AND IS PASSED AS VERMIN-FREE THIS DATE
SEPT. 23, 1922
DISINFECTION MARITIME PIRAEUS
Literate, married to only one person (albeit a sibling), democratically inclined, mentally stable, and authoritatively deloused, my grandparents saw no reason why they would have trouble getting through. They each had the requisite twenty-five dollars apiece. They also had a sponsor: their cousin Sourmelina. Just the year before, the Quota Act had reduced the annual numbers of southern and eastern European immigrants from 783,000 to 155,000. It was nearly impossible to get into the country without either a sponsor or stunning professional recommendations. To help their own chances, Lefty put away his French phrase book and began memorizing four lines of the King James New Testament. TheGiulia was full of inside sources familiar with the English literacy test. Different nationalities were asked to translate different bits of Scripture. For Greeks, it was Matthew 19:12: “For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.”
“Eunuchs?” Desdemona quailed. “Who told you this?”
“This is a passage from the Bible.”
“What Bible? Not the Greek Bible. Go ask somebody else what’s on that test.”
But Lefty showed her the Greek at the top of the card and the English below. He repeated the passage word by word, making her memorize it, whether or not she understood it.
“We didn’t have enough eunuchs in Turkey? Now we have to talk about them at Ellis Island?”
“The Americans let in everyone,” Lefty joked. “Eunuchs included.”
“They should let us speak Greek if they’re so accepting,” Desdemona grumbled.
Summer was abandoning the ocean. One night it grew too cold in the lifeboat to crack the corset’s combination. Instead they huddled under blankets, talking.
“Is Sourmelina meeting us in New York?” Desdemona asked.
“No. We have to take a train to Detroit.”
“Why can’t she meet us?”
“It’s too far.”
“Just as well. She wouldn’t be on time anyway.”
The ceaseless sea wind made the tarp’s edges flap. Frost formed on the lifeboat’s gunwales. They could see the top of theGiulia ’s smokestack, the smoke itself discernible only as a starless patch of night sky. (Though they didn’t know it, that striped, canted smokestack was already informing them about their new home; it was whispering about River Rouge and the Uniroyal plant, and the Seven Sisters and Two Brothers, but they didn’t listen; they wrinkled up their noses and ducked down in the lifeboat away from the smoke.)
And if the smell of industry didn’t insist on entering my story already, if Desdemona and Lefty, who grew up on a pine-scented mountain and who could never get used to the polluted air of Detroit, hadn’t ducked down in the lifeboat, then they might have detected a new aroma wafting in on the brisk sea air: a humid odor of mud and wet bark. Land. New York. America.
“What are we going to tell Sourmelina about us?”
“Will she keep quiet?”
“There are a few things she’d rather her husband didn’t know about her.”
“You mean Helen?”
“I didn’t say a thing,” said Lefty.
They fell asleep after that, waking to sunlight, and a face staring down at them.
“Did you have a good sleep?” Captain Kontoulis said. “Maybe I could get you a blanket?”
“I’m sorry,” Lefty said. “We won’t do it again.”
“You won’t get the chance,” said the captain and, to prove his point, pulled the lifeboat’s tarp completely away. Desdemona and Lefty sat up. In the distance, lit by the rising sun, was the skyline of New York. It wasn’t the right shape for a city—no domes, no minarets—and it took them a minute to process the tall geometric forms. Mist curled off the bay. A million pink windowpanes glittered. Closer, crowned with her own sunrays and dressed like a classical Greek, the Statue of Liberty welcomed them.
“How do you like that?” Captain Kontoulis asked.
“I’ve seen enough torches to last the rest of my life,” said Lefty.
But Desdemona, for once, was more optimistic. “At least it’s a woman,” she said. “Maybe here people won’t be killing each other every single day.”
HENRY FORD’S ENGLISH-LANGUAGE MELTING POT
Everyone who builds a factory builds a temple.
Detroit was always made of wheels. Long before the Big Three and the nickname “Motor City”; before the auto factories and the freighters and the pink, chemical nights; before anyone had necked in a Thunderbird or spooned in a Model T; previous to the day a young Henry Ford knocked down his workshop wall because, in devising his “quadricycle,” he’d thought of everything but how to get the damn thing out; and nearly a century prior to the cold March night, in 1896, when Charles King tiller-steered his horseless carriage down St. Antoine, along Jefferson, and up Woodward Avenue (where the two-stroke engine promptly quit); way, way back, when the city was just a piece of stolen Indian land located on the strait from which it got its name, a fort fought over by the British and French until, wearing them out, it fell into the hands of the Americans; way back then, before cars and cloverleaves, Detroit was made of wheels.
I am nine years old and holding my father’s meaty, sweaty hand. We are standing at a window on the top floor of the Pontchartrain Hotel. I have come downtown for our annual lunch date. I am wearing a miniskirt and fuschia tights. A white patent leather purse hangs on a long strap from my shoulder.
The fogged window has spots on it. We are way up high. I’m going to order shrimp scampi in a minute.
The reason for my father’s hand perspiration: he’s afraid of heights. Two days ago, when he offered to take me wherever I wanted, I called out in my piping voice, “Top of the Pontch!” High above the city, amid the business lunchers and power brokers, was where I wanted to be. And Milton has been true to his promise. Despite racing pulse he has allowed the maître d’ to give us a table next to the window; so that now here we are—as a tuxedoed waiter pulls out my chair—and my father, too frightened to sit, begins a history lesson instead.
What’s the reason for studying history? To understand the present or avoid it? Milton, olive complexion turning a shade pale, only says, “Look. See the wheel?”
And now I squint. Oblivious, at nine, to the prospect of crow’s-feet, I gaze out over downtown, down to the streets where my father is indicating (though not looking). And there it is: half a hubcap of city plaza, with the spokes of Bagley, Washington, Woodward, Broadway, and Madison radiating from it.
That’s all that remains of the famous Woodward Plan. Drawn up in 1807 by the hard-drinking, eponymous judge. (Two years earlier, in 1805, the city had burned to the ground, the timber houses and ribbon farms of the settlement founded by Cadillac in 1701 going up in the span of three hours. And, in 1969, with my sharp vision, I can read the traces of that fire on the city’s flag a half mile away in Grand Circus Park:Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus. “We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes.”)
Judge Woodward envisioned the new Detroit as an urban Arcadia of interlocking hexagons. Each wheel was to be separate yet united, in accordance with the young nation’s federalism, as well as classically symmetrical, in accordance with Jeffersonian aesthetics. This dream never quite came to be. Planning is for the world’s great cities, for Paris, London, and Rome, for cities dedicated, at some level, to culture. Detroit, on the other hand, was an American city and therefore dedicated to money, and so design had given way to expediency. Since 1818, the city had spread out along the river, warehouse by warehouse, factory by factory. Judge Woodward’s wheels had been squashed, bisected, pressed into the usual rectangles.
Or seen another way (from a rooftop restaurant): the wheels hadn’t vanished at all, they’d only changed form. By 1900 Detroit was the leading manufacturer of carriages and wagons. By 1922, when my grandparents arrived, Detroit made other spinning things, too: marine engines, bicycles, handrolled cigars. And yes, finally: cars.
All this was visible from the train. Approaching along the shore of the Detroit River, Lefty and Desdemona watched their new home take shape. They saw farmland give way to fenced lots and cobblestone streets. The sky darkened with smoke. Buildings flew by, brick warehouses painted in pragmatic Bookman white:WRIGHT AND KAY CO. . . . J. H. BLACK & SONS . . . DETROIT STOVE WORKS. Out on the water, squat, tar-colored barges dragged along, and people popped up on the streets, workmen in grimy overalls, clerks thumbing suspenders, the signs of eateries and boardinghouses appearing next:We Serve Stroh’s Temperance Beer . . . Make This Your Home Meals 15 cents . . .
. . . As these new sights flooded my grandparents’ brains, they jostled with images from the day before. Ellis Island, rising like a Doge’s Palace on the water. The Baggage Room stacked to the ceiling with luggage. They’d been herded up a stairway to the Registry Room. Pinned with numbers from theGiulia ’s manifest, they’d filed past a line of health inspectors who’d looked in their eyes and ears, rubbed their scalps, and flipped their eyelids inside out with buttonhooks. One doctor, noticing inflammation under Dr. Philobosian’s eyelids, had stopped the examination and chalked anX on his coat. He was led out of line. My grandparents hadn’t seen him again. “He must have caught something on the boat,” Desdemona said. “Or his eyes were red from all that crying.” Meanwhile, chalk continued to do its work all around them. It marked aPg on the belly of a pregnant woman. It scrawled anH over an old man’s failing heart. It diagnosed theC of conjunctivitis, theF of favus, and theT of trachoma. But, no matter how well trained, medical eyes couldn’t spot a recessive mutation hiding out on a fifth chromosome. Fingers couldn’t feel it. Buttonhooks couldn’t bring it to light . . .
Now, on the train, my grandparents were tagged not with manifest numbers but with destination cards: “To the Conductor: Please show bearer where to change and where to get off, as this person does not speak English. Bearer is bound to: Grand Trunk Sta. Detroit.” They sat next to each other in unreserved seats. Lefty faced the window, looking out with excitement. Desdemona stared down at her silkworm box, her cheeks crimson with the shame and fury she’d been suffering for the last thirty-six hours.
“That’s the last time anyone cuts my hair,” she said.
“You look fine,” said Lefty, not looking. “You look like anAmerikanidha .”
“I don’t want to look like anAmerikanidha .”
In the concessions area at Ellis Island, Lefty had cajoled Desdemona to step into a tent run by the YWCA. She’d gone in, shawled and kerchiefed, and had emerged fifteen minutes later in a dropwaisted dress and a floppy hat shaped like a chamber pot. Rage flamed beneath her new face powder. As part of the makeover, the YWCA ladies had cut off Desdemona’s immigrant braids.
Obsessively, in the way a person worries a rip deep in a pocket, she now reached up under the floppy hat to feel her denuded scalp for the thirtieth or fortieth time. “That’s the last haircut,” she said again. (She was true to this vow. From that day on, Desdemona grew her hair out like Lady Godiva, keeping it under a net in an enormous mass and washing it every Friday; and only after Lefty died did she ever cut it, giving it to Sophie Sassoon, who sold it for two hundred and fifty dollars to a wigmaker who made five separate wigs out of it, one of which, she claimed, was later bought by Betty Ford, post White House and rehab, so that we got to see it on television once, during Richard Nixon’s funeral, my grandmother’s hair, sitting on the ex-President’s wife’s head.)
But there was another reason for my grandmother’s unhappiness. She opened the silkworm box in her lap. Inside were her two braids, still tied with the ribbons of mourning, but otherwise the box was empty. After carrying her silkworm eggs all the way from Bithynios, Desdemona had been forced to dump them out at Ellis Island. Silkworm eggs appeared on a list of parasites.
Lefty remained glued to the window. All the way from Hoboken he’d gazed out at the marvelous sights: electric trams pulling pink faces up Albany’s hills; factories glowing like volcanoes in the Buffalo night. Once, waking as the train pulled through a city at dawn, Lefty had mistaken a pillared bank for the Parthenon, and thought he was in Athens again.
Now the Detroit River sped past and the city loomed. Lefty stared out at the motor cars parked like giant beetles at the curbsides. Smokestacks rose everywhere, cannons bombarding the atmosphere. There were red brick stacks and tall silver ones, stacks in regimental rows or all alone puffing meditatively away, a forest of smokestacks that dimmed the sunlight and then, all of a sudden, blocked it out completely. Everything went black: they’d entered the train station.
Grand Trunk Station, now a ruin of spectacular dimensions, was then the city’s attempt to one-up New York. Its base was a mammoth marble neoclassical museum, complete with Corinthian pillars and carved entablature. From this temple rose a thirteen-story office building. Lefty, who’d been observing all the ways Greece had been handed down to America, arrived now at where the transmission stopped. In other words: the future. He stepped off to meet it. Desdemona, having no alternative, followed.
But just imagine it in those days! Grand Trunk! Telephones in a hundred shipping offices ringing away, still a relatively new sound; and merchandise being sent east and west; passengers arriving and departing, having coffee in the Palm Court or getting their shoes shined, the wing tips of banking, the cap toes of parts supply, the saddle shoes of rumrunning. Grand Trunk, with its vaulted ceilings of Guastavino tilework, its chandeliers, its floors of Welsh quarry stone. There was a six-chair barbershop, where civic leaders were mummified in hot towels; and bathtubs for rent; and elevator banks lit by translucent egg-shaped marble lamps.
Leaving Desdemona behind a pillar, Lefty searched through the mob in the station for the cousin who was meeting their train. Sourmelina Zizmo, née Papadiamandopoulos, was my grandparents’ cousin and hence my first cousin twice removed. I knew her as a colorful, older woman. Sourmelina of the precarious cigarette ash. Sourmelina of the indigo bathwater. Sourmelina of the Theosophical Society brunches. She wore satin gloves up to the elbow and mothered a long line of smelly dachshunds with tearstained eyes. Footstools populated her house, allowing the short-legged creatures access to sofas and chaise longues. In 1922, however, Sourmelina was only twenty-eight. Picking her out of this crowd at Grand Trunk is as difficult for me as identifying guests in my parents’ wedding album, where all the faces wear the disguise of youth. Lefty had a different problem. He paced the concourse, looking for the cousin he’d grown up with, a sharp-nosed girl with the grinning mouth of a comedy mask. Sun slanted in from the skylights above. He squinted, examining the passing women, until finally she called out to him, “Over here, cousin. Don’t you recognize me? I’m the irresistible one.”
“Lina, is that you?”
“I’m not in the village anymore.”
In the five years since leaving Turkey, Sourmelina had managed to erase just about everything identifiably Greek about her, from her hair, which she dyed to a rich chestnut and now wore bobbed and marcelled, to her accent, which had migrated far enough west to sound vaguely “European,” to her reading material (Collier’s, Harper’s), to her favorite foods (lobster thermidor, peanut butter), and finally to her clothes. She wore a short green flapper dress fringed at the hemline. Her shoes were a matching green satin with sequined toes and delicate ankle straps. A black feather boa was wrapped around her shoulders, and on her head was a cloche hat that dangled onyx pendants over her plucked eyebrows.
For the next few seconds she gave Lefty the full benefit of her sleek, American pose, but it was still Lina inside there (under the cloche) and soon her Greek enthusiasm bubbled out. She spread her arms wide. “Kiss me hello, cousin.”
They embraced. Lina pressed a rouged cheek against his neck. Then she pulled back to examine him and, dissolving into laughter, cupped her hand over his nose. “It’s still you. I’d know this nose anywhere.” Her laugh completed its follow-through, as her shoulders went up and down, and then she was on to the next thing. “So, where is she? Where is this new bride of yours? Your telegram didn’t even give a name. What? Is she hiding?”
“She’s . . . in the bathroom.”
“She must be a beauty. You got married fast enough. Which did you do first, introduce yourself or propose?”
“I think I proposed.”
“What does she look like?”
“She looks . . . like you.”
“Oh, darling, not that good surely.”
Sourmelina brought her cigarette holder to her lips and inhaled, scanning the crowd. “Poor Desdemona! Her brother falls in love and leaves her behind in New York. How is she?”
“Why didn’t she come with you? She’s not jealous of your new wife, is she?”
“No, nothing like that.”
She clutched his arm. “We read about the fire.Terrible! I was so worried until I got your letter. The Turks started it. I know it. Of course, my husband doesn’t agree.”
“One suggestion, since you’ll be living with us? Don’t talk politics with my husband.”
“And the village?” Sourmelina inquired.
“Everybody left thehoreo , Lina. There’s nothing now.”
“If I didn’t hate that place, maybe I’d shed two tears.”
“Lina, there’s something I have to explain to you . . .”
But Sourmelina was looking away, tapping her foot. “Maybe she fell in.”
“. . . Something about Desdemona and me . . .”
“. . . My wife . . . Desdemona . . .”
“Was I right? They don’t get along?”
“No . . . Desdemona . . . my wife . . .”
“Same person.” He gave the signal. Desdemona stepped from behind the pillar.
“Hello, Lina,” my grandmother said. “We’re married. Don’t tell.”
And that was how it came out, for the next-to-last time. Blurted out by myyia yia , beneath the echoing roof of Grand Trunk, toward Sourmelina’s cloche-covered ears. The confession hovered in the air a moment, before floating away with the smoke rising from her cigarette. Desdemona took her husband’s arm.
My grandparents had every reason to believe that Sourmelina would keep their secret. She’d come to America with a secret of her own, a secret that would be guarded by our family until Sourmelina died in 1979, whereupon, like everyone’s secrets, it was posthumously declassified, so that people began to speak of “Sourmelina’s girlfriends.” A secret kept, in other words, only by the loosest definition, so that now—as I get ready to leak the information myself—I feel only a slight twinge of filial guilt.
Sourmelina’s secret (as Aunt Zo put it): “Lina was one of those women they named the island after.”
As a girl in thehoreo , Sourmelina had been caught in compromising circumstances with a few female friends. “Not many,” she told me herself, years later, “two or three. People think if you like girls, you like every single one. I was always picky. And there wasn’t much to pick from.” For a while she’d struggled against her predisposition. “I went to church. It didn’t help. In those days that was the best place to meet a girlfriend. In church! All of us praying to be different.” When Sourmelina was caught not with another girl but with a full-grown woman, a mother of two children, a scandal arose. Sourmelina’s parents tried to arrange her marriage but found no takers. Husbands were hard enough to come by in Bithynios without the added liability of an uninterested, defective bride.
Her father had then done what Greek fathers of unmarriageable girls did in those days: he wrote to America. The United States abounded with dollar bills, baseball sluggers, raccoon coats, diamond jewelry—and lonely, immigrant bachelors. With a photograph of the prospective bride and a considerable dowry, her father had come up with one.
Jimmy Zizmo (shortened from Zisimopoulos) had come to America in 1907 at the age of thirty. The family didn’t know much about him except that he was a hard bargainer. In a series of letters to Sourmelina’s father, Zizmo had negotiated the amount of the dowry in the formal language of a barrister, even going so far as to demand a bank check before the wedding day. The photograph Sourmelina received showed a tall, handsome man with a virile mustache, holding a pistol in one hand and a bottle of liquor in the other. When she stepped off the train at Grand Trunk two months later, however, the short man who greeted her was clean-shaven, with a sour expression and a laborer’s dark complexion. Such a discrepancy might have disappointed a normal bride, but Sourmelina didn’t care one way or another.
Sourmelina had written often, describing her new life in America, but she concentrated on the new fashions, or her Aeriola Jr., the radio she spent hours each day listening to, wearing earphones and manipulating the dial, stopping every so often to clean off the carbon dust that built up on the crystal. She never mentioned anything connected to what Desdemona referred to as “the bed,” and so her cousins were forced to read between the lines of those aerograms, trying to see, in a description of a Sunday drive through Belle Isle, whether the face of the husband at the wheel was happy or unsatisfied; or inferring, from a passage about Sourmelina’s latest hairstyle—something called “cootie garages”—whether Zizmo was ever allowed to muss it up.
This same Sourmelina, full of her own secrets, now took in her new co-conspirators. “Married? You mean sleeping-together married?”
Lefty managed, “Yes.”
Sourmelina noticed her ash for the first time, and flicked it. “Just my luck. Soon as I leave the village, things get interesting.”
But Desdemona couldn’t abide such irony. She grabbed Sourmelina’s hands and pleaded, “You have to promise never to tell. We’ll live, we’ll die, and that will be the end of it.”
“I won’t tell.”
“People can’t even know I’m your cousin.”
“I won’t tell anyone.”
“What about your husband?”
“He thinks I’m picking up my cousin and his new wife.”
“You won’t say anything to him?”
“That’ll be easy.” Lina laughed. “He doesn’t listen to me.”
Sourmelina insisted on getting a porter to carry their suitcases to the car, a black-and-tan Packard. She tipped him and climbed behind the wheel, attracting looks. A woman driving was still a scandalous sight in 1922. After resting her cigarette holder on the dashboard, she pulled out the choke, waited the requisite five seconds, and pressed the ignition button. The car’s tin bonnet shuddered to life. The leather seats began to vibrate and Desdemona took hold of her husband’s arm. Up front, Sourmelina took off her satin-strap high heels to drive barefoot. She put the car into gear and, without checking traffic, lurched off down Michigan Avenue toward Cadillac Square. My grandparents’ eyes glazed over at the sheer activity, streetcars rumbling, bells clanging, and the monochrome traffic swerving in and out. In those days downtown Detroit was filled with shoppers and businessmen. Outside Hudson’s Department Store the crowd was ten thick, jostling to get in the newfangled revolving doors. Lina pointed out the sights: theCafé Frontenac . . . the Family Theatre . . . and the enormous electric signs:Ralston . . . Wait & Bond Blackstone Mild 10¢ Cigar. Above, a thirty-foot boy spread Meadow Gold Butter on a ten-foot slice of bread. One building had a row of giant oil lamps over the entrance to promote a sale on until October 31. It was all swirl and hubbub, Desdemona lying against the backseat, already suffering the anxiety that modern conveniences would induce in her over the years, cars mainly, but toasters, too, lawn sprinklers and escalators; while Lefty grinned and shook his head. Skyscrapers were going up everywhere, and movie palaces and hotels. The twenties saw the construction of nearly all Detroit’s great buildings, the Penobscot Building and the second Buhl Building colored like an Indian belt, the New Union Trust Building, the Cadillac Tower, the Fisher Building with its gilded roof. To my grandparents Detroit was like one big Koza Han during cocoon season. What they didn’t see were the workers sleeping on the streets because of the housing shortage, and the ghetto just to the east, a thirty-square-block area bounded by Leland, Macomb, Hastings, and Brush streets, teeming with the city’s African Americans, who weren’t allowed to live anywhere else. They didn’t see, in short, the seeds of the city’s destruction—its second destruction—because they were part of it, too, all these people coming from everywhere to cash in on Henry Ford’s five-dollar-a-day promise.
The East Side of Detroit was a quiet neighborhood of single-family homes, shaded by cathedral elms. The house on Hurlbut Street Lina drove them to was a modest, two-story building of root-beer-colored brick. My grandparents gaped at it from the car, unable to move, until suddenly the front door opened and someone stepped out.
Jimmy Zizmo was so many things I don’t know where to begin. Amateur herbalist; antisuffragist; big-game hunter; ex-con; drug pusher; teetotaler—take your pick. He was forty-five years old, nearly twice as old as his wife. Standing on the dim porch, he wore an inexpensive suit and a shirt with a pointy collar that had lost most of its starch. His frizzy black hair gave him the wild look of the bachelor he’d been for so many years, and this impression was heightened by his face, which was rumpled like an unmade bed. His eyebrows, however, were as seductively arched as a nautch girl’s, his eyelashes so thick he might have been wearing mascara. But my grandmother didn’t notice any of that. She was fixated on something else.
“An Arab?” Desdemona asked as soon as she was alone with her cousin in the kitchen. “Is that why you didn’t tell us about him in your letters?”
“He’s not an Arab. He’s from the Black Sea.”
“This is thesala ,” Zizmo was meanwhile explaining to Lefty as he showed him around the house.
“Pontian!” Desdemona gasped with horror, while also examining the icebox. “He’s not Muslim, is he?”
“Not everybody from the Pontus converted,” Lina scoffed. “What do you think, a Greek takes a swim in the Black Sea and turns into a Muslim?”
“But does he have Turkish blood?” She lowered her voice. “Is that why he’s so dark?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care.”
“You’re free to stay as long as you like”—Zizmo was now leading Lefty upstairs—“but there are a few house rules. First, I’m a vegetarian. If your wife wants to cook meat, she has to use separate pots and dishes. Also, no whiskey. Do you drink?”
“No drinking. Go to a speakeasy if you want to drink. I don’t want any trouble with the police. Now, about the rent. You just got married?”
“What kind of dowry did you get?”
“Yes. How much?”
“But did you know he was so old?” Desdemona whispered downstairs as she inspected the oven.
“At least he’s not my brother.”
“Quiet! Don’t even joke.”
“I didn’t get a dowry,” answered Lefty. “We met on the boat over.”
“No dowry!” Zizmo stopped on the stairs to look back at Lefty with astonishment. “Why did you get married, then?”
“We fell in love,” Lefty said. He’d never announced it to a stranger before, and it made him feel happy and frightened all at once.
“If you don’t get paid, don’t get married,” Zizmo said. “That’s why I waited so long. I was holding out for the right price.” He winked.
“Lina mentioned you have your own business now,” Lefty said with sudden interest, following Zizmo into the bathroom. “What kind of business is it?”
“Me? I’m an importer.”
“I don’t know of what,” Sourmelina answered in the kitchen. “An importer. All I know is he brings home money.”
“But how can you marry somebody you don’t know anything about?”
“To get out of that country, Des, I would have married a cripple.”
“I have some experience with importing,” Lefty managed to get in as Zizmo demonstrated the plumbing. “Back in Bursa. In the silk industry.”
“Your portion of the rent is twenty dollars.” Zizmo didn’t take the hint. He pulled the chain, unleashing a flood of water.
“As far as I’m concerned,” Lina was continuing downstairs, “when it comes to husbands, the older the better.” She opened the pantry door. “A young husband would be after me all the time. It would be too much of a strain.”
“Shame on you, Lina.” But Desdemona was laughing now, despite herself. It was wonderful to see her old cousin again, a little piece of Bithynios still intact. The dark pantry, full of figs, almonds, walnuts, halvah, and dried apricots, made her feel better, too.
“But where can I get the rent?” Lefty finally blurted out as they headed back downstairs. “I don’t have any money left. Where can I work?”
“Not a problem.” Zizmo waved his hand. “I’ll speak to a few people.” They came through thesala again. Zizmo stopped and looked significantly down. “You haven’t complimented my zebra skin rug.”
“It’s very nice.”
“I brought it back from Africa. Shot it myself.”
“You’ve been to Africa?”
“I’ve been all over.”
Like everybody else in town, they squeezed in together. Desdemona and Lefty slept in a bedroom directly above Zizmo and Lina’s, and the first few nights my grandmother climbed out of bed to put her ear to the floor. “Nothing,” she said, “I told you.”
“Come back to bed,” Lefty scolded. “That’s their business.”
“What business? That’s what I’m telling you. They aren’t having any business.”
While in the bedroom below, Zizmo was discussing the new boarders upstairs. “What a romantic! Meets a girl on the boat and marries her. No dowry.”
“Some people marry for love.”
“Marriage is for housekeeping and for children. Which reminds me.”
“Please, Jimmy, not tonight.”
“Then when? Five years we’ve been married and no children. You’re always sick, tired, this, that. Have you been taking the castor oil?”
“And the magnesium?”
“Good. We have to reduce your bile. If the mother has too much bile, the child will lack vigor and disobey his parents.”
“Good night,kyrie .”
“Good night,kyria .”
Before the week was out, all my grandparents’ questions about Sourmelina’s marriage had been answered. Because of his age, Jimmy Zizmo treated his young bride more like a daughter than a wife. He was always telling her what she could and couldn’t do, howling over the price and necklines of her outfits, telling her to go to bed, to get up, to speak, to keep silent. He refused to give her the car keys until she cajoled him with kisses and caresses. His nutritional quackery even led him to monitor her regularity like a doctor, and some of their biggest fights came as a result of his interrogating Lina about her stools. As for sexual relations, they had happened, but not recently. For the last five months Lina had complained of imaginary ailments, preferring her husband’s herbal cures to his amatory attentions. Zizmo, in turn, harbored vaguely yogic beliefs about the mental benefits of semen retention, and so was disposed to wait until his wife’s vitality returned. The house was sex-segregated like the houses in thepatridha , the old country, men in thesala , women in the kitchen. Two spheres with separate concerns, duties, even—the evolutionary biologists might say—thought patterns. Lefty and Desdemona, accustomed to living in their own house, were forced to adapt to their new landlord’s ways. Besides, my grandfather needed a job.
In those days there were a lot of car companies to work for. There was Chalmers, Metzger, Brush, Columbia, and Flanders. There was Hupp, Paige, Hudson, Krit, Saxon, Liberty, Rickenbacker, and Dodge. Jimmy Zizmo, however, had connections at Ford.
“I’m a supplier,” he said.
They were in the Packard again, vibrating on thin tires. A light mist was falling. Lefty squinted through the fogged windshield. Little by little, as they approached along Michigan Avenue, he began to be aware of a monolith looming in the distance, a building like a gigantic church organ, pipes running into the sky.
There was also a smell: the same smell that would drift upriver, years later, to find me in my bed or in the field hockey goal. Like my own, similarly beaked nose at those times, my grandfather’s nose went on alert. His nostrils flared. He inhaled. At first the smell was recognizable, part of the organic realm of bad eggs and manure. But after a few seconds the smell’s chemical properties seared his nostrils, and he covered his nose with his handkerchief.
Zizmo laughed. “Don’t worry. You’ll get used to it.”
“No, I won’t.”
“Do you want to know the secret?”
When they reached the factory, Zizmo took him into the Personnel Department.
“How long has he lived in Detroit?” the manager asked.
“Can you verify that?”
Zizmo now spoke in a low tone. “I could drop the necessary documents by your house.”
The personnel manager looked both ways. “Old Log Cabin?”
“Only the best.”
The chief jutted out his lower lip, examining my grandfather. “How’s his English?”
“Not as good as mine. But he learns fast.”
“He’ll have to take the course and pass the test. Otherwise he’s out.”
“It’s a deal. Now, if you’ll write down your home address, we can schedule a delivery. Would Monday evening, say around eight-thirty, be suitable?”
“Come around to the back door.”
My grandfather’s short employ at the Ford Motor Company marked the only time any Stephanides has ever worked in the automobile industry. Instead of cars, we would become manufacturers of hamburger platters and Greek salads, industrialists of spanikopita and grilled cheese sandwiches, technocrats of rice pudding and banana cream pie. Our assembly line was the grill; our heavy machinery, the soda fountain. Still, those twenty-five weeks gave us a personal connection to that massive, forbidding, awe-inspiring complex we saw from the highway, that controlled Vesuvius of chutes, tubes, ladders, catwalks, fire, and smoke known, like a plague or a monarch, only by a color: “the Rouge.”
On his first day of work, Lefty came into the kitchen modeling his new overalls. He spread his flannel-shirted arms and snapped his fingers, dancing in work boots, and Desdemona laughed and shut the kitchen door so as not to wake up Lina. Lefty ate his breakfast of prunes and yogurt, reading a Greek newspaper a few days old. Desdemona packed his Greek lunch of feta, olives, and bread in a new American container: a brown paper bag. At the back door, when he turned to kiss her she stepped back, anxious that people might see. But then she remembered that they were married now. They lived in a place called Michigan, where the birds seemed to come in only one color, and where no one knew them. Desdemona stepped forward again to meet her husband’s lips. Their first kiss in the great American outdoors, on the back porch, near a cherry tree losing its leaves. A brief flare of happiness went off inside her and hung, raining sparks, until Lefty disappeared around the front of the house.
My grandfather’s good mood accompanied him all the way to the trolley stop. Other workers were already waiting, loose-kneed, smoking cigarettes and joking. Lefty noticed their metal lunch pails and, embarrassed by his paper sack, held it behind him. The streetcar showed up first as a hum in the soles of his boots. Then it appeared against the rising sun, Apollo’s own chariot, only electrified. Inside, men stood in groups arranged by language. Faces scrubbed for work still had soot inside the ears, deep black. The streetcar sped off again. Soon the jovial mood dissipated and the languages fell silent. Near downtown, a few blacks boarded the car, standing outside on the runners, holding on to the roof.
And then the Rouge appeared against the sky, rising out of the smoke it generated. At first all that was visible was the tops of the eight main smokestacks. Each gave birth to its own dark cloud. The clouds plumed upward and merged into a general pall that hung over the landscape, sending a shadow that ran along the trolley tracks; and Lefty understood that the men’s silence was a recognition of this shadow, of its inevitable approach each morning. As it came on, the men turned their backs so that only Lefty saw the light leave the sky as the shadow enveloped the streetcar and the men’s faces turned gray and one of themavros on the runners spat blood onto the roadside. The smell seeped into the streetcar next, first the bearable eggs and manure, then the unbearable chemical taint, and Lefty looked at the other men to see if they registered it, but they didn’t, though they continued to breathe. The doors opened and they all filed out. Through the hanging smoke, Lefty saw other streetcars letting off other workers, hundreds and hundreds of gray figures trudging across the paved courtyard toward the factory gates. Trucks were driving past, and Lefty let himself be taken along with the flow of the next shift, fifty, sixty, seventy thousand men hurrying last cigarettes or getting in final words—because as they approached the factory they’d begun to speak again, not because they had anything to say but because beyond those doors language wasn’t allowed. The main building, a fortress of dark brick, was seven stories high, the smokestacks seventeen. Running off it were two chutes topped by water towers. These led to observation decks and to adjoining refineries studded with less impressive stacks. It was like a grove of trees, as if the Rouge’s eight main smokestacks had sown seeds to the wind, and now ten or twenty or fifty smaller trunks were sprouting up in the infertile soil around the plant. Lefty could see the train tracks now, the huge silos along the river, the giant spice box of coal, coke, and iron ore, and the catwalks stretching overhead like giant spiders. Before he was sucked in the door, he glimpsed a freighter and a bit of the river French explorers named for its reddish color, long before the water turned orange from runoff or ever caught on fire.
Historical fact: people stopped being human in 1913. That was the year Henry Ford put his cars on rollers and made his workers adopt the speed of the assembly line. At first, workers rebelled. They quit in droves, unable to accustom their bodies to the new pace of the age. Since then, however, the adaptation has been passed down: we’ve all inherited it to some degree, so that we plug right into joysticks and remotes, to repetitive motions of a hundred kinds.
But in 1922 it was still a new thing to be a machine.
On the factory floor, my grandfather was trained for his job in seventeen minutes. Part of the new production method’s genius was its division of labor into unskilled tasks. That way you could hire anyone. And fire anyone. The foreman showed Lefty how to take a bearing from the conveyor, grind it on a lathe, and replace it. Holding a stopwatch, he timed the new employee’s attempts. Then, nodding once, he led Lefty to his position on the Line. On the left stood a man named Wierzbicki; on the right, a man named O’Malley. For a moment, they are three men, waiting together. Then the whistle blows.
Every fourteen seconds Wierzbicki reams a bearing and Stephanides grinds a bearing and O’Malley attaches a bearing to a camshaft. This camshaft travels away on a conveyor, curling around the factory, through its clouds of metal dust, its acid fogs, until another worker fifty yards on reaches up and removes the camshaft, fitting it onto the engine block (twenty seconds). Simultaneously, other men are unhooking parts from adjacent conveyors—the carburetor, the distributor, the intake manifold—and connecting them to the engine block. Above their bent heads, huge spindles pound steam-powered fists. No one says a word. Wierzbicki reams a bearing and Stephanides grinds a bearing and O’Malley attaches a bearing to a camshaft. The camshaft circles around the floor until a hand reaches up to take it down and attach it to the engine block, growing increasingly eccentric now with swooshes of pipe and the plumage of fan blades. Wierzbicki reams a bearing and Stephanides grinds a bearing and O’Malley attaches a bearing to a camshaft. While other workers screw in the air filter (seventeen seconds) and attach the starter motor (twenty-six seconds) and put on the flywheel. At which point the engine is finished and the last man sends it soaring away . . .
Except that he isn’t the last man. There are other men below hauling the engine in, as a chassis rolls out to meet it. These men attach the engine to the transmission (twenty-five seconds). Wierzbicki reams a bearing and Stephanides grinds a bearing and O’Malley attaches a bearing to a camshaft. My grandfather sees only the bearing in front of him, his hands removing it, grinding it, and putting it back as another appears. The conveyor over his head extends back to the men who stamp out the bearings and load ingots into the furnaces; it goes back to the Foundry where the Negroes work, goggled against the infernal light and heat. They feed iron ore into the Blast Oven and pour molten steel into core molds from ladles. They pour at just the right rate—too quickly and the molds will explode; too slowly and the steel will harden. They can’t stop even to pick the burning bits of metal from their arms. Sometimes the foreman does it; sometimes not. The Foundry is the deepest recess of the Rouge, its molten core, but the Line goes back farther than that. It extends outside to the hills of coal and coke; it goes to the river where freighters dock to unload the ore, at which point the Line becomes the river itself, snaking up to the north woods until it reaches its source, which is the earth itself, the limestone and sandstone therein; and then the Line leads back again, out of substrata to river to freighters and finally to the cranes, shovels, and furnaces where it is turned into molten steel and poured into molds, cooling and hardening into car parts—the gears, drive shafts, and fuel tanks of 1922 Model T’s. Wierzbicki reams a bearing and Stephanides grinds a bearing and O’Malley attaches a bearing to a camshaft. Above and behind, at various angles, workers pack sand into core molds, or hammer plugs into molds, or put casting boxes into the cupola furnace. The Line isn’t a single line but many, diverging and intersecting. Other workers stamp out body parts (fifty seconds), bump them (forty-two seconds), and weld the pieces together (one minute and ten seconds). Wierzbicki reams a bearing and Stephanides grinds a bearing and O’Malley attaches a bearing to a camshaft. The camshaft flies around the factory until a man unhooks it, attaches it to the engine block, growing eccentric now with fan blades, pipes, and spark plugs. And then the engine is finished. A man sends it dropping down onto a chassis rolling out to meet it, as three other workers remove a car body from the oven, its black finish baked to a shine in which they can see their own faces, and they recognize themselves, momentarily, before they drop the body onto the chassis rolling out to meet it. A man jumps into the front seat (three seconds), turns the ignition (two seconds), and drives the automobile away.
By day, no words; by night, hundreds. Every evening at quitting time my exhausted grandfather would come out of the factory and tramp across to an adjacent building housing the Ford English School. He sat in a desk with his workbook open in front of him. The desk felt as though it were vibrating across the floor at the Line’s 1.2 miles per hour. He looked up at the English alphabet in a frieze on the classroom walls. In rows around him, men sat over identical workbooks. Hair stiff from dried sweat, eyes red from metal dust, hands raw, they recited with the obedience of choirboys:
“Employees should use plenty of soap and water in the home.
“Nothing makes for right living so much as cleanliness.
“Do not spit on the floor of the home.
“Do not allow any flies in the house.
“The most advanced people are the cleanest.”
Sometimes the English lessons continued on the job. One week, after a lecture by the foreman on increasing productivity, Lefty speeded up his work, grinding a bearing every twelve seconds instead of fourteen. Returning from the lavatory later, he found the word “RAT” written on the side of his lathe. The belt was cut. By the time he found a new belt in the equipment bin, a horn sounded. The Line had stopped.
“What the hell’s the matter with you?” the foreman shouted at him. “Every time we shut down the line, we lose money. If it happens again, you’re out. Understand?”
“Okay! Let her go!”
And the Line started up again. After the foreman had gone, O’Malley looked both ways and leaned over to whisper, “Don’t try to be a speed king. You understand? We all have to work faster that way.”
Desdemona stayed home and cooked. Without silkworms to tend or mulberry trees to pick, without neighbors to gossip with or goats to milk, my grandmother filled her time with food. While Lefty ground bearings nonstop, Desdemona built pastitsio, moussaka and galactoboureko. She coated the kitchen table with flour and, using a bleached broomstick, rolled out paper-thin sheets of dough. The sheets came off her assembly line, one after another. They filled the kitchen. They covered the living room, where she’d laid bedsheets over the furniture. Desdemona went up and down the line, adding walnuts, butter, honey, spinach, cheese, adding more layers of dough, then more butter, before forging the assembled concoctions in the oven. At the Rouge, workers collapsed from heat and fatigue, while on Hurlbut my grandmother did a double shift. She got up in the morning to fix breakfast and pack a lunch for her husband, then marinated a leg of lamb with wine and garlic. In the afternoon she made her own sausages, spiced with fennel, and hung them over the heating pipes in the basement. At three o’clock she started dinner, and only when it was cooking did she take a break, sitting at the kitchen table to consult her dream book on the meaning of her previous night’s dreams. No fewer than three pots simmered on the stove at all times. Occasionally, Jimmy Zizmo brought home a few of his business associates, hulking men with thick, ham-like heads stuffed into their fedoras. Desdemona served them meals at all hours of the day. Then they were off again, into the city. Desdemona cleaned up.
The only thing she refused to do was the shopping. American stores confused her. She found the produce depressing. Even many years later, seeing a Kroger’s McIntosh in our suburban kitchen, she would hold it up to ridicule, saying, “This is nothing. This we fed to goats.” To step into a local market was to miss the savor of the peaches, figs, and winter chestnuts of Bursa. Already, in her first months in America, Desdemona was suffering “the homesickness that has no cure.” So, after working at the plant and attending English class, Lefty was the one to pick up the lamb and vegetables, the spices and honey.
And so they lived . . . one month . . . three . . . five. They suffered through their first Michigan winter. A January night, just past 1A.M. Desdemona Stephanides asleep, wearing her hated YMCA hat against the wind blowing through the thin walls. A radiator sighing, clanking. By candlelight, Lefty finishes his homework, notebook propped on knees, pencil in hand. And from the wall: rustling. He looks up to see a pair of red eyes shining out from a hole in the baseboard. He writes R-A-T before throwing his pencil at the vermin. Desdemona sleeps on. He brushes her hair. He says, in English, “Hello, sweetheart.” The new country and its language have helped to push the past a little further behind. The sleeping form next to him is less and less his sister every night and more and more his wife. The statute of limitations ticks itself out, day by day, all memory of the crime being washed away. (But what humans forget, cells remember. The body, that elephant . . .)
Spring arrived, 1923. My grandfather, accustomed to the multifarious conjugations of ancient Greek verbs, had found English, for all its incoherence, a relatively simple tongue to master. Once he had swallowed a good portion of the English vocabulary, he began to taste the familiar ingredients, the Greek seasoning in the roots, prefixes, and suffixes. A pageant was planned to celebrate the Ford English School graduation. As a top student, Lefty was asked to take part.
“What kind of pageant?” Desdemona asked.
“I can’t tell you. It’s a surprise. But you have to sew me some clothes.”
“Like from thepatridha .”
It was a Wednesday evening. Lefty and Zizmo were in thesala when suddenly Lina came in to listen to “The Ronnie Ronnette Hour.” Zizmo gave her a disapproving look, but she escaped behind her headphones.
“She thinks she’s one of theseAmerikanidhes ,” Zizmo said to Lefty. “Look. See? She even crosses her legs.”
“This is America,” Lefty said. “We’re allAmerikanidhes now.”
“This is not America,” Zizmo countered. “This is my house. We don’t live like theAmerikanidhes in here. Your wife understands. Do you see her in thesala showing her legs and listening to the radio?”
Someone knocked at the door. Zizmo, who had an inexplicable aversion to unannounced guests, jumped up and reached under his coat. He motioned for Lefty not to move. Lina, noticing something, took off her earphones. The knock came again. “Kyrie,” Lina said, “if they were going to kill you, would they knock?”
“Who’s going to kill!” Desdemona said, rushing in from the kitchen.
“Just a way of speaking,” said Lina, who knew more about her husband’s importing concern that she’d been letting on. She glided to the door and opened it.
Two men stood on the welcome mat. They wore gray suits, striped ties, black brogues. They had short sideburns. They carried matching briefcases. When they removed their hats, they revealed identical chestnut hair, neatly parted in the center. Zizmo took his hand out of his coat.
“We’re from the Ford Sociological Department,” the tall one said. “Is Mr. Stephanides at home?”
“Yes?” Lefty said.
“Mr. Stephanides, let me tell you why we’re here.”
“Management has foreseen,” the short one seamlessly continued, “that five dollars a day in the hands of some men might work a tremendous handicap along the paths of rectitude and right living and might make of them a menace to society in general.”
“So it was established by Mr. Ford”—the taller one again took over—“that no man is to receive the money who cannot use it advisedly and conservatively.”
“Also”—the short one again—“that where a man seems to qualify under the plan and later develops weaknesses, that it is within the province of the company to take away his share of the profits until such time as he can rehabilitate himself. May we come in?”
Once across the threshold, they separated. The tall one took a pad from his briefcase. “I’m going to ask you a few questions, if you don’t mind. Do you drink, Mr. Stephanides?”
“No, he doesn’t,” Zizmo answered for him.
“And who are you, may I ask?”
“My name is Zizmo.”
“Are you a boarder here?”
“This is my house.”
“So Mr. and Mrs. Stephanides are the boarders?”
“Won’t do. Won’t do,” said the tall one. “We encourage our employees to obtain mortgages.”
“He’s working on it,” Zizmo said.
Meanwhile, the short one had entered the kitchen. He was lifting lids off pots, opening the oven door, peering into the garbage can. Desdemona started to object, but Lina checked her with a glance. (And notice how Desdemona’s nose has begun to twitch. For two days now, her sense of smell has been incredibly acute. Foods are beginning to smell funny to her, feta cheese like dirty socks, olives like goat droppings.)
“How often do you bathe, Mr. Stephanides?” the tall one asked.
“Every day, sir.”
“How often do you brush your teeth?”
“Every day, sir.”
“What do you use?”
Now the short one was climbing the stairs. He invaded my grandparents’ bedroom and inspected the linens. He stepped into the bathroom and examined the toilet seat.
“From now on, use this,” the tall one said. “It’s a dentifrice. Here’s a new toothbrush.”
Disconcerted, my grandfather took the items. “We come from Bursa,” he explained. “It’s a big city.”
“Brush along the gum lines. Up on the bottoms and down on the tops. Two minutes morning and night. Let’s see. Give it a try.”
“We are civilized people.”
“Do I understand you to be refusing hygiene instruction?”
“Listen to me,” Zizmo said. “The Greeks built the Parthenon and the Egyptians built the pyramids back when the Anglo-Saxons were still dressing in animal skins.”
The tall one took a long look at Zizmo and made a note on his pad.
“Like this?” my grandfather said. Grinning hideously, he moved the toothbrush up and down in his dry mouth.
“That’s right. Fine.”
The short one now reappeared from upstairs. He flipped open his pad and began: “Item one. Garbage can in kitchen has no lid. Item two. Housefly on kitchen table. Item three. Too much garlic in food. Causes indigestion.”
(And now Desdemona locates the culprit: the short man’s hair. The smell of brilliantine on it makes her nauseous.)
“Very considerate of you to come here and take an interest in your employee’s health,” Zizmo said. “We wouldn’t want anybody to get sick, now, would we? Might slow down production.”
“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that,” said the tall one. “Seeing as you are not an official employee of the Ford Motor Company. However”—turning back to my grandfather—“I should advise you, Mr. Stephanides, that in my report I am going to make a note of your social relations. I’m going to recommend that you and Mrs. Stephanides move into your own home as soon as it is financially feasible.”
“And may I ask what your occupation is, sir?” the short one wanted to know.
“I’m in shipping,” Zizmo said.
“Nice of you gentlemen to stop by,” Lina moved in. “But if you’ll excuse us, we’re just about to have dinner. We have to go to church tonight. And, of course, Lefty has to be in bed by nine to get rest. He likes to be fresh in the morning.”
“That’s fine. Fine.”
Together, they put on their hats and left.
And so we come to the weeks leading up to the graduation pageant. To Desdemona sewing apalikari vest, embroidering it with red, white, and blue thread. To Lefty getting off work one Friday evening and crossing over Miller Road to be paid from the armored truck. To Lefty again, the night of the pageant, taking the streetcar to Cadillac Square and walking into Gold’s Clothes. Jimmy Zizmo meets him there to help him pick out a suit.
“It’s almost summer. How about something cream-colored? With a yellow silk necktie?”
“No. The English teacher told us. Blue or gray only.”
“They want to turn you into a Protestant. Resist!”
“I’ll take the blue suit, please, thank you,” Lefty says in his best English.
(And here, too, the shop owner seems to owe Zizmo a favor. He gives them a 20 percent discount.)
Meanwhile, on Hurlbut, Father Stylianopoulos, head priest of Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, has finally come over to bless the house. Desdemona watches the priest nervously as he drinks the glass of Metaxa she has offered him. When she and Lefty became members of his congregation, the old priest had asked, as a formality, if they had received an Orthodox wedding. Desdemona had replied in the affirmative. She had grown up believing that priests could tell whether someone was telling the truth or not, but Father Stylianopoulos had only nodded and written their names into the church register. Now he sets down his glass. He stands and recites the blessing, shaking holy water on the threshold. Before he’s finished, however, Desdemona’s nose begins acting up again. She can smell what the priest had for lunch. She can detect the aroma under his arms as he makes the sign of the cross. At the door, letting him out, she holds her breath. “Thank you, Father. Thank you.” Stylianopoulos goes on his way. But it’s no use. As soon as she inhales again, she can smell the fertilized flower beds and Mrs. Czeslawski boiling cabbage next door and what she swears must be an open jar of mustard somewhere, all these scents gone wayward on her, as she puts a hand to her stomach.
Right then the bedroom door swings open. Sourmelina steps out. Powder and rouge cover one side of her face; the other side, bare, looks green. “Do you smell something?” she asks.
“Yes. I smell everything.”
“Oh my God.”
“What is it?”
“I didn’t think this would happen to me. To you maybe. But not to me.”
And now we are in the Detroit Light Guard Armory, later that night, 7:00P.M. An assembled audience of two thousand settles down as the house lights dim. Prominent business leaders greet each other with handshakes. Jimmy Zizmo, in a new cream-colored suit with yellow necktie, crosses his legs, jiggling one saddle shoe. Lina and Desdemona hold hands, joined in a mysterious union.
The curtain parts to gasps and scattered applause. A painted flat shows a steamship, two huge smokestacks, and a swath of deck and railing. A gangway extends into the stage’s other focal point: a giant gray cauldron emblazoned with the words ford english school melting pot. A European folk melody begins to play. Suddenly a lone figure appears on the gangway. Dressed in a Balkan costume of vest, ballooning trousers, and high leather boots, the immigrant carries his possessions bundled on a stick. He looks around with apprehension and then descends into the melting pot.
“What propaganda,” Zizmo murmurs in his seat.
Lina shushes him.
Now SYRIA descends into the pot. Then ITALY. POLAND. NORWAY. PALESTINE. And finally: GREECE.
“Look, it’s Lefty!”
Wearing embroideredpalikari vest, puffy-sleevedpoukamiso , and pleatedfoustanella skirt, my grandfather bestrides the gangway. He pauses a moment to look out at the audience, but the bright lights blind him. He can’t see my grandmother looking back, bursting with her secret. GERMANY taps him on the back. “Macht schnell.Excuse me. Go fastly.”
In the front row, Henry Ford nods with approval, enjoying the show. Mrs. Ford tries to whisper in his ear, but he waves her off. His blue seagull’s eyes dart from face to face as the English instructors appear onstage next. They carry long spoons, which they insert into the pot. The lights turn red and flicker as the instructors stir. Steam rises over the stage.
Inside the cauldron, men are packed together, throwing off immigrant costumes, putting on suits. Limbs are tangling up, feet stepping on feet. Lefty says, “Pardon me, excuse me,” feeling thoroughly American as he pulls on his blue wool trousers and jacket. In his mouth: thirty-two teeth brushed in the American manner. His underarms: liberally sprinkled with American deodorant. And now spoons are descending from above, men are churning around and around . . .
. . . as two men, short and tall, stand in the wings, holding a piece of paper . . .
. . . and out in the audience my grandmother has a stunned look on her face . . .
. . . and the melting pot boils over. Red lights brighten. The orchestra launches into “Yankee Doodle.” One by one, the Ford English School graduates rise from the cauldron. Dressed in blue and gray suits, they climb out, waving American flags, to thunderous applause.
The curtain had barely come down before the men from the Sociological Department approached.
“I pass the final exam,” my grandfather told them. “Ninety-three percent! And today I open savings account.”
“That sounds fine,” the tall one said.
“But unfortunately, it’s too late,” said the short one. He took a slip from his pocket, a color well known in Detroit: pink.
“We did some checking on your landlord. This so-called Jimmy Zizmo. He’s got a police record.”
“I don’t know anything,” my grandfather said. “I’m sure is a mistake. He is a nice man. Works hard.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Stephanides. But you can understand that Mr. Ford can’t have workers maintaining such associations. You don’t need to come down to the plant on Monday.”
As my grandfather struggled to absorb this news, the short one leaned in. “I hope you learn a lesson from this. Mixing with the wrong crowd can sink you. You seem like a nice guy, Mr. Stephanides. You really do. We wish you the best of luck in the future.”
A few minutes later, Lefty came out to meet his wife. He was surprised when, in front of everyone, she hugged him, refusing to let go.
“You liked the pageant?”
“It’s not that.”
“What is it?”
Desdemona looked into her husband’s eyes. But it was Sourmelina who explained it all. “Your wife and I?” she said in plain English. “We’re both knocked up.”