Babinsky. Immigration (1976 – 1977). 2: The American Way

Babinsky. Immigration (1976 – 1977). 2: The American Way

First car: used Ford, Galaxy 500. Chicago. Year 1977.

First car: used Ford, Galaxy 500. Chicago. Year 1977.

Previous: Immigration. 1: First Days in Chicago

Next: Immigration. 3: Culture Shock. Culture Clash

Hospital Care: The American Way

We walked the two miles home to save money and to organize our thoughts. Following Susan’s advice, we broke ten dollars into quarters at the Jewel, dialed zero on the public phone at the train station across from it, and dropped in the coins, per the operator’s instructions.

The Soviet operator claimed that Avram and Rakhil declined to accept a call from America but, on the third try, relented. Rakhil made it known, to me and to the eavesdropping operator, that they had submitted their application.

Emily and Polina spent five days at the Mount Sinai Hospital, a far cry from six weeks in Kiev. They played with other little patients in a playroom supervised by a nurse. I did not have to wear a lab coat or bring food. Their room had a large window and was the size of many Kiev apartments.

The tests confirmed, again, the absence of the reflux. Evidently, Emily had outgrown it in the last Soviet days; Polina never developed persistent symptoms. The doctors assured me that a routine outpatient surgery would take care of the problem if it came back.

They attributed my arm-flailing at the word surgery to a language barrier and enlisted the help of a Russian-speaking colleague, an immigrant to Israel doing research in Chicago (there were no Russian-speaking physicians in the United States yet.)

She listened patiently to my saga. “It is true that the surgery does not result in incontinence. These guys don’t remember bougienage, to them it’s barbaric,” she said. “Count your blessings: clearly, kidneys are not Emily’s weak spot, or a multi-year reflux would have destroyed them by now.”

Americans: Too Relaxed

Immigrants, restless and impatient for self-reliance, viewed the pre-job-preparations, the ESL, and the medical checkups imposed by JFCS as a pointless delay. The notion that in the English-speaking workplace “the language will come by itself” was still entrenched. The notion that health and work were connected monetarily seemed absurd—what did we, the offspring of free medical care, know about insurance? When in a matter of two years the flow of our compatriots overwhelmed our hosts into shrinking or ceasing some of the services, we realized how fortunate we had been.

The persistent propaganda that outside our motherland we would be zilch made us believe that immigrant women were sentenced to babysitting and men to menial labor.

Reality proved that immigrants’ abilities were not inferior to those of their local colleagues and often superior. As soon as they were free to think for themselves, the new arrivals started fantasizing about changing careers, opening eateries, gas stations, dry cleaners, owning rental property.

An economist worked at a beauty salon with a plan to buy it; a mechanical engineer baked bread at home and sold it to Jewish bakeries. One could fantasize freely – the word profit was not shameful.

Before we rented an apartment, Dima located places after his own heart: hardware and lumber stores that he visited like museums. He never quite got over the majestic vision of nails and plywood and door knobs, not only the dizzying variety but also the fact that they could be bought instead of swiped from plants or construction sites.

He did not confess to finding a store that sold magic tricks until he had a real job and could afford to make a purchase there.

Without leaving our building, Dima made his first money. Five dollars for installing closet shelves for one tenant and two dollars for changing a lock for another tenant, a lady who gave me her granddaughter’s clothes for Emily and smiled at us in the hallway. (It felt strange to be smiled at by strangers. Americans did a lot of smiling and asking “how are you.”)

She had Jimmy Carter’s photo on her cupboard. I asked what influenced her to pick Carter over Ford. “Just look at his wonderful smile!” she exclaimed. “And I always vote Democratic anyway.” People had a choice and didn’t take it seriously.

Job-Search: The American Way

While JFC translated and notarized our documents, Dima schmoozed with the staff with the purpose of getting Senator Henry Jackson’s phone number: “If not him we would still be in the Soviet Union. I have to thank him.”

Henry Martin “Scoop” Jackson. U.S. Senator. Photo from:

He wrote and rehearsed a brief speech and finally worked up the courage to call. Not only did the Senator listen but he also asked questions about our family and our plans. To Dima’s apologies for taking up his time, Senator Jackson objected, “You don’t know how much your words mean to me. They are validation that my work helps real people.”

Bena and Mike Shklyanoy. Chicago. September, 1976.

Bena and Mike Shklyanoy. Chicago. September, 1976.

Mr. Rosenthal, our caseworker at JVS, greeted us in very good Russian. We were mesmerized – he sat in an armchair that had wheels! He wore a three-piece gray suit (like in pre-revolution photos of Russian bourgeois), shoes polished to shine, a dark tie and a white shirt. He smiled approvingly when we asked to switch to English. Together, we went over the details of our professional experience and education and he asked what our degrees were equivalent to: Bachelor’s or Master’s. We were not familiar with either term and wouldn’t apply the word degree to anything below a doctorate.

It turned out that based on the number of years of study we had a Master’s. However, it would be prudent, he said apologetically, to show, with our permission, Bachelor’s on our resumes, so as not to sound overqualified for the jobs we could realistically aim for. We could change the resumes later on (no carved-in-stone employment record book in America!): “Your goal is the first job. Afterwards, the world is your oyster.” What was oyster?

We hoped that Mr. Rosenthal knew what he was doing. He played down the tales of supreme power of inside connections because companies simply looked for the best fit when filling an opening. With a show of horror, he nixed our idea to work for free in the beginning to prove our expertise, “Don’t ever suggest that! It will show your lack of confidence. You should be paid for what you contribute to the business.” What a concept!

Interviewing for office positions was a science with strict rules to follow. Dress code was the most important of them. Mr. Rosenthal stood up to illustrate how male candidates were supposed to dress for an interview. Except that the three-piece suit did not have to be gray like his; black or navy was acceptable but not brown. Conservative haircut; no facial hair. A woman was expected to have a modest hairdo and inconspicuous jewelry if any and  to wear a buttoned-up white blouse, a skirt suit with a straight below-the-knee skirt; pants a no-no (like in the Soviet Union); closed-toe plain black shoes, known as pumps, with one-inch heels, flats a no-no. The fight for equal rights, he said, was bearing fruit: women finally started entering the ranks of professionals in significant numbers but the clothing industry had not yet caught up. Started… – why didn’t they work before, how did families survive on one salary? We were bewildered but nodded.

I would soon discover the challenge of locating these ingredients for success, particularly in my price range. Stores did not carry straight skirts or buttoned-up white blouses. Not my lifesaver Goldblatt’s department store, not the more expensive ones. I wondered if my first interviews failed due to my purplish collarless blouse and a wide-ish skirt. I almost didn’t want to be hired, considering Mr. Rosenthal’s comment that at work everyone wore a different outfit every day though not necessarily always white shirts and blouses, light-blue or light-pink were a norm too. How in the world would we afford that kind of luxury?

Apartment Hunting: The American Way

On average, fifteen to twenty people attended the English class in the Korean church. The teacher, a timid college grad, was no match for her battle-hardened pupils, a congregation of kindred souls who had nobody else to share news with.

An English word barely got in edgeways. Dima and I dropped out. I focused on apartment hunting; Dima enrolled in ESL at the Loop College.

Unsure about our job prospects after the six months paid by JFCS, we resolved to rent the cheapest two-bedroom: a bedroom for Syuta, a bedroom for the girls, the living room for Dima and me.

Landlords claimed that city sanitary norms did not allow such crowded living ‒ a family of five had to have three bedrooms. My argument that we were used to multipurpose rooms in Kiev did not fly. Beyond improving my spoken English and understanding of various accents, I had nothing to show for the week spent pursuing “for rent” signs and chasing landlords and janitors on public phones.

A burly man on a ladder was attaching a “for rent” sign for a two-bedroom apartment to the building on 7004 North Paulina Street.

7004 N. Paulina St at Lunt Ave in East Rogers Park, Chicago. 2017.

One glance at my eager face, and he removed the sign and climbed down.

“If you want an apartment you’ve got it,” the man said with a heavy Slavic accent. He was a Serb; his name was Ilya and he was the janitor and part-owner of the building. That morning, the police evicted, after a long legal fight, the tenant in the apartment next door to his.

“A mother and two teenagers on drugs together – and it took forever to evict them! Americans!” He delivered a scathing and fascinating review of the eviction process. Where were Americans when we had seventy-two hours to vacate our apartment when Avram was fired for cosmopolitanism?

Desperate for a good family to show a good example for his children, he could not care less if we wanted to make a bedroom out of the living room. If we helped clean the apartment, he would knock off ten dollars from the two-hundred-thirty-dollars rent (amount lower than JFCS’s acceptable maximum) and give us the key before we signed the lease.

The apartment was in shambles. Debris covered the floor, cockroaches danced en masse on the stove, moldy food in the refrigerator stunk, toilet and tub were reddish-yellow, and sticky grime coated the dishes and silverware in the cabinets. How could Americans live like that?

Ilya and Dima shoveled the rubbish into large bags; Ilya washed the floor and his wife baked an apple cake for the occasion. Dima located a hollow behind the stove with grape-like bunches of cockroaches. He had an excuse to visit the hardware store: he nailed a square of metal mesh over the hole and slapped a thick layer of plaster on top. He would be happy, he told Ilya, to help prepare other apartments for new renters.

I loaded up on a spritz against roaches and on cleaners. We dunked the content of the cabinets ‒ dusty plates and serving utensils ‒ into the bathtub full of chlorine to soak overnight. I did not know about rubber gloves and woke up the next morning with angry red blisters on my arms. But the silverware sparkled and the dishes turned out to be delicate china, some of it still in use as I write.

Furnishing a House: The American Way

Everybody said that during May and September moving seasons the back alleys transformed into a smorgasbord of discarded furniture. Weren’t Americans supposed to be efficient and money-loving?

We found a round kitchen table and four chairs, a lazy-boy chair in working order, and an almost-new mattress with a frame. I ripped up the sacks sewn for the customs inspection in Chop and stitched them around the mattress.

Stories about the treasure trove of items that sold for pennies at garage sales were no fairy tales, either. Invading garages or residences flustered us in the beginning but we got used to it, stopped apologizing, and grew to revel in the experience.

We acquired a velvet bedspread, brand-new comforters, utensils, beautiful children’s clothing—more and better things than we had owned in all our former life. And a color television, five hundred rubles in Kiev, for eight dollars!

In all honesty, if not for the books we would have been happy without our luggage. (Little did we know that we would not read our Russian books and our children would not be able to read Russian.)

The store that Susan had steered us to carried just the right furniture. The JFCS’s five-hundred-dollar check bought a mattress for Syuta; a sofa, loveseat, and a coffee table; a cupboard; and a dresser, nightstand, and lamp for each bedroom. The salesman threw in a large table lamp and mattress frames for free. Bought today delivered tomorrow, no daily sign-ins to tick off our name.

Out of his league where furniture was concerned, Dima wandered off into the used-appliances corner. By the time I paid for the order, he netted a part-time job refurbishing vacuum cleaners: one day a week, eight hours, twenty dollars in cash. “Do you know how to do it?” I asked nervously. “No, but it’s only a vacuum cleaner.”

Every Friday afternoon he proudly waived a twenty-dollar bill in front of me. He got a bonus too, a free vacuum cleaner. “It is true,” he said, “that America’s streets are paved with gold.”

Three days after we moved into our apartment, a telephone installer arrived, smiled, assembled a phone from components packed in plastic bags, tested the connection, lowered two thick directories onto the coffee table and—He thanked us!

The building directly across the street attracted police on a daily basis. Their light-flashing cars blocked the intersection; officers conversed with the tenants outside or ran inside to drag somebody out. Neither side appeared particularly upset.

Every day, a black man, tall and skinny, sat on the ground in any weather, hugging his knees, his back to the wall. When he saw Emily approaching the intersection after school he sauntered over, took her hand, and crossed the street with her.

I credit him with teaching me how to parallel park when we acquired the green tank-size Ford Galaxy in the fall of 1977.

He shooed me into the passenger seat and smoothly rolled the car into perfect position, regardless of how tight the spot was. Transfixed, I watched the master’s every move and eventually learned.

Medical Checkup: The American Way

For our medical checkup we had the clinic to ourselves. Dr. Sokol waited for us in an empty waiting room. His surname meant falcon in Russian but I did not dare to attempt small talk.

He gave us forms to fill where we marked off family medical history. The curtain he unfurled separated the examining table from the front of the room. He was surprised at our “wow” that nobody besides a doctor could see an undressed patient during a visit. He called it privacy, a word not translatable into Russian.

Dr. Sokol saw no need for follow-up, except for Dima around whom he fussed and whose tests and consultations with specialists eventually confirmed congenital defects in two heart valves.

Actually, Dima felt healthy, no shortness of breath that had plagued him in Kiev. He ascribed the miracle to the quality of air. I could certify to a miracle of my own: cholecystitis may have been a wild guess. I could eat anything, except spicy and fatty food, without worrying about aftertaste, bitterness in my mouth, or nausea. Maybe it helped that the Chicago tap water left no buildup. The sand in Kiev water used to harden into rock inside the teakettle.

From Tooth to Tooth.

The dentist at the Mount Sinai Hospital, Dr. Hornberg, met his Russian patients with an order “Otkroy! (Open!)” in a funny-accented Russian.

He outfitted Syuta with a full set of dentures that did not shift, spin, or click. I assured him that my teeth, though loose, were in perfect condition: the last series of my fillings and root canals installed before we left Kiev still held.

But my gums left a pink outline even in soft bread because of gingivitis (not familiar with the concept of bread toasting, we bought the cheapest bread that felt like cotton.) He growled, “Gingivitis? Where?” and walked out. He returned accompanied by three doctors. One by one, they peeked into my mouth, their expressions aghast and empathetic.

Dr. Hornberg made an X-ray and spoke rapidly. If I understood correctly, gums would come later, because the root canals were only partially done and the fillings ready to fall out. He pointed at me accusingly: “Brezhnev plokho! (Brezhnev bad!) Where would you want me to start?”

When he approached with a syringe I was baffled – what would a dentist use a syringe for? Anesthesia? Why? I could take a little pain. His astonishment convinced me. While we waited for the anesthetic to take effect, Dr. Hornberg interrogated me about Soviet dentistry. He screamed, “How dumb should people be to allow arsenic in their mouths?”

For several months, I was a fixture in his chair and an inspiration for his animated exchanges with colleagues ‒ my English improved markedly.

He dug out and replaced all the fillings and redid all the root canals. (His work is still in place in 2015, almost forty years later.) By then, my gums did not bleed any longer and my teeth were not loose. Dr. Hornberg shrugged, “Are you sure it was gingivitis, not scurvy?”

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