For Ilka Weissnix, everything is new. Having recently arrived in the United States, she is determined to escape the immigrant communities of New York and boards a train headed west to discover “the real America.” She finds Carter Bayoux “sitting on a stool in a bar in the desert, across from the railroad.”
Older, portly, experienced, and black, Carter is magnetic. To Ilka, he exemplifies the values and cultures of a changing America. In order to understand her new country and her new love, Ilka throws herself into Carter’s dizzying world, nurses him through his bouts of depression and his alcoholism, and becomes fascinated by stories of his amorous past. But Carter’s ghosts are ever present, and soon Ilka finds herself torn between saving him and saving her own future.
With a foreword by Stanley Crouch, Her First American is the poignant story of an immigrant experience in a country of endless possibilities and of a rich and breathtaking love that is doomed from the start.
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Her First American
By Lore Segal
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1985 Lore Groszmann Segal
All rights reserved.
Ilka had been three months in this country when she went West and discovered her first American sitting on a stool in a bar in the desert, across from the railroad. He was a big man. He bought her a whiskey and asked her what in the name of the blessed Jehoshaphat she was doing in Cowtown, Nevada.
"Nevada?" Ilka had said. "I have believed I am being in Utah, isn't it?"
"Utah!" The big American turned a sick color. "Where the hell am I?" he asked the barman.
"Hagen, ass end of Noplace, Nevada," replied the barman and swiped his dish towel at a glass mug.
"Aha! So!" Ilka sipped her whiskey and, hiding her smiling teeth inside her glass, said, "I do not believe."
"What don't you believe?" asked the American.
"That I sit in Utah."
"Nevada," said the American.
"I do not believe Nevada, Utah, America."
It had taken Ilka Weissnix more than a decade to get to the United States, of which she knew next to nothing and came prepared to think ill: Ilka was twenty-one. The Viennese Weissnixes had known so little of their relations, the Litvak Fishgoppels, that Ilka was not aware that she had an American cousin until some time after the war was over. It was early in the fifties when the cousin traced Ilka to Lisbon and sent her an affidavit and a ticket.
Fishgoppel came into New York to fetch the refugee from Idlewild. "Ich muss nemen ein examen. Ich muss gein back to school," shouted Fishgoppel across the roar of the subway that carried them uptown. "Ihr will stay in mein apartment in New York, O.K.?"
"Excuse please?" Ilka shouted back.
"My horrible Yiddish!" yelled Fishgoppel and hit herself in the head.
"Yiddish!" shouted Ilka, lighting on a word she understood.
"By us in Vienna has nobody speaken Yiddish outside the Polischen! "
"What?" hollered Fishgoppel, and they laughed and turned out both palms of their hands, perfectly understanding each other to mean "Too noisy. One can't hear oneself talk!"
Fishgoppel's small Upper West Side apartment had the simple layout of a dumbbell. The front door opened into the middle of a narrow foyer with a room at each end.
"One for you," said Fishgoppel, "and one for your mother, when we get her to America."
"I do not know where is my mother living. My father was found after the war on the list of dead but not my mother. I do not know if she is living," said Ilka. She was looking around at Fishgoppel's possessions. Each object was out of harmony with every other in a way for which the laws of probability did not account. Ilka looked at Fishgoppel. Only a persevering spirit could have parlayed such skin, such wonderful black hair and sweet, clever eyes into this dowdiness. Ilka stared at the crosswork of faint scars, like a deformation on Fishgoppel's fair young forehead; the hallucination as suddenly passed: it was only Fishgoppel frowning. "Look at the time!" Fishgoppel spread the subway map in front of Ilka. "Here is where you get off for the employment agency. This is where they give English classes. Are you going to manage?"
"Thanks!" said Ilka.
"The butcher on the corner of Broadway speaks German. This is my number. Call me. I'll call you. I'll come in for a day as soon as my exams are over. Will you be all right?" Minutes after Fishgoppel had run to catch the train back to New Haven, Ilka took the elevator down and burst into the streets of New York, which looked like the streets she remembered from her childhood Vienna—the same flat, staid, gray façades except that here, in front of her, walked a real American couple, having an American conversation. Ilka accelerated and walked close behind them and perfectly understood the old man saying, "Because I wear proper shoes in which a person can walk." The old woman said, "Because you don't have bunions." The man said, "Because I wear proper shoes," and Ilka recognized that it was German they were speaking, with the round Viennese vowels cushioned between relaxed Viennese consonants.
When she got back, the telephone was ringing: Would Fishgoppel collect for the United Negro College Fund?
"I will collect. I am the cousin from Fishgoppel," said Ilka: Ilka wanted to see the inside of an American home.
The nameplate outside apartment 6-A said "Wolfgang Placzek." He handed her fifty cents through the cracked door. While 6-B went to look for change, Ilka put her head inside the foyer and saw the little green marble boy extracting the same splinter from his foot, on the same tree stump, on the same round lace doily on which he had sat in Ilka's mother's foyer in Vienna. The woman came back. "Nix! Nothing," she said. It did her grief but her man was not to house. Six-C was Fishgoppel, and 6-D would not open; the voice through the peephole came from Berlin. It did her grief but her sister had a stroke had and was to bed.
"How?" Ilka asked the woman at the employment agency, who told Ilka to come back when she had practiced her English. "With whom shall I praxis? You are the only American I met in New York? The onlies others I met are in my English class, which are yet other outlanders, which know always only other outlanders, which know yet lesser English as I!"
The woman on the other side of the desk drew her head back from Ilka's complaining. She was a stout woman with a lot of useless bosom and looked as if there was some complaining she might do, give her a chance. "New York," she said to Ilka, "is not America, like all you people always think."
When Fishgoppel came to town to see how Ilka was getting on, Ilka complained that New York was not America. Fishgoppel frowned, did some mental arithmetic, and offered Ilka a week's trip West.
Ilka practiced her English on the train conductor. He leaned over the back of the seat in front of the girl and asked her to guess how long he had been on this Denver–Los Angeles run.
"Excuse please?" Ilka smiled the self-conscious smile she knew from her mirror, and regretted. It exposed her two long front teeth with the little gap between that made her look, she believed, like a friendly village simpleton. Ilka was a thin girl. In certain lights her hair matched the color of her eyes. After she acquired the word Ilka thought herself khaki, but interesting. Ilka thought she was interesting. She smiled sweetly, apologetically at the round, pink-faced conductor; he looked like a healthy old baby. He held up three left and two right fingers.
"Thirty-two years on this same run!"
"Aha!" said Ilka.
"Know it like"—he pointed into his pocket, "like the"—he held up the palm of his hand and pointed at it. "I'll be back," he promised.
Ilka looked out. The land was level as the primordial waters before the creation of breath disturbed its surface, uninterrupted by objects, man-made or natural, as far as the ruler-straight horizon west and north and east, except outside the window, on the left, where a grid of apartment buildings formed a small, perfectly square city. Its near perimeter coincided with the platform of the railroad. The train stopped when it had aligned Ilka with Main Street, at the far end of which a mountain, like a giant purple ice-cream cone, stood upside down on the perfectly flat world. Ilka wanted somebody to turn to and say, "I don't believe this!" She might have imagined that she had imagined this Atlantis onto the desert floor but for the details, which were not in her experience to engender: bars, bowling alleys, barber shops, eating places with neon signs that ran and jumped and stopped, and switched from pastel greens to pastel yellows to pinks leached out by the tail end of daylight.
Ilka's conductor returned: a ninety-minute stopover. He handed her down the steps. And that was how Ilka Weissnix from Vienna came to stand in the middle of the New World, she thought. Ilka thought she was in Utah, and she thought Utah was dead in the heart of America.
Ilka was intensely excited. She ran up the platform until it stopped across from the long, low building which formed the northwest corner of the tiny city. The low building was made of a rosy, luminescent brick and quivered in the blue haze of the oncoming night—it levitated. The classic windows and square white letters, saying AMERICAN GLUE INC., moved Ilka with a sense of beauty so out of proportion to the object, Ilka recognized euphoria. It knocked out her common sense of time. Afraid of being left behind, but more afraid of missing what more there might be to be seen, Ilka turned and ran close alongside the train until the platform stopped across from the shack that held this northeast end of town down upon the desert the way one of those little gummed corners fixes your snapshot in its place on the page of your album. A neon sign read LARR'S B R ND EATS.
With the reluctance of one who puts a foot out into an alien element, Ilka stepped off the platform, crossed the dirt road, and, with a palpitating heart, depressed the handle of the door.
The barman went on wiping his glass mug with an agitated white dishcloth, but the huge American on the stool swiveled to see who had walked in. Ilka, feeling looked at, ducked into the booth nearest the door. By the time she had settled and raised her self-conscious village smile, the American on the bar stool had returned to his conversation with the barman. Ilka felt ever so faintly hurt. There were women—Ilka knew this—who got looked at longer. Anyway, this was an older man, a very large, stout man, with a look of density, as if he were heavier, pound by pound, than other men of equal bulk. His grizzled hair was cut peculiarly short. It was flattened against the large skull in a way the girl did not understand. His skin had a yellow hue, the nose was flat and the mouth wide—like a frog's, Ilka would have thought, if it had not been for a look about him of weight, of weightiness, like a Roman senator, thought Ilka.
Anyway, what Ilka had come West for was American conversation and she listened and thought the barman said, "Coming down cats and dogs." Thinking she hadn't listened properly, Ilka listened harder. The barman said, "This kid I knew in high school's dad is in this cab coming down Lex I think it was."
The man on the bar stool said, "This is in New York?" which Ilka understood. Encouraged, she leaned forward to really listen, and the barman said, "Where else is there? Guess the brakes quit on the guy. This kid's dad. He lost his thumb, busted both legs, left side of his face is all chewed up, and this pip of a shyster out of nowhere is running alongside the stretcher, says he can get him a lump sum in compensation, which is what I'm telling you is what you have to have, once in your lifetime, give you an opportunity."
Ilka was trying to connect "shyster" (the English cognate, presumably, of the German scheissen with the "er" suffix meaning "one who shits," a "shitter") and "lump" (as in a mattress) plus "sum" (the mathematical result of totting up), and missed everything the barman said after that. Ilka gave up. She studied the red plastic booth in which she sat. Ilka thought that the back seats out of two automobiles had been placed face to face. Three booths times two back seats—that was six red automobiles!
The barman said, "Got the wife to sue for deprivation of sexual excess, is it?"
"Access?" suggested the older man on the stool.
"You name it, he sued for it." The barman walked around the bar and was coming toward Ilka. "Physicaltormentalanguishdiminishedreproductivity what'll it be?" he asked her.
"Excuse please?" Ilka said and smiled at him with her apologetic teeth and shook her head and said, "I can not yet so well English."
The barman, who seemed worn to bone and nerve by a chronic high of exasperation, raised his chin like a dog about to howl and said, "You want a drink?"
"Please, coffee," said Ilka.
"Coffee!" howled the barman in a voice outside the human range of sound, walked back around the bar and disappeared through a door into a region beyond Ilka's sight and outside the range of her imagination. She pictured a blackness out of which the barman's voice went on with what he was saying to the man on the bar stool: "This kid's dad I was telling you comes out the hospital, lost his hearing in one ear—or wishes he lost it, is what he used to tell us kids, so he wouldn't hear this noise all the time like someone was pissing inside his ear, loud like Niagara."
"Jesus!" the man on the stool said. "That could drive a man to drink."
"Only thing would drown it out was trumpets turned with the volume all the way up. See," said the barman, "this is hi-fi coming in. This guy. He buys every damn book, reads up in all the magazines and goes into audio with his lump sum in compensation, makes a mint with his own home in Bayshead, but you don't get a lump sum," said the barman, coming out with Ilka's coffee, "you don't got a opportunity I don't care what anybody is going to tell you."
"Isn't that the truth," said the stout older man. And raising his voice to the tenor pitch that best carried into the booth by the door, where the young blonde sat watching him, he said, "The problem, as I see it, is how you're going to put your idea over."
"My idea?" said the barman.
"I can introduce it for you in the next session of the United Nations, or were you thinking in terms of an amendment to the Bill of Rights?"
Ilka was surprised at the high, hilarious note coming from such a heavy, older man.
"Was I thinking ...?" said the barman.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men, blah blah blah, have the unalienable right to a lump sum?"
"Once in your lifetime," said the barman, "is all I'm saying to you."
"See if I understand you, now, this is for white only, or for colored as well?"
"Listen! I ain't prejudiced. I'm New York!" said the barman. "Ain't I standing here? Ain't I talking with you like you are a person? You want me, I'll make you a sandwich."
"Jesus God!" the man on the stool said gaily. "Imagine every one of us black sons of a gun going to have an equal opportunity, same as any white man in the land, to get our thumbs, legs, and eardrums busted! Let me check this out with you now: everybody has to first get pretty much chewed up, is what you're saying?"
"That's what it's compensation for! The way I figure you don't get something for nothing, but how it is now you get nothing period."
"It's an idea will revolutionize the economy!"
"It is? It will?" The barman looked nervous.
"Sure!" the man on the stool said. He crossed one ankle over the other, effecting a quarter-turn in Ilka's direction. "Say you take the Social Security money for the year X and, instead of pissing it away on the poor, the old, and the sick, you divvy it up—let's say three thousand bucks apiece, to every baby born in that same year, black and white, and—stick with me here—the government invests each baby's three thousand at, say, five percent, till the baby gets to be twenty-nine—or would you say thirty-five?"
"Thirty-five has more horse sense," said the barman.
"O.K. Now," said the man on the stool, "when the baby is thirty-five they cut off its thumbs, break its legs, pierce its eardrums, and hand it the lump sum of ..." he patted his breast pocket, took out an envelope, and said, "You got a pencil there? Thank you. Three thousand at five percent times thirty-five compounded"—the man on the stool did arithmetic for a while—"dollars fifteen thousand seven hundred and sixty!" he said triumphantly.
The barman looked agitated. "And the poor, old, sick folks?"
"What poor, old, sick folks!" cried the man on the stool. "They got their lumps when they were thirty-five and made a mint! They own their own homes, colored, whites, everybody! In Bayshead!"
"I guess," said the barman.
Excerpted from Her First American by Lore Segal. Copyright © 1985 Lore Groszmann Segal. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I received this book from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. How It Made Me Feel:I haven't read a book in a while that really made me think as I read. Her First American is very different from the books I've been reading lately and I really enjoyed it! It was a completely different take on Historical Fiction for me and I felt like it opened up a completely new door in books. The story is written from Ilka's point of view, a point of view from a Viennese woman learning English and being in New York for the first time in her life. Lately, whenever I've read a historical fiction book, it's been written by an American author. This book was different. I loved the feel of the book as I continued reading, I enjoyed the conversations between characters, I loved hearing about the history, and I liked how Ilka grew through out the story. It was a story that dealt with racism, depression, knowledge, alcoholism, post war situations, and foreign characters. A great combination to say the least. What I Thought Worked:One of my favorite parts was reading through Ilka's slow learning of the English language. Reading that she had to go find a 'real American' was sort of a different take on post WWII America. I rather loved that conversations Ilka would have in the book were true to type, seeing how someone who has spoken a language other than English as their first, would start to learn and have to struggle sometimes when hearing native English speakers. What I Thought Didn't Work:There were times, where I wasn't able to follow Carter's thought process or ideas. His character was a big all over the place and so very eccentric. But the further I read into the book, the easier I found to understand his character. Rating 4/5 Why It Got That Rating:It was a take on post WWII America that I had never taken into consideration. Reading this book opened my eyes and I found something I would have never appreciated before. I enjoyed the reaction I had after finishing the book and I hope that other people can find the same thing. Who Would I Recommend To:I would recommend to anyone who enjoys reading about Post WWII America, unconventional romances, and foreigners making their way in the United States.