In 1863 there were about ten Armenians in America, six of whom lived in New York City. In 1875 there were about seventy, all living in New York. There are some thirty thousand today. The Armenians them-selves occasionally claim double that number, but next to the Russians they are the most advertised race in the United States. For every other Armenian one meets is the self-accredited publicity agent of his people, the self-accredited representative of some relief organization. The Turkish massacres in Armenia may have been as much exaggerated as only Armenians can exaggerate, but the fact of the matter is that had they been ten times what they were they could not have been more denounced, more advertised than they have been. For as every Oriental would tell you, and as every one who has come in contact with the Armenian knows, there is no shrewder business man than an Armenian anywhere on this earth. In the wake of the Armenian massacres in Turkey some of the largest businesses in Turkish and Syrian rugs were established in this city. Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue, Fourth Avenue, Lexington Avenue, from Twenty-sixth Street up, and the streets adjacent to Third Avenue up to Fifty-second Street house some of the largest establishments and numerous extremely prosperous families. I doubt very much, from what I know, whether they have even relatively speaking contributed their quota to all the reliefs that have been gathered here in favor of their brethren in Armenia. During the Tut-ankh-Amen flurry their antique shops were piled high with all the things Egyptian that had in some mysterious manner come to be theirs. There were things Egyptian which smelled of some New York antique factory.
But one has to be grateful to the Armenians for introducing into this country the Oriental rug, the quiet and peaceful rug, which, whether counterfeit or genuine, con-tributes more to rest the weary eye than any other single factor in this bubbling and sizzling city.
No sooner has an Armenian, a young man, stepped down from the boat and been admitted into the city than he steps into some business. By some manner or other the photo-engraving business, which had been in the hands of the Germans until the great photo-engraving strike that has almost become legendary in the industrial world, then passed to the Armenians. It is now largely in their hands. There is a continual struggle now by which the Armenians are trying to wrest from the control of the Greeks the restaurants in the business streets, a number of them having already been established in their own district, while a still greater number are spreading slowly all over the city. It is quite possible that the Armenians will win. Their special dishes are much tastier than the Greek dishes. From time to time Armenian theatrical troupes from Tiflis come to the city, and play in Madison Square Garden, where the Jewish Art Theater is housed, on off nights. I have seen several presentations of Shaksperian plays. And if mimicry is at all an indication these plays received marvelous performance.
Have you ever noticed, when humming a song or reciting a poem in a swiftly moving car, that no matter what the measure of the song or the poem, the rhythm of the wheels is the same as that of your song or your poem?
And this is why we meet people of our own kind, no matter where we are or where we go. And if the town be New York, where most people are seized with Wander-lust, the Wanderlust of the homeless toward home, one surely gravitates in the right direction.
A thousand newly arrived immigrants are let loose in the city at debarkation, and within an hour each one of them will find the path leading “home”; to Italy or Slovakia, to Greece or Armenia. And twenty years later he will still be there or on the way thereto, for a favorite song, an old friend, news from home, or a national dish.
So, once on the way thereto, I stopped in Armenia, which is along Lexington Avenue between Twenty-fifth Street and Twenty-fourth Street, east toward Third Avenue. The chief occupation of Armenians here seems to be selling rugs and food. Maybe the rugs are made in Armenia. But the food in Armenian restaurants is made here. And it is good food, and cheap, and has such fancy names that one expects to get broiled pheasants when only boiled beef is ordered. And the rugs on the walls look so fine in the semi-darkness that maybe they were not woven in Dobbs Ferry on the Hudson.
In one of these restaurants a blond (yes, blond) Armenian waitress serves all the tables.
Her voice is so sweet, when she calls out the names of the ordered dishes, that one begins almost to excuse the inexcusable Turk, even if one does not understand him. She is tall and thin. Her eyes are blue, and her voice is full and sweet.
I ordered the food. Miss Jenny Covan, of Brentano’s foreign department, was sharing my table and my monologue. A little further from us a prosperous-looking Armenian was reading aloud to others an Armenian paper. We understood from his sad voice that there were new massacres in his homeland. Listening to the reading, his companions bared their heads as at a funeral procession.
Still they ate as they listened to the recitals of horrors and of death; only they ordered their food in hushed voices. Even the little light tread of the slippered feet of the blond waitress became softer as she flitted to and fro taking the orders and giving them in her turn.
“Ta-Skebab,” she called to the kitchen.
“Ta-Skebab,” she called again, softly. And then the telephone bell jingled. The proprietor of the place was called. He, too, had been listening to the reading of the paper.
After a short conversation he hooked back the receiver and began to push tables together regardless of noise and fitness of things. His funereal mood was gone.
The prosperous stout man looked at him furiously for a while. The others, too, turned around and looked at him as if they were ready to swallow him, starched collar, neck-tie, collar-button, shoes, and all. Oh, those big brown, almond-shaped Armenian eyes !
Butthey vented their anger on the food, crushing the soft bones of the pork cutlets with their sharp teeth. After a little while the prosperous-looking man threw the paper away and called the proprietor to him. He upbraided him for his lack of feeling. I understood it immediately. He thumped on the paper.
“Here, here! Thousands are killed !”
Then it was the turn of the restaurateur to have his say, and he spoke English that so I, too, could understand.
“They kill Armenians! All right, they kill Armenians! What can I do? They call me up on ‘phone. A wedding party is coming. All right. So I must prepare the tables. That ‘s all. Here they comeyou see”
A beautiful, slender, dark girl of about fifteen, locked arm in arm with a swarthy young chap of twenty and followed by a noisy dozen of women and men, was received at the door by the smiling proprietor. The men wore dark red fezzes, the women gaily colored dresses and happy silk shawls on their heads. In the belt of her skirt the bride had stuck a bunch of white roses. After a little preliminary noise and much laughter they all sat down to eat.
The waitress became animated again. The funereal mood had left her, also. Soon the bride’s brother began to sing. One after another the men joined in the chorus of the song. Then the women fell in. The face of the prosperous-looking Armenian at the other end of the place lit up, and he began to beat the rhythm of the song with his fork on the plate. Then he, too, joined in the singing.
The others did likewise. All the tables were pushed together. Salaams and hand-shaking. An old Oriental song they sang. The Greeks claim it is theirs. The Bulgars say it is one of their doinas. The Serbs sing it at funerals, the Armenians at weddings, in New York, a stone’s-throw from Madison Square.
By what other name more fanciful if not more appropriate than the one by which it is known could one call this big city of ours? Bagdad? Babel of Babels? City of gray steel? All the bazaars of Bagdad put together could be hidden away in a corner of one of our bazaars ! All the languages with which the builders of the ancient tower were confused are heard in New York, off Canal Street, near the Bowery, a minute’s walk from City Hall, in a little corner of Pearl Street where a few old gray stones of a still older Jewish graveyard attest the fact that the children of Moses had dared the sea long before, much before, it was crossed in floating, steam-propelled palaces.
Pearl Street! Why was it given such a name? There is nothing of the pearl about that street. The dark-gray warehouses on both sides and the elevated railway over-head give it more the appearance of a long, narrow box, a trap with two openings such as is used by crocodile-hunters on the Egyptian Nile.
The names of the business firms on the doors and windows of Pearl Street are painted in Greek letters, in Turkish, Arabian, Syrian, all making very decorative patterns for wall-paper.
If you can’t read them, what ‘s in the windows is instructive enough: olive-oil, cheese in big, round, four-foot chunks, smoked meat, smoked fish, and a few bags of curubs, which is nothing else but St. John’s bread. Still more, I can wager that all these stores, wholesale and retail, are owned by a few Armenian gentlemen. For the Armenian can be Syrian, Turkish, Greek, Macedonian, Persian, or Arabian at will. He can speak and look the part if he so desires. In New York he can even be an American.
Wonderfully pliant. Linguistic and business ability of a high order.
Such are the Armenians. And there are millions of them. Though not all of them alive or, as yet, in New York. Some few hundred thousands were killed by the Turks. The Turks usually love the Armenian broiledboiledfriedany fashion. They are not particular. I know. I have seen it. And I am not the only one, by any means.
Now let me tell you the story of Yussuf Ben’s tragic end in this country. It is a sad, sad story. But it is good to be sad once in a while. A friend, a physician, once told me that it is even healthy to be sick once in a while. Now the story.
At the beginning it sticks very close to the ordinary run of immigrant stories. Yussuf Ben came to New York a boy of twenty. He did not go at once to evening school to learn all about our Constitution and history. He made the rounds of our cafes and night restaurants peddling Turkish rugs manufactured near Dobbs Ferry on the Hudson ; and Syrian laces, hand-made, on machines that are still turning them out in a shop on St. Mark’s Place, near Second Avenue.
He looked well, Yussuf, in his outlandish clothes that had been tailored for him by a master tailor of Erzerum. Also, he had a red fez on his head and could not “speaky much Eengalish.” But he knew how to ask twenty dollars for a piece of lace that cost him one dollar, and knew how to say, “Give the money,” when some one offered ten dollars. The ladies, after theater hours on Broadway, declared he was “simply killing,” that strange he wasVussuf. And as long as he looked Turkish they were sure that the rugs he sold were what he pretended they were and that the lace was the finest the Orient could produce. And they marveled at the fine hand-made points they bought from him for next to nothing. There is nothing like a piece of really imported lace on a summer dress!
But a few months after Yussuf Ben’s arrival his home-made shoes had to be thrown away and new ones bought. It was only natural that he should choose the most American-looking shoes, the kind with the nose turned up high like the prow of a racing-boat. And when he put them on a new step came into his feet, and in spite of the red fez and the home-made coat and trousers Yussuf was not half as Turkish as he had been on the previous day.
So the ladies began to suspect his wares. The rugs and the lace did not look half as “genuine,” as imported, as yesterday. He returned home with fewer sales than before. Well ! That ‘s how it is in business. One day is very good ; the next day is a very poor one. But it averages up in a month.
Ignorant of the cause of his undoing, Yussuf intended to be more persuasive the following day. He looked into his English-Armenian dictionary and learned another dozen English words. Words of utility. “This good Toik rug. This best lace. Fine, cheap. See, leddy, nice.”
“Hey, look at him! Listen to him,” one of the “leddies” called to her friend. “He is not a Turk at all. He is a faker. He speaks American as well as you do. That rug on his shouldersyou can buy it for five dollars at a department-store. He may have bought it there himself.”
That lady said a lot of other uncomplimentary things, sure that Yussuf understood all she said. The way she repeated “American” and “faker” was very uncomplimentary.
Yussuf only shook his head and said, “No unnerstan’ ; no unnerstan’,” as he retreated from her table. But it was of no use. They would not buy from him that night.
Early in the morning Yussuf returned to his lodging, in a little room over a grocery store. There he consulted the English-Armenian dictionary again and added another dozen words to his vocabulary.
“What are you doing?” called out his room-mate. “Learning America,” he answered.
“You are crazy,” the other replied, without giving any further explanation.
The following day Yussuf went out to visit the barber. His hair was too long. He intended to be neat. It pays when one goes around great cafes. The tonsorial artist cut Yussuf’s hair American fashion, and even shaved his mustacheor as much of a mustache as Yussuf had grown at twenty. Of course he still wore the red fez. But a red fez on a clean-shaven face is worse than a silk-hat-andoverall combination.
And the rugs and the lace that Yussuf peddled simply shrieked their nativity from the shoulders of the Armenian boy. His increased vocabulary, clean-shaven face, and American shoes made his prospective buyers cry out, “Fake, fake !” Such of them as had already bought things from him decided to put the wares away in a corner and not to show them to their friends as picked-up bargains. That Turk was not a Turk at all, but a badly disguised American!
Still Yussuf did not understand. He only changed stores. He no longer bought his goods at the same place. And when things went from bad to worse, he thought he had discovered the cause.
He went down to Washington Street, to a wholesale importer, and loaded himself with the most genuine articles obtainable in the country. Then he bought a new shirt, a necktie, shaved again, learned another dozen English words, and went boldly about his business.
But it was all in vain! Even the genuine articles were declared fakes. He looked too American. His red fez looked counterfeit. People no longer spoke to him in broken English with many accompanying gestures to help him understand what they said. He did not look foreign. There was no sport in dealing with him. Moreover, he now answered in good enough American when they talked to him, and assured them that the rug he was selling was an “honest to goodness” Syrian imported, and that the lace was made in Erzerum. Still to no purpose. They did not believe him.
After Yussuf had walked from cafe to cafe, from restaurant to restaurant, for a full week without making a sale, he returned to the wholesaler. He could not sell the goods. Somebody must have thrown a spell over him.
“What shall I do now?” he asked Azri Mardouf.
The Washington Street wholesaler, who has lived twenty years in New York but never gone further than Rector Street, looked at the boy, smiled, and said:
“Have you any money left?”
“Twenty dollars is all I have,” answered Yussuf. “But I can talk American. I have learned new words every day for the three months I have been here.”
Arzi Mardouf smiled again as he said,
“Go out, Yussuf Ben, buy yourself a hat such as they wear here, buy a pick and a shovel, and find work as a ditch-digger. They need ditch-diggers in this country. You know too much English to sell rugs, and you know too little to do other things.”
There is a dish-washer in a restaurant on the Bowery who is called Joseph by the Austrian owner and Joe by the Irish waiter. It is Yussuf Ben. He earned more in one night before he threw away his old shoes than he earns now in a week of hard work.
Yet one cannot unlearn.
Among the most prominent people in the city of Armenian origin one cannot but bow his profoundest before Dr. Menas Gregory, the chief psychiatrist of Bellevue Hospital. Among specialists he is regarded not only as the highest authority but also as one invested with uncanny powers. Psychiatrists assert there never has been any one as able as is the nervous little man before whom everybody steps aside in that enormous building, the Bellevue Hospital.
Among the singers of the Metropolitan Opera Company, Mr. Palo Ananian and Mr. Armen Shah-Mouradian are among the most noted ones. Flora Zabelle, Mrs. Raymond Hitchcock, is of Armenian origin.
There is the Persian Armenian Educational Society, and the Ararat Club, for military and physical culture. There is the Armenian Colonial Association. And there are a number of papers in the Armenian language : “Cilicia,” a religious weekly; “Gotchnag,” an independent weekly; and “Yeghegetic,” another religious publication. There is also the “New Armenian,” in English, published every two weeks, of which Mr. Arshag Mandesian is the editor. New York has both a Gregorian Catholic and a Protestant Armenian church.