My First Job in America

A Morning Snow — Hudson River, 1910
(Oil on canvas, 45 1/16 x 63 3/16 in)
BY George Wesley Bellows
Brooklyn Museum

It was December, 1968. The cold had already arrived in New York. One late afternoon around 4 p.m. I was taking one of my most important rides to Manhattan. I boarded the RR (then double R) in Bay Ridge, Manhattan bound. The level of noise on the train was unbearable. This was my third ride there, and it was as annoying as the first. I never experienced something as noisy in my whole life back in Europe. My ears were hurting from the brutal onslaught pushing against my ears. My hands were coming up on their own to cover and protect them. How could New Yorkers take the train noise on a daily basis and not flip out of their minds? A forty minute ride from Bay Ridge to Manhattan seemed an eternity. When my hands weren’t covering my ears, they were searching for a piece of paper in one of my pockets. In doing that, I arrived at Times Square. Once above ground I felt the pressure in my ears easing. That made me feel somewhat better. Gradually, my other senses numbed by the noise came back to life as I walked on 42nd Street towards the East Side of Manhattan. The smell of food from a street vendor teased me… my hands were still fishing for that piece of paper. I was alone at that moment (having arrived in America only three weeks ago) and that paper was like my friend helping me out in a strange city filled with aggression every step of the way. Besides, the address for my first official job in America was written down on it! Without it I would have been completely lost. My whole life in those moments depended on it. I was broke. My wallet had already forgotten the smell of money. It felt uncomfortable, too. If it could speak, it would probably criticize me for failing to help it to maintain its purpose and dignity safeguarding the money I was supposed to supply. I found the piece of paper, and pulled it out: 390 Park Avenue/Lever Brothers. According to the employment agency, my job was going to be in Building Maintenance Service.

Without the paper I would had been completely lost. My whole life in those moments depended on it. I was broke. My wallet had already forgotten the smell of money.

A long walk awaited me on my way to the Lever Brothers Building, between 53rd and 54th Street, but I did not know it. I had to fight the Manhattan crowds. Everybody was rushing to catch the train back home. People were heading in the opposite direction, building human resistance and creating more obstacles. It was funny, too — in retrospect. People were returning home from work. I was leaving home to work. Something was telling me right there and then that something was different and very unusual about my situation. And it was! Only the immigrants were walking my way. (They’re always easy to spot!) Natives were going their own way home to rest. Their way seemed more natural, judging by the numbers of them, and also judging by the watchful hands of the wall clocks in lobbies along the way. Who works at 5 p.m.? I thought. Remembering the work force back home, that seemed even more awkward. The majority would already be at their jobs at 7 a.m. At, or around 4 p.m., they would be enjoying themselves drinking Turkish coffee, fortunetelling using the empty coffee cups — afterwards, strolling around, or visiting “kafics” (Croatian bars), and discussing trivial things as if they held such importance for humankind, like what a dog thinks when he/she wags its tail, or whether “Hajduk” (the Croatian pride — soccer team) was going to beat the Serbian “Red Star” in Belgrade.

All the Manhattan lobbies were mausoleums for special people who died naturally, and who resurrected a short while afterwards — with their own sheer willpower.

Entering the Lever Brothers Building through its marbled lobby, I thought of that place as a first class hotel. When the uniformed security guard at the front desk asked me where I was going, I just handed the paper to him. “Aha, another one! Welcome to the immigrants’ paradise!” He greeted me in a rough American English. His voice sounded sarcastic. Next to his feet, under the reception desk, a brand new whisk broom stared at me like a souvenir which wanted to be lifted and examined, as if to tell me that it wanted to change its spot… This security guard was looking at this broom when he spoke to me. His face was pale, almost wax-like. He looked as though he had been resurrected just one hour before I walked in. His appearance stirred anxiety and fear deep in my stomach.

The cold marble in the lobby of 390 Park Avenue was actually proving my thought that the security guard (and others, too) were being “resurrected.” It also roused my imagination further… All the Manhattan lobbies were mausoleums for special people who died naturally, and who resurrected a short while afterwards — with their own sheer willpower. They put on their uniforms and took their positions at the front desks of all those magnificent skyscrapers. They were allowed to have a little hobby on the side, for being special. The hobby was to make fun of immigrants with half-smart remarks: “How’re things on the other planet? Did you just get here? Did you ride a donkey all the way here? Or did you jump the ship?” Sometimes they would overdo it and scare those foreign job hunters out of their shiny lobbies. The (un)fortunate ones had to look for a job in Manhattan restaurants, instead. I speculated on that thought seeing a group of four immigrants leaving the building with unhappy faces, after talking to this guard.

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