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Maxime Nicholas Fidao's Life Story (Written in 1947)
(Page 3 of 8)
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My brother Christian met me at the station, There were large crowds in the streets, rushing in quick, small steps and engaged in lively conversations. Trolley cars, cabs, bicycles moved in unending traffic. As first seen in Genoa and then in hustling Marseilles, the West was in evidence here too. Its industrial civilization had quickened the tempo of man's life. The French manners were strictly observed. Men tipped their hats to each other and bowed at the least pretext, to my amusement. We took a cab to my brother's apartment on a side street off the Boulevard St. Germain. On the way, my brother insisted that I should tip my hat to the concierge (Janitor). I rebelled, but ended by doing it.

He took me to the stores to supplement my small wardrobe; a new derby, pearl grey gloves, high button pointed shoes and a suit to order. We spent the rest of the day seeing a little of Paris. Wide boulevards were lined with beautiful shops and shaded by numerous trees; sidewalk cafes and restaurants. Here and there were beautiful buildings, and monuments everywhere that animation characteristic of the French people. The rest of the week I took in a few sites of Paris by myself.

Through my brother, Emile, who knew the Chairman of the Board of the Credit Lyonnais, the largest French bank, I was given a job in its Correspondence Department. This was at the Head Office on the Boulevard des Italiens. There were hundreds of clerks in it who smoked continuously in an unventilated office. My salary was the minimum, I thought, on which a native could exist in the slums of Paris, but my expenses were small for I was living with my brother.

During the year I stayed in Paris, I fairly suffocated. I loved to walk, but I could not get out of Paris on foot, it was too big, and my narrow, pointed shoes were most uncomfortable and often painful.

A Norwegian fellow who worked alongside of me was likely affected by the Parisian atmosphere. Together, we often took a train on Sundays beyond Paris and enjoyed long walks through villages and meadows.

I missed the deep blue waters of the bay of Smyrna in which I had fished, sailed, rowed and swam. The narrow River Seine, grey and muddy, was a very poor substitute. I could not afford to go hunting or to join a tennis club.

I had seen the historical sites, visited the museums and palaces. The cafes, burlesque shows, vaudevilles and night life, had left me unimpressed. Paris seemed like an accumulation of attractions for pleasure seekers. Life seemed soft and artificial. I found monotony in the crowds and the traffic filing past in unending processions. In spite of my French education, working and living in Paris was most displeasing.

I joined the Y.M.C.A. I could not bear the close atmosphere of the gym, buried below the street, and lacking ventilation. A young Frenchman there asked me one day who my barber was. I told him, "the one at the end of the street". Why',' I asked. "Because", he said, "I want to go to him to have my hair waved like yours. He did a splendid job".

I was hoping to meet some American fellows there. The only one I met, who spoke English, was a young Londoner, who preferred to speak French. He had acquired all the exuberant motions, and facial expressions, of the French but when he talked English, he immediately reverted to a reserved and dignified manner.

My work at the bank was most uninteresting. At the bank in Smyrna, I had handled whole transactions in commercial bills and Foreign Exchange, while there in Paris, it was a daily routine in acknowledging letters and enclosing statements. I saw nothing of the banking transactions. The bank was a huge institution and I was buried at the bottom of it.

My discontent grew daily, and I stressed it in every letter to my twin brother and my father and mother in Smyrna. But my father would do nothing about it, as my well known desire to go to America was definitely frowned upon.

My twin brother, who understood my case thoroughly, felt sorry for me.

One day I received a cable from him advising me he was sending money for a ticket to New York. My Joy was unbounded, but I had to reckon with my brother Christian. I was staying with him, and he would do everything in his power to prevent me from leaving for America, in line with his own and Father's and Mother's wishes.

For several days I sneaked some of my clothes out of the apartment and brought them to my Norwegian friend to keep, until my limited wardrobe had all been moved.

Then I resigned from the Credit Lyonnais, bought my ticket for New York, and with these "faits acomplis", I faced my brother Christian and informed him of my plans. It was a hard battle, but he could do nothing to stop me. I was of age, I had given up my job, and I had already bought my ticket.

I went to see my brother Emile, who lived on the other side of the city, to bid him goodbye. He was surprised, but did not try to dissuade me. I had often spoken to him of my desire to go to America. He wished me good luck and embraced me in true French style.

I sailed from Cherbourg, second class, on the Kronprinz Wilhelm, then the fastest boat afloat.

On the sixth day out, we were plying right through the Gulf Stream, and I was anxious to learn as much about it as I could at first hand. As I stood on the deck watching the fog rising from the ocean, I saw a sailor taking samples from the ocean in a bucket at the end of a rope, from the top deck. I climbed up to him and asked him to let me dip my hand in it but he refused, in guttural German. As soon as he disappeared from the scene, I climbed to the top deck again and swung the bucket into the ocean and drew a sample of the water. It felt hot. As I was putting the bucket back in place, the sailor reappeared, yelling and remonstrating. But, now I knew something about the Gulf Stream.

On board, I made the acquaintance of several passengers returning to America, and their countenance and conversation revealed a lot to me about the life in this country.

We naturally talked of our plans after landing, and I inquired of a young American about an inexpensive hotel in New York. He agreed to take me along with him, as he was planning to stop at an inexpensive one himself. My English was very poor and I was glad of his assistance. He explained that he was a chauffeur for a rich American who had been touring in Europe, and he was returning ahead of him.

At the Immigration Office, which opened on board when we arrived, I ran into difficulties. I was carrying a letter of credit in francs which, together with my pocket money, I thought covered amply the fifty dollars required for admission by law. But the rate of exchange, used by the Custom House Inspector, was much lower than the one I had used to compute my possessions so that they amounted to only $46. There was nothing he could do about it. If I did not produce the full fifty dollars, I would be sent back to France. That was disaster. I approached a fellow passenger, a young French Canadian, and explained my predicament. He lent me five dollars, which I returned to him after landing.

Now, I was in America.

I followed the young American chauffeur. We took a taxi and amid the hubbub of the great city, we stopped at a saloon around 40th Street, near Broadway. I heard him telling the driver to unload our baggage and was somewhat surprised. I could see no hotel in the vicinity.

He explained to me that he was going to take a room over the saloon for a day or two, that it would be cheap and convenient, and that he was willing to share the room with me. He entered the building through the Family Entrance, passed a few drunken fellows and one disheveled woman at a table, and climbed to our room right over the saloon. I was taken aback. The shock was terrific. Were father and mother and brother Christian right when they did their best to prevent my coming to America?

At night it was impossible to sleep. The noise below, the smell of sour beer and whiskey, the strong odor of the onion flavored free lunch, and the smoke of cigarettes and cigars rose to our room.

The next day my roommate left, and I wrote to my schoolmate, George Lassaris who had preceded me here by a year, to come and see me. I waited all the next day for George, but he did not show up till late at night. He looked dismayed. Why did I stop at such a place. What would my father and mother and friends think and say if they knew. What a let down from the respectable surroundings we had been brought up in.

George had received my letter by first mail and had started out to find me. When he stopped in front of the saloon, which bore the number I had given him, he felt sure I had made a mistake, and proceeded to look me up at nearby hotels. He had searched for me all day. Before returning home, he decided to inquire for me against hope at the saloon.

He took me to his rooming address on 132nd Street and Seventh Avenue, at that time a quiet, residential section. The picture of America, here, had improved and I was encouraged. We shared a large room in the home of an American family, named Williams and of Irish descent. They had a daughter, Evelyn, a few years older than I. They were nice and well educated people. The daughter was a school teacher in a Public School nearby. They did their best to make life agreeable for us, and always welcomed us in their midst.

My friend George was working in Wall Street. He had a good command of the English language and had a slight English accent. At home, he and his brothers and sisters had had an English governess.

My English was very poor, as I discovered as soon as I landed in New York. In Paris, I could speak it fluently with my Norwegian friend. We understood each other perfectly. We practiced together with grammar and dictionary, and would only speak English to each other on our long walks. But self taught English was not good here. For instance, when I asked for hot milk in the bakery, I would get oat meal.

I was glad of the opportunity to converse with Evelyn and her family, who did not hesitate, at my request, to correct me and teach me the right pronunciation and use of words.

With about only fifty dollars in my pocket when I arrived at 132nd Street, I had to be careful with my spending. It could scarcely pull me through five or six weeks, but I was willing to work at anything. This was an adventure; landing in America, unable to speak the language, without money, and without a job.

I was willing to dig ditches if necessary, there was plenty of manual work around. It was suggested that I might work in a restaurant. That, I refused to do. There was a question of pride in this, but not on account of the nature of the work.

While still in Smyrna, I had written to an acquaintance of my oldest brother, who had been in America for twenty years, and who had advised me not to come. He had written me that the only work I could possibly get would be in a restaurant. In my youthful cockiness, I had answered him that I did not agree with him and I would prove it to him.

I had written home to my father telling him of my sudden departure from Paris for America. Soon letters began to arrive from him, mother, my uncle, and other relations, calling me down for my escapade. But my sisters sided with me, and the friends I had left behind praised me, encouraged me and even envied me. My twin brother at home shouldered the responsibility and pleaded my case with conviction.

I filed my declaration of intention to become an American Citizen. Five years later I was made a Citizen, along with a few hundred others in a large room of the Court House. We were naturalized "en masse", all raising our hand and repeating together the words of allegiance to our adopted country.

I got down to studying English in earnest.

With time on my hands, I took many walks. If Paris was too big, New York was bigger still, but I lived near the upper end of Manhattan. I walked daily to Riverside Drive to contemplate the majestic Hudson River and the Palisades. I walked to Yonkers, to White Plains, the length of Central Park, etc.

In my walks on Riverside Drive and further along the shore of the Hudson River, I saw many young people in canoes and small sailing craft, or swimming in the river; the boys and the girls in free companionship. It was refreshing.

The boys were sturdy, full of vitality and good nature, and most of the girls good looking, well formed, and genial. I remarked this, with some elation, it seems, to a friend of my father who was here at the time. He said that I spoke as if those girls were mine already. They were not, but I had hopes. By that time, I was already feeling like a free man and really happy to be in America. This feeling of freedom was, no doubt, accentuated by the fact that I was here all alone, free to move and act as I pleased without the restrictive influence of relatives, or of the gossip of friendly neighbors. I enjoyed, perhaps, more freedom than other young men here. But, I was still a stranger.

During my first week in New York I saw a lot of the Condex family, who were most kind to me and always welcomed me to their home on Manhattan Street. Their daughter Marcia was a big attraction.

Shortly after my arrival in New York, Nick Condex, Marica's brother, took me out to supper at a nice restaurant near 14th Street. My seat was facing the entrance. A most graceful and beautiful girl entered. I followed her with my eyes, practically staring at her as she passed us. She had fascinated me. Her escort, a tall strapping fellow, was following her and he curtly said to me, "Eh, you lobster", and moved along.

I did not understand what he had said and asked Nick. Nick said "He called you a lobster". "What is that? What does it mean?", I asked. Nick explained to me the expression. The girl's escort was looking back and mumbling. Nick went up to him and engaged him in a verbal brawl. I could not understand what was being said.

Suddenly, they both walked out into the street and I followed them. As soon as they had reached the sidewalk, Nick slapped the fellow with such terrific force, that he went down on the pavement. As he was getting up, Nick grabbed him by the collar and the seat of the pants, lifted him upside down, and tossed him out on the street. He dropped with a crash and could not get up. That was the end of it.

Nick was a powerful fellow, but his size and nice manner did not show it. He had all the qualifications of a pugilist, but his eyesight was poor. He liked to display his strength and did not miss an opportunity. I was more discreet after that experience.

Through my father and my brother, Emile, in Paris, I received several letters of introduction to business people and others. One of them was to Bishop Farley of New York, whom I went to see and who received me very cordially.

Through one of these letters, I obtained a temporary job for one month with a representative in New York of the Credit Lyonnais of Paris. When the month was up, I tried to get a job with importers and exporters, but nothing came of it.

Weeks passed and I was at the end of my meagre resources.

I discussed my situation with George. He composed a letter, which I wrote, to six banks in New York. My little experience in the French bank was my hope. I had previously made up my mind to avoid banking and engage, preferably, in some commercial line. A financial institution did not appeal to me, but in the emergency, my best bet was to try banking.

To my surprise, I received a letter from the Royal Bank of Canada in New York asking me to call. The agent hired me as a runner and assistant mail clerk for $6 a week. I accepted the job without hesitation, for it gave me an entree into the New York financial world, and besides, I needed a job.

I began working immediately. The Chief Inspector of the Bank came down the next day from Montreal to relieve the Agent who had gone out of town on business. He wrote to the Head Office in Montreal the usual letter to notify them of my engagement. Putting up the mail that evening, I saw his letter. It was typewritten, of course, and said in part that I was a young man of good appearance, to which he had added in longhand the word "particularly", making it read "of particularly good appearance". That was a feather in my cap and gave me much encouragement.

I worked hard and loyally. On this job it took me no time to feel that I was not really in a strange land. Other people's ways were not strange to me. I understood them and fell in with them. The people in America were calmer, more deliberate, more open minded, and more sincere.

The teller of a bank where I stopped daily to make deposits greeted me regularly, with good nature, as the "Roman Dutch" and kidded me in slang, mostly incomprehensible to me. The dear fellow looked like a cross-eyed owl, which drew an uncharitable laugh from me, and which he took, I thought, as my appreciation of his wit.

During the first weeks of my duties as a runner, I was continuously hungry, and I satisfied my hunger with penny candies from street peddlers. I had also discovered a cafeteria in Ann Street where I could get two sandwiches for a nickel, and a piece of pie and a cup of coffee for another nickel. It was a great temptation to save money, but this diet was apparently not wholesome and I developed boils. I had learned my lesson.

(Ed. note' The two forgoing paragraphs had a question mark along side. Perhaps to be deleted.)

New Year's had arrived. Together with George and two other fellows, we arranged to have a celebration within our limited means. We were going to act like regular fellows. We were to stop at every saloon on our way, and have a different drink in each place.

By the time we reached Pabst's Garden on 125th Street, we were in high spirits and felt quite exuberant. It was just past midnight and the revelers had begun starting for home. We were wishing Happy New Year to all rather boisterously. It occurred to me to tip my hat when delivering my wishes, in true French style. That soon developed into smashing my derby onto the other fellow's hat.

One of the favored individuals took exception to my rudeness and swung at me, but missed. I had to retaliate. I swung my arm way out, to put real push behind my punch, but the weight of my swinging arm turned me around, and I fell. Then I realized my condition. I picked myself up from the crowded sidewalk and started for home, urging my friends to follow me.

We arrived outside the house, still shouting good wishes to everyone around, but I could not find the keyhole. A plain clothes man was passing then. We took my key, opened the door, shoved me in and slammed the door. That was my first disgraceful bender, and the last.

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