Welcome to America
we arrived at the john f kennedy airport in the middle of april, wearing our heaviest sweaters, astrakhan coats, centuries-old gold refurbished from coins and teeth into earrings and chains. a family of five with no english and two suitcases per person, careers, houses, and tombstones neatly packed between the linings. for hours we stood against the wall with refugees from china, guatemala, and turkey, nibbling on plastic food smuggled in from pan american, waiting for the white cards that one day would become green cards and eventually blue passports. we were driven to our hotel in downtown brooklyn. with tears we watched the country of our dreams in all its magnificence of verrazano, twin towers, and woolworth. the seedy lobby of our court street motel greeted us with its pre-giuliani decadence and the cast of characters from scarface and taxi driver. we waited for the elevator, our lives assembled in a pyramid. when the doors finally popped open, a homeless black man covered in blood collapsed onto our suitcases in a magnificent drug overdose.
Welcome to America: Day Two
today we were visited by representatives from the salvation army. as if we were survivors of some natural disaster, they brought us food, blankets, sweat suits, t-shirts from the gap, tylenol, excedrin, cough syrup, thrift-store dostoevsky and tolstoy in english. we felt a tinge of shame for our fur coats hanging in the closet, for our rubies, diamonds, and boxes of contraband medication, even for the idiot and war and peace we had read in its original in high school. in broken english mixed with russian and ukrainian, we tried to tell the nice philanthropic people that we came here not because we were poor but because we were jewish, that we were persecuted, that my brother–a physics wunderkinder–could never study at the russian harvard, that my mother–a top economist– was passed over time and again for that huge promotion. still we took all the books, dishes, and blankets, and put on sweat suits and t-shirts and smiled our grateful all-american smiles because here you just never know how things might turn out.
Welcome to America: The Weekend
we were invited to celebrate passover with a community of hasidic jews in crown heights. we could have been murderers, robbers, imposters. nevertheless, these god’s chosen people, forever faithful to their black wool, opened their doors to us without any misgivings. self-effacing families with a gazillion children and barely any furniture fought against rich jewelers and judaica storeowners for the mitzvah of providing our room and board. every day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner we were taken to a different household, presented with mezuzahs, yarmulkes, talmuds of various sizes and bindings. in every doorway women were giving me skirts, gingham skirts to go to yeshiva, ruffled skirts for purim carnivals, skirts for bat mitzvah, skirts for shabbat. they called us baal teshuva, the ones who had returned. we sat at their tables, watched them pray, sing, soak apples in honey, toast to meeting next year in jerusalem; without any misgivings, we were finally free to be jewish and yet, even among our own people, we didn’t belong.
Welcome to America: The Bag
Emma Schwartz, my mother’s lifelong friend, helped us find our first apartment. she knew all the shortcuts of immigrant life, how to sign up for welfare, which store had chicken legs on sale, where to buy yesterday’s bread, half price. one night she burst into a grim soliloquy, oy vey America, it is far from the La Dolce Vita we expected, a student stabbed for a pair of sneakers, an old woman mugged in broad daylight, earrings torn off with the flesh, bag snatched together with a finger. my mother, terrified, remembered the expensive leather bag she bought in Rome next to the Trevi Fountain, she loved it, but if it was going to cost her her dear life… promptly, she brought the cursed bag into the kitchen, tags still attached, and said, Emmachka, you have been such a wonderful friend, please accept this humble present. next evening, as we sat on the porch watching the mexican vendors roll up their flowers, we saw Emma Schwartz strutting down the street, swinging my mother’s bag with the carelessness of an italian schoolgirl.
Welcome to America: Purple Rain
was the first film we had seen in this country. on a television set rescued from the dumpster, we took turns holding up the antenna as we watched Prince, not sure if he was white or black, a man or a woman, Michael Jackson or someone else. he sang ballads and rode a motorcycle without having a job while my brother needed cash for a pineapple so he pasted flyers on poles until one day he carried it in like a kettlebell, opened it, devoured it, then cried like a little boy because it tasted nothing like it did in his dreams. the girls in the movie wore garter belts on stage, their hair wall-like in the front cascaded in a waterfall, we wondered if this was the american fashion we were brave enough to follow. we had no idea why Prince’s father shot himself but my father already knew that he would never be a doctor again, a stock boy at the Sunrise 99¢ store he took home Tide that was discarded as trash, accused of stealing he was sacked in the morning. that first desperately hot summer we let the purple rain wash all over us as we strolled the air-conditioned Waldbaums every night in our house slippers, counting the years it would take to try all the variations of cheese.
The above is from the book, Stealing Cherries, published by Manic D Press (San Francisco: 2013), with permission of author and publisher.
About the Author:
Marina Rubin’s work had appeared in over eighty magazines and anthologies including 13th Warrior Review, Asheville Poetry Review, Dos Passos Review, 5AM, Nano Fiction, Coal City, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Jewish Currents, Lillith, Pearl, Poet Lore, Skidrow Penthouse, The Worcester Review and many more. She is an editor of Mudfish, the Tribeca literary and art magazine and a 2013 recipient of the COJECO Blueprint Fellowship. Her collection of flash fiction Stealing Cherries was released from Manic D Press to rave reviews and received an honorable mention on Heeb Magazine’s list of Best Books of 2014. “One of the richer contemporary visions of America I’ve read,” said Nano Fiction and Coachella Valley Independent compared Marina Rubin to David Sedaris. In addition to writing, Marina Rubin is an avid mountaineer, having summited Kilimanjaro, made it to Everest Base Camp, completed Tour du Mont Blanc and Camino de Santiago.