs with fresh tablecloths and said, "Mr. S, something is wrong with Plutarcho. He is ill. He is out cold. I think maybe he's dead." I go downstairs and there he is in the prep kitchen, lying by the cold station, rag in hand, eyes closed, dead. Plutarcho." I shake him. He groans. "Plutarcho," I slap his face. "Oh, yes, mister. Sorry, mister." Sorry, mister! I help him up. I pour cold water on his face. To-morrow morning, Carlos will let him go. There is no choice.

Rose told me it would come to no good. You hire them, you're a fool, they will only cause you trouble. Oh, Rose, have you forgotten who we are, who we were. Efren a thief. Plutarcho drunk. Alright. Alright. But those bastards, those verbissene Feds, can they not leave us in peace? They're hunting down illegals as though they were animals. They smile, of course, and they present papers, and then the police come and make an arrest. My God, they crack down like this, don't they understand what they're doing? Who's going to do the dirty work? Americans? And to send a girl. They're getting smarter. I liked them better when they were slow and stupid. I tried to talk to her like a human being, Rose. Such people are not human beings. Oy, Miguel, my beloved dishwasher, how can I protect you? Miguel, Ranulfo, Ismail, where can you hide? We can't pay them off--things don't work so easy any more. What do I do now? My God, I came to this country to get away from this. Todos los años, Miguel, todos los años. Does it never end? Is it always the same?


Anonymous said...

An extraordinary soliloquy, beautifully done, sharply observed. The mechanics of leaving a comment provide an ironic coda.

Christine (CA) said...

Thank you for showing us this gem.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Thanks.

Anonymous said...

A case of six degrees....I received this blog via Joyce Rheeling, actress extrordiaire, whoi did not realize that I was in graduate school with Robin Hirsch. We share a mutal friend and mentor, Richard Edelman, who has performed and directed at Cornelia Street. We have recently moved to Middlebury, VT where Robin's son is enrolled.
AND "immigramts' story" is lovely.

Sylvia said...