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- The Rise of David Levinsky - 20/102 -
essential step toward shedding one's "greenhornhood," an operation every immigrant is anxious to dispose of without delay. The list included, "floor," "ceiling," "window," "dinner," "supper," "hat," "business," "job," "clean," "plenty," "never," "ready," "anyhow," "never mind," "hurry up," "all right," and about a hundred other words and phrases
I was quick to realize that to be "stylishly" dressed was a good investment, but I realized, too, that to use the Yiddish word for "collar" or "clean" instead of their English correlatives was worse than to wear a dirty collar
I wrote down the English words in Hebrew characters and from my landlady's dictation, so that "never mind," for example, became "nevermine."
When I came home with a basket containing my first stock of wares, Mrs.
Dienstog ran into ecstasies over it. She took to fingering some of my collar-buttons and garters, and when I protested she drew away, pouting
Still, the next morning, as I was leaving the house with my stock, she wished me good luck ardently; and when I left the house she ran after me, shouting: "Wait, Mr. Levinsky. I'll buy something of you 'for a lucky start.'" She picked out a paper of pins, and as she paid me the price she said, devoutly, "May this little basket become one of the biggest stores in New York."
My plan of campaign was to peddle in the streets for a few weeks--that is, until my "greenness" should wear off-- and then to try to sell goods to tenement housewives. I threw myself into the business with enthusiasm, but with rather discouraging results. I earned what I then called a living, but made no headway. As a consequence, my ardor cooled off. It was nothing but a daily grind. My heart was not in it. My landlord, who was a truck-driver, but who dreamed of business, thought that I lacked dash, pluck, tenacity; and the proprietor of the "peddler supply store" in which I bought my goods seemed to be of the same opinion, for he often chaffed me on the smallness of my bill. On one occasion he said: "If you want to make a decent living you must put all other thoughts out of your mind and think of nothing but your business."
Only my smiling little landlady was always chirping words of encouragement, assuring me that I was not doing worse than the average beginner. This and her cordial, good-natured manner were a source of comfort to me. We became great friends. She taught me some of her broken English; and I let her talk of her husband as long as she wanted. One of her weaknesses was to boast of holding him under her thumb, though in reality she was under his.
Ceaselessly gay in his absence, she would become shy and reticent the moment he came home. I never saw him talk to her save to give her some order, which she would execute with feverish haste. Still, in his surly, domineering way he was devoted to her
I was ever conscious of my modern garb, and as I walked through the streets I would repeatedly throw glances at store windows, trying to catch my reflection in them. Or else I would pass my fingers across my temples to feel the absence of my side-locks. It seemed a pity that Matilda could not see me now
One of the trifles that have remained embedded in my memory from those days is the image of a big, florid-faced huckster shouting at the top of his husky voice: "Strawberri-i-ies, strawberri-i-ies, five cents a quart!"
I used to hear and see him every morning through the windows of my lodging; and to this day, whenever I hear the singsong of a strawberry-peddler I scent the odors of New York as they struck me upon my arrival, in 1885, and I experience the feeling of uncertainty, homesickness, and lovesickness that never left my heart at that period
I often saw Antomir in my dreams
The immigrants from the various Russian, Galician, or Roumanian towns usually have their respective synagogues in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, or Chicago. So I sought out the house of worship of the Sons of Antomir
There were scores, perhaps hundreds, of small congregations on the East Side, each of which had the use of a single room, for the service hours on Saturdays and holidays, in a building rented for all sorts of gatherings--weddings, dances, lodge meetings, trade-union meetings, and the like. The Antomir congregation, however, was one of those that could afford a whole house all to themselves. Our synagogue was a small, rickety, frame structure
It was for a Saturday-morning service that I visited it for the first time.
I entered it with throbbing heart. I prayed with great fervor. When the devotions were over I was disappointed to find that the congregation contained not a single worshiper whom I had known or heard of at home.
Indeed, many of them did not even belong to Antomir. When I told them about my mother there was a murmur of curiosity and sympathy, but their interest in me soon gave way to their interest in the information I could give each of them concerning the house and street that had once been his home
Upon the advice of my landlord, the truck-driver, and largely with his help, I soon changed the character of my business. I rented a push-cart and tried to sell remnants of dress-goods, linen, and oil-cloth. This turned out somewhat better than basket peddling; but I was one of the common herd in this branch of the business as well
Often I would load my push-cart with cheap hosiery collars, brushes, hand-mirrors, note-books, shoe-laces, and the like, sometimes with several of these articles at once, but more often with one at a time. In the latter case I would announce to the passers-by the glad news that I had struck a miraculous bargain at a wholesale bankruptcy sale, for instance, and exhort them not to miss their golden opportunity. I also learned to crumple up new underwear, or even to wet it somewhat, and then shout that I could sell it "so cheap" because it was slightly damaged
I earned enough to pay my board, but I developed neither vim nor ardor for the occupation. I hankered after intellectual interest and was unceasingly homesick. I was greatly tempted to call on Mr. Even, but deferred the visit until I should make a better showing.
I hated the constant chase and scramble for bargains and I hated to yell and scream in order to create a demand for my wares by the sheer force of my lungs. Many an illiterate dolt easily outshouted me and thus dampened what little interest I had mustered. One fellow in particular was a source of discouragement to me. He was a half -witted, hideous-looking man, with no end of vocal energy and senseless fervor. He was a veritable engine of imbecile vitality. He would make the street ring with deafening shrieks, working his arms and head, sputtering and foaming at the mouth like a madman. And it produced results. His nervous fit would have a peculiar effect on the pedestrians. One could not help pausing and buying something of him. The block where we usually did business was one of the best, but I hated him so violently that I finally moved my push-cart to a less desirable locality
I came home in despair
"Oh, it takes a blockhead to make a success of it," I complained to Mrs.
"Why, why," she consoled me, "it is a sin to be grumbling like that. There are lots of peddlers who have been years in America and who would be glad to earn as much as you do. It'll be all right. Don't worry, Mr. Levinsky."
It was less than a fortnight before I changed my place of business once again. The only thing by which these few days became fixed in my memory was the teeth of a young man named Volodsky and the peculiar tale of woe he told me. He was a homely, commonplace-looking man, but his teeth were so beautiful that their glistening whiteness irritated me somewhat. They were his own natural teeth, but I thought them out of place amid his plain features, or amid the features of any other man, for that matter. They seemed to be more suited to the face of a woman. His push-cart was next to mine, but he sold--or tried to sell--hardware, while my cart was laden with other goods; and as he was, moreover, as much of a failure as I was, there was no reason why we should not he friends. So we would spend the day in heart-to-heart talks of our hard luck and homesickness. His chief worry was over the "dower money" which he had borrowed of his sister, at home, to pay for his passage
"She gave it to me cheerfully," he said, in a brooding, listless way. "She thought I would send it back to her at once. People over there think treasure can really be had for the picking in America. Well, I have been over two years here, and have not been able to send her a cent. Her letters make holes in my heart. She has a good marriage chance, so she says, and unless I send her the money at once it will be off. Her lamentations will drive me into the grave."
CHAPTER IV I SOON had to move from the Dienstogs' to make room for a relative of the truck-driver's who had arrived from England. My second lodgings were an exact copy of my first, a lounge in a kitchen serving me as a bed. To add to the similarity, my new landlady was incessantly singing. Only she had three children and her songs were all in Yiddish. Her ordinary speech teemed with oaths like: "Strike me blind," "May I not be able to move my arms or my legs," "May I spend every cent of it on doctor's bills," "May I not be able to get up from this chair."
A great many of our women will spice their Yiddish with this kind of imprecations, but she was far above the average in this respect
The curious thing about her was that her name was Mrs. Levinsky, though we were not related in the remotest degree
Whatever enthusiasm there was in me found vent in religion. I spent many an evening at the Antomir Synagogue, reading Talmud passionately. This would bring my heart in touch with my
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