Friday, March 7, 2014

Life In New York City in the Early 1900s

In writing my book, Deeds, I wanted to depict the lives of three generations of the Behr family, beginning with Raphael Behar, who came to New York City in the early 1900s. I undertook a good deal of research to immerse the reader in that world and time.

Here’s an excerpt:

Raphael caught sight of the impossibly tall tower long before he reached Twenty-third Street, and was stunned by it. He hurried toward it. Stopping impatiently at a street corner to let a carriage move past, he counted the floors. Twenty! A slim and elegant wedge twenty stories high! Paris had ornate facades, but no building so modern, so striking as this. This was what he had come to America for.

He stood in front of its entrance, staring upward in awe, blocking pedestrians who hurried by: women whose skirts swirled upward in the drafts caused by the tall building and the men trying to glimpse their ankles.

“Twenty-three skidoo!” a large policeman with a walrus mustache pointed to the street sign on the Twenty-third Street corner jerked and his thumb to indicate Raphael must move on. No ogling the ladies’ ankles in his domain. The man’s accent was as Irish as the teamster’s who had driven Raphael from the pier.

“What is it called, the building?” Raphael asked, bursting with curiosity.

“The Fuller Company Building, but everyone calls it the Flatiron Building.”

“Of what is the building made?”

“Steel.” The policeman was used to the question. “A steel frame.”

Again steel, Raphael observed, like the Eiffel Tower. The Greeks and Romans, the Gothic-cathedral builders, had all erected exquisite structures, but all were earthbound because they lacked the knowledge of building with steel.

When a woman opened the door to leave the building, Raphael noticed the elevator inside the lobby. Steel to gain the height, he reflected, and an elevator because people cannot easily walk up more than maybe four or five floors. He thought, The lessons are all around me if I keep my eyes open.

The signs and clothing changed abruptly when Raphael crossed the Bowery, leaving the Italian and entering the Jewish section. Many women wore ill-fitting wigs and, even in the heat, the men wore skull caps or black derby hats, and their dark suits covered layers of shabby clothing. Pushcarts formed a line along the gutter that slowed pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk to a trickle. Store signs were written both in English and Hebrew letters. But Raphael did not recognize the Hebrew words, until he sounded out the names “Goldstein and Weintraub,” which he recognized as Jewish names from Northern Europe, where Yiddish, not Ladino, was spoken; the Hebrew letters were being employed to write Yiddish. In English the sign declared that Goldstein and Weintraub were tailors.

Such signs covered every storefront, hung from every shop. As Raphael made his way deeper into the Jewish section, the profusion of people and smells became stifling. He had to push his way through. He stopped at a cart with dates and figs among the fruit and okras among the vegetables. The man had a grand mustache and wore a fez. Raphael commented in Ladino on the quality of the foodstuffs. They struck up a short conversation. The man said he was from Smyrna, and that there are more of us here than you might think. But with so many Ashkenazi Jews, I wear a fez so our Sephardim can find my cart.

At Allen Street a train rattled along the elevated right-of-way. Amplified along the dark tunnel formed by the track structure above and grimy buildings with saloons on both sides, the sound crushed down on him. A woman accosted him. He turned the corner and found someone who was able to direct him to the shirt store on Delancey Street.

Read more: Deeds.

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