This is the first chapter of a work in progress, a kind of semi-autobiographical novel, tentatively called America, My Love: The Memoirs of a Romantic Fool. The whole work will, in part, have America itself as one of its heroes. Although I am not a famous person, George Eliot tells us, in Adam Bede, that it is the stories of ordinary people that make this world what it is. So I offer the beginning of "my" story here from the heart. May it inspire my readers to do likewise.
By the way, if you are an agent or a publisher, and you like what you read here, please contact me. I'd love to hear from you.
America, My Love:
The Memoirs of a Romantic Fool
Steven C. Scheer
Coming to America
Not by boat any more,
Neither to Ellis Island,
My mother flew by military plane.
I sat next to her in the window seat,
And while it was still daylight
We naively took the clouds beneath us
For endlessly rolling snow-covered hills.
Later I slept, lulled into ungainly dreams
In the shadowy drone of the engines in flight,
In flight from the Old to the New.
When morning came and I first looked up at
The towering skyscrapers of Manhattan,
My head a whirlpool and the vertigo
A mix of unseemly apprehensions,
The anomalous suddenly took a merciful turn
Towards becoming the miraculous.
* * *
I didn't lose my virginity until after I came to America. Though that's not what some of my friends thought while still in Europe. In those days - the mid to late 50s - it was fashionable among us to lie about having been seduced by a gorgeous older woman (married to boot). These stories cropped up like crazy every time we came back from a summer or Christmas break.
The place (in this case) was Austria. We were housed in a Hungarian-language "high school" there (called a "ginázium" in Hungarian). It was an all-boys school, run by Benedictine priests who came - lock, stock, and barrel - from Hungary after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. It was a pretty good deal we had. We were sheltered and clothed and fed and had as good an education as possible under the circumstances. People from all walks of life fled Hungary after the revolution was put down by overwhelming Soviet forces, so there were plenty of students and teachers, too, to go around and to run things the way they would have been run back in Hungary. Except that here we were free.
Lies about sexual seductions notwithstanding (and in some cases these stories may have been true), we were a pretty normal bunch, as boys go. The school, located in Kammer-am-Attersee, had a backyard that fronted the lake (the building is no longer there, except for the Kammer Castle - I know because I had occasion to visit the place again in the early 90s). We could swim there in the summer or whenever the weather was warm enough. From the street side we were fenced in. And our curfews were rather strict. We were allowed to leave the premises for a few hours in the late afternoon - from four to six in the evening, as I recall - and also on Sundays (for most of the day). In those days we had classes on Saturdays as well.
Naturally, the allowed time away from school wasn't quite enough for some of us. So there were times when we sneaked out. Went to see a movie and - later - to have a sandwich and a beer or a glass of wine at one of the local bars (in Europe we could drink beer or wine by the time we were teenagers - one reason why we had no drinking problems. The forbidden fruit syndrome did not apply). One evening my best friend and I sneaked out. We left one of the windows in the dining hall unlocked. After the lights were turned out at 10:00 p.m., we got dressed and went out the dining hall window into the backyard and then climbed the fence to the street.
When we got back, in the wee hours of the morning, one of the priests (our most uptight teacher) caught us in the washroom. When he shone a flashlight in our faces, we stood at attention and greeted him with "Laudetur Jesus Christus" ("Praised be Jesus Christ") - a greeting fashionable in those days. You could even say this to priests or nuns you didn't know and just met in the streets. Our uptight teacher must have found this a bit absurd under the circumstances and he almost cracked up (we may have misbehaved, but we were certainly disciplined about it). And he maintained decorum, too, by giving us the proper response to the greeting in question: "In eternum. Amen" (though this phrase is Latin, too, I don't think it needs translating).
We had to see him the next morning, but we got off with a verbal reprimand. (Praised be Jesus Christ!) My most memorable memory from those days is connected to the person who must have been the most eccentric and wonderful teacher we had there. One night my best friend, Gábor, was going to sneak out all by himself. The hour between nine and ten in the evening was devoted to getting ready for bed. My friend - to make sneaking out convenient - put his pajamas on over his street clothes. Our teacher saw this and when my best friend went to the washroom to pretend to get ready for bed, he (our teacher) stuck his head into our room and informed us that Gábor must have gone crazy because he put his pajamas over on top of his street clothes.
When Gábor came back we told him that the jig was up. He didn't sneak out that night. It was this same eccentric teacher who made a deal with us when my class was moved to the Kammer Castle (to ease the crowded conditions in the main building). There were no fences around the Castle, so we could just walk out any time we felt like it under cover of darkness. Our eccentric teacher had a room of his own in the Castle. The students were housed in several large rooms with bunk beds (we slept on burlap mattresses filled with straw in those days). We had our own classroom in the Castle, too, so our various teachers came to us to instruct us in our different subjects.
Mr. Szatmári (that was our teacher's name) asked us to his room in small groups after we moved into the Castle. There he told us that he understood that we - being young - would occasionally sneak out. But he told us that he was responsible for us, so he wanted us to let him know in advance if and when we planned one of our "escapes." You might imagine the funny scenes that followed in the months after these conferences. Whenever two or so of us would want to go out on the town late in the evening (to practice German with the locals, for example - right!), we would first respectfully knock on Mr. Szatmári's door and promptly inform him (while we stood at attention) that we intended to sneak out that night. I am happy to report that no one ever got into trouble for this. It was an innocent time. But not a time without a certain amount of youthful mischief, without which life wouldn't be worth living.
The funny thing is I hardly remember what we did during those "escapes" from school. Like I said, perhaps we went to a movie or to one of the local bars. Later, when the school moved to Innsbruck, we were no longer an all-boys school, though - according to Hungarian standards for those days - the girls had their own all-girls classes. And by this time we were going on 18 (with those proverbial raging hormones), yet - beside an occasional bit of romance (hand-holding walks in the park and intimate conversations) - there were no scandals there. I shall never forget the man my mother wanted to speak to me heart-to-heart and man-to-man (I had no father there - my parents were divorced and my father stayed behind in Hungary). This was before I went to Kammer, to join the Hungarian school there. My mother thought I needed encouragement to return to school (I did not mind returning to school, but my mother set up this appointment for me with this man - an "official" of some sort in the refugee camp near Salzburg).
I gave this man a big smile when he told me that I probably preferred "fucking the girls" in the camp rather than "hitting the books" at school. My smile seemed to be a tacit admission that "fucking the girls" was precisely what I was doing in the camp, but this was a brazen lie. Like I said before, I didn't lose my virginity until after I came to America, not too long after having gone to Innsbruck, which is why I never graduated from high school. When I first went to Kammer, in the summer of 1957, I had an unnerving time during the trip. This was the first time in my life that I was ever on my own and all alone in a foreign country. Needless to say, I hardly knew any German then. And I had to change trains, too. A rather terrifying prospect. The conductor - by means of the kind agency of a well-dressed old lady - told me where to get off the train and take the one that would take me to Kammer. At that small train station I sat all by myself for a while on a bench in front of the depot, full of the most unseemly apprehensions. When three young boys about my age showed up and sat down on the next bench, I thought I heard them speak Hungarian. This overjoyed me, except that I must have been hallucinating because when I addressed them - enthusiastically - in Hungarian, they looked at me as if I had gone stark raving mad. I quickly recovered from my mistake.
In spite of my apprehensions, I finally got to the school in Kammer. Ironically, my class (the class I was to join) was in Salzburg that day on an excursion. If I had known that in advance, I could have met them there and avoid the fearful trip into the unknown. In any case, once the class returned from Salzburg in the evening, I was introduced to them in what was a kind of playroom on the ground floor (there was a ping-pong table there, too). One of my future classmates wanted to know if I had seen the headroom teacher yet. A number of them promptly took me to his room.
He was in bed already. He was about 30 yeas old and had a moustache. When I was introduced to him as the new boy in town, he interrogated me in a rather inquisitive way. Wanted to know what my hobbies were, whether I liked to read, and so on. When I told him that I loved poetry, he made me recite a classic Hungarian poem I knew by heart. He was rather satisfied with our interview. And the handful of my classmates who took me to see him stood around in a circle beaming at me.
The next morning, when I went to our first class, I saw our headroom teacher sit with us in the benches. He gave me a big, mischievous smile. But I was naïve enough as a 16-year-old not to smell a rat. He wasn't a teacher at all, but simply an older student. And we (for later I was in on this, too) enjoyed having him impersonate a teacher whenever a new boy arrived at Kammer. Which happened from time to time, though after me only two more came. One of these was actually a classmate of mine from Budapest (there was another classmate of mine from Budapest there, too). Since then I have had more than enough chances to realize that this is a small world indeed.
By the time we moved to Innsbruck I was the most popular boy in school. No, not because I was an athlete. Nor because I was a good student (who likes "good" students anyway?), but - perhaps - because I wrote poetry. In any case, "popularity" might not even be the best word here. I was the most teased boy in school. It seems that for some reason everybody loved to tease me. Nothing vicious, mind you, but I did have more nicknames than I care to remember. Because my nose is - well - rather large, they called me Cyrano (in my childhood in Hungary I was dubbed Pinocchio for the same reason). They also called me Staubsauger, which is German for vacuum cleaner. I had quite a variety of nicknames, including Killjoke, for word got around that I didn't get the point of jokes (which wasn't and still isn't true, but once a rumor starts, it's hard to put an end to it).
For a while somebody was elected to come to class early every morning and put on the blackboard a profile (allegedly of me), a face with a rather protruding nose. Next to this "standard head," as it came to be known, was a list of all my nicknames, those mentioned above as well as a host of others I no longer remember. The teachers found all this innocent teasing amusing (for it was innocent - though it annoyed me on occasion anyway), but I actually benefited from it from time to time. I shall never forget the day our math teacher called upon me to solve an equation at the blackboard. Being a poet, I quickly got stuck (numbers were not my forte). In the ensuing silence that lay like a pall over the whole class, I stood there helpless in my ignorance. One of my classmates caught my eye. He sat in the front row, grinning. I asked him if he knew the answer. And when he nodded "yes," I asked him "Then why the hell aren't you prompting?" Our math teacher had a good laugh at that and sent me back to my seat. To my surprise, she didn't flunk me.
My most memorable experience was the night my classmates conspired against me. "Are you going to the Schulverein tonight," they kept asking me one fine evening. It seems that our own little cultural association over on Gutenberg Strasse was to see to the election of a new president for the Literary Club. Now Literary Club meetings did not - as a rule - draw large crowds. But that night - it seems - the whole school turned out. One of my classmates stood up just as the meeting commenced and said:
"I nominate Steven C. Scheer for the presidency of the Literary Club."
I was elected by popular demand. Unanimously, it seems. Actually, certain of my classmates had planned on this prior to the meeting. That was the only time a large crowd turned out for the Literary Club. And to make matters even more bizarre, once we were outside and headed back to our dorms in Richard Wagner Strasse, a number of my classmates got the bright idea of hoisting me up on their shoulders and carrying me back in a march of triumph. At one point a car stopped to ask if someone was hurt.
This position proved useful, for it gave me certain privileges and even a certain amount of respect as the "local" poet-wonder (though the teasing didn't stop, nor did the "standard head" cease to appear on the blackboard every morning - somebody faithfully saw to this as long as I was there, which wasn't for long, for America was beckoning already). Most of us left Hungary on our own. Rather, most of my classmates did. After the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. I came to Austria with my mother, so I didn't stick around school during the summer break or Christmas vacation. That particular school year, the school year of 1958-59, I turned 18. I happened to have returned from Salzburg, where my mother still lived in the refugee camp, on the day of my 18th birthday, on January 2, 1959. By this time I had no trouble with trains, and even changing trains was no problem. I shall never forget the night I arrived back in Innsbruck. It was late in the evening. It was a brisk night, but I always loved cold weather. And the streets were deserted. I still remember how during my energetic walk back to Richard Wagner Strasse from the train station my footsteps echoed on the asphalt, like a clear ringing of muffled bells. I felt all grown-up, too (at 18 you were considered an adult in Europe - my first culture shock in America was that I had to wait three more years for the same privilege once we got here).
In the Austro-Hungarian high-school system there is a rite of passage called the "maturity test." This is an oral examination in front of a panel of teachers. Each student pulls a question from a box which contains dozens and dozens of them on fairly small cards. The student is then given 5 minutes to think about the question he draws at random. Then he is to face the panel of teachers and discourse - hopefully intelligently - on the subject matter at hand. During the final year of "gimnázium" the students are, among other things, preparing for the "maturity test." We are given all the answers in advance - in my day this was in the form of stenciled sheets with the pertinent information for each "thesis" which we were to memorize. In Hungarian, for example, we had these pages on each of the major authors with biographical information and summaries of their major works. What I dreaded, of course, was the "maturity test" in math.
As it turns out, I never had to face that. In fact, I skipped the whole thing. In the middle of February word came from my mother that we had been called to the American Embassy in Vienna. This was to be the final step in our coming to America as permanent residents. I took the train to Salzburg in the middle of February. My mother and I traveled to Vienna together from there. Some of my memories are rather clear of those days. I had an uncle who lived in Vienna with an Austrian woman he later married. We stayed with them in a small apartment. The bedroom had two beds in it, somewhat smaller than double beds. My uncle and his woman slept on one, my mother and I shared the other. Sleeping arrangements were not always real convenient in Europe.
For supper, as I recall, we had a whole bunch of freshly roasted peanuts (if we had something else as well I don't recall). In Europe peanuts - at least in those days - were called "American nuts." And they were usually freshly roasted in their shell (and never salted), like chestnuts, which you could also buy in the street from vendors who roasted them in special outdoor roasters. Chestnuts were usually available in the winter months only. The next day we went to the American Embassy. Things here were more like they are in America rather than in Europe. For example, it was here that I first saw those hot-air dryers in the men's room that we have here. The visit to the Embassy was routine. By this time the Immigration and Naturalization Service was ready to bring us to New York. I never forget that when - during a final interview - a member of the ambassadorial staff asked me what I was going to do in America, I said - in German - that I was going to be a teacher. A promise I kept.
Speaking of Vienna I must not forget to mention the lunch (or mid-day dinner) my mother and I shared in a Viennese restaurant. Naturally we ordered the famed "Wiener schnitzel" - "Viennese cutlet" - made from veal (it can also be made from pork). To this day I think of Wiener schnitzel as the most delicious food in the world - though for some bizarre reason it's not popular in America. It was also very popular in Hungary. We had it every Sunday (usually made from pork, much cheaper than veal). But the best is to be had in the city of its birth. They give you a huge breaded and fried cutlet that overflows the plate. The side dish is potatoes, sometimes fried, other times cooked and dressed with chopped parsley. Eating Wiener schnitzel in Vienna is heaven on earth. Or as close as one can get to it.
During our trip back to Salzburg my mother and I were full of apprehension. We were now within weeks of flying to the United States to start a new life. In spite of our understandable apprehension, we were also looking forward to this. I have always taken big events in stride, and this wasn't the first time we were going to be uprooted with a vengeance (that happened on December 22 in 1956, the day we left Hungary). But this time we were going to put the Atlantic Ocean between us and our past lives. From Salzburg it was back to Innsbruck. During those final days there I tried to enjoy life as it existed then to the fullest. As we were all preparing for our "maturity tests," we frequently went out to local bars or restaurants with our teachers. We ate food (yep, lots of Wiener schnitzels, too, which in those days cost a mere 10 schillings - about 50 cents) and drank wine. Wine, too, was cheap and delicious. Riesling was (and is still) my favorite.
But my days in Innsbruck were now numbered. The school dances, the Literary Club events, the shows we put on, the poems we recited during commemorative celebrations, the little flirtations and "loves," were all soon to be behind me. Once word came from Salzburg that my mother and I were scheduled to fly to the United States at the end of February, it was time for the last train ride back to Salzburg. By this time we were housed in another part of town, or just beyond city limits far from the original refugee camp, which was about a half-hour by foot from Salzburg in buildings that once were American army barracks (the name was Camp Roeder). On my bus ride to the new camp I got off one stop too soon so I had quite a long walk with my suitcase on a cold winter evening, my suitcase that contained all I had. A few pieces of clothing and a handful of books, including the complete poems of my favorite Hungarian poet, Endre Ady.
The big event was finally upon us. It was late in the afternoon or early in the evening that we boarded a bus that was to take us to Munich (München) in Germany. Our plane was to fly from there to New York City with various stops along the way. Those of us who were lucky enough to be on that flight were surrounded at the bus by those of us who still had to wait some more. My mother had many friends by then. I had already said my good-byes in Innsbruck. We saw many a tearful farewell in those days. Always with the promises to write (which most of us kept, at least for a while). It seems that we were always taking leave. Some of us were headed for the United States, some for Canada. Some for South America (Brazil, especially), and some even for Australia. And some for various other countries in Europe: Germany or France or Sweden. We were (and perhaps still are) a new "Diaspora."
At the airport in Munich we were joined by a newcomer, a little biracial boy of about four or five. The son of a black American soldier and a German woman. He was sent to America to live with his father. The Hungarian women were crazy about him. We have never seen black people in Europe in those days and that little boy was cute as a bug in a rug. I felt sorry for him, for he was obviously annoyed by all the hugs and kisses he was getting. For most if not all of us this was to be our first flight. Once on board the plane, the American stewardess (in those days they weren't called flight attendants yet) - speaking in German - went through the usual bit about the seats being floatation devices, etc. Some of the men flirted with her. One - I still remember this vividly - pointed out that "Liebe ist internazionale" ("love is international").
My mother and I sat next to each other on the left-hand side of the plane. I had the window seat. During the night we frequently looked out the window and mistook the clouds beneath us for snow-covered mountaintops. Many years later in a poem about this I talk of a "military" plane. I think this is what someone said then, but I am not sure. It wasn't a jet, in any event. We first landed (and deplaned) in - I think it was Iceland. I promptly went to the men's room where I threw up. My stomach couldn't take the trauma of the landing, it seems. After we resumed our flight, I fell asleep, only to wake up in a few hours feeling nice and warm. One of the stewardesses had covered me with a little milk-white blanket.
The next time we landed, we landed in the New World, in Newfoundland. It was bitterly cold there. And to this day I could swear that once we got herded into a large and well-heated waiting room, I saw cowboys and Indians in the crowd there. My hallucination, if it was that, was undoubtedly fueled by my boyhood reading of Karl May's Winnetou. The final leg of the journey was now upon us. New York City's Idlewild (now JFK). Coming through customs was a breeze, for none of us had much of anything to declare (nothing, in fact). Getting the Green Card bestowed upon us a new kind validity, too. Once out in the airport proper, I felt not so much apprehensive as strangely elated. I was now really and truly in America. Full of miracles, like doors that opened automatically as you approached them. Our sponsors (old, old friends of the family with whom we claimed kin, something like second cousinage twice removed) were waiting for us in midtown Manhattan. Which was just a relatively short limousine drive away. They packed about a dozen of us into this fancy white vehicle and off we went towards the magic of skyscrapers.
I shall never forget the first look I had of them. They literally made me dizzy. From the meeting point in midtown Manhattan, the four of us, our host and hostess and my mother and I, took our first Yellow Cab to our new, though still temporary, dwelling. For the first time since we left Hungary, a little over two years by then, we were about to live in a real apartment again. It was located in the 200 block of 92nd street on the East Side, near Spanish Harlem. During the taxi drive itself, while my mother and our host and hostess were in animated discussion about old times, I kept looking out the window and just stare and stare at the streets of New York. Occasionally I cast glances at our driver, too, for he was a black man. The first I ever saw close up. I was indeed in a brand new world now. And - as they say - I felt that my whole life was ahead of me.
It has long been a habit of mine (if it's possible to say this at the age of 18) to go for a walk whenever we arrived in a new place. I did this in Salzburg and Kammer and Innsbruck, too. So here I was in New York now, the city of cities in the country of countries, the United States of America. The walk had to wait, though, for a while. Just for a while. For after that long trip across the Atlantic, I didn't just have jet leg, I was exhausted. And (being a teenager) I could sleep like nobody's business in those days. So that's precisely what I did. On a little cot set up just for me in a corner of the dining room in that first apartment in Manhattan. I must have slept 24 hours and more. But then it was time for that exploratory walk.
Some instinct told me to head towards 5th Ave. I had some inkling of its fame. Then right into Central Park where I wandered for hours to my heart's content. By the time I got back "home," my mother was a nervous wreck. Our host and hostess were feeding her a line about how dangerous it was for a person to walk around all over the place in New York. My mother had visions of my having gotten mugged and perhaps even killed in the bargain. Not exactly a good introduction. I did, as a matter of fact, notice that as evening fell, fewer and fewer people were around in Central Park, But I was naïve and happy, too, in my ignorance. Later I heard that people who watch a lot of television think this world is much more dangerous than it actually is. Not that bad things don't happen, but - for the most part - we are pretty safe.
"Have you had pizza yet?" The question came from Adam, the son of our host and hostess. He and a friend of his decided to take me out for this most favorite of "American" foods. They brought an old bicycle up from the basement and the three of us set out on bikes for the nearest pizzeria. I noticed that my bike wasn't in very good shape and that I had to pedal twice as hard to make it go half as fast. I even got some dirty looks from drivers whose cars were inconvenienced as a result of us. But this wasn't the most memorable thing about that particular afternoon. Once I walked into that pizzeria an instant and incommodious nausea took over my whole body. The smells were so alien to me that I simply had to walk out of the place and sit on the sidewalk while my friends enjoyed their pizza, the pizza which was supposed to be my first.
Culture shock can take many forms, some rather small and apparently insignificant. It isn't easy to start a new life, even if you are young and not perturbed much by anything unusual. What I did enjoy a lot was my first ride in a car. Adam took me for a spin in their '56 Chevy. We drove towards downtown on Park Avenue. Needless to say I was impressed and enchanted. The only thing to rival this experience was my first crush on an American woman. She was the English instructor at this place near midtown Manhattan where I went to join a bunch of foreigners who were also recent arrivals. There was a man from Russia there who apologized when I was introduced as a Hungarian.
It is now hard for me to remember a time when I did not know English, but - of course - there was such a time. An old Latin saying claims that all beginnings are difficult. Which is true. The trick is to get over those beginnings somehow or other. It takes a while. Nothing makes sense at first. Then a few words do. Then some more. Then some other words really puzzle you. Since my native language is agglutinative and since English is a word-order language, for me the greatest hurdle was to manage without all the endings piled upon endings that make Hungarian tick. Later, by the time we were in Cleveland, I purchased a book for 35 cents (those were the days), One Hundred Modern Poems, a Mentor paperback published in 1953. I still have it in my possession, though by now its pages are semi-brittle and falling apart.
By the time I looked into this book I knew some English (it was about four months after our arrival in the States), but not enough to understand all the poems in it. So what I did then is look for at least a stanza here and there that contained no unfamiliar words. It was with joy that I came upon the following:
And for the soul,
if it is to know itself
it is into the soul
that it must look.
Except I got instantly frustrated beyond belief. While I knew all the words used in the passage, I did not understand a word of it. This makes no sense today, but back then my mind was still using Hungarian as its base for all linguistic operations. I didn't catch on to the ways of the English language yet. The thing is that while English uses 19 short words, the Hungarian equivalent of the passage would use just 10 (some of them not too short either) with lots of helpful endings and complicated declensions that are not there in the English. When your mind is used to those, it doesn't quite know what to do without them.
But I am jumping the gun here, for I am not yet finished with my first impressions of New York. I must confess that I felt strangely at home there. Everything about Manhattan seemed just right. I enjoyed my first crush on our English instructor, too (a beautiful American woman in her mid 20s, I would guess), who - naturally - ignored me (if she noticed at all - though women are usually good at picking up adoring looks cast their way). I enjoyed my walks up and down and across town between Hudson and the East River. And I wrote poems left and right (still in Hungarian). The first one I wrote on this side of the ocean contained an image of threatening dark clouds hanging over me, a symbolic expression of unacknowledged fears. When Easter rolled around I wrote a poem on Good Friday, predictably about death and resurrection. I identified with both then.
But - alas - our stay in New York was short-lived. My mother's many friends from the kitchen staff in Salzburg - some of whom preceded us to America - were all settled in Cleveland, Ohio by then. And they kept inviting us to come and join them there, since my mother - who was in her late 40s already - had no prospects for jobs in New York City. And I who wanted to go to college needed to learn English first. Our host's daughter, back from college for spring break, did take me to a place called World University Center, or was it World University Service? They said to come back a year later, but by that time we were in Cleveland.
Speak of apprehensive trips. This time by Greyhound. My mother and I, with a couple of suitcases containing all our possessions, set out for a long-day's journey into night. The extent of my English was still not much better than "I love you" and "thank you very much." The bus first pulled into Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. All I knew in those days that this was the birthplace of the United States. Many hours later we stopped and had to get off the bus and go into a restaurant where at the counter my mother and I got our first hamburgers and French fries. I don't think we ordered these. And we certainly didn't have to pay for them. A kind American gentleman who was apprized of our situation was responsible for extending this hospitality to us. It is these little things that one never ever forgets.
Much of that ride is now rather vague in my memory, but I can still see that gentleman's kindly and smiling face as he nodded over and over again to indicate that all was well. To this day hamburgers and French fries are among my all-time favorite foods (not to mention pizza). The day was long indeed, for the bus kept stopping at every Podunk along the way, discharging and taking on new passengers. By the time we were approaching Cleveland it was dark and the drone of the engine sounded like a strangely distant echo in our heads. When we finally pulled into the Greyhound station near downtown, it must have been around ten in the evening. And, to our surprise and apprehension, my mother's friends - who were to meet us there - were nowhere to be found.
So there we were, my mother and I, with our decrepit suitcases, all alone in a terminal, giving each other questioning looks. Though this state of affairs must not have lasted more than perhaps 10 minutes, it seemed like an eternity then. It turns out that our bus was late so my mother's friends went to get a bite to eat at a nearby restaurant. When they finally did show up the reunion was loud with laughter and generous with hugs and kisses. And even I felt a lot better, since I myself knew most of these people from the refugee camp near Salzburg. We were to stay with Maria and Otto Binder and their daughter, little Maria. Otto was actually a German-Saxon from Transylvania, but he knew Hungarian. And Maria was once the proud owner of a restaurant in Budapest. She and my mother became the best of friends on the kitchen staff in the refugee camp. Little Maria, being nine years old at the time, spoke English fluently by then and without the trace of a foreign accent. She and the daughter of another mutual friend were among my first teachers. I was picking up English fast, partly thanks to them. But I still made howling mistakes, as when once I asked little Maria to "do me a flavor."
So here I was, once more facing a new beginning in a new place. We were now housed in an apartment over a Hungarian tavern on Buckeye Road, the old Hungarian neighborhood (there was another one on the West side of town, on Lorain Avenue). Buckeye Road had lots of Hungarian businesses in those days. Jewelers, butchers, bakers (though no candlestick makers), and green grocers, not to speak of the many taverns and restaurants strewn up and down the road. You could feel quite at home. And at all these places they spoke Hungarian, too. My first visit was to the Hungarian bookstore just blocks from where we were staying. I noticed a Hungarian translation of Gone with the Wind in the window with the price tag right underneath the book. So I went and got the exact change to buy it. And this was yet another bit of a culture shock. I had to go back for more money. I didn't know that there was such a thing as sales tax just yet.
Speaking of books, the first book I read on this side of the ocean was a Hungarian translation of Wuthering Heights. I read this book - I couldn't put it down - just days after we arrived in New York. Now I lay me down on a bed in Cleveland to read Gone with the Wind. I was quite a reader at a young age. I guess I grew up before the advent of television. Even back in Hungary books were our main source of entertainment. No one had television sets before the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 that I know of. When I was 15, I was reading Camille in our kitchen in Budapest. Those were the days of co-tenancy (if you ever saw Dr. Zhivago you will recall the time all those people are moved into the Zhivago home after the communist take-over). Things weren't quite that bad in Budapest, but there were more of us in our once luxury apartment than were ever meant to be. My father lived in the third room. My uncle and his wife and two kids lived in the middle room, and my mother and I - my parents were divorced by then - lived in what we called the first room. We shared the bathroom and the kitchen and the toilet (which was in a separate little room off of one of the corridors in the apartment). There was one more room off the kitchen (once meant to be a live-in maid's room) where we had a tenant, a young woman about 20 years old. She had a girl friend whose name I no longer recall. She was my first mentor. It happened this way:
As I said before, I was reading Camille in our kitchen when she came to visit our tenant. When she noticed that I was comfortably curled up in a corner with my book, she asked me what I was reading.
"Camille," I said.
"Do you think she is immoral?"
"No," I said.
"What do you like best in the book so far?"
It so happens that just then I was at the beginning of Chapter 7 and had just been impressed by a statement there which I then promptly read to my new friend: "How many ways does the heart take, how many reasons does it invent for itself, in order to arrive at what it wants!" The next time she came to visit I was finished with the book. And this time she wanted to know what I thought was the most impressive passage in it. I had it underlined so it was easy to find: "Love always makes a man better, no matter what woman inspires it."
By one of those coincidences that sometimes happen in life the movie version with Greta Garbo was having a re-run in Budapest just then. In those days you had to be 16 to see certain movies that were considered to have adult (not dirty, just adult) themes. Well, my mentor decided to take me to see Camille and the usher promptly stopped us upon beholding my young face. My mentor fought for me, though. She said I was her kid brother and she assured the usher (a much older woman) that I had read and understood the novel itself and that she (the usher) should make an exception this case and let me in to see the movie. Which she did. This was perhaps the first time in my life that I truly appreciated the idea that rules are meant to be broken, that there is always the exception, even if - paradoxically - it is the exception that makes the rule.
Now in Cleveland I was devouring Gone with the Wind (in Hungarian, mind you) with relish. Needless to say I was quickly in love with Scarlett O'Hara, though I did not imagine her looking like Vivian Leigh (I did not see the movie version until much later). It's hard to say how one images the heroes or heroines one reads about. For me it's more like a feeling than like a look, the look itself being - well - definitely vague. The images the words conjure up are like images in a dream. Words in a story have a beauty of their own, a beauty that exceeds their mere utility. It's as if we were invaded by a voice that's not ours yet it isn't a strange voice either. It's as if we were writing what we are reading. I always felt this way. And still do.
"I want to work here," I said to the woman in personnel. I had to walk up to the office on stairs alongside the building of the "Midwest Precision Castings Company." She gave me a card (an application) to fill out and told me to go back down and then in at the main gate and see the man in the glassed-in office at the left. I was hired. This was my first job in America. I went to this foundry because I was told that they were hiring. There were several Hungarians working there already. But my mentor - if you will - was a black man named Joe. He was a World War II veteran. And he worked at a machine next to my sand-blaster. It was funny how he and I could understand each other. My English was still rather broken, but he had no trouble with it. Nor did I have trouble with his. If someone came to talk to me, he instantly rushed to my side to "translate." And when something heavy had to be lifted, he lifted it for me. I shall never forget him.
I quickly made friends with two Hungarians who also worked there, Eugene and Uncle Fred (as we called him). Eugene had a sister named Helen. The first time I visited his family I fell head over heels in love with her, but unfortunately she was on the rebound from an older man and had no room for me in her heart. It was thanks to Eugene and Uncle Fred that I lost my virginity. Once they found out that I still had the "cherry," they suggested that they take me to some nice "lady of the evening." So they took me to a bar one Friday evening on Euclid Avenue. It was crowded. Cigarette smoke and the smell of beer permeated the whole enclosure. We sat in a booth and my friends told people in the next booth what mission we were there for.
Uncle Fred made the contact with the woman. I was told to go outside where she was going to wait for me in a beige station wagon. Once in her car, I took a good look at her. She was blond and pretty. Perhaps in her late 20s or early 30s. She drove us a short distance to a parking lot in the back of an apartment building. Once we got out of her car, she said, "This way, please." I still hear her voice after all these years. I followed her to a second-floor apartment. She undressed without further ado and lay down on the bed. I undressed as well and lay down next to her. But that wouldn't do. She didn't want to waste any time, so the next thing I knew I was on top of her. She impatiently guided my penis into her vagina and I began to thrust. The sensation was incredible. I kept thrusting. And I kept getting the feeling that I was about to urinate. Which frightened me. The feeling went away, but then it came back again and again. After about 15 minutes or so, she asked me if I had ever come. Thinking that she meant in a woman, I said no. She then said that my time was up. So that first time I never did finish. Was I still a virgin then, technically?
Once I got home I looked in the mirror to see if I was different now that I had become a "man." I seemed the same. And I thought I was in love. And I thought that the next day I should go back there and find her. And marry her. I was 18 going on 19. Ah youth. The foolishness of it. The glamour of it. The impossibility of it. Why does it seem to last but a minute, before it's all gone, except for the memories?
Copyright 2002 - 2004 © by Steven C. Scheer.
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