THE SMELL OF FRESH BREAD
For boys who came to Warsaw to make their fortunes, the authorities had a foolproof system. You couldn’t get a job unless you had a place to live, and no landlady was permitted to rent you so much as a straw mattress unless you had a job.
Somehow, Mordechai had forgotten to mention this in his infrequent letters. He had also neglected to mention that, as I learned from his landlady when she shooed me away from his lodging, he came home to sleep only on Friday nights. It seemed strange that my brother should need to sleep only one night a week. Plus, it was only Wednesday. I nowhere to rest and little money for food, but I was certainly not planning to return home.
I tried to distract myself from hunger marveling at over a hundred things I had never seen before - - cobbled streets free of mud, horseless trams running on tracks, and buildings so tall you wondered what kept them from tumbling over like a house of cards.
After spending the first day in hunger, hiding in the shadows so as not to be noticed by the authorities, I found it necessary to find a job, any job, just to tide me over till Friday afternoon. I had already been warned that if the police caught me without a legal place of residence, I would wish I had never seen Warsaw. I began in earnest to do what I hadn’t actually attempted in Warsaw, and look for work that would tide me over until Friday afternoon.
Before the day was over, I realized that there were literally hundreds of thirteen and fourteen year-old boys like myself, freshly arrived from the provinces and unregistered by the police, also looking for any kind of job.
While I was standing with a group of these boys, wondering whether I wouldn’t do better alone, a middle-aged couple arrived, looked us over like cattle dealers on market day, and decided on me.
“Want a job?”
“What kind?” I said stupidly.
“You want or you don’t want?”
By now it was as cold as it was dark and where was I going to spend the night? I said, “I’ll take it.”
They had me follow them home, where they put a plate of bread and herring with tea in front of me. (‘Balanced menus,’ you understand, are an entirely American invention). I ate silently, still afraid to ask what they expected of me. Then I waited to be shown to my room. But the master nodded for me to follow him down a flight of groaning wooden steps to a cellar that contained a barrel of dirty water with what looked like a thousand empty, mud-caked beer bottles. I looked at him.
“Get to work.”
I was to wash each one, inside and out, before going to sleep. What choice did I have? The boss watched as I set to work, and complemented me on my energy and neatness. Then he proceeded to tap a barrel and fill the bottles I had washed.
In this manner, it became one o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock in the morning, and I was still washing bottles. My fingers were stiff with cold, but since my boss was working as if it were broad daylight, I felt embarrassed to ask him when his workers were expected to sleep.
I’d already given up looking at the time when the boss’s wife suddenly shouted, “Let him go to sleep already or he’ll run off like the others.”
The boss nodded like a man who has learned to be tolerant of human weakness, and pulled out a sack with straw. I fell onto it as though from a great height, and was asleep before I even closed my eyes.
I’d barely had time to turn over when I found the boss’s wife tugging impatiently at my shoulder. It was time to go from tavern to tavern to collect the empty bottles so that I could wash them, again. Fortunately, this kept me so busy that I never even had the chance to ask about food.
By evening, I was staggering like a drunk and quite willing to forget about supper if they would just let me sleep for a while. But the boss gave me some bread and herring and, as kindly as possible, explained that on Thursday nights all the bottles had to be filled for Saturday night deliveries. Therefore, just that one day a week, it was customary to work all night. To make up for this, he would let me sleep all Friday night and all day Saturday.
He made it sound as though only a monster of ingratitude would fail to see how reasonable his request was, but I had simply gone too long without sleep. And since, in the last two days, I had earned the equivalent of seventeen kopeks and tomorrow I was sure to see my brother, I decided I could afford to be independent.
When I told him he could keep his job, the boss was almost speechless with indignation. Never in this world had he encountered such impertinence. A boy who expected to eat without working! He had no doubt that, with luck, I would end up before a firing squad (about which he wasn’t too far wrong).
TO BE CONTINUED