The next time you’re in lower Manhattan, be sure to take some time to visit the Tenement Museum. It’s located in the SoHo neighborhood of the city, so named because it’s South of Houston Street (in one of those wonderful quirks of the English language, the name of this street is pronounced “How-ston”, as opposed to the city in Texas, the name of which is pronounced “Hugh-ston”). The neighborhood has, for perhaps a quarter century now, been throughly gentrified, with the five-story brownstones that line its streets remodeled and turned into fashionable but oh-so-expensive apartments occupied mainly by the rising stars of the trading houses on nearby Wall Street. But in the late nineteenth through mid twentieth centuries, this place was among the most poverty-ridden slums in the nation; these same brownstones were occupied almost exclusively by penniless immigrants fresh off the boat, many of whom had come through Ellis Island with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Here they toiled in backbreaking and often terribly hazardous conditions. Some (including more than one of my own ancestors) dug the subway tunnels under the city with shovels or moved rock with their bare hands, others labored in sweatshops where fourteen to sixteen hour days, six or even seven days a week, were the norm. Many were crippled, maimed, or killed in accidents like the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of 1911, in which 146 workers, mostly women, burned alive or were crushed in a panicked stampede after a fire broke out at a garment factory and those inside found that the owners had locked the exits in an effort to keep them from taking unauthorized breaks. After their long days of work, the immigrant laborers came home to these tenements, which in those days were kept in a horribly dilapidated condition. The very poorest among them were consigned to the basement apartments, where they lived and slept in an inch or two of water that perennially covered the hard stone floors.
Those days are long past, but a bit of them is preserved at 97 Orchard Street, which the Tenement Museum Foundation acquired just as the neighborhood was beginning its turnaround in the 1980s. From 10AM to 6:30PM, seven days a week, it receives visitors who are given guided tours of apartments that have been carefully restored to look as they would have during the great wave of immigration that hit New York City in the 1880s through the 1920s. If you go there on a weekday during the off-season when the summer tourists are gone and things are slow, and if you show up early for your tour and find yourself sitting in the museum’s lobby with the chance to chat a bit with your guide before they start showing you through the exhibits, you may just end up being favored with hearing this story…
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Sometime toward the tail end of the nineteenth century, a young immigrant by the name of Piotr found himself, after being processed through Ellis Island, lost and alone in the confusing bustle of Grand Central Station in New York City. Surrounding him was a madding crowd made up mostly of other immigrants from every conceivable end of Europe, few of whom spoke so much as a single word of English, and many of whom were illiterate even in their native languages. Interspersed among them, trying to bring some semblance of order to the perpetual chaos that the influx of immigrants had brought to Grand Central, were railway employees, whose job it was to make sure that the immigrants got on the right train – the one that would take them to whoever it was that had sponsored them on their journeys across the Atlantic. Sometimes the sponsors would be relatives, but most often they were employers whose desire for cheap labor was so insatiable that they contracted with agents in Europe who recruited directly from among the continent’s poor, providing them with sponsorships and passage to America in exchange for pledges to work a certain number of years for those who had sponsored them. Most of these agents were deeply dishonest and unscrupulous, telling their perspective recruits tales of streets paved with gold in the New World, and carefully avoiding any truths about sweatshops and tenements.
It was one of these agents who had recruited Piotr, a second son of a poor dairy farmer in some backwater of a Poland that, in those days, was still under the domination of the Russian Czar. At the port of Danzig, before his ship set sail for New York, the agency handed him a piece of wood with that had a bit of rope attached to it at both ends and a word he didn’t recognize written on it. This was the agency’s rather ingenious workaround for the problem of their recruits not having the basic English skills necessary to tell the railway men in New York where they were supposed to be going – it was a sign that they were supposed to wear around their necks when they arrived that had the name of their destination painted on it in large lettering. Now, ten days later and an ocean away, Piotr stood in the chaos of Grand Central Station with the sign dutifully hung around his neck.
Eventually, he managed to fight his way through the crush to one of the railway employees, an annoyed, busy man whose patience with the immigrants who had brought unceasing disorder to his station was running noticeably short. The railman, who simply didn’t have the time to spend more than a few seconds with each one of the newcomers swarming around him, took a quick glance at the sign around Piotr’s neck and pointed him toward a departing train. In the confusion, nobody even stopped to check whether he had a ticket before he boarded (sponsors usually paid fares upon the arrival of their new laborers, so there wasn’t much point in looking at their ticket before they got to their destinations anyway). Everyone seemed satisfied by the fact that he was going where his sign said he should, though Piotr himself had never before even heard of the place whose name was painted on it – a place called Houston.
For three long days, the train rumbled along; through the Mid-Atlantic states, through the Tidewater, through the deep south, and on into Texas. Finally, the exhausting ordeal came to an end when the conductor shook Piotr awake and guided him off the train. Having arrived at his new home, he walked inside the Houston & Texas Central Railway depot to wait for his sponsor to come for him.
He waited all day, and then all night, sleeping fitfully on one of the depot’s wooden benches. Then he waited all the next day, and all the next night as well. By the end of Piotr’s third day there (and with no one having come to pay for his train fare), the station master knew that something had gone wrong. Unable to communicate with the young man and unable to find anyone who knew anything about him or how he had gotten there, the station master eventually summoned the sheriff. The sheriff, who was equally unable to make any sense of the situation, took Piotr off to jail, ostensibly on a charge of vagrancy, but more than anything simply because the jail had a bed for him to sleep in and food for him to eat until someone could figure out where he had come from and what to do with him.
For several days, the sheriff made inquiries, but turned up nothing – nobody seemed to be missing an immigrant or to know who might be missing one. Though Houston is now a vast metropolis, it was in those days a small, sleepy country city – a cow town where everyone knew everyone, surrounded by vast cattle ranches. It didn’t take long before anyone who might know anything had been asked, and every possible route of inquiry had come up dry. The sheriff knew that he couldn’t keep Piotr in jail forever, nor did he wish to, as the young man seemed like a decent enough sort of lad. Unable to think of anything else to do with him, the sheriff started asking around to see if any of the local ranchers would take him on as a hired hand. After a bit of good-natured cajoling, one of them – an old friend of the sheriff – agreed to it. The next morning, a wagon arrived to take the still-confused Piotr away to his new life on the ranch.
As soon as he arrived, his eyes lit up with a combination of joy and relief. Finally, there was something in America that he was comfortable with! He might not have known much about his new country or even known a word of its language, but if there was one thing he did know from growing up on a dairy farm, it was cows. Even his lack of English proved not to be as great a problem as the rancher feared, as Piotr needed hardly any instruction in his duties at all. Beyond this, he was responsible and hardworking; unlike the other cowboys, he didn’t spend his nights getting drunk or his days off down at the local whorehouse or gambling den, and so he was neither perpetually hung over nor perpetually broke. As he slowly but surely became fluent in English, he became more and more useful, and the rancher steadily promoted him to higher (and better paid) positions. And if Piotr had successfully caught the boss’s eye, eventually the gentle and industrious young man began to catch the eye of the boss’s eldest daughter, as well; with the rancher’s blessing, a romance blossomed between them.
Years passed, and the newcomer’s fortunes continued to rise. He became a trusted employee, then a friend, and finally part of the family; courtship turned to marriage, and in time, the ranch passed to Piotr and his wife. Under their direction, the ranch became more prosperous than ever. From the humblest of beginnings, the immigrant who had arrived with nothing came to be wealthy, respected, and a pillar of his community – he had found the American Dream in his adoptive home.
Yet contented as he was, there was still one thing that had never stopped bothering him over the years – the mystery behind the chain of events that had brought him to the ranch in the first place. No one in Houston had ever been able to come up with any explanations – as far as the Texans were concerned, he had simply appeared out of nowhere one day. And so, decades after he had passed through it on his way to his new life, Piotr, now wealthy enough to afford the trip and fluent enough to understand whatever documents he might uncover, set out, with his wife and a couple of his older children in tow, for New York City, to see if he could find out what had happened all those many years ago. While his family enjoyed the delights of shopping and dining on Fifth Avenue, Piotr returned to Ellis Island, spending his days digging through file cabinets full of dusty, yellowed old papers. After a few frustrating, long days of searching, he finally found what he was looking for.
His sponsor had been one the the garment sweatshops that operated in lower Manhattan, and the sign that he carried was meant to send him to Houston Street, not to Houston, Texas. In the crush and chaos of Grand Central Station, the overworked railway employee who never bothered to look at his papers had hastily pointed Piotr toward the wrong train. He was never meant to go where he had gone at all, and, if not for a quirk of fate, would have ended up in a life of crushing poverty in the slums of New York, working fourteen-hour days for pennies in horrifying conditions in someplace very much like the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, and living in misery in a tenement very much like what 97 Orchard Street looked like in those days, most probably even sleeping in an inch of water in a dark and moldy basement apartment.
Piotr returned to the big, comfortable house on his ranch in the wide-open plains of Texas very happy indeed for quirks of fate, and determined never to return to New York City, lest an elderly garment factory owner somewhere south of Houston Street find out who he was and attempt to sue him for the cost of a steerage class ticket from Danzig to New York.
And he lived happily ever after, y’all.
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This seems as good a way as any to start a series of essays on the topic of the advantages of us all seeking our fortunes in the country rather than in the big cities. Expect more in this series to be coming soon.