05 May Babinsky. Immigration (1976 – 1977). 2: The American Way
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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
The restless immigrants viewed the pre-job-search ESL and medical examinations imposed by JFCS as a pointless delay of employment. Only much later we realized how much it helped.
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?
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.”
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.”
Mr. Rosenthal, our caseworker at JVS, greeted us in Russian from an armchair that had wheels. He looked over the descriptions of our professional experience and education and asked what our degrees were equivalent to: Bachelor or Master. (We were not familiar with the terms; we would not even apply the word degree to any education below doctorate.)
He asked our permission to list them as Bachelor, or we may appear overqualified for the jobs we could realistically hope to get. We could change the resumes later on (no carved-in-stone employment record books in America): “Your goal is the first job. Then the world is your oyster.”
In Russian, words resume and interview were not associated with job search, only blat was. In America blat was important too, everybody said, but the candidate had to be qualified and a position vacant.
Mr. Rosenthal nixed our suggestion to work for free in the beginning in order to prove our expertise, “That would show your lack of confidence. You should be paid for what you contribute to the company.”
Interviewing was a science with strict rules. Candidates for office positions were expected to wear a black or gray, never brown, suit and freshly polished shoes; a tie and a white shirt. Women had to wear a white or solid-color blouse, below-the-knee skirt; pant suit a no-no.
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 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.
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 hardened 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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