Manhattan Transfer

Lucy Bauer
Manhattan Transfer
Ellis Island, 23rd July 1923

Dear Agnes
We have arrived. This is not where we’ll be staying, mind. It’s a wee island they bring you to first and the doctor checks you to see you’re not ailing. They’re fussy who they let go to New York. It must be a grand place right enough.
Jim’s pleased as punch that he’s made it, land o promise, streets paved wi gold, dream come true. You know what he’s like, an awful blether when he’s got a drink in him. He says it was worth the scrimping and saving to pay the passage. Everything’ll be all right now, we’ll never be poor again, plenty work. He says they like Scots folk here, hard workers. Hard drinkers too, if you ask me. I don’t suppose the whisky’s any cheaper than in Glasgow. I hope they’re well stocked wi booze now Jim’s here.
The crossing was bad, the sea being rough and the bairns sick the whole time. I’m no stranger to cramped quarters but thon cabin was wee for six folk. The bairns whining fair got on Jimmy’s nerves. He took up wi the Irishman in the next cabin, another good-for-nothin father o four. Trust Jim to find a drinking buddy even in the middle o the ocean. I don’t know where he spent the nights but it wasnae wi us.
We can see New York from here. Most have gone over on the wee ferry boat already. But we’re still here, us and some other folk. Doctor says there’s something wrong wi our Meg, coughing the whole time and her eyes streaming wi tears, bless her. It started on the boat. She was fine when we left Glasgow. It’s no worse than she’s had before but they won’t let us go to New York wi her like that so we’ve to wait. Whatever it is, I’ll warrant she caught it off thon Irish bairns in the next cabin.

Jamie was waiting for her in Arrivals, wreathed in smiles. Jessica made the appropriate noises of appreciation at the proffered roses and wrapped her arms round his neck in greeting. She chided herself for being irritated that the flowers were the cheap supermarket ones - obviously some things were the same in New York as in Glasgow. Jamie hadn’t been working here long and flowers were probably an extravagance he could ill afford. She was thrilled to be in New York at last; nothing else mattered.
Sitting opposite him on the train rattling towards his Manhattan home, Jessica found herself scrutinizing the man people knew as her boyfriend, the man whose dream of making it in America was already starting to come true, if his enthusiastic accounts via Skype were anything to go by. The rakish baseball cap seemed at odds with the thickening waist bulging over his shorts. He looked more like a middle-aged tourist than the thirty-year-old research scientist who had set off from Glasgow Airport six months before. He followed her gaze and clapped his belly with a jovial chuckle.
“No time for the gym - work late most nights. And too many burgers, of course. That’s why I need you here, Jess, to sustain me with healthy meals. Wait till you see the amazing stuff you can get in the delis here …”
And he launched into one of his tributes to Manhattan, every variation of which she was already familiar with. Invariably, they ended with the assertion that New York was the only place on earth to be and he couldn’t wait for her to join him there. Jessica was more than ready to fall head over heels in love with Manhattan; she felt sure she would be enchanted by those soaring towers, that urban fairyland with the leafy oasis at its heart. But coming to stay here was another matter entirely. And yet, she reflected, what was to stop her trying it, at least for a while? So much optimism and opportunity! Jamie had proved it: you could attain what you yearned for. His pay at the laboratory was atrocious, but he had his foot in the door and hard workers got their just deserts, he said; the sky was the limit in New York.
“… and then you can move here for good. What are you going to do this week while I’m at work? Apart from pine for me, of course?” The change of subject recalled Jessica from her musings.
“Get myself that City Pass thing and do the sights,” she replied.
“You can’t be serious, Jess! That costs a fortune!”
A dismissive gesture on Jamie’s part indicated that he considered her to have taken leave of her senses. The Jamie in Glasgow had never reacted in such a way. Jessica wondered if he had picked this gesture up here; she found it arrogant and patronizing.
“You don’t really want to trot around the tourist trail, do you?” he continued. “I mean, go up the Empire State if you must, but with me here you can get to know what life’s like for real New Yorkers, you know, everyday life in Manhattan? Check out the neighbourhood stores, buy some groceries? Then we could have nice cosy evenings together, chat about what kind of work you’re going to get here … over one of your culinary creations.”
He grinned and cocked an eyebrow. Jessica regarded him steadily. Jamie evidently had a hidden agenda and it was different from hers.
“Well, I definitely want to go to Ellis Island. Remember the great-grandmother I told you about, the one I’m named after, who emigrated here in the twenties? I’ve always wanted to see if I can find her in the records, find out exactly what happened.”
“Whatever.” A sullen note had crept into Jamie’s voice. “Can’t quite see the point of delving into the past myself. Surely the future’s the thing.” Abruptly he got to his feet. “This is our stop. Welcome to Manhattan!”

“Welcome to my humble abode” had been his words as he pushed open the door. To be sure, Jessica had been prepared for the worst - the walk from the subway station had revealed a side of Manhattan omitted from her guidebook and she wasn’t naïve enough to imagine that Jamie would be able to afford any but the humblest of apartments - but “hovel” would have been a more accurate description of his shabby room. The fact that the single barred window gave on to a brick wall was what disturbed her the most - so much for the land of freedom. She had resisted the temptation to make a scathing remark, to ask if this really was the best he could afford, sensing that he was willing her to turn a blind eye to the squalor. She had graciously accepted the offer of his narrow bed, while he squeezed a place for himself on the floor, with her suitcase as his pillow.
And this was not the only sense in which they had slept apart. Jessica had spent exquisite days exploring the marvels of Manhattan, a tourist captivated by the city of the guidebook, and dropped into bed tired but happy every night, leaving Jamie propped against the suitcase, the light from the tiny TV screen flickering on his face, a can of beer and a bowl of popcorn by his side, a stalwart defender of the American Dream, nodding off over a baseball game.
Now, on the last day of her stay, Jessica was sitting on a bench in Battery Park, looking out over the glittering sea and contemplating the only disappointment of the week: Ellis Island was closed until further notice due to storm damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. Why exactly had her great-grandmother, already a mother of four at the same age she was now, turned tail at the last minute, abandoning her husband, returning to Glasgow alone with her children, without ever stepping on to the streets of Manhattan? If that secret were to be disclosed, it would not be on Ellis Island, for Jessica did not think she would be returning to New York in the near future. “Been there, done that, got the T-shirt,” she smiled to herself. She opened her guidebook at the entry on Ellis Island and read: “Although it was known as the Island of Tears, most immigrants were well treated and were free to begin their new lives in America after only a few hours on Ellis Island. Only 2% of the new arrivals were excluded from entry, one reason being contagious disease.” Jessica gazed out at the Statue of Liberty raising her torch in the distance and wondered. Hadn’t her grandfather spoken of two little sisters who died on the voyage home?

Ellis Island, 25th July, 1923
Dear Agnes
We’re coming back, me and the bairns that is. They say they can’t take Meg, she’s very ill. Jim has gone on to New York on his own. He says it would be a waste for him to go back, he can make good money here and send it over to us.
What will I do with five mouths to feed if he drinks it all away or takes up wi another woman? How will I make ends meet? Where in God’s name will we lodge? He’s shown himself in his true colours, Agnes, and I’m very bitter. This America thing was only ever for him. He says we can come again later when Meg’s better but he doesn’t mean it. My mind’s made up. I never want to set eyes on him or this place again.
Please will you meet us at the Port of Glasgow.
Ever yours

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