Abraham of Essex Street 1890

A Typical Story of the Poor Jew and His New York Life

"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 coffee.

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 Prayers.

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 rest.

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 the jargon.

"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 itself.

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 the shoulder.

"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: "Money, money."

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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Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: Abraham of Essex Street 1890
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


The Sun November 30, 1890
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