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Lest It Be Forgotten After I Am Gone: Recollections Of Relocations - 12

Raymon Benedyk, continuing his life story, tells of finding a job two days after arriving in New York.

After ten days of idyllic weather we sailed into New York harbour on the Sunday evening and slowly moved past the illuminated Statue of Liberty. This was a most moving sight and everyone on board was on deck to witness it. Next morning on Monday October 1st 1947 at 9.30 am, I came off the ship and found myself on American soil – well concrete.

A whole gaggle of my American relatives were there to greet me and I was made to feel very welcome. It was made known to me that I would be staying with my uncle and aunt, the ones who earlier that year had been to England, and that seemed fine. However, when I found that they were living in a one-bedroomed apartment with a bachelor son using a put-you-up bed in the living room at night, which I was meant to share, well you can imagine I was not content and soon made that known.

A few days later I was moved into the home of childless cousins, some way out of the central part of New York, where I had my own room. Also, the day after I landed, I had an interview for a job with the prestigious New York department store Saks and was taken on to start work next morning at 9.00 am in their stock room. So, within 48 hours of landing, I had a job and had arranged to move into more congenial surroundings. I was content. I enjoyed my work where I found myself doing not entirely different tasks from those I had been used to back home, receiving goods from suppliers, pricing them up against invoices and warehousing them until required within the store. I think I was well liked by the management too, since I was often singled out and introduced to others as “the boy from England” by them.

My pay was $28 per week, of which my cousin asked $10 for my keep. Determined not to need to ask any of my relatives for financial help, I opened a bank savings account and put a further $10 per week into that, which left me with the sum of $8 per week to pay for my travel and lunch expenses. I soon found out that I could have a small midday meal at a lunch counter near my job consisting of two hotdogs, glass of milk and a slice of apple pie at a cost of forty cents a day. This amounted to $2 per five day week. My travel cost was ten cents a day, which amounted to fifty cents a week. So, my basic expenses from my $8 a week to ‘live’ on was $2.50, leaving me with the princely sum of $5.50 from which I was able to take an occasional date to the movies, or accumulate a few food tins to send back to London. So, with my savings plan all set up, I felt I was managing my finances very well. I had completely forgotten about the £100 I had transferred to a New York bank before leaving England, and which probably would have been included in my savings plan had I remembered it. As it happens, I did use it before my return to England two years later.

Talking with the other young lads in the stock room, I soon learned that it was quite customary for some young men to go to Miami in Florida during the winter months, where they get good jobs as ‘bell hops’ in hotels, or other menial jobs where they get good tips from the thousands of people who leave the cold north eastern states of America for the winter to reside in the warmer and pleasanter area. I thought I too could try that and, made my plans accordingly. So, at the end of November, I boarded a Greyhound bus out of New York and headed south. Actually, I found the two-day night and day journey very pleasant, seeing what America was like outside of New York. I found people to be far more sociable and willing to help, not like the average New Yorker who was usually not so affable.

On arrival in Miami, I soon found I had arrived far too soon and that jobs were not yet available. A pleasant and kind Scottish lady advised that I go back to New York, which I did the next day. I was fortunate that I got my job back in the department store, but my cousin’s wife did not welcome me back and made it very plain that she wanted me out. I really can’t say that I blame her in that she had a very nice tidy home and my presence was obviously not enabling her to keep it that way.

Work at the store was a fairly continuous rush from one task to another in the pre-Christmas season, and on a couple of occasions I had to work overnight to help change prices on certain goods that were being offered for sale next day. It all seems to have been appreciated because, during the week before Christmas itself, all the part-time stock room staff and a few of the full time ones were laid off except me and one other lad.

Early in the New Year, snow began to fall in New York like I had never seen before. In the space of some four hours it was four feet deep everywhere, and in Times Square all traffic was brought to a halt. Stores closed their doors and employees sent home. I managed to get on my subway line train, but had to trudge through the snow the last mile or two when the train surfaced and was unable to go further.

I soon found myself a very nice place back in the centre of town, not far from other members of my family, one of whom was a young lad of my age who was the leader of a group of young fellows who went around together. I was soon accepted as part of that gang where I found myself being included in parties and outings. However, I also soon began to realise that somehow I had contracted a bad bout of Athletes Foot, which completely incapacitated me, making it virtually impossible to walk or even wear shoes and I was forced to give up my nice job. Also, as I had to continue to pay my rent and for medical supplies and food, my carefully nurtured savings went. Just as well I had been so strict with myself.

After a couple of months when the infection receded, I was offered a job as a ‘shop boy’ with a distant relative who had a small jewellery store on the East Side of New York. He was offering $30 per week and the facility of being able to sleep in his back room, thereby saving me the cost of renting a room. The only drawback were the hours I would be expected to work, 9.00 am to 9.00 pm six days per week. However, when I worked out that I had no money and needed to replace my savings as soon as possible so that I could continue with my ambitions to travel round the world, I felt it would be a good idea. So I started a new career learning about watches and jewellery, how to handle them and effect small repairs. Also, I soon found that it did not prevent me from having a social life with my cousin and his gang. Things were again going well.

Living in that area, which was mainly Catholic and Jewish, the two communities got on well with an unwritten but accepted arrangement that both would close their stores on both St Patrick’s Day and Yom Kippur as a mark of respect for each other. But occasionally there were problems. One of these was when someone had gone into a local church during a service and, in front of the congregation, had shot and killed the priest. After a few days of police searches and the like, the furore generally quietened down and was almost forgotten. However, a few nights later when I was coming home from a night out with the boys about two or three in the morning, all huddled up in the cold night air, I saw a policeman on the other side of the road walking in the opposite direction, but thought nothing of it. That was until I found he was behind me with his gun at the ready, instructing me to put my hands up and spread my legs. This of course I did at once without hesitation! He had thought I might be the killer but, after he searched me and found I was not carrying a gun, and I had the opportunity to explain who I was and where I was going, he escorted me the rest of my way home. Just like in the movies!

My boss was a bit of a lad. Some of his lady customers who came into the store did not pay in cash for the trinkets they chose but in services to my boss’s pals. I did not realise this at first, and when he instructed me to go to certain addresses to “collect a few dollars in whatever way I could”, I just asked for payments and received a few dollars. One of these customers was a certain Lillian Killian – who can forget anyone with a name like that – and, when she came to the shop one day to acquire a trinket or two, I was asked to escort her home. On the way we talked about nothing in particular but, on a secluded park bench, she got to know me rather well. My education took another giant leap forward that day! I guess my boss had recognised my innocence and set me up.

My boss was also in the habit of playing Gin Rummy with his pals at the back of the store and, on one occasion, one of them who smoked a brand of small cigar asked me to go and get him some Sentinels. I dutifully went to the tobacconist next door who quietly told me that they could only be obtained from a drug store. So, going to a nearby one, I came away with a packet of condoms! My education had taken another step forward. A day or two later I went back and bought a packet for myself – just in case of need. I wasted a couple trying to learn how and when to use them and discarded the remainder.

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