"Avru-um! Avru-um! Shtel-oof: Is'shpat." That is what the big fat woman cried
in the ears of the black-haired young man who was sleeping like a log. Freely
translated, what she said was:
"Abraham! Abraham! Get up: it's late." This happened in a small, dark, inner
room in the rear apartment on the fourth story of an Essex street tenement
house. It was not a pleasant place. The only furniture in the room consisted of
two half beds, but they took up nearly all its space, and the woman grunted as
she squeezed her corpulent body between the wall and the foot of the bed in
which Abraham was sleeping. There were two men in each bed and they had to lie
pretty close to each other to keep from falling out. There was no chance for
turning or moving about, either. The beds were ranged side by side, so that it
looked as there was only one bed. The lucky man slept against the wall, and the
unlucky one slept on the outside, where the danger of falling out was greatest.
This was Abraham's lot, he being the youngest and the latest comer. All four
were boarders, and the woman, who slept in the "parlor" with her husband and
three children, was the landlady. In spite of her coarse features, there was a
kindly expression on her face which told of a good heart, even though
accompanied by an ignorant mind.
Abraham not having responded to her calling she shook him by the shoulder, and
even that having failed to accomplish the end, she quietly rolled him out of the
bed. He slid upon the floor and quickly awoke. The woman paid no attention to
the fact that he was half naked, but shook her fat forefinger at him as she told
him that he was a very bad fellow to sleep so hard and cause her so much
trouble. The other man slept on undisturbed by the noise, and unconsciously
appropriated Abraham's share of the coverings.
Abraham dressed very quickly, and in the mean time the landlady was preparing
breakfast in the kitchen for him. It was a very plain meal consisting of hominy,
two thick slices of stale bread, and a cup of chickory that masqueraded as
Abraham, as he stood in the kitchen where little of the early morning light
straggled in through the dirt-covered windows, was an odd-looking fellow. He was
about 25 years old, with a straggling, stubby black beard, dark but pallid
complexion, heavy eyebrows, black hair, a prominent nose, high cheek bones, and
a high forehead. He was tall, slender, but wiry, had large bony hands, and an
ungainly walk. Altogether, he was not a bad representative of a class of Polish
Jews, with all the physical racial characteristics.
Although he was in a great hurry, he waited before touching his breakfast to say
his morning prayers. This is how he did it: Baring both arms to above the
elbows, he reverently took some peculiar looking black straps from a green cloth
bag and wound one about each arm, holding one end in his hand. Then he put a
curious shawl with grayish yellow body, black stripes near the ends and fringed
border over his head and body, nearly enveloping himself in it. Thus prepared,
he turned to the east, and bowing frequently, began to repeat some Hebrew
His lips moved with almost incredible rapidity, and it seemed as though he was
chanting. The sounds that came from his lips varied very little in tone, and,
although his manners indicated great reverence, his haste in mumbling over the
words seemed almost sacrilegious. It did not seem possible that he could realize
what he was saying. For nearly twenty minutes he continued in the same attitude,
scarcely pausing in his prayer to take breath. When he had finished, he took off
the shawl and straps and laid them reverently away in the bag from which he had
taken them. Breakfast was on the table, and he sat down to it without further
ado. The landlady was preparing breakfast for the other boarders, and steam and
smoke arose from the stove where she was busy. She paused frequently to turn
around and look at Abraham, and kept up a running conversation with him. He,
however, did the most of the talking. Between hasty bites, he told her all about
his experiences of the previous day and branched off into reminiscences which he
had frequently repeated to her. She did not seem tired of listening to them, and
whenever he paused, asked him questions which induced him to continue.
He was a poor Polish boy who had not been long in the country. He told her for
at least the twentieth time how his parents and brothers and sisters had lived
happily together in a little village in Russian Poland until the Jew baiting
began and they were forced to leave suddenly. One night a mob of angry peasants,
who had been infuriated by drink and the harangues of some demagogues, had
driven out the whole family with curses and blows and set the house in which
they lived afire.
It was a very bitter night, and the lad wept when he thought of it. His mother
and sisters had not escaped the insults and beatings, nor had they been allowed
to take any of their possessions with them. Had it not been for the charity of
some kind-hearted neighbors they would have been left in the cold night without
sufficient clothing to protect them. Afterward they had been concealed until,
through the assistance of relatives and friends, they were able to escape into
France. They wore separated on the route and he had been cut off from all the
That was more than a year ago and he had not seen them since. When he had
reached Paris he was taken in hand by the Hebrew Aid Society and sent to New
York. He had heard through friends that his family was all right, and had been
established on a farm out in Montana. All this he told his landlady in the same
jargon that is spoken by all the Russian Polish Jews. She was of German birth
and did not speak the dialect, although she understood it. When he had finished,
she said in German:
"And now you will earn money enough so that you can go out and find them, hey?"
He nodded his head in reply, and, recollecting that minutes were precious, he
jumped up, with his mouth still full of fool, and began to gather his implements
of trade. These consisted of a basket, with a heavy strap to it, which he put
around his neck. The basket contained various notions plated jewelry, bone
collar buttons, little combs and mirrors, assorted cotton handkerchiefs,
including the old-fashioned bandannas, and shoestrings. In addition he put
around his shoulders a lot of cheap suspenders and carried in one hand some
extra shoestrings. The burden was pretty heavy, seemingly, but he carried it
without much effort. Within hasty good morning to his landlady, who wished him
good luck, he started on his day's work. Going down the dark and narrow stairway
leading to the street, Abraham ran against somebody.
With the instinct natural to those members of his race who had lived for
centuries under oppression, he started back quickly, muttering an apology. The
man with whom he had collided did not understand what he said, but he recognized
"Get out of here, ye bloody Spaniard," he cried. "What are ye doing' there,
tumbling' into the people." Get out or I'll break ivery bone in yer body."
Abraham didn't wait to reply, but filled with visions of the wrecking of his
home in the old country, he ran down the stairs rapidly as his trembling legs
would let him. He did not stop even after he was on the street until he had
cleared the block and had made sure by repeated glances behind that he was not
being followed. He walked rapidly to Grand street and thence over to the Bowery.
On the way he ran against several groups of playful youths who tried to trip him
up, and enjoyed his looks of terror very much.
After he reached the Bowery he was no longer annoyed, as that street was already
being filled with many men going to work. He walked slowly down to Worth street,
trying to make sales on the way, but not meeting with much success.
When he got to the corner in front of Koster & Bial's offices he applied himself
to the attempt to sell his goods very vigorously. He stepped up to every man who
came along and holding up his shoestrings endeavored to get him to purchase
these. Falling in this, he would draw attention to his other wares. Sales were
very low, but occasionally a man would buy a pair of shoestrings or a
handkerchief and on each of the sales Abraham's face would become radiant. The
change would not be noticeable as long as the customer was around. Oh! no. His
natural trading instincts were too strong for that. The only expression of his
face in approaching possible customers was one that continued to say, "Just look
here. See how clean my wares are. See what bargains I am offering you." If he
sold one thing to a man he would always endeavor to sell him another. Apparently
he was never satisfied, but when he was unobserved his gratification showed
He had not been on the corner very long when other street fakers came along.
There were three of these. One was a lad who had some odd mechanical toys, which
at once attracted a crowd and made Abraham feel envious. Another was an old man
with gray hair and gray beard, who sold the same class of goods as Abraham. He
was a very silent old man and hardly spoke to the others. Frequently, however,
he was found muttering to himself in a strange way, and the younger man would
laugh at him. They fraternized more or less, and there appeared to be a feeling
of good will among them. A third of the newcomers had a stock of different kinds
of candles, which were bought mostly by the boys who worked in the neighboring
stores and shops.
The old man seemed to make the most sales, and Abraham watched him keenly to
learn how he did it. He noticed that the old man was not overzealous in
approaching passers-by, but that he took care always to have his wares neatly
arranged and kept them plainly in sight, so that everybody would be pretty sure
to notice them. Abraham did not remain stationary on the corner, but walked up
and down between there and the corner of Doyers street. As he walked he kept
poking his basket under the nose of everybody along his route, and kept swinging
his shoe-strings back and forth. He was an odd and picturesque looking object,
but not over pleasing.
He had picked up just sufficient English to be able dimly to understand ordinary
questions and to be able to state the prices of his wares. Sometimes he would
get stuck for a word or would not be able to understand what was said to him,
and then he would shrug his shoulders helplessly and look troubled. If, upon
such an occasion, the customer would pass on without purchasing, Abraham would
feel very bad, and would mutter to himself in a jargon for some minutes.
One of his customers disturbed him considerably. He was a United States marine
and was somewhat under the influence of liquor. He kept pointing at Abraham's
basket as he swayed to and fro, but nothing that Abraham selected from his wares
seemed to suit him.
"What's the matter with you," said the marine stupidly, "I want a match. Why
don't you gimme a match?"
Then, as Abraham, who didn't understand, would stick out a collar button or a
pair of garters, the marine would say:
"Ah, go blow yourself. Don't you know nothing? Gimme a match. Can't you
understand English? Ah, you make me tired."
With a disgusted expression on his face, he reeled off. Abraham was convinced
that he had wanted to purchase something and had become disgusted by his not
being able to understand him. In order to cool off his excitement and forgot his
disappointment, he left the corner of Worth street, where this happened, and
strayed up to Pell street. Two tough-looking fellows who had been watching him
followed behind him. When they got up to where he was about to turn around, one
of them sneaked up Pell street to the bend, while the other touched Abraham on
"Say, Boss," said this one. "I want to get a pair of suspenders."
He pointed to the articles in question, and Abraham took some from his shoulder
and showed them to him.
"I guess these will do," said the tough, selecting a pair, "how much are they?"
Abraham understood the latter part of this, and said:
"Twenty-five cents." "Well, look-a-here," said the tough, "come up here in the
Bend where I can try 'em on. They don't look long enough."
Abraham didn't understand and looked wonderingly at him. Seeing this the tough
indicated by signs what he had said. Abraham although a little suspicious,
followed the tough until they turned the corner of the Bend, where they were out
of sight of the crowd on the Bowery. The place was well fitted for the tough's
purposes. He stepped into the hallway of one of the dilapidated tenement houses
and pretended to try on one of the suspenders. While he was still fumbling with
them the other tough came out from his place of hiding and got behind Abraham.
The first thing the latter knew a heavy hand rested over his mouth and another
hand stole into his pocket and grabbed some of the loose coin there. He
struggled desperately and managed to get away from his assailants, whereupon he
gave vent to a number of piercing cries for help. One of the thieves hit him in
the face, but the blow glanced off and did not hurt him seriously. The thieves
dashed out of the doorway but, fortunately for Abraham, a couple of sturdy
laborers were passing at the time.
Hearing him yell and seeing the two fellows run, they at once realized what had
happened. They gave chase to the thieves and shortly succeeded in collaring
them. Abraham, who had collected his scattered wares in the hallway, limped up
to where the thieves were standing with their captors. His lips were bleeding,
his clothes were covered with dust, and his old hat was more battered and broken
than before. A crowd had gathered, and sympathy was not altogether with Abraham.
In fact, there seemed to be a disposition on the part of some of the thieves
friends to resent them. There were no policemen in sight and it looked as though
their intention would be carried out. Abraham approached the thieves pleadingly,
and, holding out his hand, cried the only appropriate words that he knew:
The thief who had taken his coin, fearing that a policeman might appear before
his friends could interfere, took from his pocket the greater part of the stolen
coin and handed it over to Abraham. The latter took it joyfully and walked away,
and, as there seemed to be no further object in holding the thieves, their
captors let them go.
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