IN SEARCH OF AN AMERICA*
Born in Hungary before the Second World War, Gabor Bethlenfalvay spends his early childhood under privileged circumstances. In December 1944, days before the Red Army overruns his hometown, the ten-year-old Gabor and his family flee west through war-torn lands to end up as refugees first in Bavaria, Germany, then six years later in the United States. Assembly lines in Chicago and Omaha introduce him to the New World, until he finds his path to military service and becomes an intelligence officer. Following his honourable discharge in the early years of the Vietnam War, he strikes out for California with his young family to take up the study of biology and become a researcher. In retirement, he settles down on the Central Coast of California tending his garden and vines and paying regular visits to his homeland. He published his autobiography, In Search of an America in a private edition in 2011. In his book the author keeps a distance between his contemporary and current selves by using the third and the first person singular respectively as illustrated by the excerpts below that describe the experiences of the newly-arrived displaced person (DP) in the United States in 1951.
Then one morning, that of the sixth day of the voyage, the skyline of New York City emerged from the fog. It is an experience the poor natives are denied. For him, it was almost like hearing a booming voice from above announcing: “This is the sixth day. So let there be dry land and let it have structures on it that scrape the sky.” He had seen NYC in some of the movies in Bad Aibling [Bavaria]. Some of the ships arriving with celebrities on them were greeted with great foaming arches from the water cannons of fire ships. His ship was not so greeted. Instead, there were lines to stand in for processing upon arrival. The key to this welcome ceremony was a paper to be signed: the all-important “First Paper”. This was a declaration of intention and of gratitude to become with time, if well-behaved and also otherwise qualified and found worthy, a citizen of the United States of America.
The significance of this paper was underlined by the fact that one could change one’s name on it. Yes, one could put any name on that paper and it would become one’s own, real, new name henceforth. It would supersede one’s birth certificate! One would be born again, as if into a new identity, a new state of grace, that of a future American citizen. He decided to keep the old name. His old name, his old identity.
“Hey”, the official at the signing table said, “how about Gabe Bentley? That has almost all the letters of the old one but is half as long. And it sounds American! Not only that, it sounds Anglo! You’ll spend half your life spelling your name otherwise. Now is your chance. Take it!” The guy was nice and friendly: he was personable. He came across like a person, almost like a friend, not like an official. It was a good omen, and that was the way Americans turned out to be for him whenever he met them as people. Having guns in their hands, it seems, is what Americans cannot handle.
So the name stayed the same. But the identity? They say that in the course of every seven years, all the molecules of one’s body are completely replaced by new ones. Does that not change one’s physical identity every seven years? If so, I have become a different object, I have been born again in seven-year cycles more than ten times. Strange things, all these objects. All these objects around me will survive me indefinitely, even if all they do in the long run is getting buried in a landfill upon being of no further use to me. My gold ring with its coat of arms in bloodstone/heliotrope that my father wore all his life may be around for thousands of years after me until somebody melts it down, perhaps. The pictures that have crystallised onto the walls of my house in the course of a lifetime, who will look at them after I am gone? Like the one I am looking at now, my dear wife’s big, blue Hundertwasser print with its red ribbon spiralling concentrically into the ever-tightening black tunnel of a wormhole leading out into that “outer” space where all my past spiritual identities are already floating around, waiting for this last one to join them?
Faced with such uncertain possibilities, nothing is more reassuring than a permanent record. A record of identity, a picture. And so, in the true American spirit, a young reporter with a camera surfaced just in time after he signed his first paper, and [the reporter] took him and his brother to a bull’s-eye window of the ship and made a snapshot. It was published the next day in a New York City paper with the caption: CHICAGO NEXT STOP. The caption shows his old name under the picture of his old identity halfway between his second and third re-materialisation [in West Germany and in the United States respectively] on 8 May 1951.
The coach of the Nickel Plate Railroad Line that whisked them to Chicago had a good number of other DPs loaded into it. The World Church Service, which sponsored the transit, must have been well organised, for the conductor knew which ones of the newcomers had to get off at what station. They all waved good-bye to the ones still going on before they got off and did so with a breathless, wide-eyed, expectantly concerned air about them. The train ride was uneventful, but looking out of the window was interesting. The towns and cities were particularly so, for the train always went smack through the middle of them, so that one could look through the windows into the bedrooms and living rooms of the houses.
Unlike in Europe, where the stations are at the edge of town or in town but at a dead end so that the train has to back out first before going on, here it seemed that the station (and the tracks) came first and the settlement grew up around it with it as the centre. So, he thought, the centre of this American way of life here must be one of mobility, while over there, the centre was the church, a haven of stability. Such were some of the thoughts evoked by observing all those new, unaccustomed sights outside. But as far as I can remember now, he never wondered for a moment what he would have done had his sponsor not shown up at the end of the line, at the station in Chicago. How he could have been so unconcerned is a mystery to me now (having turned into a worrier in the meantime), for all he had on him was the ten-dollar bill that his father had given him for the road, who probably sold his last gold coin for this purpose.
Everything you do can be like a game if you know the rules, but this arrival in Chicago felt like coming from another planet, the security of ten dollars of folding money notwithstanding. However, it never came to their wandering around in the streets like extraterrestrials, for the sponsor did show up. He made sure of that because he was also a DP from the refugee camp at Bad Aibling and had experienced the feelings that accompany an arrival in Chicago personally not too long before. It was Sunday afternoon by the time the taxi had deposited them at 2460 Iowa Street. The sponsor had rented an apartment for them in the rear of a three-storey wooden building that had nine apartments in it. The building itself was identically replicated from one end of Iowa Street to the other. The door led into the kitchen, which had a refrigerator, a gas stove, a table, and two chairs in it. A calendar showing the days of July 1950 was hanging on the wall. There was a door to the bathroom (shared with the neighbouring apartment) and another one to the bedroom, which was equipped with two single beds, complete with mattress. The whole thing was not dilapidated in a strict sense of the word, but it was well along on the downhill slope of its use cycle. After the ride through some of the busy thoroughfares of Chicago, the landing on this quiet side street of the Promised Land could have been classified as a non-event had it not had all the emotional undertones of that landing long before at the beginning of the road in Szenc [Senec, today in Slovakia]. After all the excitement of the journey, this landing felt like what an inflated rubber balloon must feel when it is pricked with a pin.
The sponsor explained that he had paid the rent to the end of the month and expected to be paid back by then. “So you have ten dollars”, he said. “That’s great. That should last you till your first pay. You get paid here weekly. Now, let’s go. I will show you the way to work.” That way took an hour and a half, changing buses and streetcars at least twice. California Avenue and Belmont Street stand out as memory fragments along the route. The goal was the Curtiss Candy Factory on Eighth Street and Farman Place. Work would start the next morning (Monday) with the six o’clock shift. That meant leaving “home” at four thirty and earlier the first time to allow for check-in. By the time they got back to the apartment, it was turning dark. There was a corner grocery store down the street run by a second-generation Polish family, and there they made their first acquaintance with the American brown paper grocery bag. When they got back to their kitchen, they rejoiced proudly in their functioning refrigerator and the stove that turned on and produced a gas flame, obeying the flick of a switch, without the need to feed it wood like in Harthausen. They had never seen a refrigerator before, so they just called it the icebox like the one back home.
A LESSON IN AMERICAN [AND] CORNSTARCH
The next morning, they made it to the Curtiss Candy Company in time and were admitted in a few minutes. The foreman took him to his post at the business end of one stretch of the assembly line and gave him his instructions, which he understood because they were accompanied by an appropriate set of hand-and-arm signals. Here is a fragment of one of the sentences that the boss barked at him, remembered to this day. It went like this: “And then flush the mess down the sink.” The words and, then, the, and down he knew well enough. But flush from his readings in English literature at the AKO [Aloisiuskolleg, the Jesuit, University-preparatory school in Bad Godesberg, West Germany] had two meanings: one was “to take on a reddish colour”; the other was “to cause birds to fly up”. Mess was a group of people eating together like the officers’ mess. And sink was a very common verb, one of the mercifully few irregular ones in English grammar (sink, sank, sunk), meaning something like “move to a lower position”. As the sentence therefore presented a puzzle, he kind of shook his head, muttering to himself, “Sink? Sink?” “Yes, yes, the sink”, shouted the boss impatiently, pounding on the large, industrial-size drainage basin with his fist, “down this sink”. To this day, I cannot imagine what the mess was that he should have flushed down that sink, for his duties were limited exclusively to handling cornstarch. But he said dutifully, “Ach so, okay, boss”, and then proceeded to start making his own money, sixty-eight cents an hour. A small step for Chicago but a giant step for him, for it was his first actual self-earned cash.
The job was simple, basically. All he had to do was to take large, flat, shallow wooden trays filled with cornstarch and put them on a moving belt but making absolutely sure that there were no empty spaces left on the belt between trays. The trays were delivered in stacks about two yards high and left standing next to the elevator about ten yards from the point in space where they had to be put on the moving belt. The trays, two by four feet in area and about two inches thick, were not heavy (basically) but, as the hours of the day ticked by, became more and more so. The trick to this whole operation was that the belt, although it did not move at break-neck speed, never stopped, the trays had to be moved from the elevator to that which had become for him his nightmarish “point in space” where they were to be downloaded from their stacks onto the belt. The stacks were moved over those ten yards by means of a dolly in such a way that they did not tip over en route, no matter how hasty the move had to be due to the relentless advance of the belt. This would have also been a simple feat (basically) had it not been for the time-crimp attached to it. That time factor was not leaving a space on the belt vacant during the transport! There should have been two people doing this really, but the civic-minded company preferred not to be saddled with extra expenses that they would have felt obliged to pass on to the consumer.
The matter with the empty space, on the other hand, was not discretionary (like passing on expenses) but peremptory. The starch in the trays had evenly spaced, finger-sized grooves in it. In the exact time intervals that the belt moved the trays along their course, a large vat was lowered over the trays. It was filled with hot, molten caramel, and it squirted streams of this sticky goo into those grooves at precisely prescribed time intervals. Had the next tray not arrived at its correct space at the predetermined time, the goo would have been squirted onto the chains moving the belt, goobering up the gears and cogs that kept it moving and bringing the production process to a sticky, sugary, and messy but otherwise blissful halt. And that would have been an event for which the language of the Anglo-Saxons borrowed with foresight from the French-speaking Normans the word désastre after the lost Battle of Hastings. To prevent such a disaster from happening, there was a red panic button at his station, designed and programmed to bring the coordinated movement of belt and squirter to a screeching halt. Well, he scurried so conscientiously between elevator and loading point that he never needed to activate the button. What would have been the punishment provoked by the high crime of button pushing? Perhaps, it occurs to me as I write this, the boss might have flushed that mess of a perpetrator down that sink.
It also occurs to me now that curiosity never moved him to explore all the steps of the morphogenesis of the Baby Ruth candy bar (before and past the stage of his contribution to it) that he helped produce and dump on innocent children by the untold thousands during the two months of his stay there. Either he was too exhausted to go to the trouble or it was not interesting enough to find out. […] I know that I have never looked at a Baby Ruth bar since then, although I heard that they have been a consumer’s favourite since 1920. There were trays of it available without wrappings for anyone to eat to his heart’s content, but it was forbidden to take any of them out of the building. The mere smell of the stuff had become sickening to him by the third day.
These two months at the Curtiss Candy Company yielded two important insights for him for the rest of his life. One concerned his brother, a charismatic, six-foot-three-tall, Yankee-doodle-dandy good-looker, with manners that he could sport endearingly to good advantage. Astute and sharp-eyed management soon picked him out of the menial-labour line and advanced him to office standing, while he (the lad) was forgotten at his point in space with cornstarch and sink. The lesson: if you are a plain, run-of-the-mill, five-foot-nine introvert, it does not suffice to do your job well to get ahead. You must do more than just not push the red button.
The second revelation came later when he no longer fell into bed physically and emotionally exhausted as soon as he got home and, used to the rote now, started thinking again. This was the utter precariousness of his situation, a hand-to-mouth existence, one of total self-reliance without any glimmer of outside help should he need it like when getting sick. No work, no money and you are out on the street. He was completely unaware of any social safety-net provisions that a civilised society, even a dog-eat-dog one, may offer to its members in need of them, if any such existed in the Chicago of the early 1950s at the boundary line between the East European Immigrant and the Negro Quarters.
This compulsion of having to report to his point in space at the relentlessly moving belt or else he would be out, destitute and hungry on the street, was somehow not part of the picture he had made of that exciting challenge of conquering the Wild West back in Harthausen, Germany. America, the home of the dollar, had begun its process of morphing into “an america”. This new concept was no longer a place. It was rather the set of conditions that define the quality of one’s existence. Elusive conditions, in whose search you spend your life.
Nevertheless, times were so good back then that out of his $27.20 weekly pay check, he could and did buy, on the spur of the moment, a gray woollen double-breasted suit as he was strolling down Division Street with his brother one Saturday afternoon on their way back from the Lakeshore. A suit, a tie, and a white shirt. It was meant to be a precaution against being caught short by that unforeseeable yet firmly expected chance and occasion when such a garb would be called for. That such a chance might not come never entered his mind, and I do not remember where he abandoned that suit that he had never worn, not even once. He simply never felt that he was poor, he never identified with that state of mind, and it never occurred to him that he would not climb out of his present economic depression sooner rather than later. So instead of dwelling on such things, he went to the movies a lot. Back then, the double features complete with cartoon and newsreel ran continuously, and once inside the theatre, you could watch the same fare all day until you decided that you had enough. So he and his brother spent entire Saturday and Sunday afternoons watching the same movies, each time understanding what was said a little better. With time, he had enough confidence in his American to quit the candy business and switch to a job polishing brass ornaments for coffins.
This activity took place in an otherwise deserted red brick factory building. Each morning, a large bin full of the raw material was delivered to a cavernous, dark, half-dusty, half-dank room with rusting equipment of forgotten purpose along the walls on the second floor. The task was accomplished with the help of small electric machines that moved a thin strip of sandpaper like a belt. There was no time constraint; he could reach into the bin for the next piece at his leisure, making sure only that each finished work of art would be exactly like the previous one. There was an incentive for keeping up a good pace, however. Each acceptably turned-out end product was worth two cents to the artist. At a self-imposed rate of a piece per minute, he could therefore almost double his take-home pay compared to that at the candy factory. Piecework is the cleverest ploy of capitalism, and it succeeded in turning him into a robot while he was there. A robot and a security freak. It was this time, this place, and this job where he developed the urge and the need to lay in a little security cushion of cash for a rainy day. For the road had taught him that the worst not only could happen but actually did happen ever so often.
This short, second, and last chapter of his passing through Chicago at the red brick factory was supervised, as jobs always are, by a boss. He (the foreman) also had a sandpaper machine, but he used it only to demonstrate the job to a new arrival or when boredom otherwise overpowered him. He was soft-spoken with a toothy grin and his off-the-job topic of conversation was entirely on an arcane subject that he (the lad) knew nothing about: baseball. When checking and weighing a finished batch of pieces, he (the boss) would throw unacceptable ones at the perpetrator, but in a baseball-like way, expecting the piece to be caught with one hand. The catcher then would throw the discarded piece at one of the rusty machines that stood for a base. If the throw produced a loud clunky noise, that was a successful run, and the thrower was applauded. The discarded piece would stay where it fell, waiting to be pondered over by archaeologists of some future age.
The management style of this boss was both prescribed and simplified by the circumstances of the work. The bin had to be finished by day’s end. If the crew of artists was slow and tardy, everybody had to stay until the bin was empty. If somebody did not want to stay, that was up to him, but then he was automatically fired and was not accepted for work the next morning. Since there is no pay for overtime in piecework, there was community pressure on the team members to finish on time.
The boss was in his mid-twenties, married with two children: the prototypical American nuclear-family man. To practice his English (and to fight his introversion), he (the lad) tried to make conversation, for unlike his solitary post at the candy place, the dozen or so sandpaper men here were arranged in a circle, side by side together, with the bin in the middle. “Why did the boss leave Baltimore to come to Chicago?” he asked. “Why not?”, the man answered. Was he not sure or could he not articulate it or did he not care to do so? “Where was he headed in life?” That made the boss think for a moment, but he just ended up shrugging. “Why was he doing this type of work, he, a high school graduate?” At this, the boss wrinkled his eyebrows and shook his head suspiciously. “What’s wrong with this work? And what does it have to do with high school? And what’s the matter with you anyway, with you and with your questions? You a philosopher or something?”
It was all by way of friendly banter only, but among all the inconsequential platitudes that made up these exchanges, he picked up on the curious way the boss pronounced philosopher. Back in history class at the AKO, the teacher had remarked at one time that when Karl Marx pronounced the word bourgeois, he did it contemptuously, as if he were spitting out a glob of phlegm. Well, the boss uttered the word philosopher the way Whittaker Chambers or Senator Joe McCarthy must have said Communist. There was distrust, aversion, unease and perhaps even a touch of fear and hate in his tone of voice. Fear and hate, perhaps, of all things that he did not know, all the things that high school did not teach him, all the things beyond his grasp. He was like a balloon at a fair that a child’s hand had let go, but one not pumped full enough to let it rise into the sky. The way he talked and even the way he moved was like the drifting of deadwood in the backwater eddies of a slow-moving stream. But when not seeing himself confronted with philosophy, he was not only a nice person but also a good and considerate boss.
Then, when he tossed a reject at him the next time and the lad happened to catch it with his left hand, the boss’s misgivings vanished quickly, and he said approvingly, “You a second Babe Ruth”. Reminded of his candy bars, he almost threw up. But clued in by the reference to the great athlete, he then took to quizzing the boss on the historic feats of the Orioles of Baltimore, and the boss, feeling good on this firm footing, took to telling stories about the World Series of American baseball. He (the lad) was tempted to ask why they called this particular tournament the “World Series” when no one outside the United States had ever heard of it, but then he reconsidered, for he saw no point in making a point of it.
He did not pick the boss to talk to because he was the boss, but because he was the only one inclined to talk. Most of the time, the only sounds in that circle were the clicks of the finished pieces and the whirring and whizzing of the sandpaper belts. There was no general exchange of thought. There was no community, and the men who drifted in and out shared little, as if they had nothing to share. Maybe, if they really did have thoughts on their minds, they had just never learned to communicate them or perhaps they had learned not to, perhaps having experienced sharing as risky, as something that is best avoided. They stayed a few days, never longer than a week. They were Americans, born in the country, as he could tell by their native accents when they were bitching occasionally about the poor lighting, the cold draft, the dampness, the dust, the rats, the cockroaches, and the pay. Nothing beyond the surrounding minutiae ever came up, no politics, not even the war, although Korea was still going strong. He felt a strange sort of kinship with them, for they seemed to be introverts like him, but these were encounters like those between fish in an arctic ocean who glance at each other with glassy eyes and then drift on.
Only, they were not the same kind of fish that he was. Instead, he felt they were formed and deformed by the culture that brought them up to become what he experienced in meeting them. And that was an alien culture. Or was the culture of the marginalised poor the same in Magyarország [Hungary] as it was here? They were not into letting people share the insights of their solitary travels. He really wanted to know more about the stations on their road, for he saw no other way to find out about the potholes that he would have to avoid if he were ever to climb out of the rut that he already started feeling stuck in. One of them, an older fellow with the watery red unfocussed eyes and the transparent gray reptilian skin of one suffering from the terminal psychosomatic illness of the inveterate boozer turned to him unexpectedly one day as the bin was emptying out and said: “Let’s go have a beer.”
THE FIRST BEER
Why not? – he thought. Let’s go and see what that is all about. You may have frequented bars yourself, or at least you may have seen some in the movies. But this bar in this factory area that was declared a blight on the city and therefore about to be razed for the mayor’s next urban renewal project, was something you may have been lucky to escape. Its chemistry once identified, the smell could have led you there from blocks away by your nose alone, with your eyes shut along deserted streets and empty lots overgrown with weeds. The simile that this memory conjures up in me now (having studied pest-control biology in the meantime) is the erratic but goal-oriented flight of the medfly that is drawn to its doom by the pheromones released by the death traps set up for it. The sun was still high on this summer afternoon, but inside, it was dark enough to take some time for the eye to adjust. Not that there was much to see, the scene was stark in its simplicity. The bar, with a fat, tattooed woman with a wig on her head working the taps. Three tables with a couple of chairs, half a dozen men sunk into themselves drinking beer and smoking.
There was something else there also, but I cannot describe it, for it was not material in nature. It was the desolation of hope lost by those people who sat there in that stale bar reek. It was not even hard liquor, just beer, factory-produced beer, Budweiser, for microbrews were not even thought of yet. But there was a meaning to that reek, and he could feel its reality, only he did not understand it, for it was written in a language whose dictionary he had not yet opened. Yet its language spoke to him in unknown words, casting long shadows of ambiguity ahead on pitfalls lurking on an as yet untraveled road.
It would be wrong to say that they were warnings, for had they been warnings the interpretations of those words could have come only from his own head, which was of no help, for he was as yet totally lacking in street wisdom. He knew, however, with that noncerebral certainty of the things you know to be true without need of proof, that it was the morbidity of those end-of-their-line people that exuded that language, and he was suddenly afraid. Afraid not only of their message but of the very reality of it that had found a home in that reek. The message was one with the reek, and the reek was the message of reality.
I must say to his credit that he did not run away. Beer he had been invited to share, and he had come to have it in hopes of listening to something, and if it had to be, well then, to the message of the reek. What came in the words, though, the words that he had already learned to understand, was no message at all. It was a sequence of incoherent sobs and hiccups, on abuse, exploitation, gangs, dope, women, trying and failing and trying and failing again, and then booze. And a few gestures that included the others who sat there sunk into their mugs in this communal fate.
His brother was first to recognise that their existence in Chicago was a dead end. They did not discuss the foolhardiness of having plunged totally unprepared into their great adventure. They did not have to, for it was all too evident. They knew that they had no talent for business. So with the Korean War still going strong, the GI Bill for veterans was the only way out. Without further ado, his brother enlisted in the Air Force. He himself, not yet ready for such a decision, got on a Greyhound bus and took to the road. To Omaha, where an older cousin had arrived with family sometime before.
These were people with training that they were able to turn to their advantage. And they were lucky to have had a substantial sponsor who set them up for a good start. Soon they had a down payment for a little house. It was a street that dead-ended literally onto some railroad tracks, and that should have been a pointer or a warning. But those were strange American sidetracks on which he had never seen a train pass while he was there, and so it took him a little while to get restless again, for Burdette Street was in one of those pleasant, dreamy, 1950s American, tree-lined, fragrant-with-flowers, next-to-a-block-size-park, clean-swept, backwater neighbourhoods that Ronald Reagan may have grown up in and into which he seemed to have retreated emotionally during his later years, those of his presidency. He had a feeling that a cosy, protected, hopeful, whole and unbroken world surrounded that lower-middle-class ambiance of Burdette Street.
Promptly, he found a job with the Holland Furnace Company as a chimney sweep. An American chimney sweep, you should know, is not one of those sooty folks whom he used to watch climb the roofs back home in Léva [Levice, now in Slovakia], with a huge brush attached to the end of a stiff but elastic roll of tough wire on his shoulder that he (the sooty one) then unrolled into the chimneys to be scrubbed free of soot. Meeting one of them was thought to bring luck, although they looked black like the devil himself.
In Omaha, in contrast, the chimney sweep moved about in a truck equipped with a vacuum machine whose big hose was funnelled upon arrival into the basements where the furnaces were (for that was still the age of the coal furnace), and the sooty and ashy obstructions were then sucked out of the chimney from below. Such a chimney sweep was expected to be able to fix anything that may have gone awry with anything connected with the furnace, and he was so cluelessly baffled by this immediate high-tech demand on him (he had no on-the-job training whatsoever and had never even heard of such contraptions before) that his senior sanitary-engineer partner who drove the truck, having recognised him for the theoretical talent that he was, did not tarry in getting him fired within a week. The parting was a relief for both of them, and what he could chalk up to experience from this lesson was that seeing, not being, a chimney sweep was what brought you luck.
But there was a feeling of luck and well-being vibrating in the air of that halcyon summer in Omaha. Vibrating because this was the year of a major cicada cycle. There were untold zillions of them everywhere, and the racket they made took over the world, every nook of which was brim-full of their din. Maybe it came from the energy of those vibrations or from some unknown kind of a contact high with his new surroundings that produced this feeling of wellness that he had. A hundredth monkey effect that rubbed off on him from all those confident 1950s Americans who went to work to their stores and offices from Burdette Street, sure of a safe and prosperous future and ensconced in a secure and well-provided-for American Dream. Things were just fine now, we won the war, and each new generation could only have it even better than we did.
He too felt good, and having escaped from that bar in Chicago must also have contributed to his self-confidence. So checking through the ads and drifting through half a dozen hiring offices, he was a wage earner again within two days, selling soap from house to house. It was not exactly a merchandise-for-money type of real salesman’s job (that is the hardest of all ways to make a living unless you are born to be good at it), but rather it was part of an ad campaign: “Here is your free sample of Cheer, Procter & Gamble’s new washday discovery”, the line he was expected to say having rung the doorbell. It was not very cerebral for a come-on, but there was no high-tech prerequisite knowledge weighing it down like he had faced in the chimney business.
What he found difficult in the end was the repetition. Going from house to house in that pleasant autumn weather was fine, but declaring the same thing over and over again all day was soon a nuisance. Nevertheless, this was the sentence that P&G’s market research had come up with as the irresistibly effective one, and there was an area boss who directed the sales force from block to block, and he checked with the recipients to see whether the offer was made correctly. No poetic pleasantries and courtesies, no embellishments and variations on the theme like he would have liked to dish out by now: “Here is your free ticket to cheer. It will smooth your gullet like a swig of beer. It will keep your sheets white like snow. Trust pee and gee. It’s in the know.” He caught himself dreaming of variations on this theme, a new one to greet each new homemaker with, but it was verboten. In the end, here again, both parties soon agreed that it was time to part.
But winter was coming and his safety cushion of cash was still more of a concept than a reality to be cheerful about. When it came (winter, not the safety cushion), it was like one we do not have anymore these days. The snow fell one day in December, and it stayed for the duration. The city’s chimneys tried their best to take the gleam off of its sparkling surface and dull it into agreement with all those smokestacks that he had escaped from cleaning, but then more blizzards refreshed its spirit of well-scrubbed, gleaming-white resistance with a clean, snow-white cheeriness as if it had been discovered and developed by Procter & Gamble itself.
Bitter cold though it was, it was a cheerful type of winter wonderland in Omaha that year, with bells jingling for weeks and weeks and weeks in all the stores. This was an entirely new aspect of Christmas for him. Back home in Léva, the stores attended to business and did not meddle with the tree that went up at home secretly in the afternoon before Christmas Eve, nor did they try to interfere with the spirit that the tree was meant to represent. It was as if some unwritten, self-understood, extra-constitutional separation between faith and commerce had been the law of that now half-forgotten land. The stores there were places of business, and Christmas was Christmas, and “never the twain shall meet” was people’s approach to the two worlds. At any rate, he found that he did not dislike the fuss. Even if he was puzzled by it, the novelty of it was captivating. Then there was Bing Crosby’s voice crooning out the cheer that was decreed to reign with the promise of presents, and that voice sounded real here, not far away like in that movie house in Bad Aibling. No, all those warm, well-lit places where the presents were stacked up were so cram-full of all those goodies that Bing himself could have easily come around a corner, bumping into you with a big Santa Claus smile on his face. But while he was watching it and while he found himself liking it secretly, deep down, he also found himself to be a spectator of it only, an alien, unlike and separate from the crowd around him that seemed to be an integral part of the fuss.
With a shudder, he started realising that not only did he not belong into what he felt was less of genuine cheer and more of an artificially stirred-up flurry of shopping excitement but that he was also somehow becoming less and less malleable in his efforts to adjust to this new environment. He was simply not renewable like the surface of those snow banks; the lad in him was ossifying into a man with a growing sense of the knowledge of what he was and what he was not. What he was not was easy to grasp. What he was, on the other hand, was hard to see, for there was not much there to see. What he could see were unfinished shapes abandoned in midcourse like the snowmen on Burdette Street that children had left standing without a carrot for a nose and pieces of coal for eyes.
His life so far was made up of Gestalten that have had no chance to mature. This was the time of year, just before Christmas, when time had come to leave behind the pupae of his caterpillars in that large carton under his bed in Léva, a chapter of childhood left forever unfinished. He had never stopped wondering what had become of them. Were they thrown out on the street by the mob with all his other treasures, or did they die in that box after they turned into butterflies?
The child was left behind, abruptly, with those butterflies. The same way, time had come to close his books at the AKO and to leave the lad behind there and let what was left of him metamorphose into something new in this hospitable but harsh new land, where there was nothing for him to do but search for an america in hopes of finding the right one.
This was “a man’s world”, but I can still remember well how he clung to not being a man yet, even though he knew that his lad phase was over, abruptly again, when he climbed on board that troop ship. The grown-up reality that reigned here was an unforgiving taskmaster, notwithstanding the one-horse open sleighs and the dreams of a white Christmas that were vibrating through the ether like the cicadas had done a few months before. The truth of this reality was marching on and marched him soon to other edifying experiences that led nowhere in terms of material advancement but helped him to flesh out his experience of the American way of life from the bottom up.
* The present excerpts as edited by Hungarian Review are from Chapter 4 – The Emigrant by Gabor Bethlenfalvay, In Search of an America. An Introvert on the Road, Xlibris, 2011.