I started yesterday with a mission: to make it to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. That was it. I’ve been dreaming of going to that museum for months and I was determined yesterday to make that dream come true. I bought myself an educator’s membership and, for $40, began the first of many trips to the museum that explore the immigrant experience in New York at the turn of the 20th century. So, beneath the bright sun and clear blue sky with a medium latte from the coffee shop across the street in one hand, and my boyfriend’s hand in the other, we took off on the subway into Manhattan and made our way down to the Lower East Side.
I’d been to this museum years ago when I was an undergraduate English major studying US Immigration history. My professor planned a whole Saturday in New York for us, including a trip to Ellis Island and a dinner in Chinatown. Before that trip to the city, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been there. At college I was a loner. I’d come in as a mid-year transfer during my junior year and had so few friends I was able to pour myself into my books and get lost in my studies. This worked out well in the grand scheme of things as later, because of my hermit undergraduate ways, I was accepted to a fabulous grad school. In any case, this immigration history class was one of the best I’d ever taken with a professor who knew her stuff and who I admired a great deal. The trip to New York was something I very geekishly looked forward to going on, and while my other undergrad classmates moaned and complained about losing a whole Saturday for school, I was trembling with excitement.
The trip to Ellis Island was first and, because I had no friends in the class, I stood by myself at the front of the ferry going over. I was lost in my imagination, wondering what the experience would have been like for me had I come to the US at the turn of the century, arriving first at Ellis Island loaded down with bags and bundles from the mother land, and was still thinking these things as I stumbled off the boat and onto the Island. So imagine my confusion when, standing directly in front of me, was my very own mother. MY mother. My mother who was supposed to be in New Jersey visiting friends of the family. Here it was, ten in the morning on a Saturday in November, and MY MOTHER is standing in front of me on Ellis Island. It took me a moment to realize what was happening, but when I did, I’m pretty sure I squealed with excitement. How very real this immigrant experience was! I was a loner, on a ship to Ellis Island, and upon arrival at the gates, there was my family! The two of us had a great time that day and though she could only stay with me for the Ellis Island portion of the field trip, it made the day unforgettable.
The next part of the trip was the Tenement Museum. I suggest you look at the website if you are remotely interested in immigration history. The museum has preserved an actual tenement building and has researched the histories of real families who lived in the museum, preserving and/or restoring their apartments, and gives a real feeling of what it was like to live during the time. In a building that would now house no more than 30 people, there used to live upwards of 120 or more. No light, no fresh air, no space. It is a phenomenal museum and is so full of information and room for the imagination that the experience sticks with you for a while. It stuck with me for six years and yesterday Dennis and I went back for more. He’d never been, and I’d been talking about it for years, so when we arrived and we were the only two on the 1:40 tour, I just about exploded with excitement. I could ask any question I wanted, I could go anywhere I wanted, I could say anything!!! We took a tour that focused on the garment industry workers, visited three apartments in the tenement (one from the late 1890s, one from the 1910s, and the last from the 1930s,) and learned about the history of the museum itself.
So the mission was accomplished and then some. Because after the museum, we walked a few streets over and had a great lunch in Little Italy, then walked it all off on our way north to Bryant Park to hear free jazzin the blazing sun. It was a testament to how much I love jazz really because when we finally decided to stand up, we were drenched in our own sweat, soaked right through our shirts and pants. There were actual rivulets of sweat streaming down my chest and gathering at the top of my jeans. That’s not an easy thing to admit, but I’m doing it anyway. After the show, we rewarded ourselves for our long walk and shameless display of active sweat glands, by having curbside Mr. Softee ice cream cones.
At home we watched a movie and both fell asleep an hour into the film. It was the perfect day, the most perfect day I could imagine. I think I will like it here very much.