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«The First Day * * GEORGE AND HELEN WAITE PAPASHVILY George Papashvily and his American wife collaborated on Anything Can Happen, a book recounting ...»

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The First Day *




George Papashvily and his American wife collaborated on Anything Can Happen, a book recounting George's experiences as,an immigrant from Georgia, one of the republics of the former Soviet Union, to the United States shortly after World War I (1914-1918).


days the boat was quiet.

We were in America.

I got up and stepped over the other men and looked out the porthole.

Water and fog. We were anchoring off an island. I dressed and went on deck.

Now began my troubles. What to do? This was a Greek bbat and I was 1 ' steerage, so of course by the time we were halfway out I had spent all my landing money for extra food.

Hassan, the Turk, one of the six who slept in the cabin with me, ca~e up the ladder.

"I told you so," he said as soon as he saw me. "Now we are in America and you have no money to land. They send you home. No money, no going ashore. What a disgrace. In your position, frankly, I would kill myself."

Hassan had been satisfied to starve on black olives and salt cheese all the way from Gibraltar, and he begrudged every skewer oflamb I bribed away from the first-cabin steward.

We went down the gangplank2 into the big room. Passengers with pic- tures in their hands was rushing around to match them to a relative. Before their tables the inspectors was busy with long lines of people.

The visitors' door opened and a fellow with big pile of caps, striped blue and white cotton caps with visors and a top button, came in. He went first Istcerage: the part of an ocean passenger ship occupied chiefly by immigrants. The cheapest berths were in the hold, which was crowded, lacking in fresh air, sanitary facilities, and headroom.

2gangPlank: a temporary walkway for passengers from a ship to the dock or pier.

34 FRESH OFF THE BOAT to an old man with a karakue hat near the window, then to a Cossack4 in the line. At last he came to me.

"Look," he said in Russian, "look at your hat. You want to be a green- horn all your life? A karakul hat! Do you expect to see anybody in the U. S. A. still with a fur hat? The customs inspector, the doctor, the captain- are they wearing fur hats? Certainly not."

I didn't say anything.

he said. "I'm sorry for you. I was a greenhorn once myself.

"Look," I wouldn't want to see anybody make my mistakes. Look, I have caps. See, from such rich striped material. Like wears railroad engineers, and house painters, and coal miners." He spun one around on his finger. "Don't be afraid. It's a cap in real American style. With this cap on your head, they couldn't tell you from a citizen. I'm positively guaranteeing. And I'm trading you this cap even for your old karakul hat. Trading even. You don't have to give me one penny."

Now it is true I bought my karakul caudie new for the trip. It was a fine skin, a silver lamb, and in Georgia5 it would have lasted me a lifetime.

StillI'll tell you," the cap man said. "So you can remember all your life you made money the first hour you were in America, I give you a cap and a dollar besides. Done?" I took off my caudie and put on his cap. It was small and sat well up on my head, but then in America one dresses like an American and it is a satisfaction always to be in the best style. So I got my first dollar.

Ysaacs, a Syrian, sat on the bench and smoked brown paper cigarettes and watched all through the bargain. He was from our cabin, too, and he knew I was worried about the money to show the examiners. But now, as soon as the cap man went on to the next customer, Y saacs eXplained a way to get me by the examiners-a good way.

Such a very good way, in fact, that when the inspector looked over my passport and entry permit I was ready.

"Do you have friends meeting you?" he asked me. "Do you have money to support yourself?" I pulled out a round fat roll of green American money-tens, twentiesa nice thick pile with a rubber band around.

3karakul: a valuable, tightly curled fur from young lambs of the Astrakhan region of Russia. The skins were often made into a distinctively shaped hat.

4Cossack: member of a Russian group noted for horsemanship that provided irregular cavalry for the Russian army.

5Georgia: an independent republic of the former Soviet Union whose southern border is the shore of the Black Sea.



"O.K.," he said. "Go ahead." He stamped my papers.

I got my baggage and took the money roll back again to Ysaacs' friend, Arapouleopolus, the money lender, so he could rent it over again to another man. One dollar was all he charged to use it for each landing. Really a bargain.

On the outer platform I met Zurabeg, an Ossetian,6 who had been down in steerage too. But Zurabeg was no greenhorn coming for the first time.

Zurabeg was an American citizen with papers to prove it, and a friend of Gospadin Buffalo Bilf besides. This Zurabeg came first to America twenty years before as a trick show rider, and later he was boss cook on the road with the Gospadin Buffalo Bill. Every few years, Zurabeg, whenever he saved enough money, went home to find a wife-but so far with no luck.

"Can't land?" he asked me.

"No, I can land," I said, "but I have no money to pay the little boat to carry me to shore." A small boat went chuffing back and forth taking off the discharged passengers. "I try to make up my mind to swim, but if I swim how will I carry my baggage? It would need two trips at least."

"Listen, donkey-head," Zurabeg said. "This is America. The carrying boat is free. It belongs to my government. They take us for nothing. Come on. " So we got to the shore.

And there-the streets, the people, the noise! The faces flashing byand by again. The screams and chatter and cries. But most of all the motion, back and forth, back and forth, pressing deeper and deeper on my eyeballs.

We walked a few blocks through this before I remembered my landing cards and passport and visas. I took them out and tore them into little pieces and threw them all in an ash can. "They can't prove I'm not a citizen, now," I said. "What we do next?" "We get jobs," Zurabeg told me. "I show you."

We went to an employment agency. Conveniently, the man spoke Russian. He gave Zurabeg ticket right away to start in Russian restaurant as first cook.


"Now, your friend? What can you do?" he asked me.

"I," I said, "am a worker in decorative leathers particularly specializing in the ornamenting of crop handles according to the traditional designs."

60ssetian: person from the Caucasus region of southeastern Russia.

7Bulfalo Bill: (William Frederick Cody, 1846-1917). An American scout, Indian fighter, bison hunter, and guide, who in 1883 started a series of famous Wild West shows.

Cowboys, Indians, animals, and personal;ties like Chief Sitting Bull and Annie Oakley were featured.

36 FRESH OFF THE BOAT "My God!" the man said. "This is the U.S.A. No horses. Automobiles.

What else can you do?" Fortunately my father was a man of great foresight and I have two trades.

His idea was that in the days when a man starves with one, by the other he may eat.

"I am also," I said, "a swordmaker. Short blades or long; daggers with or without chasing; hunting knives, plain or ornamented; tempering,.

fitting, pointing-" I took my certificate of successful completion of apprenticeship out of my chemidon.

"My God! A crop maker-a sword pointer. You better take him along for a dishwasher," h~ said to Zurabeg. "They can always use another dishwasher. " We went down into the earth and flew through tunnels in a train. It was like the caves under the Kazbeck where the giant bats sleep, and it smelled even worse.

The restaurant was on a side street and the ladyowner, the hasaika, spoke kindly. "I remember you from the tearoom," she said to Zurabeg. "I congratulate myself on getting you. You are excellent on the piroshkis, 8 isn't.

It.?" "On everything, madame," Zurabeg said grandly. "On everything.

Buffalo Bill, an old friend of mine, has eaten thirty of my piroshkis at a meal.

My friend-" he waved toward me- "will be a dishwasher."

I made a bow.

The kitchen was small and hot and fat-like inside of a pig's stomach.

Zurabeg unpacked his knives, put on his cap, and, at home at once, started to dice celery.

"You can wash these," the hasaika said to me. "At four we have party."

It was a trayful of glasses. And such glasses-thin bubbles that would hardly hold a sip-set on stems. The first one snapped in my hand, the second dissolved, the third to tenth I got washed, the eleventh was already cracked, the twelfth rang once on the pan edge and was silent.

Perhaps I might be there yet, but just as I carried the first trayful to the service slot, the restaurant cat ran between my feet.

When I got all the glass swept up, I told Zurabeg, "Now, we have to eat. It's noon. I watch the customers eat. It makes me hungry. Prepare a shashlik 9 and some cucumbers, and we enjoy our first meal for good luck in the New World."

"This is a restaurant," Zurabeg said, "not a duquani on the sid~ of the Georgian road where the proprietor and the house eat with the guests 8piroshkis: dumplings or tarts of dough enclosing meat, potatoes, or vegetable filling.

9shashlik: skewered meat, frequently lamb, usually broiled over charcoal.



37 together at one table. This is a restaurant with very strict organization. We get to eat when the customers go, and you get what the customers leave.

Try again with the glasses and remember my reputation. Please."

I found a quart of sour cream and went into the back alley and ate that and some bread and ajar of caviar which was very salty-packed for export, no doubt.

The hasaika found me. I stood up. "Please," she said, "please go on.

Eat sour cream. But after, could you go away? Far away? With no hard feelings. The glasses-the caviar-it's expensive for me-and at the same time I don't want to make your friend mad. I need a good cook. If you could just go away? Quietly? Just disappear, so to speak? I give you five, dollars.' "I didn't do anything," I said, "so you don't have to pay me. All in all, a restaurant probably isn't my fate. You can tell Zurabeg afterward."

She brought my cap and a paper bag. I went down through the alley and into the street. I walked. I walked until my feet took fire in my shoes and my neck ached from looking. I walked for hours. I couldn't even be sure it was the same day. I tried some English on a few men that passed. "What watch?" I said. But they pushed by me so I knew I had it wrong. I tried another man. "How many clock?" He showed me on his wrist. Four-thirty.

A wonderful place. Rapidly, if one applies oneself, one speaks the English.

I came to a park and went in and found a place under a tree and took off my shoes and lay down. I looked in the bag the hasaika gave me. A sandwich from bologna and a nickel-to begin in America with.

What to do? While I decided, I slept.

A policeman was waking me up. He spoke. I shook my head I can't understand. Then with hands, with legs, rolling his eyes, turning his head, with motions, with gestures (really he was as good as marionettes I saw once in Tiflis), he showed me to lie on the grass is forbidden. But one is welcome to the seats instead. All free seats in this park. No charge for anybody. What a country.

But I was puzzled. There were iron arm rests every two feet along the benches. How could I distribute myself under them. I tried one leg. Then' the other. But when I was under, how could I turn around? Then, whatever way I got in, my chin was always caught by the hoop. While I thought this over, I walked and bought peanuts for my nickel and fed the squirrels.

Lights began to come on in the towers around the park. It was almost dark. I found a sandy patch under a rock on little bluff above the drive. I cut a shashlik stick and built a fire of twigs and broiled my bologna over it and ate the bread. It lasted very short. Then I rolled up my coat for a pillow like the days during the war and went to sleep.



I was tired from America and I slept some hours. It must have been almost midnight when the light flashed in my face. I sat up. It was from the head lamp of a touring car choking along on the road below me. While I watched, the engine coughed and died. A man got out. For more than an hour he knocked with tools and opened the hood and closed it again.

Then I slid down the bank. In the war there were airplanes, and of course cars are much the same except, naturally, for the wings. I showed him with my hands and feet and head, like the policeman: "Give me the tools and let me try." He handed them over and sat down on the bench.

I checked the spark plugs and the distributor, the timer and the coils. I looked at the feed line, at the ignition, at the gas. In between, I cranked.

I cranked until I cranked my heart out onto the ground. Still the car wouldn't move.

I got mad. I cursed it. I cursed it for a son of a mountain devi. I cursed it for the carriage of the diavels in the cave. I cursed it by the black-horned goat, and when I finished all I knew in Georgian I said it again in Russian to pick up the loose ends. Then I kicked the radiator as hard as I could.

The car was old Model T, 10and it started with a snort that shook the chassis like an aspen.

The man came running up. He was laughing and he shook my hands and talked at me and asked questions. But the policeman's method didn't work. Signs weren't enough. I remembered my dictionary-EnglishRussian, Russian-English-it went both ways. I took it from my blouse pocket and showed the man. Holding it under the headlights, he thumbed through.

"Work?" he found in English.

I looked at the Russian word beside it and shook my heag.

"Home?" he turned to that.

"No," again.

I took the dictionary. "Boat. Today."

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