How We Became New York

by Michelle Cacho-Negrete

We were Poland.

We were Romania.

We were Ukraine

We were Hungary.

We were Russia.

We arrived in New York with ragged clothes, a swirl of languages, and our babushkas and yarmulkas and kasha and borsch and pierogi and cozonac and palinka and our dreams and nightmares, and later, tattoos on our arms. We crept out from shtetls or resettlement camps in the dark and crisscrossed the old country until we found an ocean with a ship to take us to New York for safety, jobs and education and fancy stores with sleek cars, high heels, caviar and vodka so pure and delicious we could not even imagine. We came, babies in arms, children clinging to our legs, teenagers damp with fear or rebellion standing tall with hope; we were the photos in Life Magazine proclaiming America’s goodness. We knew that it would not really be fresh sour cream with sweet berries and nobody calling us “dirty Jew,” spitting on us, kicking us, cheating us, but when we saw the Statue of Liberty we knew it would be alright. We would become New York.

Step one: Ellis Island, where they changed our names to American names. We became Rosen, Cantor, Finegold, Miller, our old names pushed into the ocean and drowned.

Step two: we found tenements on the Lower East Side and, though we were as close to each other as on the ship, at least we weren’t seasick and we could close the doors.

Step three: we found work in factories squinting our eyes in sunless rooms, sweating in the New York summer, heat, and humidity; falling down the cracked steps like an avalanche. We opened cheap clothing shops along Essex Street and yelled prices in thickly accented English, then in all the other languages that rolled along the streets with the pushcarts selling pickles and sour tomatoes from barrels that smelled of the old country. We opened tailor shops where we sewed coats and dresses of fine wool, cotton, silk, seams and zippers and hems and perfect buttonholes for fancy buttons. We opened restaurants where we sold the food that felt like home while we learned to cook hot dogs and hamburgers, make egg creams, and then the native-born New Yorkers suddenly wanted knishes and bagels and honey cake and brisket and herring and food was a strange bridge to becoming New York.

Step four: we accepted that here the Cossacks were landlords who raised rents then evicted us, factory owners who lowered our wages every other week, angry Americans who either ignored us or called us names or cheated us.

Step five: we drank coffee and Coca-Cola. We practiced saying Coke without an accent like a real a New Yorker says it and only we knew that at home, for breakfast, after dinner, while we were in the tailor shop, or the back of the restaurant, we drank strong tea, a sugar cube between our teeth.

Step six: we learned to love baseball, watch baseball, play baseball. We learned to say, “pitcher and catcher,” “you’re out,” and “that’s a home run,” and “Hey umpire, are you blind!” We screamed “HOORAY, the Yankees/Dodgers/Mets won!”

Step seven: we warned our children, “English only, do you want to be greenhorns all your life?” We didn’t answer if they spoke Russian or Hungarian or Polish or Romanian or Yiddish. We’d turn away until they spoke like a New Yorker and not a peasant from the old country.

Step eight: we sent our kids to school, made them sit and do homework and do more and then more. We took on more work and more work and accepted what the factory owners paid so we could send our kids to college.

Step nine: our kids become doctors and lawyers and writers and artists and business owners. Sometimes we miss the old country and listen to the music hidden on the farthest stations of the radio. We remember the land and the river and the sun and the few cattle and our family around us. We take out the love we hid in a vaulted place inside ourselves but then think of our children’s success, we think of who we are now, and lock it away again.

Step ten: we rejoice that we did the right thing, that we love this city. We are city experts. We know its streets and corners and subway stops and parks and alleys and hidden places to shop, eat, sit. We are New York.