As the ship entered the New York harbor, Vasili ran to the rail with Maria and Gregor to get a view of their new home. The statue in the harbor was taller and more beautiful than anything Vasili had ever seen. And then he spied the city. Never had he seen such tall buildings and so crowded together!
Vasili looked at Gregor and asked, “How do people live in such places? How can they breathe?”
Gregor smiled and said, “These Americans seem to enjoy living on top of each other. There are no farms around here, only buildings like this.”
“This is a dream,” whispered Maria. “Even our fairy tales do not have places like this.”
Soon enough, reality intruded. The immigration agents had many questions and little patience. Immigrants knew that no matter what, they had to cooperate or be denied entry. So they endured the questions, the doctors’ examinations, the mispronunciation of their names and the new spelling of their names.
Gregor had relatives in Passaic, New Jersey, so with the last of their money, Vasili and Maria joined Gregor and his family on a train to Passaic. Gregor had directions to the American-Rusyn Political and Beneficial Club. There, Vasili and Maria could get help and a small loan to get them started. Gregor invited them to stay with his sister Katarina and her husband, Oeznik, until they could find a place of their own.
“Gregor, we cannot burden your family like that,” said Vasili. “We can find something.”
Gregor replied, “Do not insult me Vasili. You would do the same. Until you get paid, you cannot get an apartment.”
Maria added, “Vasili, we have nowhere to go. Please let us go with him.”
The apartment was not large, but Katarina and Oeznik welcomed them and made them to feel as much at home as was possible in this bewildering new world. Katarina and Oeznik did not have children yet, and Oeznik made a good living as a butcher, so they had an extra room where Gregor’s family could sleep together on a bed, and Vasili and Maria could at least sleep on the floor.
The Rusyn Club helped Vasili get a job in the Passaic Steel Company mill as a Bottom Maker in the open hearth, and Anya helped Maria get a job in the Guenther silk factory. The three families became close friends over the next month. Anya’s children even called Vasili strýko, which means uncle.
Finally, after a month had passed, Vasili and Maria now had jobs, and they found an apartment they could afford to rent. It only had one bedroom, but they were accustomed to the entire family sleeping in one room. They were only moving a few blocks from Katarina’s apartment, but it felt like they were leaving home all over again. Gregor understood, but he promised they would see each other.
Vasili and Maria were not rich, of course, but were thrilled to be away from the farmlands of their home. They both missed their father, but at least now they were never hungry, and they knew things would get better here. The mills were filthy, and they each had the worst of the jobs that were available, but they had enough to live on and always they put aside money to send back home. The neighborhood was mostly Slovak, which made them feel more at home, and familiar foods and smells filled the markets.
Vasili’s job was back breaking and felt like he was working in Hell. As a Bottom Maker, his job was lining the ingot soaking pits with coke oxide dust after each heating. It was a filthy, and in blazing heat; Vasili would go home covered in the metallic dust and often coughing out what he had inhaled. But he knew he could never make this much money working on the farm and for the baron.
Maria, working as a runner in the silk factory, spent her day running the bobbins from the Winders to the weaving machines. The factory floor was a series of boards with constant water runoff beneath, filled with aggressive rats that Maria had learned to hate and fear on the voyage to America. Maria knew girls who had lost their balance and were bitten by the rats, a fate Maria would avoid by any means. Her Overseer, a large man with an ugly face marred by a large scar running along the side of his face from his eyebrow to his jaw, watched the girls incessantly, always yelling at them to go faster, and ogling them with leering eyes as they passed by him. Maria was lucky; some girls told stories of the Overseer pulling them into his office and threatening them unless they had sex with him. So far, he had left her alone, but Maria did her best to stay away from him.
One night, after they had finished their 12-hour shifts, Maria and Vasili sat down to the dinner that Maria had prepared. Maria sat, fork in hand, staring off into nothing.
“Maria,” said Vasili with a smile. “Where have you gone?”
“I was thinking about how beautiful the trees were back in Čirč in the summer. Here, for now it is winter, and I have these gray buildings surrounding me.”
“Yes, but think of how we have food to eat, and we can send money back to father to help with his expenses.”
“Vasili, do you remember the smell of the mountains?”
“I remember the smell of the dirt,” joked Vasili. “The smell of the pigsty and the smell of the oxen farts.”
Maria smiled, and the smile that lit up her eyes. Vasili loved to see it. His sister was beautiful and would provide a wonderful life to a lucky man. The right man.
Maria continued, “I remember when Mother took us for walks to the Poprad. We would lie on the bank and watch clouds go by.”
“While I was getting kicked by the oxen trying to hitch them to the plow!” Vasili exclaimed, laughing until he choked.
Maria never felt closer to her brother and hoped that it could stay this way forever.
One day, as Maria and Vasili were eating, Maria’s eyes welled up with tears and she put her head down, trying to hide from Vasili.
“What is it?” Vasili asked with concern.
“It is nothing—I—I saw a Weaver today. Start coughing—coughing so hard she fell on the floor. She—covered her—mouth with her hand, and when she moved her hand away, it was bloody. It was awful Vasili.”
“I have heard of this. I hope you stayed away from her.”
“Yes, I was never close to her. Why?”
“There are sicknesses you can get from these other people. Deadly sicknesses.”
“You are scaring me!” cried Maria.
“Alright, I am sorry. I just want you to be safe, that is all. That is my job, and I promised Father I would take care of you.”
“You are a good brother. I shouldn’t have shouted like that.”
“It is fine Maria, it is fine.”
One day late in May, Vasili came home very excited. “Maria!” he shouted as soon as the door was open. “You would not believe who I met today!”
Maria stood in the tiny kitchen, trying to light the wood stove.
“Who is so important that you need to shout like that?” asked Maria.
“I met Nadya Maydakova!”