The Andreotti’s had moved in next door to them early at the beginning of the previous summer. Sophia’s father was suspicious of them. He said he did not trust Italians but when pressed on the issue he could offer no cogent argument, only that it was “well-known” that Italians were not to be trusted. When Sophia asked why, if that was the case, that it was all right for them to attend the Italian Catholic church down the street, her father had dismissed the question in a huff saying children should not question their parents. He did that a lot when she brought up any subject which might be thought of as being uncomfortable. While her mother was more pliable, she seldom went against what her husband proclaimed to be the truth. And if you asked the question a second time, no matter how well you reworded it, he raised his voice a little higher until she recognized the fruitless nature of her inquiry.
Sophia reflected on her neighborhood that cold January morning. That was unusual because she seldom had time for her own thoughts once she awoke to the new day. This day, however, was not a usual day in any respect. It was not just that it was a Sunday and no one worked on Sundays. But that there was no prospect of work for anyone in the family for the foreseeable future, and that had trouble all of them. They had suffered through times of low employment when one or two of the family was out of work. But this time was different. This time they were all out of work, food was low, money was lower, and the winter was just reaching its chilling heights.
Sophia reflected back to her life in Poland, just six short years ago. They had been extremely poor then too, but they always had friends and family to help them through even the most difficult of times. Now, most of her family surrounded her in this small apartment. They had no actual relatives in the city, as they had claimed. Her “uncle” had actually been an acquaintance of her father’s from Poland who had written to his brother. That brother had talked rather glowingly of America and its promise. Her father, a headstrong man, had always believed he deserved more than he had gotten, and this word of a better life in America had been virtually all he needed to hear. Then, about a year before they left Poland, her father had seen a representative, from one of the American mills, talking to some men in Krakow, where he had gone to find some replacement tools for the farm. The man had said how America longed for the Polish immigrant to work there, and that they were paid handsomely for their toil. When her father had asked how much, the representative had instantly responded that they lived like kings. The reference to royalty was met with amazement and disbelief, but it was a tale oft retold in many eastern and southern European towns. He had heard such “gossip” before and dismissed it as idle talk, but here, right before him, was an American recruiting for those very mills and saying exactly what had before only been rumor. It was all he needed.
But Sophia was comparing her small village in Poland with the city in which she now lived. In Poland you knew everyone, and had an opinion about everyone. Each person knew his place, and that place had a certain respect within the community. Her father had been very well-respected for his extremely hard work at maintaining a good farm and for generously helping others in their time of need. Now was their time of need, but here, in America, you knowledge of your neighbors was limited by where you went to church, where you worked, and most importantly, your ethnicity. When they arrived it was thought they would be living in a Polish neighborhood in their new city. But that had not been the case. On her street alone along with the Polish were Italians, Russians, Scots, a few French Canadians, and Armenians. Their backgrounds were about as diverse as one could imagine. And their lack of a common native tongue further inhibited them.
When they first arrived they were introduced to their Polish neighbors, who numbered few, and were shown where they could buy their kielbasa, when they could afford it, turnips, cabbage, and get it on credit if need be. They were also made aware of whom to avoid. The Poles were always suspect of Russians even though they were of the same background. You did not go to Warchovsky’s grocery because not only was he a Russian but a Jew, and who could trust them. That’s what they were told at least. Sophia had learned much of her English for a Polish Jew who told her that they were not so different from the Russian Jews, so how could that be bad. Sophia had found work quickly in the closest mill as a mender, one of the better paying jobs, and a job generally assigned to just women. The women at her mill, mostly Polish but some Italians, were given to gossiping about everything but as she listened Sophia learned that the old world mistrusts did not translate well in this new world, and most importantly, that they were “all in it together,” whatever that meant. It did not take her long to find out that it meant it was them against the floor bosses who assigned work. If you did not please such a boss, you might find yourself being laid off and another taking you place in just a day.
At that moment Sophia noticed the emptiness of her stomach. It ached. She knew breakfast would be some bread covered with molasses. It was not very filling but it took the edge off her hunger. When they had first arrived Sophia and her family looked like well-fed country stock. She had been a bit of a big girl back then but the constant battle against hunger had depleted her body that it seemed to her she was forever taking in her dresses just so they would fit better. Sophia had been a seamstress in Poland when they left, and her clothing had been relatively new and always in good condition. That had all changed, and many was the day that she was simply choosing between the least threadbare garments she owned. And winter only made things worst. Her one overcoat, though made of wool, failed to keep out the cold for any length of time. They few times she had had to work across the river at a more distant mill in the winter, she had wished she had the five cent trolley fare. By the time she made it to work, even when she rushed as best she could, she was always shivering.
As she thought of breakfast she longed for the days when her mother’s fesh-baked bapke and fruit pierogi started her day. They had enjoyed none of that since they arrived in America. And their was no Polish baker to provide their favorites. Mostly the grocers and bakers were Italian and Syian. But her father had assured her that their present condition, six years previous, was merely temporary, and that soon her mother would be making “babci’s” (grandmother) favorites. She longed for her babci but knew she would probably never see her again.
At home, here in America, everyone still spoke only Polish. Her brothers had all learned pretty good English, but her mother and father spoke very stilted, and heavily accented, English. Her father, it seems to Sophia, was worst of all. He had a stubborn streak a mile wide. As much as he need to learn English, he resisted it so much that she frequently had to go with him when he needed to buy something in particular from someone who did not speak Polish. Her father’s English was so bad that certain of the neighborhood men spoke poorly of him in his own presence without fear of his knowing what they were saying. It was only Sohpia’s scornful looks that stopped such talk. When her father noticed this he’d ask what had transpired, and to protect her father, Sophia had become very adept at making up a story to fit the situation so as not to upset her father. She adored and idolized her father, though he made her crazy many times with his stubbornness and pronouncements. When such things were talked about among other Polish people, they would universally agree that it was in their nature to be that way. They were a proud people, and they let their pride show whenever the chance afforded them. They all belongs to the Polish-American club down the street where these claims were justified on a regular basis.