The Immigrant

The Immigrant

He'll work for no one.
"Such a man," the uncles
grumble. "Such a man."
"Six years!" he says,
unbuttoning a cuff
and rolling up his sleeve.
Six years bending over a machine,
pressing knee pants and jackets,
until his eyes go bad
and he can't raise his head
without lifting up this arm.
"Six years!" he'll say
and show the arm
as if it told the story.
Son of horse dealers
in the Ukraine,
horse breaker himself,
he is a luftmensch, according
to his in-laws, a man of air,
one who has no substance,
no steady occupation
to argue for his yikhus,
his status or worth.
"He'll ride the wind,
if the wind is of his liking,
and pick up jobs
that keep him out-of-doors
and other men's employ,"
or so the uncles grumble.

But for six years
he bit his mustache,
living in one closet room
while working in another,
saving for a house in Brooklyn
and passage for his wife and kids.

After that, he'll work for no one.
He keeps a cow and chickens
in the yard, and a female goat.
"My farm," he tells his sons
when they say "house;"
and sells eggs and pails of milk
around the neighborhood.
It is 1916-17.
While Europe boils with war
and revolution, men with pushcarts
ply the neighborhoods of Brooklyn
with fruit and vegetables,
cloth, ribbons, pots and pans,
singing their wares
in answering voices
that cross and recross
for several blocks.

One day he shows up
with a horse and cart,
and paints a sign
that offers any child
a chance to prance
through Canarsie
for just a penny.
It doesn't make much money,
but now he has a horse
to haul the milk and eggs.
Now he has a horse.

From that day on, at sunset,
he unhitches the horse,
and mounts, and canters
high and lordly
through Canarsie's
still uncluttered streets,
so much the long-limbed cossack
that as he passes,
bearded men cower and mumble.
Dismounting at Jamaica Bay,
he looks at that darkening,
violet expanse, remembers
the pale sunlight
on the cobbled streets
of Minsk, the six years
pressing pants and coats,
or the number of eggs
he's sold that day,
before he slips
onto the horse once more
and, turning a straight back
to the sea, trots home.

- Morton Marcus

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