I didn’t see my parents die when I was nine but I saw the way they died. I saw others leaping from the flames landing with a thud on the sidewalk. Young girls once vibrant were now a pile of clothes. Thud. Then the next one. Thud. It’s that sound that remains with me and the chaos of the scene—the cops linking arms to form a barricade to keep us back, firemen hosing water up the eight stories of the textile factory where my mother worked. The crowds shoved and screamed and knocked over pushcarts, but for one strange moment, I was detached and took a scientific view. Water came from somewhere and went into those hoses. The water came from somewhere outside of my Delancey Street neighborhood, and for a split second, I saw the wide world, saw how everything was really much bigger than I’d imagined. That was a comforting insight. Then someone shoved me, and I shouted for my father, and Oats told me he’d gone in to rescue my mother.
Afterward, neighbors were whispering and looking at me as if something was lurking behind me. One of the women was cooking at my mother’s stove. The men who used to grab and tickle me avoided my eye. It was Oats who drove me to the docks in Mr. Goldfarb’s wagon. This could not happen unless there was some emergency because Mr. Goldfarb never let anyone drive his dry-goods wagon, especially not Oats, whose racket was protection. If you paid Oats, he wouldn’t poison your horse. Now here he was sitting in the wagon outside my building waiting for me to come downstairs with those coins in my pocket and some of my clothes bundled in a shawl. It never entered my head as we clip-clopped along the streets of the Lower East Side that I was going away.
I’d never been to the piers before, and I was excited to see all those gigantic ships, sailing schooners, freight ships and a gaudy three-story side-wheeler like the kind in picture books about the Mississippi River. The pier was dense with activity, families carrying luggage, tractors heaped with cargo, sailors loading freight. It was a madhouse with seagulls overhead screeching, sheee, yuk, yuk, sheee, yuk, yuk. A sudden ship-horn blast made Mr. Goldfarb’s horse bolt. People rushed to avoid him, and Oats had to stand in the wagon to rein him in saying, “Whoa, Stevie, whoa, big fella,” and he said this with a kind of compassion that seemed at odds with his profession. When the horse was again standing in his usual exhausted way, Oats said, “That one,” and pointed to the side-wheeler. “You go find him. I can’t leave the horse.” I assumed he meant my father come back alive somehow.
Passengers were coming down a gangplank to the dock. When I caught sight of my father—tall, shoulders back, head high—I charged through the crowd. What a relief! No more lying in bed at night wondering who was going to take care of me. I threw my arms around his waist, but the hands that loosened my grip were not my father’s. Startled, I stepped back and looked up into the face of a young man who said, “You got money for the ticket?” He had my father’s face but not the face I knew. He had my father’s young face, the one in the photo from Lithuania before my father came to America, the one Mr. Goldfarb tucked into my bundle as I was walking out the door. I held my coins in an open palm as if feeding a horse, and the young man picked out what he needed. His hands were calloused, with black under the nails.
I had made one of the most humiliating mistakes of childhood. I hugged the wrong person. I tried to recover my dignity by saying, “Oats is here,” which I thought would show that I had things under control. But Oats had vanished. Now I heard some of the words that had circulated in whispers around me that week: “Who says nineteen isn’t old enough?” and “New England? Where’s that?”
“Are you Uncle Sonny?” I said. “You’re the one’s supposed to take care of me.”
He looked down at me with grave eyes. “Don’t you think I know that?” A whistle blasted. “Come on!” Uncle Sonny shouted and I ran after him out to the deck where the wind blew my hat off. I watched it sail out over the water, dip, sail more, then land on the waves.
He didn’t care about my hat. “Hey! See that?” he shouted. “It’s the Statue of Liberty!” I said, “Think it will sink?” He considered this, then realized I was teasing. He pulled his hand back pretending he was going to cuff me, and I ducked, and our eyes met with a quick hug. I had always wanted an older brother. So this was the Uncle Sonny my father was always looking forward to seeing again.