Tough People

By Steve S. Saroff

My Grandfather came to New York in 1917 and got a job. He worked all day and most of the nights, and he never learned English. In Russia he had been a writer who wrote short stories and essays in Yiddish for the Kiev newspapers. But when he died, he had been a laborer in America for more than 30 years.

My father, before he too died, told me that my hands were like my Grandfather’s. I left home when I was 14 and had been gone a long time. When I came to visit my dieing father, he took my hand and held it until I became uncomfortable. I pulled my hand from his grasp. I was 22 then and tough like loneliness; I mean, no one was helping me and I trusted no one. All those years, me working pointless jobs on highway crews or in the western oilfields, or anyplace where the pay would be in cash so I could just keep moving, I never thought about where I may have come from.

So when I get my hand away from my father, he starts talking. It was all chance that I called my father at all – not having talked to him once since leaving home – and finding out how sick he was. And so that is how I found out about my Grandfather, found out that he had been a storyteller, found out how tough he had been. Leaving Russia, leaving his language and words and coming to America with his one-year old child – my father – and raising him alone in the city. Raised him alone because my Grandmother – his wife – had been killed in a Pogrom. Those things in old Russia where the Tsar’s Cossacks, soldiers who wore beautiful uniforms of black wool with red trim; those Cossacks who drank potato vodka and smashed the bottles on the coble stones; those Cossacks who mounted their beautiful horses and drew their beautiful swords and then galloped through the Jewish quarters, killing everyone who was on the streets.

I gasped a bit as my father tells me this story of his father. The story of my Grandfather. I heard all the other details – and I remember all the details – but it hurts my hand now to write about such sadness. It is enough that I tell you this: I have inherited my Grandfather’s hands and his love of telling stories.

But here, in America, in my country, my language is English and I am not so tough as the people I have come from.

I met a woman today. A girl from another country who I know almost nothing about. We were walking together, her and I, in the desert. She was carrying a paper umbrella. I was pushing a bicycle. She told me she worked for a while taking care of a woman who was disabled. The disabled woman could only move one hand, and nothing else. She moved her hand just the amount needed to control a wheelchair. She breathed through a respirator. She needed help for everything. She needed to be lifted to and from the bed, to the chair, to her baths. But she could talk, and she could laugh.

And the person who I met today, the girl from another country, she says to me that the woman in the wheelchair is tough and good and happy.

“She even has a normal sex life,” the girl says, “Imagine, not being able to move, but being able to think clearly and to feel clearly. I am so glad that she has a boyfriend. She is happy.”

The girl from another country, she and I walk past hundreds of people who are just waking up. The night before – last night – I couldn’t sleep so I walked over to where the fires were. A sculpture of a heart was burning. Twenty feet tall, flames going into the sky, the iron of the sculpture glowing hot orange. I walked behind the heart to where a door was open and where a crowd was throwing logs into the fire. I threw a log in and watched the sparks jump.

“I saw that heart,” the girl says, “I too threw wood in there. I too watched the sparks.”

This girl, this young woman, tells me that she has no skills that she feels strong with. But she tells me; she is working on making a film about her ancestors.

“It will be a trilogy,” she says, “Of life in San Francisco, life in South Africa, and life at home where I was born. I don’t know what I am doing, but I am doing it anyway.”

This girl who says she has no skills, she tells me of the four languages she speaks. She tells me about a car that she owns that was impounded because it collected too many parking tickets. She laughs, and says that all her savings were then spent on parking tickets. She says she has no permits to work anywhere, and no permits to be living in any country, no paper to be anywhere. And then she tells me about the woman in the wheelchair, the woman who thinks and feels and who needs to be lifted to and from her bed and her chair.

“I don’t think it is so bad not being allowed to be anywhere, as long as I am helping others. I don’t think it is so bad. I will get along, I will be ok.”

My father – who drove me out of his house because of his own sorrows – has let go of my hand and has started talking about my Grandfather.

“We do what we do to survive,” my father is saying, “We make a lot of mistakes trying to survive.”

He tells me then about the Cossacks. He tells me about being alone all day as a small child when my Grandfather was working. He keeps talking and I reach over and hold his soft, frail hand. And I promise him – though I don’t say the words out loud – I promise that I will be the one in this country who will do more than just survive. I shudder then, feeling the generations of ghosts who seem to be near, and I promise to be tough enough to simply be happy. To go beyond food and water and shelter. To get away from hard labor. To get to a place of laughter.

The girl from the other country says goodbye to me and walks to the left. I walk to the right, away from the crowds and out here where there is just desert, but I stop and look back. The girl has stopped too. We are far away from each other, but still close enough to see each other’s arms as we wave goodbye. I wave goodbye to this tough, skilled girl who will go on and do everything she dreams of. I think this because she already understands pointless things like parking tickets and work without permits and how to get into Burningman by hiding in the trunk of a car. She has reminded me of the tough people I have come from, and, at the same time of the laughter that is now close by.


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