Here’s a little taste of my upcoming book (which I’m planning to have ready in September!). Enjoy:
Lucy’s grandfather, Vladimir Lubczyk, was a Ukranian who had fled from ever-decaying conditions in Stalin’s USSR to nearly as bad conditions in Mussolini’s Italy. The year he spent in a small port town on the Adriatic provided him two valuable assets: a passable knowledge of Italian and connections with people who had connections in America. He made his way to Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn in 1939 with two buddies who worked the docks with him; they were slipping out just before the realities of war began spreading beyond Italy’s urban areas.
Vlad’s Italian, albeit with an accent, and his paisan’ traveling buddies granted him welcome in the tightly knit Italian immigrant longshoreman community that served Brooklyn’s bustling docks. He met his boss-to-be over grappa at Francesco Trattoria the weekend he arrived in town and impressed him by drinking half the regulars under the table. That Monday, Vlad was unloading raw materials from an African freighter for nearby parts manufacturers.
A year later, Vlad and his working buddies applied for citizenship and got it; and the year after that, he was applying for a bank loan to buy a brownstone on Union Street. He got the banks’ letter of approval on the same day that he got his draft notice. The general concensus among the longshoreman was that they should all go kick Mussolini’s fascist culo. Vlad’s working knowledge of Italian and Russian got him bumped up from the infantry to the Signal Intelligence Division, where he learned quite a bit about radio and continued to hone his language skills.
When he returned to Brooklyn after the war; the city had changed. Some of his former friends had died in combat; some younger longshoreman had relocated after being discharged, sometimes to the hometowns of their new wives whom they had met at USO events or on bases in Europe; his former boss had retired. Vlad wasn’t looking forward to returning to the backbreaking labor on the docks — he had grown accustomed to using mental skills in the Army.
He went to see a movie one afternoon to get a break from the summer heat. A newsreel about the rebuilding in Europe screened before the show, and in one of the shots, the camera caught another crew filming. Vlad saw the sound man standing next to the cameraman and a light bulb clicked on in his head.
New York was the center of the new television broadcasting boom, and Vlad’s quick thinking got him in on the ground floor. His natural ability for hearing and tweaking sound made him the go-to sound man, and he quickly picked up skills that helped him transition from a technician to a producer.
He often ate and spent his evenings after work at the busy bar of a restaurant on 40th Street. About a year into his job, he had a lunch meeting there to plan an experimental three-camera set up when Anita Garcia walked in. She had voluptuous rust-colored hair and light brown skin and curved in all the places that appealed to his Ukrainian sensibilities. She smiled at him in passing on her way from the front door; he turned to watch her and saw that she headed to the kitchen. When she emerged several minutes later wearing a waitress apron, he was pleased to know he could so easily find her again.
He asked her out one night when he had been at the bar for a few hours and had one too many boilermakers. She instructed him to ask her when he was sober — in case he thought better of it. He was embarrassed for a week and then got up the nerve to ask her again shortly after he came in, before she went back to the kitchen. He was nervous and spoke like a knight in a movie. She told him to ask her again when he was less ‘uptight’ — a word he didn’t understand, but got translated by one of the other patrons who frequented the jazz clubs up on 42nd Street.
Vlad had little experience with women, outside of hormone-fueled encounters as a youth and then in Italy during the war. He wasn’t sure what to make of the rejections. They were ‘nos,’ but in both cases she gave him hope that there was a chance. This level of complicated was something he had only seen in TV dramas he worked on, like courtroom shows where someone was hiding something. He wondered if she was hiding something.
The third time he asked Anita out, he tried to use some phrases his jazz fan compatriot had taught him, hoping it would help him appear less uptight, though his nerves were making him perspire, and he had downed a shot of vodka just before speaking to her.
“Sorry to be so square the other times we spoke; it sure would be cool to go out with you.”
She told him to ask her again when he was back to being himself.
He didn’t see Anita for a week after that; another waitress was in her place. He finally asked the bartender where she was.
“She got fired for mouthing off to the boss. Intelligensia, he scowled in a Polish accent.”
“What do you mean?” Vlad asked.
“She’s some kinda doctor of something. At that New College, or New School, something like that.” He went back to drying highball glasses.
“Why is she working here, then?” Vlad asked, shocked at the revelation.
“Hell if I know, maybe they don’t pay her enough.”
Vlad casually asked if he knew where that college was. The bartender turned up his nose and pointed to the phone book.
Vlad knew nothing of colleges or the people who inhabited them. He decided to have a look. He paid for his drink and walked out into the golden evening light, where he walked to the F-train station to catch the subway to Greenwich Village. When he arrived at the 12th Street address he had found in the phone book, he saw a building that stood out from its neighbors, a modernist block that reached five stories above the adjacent brownstones. On the sidewalk below the overhang of black and white striped brick, clusters of students leaned against the wall intently discussing, pointing at a book here, flipping through a notebook there. He was surprised that something having to do with school could hold so much interest on a summer evening. He walked inside and through the curvy narrow lobby into an egg-shaped auditorium with a ceiling of oval fins that looked like something he’d seen in a Hollywood movie. Students were in little groups within the raked seating. One group was having an animated discussion. Vlad noticed Anita’s hair in that group; she was arguing with one of the boys.
Vlad walked over to the cluster of students in the seats and leaning onto the seat backs standing around Anita. Naïvete gave him the power to stroll into the discussion without a thought of what he would say when he got there. Anita saw him coming down the aisle, and put up a finger to silence her opposition. She turned to Vlad.
“Are you yourself today — or a hipster?”
“Oh, I’m me alright.”
“Good, you can resolve this debate.”
One of the boys puffed up, “Wait, who is this? Does he teach here?”
“No, gentlemen, this is Vlad. He’s from the real world. Vlad, could you tell these sheltered youths what the most important thing is in the world?”
The puffed up boy started to object, but Anita silenced him with a grunt.
“Well, there’s a lot of things that’s important in the world, I guess,” he hedged, hoping he wasn’t going to blow this attempt at a date as well.
“Of course, Vlad,” Anita led, “but when it comes right down to living, what’s the most important thing?” She turned to watch the boys hear the response.
“Well, you gotta have a good job, so you can make enough money.” He looked at her and was relieved to see her smiling at the puffed up boy.
“What jobs have you had, Vlad?” she continued, without taking her eyes from her brow-beaten student.
“Well, I worked in a store as a kid, then when I got older I started working with boats. I had to get outta Kiev before the war — that’s in Ukraine, so I went to Italy and worked on the docks; then some of us guys came over to Brooklyn and we was longshoremen there.”
“But you don’t do that now, right?”
“No, I work in TV now. I’m a producer — we started broadcasting a spelling bee contest the other week,” he threw in with hopes that it would show him as something of an educated person.
“How did you get to be in TV?” Anita asked, skipping the spelling bee altogether.
“I learned a lot about radio in the army — I got trained on account of knowing Italian and Russian — and English, too, of course.”
Anita looked like a trial lawyer who had just produced the deciding piece of evidence. “So you see, my young friends, improvement of the workers’ conditions depends on availability of education and training and freedom to shift careers to take advantage of opportunity.”
“Professor,” one of the girls timidly asked, “won’t women’s roles as mothers make that shifting impossible, even if the opportunity is there?”
“The principles are the same regardless of sex. It’s not okay for a father or mother to have to leave their family for a job.”
“I read that happens,” the girl added, holding timidly to her point.
“But it’s hardly a desirable way to distribute resources. Structures need to be in place to let people — including their families — move freely when they find an opportunity.”
Vlad was drowning in the flood of verbal analysis, but two words had stood out: sex and opportunity. He spoke.
“That’s interesting, and speaking of opportunity, I wonder if I could take this opportunity to ask you to dinner?”
The students chuckled and waited for the rebuff, some expecting coolness, others heat. She surprised them all by writing her phone number on a business card and handing it to him.
“I’m free this weekend,” she said, and smiled.
… ©2015 P. Ferko