Steerage Passengers from Many Countries
No one knows the sacred agony of that moment which fills and thrills these simple minded folk who, for the first time in their lives face the unknown perils of the sea.
The greater the distance which divides the ship from the fast fading dock, the nearer comes the little village, with its dusty square, its plaster cast saints and its little mud huts.
From far away Russia a small pinched face looks out and a sweet voice calls to the departing father, not to forget Leah and her six children, who will wait for tidings from him, be they good or ill.
From Poland in gutteral speech comes a : " God be with you, Bratye (brother), strong oak of our village forest and our dependence ; the Virgin protect thee."
The Slovak feels his Maryanka pressing her lips against his while she sobs out her lamentation, and he, to keep up his courage, gives a " strong pull and a long pull " at the bottle, out of which his white native palenka gives him its last alcoholic greeting.
Silent are the usually vociferous Italians, whose glorious Mediterranean is blotted out by the sombre gray of the Atlantic; they shall not soon again see the full orbed moon shining upon the bay of Naples, sending from heaven to earth a path of silver upon which the blessed saints go up and down.
In the silence of the moment there come to them the rattle of carts and the clatter of hoofs, the soft voice of a serenade and then the sweet scented silence of an Italian night.
They all think, even if they have never thought much before; for the moment is as solemn as when the padre came with his censer and holy water, or when the acolytes rang the bells, mechanically, on the way to some death-bed.
It is all solemn, in spite of the band which strikes the well-known notes of " Lieb Vaterland, magst ruhig sein," and makes merrier music each moment to check the tears and to heal the newly made wounds.
They try to be brave now, struggling against homesickness and fear, until their faces pale, and one by one they are driven down into the hold to suffer the pangs of the damned in the throes of a complication of agonies for which as yet, no pills or powders have brought soothing.
But when the sun shines upon the Atlantic, and dries the deck space allotted to the steerage passengers, they will come out of the hold one by one, wrapped in the company's gray blankets; pitiable looking objects, ill-kempt and ill-kept.
Stretched upon the deck nearest the steam pipes, they await the return of the life which seemed " clean gone " out of them. -- It is at this time that cabin passengers from their spacious deck will look down upon them in pity and dismay, getting some sport from throwing sweetmeats and pennies among the hopeless looking mass, out of which we shall have to coin our future citizens, from among whom will arise fathers and mothers of future generations.
The fellowship of the Steerage makes good comrades, where no barriers exist and introductions are neither possible nor necessary.
This practice of looking down into the steerage holds all the pleasures of a slumming expedition with none of its hazards of contamination; for the barriers which keep the classes apart on a modern ocean liner are as rigid as in the most stratified society, and nowhere else are they more artificial or more obtrusive.
A matter of twenty dollars lifts a man into a cabin passenger or condemns him to the steerage; gives him the chance to be clean, to breathe pure air, to sleep on spotless linen and to be served courteously; or to be pushed into a dark hold where soap and water are luxuries, where bread is heavy and soggy, meat without savour and service without courtesy.
The matter of twenty dollars makes one man a menace to be examined every day, driven up and down slippery stairs and exposed to the winds and waves; but makes of the other man a pet, to be coddled, fed on delicacies, guarded against draughts, lifted from deck to deck and nursed with gentle care.
The average steerage passenger is not envious. His position is part of his lot in life; the ship is just like Russia, Austria, Poland or Italy. The cabin passengers are the lords and ladies, the sailors and officers are the police and the army, while the captain is the king or czar.
So they are merry when the sun shines and the porpoises roll, when far away a sail shines white in the sunlight or the trailing smoke of a steamer tells of other wanderers over the deep.
"Here, Slovaks, bestir yourselves ; let's sing the song of the Little red pocket-book' or The gardener's wife who cried.' Too sad ?' you say ? Then let's sing about the Red beer and the white cakes.'" So they sing :
"Brothers, brothers, who'll drink the beer,
Brothers, brothers, when we are not here ?
Our children they will drink it then
When we are no more living men.
Beer, beer, in glass or can,
Always, always finds its man."
Other Slays from Southern mountains, sing their stirring war song :
Out there, out there beyond the mountains,
Where tramps the foaming steed of war,
Old Jugo calls his sons afar ;
To aid ! To aid ! in my old age
Defend me from the foeman's rage.
" Out there, out there beyond the mountains
My children follow one and all,
Where Nikita your Prince doth call ;
and steep anew in Turkish gore
The sword Czar Dushan flashed of yore,
Out there, out there beyond the mountains."
If the merriment rises to the proper pitch, there will be dancing to the jerky notes of an harmonica or accordion; for no emigrant ship ever sailed without one of them on board.
The Germans will have a waltz upon a limited scale, while the Poles dance a mazurka, and the Magyar attempts a wild czardas which invariably lands him against the railing; for it needs steady feet as well as a steadier floor than the back of this heaving, rolling monster.
Men and women from other corners of the Slav world will be reminded of the spinning room or of some village tavern ; and joining hands will sing with appropriate motions this, not disagreeable song, to Katyushka or Susanka, or whatever may be the name of this " Honey-mouth."
We are dancing, we are dancing,
Dancing twenty-two ;
Mary dances in this Kolo,
Mary sweet and true ;
What a honey mouth has Mary,
Oh ! what joyful bliss !
Rather than all twenty-two
I would Mary kiss."
Greeks, Servians, Bulgarians, Magyars, Italians and Slovaks laugh at one another's antics and while listening to the strange sounds, are beginning to enter into a larger fellowship than they ever enjoyed; for so close as this many of them never came without the hand upon the hilt or the finger upon the trigger.
When Providence is generous and grants a quiet evening, the merriment will grow louder and louder, drowning the murmur of the sea and silencing the sorrows of the yesterday and the fears for the morrow.
"Yes, brothers, we are travelling on to America, the land of hope ; let us be merry. Where are you going, Czeska Holka ? " (a pet name for a Bohemian girl). "
To Chicago, to service, and soon, I hope, to matrimony ; that's what they say, that you can get married in America without a dowry and without much trouble." Ah, yes ; and get unmarried again without much trouble ; but of this fact she is blissfully ignorant. " Where are you going, signor ? "
"Ah, I am going to Mulberry Street ; great city, yes, Mulberry Street, great city." " Polak, where are you going ? " " Kellisland." " Where do you say ? " " Kellisland, where stones are and big sea." " Yes, yes, I know now : Kelly's Island in Ohio. Fine place for you, Polak ; powder blast and white limestone dust, yet a fine sea and a fine life."
All of them are going somewhere to some one ; not quite strangers they ; some one has crossed the sea before them. They are drawn by thousands of magnets and they will draw others after them.
We have all become good comrades; for fellowship is easily begotten by the fellows in the same ship, especially in the steerage, where no barriers exist and where no introductions are possible or necessary.
I am sharing many confidences ; of young women who go to meet their lovers; of young men who go to make their fortunes; of bankrupts who have fled the heavy arm of the law; of women hiding moral taint; of countless ones who are hiding grave physical infirmities; and of some who have lost faith in God and men, in law and justice.
Yet most of them believe with a simpler faith than our own ; God is real to them and His providence stretches over the seas. No morning, no matter how tumultuous the waves, but the Russian Jews will put on their phylacteries, and kissing the sacred fringes which they wear upon their breasts, will turn towards the East and the rising Sun, to where their holy temple stood.
Rarely will a Slav or Italian go to bed without committing himself to the special care of some patron saint.
Vice there is, crude, rough vice, down here in the steerage. Yes, they drink vodka, -- even that rarely; but up in the cabin they drink champagne and Kentucky whiskies, the same devils with other names.
Seldom do the steerage passengers gamble -- a friendly game of cards perhaps, here and there ; while up in the cabin, from sunlight until dawn, poker chips are piled and pass to and fro among daintily attired men and women.
There are rough jests in this steerage, and scant courtesy; but virtue is as precious here as there, although kept under tremendous temptation. I have crossed the ocean hither and thither, often in the steerage, more often in the cabin; and I have found gentlemen in dirty homespun in the one place, and in the other supposed gentlemen who were but beasts, although they had lackeys to attend them, and suites of rooms in which to make luxurious a useless existence.
The steerage brings virtue and vice in the rough. A dollar might not be safe, and yet as safe as a whole bank up in the cabin; the steerage might steal a loaf of white bread or a tempting cake, but it has not yet learned how to corner the wheat market ; the men in the steerage might be tempted to steal a ride upon a railroad, but in the cabin I have met rascals who had stolen whole railroads, yet were called " Captains of Industry."
Down in the steerage there is a faith in the future, and in the despair which often overwhelms them, I needed but to whisper : " Be patient, this seems like Hell, but it will soon seem to you like Heaven."
Yes, this Heaven is coming; coming down almost from above, on yonder fringe of the sea, for far away trails the low lying smoke of the pilot boat, and but a little farther off is -- landland.
None but the shipwrecked and the emigrants, these way-farers who come to save and be saved, know the joy of that note which goes from lip to lip as it echoes and reechoes in thirty languages, yet with the one word of throbbing joy, -- land -- land -- America.
Source: Steiner, Edward Alfred, On the Trail of the Immigrant, Fleming H. Revell Company, New York, 1906