The Rise of David Levinsky
Part 4 out of 11
"It's none of your business."
"Of course you are."
"And if I am? Is it a disgrace?" "Who says it is?"
I desisted. He became more attractive than ever to me
Nevertheless, I made repeated attempts to deprave him. His
chastity bothered me. The idea of breaking it down became an
irresistible temptation. I would ridicule him for a sissy, appeal to
him in the name of his health, beg him as one does for a personal
favor, all in vain
He spoke better English than I, with more ease, and in that pretty
basso of his which I envied. He had never read Dickens or any
other English author, but he was familiar with some subjects to
which I was a stranger. He was well grounded in arithmetic, knew
some geography, and now with a view of qualifying for the study
of medicine, he was preparing, with the aid of a private teacher,
for the Regents' examination in algebra, geometry, English
composition, American and English history. I thought he did not
study "deeply" enough, that he took more real interest in his
collars and neckties, the shine of his shoes, or the hang of his
trousers than he did in his algebra or history
By his cleanliness and tidiness he reminded me of Naphtali, which,
indeed, had something to do with my attachment for him. My
relations toward him echoed with the feelings I used to have for
the reticent, omniscient boy of Abner's Court, and with the hoarse,
studious young Talmudist with whom I would "famish in
company." He had neither Naphtali's brains nor his individuality,
yet I looked up to him and was somewhat under his influence.
I adopted many of the English phrases he was in the habit of using
and tried to imitate his way of dressing. As a consequence, he
would sometimes assume a patronizing tone with me, addressing
me with a good-natured sneer which I liked in spite of myself
We made a compact to speak nothing but English, and, to a
considerable extent, we kept it
CHAPTER V A FEW weeks of employment were succeeded by
another period of enforced idleness. I took up arithmetic, but
reading was still a great passion with me. My mornings and
forenoons during that slack season were mostly spent over
Dickens or Thackeray
I now lived in a misshapen attic room which I rented of an Irish
family in what was then a Gentile neighborhood. I had chosen that
street for the English I had expected to hear around me. I had
lived more than two months in that attic, and almost the only
English I heard from my neighbors were the few words my
landlady would say to me when I paid her my weekly rent.
Yet, somehow, the place seemed helpful to me, as though its very
atmosphere exuded a feeling for the language I was so eager to
master. I made all sorts of advances to the Irish family, all sorts of
efforts to get into social relations with them, all to no purpose.
Finally, one evening I had a real conversation with one of my
landlady's sons. My window gave me trouble and he came up to
put it in working order for me. We talked of his work and of mine.
I told him of my plans about going to college. He was interested
and I thought him charmingly courteous and sociable. He
remained about an hour and a half in my room. When he had
departed I was in high spirits. I seemed to feel the progress my
English had made in that hour and a half
My bed was so placed that by lying prone, diagonally across it, my
head toward the window and my feet suspended in the air, I would
get excellent daylight. So this became my favorite posture when I
read in the daytime.
Thus, lying on my stomach, with a novel under my eyes and the
dictionary by my side, I would devour scores of pages. In a few
weeks, often reading literally day and night, I read through
Nicholas Nickleby and Vanity Fair.
Thackeray's masterpiece did not strike me as being in the same
class with anything by Dickens. It seemed to me that anybody in
command of bookish English ought to be able to turn out a work
like Vanity Fair, where men and things were so simple and so
natural that they impressed me like people and things I had
known. Indeed, I had a lurking feeling that I, too, could do it, after
a while at least. On the other hand, Nicholas Nickleby and
Dombey and Son were so full of extraordinary characters,
unexpected wit, outbursts of beautiful rhetoric, and other
wonderful things, that their author appealed to me as something
more than a human being. And yet deep down in my heart I
enjoyed Thackeray more than I did Dickens, It was at the East Side
branch of the Young Men's Hebrew Association that I obtained
my books. It was a sort of university settlement in which educated
men and women from up-town acted as "workers." The advice
these would give me as to my reading, their kindly manner, their
native English, and, last but not least, the flattering way in which
they would speak of my intellectual aspirations, led me to spend
many an hour in the place. The great thing was to hear these
American-born people speak their native tongue and to have them
hear me speak it. It was the same as in the case of the chat I had
with the son of my Irish landlady. Every time I had occasion to
spend five or ten minutes in their company I would seem to be
conscious of a perceptible improvement in my English
Some days I would be so carried away by my reading that I never
opened my arithmetic. At other times I would drift into an
arithmetical mood and sit up all night doing problems
When I happened to be in raptures over some book I would pester
Jake with lengthy accounts of it, dwelling on the chapters I had
read last and trying to force my exaltation upon him. As a rule, he
was bored, but sometimes he would become interested in the plot
or in some romantic scene.
One evening, as we were discussing love in general, I said: "Love
is the greatest thing in the world."
"Sure it is," he answered. "But if you love and are not loved in
return it is nothing but agony."
"Even then it is sweet," I rejoined, reflectively, the image of
Matilda before me.
"How can pain be sweet?"
"But it can."
"If you were really in love with Madame Klesmer you wouldn't
"I love her as much as you do."
"You are always saying you do, but you don't."
"Yes, I do." And suddenly lapsing into a confidential tone, I
questioned him: "By the way, Jake, is this the first time you have
ever been in love?"
"I just want to know. Is it?"
"What difference does it make? Have you ever been in love
"What difference does that make? If you answer my question I
shall answer yours." "Well, then, I have never been in love
"And I have."
He was intensely interested, and I confided my love story in him,
which served to strengthen our friendship still further. When I
concluded my narrative he said, thoughtfully: "Of course you don't
love Madame Klesmer. I tell you what, Levinsky, you are still in
love with Matilda."
I made no answer
"Anyhow, you don't love Madame Klesmer."
This time he said it without reproach. Once I was in love with
somebody else I was excused.
The next "season" came around. I was a full-fledged helper now,
and, according to the customary arrangement, I received thirty per
cent. of what Joe received for my work. This brought me from
twenty to twenty-five dollars a week, quite an overwhelming sum,
according to my then standard of income and expenditures. I
saved about fifteen dollars a week. I shall never forget the day
when my capital reached the round figure of one hundred dollars. I
was in a flutter. When I looked at the passers-by in the street I
would say to myself, "These people have no idea that I am worth a
Another thing I was ever conscious of was the fact that I had
earned the hundred dollars by my work. There was a touch of
solemnity in my mood, as though I had performed some feat of
valor or rendered some great service to the community. I was
impelled to convey this feeling to Jake, but when I attempted to
put it into words it was somehow lost in a haze and what I said
was something quite prosaic
"Guess how much I have in the savings-bank?" I began
"I haven't any idea. How much?"
"Just one hundred."
"Honest. But, then, what does it amount to, after all? Of course, it
is pleasant to feel that you have a trade and that you know how to
keep a dollar, don't you know."
So far from endearing me to the cloak trade, as might have been
expected, the hundred dollars killed at one stroke all the interest I
had taken in it.
It lent reality to my vision of college. Cloak-making was now
nothing but a temporary round of dreary toil, an unavoidable
stepping-stone to loftier occupations
Another year and I should be a fully developed mechanic, working
on my own hook--that is, as the immediate employee of some
manufacturer or contractor.
"I shall soon be earning forty or fifty dollars a week," I would
muse. "At that rate I shall save up plenty of money in much less
time than I expected.
I shall spend as little as possible and study as hard as possible."
The Regents' examinations were not exacting in those days. I could
have prepared to qualify for admission to a school of medicine,
law, or civil engineering in a very short time. But I aimed higher. I
knew that many of the professional men on the East Side, and,
indeed, everywhere else in the United States, were people of
doubtful intellectual equipment, while I was ambitious to be a
cultured man "in the European way." There was an odd confusion
of ideas in my mind. On the one hand, I had a notion that to
"become an American" was the only tangible form of becoming a
man of culture (for did not I regard the most refined and learned
European as a "greenhorn"?); on the other hand, the impression
was deep in me that American education was a cheap
CHAPTER VI COLLEGE! The sound was forever buzzing in my
ear. The seven letters were forever floating before my eyes. They
were a magic group, a magic whisper.
Matilda was to hear of me as a college man. What would she say?
"What do you want City College for?" Jake would argue. "Why not
take up medicine at once?"
"Once I am to be an educated man I want to be the genuine
article," I would reply
Every bit of new knowledge I acquired aroused my enthusiasm. I
was in a continuous turmoil of exultation
My plan of campaign was to keep working until I had saved up six
hundred dollars, by which time I was to be eligible to admission
to the junior class of the College of the City of New York,
commonly known as City College, where tuition is free. The six
hundred dollars was to last me two years--that is, till graduation,
when I might take up medicine, engineering, or law. During the
height of the cloak season I might find it possible to replenish my
funds by an occasional few days at the sewing-machine, or else it
ought not to be difficult to support myself by joining the army of
private instructors who taught English to our workingmen at their
The image of the modest college building was constantly before
me. More than once I went a considerable distance out of my way
to pass the corner of Lexington Avenue and Twenty-third Street,
where that edifice stood. I would pause and gaze at its red,
ivy-clad walls, mysterious high windows, humble spires; I would
stand watching the students on the campus and around the great
doors, and go my way, with a heart full of reverence, envy, and
hope, with a heart full of quiet ecstasy
It was not merely a place in which I was to fit myself for the battle
of life, nor merely one in which I was going to acquire knowledge.
It was a symbol of spiritual promotion as well. University-bred
people were the real nobility of the world. A college diploma was
a certificate of moral as well as intellectual aristocracy
My old religion had gradually fallen to pieces, and if its place was
taken by something else, if there was something that appealed to
the better man in me, to what was purest in my thoughts and most
sacred in my emotions, that something was the red, church-like
structure on the southeast corner of Lexington Avenue and
It was the synagogue of my new life. Nor is this merely a figure of
speech: the building really appealed to me as a temple, as a House
of Sanctity, as we call the ancient Temple of Jerusalem. At least
that was the term I would fondly apply to it, years later, in my
retrospective broodings upon the first few years of my life in
I was impatiently awaiting the advent of the slack season, and
when it came at last I applied myself exclusively to the study of
subjects required for admission to college. To accelerate matters I
engaged, as my instructor in mathematics and geography, the son
of our tough-looking presser. I paid him twenty-five cents an hour.
My geography lessons were rapidly dispelling the haze that had
enshrouded the universe from me. I beheld the globe hanging in
space, a vast independent world and yet a mere speck among
countless myriads of other worlds. Its rotations were so vivid in
my mind that I seemed to hear it hum as it spun round and round
its axis. The phenomena producing day and night and the four
seasons were as real to me as the things that took place in my
restaurant. The earth was being disclosed to my mental vision as a
whole and in detail. Order was coming out of chaos. Continents,
seas, islands, mountains, rivers, countries, were defining
themselves out of a misty jumble of meaningless names. Light
was breaking all around me. Life was becoming clearer. I was
broadening out. I was overborne by a sense of my growing
My keenest pleasure was to do geometrical problems, preferably
such as contained puzzles in construction. On one occasion I sat
up all night and far into the following day over a riddle of this
kind. It was about 2 o'clock when I dressed and went to lunch,
which was also my breakfast. The problem was still unsolved. I
hurried back home as soon as I had finished my meal, went at the
problem again, and did not let go until it surrendered.
Odd as it may seem, I found a certain kind of similarity between
the lure of these purely mental exercises and the appeal of music.
In both cases I was piqued and harassed by a personified mystery.
If a tune ran in my mind it would appear as though somebody, I
knew not who, was saying something, I knew not what. What was
he saying? Who was he? What had happened to him? Was he
reciting some grievance, bemoaning some loss, or threatening
vengeance? What was he nagging me about? Questions such as
these would keep pecking at my heart, and this pain, this
excruciating curiosity, I would call keen enjoyment
In like manner every difficult mathematical problem seemed to
shelter some unknown fellow who took pleasure in teasing me
and daring me to find him. It was the same mischievous fellow, in
fact, who used to laugh in my face when I had a difficult bit of
Talmud to unravel
"Why, geometry is even deeper than Talmud," I once exclaimed to
"Do you think so?" he answered, indifferently
"I think an interesting geometrical problem is more delicious than
the best piece of meat."
"Why don't you live on problems, then? Why spend money on
"Smart boy, aren't you?"
"Is doing problems as sweet as being in love?" he demanded, with
"You are in love with Madame Klesmer. You ought to know."
He made no answer
On the day when I began these studies I had thirty-six dollars
besides the hundred which I kept in the savings-bank. Of this I
was now spending, including tuition fees, less than six dollars a
week. Every time I changed a dollar my heart literally sank within
me. Finally, when my cash was all gone, I borrowed some money
of Joe, my "rabbi" at the art of cloak-making.
Breaking the round sum total of my savings-bank account was out
of the question. Joe advanced me money more than cheerfully. He
was glad to have me in his debt as a pledge of my continuing to
work for him. His motive was obvious, and yet I went on
borrowing of him rather than draw upon my bank account
One day it crossed my mind that it would be a handsome thing if I
looked up Gitelson and paid him the ten dollars I owed him. It
was sweet to picture myself telling him how much his ten dollars
had done and was going to do for me. I was impatient to call on
him, and so I borrowed ten dollars of Joe and betook myself to the
factory where I had visited Gitelson several times before. As he
was a sample-maker, his work knew no seasons. When I called at
that factory I found that he had given up his job there, that he had
married and established a small custom-tailor shop somewhere
up-town, nobody seemed to know where. Joe had not even heard
of his marriage. Meanwhile, my enthusiasm for paying him his
debt was gone, and I was rather glad that I had not found him
It was the middle of July. The great "winter season" was
developing. I felt perfectly competent to make a whole garment
unaided. It was doubtful, however, whether I should be readily
accepted as an independent mechanic in the shop where I was
employed now and where one was in the habit of regarding me as
a mere apprentice. So I was determined to seek employment
elsewhere. Joe was suspicious. Not that I betrayed my plans in any
way. He took them for granted. And so he visited me every day,
on all sorts of pretexts, dined me and wined me (if the phrase may
be applied to a soda-water dinner), and watched my every step
Finally I wearied of it all, and one afternoon, as we were seated in
the restaurant, I picked a quarrel with him
"I don't want your dinners," I burst out, "and I don't want to be
watched by you as if I were a recruit in the Russian army and you
were my 'little uncle.' I'll pay you what I owe you and leave me
"As if I were uneasy about those few dollars!" he said,
"I know you are not. That's just it."
He took fire. "What am I after, then? You think I get rich on your
work, don't you?"
Our altercation waxed violent. At one point he was about to lapse
into a conciliatory tone again, but his dignity prevailed
"I would not keep you if you begged me," he declared. "I hate to
deal with an ingrate. But I want my money at once." "I shall pay it
to you when work begins."
"No, sirrah. I want it at once." An ugly scene followed. He seized
me by my coat lapels and threatened to have me arrested.
Finally the restaurant-keeper and Gussie, the homely finisher girl
whom we all respected, made peace between us, and things were
arranged more or less amicably
I obtained employment in an "inside" place, a factory owned by
twin brothers named Manheimer
I was in high feather. My sense of advancement and independence
reminded me of the days when I had just been graduated from the
Talmudic Academy and went on studying as an "independent
scholar." I had not, however, begun to work in my new place
when a general strike of the trade was declared
CHAPTER VII THE Cloak-makers' Union had been a weak,
insignificant organization, but at the call for a general strike it
suddenly burst into life. There was a great rush for membership
cards. Everybody seemed to be enthusiastic, full of fight. To me,
however, the strike was a sheer calamity. I laid it all to my own
hard luck. It seemed as though the trouble had been devised for the
express purpose of preventing me from being promoted to full pay;
for the express purpose of upsetting my financial calculations in
connection with my college plans. Everybody was saying that
prices were outrageously low, that the manufacturers were taking
advantage of the weakness of the union, and that they must be
brought to terms. All this was lost upon me. The question of
prices did not interest me, because the wages I was going to
receive were by far the highest I had ever been paid. But the main
thing was that I looked upon the whole business of making cloaks
as a temporary occupation.
My mind was full of my books and my college dreams. All I
wanted was to start the "season" as soon as possible, to save up
the expected sum, and to reach the next period of freedom from
physical toil, when I should be able to spend day and night on my
studies again. But going to work as a strike-breaker was out of the
question. A new kind of Public Opinion had suddenly sprung up
among the cloak-makers: a man who did not belong to the union
was a traitor, worse than an apostate, worse than the worst of
And so, feeling like a school-boy in Antomir when he is made to
furnish the very rod with which he is to be chastised, I went to the
headquarters of the union, paid my initiation fee, and became a
member. It was on a Friday afternoon. The secretaries of the
organization were seated at a long table in the basement of a
meeting-room building on Rivington Street. The basement and the
street outside were swarming with cloak-makers. A number of
mass meetings had been arranged to take place in several halls,
with well-known Socialists for speakers, but I had not even the
curiosity to attend them.
When some of my shopmates reproached me for my indifference I
said, sullenly: "I've joined the union. What more do you want?"
One of them, a Talmudist like myself, spoke of capital and labor,
of the injustice of the existing economic order. He had recently,
through the strike, been converted to Socialism. He made a fiery
appeal to me. He spoke with the exaltation of a new proselyte. But
his words fell on deaf ears. I had no mind for anything but my
"Do you think it right that millions of people should toil and live in
misery so that a number of idlers might roll in luxury?" he pleaded
"I haven't made the world, nor can I mend it," was my retort
The manufacturers yielded almost every point. The "season"
began with a rush
My pay-envelope for the first week contained thirty-two dollars
and some cents. I knew the union price, of course, and I had
figured out the sum before I received it, yet when I beheld the two
figures on the envelope the blood surged to my head. Thirty-two
dollars! Why, that meant sixty-four rubles! I was tempted to write
Naphtali about it
The next week brought me an even fatter envelope. I worked
sixteen hours a day. Reading and studying had to be suspcnded till
October. I lived on five dollars a week. My savings, and with them
my sense of my own importance in the world, grew apace. As
there was no time to go to the savings-bank, I had to carry what I
deemed a great sum on my person (in a money-belt that I had
improvised for the purpose). This was a constant source of anxiety
as well as of joy. No matter how absorbed I might have been in
my work or in thought, the consciousness of having that wad of
paper money with me was never wholly absent from my mind. It
loomed as a badge of omnipotence. I felt in the presence of Luck,
which was a living spirit, a goddess. I was mostly grave. The
frivolities of the other men in the factory seemed so fatuous, so
revolting. A great sense of security and self-confidence swelled
my heart. When I walked through the American streets I would
feel at home in them, far more so than I had ever felt before. At
the same time danger was constantly hovering about me-the
danger of the street crowds seizing that magic wad from me.
The image of the college building loomed as a bride-elect of mine.
But that, somehow, did not seem to have anything to do with my
money-belt, as though I expected to go to college without
encroaching upon my savings--a case of eating the cake and
The cloak-makers were so busy they had no time to attend
meetings, and being little accustomed to method and discipline,
they suffered their organization to melt away. By the time the
"season" came to a close the union was scarcely stronger than it
had been before the strike. As there was no work now, and no
prices to fix, one did not miss its protection
The number of men employed in the trade in those years did not
exceed seven thousand. The industry was still in its infancy
I resumed my studies with a passion amounting to a frenzy. I
would lay in a supply of coarse rye bread, cheese, and salmon to
last me two or even three days, and never leave my lair during that
length of time. I dined at the Delancey Street restaurant every
third or fourth day, and did not go to the theater unless Jake was
particularly insistent. But then I religiously attended Felix Adler's
ethical-culture lectures, at Chickering Hall, on Sunday mornings. I
valued them for their English rather than for anything else, but
their spirit, reinforced by the effect of organ music and the general
atmosphere of the place, would send my soul soaring. These
gatherings and my prospective alma mater appealed to me as being
of the same order of things, of the same world of refined ways,
new thoughts, noble interests
If I came across a street faker and he spoke with a foreign accent I
would pass on; if, however, his English struck me as that of a
"real American," I would pause and listen to his "lecture,"
sometimes for more than an hour.
People who were born to speak English were superior beings.
Even among fallen women I would seek those who were real
CHAPTER VIII I WAS reading Pendennis. The prospect of
returning to work was a hideous vision. The high wages in store
for me had lost their magnetism. I often wondered whether I
might not be able to secure some pupils in English or Hebrew, and
drop cloak-making at once. I dreamed of enlisting the interest of a
certain Maecenas, a German-American Jew who financed many a
struggling college student of the Ghetto. Thoughts of a "college
match" would flash through my mind--that is, of becoming
engaged to some girl who earned good wages and was willing to
support me through college. This form of matrimonial
arrangement, which has been mentioned in an earlier chapter, is
not uncommon among our immigrants. Alliances of this sort
naturally tend to widen the intellectual chasm between the two
parties to the contract, and often result in some of the tragedies or
comedies that fill the swift-flowing life of American Ghettos. But
the ambition to be the wife of a doctor, lawyer, or dentist is too
strong in some of our working-girls to be quenched by the dangers
One of the young women I had in mind was Gussie, the
cloak-finisher mentioned above, who saved for a marriage portion
too energetically to make a marriage. She was a good girl, and no
fool, either, and I thought to myself that she would make me a
good wife, even if she was plain and had a washed-out appearance
and was none too young. I was too passionately in love with my
prospective alma mater to care whether I could love my fiancée or
"I have a fellow for you," I said to Gussie, under the guise of
pleasantry, meeting her in the street one day. "Something fine."
"Who is it--yourself?" she asked, quickly
"You have guessed it right."
"Have I? Then tell your fellow to go to all the black devils."
"If I could go to college--"
"You want me to pay your bills, do you?"
"Wouldn't you like to be the wife of a doctor? You would take
rides in my carriage--"
"You mean the other way around: you would ride in my carnage
and I should have to start a breach-of-promise case against 'Dr.
Levinsky.' You'll have to look for a bigger fool than I," she
concluded, with a smile
It was an attractive smile, full of good nature and common sense.
A smile of this kind often makes a homely face pretty. Gussie's
did not. The light it shed only served to publish her ugliness. But I
did not care. The infatuation I had brought with me from Antomir
had not yet completely faded out, anyhow. And so I harbored
vague thoughts that some day, when I saw fit to press my suit,
Gussie might yield
I was getting impatient. The idea of having to go back to work
became more hateful to me every day. I was in despair. Finally I
decided to consider my career as a cloak-maker closed; to cut my
expenses to the veriest minimum, to live on my savings, look for
some source of income that would not interfere with my studies,
take the college examination as soon as I was ready for it, and let
the future take care of itself
In the heart of the Jewish neighborhood I found an attic for half of
what I was paying the Irish family. Moreover, it was a
neighborhood where everything was cheaper than in any other
part of New York, the only one in which it was possible for a man
to have a "room" to himself and live on four dollars a week. So I
moved to that attic, a step for which, as I now think of it, I cannot
but be thankful to fate, for it brought me in touch with a quaint,
simple man who is my warm friend to this day, perhaps the dearest
friend I have had in America
The house was a rickety, two-story frame structure, the smallest
and oldest-looking on the block. Its ground floor was used as a
tailoring shop by the landlord himself, a white-headed giant of a
man whom I cannot recall otherwise than as smiling wistfully and
sighing. His name was Esrah Nodelman. His wife, who was a
dwarf beside him, ruled him with an iron hand
Mrs. Nodelman gave me breakfasts, and I soon felt like one of the
She was a veritable chatter-box, her great topic of conversation
being her son Meyer, upon whom she doted, and his
American-born wife, whose name she scarcely ever uttered
without a malediction. She told me how she, Meyer's mother, her
sister, and a niece had turned out their pockets and pawned their
jewelry to help Meyer start in business as a clothing-manufacturer
"He's now worth a hundred thousand dollars--may no evil eye hit
him," she said. "He's a good fellow, a lump of gold. If God had
given him a better wife (may the plague carry off the one he has)
he would be all right. She has a meat-ball for a face, the face of a
murderess. She always was a murderess, but since Meyer became
a manufacturer there is no talking to her at all. The airs she is
giving herself! And all because she was born in America, the frog
that she is."
I soon made Meyer's acquaintance. He was a dark man of forty,
with Oriental sadness in his eyes. To lend his face capitalistic
dignity he had recently grown a pair of side-whiskers, but one day,
a week or two after I met him, he saw a circus poster of "Jo Jo, the
human dog," and then he hastened to discard them
"I don't want to look like a man-dog," he explained, gaily, to his
mother, who was unpleasantly surprised by the change.
"Man-dog nothing," she protested, addressing herself to me. "He
was as handsome as gold in those whiskers. He looked like a
regular monarch in them." And then to him: "I suppose it was that
treasure of a wife you have who told you to have them taken off.
It's a lucky thing she does not order you to have your foolish head
"You better shut up, mamma," he said, sternly. And she did
He called to see his parents quite frequently, sometimes with some
of his children, but never with his wife, at least not while I lived
Crassly illiterate save for his ability to read some Hebrew, without
knowing the meaning of the words, he enjoyed a considerable
degree of native intellectual alertness, and in his crude, untutored
way was a thinker
One evening he took to quizzing me on my plans, partly in Yiddish
and partly in broken English, which he uttered with a strong
Cockney accent, a relic of the several years he had spent in
"And what will you do after you finish (he pronounced it
"fiendish") college?" he inquired, with a touch of derision
"I shall take up some higher things," I rejoined, reluctantly
"And what do you call 'higher things'?" he pursued in his quizzical,
browbeating way. "Are you going to be a philosopher?"
"Yes, I shall be a doctor of philosophy," I answered, frostily
"What's that? You want to be both a doctor and a philosopher? But
you know the saying, 'Many trades--few blessings.'"
"I am not going to be a doctor and a philosopher, but a doctor of
philosophy," I said, with a sneer
"And how much will you make?"
"Oh, let him alone, Meyer," his mother intervened. "He is an
educated fellow, and he doesn't care for money at all."
"Doesn't care for money, eh?" the younger Nodelman jeered
"Do you think money is really everything?" I shot back. "One
might be able to find a thing or two which could not be bought
"Not even at Ridley's," [note] he jested, but he was manifestly
beginning to resent my attitude and to take our passage at arms
"Not even at Ridley's. You can't get brains there, can you?"
"Well, I never learned to write, but I have a learned fellow in my
He's chuck full of learning and that sort of thing. Yet who is
working for whom--I for him or he for me? So much for
education--for the stuff that's in a man's head. And now let's take
charity--the stuff that's in a man's heart.
I don't care what you say, but of what use is a good heart unless he
has some jinglers [note] to go with it? You can't shove your hand
into your heart and pull out a few dollars for a poor friend, can
you? You can help him out of your pocket, though--that is,
provided it is not empty."
My bewigged little landlady was feasting her eyes on her son
Meyer went on with his argument: "What is a man without capital?
Nothing! Nobody cares for him. He is like a beast. A beast can't
talk, and he can't.
'Money talks,' as the Americans say."
His words and manner put me in a socialist mood. He was hateful
to me. I listened in morose silence. He felt piqued, and he wilted.
The ginger went out of his voice. My taciturnity continued, until,
gradually, he edged over to my side of the controversy, taking up
the cudgels for education and spiritual excellence with the same
force with which he had a short while ago tried to set forth their
"Of course it's nice to be educated," he said. "A man without
writing is just like a deaf mute. What's the difference? The man
who can't write has speech in his mouth, but he is dumb with his
fingers, while the deaf mute he can't talk with his mouth, but he
can do so with his fingers. Both should be pitied. I do like
education. Of course I do. Don't I send my boy to college? I am an
ignorant boor myself, because my father was poor, but my children
shall have all the wisdom they can pile in. We Jews have too many
enemies in the world. Everybody is ready to shed our blood. So
where would we be if many of our people were not among the
wisest of the wise? Why, they would just crush us like so many
flies. When I see an educated Jew I say to myself, 'That's it!'"
When he heard of my ambition to give lessons he said: "I tell you
what. I'll be your first pupil. I mean it." he added, seriously.
My heart gave a leap. "Very well. I'll try my best," I replied
"Mind you, I don't want to be a philosopher. I just want you to fix
me up in reading, writing, and figuring a little bit. That's all. You
don't think it's too late, do you?"
"Too late!" I chuckled, hysterically. "Why?"
"I can sign or indorse a check, and, thank God, for a good few
dollars, too--but when it comes to fixing in the stuffing, there is
trouble. I know how to write the figures, but not the words. I can
write almost any number.
If I was worth all the money I can put down in figures I should be
richer than Vanderbilt."
To insure secrecy I was to give him his lessons in my attic room
"I don't want my kids to know their pa is learning like a little boy,
don't you know," he explained. "American kids have not much
respect for their fathers, anyhow."
As a preliminary to his initial lesson Nodelman offered to show
me what he could do. When I brought pen and ink and some paper
he cleared his throat, screwed up a solemn mien, and took hold of
the pen. In trying to shake off some of the ink he sent splashes all
over the table. At last he proceeded to write his name. He handled
the pen as he would a pitchfork. It was quite a laborious
proceeding, and his first attempt was a fizzle, for he reached the
end of the paper before he finished the "in" in Nodelman. He tried
again, and this time he was successful, but it was three minutes
before the task was completed. It left him panting and wiping his
ink-stained fingers on his hair
"A man who has to work as hard as that over his signature has no
business to be seen among decent people," he said, with sincere
disgust. "I ought to be a horse-driver, not a manufacturer."
So speaking, he submitted his signature for my inspection,
without, however, letting go of the sheet
"Tell me how rotten it is," he said, bashfully
When I protested that it was not "rotten" at all he grunted
something to the effect that once I was to instruct him he would
expect to pay me, not for empty compliments, but for the truth. At
this he lighted a match and applied it to the sheet of paper
containing his signature
"A signature is no joke," he explained, as he watched it burn. "Put
a few words and some figures on top of it and it is a note, as good
as cash. When a fellow is a beggar he has nothing to fear, but
when he is in business he had better be careful."
When he asked me how much I was going to charge him and I said
twenty-five cents an hour, he smiled
"I'll pay you more than that. You just try your best for me, will
At the end of the first week he handed me two dollars for three
I was the happiest man in New York that day. If I had had to
choose between earning ten dollars a week in tuition fees and a
hundred dollars as wages or profits I should, without the slightest
hesitation, have decided in favor of the ten dollars, and now,
behold! that coveted source of income seemed nearer at hand than
I had dared forecast. Once a start had been made, I might expect
to procure other pupils, even if they could not afford to pay so
lavish a price as two dollars for three lessons
But alas! My happiness was not to last long.
I was giving Nodelman his fifth lesson. We were spelling out some
syllables in a First Reader. Presently he grew absent-minded and
then, suddenly pushing the school-book from him, said: "Too
late! Too late! Those black little dots won't get through my
It has grown too hard for them, I suppose."
I attempted to reassure him, but in vain
When the next cloak season came I slunk back to work. I felt
degraded. But I earned high wages and my good spirits soon
returned. I firmly made up my mind, come what might, to take the
college-entrance examination the very next fall. I expected to
have four hundred dollars by then, but I was determined to enter
college even if I had much less. "I sha'n't starve," I said to myself.
"And, if I don't get enough to eat, hunger is nothing new to me."
The very firmness of my purpose was a source of encouragement
[note: Ridley's]: A well-known department store in those days
[note: jingler]: Coin, money
BOOK VIII THE DESTRUCTION OF MY TEMPLE CHAPTER I
AN unimportant accident, a mere trifle, suddenly gave a new turn
to the trend of events changing the character of my whole life.
It was the middle of April. The spring season was over, but
Manheimer Brothers, the firm by which I was employed, had
received heavy duplicate orders for silk coats, and, considering
the time of the year, we were unusually busy. One day, at the
lunch hour, as I was opening a small bottle of milk, the bottle
slipped out of my hand and its contents were spilled over the floor
and some silk coats
Jeff Manheimer, one of the twins, happened to be near me at the
moment, and a disagreeable scene followed. But first a word or
two about Jeff Manheimer
He was the "inside man" of the firm, having charge of the
mechanical end of the business as well as of the offices. He was
of German parentage, but of American birth. Bald-headed as a
melon and with a tendency to corpulence, he had the back of a
man of forty-five and the front of a man of twenty-five.
He was a vivacious fellow, one of those who are indefatigable in
abortive attempts at being witty, one of his favorite puns being
that we "Russians were not rushin' at all," that we were a "slow
lot." Altogether he treated us as an inferior race, often lecturing us
upon our lack of manners
I detested him
When he saw me drop the bottle of milk he flew into a rage
"Eh!" he shouted, "did you think this was a kitchen? Can't you take
better care of things?" As he saw me crouching and wiping the
floor and the coats with my handkerchief he added: "You might as
well take those coats home. The price will be charged against you.
That 'll make you remember that this is not a barn, but a factory.
Where were you brought up? Among Indians?"
Some of my shopmates tittered obsequiously, which encouraged
Manheimer to further sarcasm.
"Why, he doesn't even know how to handle a bottle of milk. Did
you ever see such a lobster?"
At this there was an explosion of merriment.
"A lobster!" one of the tailors repeated, relishingly
I could have murdered him as well as Manheimer.
My head was swimming. I was about to say something insulting to
my employer, to get up and leave the place demonstratively. But I
said to myself that I should soon be through with this kind of life
for good, and I held myself in leash.
Two or three minutes later I sat at a machine, eating my milkless
lunch. I was trying to forget the incident, trying to think of
something else, but in vain. Manheimer's derision, especially the
word "lobster," was ringing in my ear.
He passed out of the shop, but ten or fifteen minutes later he came
back, and as I saw him walk down the aisle I became breathless
with hate. The word "lobster" was buzzing in my brain amid
vague, helpless visions of revenge
Presently my eye fell upon Ansel Chaikin, the designer, and a
strange thought flashed upon me.
He was a Russian, like myself. He was an ignorant tailor, as
illiterate as Meyer Nodelman, but a born artist in his line. It was
largely to his skill that the firm, which was doing exceedingly
well, owed the beginning of its success. It was the common talk
among the "hands" of the factory that his Americanized copies of
French models had found special favor with the buyer of a certain
large department store and that this alone gave the house a
considerable volume of business. Jeff Manheimer, who
superintended the work, was a commonplace man, with more
method and system than taste or initiative.
Chaikin was the heart and the actual master of the establishment.
Yet all this really wonderful designer received was forty-five
dollars a week. He knew his value, and he saw that the two
brothers were rapidly getting rich, but he was a quiet man,
unaggressive and unassuming, and very likely he had not the
courage to ask for a raise
As I now looked at him, with my heart full of rancor for
Manheimer, I exclaimed to myself, "What a fool!"
He appeared to me in a new light, as the willing victim of
downright robbery. It seemed obvious that the Manheimers could
not do without him, that he was in a position to dictate terms to
them, even to make them accept him as a third partner. And once
the matter had presented itself to me in that light it somehow
began to vex me. It got on my nerves, as though it were an affair
of my own. I complimented myself upon my keen sense of justice,
but in reality this was my name for my disgust with Chaikin's
passivity and for the annoyance and the burning ill-will which the
rapid ascent of the firm aroused in me. I begrudged them--or,
rather, Jeff--the money they were making through his efficiency
"The idiot!" I soliloquized. "He ought to start on his own hook with
some smart business man for a partner. Let Jeff try to do without
that 'lobster' of a Russian."
The idea took a peculiar hold upon my imagination. I could not
look at Ansel Chaikin, or think of him, without picturing him
leaving the Manheimers in a lurch and becoming a fatal
competitor of theirs. I beheld their downfall. I gloated over it
But Chaikin lacked gumption and enterprise. What he needed was
an able partner, some man of brains and force. And so,
unbeknown to Chaikin, the notion was shaping itself in my mind
of becoming his manufacturing partner.
thought of Meyer Nodelman's humble beginnings and of the three
hundred-odd dollars I had in my savings-bank whispered
encouragement into my ear. I had heard of people who went into
manufacturing with even less than that sum.
Moreover, it was reasonable to expect that Chaikin had laid up
some money of his own. Our precarious life among unfriendly
nations has made a thrifty people of us, and for a man like
Chaikin forty-five dollars a week, every week in the year, meant
The Manheimers were relegated to the background. It was no
longer a mere matter of punishing Jeff. It was a much greater
I visioned myself a rich man, of course, but that was merely a
detail. What really hypnotized me was the venture of the thing. It
was a great, daring game of life
I tried to reconcile this new dream of mine with my college
projects. I was again performing the trick of eating the cake and
having it. I would picture myself building up a great cloak
business and somehow contriving, at the same time, to go to
The new scheme was scarcely ever absent from my mind. I would
ponder it over my work and during my meals. It would visit me in
my sleep in a thousand grotesque forms. Chaikin became the
center of the universe. I was continually eying him, listening for
his voice, scrutinizing his look, his gestures, his clothes
He was an insignificant-looking man of thirty-two, with almost a
cadaverous face and a very prominent Adam's apple. He was not a
prepossessing man by any means, but his bluish eyes had a
charming look, of boy-like dreaminess, and his smile was even
more child-like than his look. He was dressed with scrupulous
neatness and rather pretentiously, as behooved his occupation, but
all this would scarcely have prevented one from telling him for a
tailor from some poor town in Russia
Now and then my project struck me as absurd. For Chaikin was in
the foremost ranks of a trade in which I was one of the ruck.
Should he conceive the notion of going into business on his own
account, he would have no difficulty in forming a partnership with
considerable capital. Why, then, should he take heed of a piteous
schemer of my caliber? But a few minutes later I would see the
matter in another light
CHAPTER II ONE Sunday morning in the latter part of May I
betook myself to a certain block of new tenement-houses in the
neighborhood of East 110th Street and Central Park, then the new
quarter of the more prosperous Russian Jews.
Chaikin had recently moved into one of these houses, and it was to
call on him that I had made my way from down-town. I found him
in the dining-room, playing on an accordion, while his wife, who
had answered my knock at the door, was busy in the kitchen
He scarcely knew me. To pave the way to the object of my visit I
began by inquiring about designing lessons. As teaching was not
in his line, we soon passed to other topics related to the cloak
trade. I found him a poor talker and a very uninteresting
companion. He answered mostly in monosyllables, or with mute
gestures, often accompanied by his child-like grin or by a
perplexed stare of his bluish eyes
Gradually I gave the conversation a more personal turn. When,
somewhat flushed, I finally hinted at my plan, he shrank with an
air of confusion
At this juncture his wife made her appearance, followed by her
eight-year-old boy. Chaikin looked relieved
"I hear you are talking business," she said, summarily taking
possession of the situation. "What is it all about?"
Completely taken aback by her domineering manner, I sought
escape in embarrassed banter.
"You have scared me so," I said, "I can't speak. I'll tell you
That's just what brings me here. Only let me first catch my breath
and take a look at your stalwart little man of a boy."
Her grave face relaxed into an involuntary smile
What struck me most in her was the startling resemblance she bore
to her husband. The two looked like brother and sister rather than
like husband and wife
"You must be relatives," I observed, for something pleasant to say,
and put my foot in it
"Not at all," she replied, with a frown
To win back her good graces I proceeded to examine Maxie, her
boy, in spelling. The stratagem had the desired effect
We got down to business again. When she heard my plan she
paused to survey me. I felt a sinking at the heart. I interpreted her
searching look as saying, "The nerve this snoozer has!" But I was
mistaken. Her pinched, sallow face grew tense with excitement,
and she said, with coy eagerness: "How can we tell if your plan
amounts to anything? If you gave us an idea of how much you
could put up--"
"It would not require a million," I hazarded
"A million! Who talks of millions! Still, it would take a good deal
of capital to start a factory that should be something like."
"There'll be no trouble about money," I parried, fighting shy of the
more imposing term "capital," which made my paltry three
hundred still paltrier
"There is money and money," she answered, with furtive glances at
me. "A nickel is also money."
"I am not speaking of nickels, of course."
"I should say not. It's a matter of many thousands of dollars."
I was dumfounded, but instantly rallied. "Of course," I assented.
"At the same time it depends on many things."
"Still, you ought to give us some idea how much you could put in.
Is it--is it, say, fifteen thousand?"
That she should not deem it unnatural for a young man of my
station to be able to raise a sum of this size was partly due to her
utter lack of experience and partly to an impression prevalent
among people of her class that "nothing is impossible in the land
I pretended to grow thoughtful, with an effect of making
computations. I even produced a piece of paper and a pencil and
indulged in some sham figuring. At last I said: "Well, I can't as yet
tell you exactly how much. As I have said, it depends on certain
things, but it'll be all right. Besides, money is really not the most
important part in a scheme of this kind. A man of brains and a
hustler will make a lot of money, while a fool will lose a lot.
There are others who want to go into business with me. Only I
know Mr. Chaikin is an honest man, and that's what I value more
than anything else. I hate to take up with people of whom I can't
be sure, don't you know--"
"You forget the main thing," she could not forbear to break in.
"Mr. Chaikin is the best designer in New York."
"Everybody knows that," I conceded, deeming it best to flatter her
"That's just what makes it ridiculous that he should work for
others, make other people rich instead of trying to do something
for himself. I have some plans by which the two of us--Mr.
Chaikin taking charge of the manufacturing and I of the business
outside--would do wonders. We would simply do wonders.
There is another fine designer who is anxious to form a partnership
with me, but I said to myself, 'I must first see if I could not get Mr.
Mrs. Chaikin tried to guess who that other designer was, but I
pleaded, mysteriously, certain circumstances that placed the seal
of discretion on my lips
"I won't tell anybody," she assured me, in a flutter of curiosity
"I know you won't, but I can't. Honest."
"But, I tell you, I won't say a word to anybody. Strike me dumb if I
"I can't, Mrs. Chaikin," I besought her
"Don't bother," her husband put in, good-naturedly. "A woman will
be a woman."
I went on to describe the "wonders" that the firm of Chaikin &
Levinsky would do. Mrs. Chaikin's eyes glittered. I held her
spellbound. Her husband, who had hitherto been a passive
listener, as if the matter under discussion was one in which he was
not concerned, began to show signs of interest. It was the longest
and most eloquent speech I had ever had occasion to deliver.
It seemed to carry conviction
Children often act as a barometer of their mother's moods. So
when I had finished and little Maxie slipped up close to me and
tactily invited me to fondle him I knew that I had made a
favorable impression on his mother
I was detained for dinner. I played with Maxie, gave him problems
in arithmetic, went into ecstasies over his "cuteness." I had a
feeling that the way to Mrs. Chaikin's heart was through Maxie,
but I took good care not to over-play my part
We are all actors, more or less. The question is only what our aim
is, and whether we are capable of a "convincing personation." At
the time I conceived my financial scheme I knew enough of
human motive to be aware of this
CHAPTER III IT was a sultry, sweltering July afternoon in May,
one of those escapades of the New York climate when the
population finds itself in the grip of midsummer discomforts
without having had time to get seasoned to them. I went into the
Park. I had come away from the Chaikins' under the impression
that if I could raise two or three thousand dollars I might be able,
by means of perseverance and diplomacy, to achieve my purpose.
But I might as well have set myself to raise two or three millions
I thought of Meyer Nodelman, of Mr. Even and his wealthy
son-in-law, of Maximum Max. But the idea of approaching them
with my venture could not be taken seriously. The images of
Gitelson and of Gussie crossed my mind almost simultaneously. I
rejected them both. Gitelson and I might, perhaps, start
manufacturing on a small scale, leaving Chaikin out. But Chaikin
was the very soul of my project. Without him there was no life to
it. Besides, where was he, Gitelson? Was it worth while hunting
for him? As for Gussie, the notion of marrying her for her money
seemed a joke, even if she were better-looking and younger. That
her dower was anywhere near three thousand dollars was
exceedingly doubtful. However, the image of her washed-out face
would not leave my mind. Her hoarding might amount to over one
thousand, and in my despair the sum was tempting. "She is a good
girl, the best of all I know," I defended myself before the "Good
Spirit" in me.
"Also she is a most sensible girl. Just the kind of wife a business
man needs." In addition I urged the time-honored theory that a
homely wife is less likely to flirt with other men and to neglect
her duties than a good-looking one.
I took the car down-town and made my way to Gussie's lodgings
that very afternoon. I did so before I had made up my mind that I
was prepared to marry her. "I'll call on her, anyhow," I decided.
"Then we shall see. There can be no harm in speaking to her."
I was impelled by the adventure of it more than by anything else
In spite of the unbearable heat, I almost felt sure that I should find
her at home. Going out of a Sunday required presentable clothes,
which she did not possess. She was saving for her dower with her
I was not mistaken. I found her on the stoop in a crowd of women
"I must speak to you, Gussie," I said, as she descended to the
sidewalk to meet me. "Let's go somewhere. I have something very
important I want to say to you."
"Is it again something about your studying to be a smart man at my
expense?" she asked, rather good-naturedly
"No, no. Not at all. It's something altogether different, Gussie."
The nervous emphasis with which I said it piqued her interest.
Without going up-stairs for her hat she took me to the Grand
Street dock, not many blocks away. The best spots were already
engaged, but we found one that suited our purpose better than the
water edge would have done. It was a secluded nook where I
could give the rein to my eloquence
I told her of my talk with the Chaikins, omitting names, but
inventing details and bits of "local color" calculated to appeal to
my listener's imagination and business sense. She followed my
story with an air of stiff aloofness, but this only added fuel to the
fervor with which I depicted the opportunity before me
"So you have thrown that college of yours out of your mind,
haven't you?" she said in a dry, non-committal way
I felt the color mounting to my face. "Well, not entirely," I
"I mean--Well, anyhow, what do they do at college? They read
books. Can't I read them at home? One can find time for
everything." Returning to my new project, I said: "It's a great
chance, Gussie. It would be an awful thing if I had to let it slip out
of my hand."
That what I wanted was her dower (with herself as an unavoidable
appendage) went without saying. It was implied, as a matter of
"How much would your great designer want you to invest?" she
asked, with an air of one guided by mere curiosity, and with a
touch of irony to boot
"A couple of thousand dollars might do, I suppose."
"A couple of thousand!" she said, lukewarmly. "Tell your great
designer he is riding too high a horse."
"Still, in order to start a decent business--" I said, throwing a covert
glance at her
"Cloak-factories have been started with a good deal less," she
"On Division Street, perhaps."
"And what do you fellows expect to do--start on Broadway?"
"Well, it takes some money to get started even on Division Street."
"Not two thousand. It has been done for a good deal less."
"I know; but still--I am sure a fellow must have some money
"It depends on what you call 'some.'" It was the same kind of
fencing contest as that which I had had with Mrs.
Chaikin. I was sounding Gussie's purse as the designer's wife had
Finally she took me in hand for a severe cross-examination. She
was obviously interested. I contradicted myself in some minor
points, but, upon the whole, I stood the test well
"If it is all as you say," she finally declared, "there seems to be
something in it."
"Gussie " I said, tremulously, "there is a great chance for us--"
"Wait," she interrupted me, suddenly bethinking herself of a new
point. "If he is as great a designer as you say he is, and he works
for a big firm, how is it, then, that he can't find a partner with big
"He could, any number of them, but he has confidence in me. He
says he would much rather start with me on two thousand than
with somebody else on twenty.
He thinks I should make an excellent business man, and that
between the two of us we should make a great success of it.
Money is nothing--so he says--money can be made, but with a fool
of an outside man even more than twenty thousand dollars might
go up in smoke." "That's so," Gussie assented, musingly. There
was a pause
"Well, Gussie?" I mustered courage to demand
"You don't want me to give you an answer right off, do you?
Things like that are not decided in a hurry."
We went on to discuss the project and some indifferent topics. It
was rapidly growing dark and cool. Looming through the
thickening dusk, somewhat diagonally across the dock from us,
was the figure of a young fellow with his head reclining on the
shoulder of a young woman. A little further off and nearer to the
water I could discern a white shirt-waist in the embrace of a dark
coat. A song made itself heard. It was "After the Ball is Over," one
of the sentimental songs of that day. "Tara-ra-boom-de-aye"
followed, a tune usually full of joyous snap and go, but now
performed in a subdued, brooding tempo, tinged with sadness. It
rang in a girlish soprano, the rest of the crowd listening silently.
By this time the gloom was so dense that the majority of us could
not see the singer, which enhanced the mystery of her melody and
the charm of her young voice. Presently other voices joined in, all
in the same meditative, somewhat doleful rhythm. Gayer strains
would have sounded sacrilegiously out of tune with the darkling
glint of the river, with the mysterious splash of its waves against
the bobbing bulkheads of the pier, with the starry enchantment of
the passing ferry-boats, with the love-enraptured solemnity of the
I had not the heart even to think of business, much less to talk it.
We fell silent, both of us, listening to the singing. Poor Gussie!
She was not a pretty girl, and she did not interest me in the least.
Yet at this moment I was drawn to her. The brooding, plaintive
tones which resounded around us had a bewitching effect on me.
It filled me with yearning; it filled me with love. Gussie was a
woman to me now. My hand sought hers. It was an honest proffer
of endearment, for my soul was praying for communion with hers
She withdrew her hand. "This should not be done in a hurry,
either," she explained, pensively
"Gussie! Dear Gussie!" I said, sincerely, though not unaware of the
temporary nature of my feeling
"Don't!" she implored me
There was something in her plea which seemed to say: "You know
you don't care for me. It's my money that has brought you here.
Alas! It is not my lot to be loved for my own sake."
Her unspoken words broke my heart
"Gussie! I swear to you you're dear to me. Can't you believe me?"
The singing night was too much for her. She yielded to my arms.
Urged on by the chill air, we clung together in a delirium of
love-making. There were passionate embraces and kisses. I felt
that her thin, dried-up lips were not to my taste, but I went on
kissing them with unfeigned fervor.
The singing echoed dolefully. We remained in that secluded nook
until the growing chill woke us from our trance. I took her home.
When we reached a tiny square jammed with express-wagons we
paused to kiss once more, and when we found ourselves in front
of her stoop, which was now deserted, the vigorous hand-clasp
with which I took my leave was symbolic of another kiss.
I went away without discovering the size of her hoard. I was to call
on her the next evening.
As I trudged along through the swarming streets on my way home
the predominant feeling in my heart was one of physical distaste.
Poor thing! I felt that marrying her was out of the question
Nevertheless, the next evening I went to see her as arranged. I
found her out. Her landlady handed me a letter. It was in Yiddish:
Mr. Levinsky [it read], I do not write this myself, for I cannot
write, and I do not want you to think that I want to make believe
that I can. A man is writing it for me for ten cents. I am telling
him the words and he is writing just as I tell him. It was all a
mistake. You know what I mean. I don't care to marry you. You
are too smart for me and too young, too. I am afraid of you. I am a
simple girl and you are educated. I must look for my equal. If I
married you, both of us would be sorry for it.
Excuse me, and I wish you well. Please don't come to see me any
The message left me with a feeling of shame, sadness, and
During that evening and the forenoon of the following day I was
badly out of spirits
There was nothing to do at the shop, yet I went there just to see
Chaikin, so as to keep up his interest in my scheme. He was glad
to see me. He had a message from his wife, who wanted me to
call in the evening. Gussie's letter was blotted out of my memory.
I was once more absorbed in my project
I spent the evening at the designer's house. Mrs. Chaikin made new
attempts at worming out the size of my fortune and, in addition,
something concerning its origin
"Is it an inheritance?" she queried.
"An inheritance? Why, would you like me to get one?" I said,
playfully, as though talking to a child
She could not help laughing. "Well, then, is it from a rich brother
or a sister, or is it your own money?" she pursued, falling in with
the facetious tone that I was affecting
"Any kind of money you wish, Mrs. Chaikin. But, seriously, there
will be no trouble about cash. The main point is that I want to go
into manufacturing and that I should prefer to have Mr. Chaikin
for my partner. There is plenty of money in cloaks, and I am bent
upon making heaps, great heaps, of it--for Mr. Chaikin and
myself. Really, isn't it maddening to think that he should be
making other people rich, while all he gets is a miserable few
dollars a week? It's simply outrageous."
So speaking, I worked Mrs. Chaikin up to a high sense of the
absurdity of the thing. I was rapidly gaining ground with her
And so, pending that mysterious something to which I was often
alluding as the source of my prospective fortune, I became a
frequent visitor at her house. Sometimes she would invite me to
supper; once or twice we spent Sunday together. As for little
Maxie, he invariably hailed me with joy. I was actually fond of
him, and I was glad of it
CHAPTER IV THE time I speak of, the late '80's and the early
'90's, is connected with an important and interesting chapter in the
history of the American cloak business. Hitherto in the control of
German Jews, it was now beginning to pass into the hands of their
Russian co-religionists, the change being effected under peculiar
conditions that were destined to lead to a stupendous development
of the industry. If the average American woman is to-day dressed
infinitely better than she was a quarter of a century ago, and if she
is now easily the best-dressed average woman in the world, the
fact is due, in a large measure, to the change I refer to
The transition was inevitable. While the manufacturers were
German Jews, their contractors, tailors, and machine operators
were Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Russia or Austrian
Galicia. Although the former were of a superior commercial
civilization, it was, after all, a case of Greek meeting Greek, and
the circumstances were such that just because they represented a
superior commercial civilization they were doomed to be beaten
The German manufacturers were the pioneers of the industry in
America. It was a new industry, in fact, scarcely twenty years old.
Formerly, and as late as the '70's, women's cloaks and jackets were
little known in the United States. Shawls were worn by the
masses. What few cloaks were seen on women of means and
fashion were imported from Germany. But the demand grew.
So, gradually, some German-American merchants and an
American shawl firm bethought themselves of manufacturing
these garments at home. The industry progressed, the new-born
great Russian immigration--a child of the massacres of 1881 and
1882--bringing the needed army of tailors for it. There was big
money in the cloak business, and it would have been unnatural if
some of these tailors had not, sooner or later, begun to think of
going into business on their own hook. At first it was a hard
struggle. The American business world was slow to appreciate the
commercial possibilities which these new-comers represented, but
it learned them in course of time
It was at the beginning of this transition period that my scheme
was born in my mind. Schemes of that kind were in the air
Meyer Nodelman, the son of my landlady, had not the remotest
inkling of my plans, yet I had consulted him about them more than
once. Of course, it was all done in a purely abstract way. Like the
majority of our people, he was a talkative man so I would try to
keep him talking shop. By a system of seemingly casual
questioning I would pump him on sundry details of the clothing
business, on the differences and similarities between it and the
cloak trade, and, more especially, on how one started on a very
He bragged and blustered, but oftentimes he would be carried
away by the sentimental side of his past struggles. Then he would
unburden himself of a great deal of unvarnished history. On such
occasions I would obtain from him a veritable treasure of
information and suggestions.
Some of the generalizations of this homespun and quaint thinker,
too, were interesting. Talking of credit, for example, he once said:
"When a fellow is a beginner it's a good thing if he has a credit
I thought it was some sort of commercial term he was using, and
when I asked him what it meant he said: "Why, some people are
just born with the kind of face that makes the woolen merchant or
the bank president trust them. They are not more honest than
some other fellows. Indeed, some of them are plain pickpockets,
but they have a credit face, so you have got to trust them. You just
can't help it."
"And if they don't pay?"
"But they do. They get credit from somebody else and pay the
jobber or the banker. Then they get more credit from these people
and pay the other fellows. People of this kind can do a big
business without a cent of capital. In Russia a fellow who pays his
bills is called an honest man, but America is miles ahead of
Russia. Here you can be the best pay in the world and yet be a
crook. You wouldn't say that every man who breathes God's air is
honest, would you? Well, paying your bills in America is like
If you don't, you are dead."
Chaikin, too, often let fall, in his hesitating, monosyllabic way,
some observation which I considered of value. Of the purely
commercial side of the industry he knew next to nothing, but then
he could tell me a thing or two concerning the psychology of
popular taste, the forces operating behind the scenes of fashion,
the methods employed by small firms in stealing styles from
larger ones, and other tricks of the trade.
At last I resolved to act. It was the height of the season for winter
orders, and I decided to take time by the forelock
One day when I called at the designer's, and Mrs. Chaikin asked
me for news (alluding to the thousands I was supposed to be
expecting), I said: "Well, I have rented a shop."
"Rented a shop?"
"That's what I did. It's no use missing the season. If a fellow wants
to do something, there is nothing for it but to go to work and do it,
else he is doomed to be a slave all his life."
When I added that the shop was on Division Street her face fell
"But what difference does it make where it is?" I argued, with
studied vehemence. "It's only a place to make samples in--for a
"Mr. Chaikin is not going into a wee bit of a business like that. No,
In the course of our many discussions it had often happened that
after overruling me with great finality she would end by yielding
to my point of view. I hoped this would be the case in the present
"Don't be so hasty, Mrs. Chaikin," I said, with a smile. "Wait till
you know a little more about the arrangement."
And dropping into the Talmudic singsong, which usually comes
back to me when my words assume an argumentative character, I
proceeded "In the first place, I don't want Mr. Chaikin to leave the
Manheimers--not yet. All I want him to do is to attend to our shop
evenings. Don't be uneasy: the Manheimers won't get wind of it.
Leave that to me. Well, all I want is some samples to go around
the stores with. The rest will come easy.
We'll make things hum. See if we don't. When we have orders and
get really started we'll move out of Division Street. Of course we
will. But would it not be foolish to open up on a large scale and
have Mr. Chaikin give up his job before we have accomplished
anything? I think it would. Indeed, it's my money that's going to be
invested. Do you blame me for being careful, at the beginning at
least? I neither want Mr. Chaikin to risk his job nor myself to risk
"But you haven't even told me how much you can put in," she
blurted out, excitedly.
"As much as will be necessary. But what's the use dumping a big
lot at once? Many a big business has failed, while firms who start
in a modest way have worked themselves up. Why should Mr.
Chaikin begin by risking his position? Why? Why?"
The long and short of it was that Mrs. Chaikin became enthusiastic
for my Division Street shop, and the next day her husband took
two hours off to accompany me to a nondescript woolen-store on
Hester Street, where we bought fifty dollars' worth of material
The rent for the shop was thirty dollars a month. One month's rent
for two sewing-machines was two dollars. A large second-hand
table for designing and cutting and some old chairs cost me
twelve dollars more, leaving me a balance of over two hundred
Before I went to rent the premises for our prospective shop I had
withdrawn my money from the savings-bank and deposited it in a
small bank where I opened a check account
"Once I am to play the part of a manufacturer it would not do to
pay bills in cash," I reflected. "I must pay in checks, and do so like
one to the manner born."
At this the magic word "credit" loomed in letters of gold before
me. I was aware of the fascination of check-books, so, being
armed with one, I expected to be able to buy things, in some
cases, at least, without having to pay for them at once. Besides,
my bank might be induced to grant me a loan. Then, too, one
might issue a check before one had the amount and thereby gain a
day's time. There seemed to be a world of possibilities in the long,
narrow book in my breast pocket. I was ever conscious of its
presence. I have a vivid recollection of the elation with which I
drew and issued my first check (in payment of thirty dollars, the
first month's rent for our prospective cloak-factory). Humanity
seemed to have become divided into two distinct classes--those
who paid their obligations in cash and those who paid them in
checks. I still have that first check-book of mine
CHAPTER V CHAIKIN made up half a dozen sample garments. I
took them to the department store to which the Manheimer
Brothers catered, but the buyer of the cloak department would not
so much as let me untie my bundle. He was a middle-aged man
(women buyers were rare in those days), an Irish-American of
commanding figure. After sweeping me with a glance of cold
curiosity, he waved me aside. My Russian name and my
appearance were evidently against me. I tried the other
department stores --with the same result. The larger business
world of the city had not yet learned to take the Russian Jew
seriously as a factor in advanced commerce. The buyer of the
cloak department in the last store I visited was an American Jew,
a fair-complexioned little fellow, all aglitter with neatness. At first
he took an amused interest in me. When I had unpacked my goods
and was about to show him one of Chaikin's jackets he checked
"Suppose we gave you an order for five hundred," he said, with a
smile; "five hundred jackets to be delivered at a certain date."
"I would deliver it," I answered, boldly. "Why not?"
"I don't know why. Maybe you would, maybe you wouldn't. How
can we be sure you would?" Before I had time to answer he asked
me how long I had been in the country.
When I told him, he complimented me on my English. I was sure it
meant business. I was thrilled
"Have you got a shop?" he further questioned. "How many hands
do you employ?"
He sized me up. "Where is your place?"
"On Division Street."
"Well, well! What is your rating?" I did not know what he meant.
So, for an answer, I made a new attempt to submit the contents of
my bundle for his inspection. At this he made a gesture of disgust
and withdrew. A cold sweat broke out on my forehead
I had heard of the existence of small department stores in various
sections of the city, so I went in search of them
I found myself in the vicinity of the City College. As I passed that
corner I studiously looked away. I felt like a convert Jew passing a
It was a warm day. My pack seemed to grow heavier with every
block I walked, and so did my heart. I was perspiring freely; my
collar wilted. All of which did anything but make me look as "a
man who paid his bills in checks." At last, walking up Third
Avenue I came across a place where there was quite a large
display of jackets in the windows. Upon my opening the door and
announcing my mission, two jaunty young fellows invited me in
with elaborate courtesy, almost with anxiety. My heart leaped for
joy. I fell to opening my bundle. The two young men inspected
every jacket, went into ecstasies over each of them, and then
asked me all sorts of irrelevant questions until it dawned upon me
that I was being made game of. It appeared that the father of the
two young men, the proprietor of the store, manufactured his own
goods, for wholesale as well as for retail trade
I received much better treatment in a store on Avenue B, but my
goods proved too high for that neighborhood. As if to atone for
this, the proprietor of this store, a kindly Galician Jew, gave me a
list of the minor department stores I was looking for, and some
valuable suggestions in addition
My dinner that day consisted of two ring-shaped rolls which I
bought in a Jewish grocery-store and which I ate on a bench in
The day passed most discouragingly. It was about 7 o'clock when,
disheartened to the point of despair, I dragged my wearied limbs in
the direction of my "factory." When I got there I found my partner
waiting for me--not alone, but in the company of his wife
"Well?" she shrieked, jumping to meet me
"Splendid!" I replied, with enthusiasm. "It looks even better than I
expected. I could have got good orders at once, but a fellow must
not be too hasty. You have got to look around first--find out who
is who, you know."
Mrs. Chaikin looked crestfallen. "So you did not get any orders at
"What's your hurry?" her husband said, pleadingly. "Levinsky is
right. You can't sell goods unless you know who you deal with."
The following two days were as barren of results as the first. Mrs.
Chaikin had lost all confidence in the venture. She was becoming
rather hard to handle
"I don't want Ansel to bother any more," she said, peevishly. "You
know what the Americans say, 'Time is money.' Pay Ansel for his
work and let us be 'friends at a distance.'"
"Very well," I said, and, producing my check-book, I asked, "How
much is it?"
The sight of my check-book acted like a charm. The situation
suddenly assumed brighter colors in Mrs. Cbaikin's eyes
"Look at him! He thought I really meant it," she grinned,
Every night I would go to bed sick at heart and with my mind half
made up to drop it all, only to wake in the morning more resolute
and hopeful than ever. Hopeful and defiant. It was as though
somebody--the whole world--were jeering at my brazen-faced,
piteous efforts, and I was bound to make good, "just for spite."
I learned of the existence of "purchasing offices" where the buyers
of several department stores, from so many cities, made their
headquarters in New York. Also, I discovered that in order to keep
track of the arrivals of these buyers I must follow a daily paper
called Hotel Reporter (the ordinary newspapers did not furnish
information of this character in those days). A man who
manufactured neckties in the same ramshackle building in which I
hoped to manufacture cloaks volunteered to let me look at his
Reporter every day. This man was naturally inclined to be
neighborly, but I had found that an occasional quotation or two
from the Talmud was particularly helpful in obtaining a small
favor from him
I knocked about among the purchasing offices with bulldog
tenacity, but during the first few days my efforts in this direction
were as futile as in the case of the New York stores. Meanwhile,
time was pressing. So far as out-of-town buyers were concerned,
the "winter season" was drawing to a close. All I could see were
some belated stragglers. One of these was a man from the Middle
West, a stout, fleshy American with quick, nervous movements
which contradicted his well-fed, languid-looking face
He shot a few glances at my samples, just to get rid of me, but he
liked the designs, and I could see that he found my prices
"How soon will you be able to deliver five hundred?" he snarled
"In three weeks."
"Very well--go ahead!" And speaking in his jerky, impatient way,
he went on to specify how many cloaks he wanted of each kind
I left him with my heart divided between unutterable triumph and
black despair. Five hundred cloaks! How would I raise the money
for so much raw material? It almost looked like another practical
By this time I was more than sure that the Chaikins had a
considerable little pile, but to turn to them for funds was
impossible. It would have let my cat out of the bag. I sought credit
at Claflin's and at half a dozen smaller places, but all in vain. I
could not help thinking of Nodelman's "credit face." Ah, if that
kind of a face had fallen to my lot! But it had not, it seemed. It
looked as if there were no hope for me
Finally I took the necktie man into my confidence, the result being
that he unburdened himself of his own financial straits to me
One afternoon I was moping around some of the side-streets off
lower Broadway in quest of some new place where I might try to
beg for credit, when I noticed the small sign-board of a
commission merchant. Upon entering the place I found a
fine-looking elderly American dictating something to a
stenographer. When the man had heard my plea be looked me over
from head to foot.
I felt like a prisoner facing the jury which is about to announce its
At last he said: "Well, you look pretty reliable. I guess I'll trust you
the goods for thirty days."
It was all I could do to restrain myself from invoking benedictions
on his head and kissing his hands as my mother would have done
under similar circumstances
"So I do have a 'credit face'!" I exclaimed to myself, gleefully
When I found myself in the street again I looked at my reflection
in store windows, scanning my "credit face."
The Chaikins took it for granted that I had paid for the goods on
Things brightened up at our "factory." I ordered an additional
sewing-machine of the instalment agent and hired two
operators--poor fellows who were willing to work fourteen or
fifteen hours a day for twelve dollars a week. (The union had
again been revived, but it was weak, and my employees did not
belong to it.) As for myself, I toiled at my machine literally day
and night, snatching two or three hours' sleep at dawn, with some
bundles of cut goods or half-finished cloaks for a bed. Chaikin
spent every night, from 7 to 2, with me, cutting the goods and
doing the better part of the other work. Mrs. Chaikin, too, lent a
hand. Leaving Maxie in the care of her mother, she would spend
several hours a day in the factory, finishing the cloaks
The five hundred cloaks were shipped on time. I was bursting with
consciousness of the fact that I was a manufacturer--that a big firm
out West (a firm of Gentiles, mind you!) was recognizing my
claim to the title.
I was American enough to be alive to the special glamour of the
words, "out West."
Goods in our line of business usually sold "for cash," which meant
Ten days more, then, and I should receive a big check from that
firm. That would enable me to start new operations. Accordingly,
I went out to look for more orders
Whether my first success had put new confidence in me, or
whether my past experiences had somewhat rounded off my rough
edges and enabled me to speak to business people in a more
effective manner than I could have done before, the proprietor of
a small department store on upper Third Avenue let me show him
my samples. My prices made an impression on him. My cloaks
were five dollars apiece lower than he was in the habit of paying.
He looked askance at me, as though my figures seemed too good
to be true, until I found it the best policy to tell him the
"The big manufacturers of whom you buy have big office
expenses," I explained. "They make a lot of fuss, and you've got to
pay for it. My principle is not to make fuss at the retailer's
expense. Our office costs us very, very little. We are plain people.
But that isn't all. Your big manufacturer pays for union labor, so
he takes it out of you. Now, we don't bother about these things.
We get the best work done for the lowest wages.
The big men in the business wouldn't even know where hands of
this kind could be got. We do."
I took my departure with an order for three hundred cloaks,
expecting to begin work on them as soon as I received that check
"from out West." Things seemed to be coming my way.
As I sat in an Elevated train going down-town I figured the profits
on the two orders and pictured other orders coming in. I beheld
our little factory crowded with machines, I heard their bewitching
whir-r, whir-r. Chaikin would have to leave the Manheimers, of
In the afternoon of the sixth day, when I called at one of the
purchasing offices I have mentioned, I received the information
that the firm whose check I was awaiting so impatiently had
failed! CHAPTER VI THE failure of the Western firm seemed to
nave nipped my commercial career in the bud. The large order I
had received from its representative was apparently to be the
death as well as the birth of my glory. In my despair, I tried to
make a virtue of necessity. I was telling myself that it served me
right; that I had had no business to abandon my intellectual
pursuits. I was inclined to behold something like the hand of
Providence in the bankruptcy of that firm. At the same time I was
casting about in my mind for some way of raising new money
with which to pay the kindly commission merchant, get a new bill
of goods from him, and fill my new order.
When I explained the matter to Mrs. Chaikin she was on the brink
of a fainting spell
"You're a liar and a thief!" she shrieked. "There never was a
Western firm in the world. It's all a lie. You sold the goods for
Her husband knew something about firms and credit, so I had no
difficulty in substantiating my assertion to him
"It's only a matter of days when I shall get the big check that is
coming to me," I assured them. I went on to spin a long yarn, to
which she listened with jeers and outbursts of uncomplimentary
One day I mustered courage and called on Mrs. Chaikin. I did so
on an afternoon when her husband was sure to be at work,
because I had a lurking feeling that, being alone with me, she
would be easier to deal with
When she saw me she gasped. "What, you?" she said. "You have
the nerve to come up here?"
"Come, come, Mrs. Chaikin," I said, earnestly. "Please be seated
and let us talk it all over in a business-like manner. With your
sense, and especially with your sense for business. you will
"Please don't flatter me," she demurred, sternly
But I knew that nothing appealed to her vanity so much as being
thought a clever business woman, and I protested: "Flatter you! In
the first place, it is a well-known fact that women have more
sense than men. In the second place, it is the talk of every
cloak-shop that Mr. Chaikin owes his high position to you as
much as to his own ability. Everybody, everybody says so."
I talked of "unforeseen difficulties," of a "well-known landlord"
whose big check I was expecting every day; I composed a story
about that landlord's father-in-law agreed with Mrs. Chaikin that it
had been a mistake on my part to trust the buyer of that Western
firm the goods without first consulting her; and the upshot was
that she made me stay to supper and that pending the arrival of
Chaikin I took Maxie to the Park
The father-in-law of my story was Mr. Even, of course. I had
portrayed him vividly as coming to my rescue in my present
predicament, so vividly, indeed, that my own fib haunted me the
next day. The result was that in the evening I made myself as
presentable as I could, and repaired to the synagogue where he
spent much of his time reading Talmud
I had not visited the place since that memorable day, my first day
in America. I recognized it at once. I was thrilled. The four-odd
years seemed twenty-four
Mr. Even was not there, but he soon came in. He had aged
considerably. He was beginning to look somewhat decrepit. His
dignity was tinged with the sadness of old age
"Good evening, Mr. Even. Do you know me?" I began
He scanned me closely, but failed to recognize me
"I am David Levinsky, the 'green one' you befriended four and a
half years ago. Don't you remember me, Mr. Even? It was in this
very place where I had the good fortune to make your
acquaintance. I'm the son of the woman who was killed by
Gentiles, in Antomir," I added, mournfully
"Oh yes, indeed!" he said, with a wistful smile, somewhat abashed.
He took snuff, looked me over once more, and, as if his memory
had been brightened by the snuff, he burst out: "Lord of the
World! You are that young man! Why, I confess I scarcely
recognize you. Of course I remember it all. Why, of course I
remember you. Well, well! How have you been getting along in
"Can't complain. Not at all. You remember that evening? After you
provided me with a complete outfit, like a father fixing up his son
for his wedding-day, and you gave me five dollars into the
bargain, you told me not to call on you again until I was well
established in life. Do you remember that?"
"Of course I do," he answered, with a beaming glance at two old
Talmudists who sat at their books close by
"Well, here I am. I am running a cloak-factory."
He began to question me about my affairs with sad curiosity. I said
that business was "good, too good, in fact," so that it required
somewhat more capital than I possessed.
I soon realized, however, that he did not care for me now. My
Americanized self did not make the favorable impression that I
had made four and a half years before, when he gave me my first
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