Konrad Bercovici on Spain in New York (1924)

Around the World in New York

New York:  Century, 1924

Chapter XI:  Spain (pp. 275 -295).

Many, many years ago, I hurried through the Balkans to Spain. Because of the urgency of my being at Madrid on a certain day, I had no leisure to stop anywhere en route. I saw the countries between Rumania and Spain only through the windows of the railroad-car and during very brief stops at railroad-stations. There was a very brief stop in Bucharest, the capital of Rumania. I had a glimpse of the illuminated roof of the city lying several miles away from the railroad-station; an eyeful of the people who crowded the station, peasants in their national garb, and women dressed in the latest style of gowns just imported from Paris and crowned with the most extravagant millinery from the modistes of Vienna. And then there were miles and miles of low brick houses. People going back and forth to their labors in the fields or in the factories. Horse-carts. Oxen yoked to low-wheeled trucks. Swift dream-like vistas of stations and people rushed from us until we reached the frontier, where customs inspectors came to give us the once over before letting us pass the border. The locomotive shrieked, the wheels of the cars ground the steel of the rails, bells rang, people called to one another.

And yet I could have told instantly that we had passed into another country, though only an arbitrary line divided the two. And after many hours we halted on the border of still another country. We entered Austria. We rolled on and on, passing railroad-stations much trimmer and cleaner in appearance than the ones we had left behind, and people with more of their own characteristics and less of the Parisian and the Viennese flutter. There was a short stop at Vienna. The things I most clearly remember are the excellent fat beer and the Leberwurst we had in the dining-room of the railway station. I also remember the brand of beautiful waitresses. It was entirely new to me then. So cool and so clean-faced! The eyes so sparkling! The carriage of the head so passionate! And yet I remained with the impression that they were cooler and colder than any women I had seen. The men waiters were extremely polite and thanked one a dozen times for the smallest tip given them.

Another ride of many hours and we had passed through Germany, hardly seeing it. For although it was early in the spring a blizzard preceded and followed our train. We were unable to outride it. We entered France several days later and rushed through, post-haste, until we got to Paris, where, although I had many hours to wait before the last plunge to Madrid, I remained at the railroad-station, unwilling to be distracted from the plan I had made, knowing full well that were I to go out to see the city Madrid would have to wait. There was so much attraction for the visitor at the Gare St.-Lazare that I was afraid not to be able to resist the temptation if I so much as went out a hundred feet into the street.

I was complimenting myself on my fortitude when the train moved again. I arrived when due in Madrid.

I recalled all this as I traveled the other day from the Balkan section in New York to the Spanish section. I walked through the Rumanian section, a corner of the Austro-Polish section, the Austrian, touched the German section, edged the French one, and then arrived into Spain. Which only means that I went from Fourth Street to Eighth Street on foot, then walked along Second Avenue to Twenty-third Street, and followed Twenty-third Street to Seventh Avenue, the edge of the Spanish district. It extends f from there southward to Abingdon Square and encompasses all that lies between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.

A visitor in Spain is struck by the f act that he can see very little of Spanish home life, except what he sees at public exhibitions, theaters (which are very few), bull-fights, and the market-places. And at that you can very seldom get near enough, as near as you can get to other people, when meeting them under similar circumstances. Whether it is the dignity of the old Arab blood that still flows in the Spaniards, or whether it is of more recent origin—a sort of grandeur from the days when they were, if not the masters of Europe and the world, at least in line to be so—I do not know. But as the Arab can withdraw within his tent, the Spaniard withdraws within his cloak. The women hide their faces, and the men have a peculiar somberness in their eyes that shades them as a veil, a veil which, though invisible, can seldom be pierced. Except the face of the Indian I know of no more enigmatic face than the face of the Spanish man or woman. For though they have lived for so many centuries in Europe, the African influence is still there. You can see that in the architecture in Spain, in Granada and in Seville and Madrid and Barcelona. No matter how different the temperament of these different cities, they are at bottom the same. Architecture will tell. The Spaniards were more than neighbors and enemies with the Moors.

And so in New York, although there are some twenty thousand Spanish inhabitants, and although there are considerably more than twice as many of Spanish origin from the Central Americas continually in the city, one seldom sees them, one seldom notices their activity. Except at rare presentations of some Spanish company at a theater, one seldom hears of their theatrical activities ; and in spite of their great ability and propensity for dancing one seldom sees any of that done in public. There are no Spanish dancing-halls in New York. There are no Spanish cabarets.

It seems to me that the Spanish are more reticent in this country than they are even at home. For the Spaniard still feels, because of Columbus’s discovery, that this territory has been ravished from him. He still smarts under the blow of the Anglo-Saxon superiority which has taken from him most of his possessions in the Americas. He still turns up his nose at the upstarts who have robbed him of what was his. There is no forgetting with him. The days when Spanish gold was the currency of America are still in his mind. The emblem of a country is on its coin.

The Spanish stores and restaurants and societies are all behind curtains. Walk through Fourteenth or Sixteenth or any of the streets in the central Spanish quarter, and you will see how unobtrusive they are, how insolently modest in a country where modesty is a crime. A little sign in a window, black letters on a white background, a little tablet on a wall. When you go in you meet people who seem to accept your visit as a great honor conferred upon them, which they return with great dignity. And they are discreet and quiet and self-possessed. Everything within doors is absolutely Spanish. They take it for granted when you enter a Spanish restaurant that you speak Spanish, and will talk to you in no other language even when they understand yours. They will serve you quietly, discreetly. There is no loud clang of the cash register when you have paid. Though dignified, the method of paying is also as discreet as if you were merely returning the compliment of a gift instead of paying and giving profit for what you have consumed. There is much less smiling on the part of the patronesses or the waitresses than there is in the French quarters. Merely looking at you they think they have conferred a great favor upon you, which is exactly the thought of every Spanish dona.

I once lived a year in the same house with four Spanish families. At the end of the year, although I could recognize the step of every one in the house, and knew from the touch which of the family of Cienfuegos, all of them musicians, was playing the piano, and would have identified even the closing of a door two floors below me, I was never as much as nodded to by any of the neighbors, let alone invited to conversation.

Living in the Spanish quarter of the town is one of my most agreeable memories. As the streets are very broad, and the stoops project themselves outside over the side-walks, it was very pleasant to listen at night to the low-sung serenades accompanied by expertly handled guitars, when the young men visited their senoritas.

On Fourteenth Street in the Casa Sevilla, where most of the better class of Spanish young men used to come for their evening meals, there were some mysterious goings-on in the upper rooms. It possibly was nothing extraordinary! But they were so mysterious ! The dining-room was entirely decorated in Spanish style. The odor and the taste of the food, as well as the brownish long faces of the visitors, completed the illusion of being in Spain instead of in New York. The owner of the place was an exceedingly stout senora of about fifty, who still affected her national garb behind her counter. Having had dinner with one of my friends one day there, we were served with some of the poorest wine I have ever drunk. Feeling rather communicative, the owner came over to our table and wished us good evening. I complained to her about the quality of the wine.

“It is what we get here for the guests,” she replied. And then after a pause she added, “For my friends and myself I have a much better wine than that.”

Whereupon I called out joyously, “Then in Heaven’s name consider me one of your friends.”

“Do you want to be one of my friends?” the senora repeated. “You shall drink of that wine instantly.”

She withdrew behind the counter and emerged with a very ancient-looking bottle of Marsala wine and an additional glass for herself. It did not take us long to finish the bottle. My friend enthusiastically asked for another one, which was brought to the table, the lady partaking with us from this second bottle also. When I got up and asked for my bill, the two bottles of wine were not included on the check.

“See here,” I said to the senora, “these two bottles of Marsala are not on my check. How much are they?”

Like a flash the senora stood up, her eyes flashing in anger. She was atremble, in tremendous fury.

“Oh !” she shouted at me, “you do not want to be my friend! This is why you offer to pay for the wine !”

I stuttered and blubbered all kinds of apologies, and finally, humbling myself, I convinced her that I did not mean it in that way. We had to drink a third bottle of Marsala and kiss her hand.

Doughty, in his remarkable “Travels through Arabia Deserta,” speaks of the wonderful hospitality of the Bedouins and the other Arabs. Once you have broken bread with them you are their guest. While you are in their house or their tent they will defend you with their lives even against their own brothers. But they will not hesitate to shoot you dead thirty paces away from their beyt. It is this wonderful sense of hospitality which makes the Spaniard offer you everything that is in his house when you cross the threshold ; but watch out when you accept too much !

The whole district, down to Abingdon Square, on Hudson Street, with trellised balconies on the low, red-brick houses, and the Russian Tavern just across the street from it, is more of the Old World than can possibly be imagined, only a few blocks from Broadway and the busy thorough-fares of New York. The streets are a mosaic of trucks and carts coming and going to the wharves on the Hudson River. Flags of ships, masts, chimney-stacks, look at you from every street-end westward. At night the windows of the houses are not as brightly lit as in other streets. Kerosene-lamps are still in use, for not all the houses have been piped for gas.

Not only are Spaniards living in this district, which extends virtually from Abingdon Square to Twenty-third Street, but there are the Portuguese in great number. Guadeloupians, Cubans, Syrians; and there is a strong Irish contingent who lived here long before any of these nationalities occupied the district. Catholic New York is living in that part of the town. Five different kinds of English are used here.

A little further down Hudson Street is St. Luke’s Chapel. Built a century ago, with yellow-painted bricks, it looks more like a small village church on a Main Street than a wealthy church in a metropolis. Its additional wings, and even the parish-houses adjoining it for the different activities that are being added as the community enlarges are only afterthoughts. And then suddenly one runs into mysterious Jane and Horatio Streets, half warehouses and half residential, with a strong smell of dates and figs and other dried fruits that lie in the warehouses of the neighborhood. In the spring of the year the odor of fermenting St. John’s bread is irresistible. When the dates and figs heat and the odor mixes with the scent of Gilead coffee, one gets sick for the Orient.

As if to keep up the architecture of the Spaniards, a trucking-house built its establishment on Gansevoort Street in the style associated with Granada and Seville. The architect must have thought of that when he designed the building. An artist really. There is the Old World church-like school of San Bernard on Gansevoort Street where Thirteenth Street crazily crosses Fourth Street. Its projecting images of Ignatius, its architecture, though it was built quite recently, are entirely out of keeping with what surrounds it. This is another proof of the haphazard conglomeration of what was once, as there is evidence in other buildings, a very restricted residential neighborhood, when Twenty-first Street was Love Lane, and when the Post Road ran through from Abingdon Road, and the whole neighborhood to Seventy-first Street, where was the Kissing Bridge, was one of lanes and pleasant woods.

The houses on Fourteenth Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues are built on very narrow strips of front-age land. And each one, even though of the same height as the next one, is built in an individual style. There are houses of red bricks with black-painted windows and doors, and deep set-in sills over the round archway. And between a red and a gray house there suddenly looms up a yellow-painted stucco building, with narrow oblong windows and red-painted lucarnes between them. There is the Casa Maria, of rough yellow stucco, with beautifully lined windows and vaulted doors that are barred with wrought-iron. The basement entrance is as mysterious as the descent into one of the underground piazzas around the Alhambra.

A little further is the projected front of wrought-iron of the Guadalupe Church, as unlike anything on the opposite sidewalk, which is still Anglo-Saxon, as if the two were in absolutely different countries, with the middle of the street as the frontier.

There is the building on the corner of Seventh Avenue, with its ten floors of studded phosphorescence and blue squares between the large windows. On the ground floor is a Spanish bank, probably one of the most important in the city. It also sells perfumery and has a book-store as a side-line. All kinds of books in Spanish are to be had in that store. The most courteous clerk in the world is trying to help one ; and so insistently does he explain every book, telling one the story within the book as well as the biography of the writer, that one cannot leave without buying from him. Never before has clerk in a book-store known as much about books as the clerks in that store. It is from them that I first learned all about Reuben Dario, the great Central American poet, whose works have astounded and astonished the Spanish world. It is from the clerks of that store that I learned of the existence of a number of other poets, Spanish all of them, who live in this country. It was, indeed, a great surprise to me to know how much of modern Spanish literature and poetry has been produced by the half-caste of Indian and Spanish blood. Many a passage was read to me aloud. Although I did not under-stand everything, the rhythm and the sound were as fascinating as an alternating mixture between a Spanish dance and an Indian prayer.

On the opposite corner is the Metropolitan Temple, to my mind the most beautiful symmetrical structure in the city of New York. As one hungers before spring returns for the sight of green fields, or as a man who has been brought up near the sea hungers for the sight of salt water, for the smell and the weight of it in his nostrils, so have I hungered many a time while wandering through the city for the sight of the lines of that building. Indeed, I have loved it so much that I have never yet gone within, in fear lest the inner structure should disturb the joy I have from looking at the facade. Let the traveler be pardoned for being so superficial and caring nothing more than for the outward beauty of a thing. It is the best that we all can see.

How much this district is of the Old World can be seen as soon as one passes Fifteenth Street and the huge barrack-like building of Street & Smith. The most decrepit wooden shacks lean between huge buildings, for which not the slightest care has ever been taken that they should also be beautiful; wooden shack after wooden shack, housing stores of old clothing, in no way disguised to appear as new, for there is great poverty in that part of the town, toward the shore. Only the poorest live in that neighbor-hood, with here and there a sudden redeeming of the whole district by some old house that has been renovated and repainted to make it look as much like a Greenwich Village house as was humanly possible. Were one, however, to take a photograph of some of the wooden shacks, with people living in them, on Seventeenth Street a little off Seventh Avenue, no one who tried to locate the topography of such a hovel would ever guess that it was in the heart of the city of New York. They look very much like similar things I have seen in the negro districts of the South, or like the broken-down cabins of the side streets of Tia Juana, just across the Californian border-line into Mexico. There are any number of such ugly shacks all through the neighborhood. Any number of junk-shops spread their ugliness away over the sidewalk. Every sense is assaulted and corroded. Children in rags shiver through the streets. Most of the dependents of charity are housed in that neighborhood.

But suddenly on Twenty-second Street and northward one is in Spain again. The streets are broader, lighter. It is a Spanish town. And across it, on Twenty-third Street, beyond Ninth Avenue, the row of houses on the northern side with the stout colonnades in front, set back from the street, each house fenced in with iron railings, with front gardens and large staircases, each house painted in a different hue, tears one away from the whole swirl and whirl of the city. One stops to listen for the sounds of guitar music. One remains fixed in one place. A senorita with a black lace hair-cover pinned on the comb of her hair and a red-flowered shawl on the pale-blue background wrapped about her bare shoulders appears from behind a door ; her red-heeled slippers accentuate the manner of her walking, the movement of her hips under her wide skirts. Spanish women cannot walk; they dance. Neither can they speak well ; they sing.

But one so seldom sees them. Harem-like, they are living within doors shielded from the gaze of men, peering only through half-closed shutters. This is due probably to the love of semi-darkness of all people bred where the sun is high and uncomfortable. Yet if you do want to see them, if you insist on seeing them, wait for a balmy summer night when the sultriness in the air from the river near-by and the strongly smelling acacia-trees after they have bloomed drive our Spanish friends out to their piazzas. There will be music-making somewhere. Through the transparency of the gauze in the half-open windows you will catch glimpses of young ladies snapping castanets, and you will hear the running rhythm of the heel-beat against the rattle of the castanets and the swing of the melody. Spanish women give fair warning of their feelings when they dance. One must learn to interpret that before going to Spain; it is more valuable than knowing their tongue.

Do not inquire too closely who the senor is; so poetic, so soulful. It might happen he is the barber from around the corner, the clerk from the bank, the waiter or the rather stout, sleek importer, who comes to court more out of habit than desire. A Spaniard goes a-courting as long as he is able to stand on his feet. They are never out of love—or hate. It is Spain’s most valuable industry and asset.

Of all the foreign-language newspapers in the city “La Prensa,” the Spanish daily, seems the best edited one. It alone tries to interpret the rest of the American world to its Spanish readers, with a sort of detachment no other newspaper possesses. And though one hears recriminations against the language used in the foreign newspapers of each nationality from its cultured element, who accuse them of ruining the language by introducing Anglo-Saxon-isms, I have yet to hear such reproach made against “La Prensa.”

A few years ago, when all America seemed to be at the feet of Senor Blasco Ibanez, there was a great revival of interest in everything Spanish in this city. It threatened for a while to usurp the place hitherto held by the Russians. For a short while publishers vied with one another in bringing out translations of many of the Spanish authors. Broadway, responding promptly to such interest, produced several Spanish plays with great success. It made the Spaniards of New York raise their heads with pride. It redeemed them from the position to which they had sunk after the Spanish-American War. But that interest seems to have waned again. The only benefit I can see from it is that the Spaniards, never late to return a compliment, got interested in American literature. Within the last few years more than thirty American authors have been translated into Spanish, with Jack London’s works holding first place. The old vachero stories, the Spanish tales, were also revived and very much read..

A strong sprinkling of Mexicans is living among the Spaniards in the down-town district. A still greater contingent of them, with Brazilians and Cubans and other Spanish Americans, are living in Fifty-ninth, Sixtieth, and Sixty-first Streets, within a stone’s-throw of Columbus Circle. In the good old days most of the political plots were hatched in the coffee-houses in that neighborhood.

The statue was a sort of meeting-place after midnight. And even to-day one can presage a political change from the mysterious whisperings and sudden departures of certain gentlemen, who seem to hold commutation-tickets between Chile, or Mexico City, or Havana, and New York. Filibustering, intriguing, and revolutionizing have regularly been hatched there. When one inquires as to the occupation of many of these well-dressed and strongly per-fumed dusky gentlemen, one is answered with the raising of an eyebrow. At best one gets the answer that so-and-who are thus employed. And there were several very mysterious disappearances during the night President Obregon’s Government was recognized by the United States. And there were other departures when de la Huerta took the field against Obregon. There is talk of oil and revolution from early morn to late at night. Oil, oil, oil. It drips from everywhere. As if Mexico were America’s oil-can. Maybe it is so. People handle matters rather carelessly on this continent.

A good deal of double-crossing is being done in this so-called political game. A good many sudden displacements are effected. I was warned by a very good friend- of mine against a trip to Mexico because of the coming de la Huerta uprising, fully twenty days before it had actually taken place.

There is another contingent of Spanish people around Ninety-third, Ninety-fourth, and Ninety-fifth Streets and Broadway, mostly Cubans of the better class who have come here to stay while their sons study at Columbia.

And there is of course a still other Spanish district on the lower East Side, hemmed in between the Greek and the Syrian districts. But those are the families of stevedores, with a mixture of Filipinos among them. And when a Spaniard wants to speak of anything that is unspeakable, when he wants to denote his contempt for anybody, he calls him a Filipino.

Her birthplace is Santiago, Cuba. Her pitch-black hair is coarse and thick and frames a round face of the warmth and firmness of ivory.

And there is great art in the way the senorita uses her eyes when she looks at a man. She needs no help from the muscles of her face when she wants to express something without the use of words. Her eyes are enough. She is part Indian.

Do you know Viva? No? So much the better for you, for your peace of mind, for the soundness of your sleep. The man who knows Viva is drunk with the wine of her voice, the cold glow and luster of her eyes, and the music of her step.

I won’t tell you exactly where she is to be seen. Tramp, late at night, Twenty-third Street, all its length from the East River to the Hudson. Eliminate all the noises of the city as you go. Sift them as they assault your ears. Strain them as a prospector strains the gold through the sieve. And if you discover a guitar-twang or a vibrant low note that swells as it goes deeper, stop. Stop—or, better still, go on. Don’t look up to see the silhouette on the trans-parent curtain. Hasten away.

Criton, Nicholas Criton, the Greek poet, was believed to be the successful suitor. We used to sit for hours and hours pretending to drink coffee and watching the lucky one receive the senorita’s glances. His eyes were like those of a faithful dog, hungry for the master’s attention.

And he was a lucky dog. Luckier than we were, each one of us, sitting separately at little tables and making vain efforts to appear unconcerned.

We hated one another. What did it matter that there were three million other women in New York City? Were we in New York at all? I think not. We were in Cuba. Once Ben Benn, the painter, had brought Viva a newspaper-clipping about Cuba and had received an extra glance from her. Forthwith each one of us brought her some clipping daily. Frequently the food remained untouched. We forgot to eat. We were in Cuba! And we were there for her, for Viva!

She spoke a few words now and then to each of us. She smiled occasionally . . . with her eyes only. . . . She sings a little every night in her room over the restaurant when the day’s work is done. But only when she is alone. And everybody who comes to the Cienfuegos during the day promenades up and down the street as long as the guitar-twang and the contralto voice are heard. Love-songs, or dirges—who knows? Perfumed melodies, mysteriously passionate, the words by Ruben Dario or Jose Silvio. . . .

And then one day something happened. A big, blond young fellow entered the restaurant of the Cienfuegos. He was a stranger. He ordered some food and looked around leisurely as he ate. He evidently liked the food and the place, because he returned the days following.

He usually spoke a few words to Viva, as he paid before he left. A word of praise for the food, for the excellent coffee. And Viva, Senorita Viva, seemed to be much pleased. He was so tall and fair. The intruder, the blond-haired, blue-eyed fellow, continued his visits regularly, and Viva now looked in his direction more than the direction of Criton.

Criton hoped and hoped and waited and waited. Then one day, unable to live without her glance, he went to sit near the blond fellow.

It was the first time I had ever seen Viva smile—with her lips.

Criton and the blond fellow became friends. The Dutchman was also a poet. The Greek poet moved to the same boarding-house the stranger lived in. They invariably come together for their meals. Late at night they walk arm in arm before Senorita Viva’s window and share the twang of her guitar and the sound of her voice.

Criton and his friend are satisfied to share one glance from the same woman they love.

And so we hate Criton.

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