"Hold On: Letter to a New American."
The Ryder, (July 17, 1998): 8-10
You jump through hoops. They command: "Prove you can work!" You all but sand your callused
hands over their soft white cheeks. They bark: "Show us your cash, greenback dollars, to
bail yourself out if you can't find a job!" You shove that wad of thousands you earned cleaning
rich American's houses right under their noses. They cajole: "Demonstrate that you have transferred
your loyalty, and will forget your mother country, and love us, only, ever after;" and you,
my darling Beata, put on the performance of your young life. Congratulations on the green card,
and being a newly christened American. When we meet we shall pop the champagne cork and spoon
cream over wild strawberries, like in the old days, in the old town square.
Yet I sense in your letter something less than joy. You speak of your prized, new American address,
your geographic trophy, as "a town without unity, identity, or soul." Honey, you're
shopping for the right goods in the wrong market. People here value license and money. Traditional
comforts you used to earn through those old peasant values, patience, faith, a dogged steadfastness,
you can now purchase in the blink of an eye. Charge with an American Express card, Beata, and
your dad will finally respect you. Choose AT&T phone service and you will love your grandma
and want to be near her. Wash your clothing in Whisk and the family will remain together. Select
another product and you will be abandoned.
You speak of things being spread out. I have a confession to make: when I was in Poland, I dreaded
returning to American distance. From my little apartment on Ulica Mariacka, that haunted, warm
room with the casement windows and creaking walls, I could walk to your place, to Basia's, to
Ala's; to stores where I did all my shopping for rye bread and yogurt, which was pretty much all
we could buy in those days; to a farmer's stall where old women who knew nothing of change splayed
their kerchiefs full of coins and let the merchant sweat the figures. I remember blueberries and
cherries and then black currents coming into season in that dusty city lot as magically as they
do in the country. I could walk to the symphony hall where we heard Gorecki's "Sorrowful
Songs" for the first time; to the granite monument to light candles on all the right days,
never the days the state told us; to factories, to green grass, to fat cows, we could walk, and
still get home in time for supper. Distances were dainty and created with biology -- a leg's span
-- in mind.
In America the planners' most tender thoughts are devoted to the unliving. Buildings are surrounded
by vast wastelands called parking lots that are bitter cold, exposed, in winter, blistering and
blue with exhaust in summer. America is divided by great swaths of infertility and motion, the
most commonplace of which is wider than the heroic rivers of the Old World -- quick --which is
widest: the Volga, the Danube, or the New Jersey Turnpike?
Americans swallow this distance and it radiates around them. Don't delay your eyes or let fingers
linger; bounce off Americans as if they were a hot stove. Don't let words reveal that you see,
know, share; don't imply a candle more of warmth than they can digest in the time it takes to
fry and swallow a Big Mac. Otherwise, they will have to explain to themselves and each other the
ready intimacy you bring them. Since it is different, it will be wrong, like your accent. Having
never seen it, having no idea what it is, they will label you marginal. Or maybe a stalker?
Remember how we said good-bye in Poland? "Trzymaj sie." "Hold on." The other
day I wasn't thinking and I said it to an acquaintance. "What's that mean?" he immediately
asked. I had let slip some piece of the mystery, which he cannot fathom because my skin is white
and I wear no folk costume. I tried to translate:
I was on a tram in Krakow. Flimsy, rickety, stitched together -- you see the same trams in archival
footage. A woman in gray, worn clothing was riding with a boy; he wore a cap. The tram careened
around a corner, like a Tilt-a-Whirl, only less stable, and no fun. She folded the boy's pale
translucent fingers around the metal rail. "Trzymaj sie!" she commanded.
I'd gotten sick in Poland. Was laid up for days. And never alone. There was a parade of visitors.
One day it was Zbigniew, a young punk I'd met at an anti-state demonstration. Ziggy had been wearing
an army jacket and a safety pin through his nose. Today he was toting a jar of gooseberry compote
under his coat. He sat with me for while, then took off, and before he left, he put the compote
down on my table, "Trzymaj sie," he said.
I'd just returned from Poland. Back at home in Jersey with my blood relations was scarier than
water canons and tear gas. My father had never spoken Polish to me once in his life. Would get
hostile if asked. As I left, with a sigh of relief, to mount a bus that would take me far from
there forever, my father was suddenly leaning out the back screen door. "Trzymaj sie,"
he said, the first words in his first language he had ever spoken to me in his seventy years.
The next time I saw that face, it was in a coffin.
What we said when we parted: "Trzymaj sie." Hold on: to life, to me, to our affection.
To this earth, which, like those creaky old trams, is careening and might swerve and throw us
off at any moment. Hold on: to memories which no one around you shares or understands, memories
not Technicolor, nor heralding Dolby triumph, but memories only always, at their very best, complex,
and bittersweet. Hold on: to who you are, though tempted to forgo your ridiculous old world identity
and buy one that promises a greater return. Hold on to friends who clean American houses and scramble
for green cards, though you schmooze daily with their social and ethnic betters. Hold on: the
imperative mood. Poles demand it every day, of themselves, of each other. We don't have such tense
attitudes here. We say: "Take it easy." If it isn't easy, just...let go.
There are people I see everyday, coworkers, neighbors, to whom I dare not show the kind of familiarity
shown me by that bustling Polish babushka, a complete stranger, who stopped in front of me on
a blustery day, as she was scurrying from meat line to bread line: "Young ladies shouldn't
sit on cold stoops. It will destroy your insides." Said as if she were my mother, said as
if her daughter were far away, too, and she knew that my mother would, if passing on a snowy street
and saw a girl sitting in a doorway, take an equal care in her vital organs.
It's spring now and as I write this I hear the tree frogs sing. There must be hundreds of them
in the marsh, maybe thousands or millions, yet I hear them as one steady voice, as smoothly regular
as heart beat or ocean wave. Let's do an experiment. Let's take one of these tiny creatures, more
art than craft, eyes of bulging jewels, a skin of breathing mucus, his largest attribute: a mating
trill that sounds of Christmas bells. He could perch on your thumbnail and not one suction toe
would overhang. What does a tree frog need for life? Reeds, slime, bugs. Provide it, but let's
separate tree frogs from the great voice in the marsh, and put each an American car-calibrated
distance apart. How long could the tree frog tribe survive? They'd die out in a generation. There's
a scientist who's been proving this with birds. One isolated bird, without access to kin, may
breathe and eat but his isolation means the species is already extinct. Scientists now, calibrating
the Indiana forest with tape measures, are determining how many miles apart waterthrush can be
before they all just fade away, slowly, undramatically, like a photograph left out in the sun.
When things go slowly like that, there is no one to remember what it was like when we still had
We're all here in America, everyday, experimenting on ourselves. How many connections can we pass
up before we overheat? We can answer how far a car can go without gas, but we can't answer that.
I was ashamed to admit this in Poland. It was bad there and I was always the first to complain,
militantly, about the cynicism, about my apartment ... Though I lived alone, there was always
a racket. The sink would back up every twelve hours or so and resonate like the soundtrack of
a movie about demonic possession. We knew the bad old Poland of the late eighties, when everything
was broken or breaking. There was a constant knocking, tapping, hammering. It was like living
in a Gothic novel. "What's that clamor I ever hear in my sleep, sir?" And the state
kept insisting: "It's nothing, Jane. Go back to sleep." But the water pipes in my building
were operatic, truly. Like somewhere between the plaster of my wall and the air outside, some
blue whales were swimming and crooning their love duets; like somewhere between my ceiling and
the floor of the apartment above some Guinness World Records fat person was taking a Guinness
World Record fart in a Guinness World Record bathtub. Yes, I complained. I complained about "Damn
But I dreaded leaving even the silly men who did not inhibit themselves in reminding us that we
were women first to them, the teenage boys who would cruise up behind us, silently, in train stations,
and take up our suitcases, and carry them to our compartments, and hardly pause for a surprised,
"Thank you;" the tram passengers who, no matter how crowded it was, always saw the tired
older woman -- the kind of woman who is invisible in America -- get on, loaded with packages,
and would immediately rise to insist on giving her their seats; the friends who grasped our arms
as we strolled through streets, holding on is if we were on the edge of a cliff and this grasp
meant life; the farm houses where we slept as guests next to the owners under an intimate cloud
I feared returning to the damn American distance as if it were a corporeal embodiment of a cruel
and inevitable karma.
But you, Beata, my new American friend, you and I will write, no?
© Danusha V.