2024/07/20 - 20:43

At the Hotel Occidental

Karl was immediately led to a sort of office in the hotel, where the head cook dictated notes in her hand to a young female typist at a typewriter. The extremely precise dictation, the composed and flexible keystrokes carried on over the periodically noticeable ticks of the wall clock that showed almost half past eleven. “So!” the head cook said, clapped the notes shut, the typist sprang up and drew the wooden cover over the machine without, during this mechanical action, looking away from Karl. She looked like a schoolgirl, her apron was very carefully ironed, on the shoulders, for example, were ruffles, the hairstyle went straight up and you were a little astonished when, after all these details, you looked at her serious face. After bowing, first to the head cook and then to Karl, she left, and Karl inadvertently looked at the head cook with a questioning expression.
“It’s wonderful you’ve now arrived,” said the head cook. “And your companions?” “I didn’t bring them with,” said Karl. “They’ll be marching off very early,” said the head cook, as if in explanation. “Does she think I’ll be marching with them?” Karl asked himself, and he said so he could close off every doubt: “We parted after a disagreement.” The head cook seemed to take this as a pleasant piece of news. “And so you’re free?” she asked. “Yes, I’m free,” Karl said, and nothing seemed more worthless to him than that. “Listen, wouldn’t you like to take a job here at the hotel?” “Very much,” said Karl, “but I have horribly little experience. For example, I can’t write at all on a typewriter.” “It’s not that important,” said the head cook. “You’ll have for now a very small position and will have to see to it to bring yourself up with diligence and attention. Whatever the case, I believe, it would be better and more appropriate for you to settle down somewhere instead of bumming your way through the world. You don’t seem to me to be made for that.” “My uncle would agree with everything in that,” said Karl to himself and nodded in approval. At the same time he remembered that he, who was being so troubled over, hadn’t introduced himself. “Forgive me, please,” he said, “I haven’t introduced myself, my name is Karl Rossman.” “You’re German, aren’t you?” “Yes,” said Karl, “I haven’t been in America long.” “Where do you come from then?” “From Prague in Bohemia,” said Karl. “Sehn sie einmal an!” the head cook cried with a strong English accent, almost throwing her arms up. “Then we’re compatriots, my name is Grete Mitzelbach and I’m from Vienna. And I am excellently familiar with Prague, I was employed for half a year at the Gold Goose on the Wenzelsplatz. Just think about it!” “When was that?” asked Karl. “That was many, many years ago.” “The old Golden Goose,” said Karl, “was torn down two years ago.” “Yes, of course,” said the head cook, lost in the memories of a past time.
A moment later, lively again, she called out and grabbed Karl’s hands: “Now that it turns out you’re my fellow countryman, you can’t leave here at any price. You’re not allowed to do that to me. Would you want, for example, to be an elevator boy? Just say yes and it’s done. If you’ve been around a little, you’d know it’s not especially easy to get such a position, because it’s the best beginning you can think of. You meet all the guests, they see you all the time, one of them gives you a small task, in short, every day you have the possibility to get something better for yourself. Let me worry about the general stuff.” “I would like very much to be an elevator boy,” said Karl, after a small pause. It would have been absurd to have reservations about being an elevator boy, even with his five years of school. Here in America there was reason enough to be ashamed of those five years of school. Generally, Karl had always liked elevator boys, they stood out as the trimming on the hotel. “Isn’t a knowledge of languages required?” he continued to ask. “You speak German and a decent English, which is good enough.” “I learned English in America in two and a half months,” said Karl, he didn’t believe in concealing his own strengths. “That speaks well enough for you,” said the head cook. “When I think of the difficulties English made for me. That’s already thirty years ago. Just yesterday I was talking about it. Yesterday was my fiftieth birthday.” And, smiling, she tried to pick up in Karl’s reaction what impression the dignity of her age made on him. “Then I wish you good fortune,” said Karl. “One can always need that,” she said, shook Karl’s hand and became a little sad again over this old saying from her homeland, which had just occurred to her as she spoke German.
“But I’m holding you up,” she yelled. “And you are being especially quiet and we could talk about everything much better by day. The joy of meeting a fellow countryman makes you completely thoughtless. Come, I will take you to your room.” “I still have a request, Madame Head Cook,” said Karl as he saw the telephone box standing on the table. “It is possible that my companions from before might bring me a photograph I urgently need in the morning, perhaps very early. Would you be so kind and telephone the doorman, he might prefer to send the people to me or let me get them.” “Certainly,” said the head cook, “but wouldn’t it be enough if he took the photograph from them? What kind of photograph is it, if I may ask?” “It is a photograph of my parents,” said Karl. “No, I must speak with the people myself.” The head cook said nothing more and gave the specific order over the telephone to the porter’s office, naming 536 as Karl’s room number.
Then they went through a door opposite the entrance into a small hallway, where a tiny elevator boy, asleep, leaned on the railings of the elevator. “We can help ourselves,” said the head cook softly, letting Karl into the elevator. “A work schedule from ten to twelve hours is a little too much even for a young man like this,” she said as they traveled up. “But it’s unique to America. Here is this small young man, for example, he arrived here half a year ago with his parents, he is Italian. Now it looks as if he couldn’t possibly hold up, already has no muscle on his face, goes to sleep at work, even though by nature he is very willing -- but he only has to work here or somewhere else in America for half a year and everything is taken care of easily and in five years he’ll be a stronger man. I could give you examples like this for hours. Because of that, I won’t worry about you, because you are a hardy young man. You’re seventeen, right?” “I’ll turn sixteen next month,” answered Karl. “Only sixteen!” said the head cook. “Such courage!”
She led Karl upstairs to a room, and even though it had a slanting wall like an attic, it looked very livable in the light of two glowing lamps. “Don’t be surprised at the arrangements,” said the head cook. “It’s no hotel room, but a room where I live, which, however, is made up of three rooms, so you won’t disturb me in the slightest. I’m locking the connecting door, so you can stay completely unencumbered. Naturally in the morning, as a new employee of the hotel, you’ll get your own little room. If you’d come with your companions, I would’ve laid out beds for you in the common sleeping quarters of the house servants, but since you’re alone, I think it would be more appropriate here, even if you had to sleep on the couch. Now sleep well, so you’ll make yourself strong for work. It won’t be too tough in the morning.” “Thank you many times over for your kindness.” “Wait,” she said, standing by the exit, “you almost would’ve been woken up.” And she went to a side door of the room, knocked and called out: “Therese!” “Come in, Madame Head Cook,” reported the voice of the small female typist. “When you go to wake me early in the morning, you have to go through the hallway, a guest is sleeping here in the room. He is dead tired.” She smiled at Karl as she said that. “Did you understand?” “Yes, Madame Head Cook.” “So good night!” “Good night.”
The head cook said in explanation, “I’ve been sleeping tremendously poorly for quite a few years. Now, with my position, I should be satisfied and have no need for sorrow. But it must be all my earlier sorrows which caused this insomnia in me. If I can fall asleep at three o’clock I’m happy. But since I have to be in my place again at five, or at the latest half past five, I must have myself woken up and very carefully too, so I don’t become more nervous than I already am. So Therese wakes me. But really, now you know almost everything and I still haven’t left. Good night!” And despite her weight she almost scurried out of the room
Karl was happy about sleeping, because the day had taken a lot out of him. And he couldn’t wish for more comfortable surroundings for a long, undisturbed sleep. The room was certainly not a bedroom, it was the head cook’s living room or a place for conversation, and a wash-table had been brought in this evening for his sake, but all the same Karl didn’t feel like an intruder, but only all the more provided for. His trunk was set up in order, and had probably not been so safe in a long time. On a low wardrobe with sliding compartments, over which a wide-meshed woolen rug was thrown, stood various photographs in frames and under glass, Karl stood there inspecting the room and looked at them. They were mostly old photographs and for the most part showed young ladies in unmodern, uncomfortable clothes and loose, small yet highly-placed hats, who rested their right hands on umbrellas and turned to the viewer while still managing to look away with their glances. Among the gentleman’s pictures, the one that stood out to Karl was the picture of a young soldier who had laid his garrison cap on a small table, stood there rigidly with wild black hair and was full of a proud but suppressed laugher. The buttons of his uniform had been gilded on the photograph after the fact. All these photographs came from Europe, you could probably read that on the back, but Karl didn’t want to pick them up. He would’ve liked to stand up the photograph of his parents in his future room just as these photographs stood here.
He was stretching just after a thorough washing of his entire body, which he tried to carry out as quietly as possible for the sake of his neighbors, in the anticipated pleasure of sleeping on the couch, when he thought he heard a weak knocking on a door. You couldn’t figure out exactly which door it was, it could have been an accidental noise. It didn’t repeat itself right away and Karl was almost asleep when it happened again. But there wasn’t any doubt anymore, it was a knock and it came from the door of the female typist. Karl walked on tipetoe to the door and asked so softly that if, in spite of everything, someone was sleeping next door, it couldn’t have woken up anyone: “Do you want something?” Immediately, and just as softly, came the answer: “Would you mind opening the door? The key sticks on your side.” “Sure,” said Karl, “I just have to dress first.” There was a small pause, then there came: “That’s not necessary. Open it and lay down in the bed, I’ll wait a little.” “Good,” said Karl and did just that, except that he turned the light on. “I’m lying down,” he said somewhat louder. Then the small typist walked out of her dark room, dressed exactly as she’d been downstairs in the office, she hadn’t thought about going to sleep the entire time.
“Forgive me,” she said, standing a little bowed before Karl’s bed, “and please don’t give me away. I don’t want to disturb you for long, I know, you’re dead tired.” “It’s not a problem,” said Karl, “but it might have been better if I’d gotten dressed.” He had to lay there outstretched so he could cover himself up to his throat, because he didn’t own a nightshirt. “I’ll only stay a moment,” she said and grabbed for a chair. “Can I sit down on the couch?” Karl nodded. Then she sat so cramped on the couch that Karl had to move to the wall to be able to look at her. She had a round, even face, only the forehead was unusually high, but that could’ve been her hairstyle, which wasn’t right for her. Her dress was very clean and exact. In her left hand she clutched a handkerchief.
“Will you stay here long?” she asked. “It’s not entirely clear just yet,” answered Karl, “but I think I’ll stay.” “That would be very good,” she said and ran the handkerchief over her face. “I’ve just been so alone here.” “I’m surprised about that,” said Karl. “The head cook is so friendly to you. She doesn’t treat you like an employee at all. I thought you were related.” “Oh, no,” she said. “My name is Therese Berchtold, I am from Pomerania.” Karl introduced himself as well. As a result she looked at him thoroughly for the first time, as if he had become a little more foreign because of the exchange of names. They were quiet for a little while. Then she said: “You shouldn’t believe I’m ungrateful. Without the head cook it would have gone very badly for me. Earlier, I had been a kitchen girl here in the hotel about to be let go into greater danger, because I couldn’t accomplish the difficult work. You have very large demands here. After one month, a kitchen girl will faint with overexertion and lie for fourteen days in a hospital. And I’m not that strong, I’d had much to suffer early and because of it I’ve developed a little too slowly, you wouldn’t say at all that I’m already eighteen years old. But now I’m much stronger.” “The work here must be very tiring,” said Karl. “I just saw downstairs an elevator boy sleeping on his feet.” “And the elevator boys have it the best,” she said. “They earn good money from tips and don’t have to work as much as the people in the kitchen. But I’ve really had one piece of luck, the head cook had once needed a girl to arrange the napkins for a banquet, sent down to us for kitchen girls, there were fifty such girls here, I was taken by the hand and satisfied her very much, because I’ve always know my way around napkin arrangements. So from then on she kept me by her side and gradually trained me as her secretary. I’ve learned a lot that way.” “Is there so much to write?” asked Karl. “Oh, very much,” she answered. “You probably couldn’t imagine it. You’ve already seen how I work until half past eleven, and today is not a special day. Generally I’m not writing all the time but have to run many errands in the city.” “What’s the name of the city?” asked Karl. “You don’t know?” she said. “Ramses.” “Is it a large city?” asked Karl. “Very large,” she answered. “I don’t like to go there. But don’t you want to go to sleep?” “No, no,” said Karl. “I don’t know why you came in.” “Because I have nobody to talk to. I’m not whining, but when you don’t have anyone, you’re very happy when someone finally listens to you. I’d already seen you downstairs in the hall, I’d been coming to fetch the head cook when she led you away into the pantry.” “That’s a scary hall,” said Karl. “I don’t notice it anymore,” she answered. “But I just want to say that the head cook has been so friendly to me, just like my late mother. But there’s too great a difference in our positions for me to speak freely with her. Earlier I’d had some good friends down with the kitchen girls, but they’ve been gone for the longest time and I barely know the new girls. Finally it came to me that my work now is more strenuous than my old work, that I hadn’t performed nearly as well as they had and that the head cook keeps me in my position only out of pity. In the end, you really need a better education to become a secretary. It’s a sin to say it, but more often now I’m afraid I’m going crazy. For God’s sake,” she said, suddenly much faster, and briefly grabbed Karl’s shoulder, since he was holding his hands under the blanket. “But you can’t say a word of this to the head cook, otherwise I’m lost for good. If I should make her sad, with the situation I made for her with the quality of my work, that would be the end of it.” “Of course I’ll say nothing to her,” answered Karl. “Then it’s good,” she said, “and stay here. I’d be happy if you stayed here and we could stick together, if it’s okay by you. The first time I saw you, I trusted you. And even though – you’ll think I’m terrible – I’m afraid that the head cook could put you in my position as secretary and let me go. While you were downstairs in the office, I was sitting alone and had convinced myself that it would be very good if you would take over my job, because you would certainly understand it better. If you don’t want to run errands in the city, I could do that work. Otherwise, I’d be much more useful in the kitchen, especially since I’ve become much stronger.” “The matter’s already settled,” said Karl. “I’ll be an elevator boy and you’ll be a secretary. However, if you make the slightest indication of your plans to the head cook, I’ll tell her everything you said to me, no matter how much it upsets me.” His tone agitated Therese so much that she threw herself on the bed and pressed her face against the bedding as she whimpered. “I’m not going to say anything,” said Karl, “but you can’t say anything either.” He couldn’t stay covered underneath the blanket anymore, he stroked her arm, couldn’t find anything right to say and only thought that it would be a bitter life here. Finally she calmed herself down enough to at least be ashamed of her weeping, she looked at Karl gratefully, tried to persuade him to sleep long into the morning and promised, if she found the time, to come up here at eight o’clock at wake him up. “You wake up people so skillfully,” said Karl. “Yes, there are some things I can do,” she said, moved her hand gently over his blanket as a goodbye and left for her room.
The next day, Karl was to start his work right away, even though the head cook wanted to let him go that day for some sight-seeing around Ramses. But Karl explained honestly, that there would be a chance for that, now the most important thing was to begin the work, because he’d already broken one of his goals to no purpose – a proper job in Europe – and was beginning as an elevator boy at an old age where other young men would be competent enough to take over higher positions. It would be completely right if he started as an elevator boy, but it would also be right if he rushed himself. Because of these circumstances, he could get no pleasure from looking around a city. He couldn’t even accept an invitation for a short walk with Therese. There was always the thought floating before his eyes, that if he weren’t industrious enough, he could wind up in the end like Delamarche and Robinson.
At the hotel tailor, he was fitted for the elevator boy’s uniform, which was equipped very handsomely with gold buttons and gold cords, but Karl shuddered a little when he put it on, because the jacket was cold, hard and still wet, particularly under the armpits, from the elevator boy who had worn it before him. The uniform had to be widened at the chest just for Karl, because none of the ten uniforms there wanted to fit easily. Despite the tailoring that was necessary, and even though the master craftsman seemed very meticulous – two times he sent the prepared and delivered uniform back to the workshop – everything was finished in barely five minutes, and Karl left the tailor with close-fitting pants and, in spite of the insistence of the master, a very tight jacket, which tempted him to try some breathing exercises just so he could see if breathing were even possible.
Then he reported to the head waiter whose command he would stand under, a thin, nice man with a large nose, who was already in his forties. He had no time for the slightest conversation and rung for an elevator boy, who by chance was the exact one that Karl had seen yesterday. The head waiter called him only by his Christian name, Giacomo, which Karl learned later was unrecognizable to English ears in its full form. This young man arrived to show Karl the necessary duties of running an elevator, but he was so shy and hurried, that he could barely understand the few basics that had to be learned. Certainly because of this Giacomo was annoyed, since he had to leave his position for the sake of Karl and was assigned to helping the chambermaids, which happened to be dishonorable for him, on account of certain experiences which he kept quiet about. Throughout everything, Karl was disappointed that an elevator boy worked the machinery of the elevator only so far as he simply pushed a button, while it was the machinists who were used for repairs to the machinery, so that Giacomo, for example, in spite of half a year of elevator service, had neither seen the motor in the cellar nor the machinery on the inside of the elevator, even though, as he said himself, it would’ve brought him much joy. Altogether it was monotonous work, and it was so tiring, on account of the twelve-hour schedule, alternating between day and night shifts, that he wouldn’t be able to stand it unless, after Giacomo’s instructions, he could sleep on his feet for minutes at a time. Karl said nothing about it, but he completely understood that it was this art which had cost Giacomo his job.
It was very welcoming to Karl that the elevator he had to trouble over was intended only for the highest floors, and that way he wouldn’t have anything to do with the demanding rich people. Admittedly though, he couldn’t learn more here than he could anywhere else, and it was only good as a beginning.
Already by the first week, Karl realized that he was completely ready for the job. The brass on his elevator was the best polished, none of the thirty other elevators could match, and it might’ve even been brighter if only the young man working at the same elevator could’ve been just as industrious, instead of feeling that Karl’s diligence supported his laid-back approach. He was a native-born American named Renell, a vain young man with dark eyes and smooth, somewhat hollow cheeks. He had an elegant, privately owned suit, which he wore on his nights off as he hurried, lightly perfumed, into the city; here and there he asked Karl to stand in for him, since he had to go away on family matters, and it didn’t bother him that his appearance contradicted everything he said. All the same, Karl liked him and enjoyed it when on these evenings Rennel stayed by the elevator in front of him in his own private suit, still apologizing a little while as he pulled the gloves over his fingers and then left down the hallway. Besides, by standing in for him, Karl only wanted to do him a favor, as seems natural in the beginning when dealing with an older colleague, it shouldn’t become a habit. Because these endless travels in the elevator were tiring enough, and there was almost no interruption, especially in the evening hours.
Soon Karl was also learning the quick, deep bows demanded of elevator boys, and he caught the tips in mid-flight. They disappeared into his vest pocket, and no one could guess by his manner if the tip was large or small. He opened the door for ladies with a small gallant gesture and swung slowly behind them into the elevator, as they cared for their skirts, hats and scarves. During the trip, because this was the most inconspicuous way to do it, he stood tight by the door with his back to his passengers and held his grip on the elevator door so he could push it to the side at the moment of arrival without the tiniest surprise. Only rarely would someone tap him on the shoulder during the trip to get some information, but then he would turn around in a hurry, as if he were expecting it, to give his answer in a loud voice. Often, especially after the theater closed or certain express trains arrived, there was such a crowd that, in spite of the many elevators, he had barely let the guests off at the top when he had to race down again to pick up the ones who were waiting. He also had the opportunity, by pulling on one of the cables running through the elevator box, to climb to a steady brisk pace, but generally this was forbidden by the elevator regulations and could also be dangerous. Karl never did it when he traveled with passengers, but when he had set them down and others were waiting downstairs, he didn’t think twice about working the cord with strong, rhythmic tugs, like a sailor. He knew that the other elevator boys did this too, and he didn’t want to lose his passengers to the other young men. Some of the guests who stayed in the hotel for a long time, which was fairly common here, showed with a smile here and there that they recognized Karl as their elevator boy, Karl took this kindness with a serious face, but he took it gladly. Sometimes, when the traffic was weaker, he could take on special small tasks, for instance, for a hotel guest who didn’t want to go to his room for some small, little forgotten thing, and then at such a moment he would fly up alone in his special, trusty elevator, walk into the strange room, where for the most part odd things he had never seen before lay around or rested on the clothes hangers, he felt the characteristic odor of foreign soap, perfume or mouthwash, then without holding back in the slightest, he hurried down with the object he had found in spite of mostly vague instructions. Often he regretted not being able to take on greater tasks, since there were certain servants or errand boys here who made their way on bicycles or even motorcycles, while Karl was only allowed to take messages from the rooms to the dining or gaming halls.
When, after twelve hours starting at six o’clock in the evening, he came out for the next three days at six o’clock in the morning, he was so tired that, without bothering anyone else, he went right to bed. It rested in the common sleeping quarters of the elevator boys, and the head cook, whose influence wasn’t as great as he thought it was on the first day, had really tried to get him a small room of his own, and she might’ve been successful too, but since Karl saw how difficult it was and how often the head cook, on account of it, was calling his superior, the eternally busy head waiter, he gave it up and convinced the head cook how seriously he wanted to give it up by reminding her that he didn’t want to be envied by the other young men because of a privilege he wouldn’t have actually worked for.
The sleeping quarters was, in general, not a quiet hall to sleep in. Since everyone with twelve hours of free time was variously spread out among eating, sleeping, enjoying themselves and working on the side, there was always the greatest commotion in the hall. So some slept and pulled the blanket over their ears to keep from hearing; if one of these was woken up, he’d scream so furiously over the screams of the others that none of the remaining sleepers could hold fast very well. Almost every young man had his pipe, it was indulging in a sort of luxury, Karl had also gotten one and soon found a taste for it. But now they weren’t allowed to smoke during work, so that everyone in the hall, so long as he wasn’t necessarily sleeping, was smoking too. And because of this every bed stood in its own cloud of smoke and everything else in a general haze. Despite the basic agreement of the majority, it was impossible to force the night lights to burn on only one end of the hall in the evening. If this proposal were enforced, then anyone of them who wanted to sleep could do so quietly in the dark of a halved hall – it was a large hall with forty beds – while the others in the illuminated part could have played dice or cards and everyone could have gotten light where it was necessary. If someone whose bed stood in the illuminated half of the hall wanted to go to sleep, he could have laid down in one of the free beds in the dark, because there were enough free beds and, under the circumstances, no one objected to someone else using his bed. But there wasn’t one night where anyone followed this division. Again and again, for example, after using the darkness to get some sleep, two people found themselves wanting to play cards in their bed on a board laid between them, and naturally they turned on a suitable electric lamp, whose stabbing light crashed into the sleepers who were turned to it. You still rolled around a little, but found in the end there was nothing better to do than to also carry out a game by another light with your equally awakened neighbors. And, as ever, pipes were being smoked above all. There were also some who wanted to sleep at any price – most of the time Karl belonged to them – and instead of lying their heads on the pillows, covered it with the pillow or wrapped themselves into it, but how could you want to stay asleep, when your neighbor stands up in the middle of the night to go out to the city a little for fun before work, when at the head of his bed he washes loudly in the wash-basin spraying water, when he puts on his boots not only with loud thumping but also stamping because he wants them to fit better – almost everyone had boots that were too tight, in spite of American design – so that finally, since a small piece in his outfit went missing, he lifts up the pillow of the sleeping man, and you’re lying awake underneath, just waiting to get at him. But they were all sports people and young, strong fellows, who never wanted to miss an opportunity to exercise. And you could be certain to find, when you sprang up awakened out of sleep by some large noise in the middle of the night, two wrestlers on the ground next to your bed and, in the glaring light, experts standing roundabout on all the beds in their shirts and underpants. Once, on the occasion of one of these nightly boxing matches, one of the fighters fell over the sleeping Karl, and the first thing Karl noticed with the opening of his eyes was the blood running out of the nose of the young man, and before he could do something about it, his entire bed was flooded. Often Karl struggled for almost the whole twelve hours to attempt to win some hours of sleep for himself, even though it was very tempting to take part in the conversations of all the others; but it always seemed to him that the others had a head start over him with their lives, which he had to balance out with hard work and a little sacrifice. Although his work was very dependent on his sleep, he didn’t complain to the head cook or to Therese about the conditions in the sleeping quarters, because, first of all, the young man carried the difficulty honorably without any serious complaining, and, second of all, the sufferings of the hall were an important part of his job as an elevator boy, which he had taken gratefully from the hands of the head cook.
Once a week, with the change of shifts, he had twenty-four hours off, which he partly spent paying one or two visits to the head cook and partly waiting for Therese’s meager free time, when they exchanged some fleeting conversations in corners or corridors and only rarely in her room. Sometimes he accompanied her on her errands in the city, where everything had to be carried out in the utmost hurry. Then she would almost run to the next subway station, Karl with her bag in his hand, the journey went by in a flash, as if the train were being carried away without any resistance, already they were getting off, clattering up the stairs instead of waiting for the elevator that was too slow for them, the large squares from which the streets flowed out in a starburst emerged and brought a tumult of streamed lines of traffic from all sides, but Karl and Therese hurried, tightly together, to the different offices, cleaners, warehouses and stores which weren’t easy to contact by telephone in order to make orders or complaints, generally trivial things. Therese soon realized that Karl’s help wasn’t something to sniff at, that it contributed more and more to much of their running around. In his company, she never had to wait, as she had often done, for the over-worked business people to listen to her. He walked right up to the desk and knocked on it for a long time with his knuckles, until it had an effect, he yelled over walls of people with his always somewhat exaggerated English, easy to hear over a hundred voices,
he went up to people without hesitation, people who had already walked arrogantly away into the deeps of the longest corporate hallways. He didn’t do it for kicks and appreciated every setback, but he felt in a secure position, which gave him the right to act like he did, the Hotel Occidental was a customer you were not allowed to joke with, and Therese in the end, in spite of her business experience, needed the help. “You should always come with me,” she said, sometimes laughing cheerfully as they came out of an especially successful expedition.
Only three times during the one and a half months that Karl stayed at Ramses did he spend longer than a few hours in Therese’s small room. Of course, it was smaller than any one of the head cook’s rooms, the couple of things standing in it were generally only stored by the window, but after his experience in the sleeping quarters, Karl understood the appeal of having your own relatively quiet room, and when he said that, even if he didn’t say it directly, Therese noticed too how much he liked her room. She had no secrets from him, and it wouldn’t have been possible to have secrets from him after her visit on the first night. She was an illegitimate child, her father was a building foreman and had arranged for the mother and the child to come after him from Pomerania, but as if that had fulfilled his obligation or as if he were expecting different people than the over-worked woman and the weak child whom he watched arrive at the landing point, he had soon after their arrival wandered off to Canada without any explanation, and the two left behind had not received a letter nor any other piece of news about it, which wasn’t that big a surprise, because now they were lost, nowhere to be found, in the ghettoes of New York’s East Side.
Therese once told him -- Karl stood next to her by the window and looked out at the street -- how her mother had died. How she and her mother on a winter evening -- she might’ve been about five years old -- hurried with their bundles through the street, looking for a place to sleep. How at first her mother led her by the hand, there was a snow storm and it wasn’t easy to move forward, until her hand got tired and she let go of Therese without looking back, so that now she had to make an effort to hold on tight to her mother’s skirt. Often Therese stumbled and fell, but the mother was delirious and wouldn’t stop. And the snowstorm in the long, straight New York streets! Karl hadn’t yet gone through a New York snowstorm. You went against the wind and it twirled around, you couldn’t open your eyes, always the wind was blowing snow into your face, you ran but got no further, it was a somewhat futile act. A child naturally has an advantage in not having grown so much, it can run underneath the wind and even take a little joy in it all. So Therese couldn’t have entirely understood her mother, and she was solidly convinced that if she had dealt with her mother more intelligently – she had still been such a small child – she wouldn’t have had to suffer such a miserable death. Her mother had already gone two days without work, not even the smallest bit of money was available anymore, the day was performed out in the open without a bite to eat, and in their bundles they only dragged around useless scraps, which they refused to throw away, maybe out of superstition. Now the mother had been hired for the next morning’s work at a construction site within view, but she was afraid, as she tried to explain to Therese for the entire day, that she wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the lucky opportunity, because she felt dead tired, she had already coughed up blood onto the street that morning, frightening the passersby, and her only longing was to come somewhere warm and rest herself. And it was exactly on this evening that it was impossible to find that small place. Wherever a superintendent didn’t show them out of a doorway where they could’ve recovered a little from the weather, they hurried through tight, icy corridors, climbed to the high floors, circled the small terraces of the courtyards, knocked indiscriminately on doors, sometimes they didn’t dare speak to anyone, and then they’d ask anyone who looked at them and once or twice the mother squatted breathless on the stairs a quiet step behind, snatching Therese, who almost resisted, and kissing her with painful force on the lips. If you knew after the fact that these had been their last kisses, you could’ve been a small worm, but you wouldn’t have understood that someone could’ve been so blind as not to see it. In some rooms they came to, the doors were opened to let out the suffocating air, and out from the smoky fog that filled the room as if from a fire, only the figure of someone who stood in the doorframe stepped out, and either through his silence or a few words he proved the impossibility of coming into this particular room. In looking back, it seemed to Therese that her mother had only seriously looked for a place in those first hours, because about after midnight had passed, she didn’t speak to anyone anymore, even though she continued, with small pauses, to hurry without stopping and even though at every house where neither the gates nor the doors were closed, there was life and you met a person at each and every step. Of course, all this running didn’t bring them any further, it was just the greatest effort they could manage, and it might’ve really been barely a crawl. Also, from midnight until five in the morning, Therese didn’t know if they had been in twenty houses or two houses or only one. Being cleverly designed, the corridors of these places make the best use of space but have no consideration for a person’s sense of direction, because they were often coming through the same corridors! Therese already vaguely remembered that they had abandoned the entrance of a house that they had tried forever to get into, but it seemed to her that they turned around in the street right away and fell back to the same house. For the child it was an incomprehensible sorrow, sometimes being held by the mother, sometimes holding on tight to her, now being dragged along without the smallest word of consolation, and the only explanation for all this absurdity was that the mother wanted to run away from her. Because of that, even when the mother was holding onto her hand, Therese held on all the tighter to her mother’s skirt and yelped, just to be certain. She didn’t want to be left behind here, in the middle of these people who pounded up the stairs in front of them, who came on behind them up the winding steps, still unseen, who fought with one another in the hallways by the doors and pushed each other into the rooms. Drunks wandered into the house with musty songs, and luckily, Therese and her mother managed to slip through one of these advancing groups. They knew that late in the night, when you weren’t so careful anymore and no one really stood up for his rights, they could at least force themselves into one of the several shelters they came across, which were rented out by speculators, but Therese didn’t understand that and her mother didn’t want to rest anymore. In the morning, the beginning of a beautiful winter day, they both leaned on a brick building and had maybe slept there a little, but maybe they only stared around with open eyes. They saw that Therese had lost her bundle, and her mother went to slap Therese in punishment for her carelessness, but Therese heard no blows and felt nothing. They went again through the awakening streets, her mother alongside the brick, they came over a bridge, where her mother brushed against the frost on the railings with a hand and they finally reached the exact construction site that the mother had been hired to for the morning – at the time Therese had accepted it, but today she couldn’t understand it. She didn’t say to Therese, if she should wait or go away, and Therese took this as an order to wait, since this matched up with her best wishes. She sat down on a pile of bricks and watched how she took a colored rag tied up in her bundle and put it over a kerchief she had worn for the entire night. As if only the thoughts were able to reach her, Therese was too tired to help her mother. Without reporting to the site’s office, as was usual, and without asking anyone, the mother climbed up a ladder, as if she already knew where she had been assigned. Therese wondered about it, because the female workers were kept busy underneath with loading lime, passing bricks or with other simple tasks. She thought that her mother wanted to complete better paying work and smiled at her sleepily about it. The site wasn’t tall, barely complete at the ground floor, even though the scaffolding for more construction rose into the blue sky, still without connecting timbers. Up above, her mother went skillfully around the bricklayers laying brick on brick, and unbelievably, they didn’t ask her anything, she held carefully with a gentle hand a wooden box which served as railing, and Therese, dozing off, was astounded at this skill and thought she received a friendly glance from her mother. But now the mother came to a small pile of bricks on the gangway, where the railing and the walkway probably stopped, but she didn’t pay attention, walked freely to the pile of bricks, she seemed to lose her skill, she knocked over the pile of bricks and fell over it down into the deep. Many bricks rolled after her, and finally, a longer while later, a heavy board came loose and smashed her below. Therese’s last memory of her mother was of her lying with legs stretched apart in the checkered skirt from Pomerania as the rough board lay on top of her, almost covering her, as the people ran together from all sides and as from the construction above some man yelled down something angry.
It had gotten late when Therese had ended her explanation. She had explained in detail how this wasn’t her habit to have to pause with tears in her eyes, especially at unimportant places like the description of the scaffolding rising up alone into the sky. She knew every little thing which had happened after ten years now, and because the sight of her mother up above on a half-finished first floor was the last souvenir of the life of her mother, and because she could not describe it clearly enough to her friend, she wanted to come back to it after the end of her story, but she stopped, laid her face in her hands and didn’t say a word more.
There were also happier times in Therese’s room. Right on his first visit Karl had seen a workbook of business correspondence lying around and had asked to borrow it. It was immediately discussed that Karl should do the exercises contained in the book and present it for review to Therese, who had already studied through the book for whatever was necessary for her small errands. Now Karl lay for the entire night, cotton in his ears, downstairs on his bed in the sleeping quarters, shifting through all possible positions for the sake of variety, reading in the book and marking down the exercises in a notebook with a ball-point pen that the head cook had given to him as a reward for very practically laying out and writing up a large list of inventory. Most of the disturbances from the other boys turned out for the good, because he made them give him every small piece of advice on the English language until they were tired and left him in peace. He was often surprised at how the others were completely content with their present positions, didn’t have a sense of its temporary nature – elevator boys as old as twenty years old were not tolerated – did not see the necessity of a decision about their future careers and in spite of Karl’s example read nothing else besides the latest detective stories, which were passed from bed to bed until they were filthy rags.
At their future meetings Therese made her corrections with an exaggerated fussiness, it made for conflicting opinions, Karl took as his witness his great New York professor, but that was about as valid to Therese as the grammatical opinions of the elevator boys. She took the pen out of his hand and crossed out parts she was convinced were wrong, but at such doubtful moments, even though in general he could see no greater authority than Therese, Karl crossed out Therese’s cross-outs for the sake of meticulousness. Sometimes even the head cook came over and always decided in Therese’s favor, which didn’t prove a thing, because Therese was her secretary. At the same time, though, she always reconciled the matter, because tea would be boiled, biscuits prepared and Karl had to talk about Europe, usually with a lot of interruptions on the part of the head cook, who always asked him questions and was always astounded, in the process making Karl aware how much had changed there from the ground up in a relatively short time and how much had really become different since her leaving and how much would always be changing.
Karl might have been in Ramses about a month when Renell said to him in passing one evening that he had spoken to a man in front of the hotel with the name of Delamarche who was asking after Karl. Now Renell had no reason to hide anything and had said truthfully that Karl was an elevator boy but that because of the protection of the head cook he was going to receive an entirely different position. Karl noticed how gently Delamarche had handled Renell, even inviting him to a small dinner that evening. “I have nothing more to do with Delamarche,” said Karl. “Just be careful with him!” “Me?” said Renell as he stretched and hurried away. He was the most delicate youth in the hotel, and a rumor went around the other boys, without anyone knowing who started it, that he was at the very least being kissed by a distinguished lady who had lived in the hotel for a very long time. For those who knew the rumor, there was a large appeal in seeing this self-confident lady walk by with her calm, easy steps, delicate veil, tightly cinched waist, allowing no suspicion of the slightest possibility of such behavior. She lived on the first floor and Renell’s elevator wasn’t hers, but when the other elevators were momentarily occupied, you couldn’t forbid the guests from entering a different elevator. So it happened that this lady traveled now and again in Karl’s and Renell’s elevator and, actually, only when Renell was working. It could have been chance, but no one believed that, and when the elevator traveled up with the both of them, there was a laboriously suppressed restlessness in the entire column of elevator boys, which had even lead to the intervention of one of the head waiters. Whether the lady had started this, or whether it was just a rumor, in any case Renell had changed, become even more self-confident, left the cleaning entirely to Karl, who was already waiting for the next opportunity to have a thorough discussion about it, and couldn’t be found in the sleeping quarters anymore. No one else had ever so completely walked away from the camaraderie of the elevator boys, because when it came to work they all stuck together and even had an organization recognized by the hotel directors.
Karl allowed all this to go through his head, also thinking about Delamarche and performing his duties as always. At midnight he got a small change of pace, because Therese, who often surprised him with small gifts, brought him a large apple and a bar of chocolate. They entertained each other a little, barely disturbed by the interruptions that traveling on the elevator brought along. The conversation came to Delamarche and Karl realized that if he had thought of him as a dangerous person, he had allowed himself to be influenced by Therese, because after Karl’s explanation of him, that’s probably how he seemed to Therese. Nevertheless, in the end Karl only thought of him as a bum who had allowed himself to go bad through some poor luck, someone you could deal with. Therese contradicted him very excitedly and in a long speech encouraged Karl to promise never to speak to Delamarche again. Instead of making this promise, Karl urged her to go to sleep, since it was already long past midnight, and when she refused, he threatened to throw away her letters and they went to her room. When she was finally ready to go away, he said, “Why do you make all this unnecessary trouble for yourself, Therese? Just so that you’ll sleep better, I’ll gladly promise you that I’ll only talk to Delamarche if I can’t avoid it.” Then there were many trips up and down, because the young man on the next elevator was used for someone else’s assignment and Karl had to look after both elevators. There were guests who talked of disorder, and a gentleman accompanying a lady even touched Karl lightly with his walking stick to get him to hurry, a reprimand that was completely unnecessary. If the guests, when they saw that no young man was standing by one of the elevators, would at least have gone to Karl’s elevator, but they didn’t do that, they went to the next elevator and stood there, putting their hands on the door handle or stepping into the elevator, which, according to the most severe paragraph in the rules for the elevator boys, had to be avoided at all costs. So Karl was very tired running here and there without being aware of sufficiently fulfilling his duties. Moreover, at three o’clock in the morning, a busboy he was a little friendly with wanted some help from him now, but he couldn’t do that now by any means, because right now guests were standing by both of his elevators and it took great presence of mind to walk decisively to one group with large strides. He was, however, lucky when the other young man walked over again and yelled a few words of apology because of his absence, even though he probably didn’t feel guilty about it. At four o’clock in the morning there was a little quiet, but Karl needed it urgently. He leaned heavily on the railing next to his elevator, slowly ate an apple, out of which a strong aroma came streaming after the first bite, and looked down a light shaft which was surrounded by a large window of the pantry, behind which shimmered a hanging mass of bananas in the dark.

Revision: 2021/01/09 - 23:40 - © Mauro Nervi

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