That’s How It’s Done in America

The New York City tenement scene which I have painted in a previous story became more and more worrisome to me as my little sister, Nancy, was growing up.  In our working- poor community most of our adult neighbors and even some of their children had not finished high school and worked at low-paying jobs.  In the thirties and forties children could quit school and go to work full-time as young as fourteen with the parents’ permission and the acquisition of a work permit from the city.

My Hungarian parents (the only non-American born, non-Irish residents in our building) were staunch advocates of education and were thrilled to let me go to Hunter, one of the city’s free colleges.  When that decision was challenged by the neighbors, my Mother managed to control herself enough to respond with a smile, “Her father and I would have loved to have a chance to study.  I was only allowed three years of grammar school.” She was grimacing now.  “I fought so hard just to have another year and lost the battle.”

That conversation doubled my desire to get my kid sister, my whole family, into a better neighborhood.  The following Sunday before my father went to work (he worked six long nights a week in a restaurant) I asked him, seemingly out of the blue, if we could possibly move to a different neighborhood.  He looked puzzled by the question.

“It’s mainly because of Nancy.  It’s gotten real rough around here, and dirtier, too.  I worry about my little sister getting hurt or something.  She’s almost eight and so trusting.”

“Hell, you grew up right here, and you’re okay—going to college and all.”

“Yeah, and I’m the only one on the whole block doing that!”

“Alright, you’ve got my attention.  What did you have in mind?”

“Well, I was thinking if I added $10 from what I make in my part-time job to the $30 you pay now in rent, we could do it.  I’ve been checking ads and found several possibilities in Washington Heights.  The air is great, and the schools are good, and it’s close to Broadway and the Hudson.”

My dad was skeptical.  “Washington Heights?  It’s got to be a lot more expensive!”

“Not necessarily.  Like I said, I’ve been checking the ads for a while now, and there’s always a few apartments for rent that we can afford.  We could at least give it a try.”

Dad nodded an okay.  I took his hand and kissed it.  “I love you, Daddy, and with the two of us working on the project, we’ll make it happen!”

After a few months and a successful search, in early summer the Zala family was resettled in their new home:  a two bedroom apartment in the Heights, a community about 25 blocks south of Inwood, our former neighborhood.  Here there were no elevated trains, cleaner streets, and fresher air.  Our new address was 625 West 164th Street, Manhattan.  It was 1942, and the area had become home to hundreds of German Jewish refugees who had managed to get out of their country in time to escape Hitler’s concentration camps and the ovens.  The only foreign-born people my sister and I had ever met were the few Hungarian friends our parents had.  I was intrigued by the diversity here.

“This is perfect,” I said to my father.  “Thanks so much.”  We hugged.

My mother added, “I like the way the air smells here—fresh and clean.  Then there’s that lovely little flower garden in the courtyard of our building.  And I love being so close to the Hudson River.”

“So, Erzsike, you’re okay with leaving the old neighborhood?” my dad asked my mom.

“Apart from the noise and the soot, I’m also happy to leave the nosey old ladies who don’t want our girls to go to college!”

I had hoped for us to be settled in time for Nancy to have her July 10th eighth birthday party in our new neighborhood.  We’d only been living in the Heights for about two weeks when I talked to her.  “I’d love you to have a birthday party in our new home.”

“Me, too,” she said, clapping her hands.  “Yippee”, she sang out.

“But Sweetie, I’m worried that you don’t know enough kids yet to invite.”

“Well, of course I do.  There’s Lois, Dorothy, Rebecca, Sarah, Patty, and me.”

“Tell me which apartments they live in, okay?  It’s too late to send out invitations; so I’ll just knock at the door and ask the mother if her daughter can come to our place next Saturday for your birthday party.”

I started in the basement where the superintendent and his family lived.  His little gir, Rebecca, was happily allowed to attend.  And so it was for the next four invitees.  One of the would-be guests, Sarah, lived in the building next to ours.  When I knocked at her door, I was invited in by Mrs. Himmel, Sarah’s mother.

I explained the birthday story to her, and in her heavily German-accented English she answered, “I am happy Sarah is making friends in her new country.  May I ask who else will come to Nancy’s party?”  I was surprised by the question but answered willingly, mentioning the names of the other four girls.

When I had finished, Mrs. Himmel asked, “Isn’t Rebecca your colored super’s child?”

What a strange question, I thought.  “That’s right,” I answered.

“I’m sorry to disappoint Nancy, but I cannot allow Sarah to go to a party where there are colored people.”

“Why do you say that?” I asked, puzzled.

“We are new in this country.  In all the papers and magazines I read to improve my English and learn about how to live in America, I have discovered that it is not a good thing for white people to mix with other races.”  She offered what appeared to be a forced smile and continued, “Me and Sarah’s father are struggling to build a new and safer life here.”  The smile was gone.  “We do not want to call attention to ourselves for any reason.  We are trying to live the American way, which is with our own kind, our own race.”

I said a quick “Good luck!” and left, stunned by the irony:  a victim of anti-Semitism in Germany is a racist in America.

“Can Sarah come?”  Nancy asked when I was back home.

“Sorry, but she has to go some place with her parents on Saturday,” I lied.

The four guests who had grown up together and were fast friends so graciously and lovingly accepted Nancy as a new friend.  The party was a success if the giggling is any measure, and I was happy.  It looked like what I so wanted for my little sister, she was already having!

That’s how it’s done in America.

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