T h e L i t t l e W i n n i e
Sammy Sodagersky wrote the word "bliss" on a small slip of paper he tore from the edge of his "Forvarts." Though his English letters were still haunted by his original Russian, he knew he could carve the letters right and so he could do the job for Mister William Patterson, who had suddenly decided that he wanted his new building on East Fifteenth Street named "Bliss," and wanted Sammy, the mason, to etch that exact word above the doorway. It was a different kind of job for a carver of gravestones and he was glad to do it.
Not that he needed to know what the word meant to carve it, but, to satisfy the bottomless pit of his curiosity, Sammy learned anyway that bliss meant “great joy or happiness," or even "heavenly or spiritual joy." And, he knew that Mister William Patterson wanted to name his new little Georgian on East Fifteenth Street "Bliss" because of his upcoming wedding to some woman whose name Sammy didn't know, but knew had to be something like Margaret or Elizabeth. Something gentile.
Heading uptown from his apartment on Hester Street, his ladder lying in the back of his wagon, Sammy pictured himself in the cool sunlight of a fine Autumn afternoon, up on his ladder, carving this new word, "bliss," into the pristine masonry of the little Georgian. He was a good mason, even though to get work he had to bid jobs a little lower, because he was a Jew. But it wasn't so bad. In all, it was a nice life, this America, for a young man with a slight build, a light hand, and a zoftig wife who was soon to have their first child.
Mister Patterson probably thought Sammy, being a poor immigrant, was impressed with him. That Sammy thought Patterson more wealthy than he really was just because he could afford to buy a small piece of land in Manhattan and have a builder build a twelve-family apartment building (four apartments on each floor, three floors) and hire him, Sammy, to do this little job for him. But Sammy knew the difference between real wealth and borrowing. The wheeling and dealing, the "hondling" his grandfather used to call it. And Patterson was not, to Sammy's keen eye, wealthy. He was just a show-off. Especially for his new bride, that Elizabeth. And what did Patterson know about naming buildings? Nothing. Sammy, who had fashioned stubborn slabs of marble into open books and scrolls, Sammy whose heart felt swollen as a raisin in noodle pudding. Sammy knew.
Since he was fifteen he had been carving gravestones, mindlessly etching words as beautiful as this "bliss" that Patterson wanted. ("Beloved Wife," "Cherished Father," "Devoted Mother") But the graves and their inhabitants and even the despairing families they left behind were impossible for a fifteen year old boy to think about. Other boys could shoe a horse, make a barrel. But his father had told Sammy he was an artist and that God had given him this one skill in the world because, let’s face it, Sammy wasn’t much to look at, and wasn’t exactly a star pupil at Hebrew school either, and in exchange it would be only proper that he paid God back by showing up at synagogue once in awhile now that he was of age.
But maybe, Sammy thought, God had given him this one gift so that he could carve a life for himself in the future where not the whole world was crazy and hateful. A place like America.
And so, when Patterson instructed him to carve some letters into a building, for Sammy the only difference, at first, was location. If Patterson had thought of it sooner, Sammy could have spared himself schlepping a ladder and risking sloppy work. He could have worked in his shop as usual. But now, steering his horse uptown, he had time to think. Maybe for the first time since he was fifteen, Sammy thought about where his work would end up. Instead of carving the end of a life, Sammy realized, for the first time he was carving a beginning. And his own life was full of beginnings too since he got off that boat to America four years ago with thirty American dollars and a very old address of a very distant cousin of his mother’s.
This Rivka wasn’t so delighted to see him but the thirty American dollars softened her up a little. ”Nu, we’ll have to put up with you, won’t we?” and she gave him a cot to sleep on in her living room for the year it took him to find work and move out on his own. At least she was American and could teach him the ways. And when she found out he actually had a skill, she got busy helping him find work, too. So, he couldn’t complain, even though she was a real sour puss whose personal American disappointments had piled up like laundry.
Sammy was still at the beginning of things; his marriage, his shop, which he shared with two other fellows, both immigrants also, and his baby, who slept inside its mother, its heart so new it hadn’t even memorized its own rhythm yet.
Up there on his ladder, the fine American sunlight warming his shoulders while a cool breeze crept under his flannel shirt and chilled his hairy belly, Sammy Sodagersky could see all the future inhabitants of this little building. There would be a frail elderly woman named Virginia who was neglected by her children and lived only with a parakeet named Pete. There would be a younger, single woman, also named Virginia (he had met many women named Virginia since he came to America) with bleached hair, who worked as a cashier at Woolworth's and came home each night with a small bag of groceries. There would be Joe, the sporty bachelor who left a trail of cheap cologne as he went out to pick up his girl for their date. Sammy liked him best. Though his cologne smelled like a mixture of paint thinner and cloves, to Sammy it showed that Joe had pride in himself. Oh that Patterson! Why was he cursing all these innocent Americans? They would all have to say the "kinehura" every time they came in or went out just to thwart the evil eye. To name a building, like an expectation of one's life, Sammy knew was asking for trouble even if Patterson didn't know. Though he tried every night to convince his wife why he should shorten his name to "Soda," to be more American, Sammy still worried about the evil eye.
On a scintillating day like this, on East Fifteenth Street in America, whistling "Yankee Doodle," it was easy to believe there were no evil eyes. Yeah, yeah, he knew all about Debs and his IWW and he couldn't help but sympathize, but in America at least the Czar's army wasn't firing on him. There was only opportunity (and no pogroms!) for a young immigrant willing to work hard. But when it came time to carve it in stone, into a building, that was another story. What a person thought in the privacy of their own thoughts was one thing. To announce to the world, to God, to maybe even the dybbik himself that one had renounced even the possibility of evil, Sammy knew was asking for trouble.
Patterson's heart wasn't a dull ache in his chest when he thought about the future generations who would come and go right here, under Sammy's ladder. All he thought about was getting married…to that Margaret! All he cared about was showing off. But the naming of anything was important! Didn't Patterson know that? Didn't God himself deliberate, making sure he got the names of everything just right? Did God call "night", "day" and "day", "night?" No, because He wasn't showing off. And if God didn't show off, why then should Patterson?
No, Sammy thought. To carve that word, “Bliss,” into this fine new Georgian was not possible.
He unpacked his carving tools from their worn leather pouch and faced the blank rectangle above the doorway. "Bliss," he repeated to himself and tried to remember the word in Yiddish. In his next letter to his mother he would have to ask her. Probably she would tell him again that his curiosity was worse than a rash. And so, Sammy made his first strike into the building thinking about his mother. But to name the building "Vittel," her Yiddish name, he knew was no good. To give a brand new American building a Jewish name would be to damn it to being an immigrant forever. Wouldn't he have American children who would grow up healthy and with no accents and with educations? Why then should he curse this little Georgian to be an eternal foreigner? Not to mention he also worried a little bit once Patterson found out. The man didn't seem to hate Jews, but giving his pretty new American building a Yiddish name could change things.
In English, the closest name Sammy could come up with for his mother was "Winifred." He had written home and told everyone what they would be called in America. Because his mother's first cousin was also "Vittel," and stood five foot eight, he had dubbed her "Big Winnie," and his own mother, standing only five foot one, "Little Winnie." He had told Little Winnie, in his long letters, all about life in New York City. But all she cared about was the arrival of his baby, and she prayed every day that she should be healthy enough to live to see her American grandchild.
When Sammy's two children were old enough that he could take them places without their mother, he brought them to East Fifteenth Street one day and showed them the building named after their late Bubbe, who they had never met.
"Bubbe Vittel?" the children asked.
"Yes, Bubbe Vittel," he explained. "But in English her name would have been Winifred."
"But why didn't you call it The Little Vittel?" his son, Sol, asked, and his daughter burst out giggling.
"The Little Vittel!" Sammy exclaimed, laughing along with his children on East Fifteenth Street.
"Oh boy! I got in enough trouble as it was. You never saw an American so angry!"
"Did he beat you up?" Sol asked.
"Beat me? No, no. Not in America! He didn't pay me and he told me I would never work for him again."
"No, I never did."
"So, you were fired forever?" Sol worried.
"No. Not forever. Just from Patterson I was fired."
"But other people let you work for them?" little Goldie asked.
"Of course! This is America!” He reached for both of their small hands and turned them towards the avenue.
They walked up East Fifteenth Street, heading towards Second Avenue. By now “The Gloria” and “Evelyn Court” had joined “The Little Winnie” on a block where buildings had suddenly sprung up in hopeful elegance, named, like his building, for a woman. He wondered about it. Gloria. Evelyn. Someone’s wife or fiancée. Or, could be, someone’s mother from the old country who never made it over here to see her namesake, or East Fifteenth Street, or even America itself, where Sammy Sodagersky had come not that long ago and already made his mark in stone.
"Come," Sammy said. "Let me buy my smart American children a pretzel, and one to take home to their Mama.”
Copyright 2018 Rachel A Levine