All in all, why did I come to this nightmarish New York? To fill my pockets with dollars, and then to go back and live as a money-changer? No. You know that the answer is no. Out of curiosity? Yes. . . . Somehow yes. But most of all out of anxiety. Does this legendary America the fertile, the emotional, the just, the wise, and the generous really exist? I went to see for myself—to touch—to try. Because I did not believe the stories of those who returned, or the narcissism of the Voice of America, or the pessimistic commentaries of Trybuna Ludu. I have been cheated too many times in my forty years of life. I have about twenty years left and then what? Am I going to fizzle out in this wretched Poland—isolated from the West and the East—and from within? Am I going to plod along like an old horse with its head hopelessly down, just to reach the end? To drink myself to death, to hang myself as two of my close friends did, in order to escape the ever-present lies? Or maybe I should try one more time—check? Maybe everything will be different?
Full of fear, excitement, and astonishment at my anxiety, on board of the airplane. Is it real, could it be true, that I, Michael, am flying now to the legendary New York! From Taplar, my village, a place where the windows are not boarded up, but yet restrictions dominate!
On the platform, amidst the crowd, there were my wife and child waving. I waved. . . . Not knowing if it were me or just my arm!
When the plane moved, shaking and gradually accelerating, I was pushed into my seat. Through the window I stared at the runway sneaking under the machine and me, creeping faster and faster until the runway finally dropped. With it went the grass, the trees, and the roofs, farther and farther away. Suddenly something pricked my eyes! While my arm is still, somebody’s hands are clasped in prayer, somebody is whispering and whining: “Am I ever going to see the fields again? Am I going to return to the birches?” Who is it, so sentimental and lost in prayer?
A yokel. Inside Michael Multi-existent there is Michael the Polish yokel, born in a cottage near the forest, taught about the earth, horses, scythes. Holy Night, and the motherland. I’m sitting but he is standing inside me; peering out the round window, he salutes.
He bids a farewell to Poland. Whereas he is shedding tears and whimpering, another one is bubbling with joy! At last! Hey, we’re flying! Ogling the stewardesses, trying to decode signs in foreign languages, analyzing the offered breakfast, and peeking at his fellow passengers.
“I’m flying!” he screams.
“Am I really flying to this famous America? Today my Slavic feet will tread in Manhattan!”
This one is happy—who is it?
A wanderer. A traveler. Inside Michael Multi-existent there is Michael the Wanderer. Antithesis of the yokel, the bush, the potato, the milksop. He loathes the village, stagnation, the motherland-provinciality, Slavic lyricism, and narrow-mindedness. If man is to live once, why is it that he ties himself to one area? Nonsense! Or to one wife? Nonsense! Or to one nation? In Europe alone there are thirty countries! Add to this some twenty-five beautiful countries like Australia, India, Japan, and Canada! Counting them all, it works out to two countries per person per year. Roam, roam! Don’t be like Burek, the dog, who guards only one doghouse.
“There is only one motherland!” answers Michael the Yokel.
“Just like there is only one father and one mother.”
“You, Yokel,” the Wanderer answers. “If you think about it, everything in the world is unique, is one and only, every second.”
“Like bushes, like trees, which grow only in one place and extend their roots, piercing the earth and outgrowing it, and don’t skate on the surface with airplanes. You see? He wants America.”
And America is approaching. Already, we are over the North Sea, the captain announces, then the Atlantic, then Canada seems to be below us. We are flying—me and my two Michaels inside me, the Yokel and the Wanderer, the Homebody and the Traveler. Like a little red apple cut into a cross and rock-and-roll, like Coca-Cola and kvass.
At last we are asked to fasten our seat belts. The airport!
Stamps—the suitcase—WELCOME!—you must be Andrzej and Krystyna—kisses—searching for a taxi—instead of setting the sun is blinding—we’re driving—what’s new with Zosia—and Aunt Anka—and the queues—and “Solidarity”—and here’s the bay—do you see the yachts?—and here’s Brooklyn—we get out—elevator, doors—three locks—it’s hot Andrzej, turn on the air conditioner—you sit, Michael, catch your breath—drink something—eat—and tell us everything. . . .
I talk, looking at them with suspicion. Am I really in America? Let me go to the window and look out.
“What are you looking at? You haven’t eaten yet.”
“The cars,” I say.
“What about the cars?”
“Aren’t they too long?”
“No,” they say.
“This is America. Here everything is bigger. The cars are bigger. The shops are bigger. The trees are bigger. The fish are bigger. The speeds are faster. The successes are greater. The adversities are more intense. The steaks are larger. Do you understand?”
“O.K., do you want whiskey, gin, vodka, wine, juice, or cola?”
“A pint of beer and to bed.”
“If you’d like to sleep, let’s go to my house.”
I grab my suitcase and we run to the subway. . . . I get an explanation as to where, what, how much, the route, transfers.
“We get out here.”
The sign says “Nassau.” We take the stairs to the surface. It’s strange: it’s New York, Brooklyn, but the houses are like those in Grajewo. Only the colors are more vivid and daring.
“Greenpoint,” you explained, “is a Polish neighborhood,” and over there, across the river, you pointed out the tops of the skyscrapers, and I saw one with a sloping roof There . . . Manhattan.
Manhattan! . . .
“Tomorrow we’ll get you maps and tourist guides. You’ll sit and make a plan. Roam around for a week. And then to work. Here, time is money.”
In the morning I buried myself in the maps and guides. Famous streets and famous names; my hands are trembling. Broadway! Central Park! The Empire State Building! East River, the Hudson, Long Island, Fifth Avenue, Forty-Second Street. . . .
Statue of Liberty!
“Take this pill, otherwise you won’t be able to sleep. . . . “
I swallowed it. I fell asleep. No dreams. Until there was a howl, a roar under the windows. I jumped . . . then sat down wondering if it was an alarm?! What’s going on? Is it World War III? To the window. I saw a car with flashing lights and the sign POLICE like the ones you see in the American TV series.
To the bathroom. One, two, oh, to Manhattan. Already shaved and teeth taken care of, and perfumed, and dressed, equipped with tourist guides, already at Nassau Station. The token was bought. Inserted. Platform.
The wall tiles full of scrawls. And something stinks . . . Stinks? Or maybe it doesn’t stink? It’s different here, cents, pounds. So maybe the odors are rearranged as well? Clamor—alligator GC is creeping out of the tunnel. How full it is of scribbles! And in the middle, flourishes—black, pink, blue. A black man keeps his legs high up on a pipe, chews, reads. A pale fellow chews ads, oh, the New York Times. A fatso is standing with earphones, bouncing, swaying, dancing with himself, with his reflection in the windowpane. A woman is reading hieroglyphics from the end to the beginning, in columns. A red-haired man is transporting something green in a jar, something alive, reptile-cicada-insect . . . teasing it with a pen. The atmosphere is African-Italian-Puerto Rican. International. Multilingual. Well, well . . . It has begun. Here one can get a shock.
Let it hit. If only to wake me up from the socialist coma.
Queens Plaza. Change trains here, the way they do it in New York; transfer. Tables, arrows. . . . It’s here!
“Manhattan!” crows the Traveler. “Oh Manhattan! My Czestochowa! My Rome and Vatican!”
The F is already arriving. Boarding. People are more densely packed, more perfumed, more expensive. And this confusion, confusion! Babylon.
“You are riding in the New York subway. Yokel!” the Traveler trembles with delight.
“Geez. . . . On the New York subway! I—Michael from Taplar.”
“We’re riding under water. . . . Above us is the East River. . . . “
“East River? I don’t believe it. It’s a dream.”
“Soon, Fifth Avenue . . . America’s Champs Elysées. The Champs Elysées of the American Hemisphere. . . . “
“I don’t believe it, I don’t believe it! Only day before yesterday I was lapping beer in a bar on Warsaw Street. . . . “
But watch out Michaels; here’s what we’re going to do: don’t look yet to the side or up. Only at your shoes. Go out to this famous avenue with eyes on the sidewalk. And then suddenly crane the neck and in one swallow gulp down a shot of this hundred-proof New York!
Am I gonna fall?
Already. . . . I am looking at the sidewalk but feeling the heights. How? With what? Maybe with hair. My hair is being pulled upward—vertically. My thoughts are being tugged vertically. What is pulling, what is tugging? Force. Something antigravitational. The madness of these builders.
Fear of raising the head. . . . There were so many legends about . . . But . . .
I close my eyes—tilt my head back—pull myself together. And suddenly the trap doors of the eyes go click and I open.
Geez. . . .
Knees weaken. . . .
They didn’t lie, those who told the stories. As if I’d drunk half a gallon and . . . To sit, geez, to sit—as long as I’m standing. Over there somebody is sitting on the curb, emptying an Adidas bag. Let us sit, Michaels, let us sit, as long as we are not lying down.
When seated, the height is even higher, twice as high. The Michaels are bewildered. The Yokel and the Wanderer. Inside a poor spinning head words go round and round: Wealth! Might! Wealth! Pride! Might! Pride! Wealth! Might . . .
But I hear squeaking:
“Maybe it’s an illusion. . . . Sort of stereovision? Maybe these cars, herds of cars—like herds of buffalo in Westerns—maybe it’s all make-believe? How about lying across the street—let them knock me down, run me over—only when in pain, with bones crushed—shall I believe them then? Or hit my head against the wall of this building—what if it’s just a decoration? Maybe somebody from the New York Propaganda Bureau is walking in front of me showing a special film for the newcomer from a communist country? After all, for what purpose would anyone erect such buildings, geez! Might! Pride! Wealth . . . The neck is already hurting, Michaels, let us go into the crowd. First steps . . . “
Lead in the shoes. Oppressiveness. And diminution. Dwarfing. . . . Because of the hugeness. Because of the millions. Because of the billions. Because of the nation. Because of everything. Because of the canyons. Colorado. And because of the grain. Of sand. I. Lie down. Die . . . Let it absorb. And dissolve. It would be better . . .
not to come,
sit at home,
with head in the sand,
and wiggle with krakowiak rhythm
Ci ja, ci ja, dylu, dylu . . .
It’s too powerful. It’s too rich.
Oh, get your bearings. . . . Where is the handkerchief?
From the airplane. In the bag. It’s here. Let it refresh. Wipe the forehead. Ooff. . . .
And the Wanderer: “To Broadway!”
And the Yokel: “Oh Geez, a small park . . . To sit! Catch one’s breath. It’s difficult, oh it’s difficult, I am frightened. . . .”
The Wanderer: “Breathe, wheeze, when Broadway is over there!”
And the Yokel: “That’s it! Enough! Why, why should I aggravate myself? The more I see, the more I will miss my bleak motherland!”
“Bury your head in the sand?”
“Yes, deep into the sand, damn it, somewhere near the cottage! Even so we will never achieve this. The path to the side . . . It’s gone, too bad, let the grass grow over us.”
“Both of you Michaels come to your senses.” I, Multiexistent, call both of them back.
“Let us put away the old knives and forks; we are not going to taste New York the way people from Warsaw or Taplar would. Calm down, guys. Neither with envy, nor with sorrow. Not with animosity, nor with reverence. Look with an eye that’s neither Red nor underground. Calmly. Kindly. Look. Listen. Absorb. Taste. Let us then enter the human jungle, Michaels. Oh, the human forest. Jungle. The city.”
Plodding along, walking, the Michaels—in this famous Manhattan, renowned Fifth, notorious Forty-Second, here, there, back and forth, wherever the crowd takes us . . . Legs! Buttocks! Breasts! Hair! Teeth! Lipstick! Bracelets! Green! Burgundy! Yellowish! Ultramarine! Black! Cars! Screams! Whistles! Eyes! Teeth! Jewelry! Shops! Legs! Boots! Hands! Lips! Pineapples! Small Crowd! Dancing! Trumpet! Drunkard! Nudity! Ice cream! Hotel! Honda! Central Park! Garden in a hallway! A stricken woman, hair in disarray, end of the world! Radio City . . . Fountains . . . Braids! Helicopter! Betting parlor! . . .
Sex—community center . . .
Shops, shops, shops, shops . . . And there’s too much of everything. Such as tape recorders—this is already tape recorder mania. . . . Such as coffee—half a hectare of cupboards, shelves with coffee. Such as bread—it’s quarter of an hour to choose and agony to decide. Such as beer—in many different languages—in bottles, cans, casks, kegs—in packages of four, six, eight, one hundred sixty-eight. . . . Such as shampoo—so many brands that although you promise yourself not to rage against socialism, all this can make your blood boil! Here there’s so much but there, in that desperate country, baited from the East, and the West, and from within, you never know what will be in the stores or where, or when. And here there is shampoo for cats, for dogs, damn our stores . . . meatless stores. Anticommercial warehouses. Department stores with no merchandise. Gas stations without gasoline. Geez!
When I found myself in Macy’s and saw the hectares of counters, glass cases, shelves, eight floors, hectares of merchandise—it’s all unbelievable—I became sad. Even worse: bitterness overcame me, followed immediately by resentment.
It occurred to me why in that country shelves are empty, meat hooks are naked . . .
Because they intercept. Somewhere, somehow, yet they intercept. Americans. I am serious.
They intercept, of course, without breaking the law. Humanitarian law. They are above reproach—officially and morally. They. But . . . He? God?
You, High Up There, without Thy Will not even a hair, not even one penny will fall, do you hear me?
Why in my wretched Poland can things never be even half normal?
Why have You decided to persecute this ill-fated nation so?
This passage is an excerpt for Edward Redlinski’s novel, Dolorado, and was translated by Ewa Bardach-Elkadi.
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