A black plume of smoke from the squat chimney drifts at an angle over the factories, invading the neighborhood near MacKenzie’s, where cars are overhauled and rebuilt, the smoke moving heavy and thick through the streets. Ron, the old ragman, thin with a pinched face, pushes his cart wearily along the sidewalk like a mobile cage and then stands awkwardly before our house as he has done each week for years, ever since Johanna gave him a huge box of old clothes, which delighted him, even though the weight nearly brought him to his knees, while we were happy to be free of that junk, he becoming our benefactor in taking it off our hands, rather than just a ragman. Santi, the aging yellow hound from Simmonds’s vegetable stand, wanders lazily about, barks suddenly for no apparent reason, and then shuffles silently along. With shopping bags swaying, women from the neighborhood gather together, stand for a while and lose themselves in meaningless talk until they suddenly separate, parting with an unexplained sharp laugh that disappears abruptly. In the distance, where the train heads west into the countryside, a whistle blows, as if announcing the joy of any kind of journey away from here.
It all goes as usual and is familiar, for it’s been more than seven years since we first settled here. Not in this city, and certainly not in this country, nor even really in this part of town, but just in the immediate surroundings of this neighborhood, here on West Park Row, where we live in a tiny single-family house, as well as around the corner on Truro Street and among the neighboring streets, corners, and squares with their open greens and playgrounds, all of it within a ten-minute radius. We know the entire area, but that which is closest and the most familiar is no farther away than twice the reach of a good strong voice. Here is where we live, adrift and tolerated, comfortable despite everything, almost well liked as old-timers, as they say, us not even knowing whether we have settled in a major city or a village. If anything, it feels like living in the countryside, for it’s hard to imagine that distant neighborhoods are even attached to this same place.
There are several reasons for this. If you want to visit another part of the city, then you pull yourself together, say goodbye, hop into a car, or onto the bus, or even onto a train, and you are quickly whisked away from familiar surroundings. Because here on West Park Row and for miles around us, we are strangers; the few people who know something about us are no less than an hour away. We rarely see them, some of them never, others hardly more than once a year, and only a few more than once a month.
It’s as if we were foreigners, as if we lived in a foreign country, although with each passing year more people in the neighborhood greet us and even know our names. Michael and Eva also play with children from the neighborhood. One might even think that we were almost on intimate terms with the people to the left and right of us, with the salesclerks where we buy our groceries and little daily items, and with a few others. Yet these relations don’t reach very far and are certainly not that deep. There’s us, then there’s others. Maybe just a passing glance, festoons of particular greetings and intricately woven exchanges, certain rites that amount to simple human interaction, sometimes even full of warmth and fellow feeling, yet passed from mouth to mouth without consequence, one hand reaching out to another. It goes without saying that people in the neighborhood have their own ideas about us, and some of them share them with one another, but we cast a blind eye to it. For we don’t think twice when we also talk about the neighbors and others in our own everyday terms, if only rarely, and in mere fleeting snippets of conversation fed by nasty gossip.
This is a humble neighborhood. For the most part, it houses workers and clerks who have no real wealth but are not at all accustomed to misery, people whose aspirations we might guess at but will never fathom, destinies that, for us transplants from afar, melt together indistinguishably among all that is foreign, no matter how unique or special they may actually prove to be inside the circles we are forbidden to enter. Two groups, however, remain clearly separate. There are the families on our side of the street, who, along with the abutters on Truro Street and farther on in that direction, make up a stretch of better appointed houses inhabited by more well-to-do solidly bourgeois citizens. Then there are the people across from us (to the left of MacKenzie’s), who don’t live in badly built and somewhat uncomfortable, yet indeed quite cozy, single-family dwellings like us but instead occupy two sprawling apartment complexes with smooth, spacious courtyards that, at first glance, look almost friendly and inviting but on closer inspection betray a cold, boxed-in, narrow feel. Most of the people over there, which must amount to nearly a thousand, probably don’t make less than the heads of the families on our side, but no one here would consider them to be the same class. One has to admit, though, that the kids over there get up to much worse mischief than do our own. Many of the boys run wild, others hang about or sleep away their time, the children often running about filthy, the sucking of sweets and poisonous ice-cream treats never ending. Also, the language used in unattended courtyards and the noises that one hears there are different. For us, the tolerated, there is no reason to look down on these shiftless and nonetheless well-meaning folk, though we take pride in not wanting anything to do with the neighborhoods opposite us, where the sounds of family life and the blare of foul-sounding radios pressing through thin walls and down narrow hallways never allows you to escape your neighbors.
The village in which we live is neither beautiful nor charming, yet for us it’s tolerable, because no one bothers us. Also, there is enough light, the chimney is not too noisy, and the area has open spaces to escape to, the largest being Shepherd’s Field, an open space for romping around that is just a few minutes away from our house. In addition, there is available for both grown-ups and children four parks that offer, before they close at sunset, more freedom than one would expect in a major city. Our neighborhood— surprisingly, given that it’s next to MacKenzie’s—is almost free of traffic. Only through Truro Street, where our only bus runs, do long lines of cars pass, West Park Row being more often abuzz with children’s voices than from any other hustle and bustle.
Nonetheless, it took a while to settle in here. Johanna winced when, after some years in a much more well-heeled part of the city, she found something for us here, it being a place that didn’t bewilder me like everything else in this country and also this city, where everything was new for me. No matter where I went, I was a newcomer who could make out only the basic outline of things, myself familiar with nothing, a stranger, acting whatever way I wanted, wrapped up in myself, though also pressing forth from my inwardness with the manner of a salesman who hawks the gaudy wares of his heart for all the world to see and who forgets that perhaps no one really wants them, though it never bothered me if someone turned up his nose at my treasures, for many others appeared eager to buy them. The world felt as if it stood behind glass, and I myself felt as if I were made of glass, but everything consisted of a delicate glass, alive and sinuous, yet fragile, everything peculiarly at odds with itself, subtly transparent, and yet also impenetrable, more to be looked at than comprehended, and nonetheless alien, alien, an inner trust at last slowly deducible only after dogged, constant efforts to feel it.
I was almost done in; there had to be a way out. Now I wanted to blossom. The mortal wound, from which I had not recovered, I either denied or assumed was healed, powerfully striding forth, though less sensitive men would have been frightened, but somehow I was protected from realizing that back then. Johanna, who was busy setting up the house and was otherwise busy with a number of things, looked at me with concern, but I seemed so carefree and relaxed that she yielded, more indulgent than concerned, to the all-consuming fits I would throw about all the useful and harmful borders set up by society, during which she would shrink from me without my noticing. However, daily items such as food, clothing, and shelter had become so precious and expensive, all I could do was be amazed, though I was never worried. I thought the money to pay for what we needed would somehow appear; even though there was no guarantee, if I just kept at it, then everything would work out. Johanna, meanwhile, offered up whatever she could as alms to purchase what we needed. She saw how happy it made me, and so she found inventive ways to make use of her meager funds and hard-earned savings. Thus my burdens were eased, and I enjoyed the feel of life blossoming again in what Johanna had done for us, and, with full wallets holding out to me ever more profligate promises, I could confidently let go of the idea of regaining a small bit of wealth preserved for me for many years in America.
Copyright © 2015 by H. G. Adler. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.