New York City, Day 1

Like many a foreigner in New York, we spent our first day at Ellis Island. Unlike my four grandparents, who arrived the hard way more than 100 years ago, we flew to New York on an Air Canada jet and took a lovely (but breezy) ferry ride from Battery Park.

We — my sister, Amy; my best friend from high school, Adele; and Elizabeth and Noah — had a terrific time. First stop: the Statue of Liberty. Elizabeth and Amy rode on the extremely chilly, windy upper deck of the ferry. The rest of us stayed downstairs, where it was slightly warmer. By the time we docked at Liberty Island, Elizabeth’s hands were frozen white, so she and Adele and I went straight to the cafe, where Elizabeth drank hot chocolate to warm up. Amy and Noah walked around the grounds and took pictures.

Then we took the ferry to Ellis Island, which has an extremely impressive museum. In addition to photographs and descriptions of what happened there between the late 1800s and early 1900s, you can pick up a telephone and listen to now-assimilated immigrants recalling their experiences. Some spent days and nights on Ellis Island waiting to be approved for entry into the U.S. I read about one woman who was there for nearly two months because her baby son was ill and quarrantined in a hospital on the island for six weeks. She and her husband were only allowed to visit him once a week, for five minutes at a time.

There were stories about people who were afraid they’d fail some test and be sent back to where they came from. Immigrants who were in danger of being sent back were marked with an “X.” One woman, who was about seven when she landed on Ellis Island, recalled that after being marked with an “X,” an official gave her a math test. She did really well, and the official decided perhaps she wasn’t so feeble-minded after all. He removed the “X” and in she came.

My favorite story was the one about two women who landed at Ellis Island and were to be sent to points west (Ohio and North Dakota?) to meet their husbands, who had come much earlier. But the ticketmaster at the New Jersey train station goofed up and sent the Ohio wife to North Dakota and the North Dakota wife to Ohio. Eventually things got straightened out. But I hope that was the last time the ticketmaster tried to play matchmaker.

I could have spent days at Ellis Island, looking at the pictures and reading about the experiences that people like my grandparents went through.Then again, there’s also a good chance that if I’d had more time I would have spent it on the computers in the history room, searching, futilely, to learn about my family history. Apparently my grandparents did not enter the United States of America under names that were anywhere near the names by which I knew them. Bill Chernoff? I tried every alternative spelling I could come up with and still came up with nada. Ditto for Sarah Papkin, Eva Rollband (there was a Ewe Rolband, but her siblings were all wrong to have been related to me) and Zvi Waldman. Maybe I really did come from beneath a cabbage leaf…

We’re staying with my “little sister” from Utica, Bridget, her husband, Townsend, and their kids. William is eight and Teddy is six, and they’re a lot of fun. Amy is staying here, too, so it’s a full house. Tonight the eight of us ate dinner in Chinatown, at Nice Green Bo Restaurant, a little tiny place with extremely tasty (and reasonably priced) food. We had green onion cakes, steamed dumplings, orange beef, sesame beef, sweet-and-sour chicken, spicy eggplant, dried salted green beans, steamed pea shoots, shanghai noodles with vegetables, and rice. And it came to less than $12 per person. After that, we crossed the street for ice cream at The Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, where the flavors include Durian, taro, sesame seed, and green tea (the latter three of which taste better than you might think. As for durian. Yuch. But they were out, so I didn’t have a chance to confirm my suspicions).

Stay tuned for more adventures…

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