Chicago: At the Beginning

By Miriam Ben-Yoseph

I am sitting on the floor of my first apartment in America.  The year is 1975.  We just arrived to Chicago. There is nothing in this place except a bed we bought at a garage sale.  When I walk around in the tiny flat the wood floor creaks.  At home (in Romania and then Israel), some of my neighbors would have been at my door already.  “How come you are still at home,” one may have asked.  Are you sick or something?”  “Can you watch Daniel,” another may have pleaded. “I need to pick up something quickly at the store.” I resented these intrusions sometimes but I would give anything now for someone to knock at my door and ask for something.  Anything. There is a phone in the apartment but I don’t know anyone to call.  My husband calls from his lab from time to time to ask how “we” are doing. I resent his use of the plural pronoun. I envy him his work.

I decide to go to the store to buy a sewing kit. I may get a job interview and I can’t have sleeves that are too long! I don’t know how to sew but I think I can learn. I look for the kit in all the wrong places.  A man asks me what I am looking for but all of a sudden I cannot remember how to say “sewing kit” in English. I start to cry and the man who was just trying to help seems uneasy and walks away. I leave the store without the sewing kit and wander aimlessly in the neighborhood. I walk behind two women for a while and enjoy overhearing their conversation.  One of the women is giving a lift to the other woman to pick up her car from somewhere. The woman who does not have a car wants to stop for a bite on the way to her car. “No problem,” says her friend.

 I have a driver’s license but I never owned a car. I have friends too but not in Chicago.  Not yet.

On my way back to the apartment I pass by the mailboxes. I know it is too soon to expect letters. We just moved in and nobody knows our address yet. It is a bit early even for a bill. And yet, when I see that there is something in our mailbox I get all excited. I try to retrieve what I hope is a letter. What I find is a flyer addressed to the Resident at 625 Wrightwood. That can be anybody. I don’t even read it before I throw it to the garbage. I go back to the empty apartment and write a letter to my mother. I don’t tell her anything about my first days in Chicago — just some little lies so she won’t worry. I also write about how beautiful Chicago is in the spring.  And that is true.

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Originally from Romania, Miriam Ben-Yoseph teaches and researches in the areas of culture, gender, and work. Recently she has focused her teaching and writing on the Holocaust and on cultural homelessness and identity issues. Her work has been published in the U.S. and abroad. She lives in Evanston, Illinois.

10 thoughts on “Chicago: At the Beginning”

  1. That longing for a connection should make us all stop and think, “How are we helping strangers on the street or those who don’t look like us who seem to be confused about something?” A brilliant story that stops us cold. To reflect.

  2. Wonderful story, I can’t wait to read more. I met you sometime after 1975, you were so amazing when I met you. Strong, smart and beautiful. I remember how friendly, funny and brilliant you were to me. To this day I think of you as you were when we met. Of course I have been gone from Chicago since about 1981, so it would be nice to meet again.

  3. My dear M it is the first time i hear about your experience as an immigrant. The second time.
    Very powerful, it awoke deeply buried feelings.💖

  4. Beginnings are often difficult, lonely and awkward. Once we are well established professionally, socially and otherwise, it’s hard to remember how it all started. But, this story captured it perfectly, putting me right there on the floor in a sparsely furnished apartment in 1975 Chicago. Beautifully done!

  5. How powerful this story is. The details allow me to “see” each scene, and the honesty in the voice allows me to feel her loneliness, and longing, her sadness and confusion–and, in the end, her hopefulness. I will carry this all day. Thank you for posting.

  6. What a powerful, well written story. It really makes you realize the things you are grateful for despite certain circumstances. I love the ending 🙂

  7. such a sad story, just telling it without sentiment. how hard it must be to relocate to a foreign country, missing home, and longing to find your way. Great writing.

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