The Arts In New York City
21 November 2017
A Day of Gratitude
“The rent is due tomorrow. The landlord said no exceptions this month,” yelled Mary from the kitchen. “I’m getting paid tomorrow so we will be alright for this month,” I yelled back from the bedroom. Our voices echoed in the small tenement space we called home. When we moved here from Ireland, we arrived with a pocket full of nothing and a heart full of dreams. We didn’t know what to expect, but we knew we had to make this move for there was nothing left back home because of the Great Famine.
We had gotten the idea of moving to America from an older neighbor who lived near me. He had read about the land of opportunities that awaited across the ocean- a land full of money to be made. When I had first introduced the idea to Mary, she questioned everything. “How would we learn the language? Where would we live? Would we ever come back home?” The truth was, no one who had gone to America ever came back home. It was a one way ticket to a better life. Before we knew it, the effects of the famine had gotten so dire that we were packing our bags. The famine had taken everything; our country had nothing left in store for us and we knew it was time to bid farewell.
Our friends and family decided to host an “American Wake” for us in order to celebrate all our memories back home since they knew they would never see us again. The feast contained tons of Irish foods such as coddle, which is made of sausage, bacon and potato, and my favorite colcannon, which is made of mashed potatoes kale and butter. Irish music and dancing filled the air as we laughed over good memories and enjoyed Irish coffee.
Unfortunately, the time to say goodbye had arrived. We left for the new world with a one way ticket and twenty-five cents in our pockets. We had to get right to work as soon as we set foot in Boston Harbor and then traveled to New York. Mary found a job caring for a wealthy family’s children and doing household chores. I became accustomed to the noise and smoke of factory work like every other Irish immigrant at the time.
I still remember my astonishment when I arrived to New York City. It was as if the night sky lay itself like a blanket over the city. Lights twinkled everywhere as crowds rushed to complete their daily routines. I had grown up without a single streetlight in the County Gateway Village of Bantrough Bawn in Ireland and now here I was passing lit up streets at every corner. “We also need money for the heat bill” Mary interrupted my thoughts. “I know I didn’t forget” I said in a calm voice as to not panic her.
The clock hit 6 o’clock and everyone seated themselves at the dinner table. Conversation about the surrounding neighborhoods flowed between Mary, I, and our 3 children. “Father, father did you see what happened to my shoes? The street dog ran away with it and bit it to pieces!” Marvin cried. “You should’ve been more careful!” I screamed as the thought of paying for new shoes haunted my wallet. “I didn’t mean to yell. I sorry” I responded in my broken English to entertain the kids and lighten the mood. They laughed as they passed the bread and cream cheese around the table.
Night fell and I kept tossing and turning in our pull out bed. Frustration filled my mind as I tried to calculate the expenses and allocate the money I’d soon receive. Maybe I could ask the landlord for an extension on the rent. He’d surely understand our problems. It mirrored the problems every other immigrant family was facing in this neighborhood. I thought back to when we first moved in here. I had stumbled upon a family picture from perhaps the people who lived here before us. A smiling family of three dressed in lavish clothing. I had heard rumors that wealthy residents used to live in these buildings in Lower East Side. Then they were cut up to create more housing for the waves of immigrants arriving from all over the world in search of the American Dream. I wondered where this family was now. I wondered what it felt like to have a choice to move out of this dump. Quieting my mind, I went to sleep as tomorrow another day of factory work filled my schedule.
The hustle and bustle of the morning proceeded as it did everyday. Mary made breakfast and the children went to the backyard to freshen up. Usually there was a line for the outhouses as the entire building’s population shared the six in the yard. I didn’t want to be late to work because that would result in a hefty pay cut and that was the last thing I wanted. I arrived at the factory and took my place in the assembly line. I worked at a textile factory in Lower East Side itself and although the job paid peanuts even after working horrendous hours, I was lucky to have a job in a time of heavy immigration that flooded into New York City. “Nine dollars I thought to myself. I kept diving it up in my head to make all the ends meet but it just wasn’t possible. My thoughts were interrupted by screaming from the other end of the factory. Loud, high pitched screaming filled the air and startled me into reality. I rushed over to the other side to see where the screaming was coming from. The sight of blood and a hand caught in the fabric machine froze my legs and I wasn’t able to move. Workers rushed past me to help the young kid who couldn’t have been older than twelve years old. They pulled his shredded bloody hand out and rushed him to the hospital. “You will get used to it sadly” the man standing next to me advised. “This job is dangerous but it’s all we can get right now,” he said with a somber face. I returned to my machinery as color returned to my pale face.
After a tiring day’s work, I collected my paycheck and began my journey home. I made a quick stop to the corner store on my way home to pick up groceries. The store owner greeted me in Irish and I replied gladly with a smile on my face. For a second I felt like I was at home again as the Irish store owner shared news about the things happening back home. I bought a loaf of bread as I bid farewell. One dollar gone. Eight to go.
I passed a thrift store on the way with second hand shoes on display. Suddenly Marvin’s small face and a large smile popped into my mind. I went inside and asked for a discount on the shoes and luckily the shop owner was a kind soul. I told him they were for my son and I had little money to spare. One more dollar gone. Six to go.
As I was finally about to approach my apartment, I kept contemplating the thought of asking my landlord for an extension. “I will just pay him some sort of interest. Im sure he won’t mind if I explain my situation,” I thought to myself. Suddenly, my thoughts were interrupted by the terrorizing sound of human dismay. I looked around to figure out where the screaming was coming from and suddenly my face turned pale.
My eyes met the sight of a large fire up in the factory building and the horrific sounds of screaming and burning. A large crowd started to gather down on the street as chaos took over the entire neighborhood. I stood frozen as I watched girls jump to their death because they couldn’t see any other way to escape. I had heard about the working conditions in factory buildings before but I never thought it would come down to this horrific incident. My eyes were witnessing two heinous acts on humanity in one day. I quickly pulled myself together and started helping the other civilians create soft surfaces to try and save the jumping girls. Some people had now reached the roof and started jumping to the roofs of adjoining buildings. My eyes pierced with pain as I saw the girls dropping like flies-burning to their painful demise or suffocating from the smoke in the trapped building. Just then, all of us heard the sirens of fire trucks and a sense of relief washed over us. The firefighters arrived and took out their equipment but their ladder only reached the seventh floor while the main fire was located on the eighth floor. They used their fire hoses to extinguish the fire and save any people that were left in the building. I felt drops on my face wet and realized tears had been rolling down. Dead workers from the factory lay all around the sidewalk. I thought about the futures they will never have now. I thought about the lives they would never get to build. The joys they would never experience. And most of all, I thought about their parents receiving the unfortunate news and their world ending right that instant.
My thoughts were once again interrupted by screaming-but this time the source was much closer. I turned around and a girl lay on the ground with light burns and a broken foot probably from the jump. I quickly rushed over to her with water and a blanket given out by the fire department. “Are you okay? Where are you hurt exactly?” I questioned the girl. However, she was in so much pain that her only answer came in the form of screams. I picked her up carefully and started running towards the nearest hospital. The pour soul couldn’t have been over fifteen years old. All the while, my own kid’s pictures kept flashing before my eyes and I prayed for their well being.
“You saved this girl’s life,” the doctor exclaimed after he came out of the surgery room after four hours. I had been pacing back and forth in the waiting area while I waited for the outcome. “Oh thank god!” I exclaimed. It was the first piece of good news I had received all day. I was able to get in contact with her parents and they arrived to her side as quickly as they received the news. They thanked me endlessly and a sense of wonderment filled my heart. My own problems of paying the rent and Marvin’s ripped shoes were forgotten for a while as I finally made my way home.
“Where were you?” my wife yelled, “I was so worried!” “I’m here now and I’m not going anywhere” I said. “Daddy! Daddy!” Marvin came running into the kitchen area, “You’re home!” “I’m home, and I have a surprise for you!” I exclaimed as I pulled out the shoes I bought for Marvin. The smile that appeared on his face was invaluable as he gave me the tightest hug. In that moment I thought about how lucky I am that my family was safe and sound. The day’s events had me questioning the importance of material things as we settled down to have dinner. At the dinner table, I shared my day’s events with the family and we had a moment of silence for all the lives lost and injured in the day’s accidents.
Although my life here in America is far from what I imagined back in Ireland, it is days like these that I am grateful for the the family I come home too. We may have left behind familiar roads and small towns for broken tongues and city lights, but at least we have the opportunity to build a brighter future here. Everyday, I could not be more thankful to call this place my home. And everyday, I pray for the ones back home that they too have a table full of food to come back to and a family to share it with.