Spring 2019, Volume 26

Nonfiction by Beulah Amsterdam

Homestead Hotel

I stepped onto the platform of the East Stroudsburg station in the Poconos, lugging my suitcase. Someone would pick me up and drive me to my summer job as the children’s waitress at the Homestead Hotel, a long way from the steaming Bronx streets where I lived with my mother on Welfare. I’d needed to get away from our small dark apartment crawling with cockroaches.

The station platform was surrounded by trees. I was out in the country for a whole summer. Passengers strolled by. I looked around to see if anyone seemed to be waiting for me. I didn’t know who it might be. I’d told Mr. Winters, the hotel owner, that I was 5'7" and had dark brown hair. Desperate to get away and earn money, I’d lied and forged my working papers to say I was fourteen years old even though I’d just turned twelve.

The platform was almost empty now. A couple of men looked at me, but I ignored them just as Mama always told me to.

I felt lost, standing on the empty platform.

What should I do if no one picked me up? I’d have to buy a ticket back to New York City. Mama had been opposed to my leaving home and working at the Homestead Hotel. I’d applied for the job secretly until I received the letter from Mr. Winters saying that the job was mine. When I’d asked Mama to sign my working papers, she raised her eyebrows and said, “What kind of place is this hotel?”

“It’s a place for families with children. My friend Joan was there for two weeks last summer.”

“You’re too young to go so far from home.”

“You were twelve when you went to Warsaw to work.”

“That was different. There was famine. We were starving.”

“I hate being on Welfare. I hate wearing charity clothes. I need money.”

“You’ll have your whole life to work.”

I finally wore her down with all my arguing and she signed the application.

I didn’t tell her that the Winters were Germans. Mama had lost her mother, sisters and brothers in the Holocaust. She said all Germans were Nazis even if they were born in America. Christians were alcoholics and had persecuted and murdered Jews for centuries. I was already reading at a college level and disagreed with Mama’s prejudices. German-Americans were not Nazis. Mama had a much too evil view of people.

I’d found the applications for working papers on a table at the public library. My pen had wobbled as I turned my 1937 birth certificate into 1935. Black ink smeared. The eraser didn’t work. Forgery obvious, I still had to use it.

I walked across the Bronx to the marble government building on Arthur Avenue. The doctor who issued the physical fitness permit stared at my smudged birth certificate. I was afraid he might throw me out or call the cops. Looking at me curiously, he asked about the job. Why did I want to work? I explained that I needed carfare and clothes for school. The doctor picked up his pen and signed the working papers

Now as I walked down the deserted platform, I worried about what to do if there wasn’t another train back to the city that afternoon. As I approached the station house, an old man with white hair and a bristly white mustache appeared and said, “I’m Mr. Winters.”

He led me to an old black car, splattered with mud. I thought we would drive through a town, but we bumped along narrow roads through emerald rolling hills, meadows and dense forests. Breaking a long silence, I asked, “Where are the Pocono mountains?” I’d been excited and expected to see peaks. Mr. Winters said that we were on a plateau and there were no mountains around here.

The car stopped beside a pristine white building with bright green shutters and matching trim that looked like it belonged in a picture book. Only three stories tall, it was a lot shorter than my apartment building, but much wider, spread out atop a knoll, surrounded by rolling grassy lawns rising up a hillside. It was beautiful.

A short, round woman with frizzy black hair came out onto the long porch on the side of the hotel to greet me. Six wooden tables with benches were set up for outdoor dining for the children I’d be serving. The open porch looked out on lawns, flower beds, and a distant forest. I wished I could run out and explore right then. It looked even better than the charity camp where I’d spent two happy weeks in several past summers.

Mrs. Winters rapidly fired questions about my train trip and about New York City. She bustled about and brought me a plate of cold cuts, coleslaw and potato salad, sat down and continued to chatter till she jumped up and scurried into the kitchen. A screen door slammed behind her. Metal clanked. When she returned, she said, “Tonight you don’t have to clean up the kitchen.” I had no idea that cleaning the kitchen would be part of my job, but I looked forward to doing it because Mama never let me do a thing in our house except my homework and read. She wouldn’t even let me get my own glass of water because I might spill it.

While we sat across the long wooden table, Mrs. Winters inquired about my family. When she heard that my father was dead, she said, “Your mother must be a very brave and strong woman to raise two children by herself. She must work very hard.” I listened to her stories extolling single working mothers, too ashamed to tell her that we were on Welfare, and my mother didn’t have a job. I just nodded.

After I finished eating, Mrs. Winters showed me to a large dark attic with tiny windows. A single light bulb hung from the ceiling, casting deep shadows. She gave me sheets to make up one of the six beds and said good night.

It was too dark in that strange space. I couldn’t fall asleep. I’d only slept alone in a scary hospital room when I’d had pneumonia. When I sat up to look out the window, my head bumped against the low eave.

For breakfast, Mrs. Winters served me French toast with delicious blueberry syrup at the kitchen table, then returned to kneading dough. She offered me coffee from the percolator on the huge black iron stove with eight burners. That morning I learned how to polish silver. We were getting the hotel ready for the guests.

After eating lunch alone on the porch, I took my plate into the kitchen. A young, blond fellow with big muscles stood at the huge steel sinks washing lunch dishes. “I’m Louie,” he said with a big smile. He’d been here a week, doing odd jobs and painting the hotel with Mr. Winters.

“I’m sure glad to see someone working here besides me,” Louie said. “This place is dead.” He was good-looking, except for his very short crewcut hair, very different from the slicked back pompadours and duck tails that most boys wore. I’d never seen anyone like him.

Mrs. Winters told us to wash every dish that was stored away and to be sure we returned everything to the right place. She said, “Don’t be boppish,” which seemed to mean sloppy or messy.

Louie led me to the spacious wood-paneled dining room with large wooden beams. The gold pendulum of a tall grandfather clock swung from side to side. We lifted stacks of plain white dishes out of enormous carved cabinets and carried them to the kitchen sink. I’d never seen so many different sizes of plates, platters, bowls and glasses.

Louie chatted as he rinsed dishes and I dried. We talked for hours about New York City. Louie had always lived in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. He’d ridden the subway all over New York. When I told him that I’d be taking the subway to school every day, he said, “I don’t pay no fare, and you don’t have to. You jump the turnstile or sneak through the gate just when the train comes in.”

I knew I’d never do that. I’d use my money from this summer to pay the nickel fare. He must be very poor not to have a nickel.

“How did you get this job?” I asked.

“I just got out of prison. Mr. Winters came and got me.”

“What did you do?”

“I stole stuff.”

I’d just read Crime and Punishment and had thought a lot about Raskolnikov who’d murdered a woman pawnbroker. I wanted to ask Louie what and why he stole, but I didn’t. Raskolnikov didn’t talk about his crime to anyone for a long time. People stole for all kinds of reasons. I was sure that I’d steal bread if I were starving.

When we finished cleaning the kitchen, Louie suggested that we swim in the pond, but I was too exhausted from hours of drying and carrying heavy dishes.

On Sunday, Mrs. Winters asked if I needed a ride to church. I replied that I didn’t. She looked relieved and said, “We rarely go either.” I never told the Winters that I was Jewish.

Later that morning, Mrs. Winters invited me to have lunch with her family. Two large tables appeared on the lawn near the kitchen’s back door. She asked me to spread the white cloths and set the table. I put knives, forks and spoons at each place, but Mrs. Winters came over and moved the spoon from the left to the right side of the knife. She was surprised that I didn’t know how to set a table properly. I wondered why it mattered.

The Winters’ six children drove up with their husbands or wives and children. Over twenty people sat down to a feast of beef, roasted potatoes, carrots, coleslaw, pickles and freshly baked biscuits. Where was Louie? I missed my only friend.

The Winters’ oldest daughter, Elsie, a pretty girlish woman, asked what my father did for his living. I told her he’d died when I was a baby.

She asked how old I was. When I said fourteen, her eyes opened wide. “Really?” she said.

I was caught. She knew I was only twelve and I’d be on the train home tomorrow, exposed as a liar.

“I thought you were thirty like me!” Elsie said.

Relief flowed through me. I wouldn’t lose this job. But how could she think I was that old? Was it because I was taller than all the Winters children?

It was very hot after lunch so I put on my two-piece, charity bathing suit. The top still fit, but the bottom cut into me and the skirt was skimpy. I’d grown too much this year.

The small pond was down a slope, below the hotel. As I reached the flat land with a stream running through it, the ground became muddy. At the edge of the forest, the pool was densely shaded.

I sloshed into the slimy muck, slipped and fell. Mama had repeatedly warned me about drowning. All I knew was how to dog-paddle and float, so I wouldn’t sink to the bottom of the pond and get sucked in by quicksand and die. Buzzing bees and giant darning-needle bugs flew too close to me.

Floating with my eyes shut, I was startled by splashing water. Louie grinned down at me.

When he splashed some more, I splashed back at him and dog paddled away. He swam under water for a while. Suddenly I felt stroking on my inner thigh. Nobody had ever touched me there before. I stiffened and paddled away. Mama had told me to never let anyone touch me down there and not to touch myself between my legs except with toilet paper or a washcloth. Just as we were saying goodbye, she had warned me not to let any man touch my body because all men were pigs, and they would hurt me. I didn’t know what she was talking about.

I acted as if Louie hadn’t touched me. If someone acted crazy or drunk on the subway, Mama said in Yiddish, “Don’t pay attention.” Don’t react or get involved. If I didn’t respond, then Louie wouldn’t do it again.

When Louie stuck his hand between my thighs again, I said, “No,” and tried to dog-paddle away. But he held on and pressed against my back. I pushed, kicked and struggled. Terrified and trapped, I screamed, “Let me go!”

“Hey,” he said, “I’m just kidding.”

Slipping, sliding and falling in the mud, I climbed out of the pond. Louie laughed at me. I ran up to the attic bathroom. While I washed the mud off my body, I remembered the rapist-murderer in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Louie shouldn’t have done that.

Awakened by footsteps on the attic steps that night, I froze. Louie was coming. I stopped breathing till Mrs. Winters turned on the light and asked if I was comfortable.

Guests arrived on the fourth of July. None brought children so I continued to help in the kitchen, clean up and set tables. While Louie was around, I kept my eyes down and rarely spoke to him. I never went into the pond if he was there. When he came in while I was swimming, I got out.

Mrs. Winters taught me how to waitress in the dining room. “Give them their plates from their left side and pick them up from the right. Fill their water glasses. Ask if they’d like more coffee.”

Cleaning up after meals and sweeping the dining room left me exhausted. Mrs. Winters encouraged me to drink coffee, and I drank lots with cream and sugar. My hands shook a lot. When I filled glasses, I held the pitcher with both hands. But I spilled water on the tablecloths and on the guests. They scolded me. After that Mrs. Winters had her daughter Elsie come and work. I was embarrassed to fail as a waitress because more than anything I wanted to be competent, but I was relieved not to be bawled out in the dining room.

Then Mrs. Winters had me clean rooms and make beds. She showed me a big, bulky machine that looked like a small giraffe and roared like a lion. It took all my strength to push the heavy vacuum around. I hated the long, exhausting days of cleaning and wanted to quit and go home even though I’d be even more miserable trapped in the kitchen with Mama.

Guests with children finally arrived. I set the porch table for the children, served and ate with them, cleaned up, and kept five to eight children between the ages of three and ten engaged. We played hide and seek, tag, statues, giants, and “May I cross the river,” and I told them fairy tales.

The littlest children kept asking for their mothers, wanting to eat with them, go see them.  I’d catch the little ones at the dining room door, distract them, tell them their mother would be out soon. When they cried out, their mothers came to them.

Mrs. Winters ran out of the kitchen. She shook her finger at me, and said, “You must keep the children far away from the dining room door.”

“The little ones run off in all directions.”

“Their mothers need to eat in peace. You must control these children.”

I stared down at the floorboards. I didn’t know how to manage little children at the porch tables where they could hear their parents’ voices through the open dining room windows.

Feeling like I’d failed her, I barely spoke to Mrs. Winters. I thought she was about to fire me when she said, “Would you like to meet a boy?” My shoulders dropped and I took a deep breath.

Even though I’d never “met” a boy and knew nothing about dating, I said “Yes.” I was lonely.

“He’s a very nice boy. A little older than you. Maybe a year or two, but it’s better when the boy is older.”

The next evening Mrs. Winters introduced me to a blue-eyed boy with blond curly hair who looked like a fairytale prince. We took a walk down a road that became a dirt path twisting through dense woods. Because he was quiet and shy, I asked about his school. He didn’t like it, didn’t read anything except assignments. I’d always loved school and was an avid reader. He described the sports he played that I’d never heard of– lacrosse at high school and polo on a grown-up’s team. I thought he was German like the Winters, but his family had come over on the Mayflower.

It grew dark in the forest. I stumbled and he held my hand. I’d never held a boy’s hand before and I wished that he’d kiss me in the moonlight. But we walked back to the hotel and said good night. I never saw him again, but I kept fantasizing about a moonlight kiss.

Several nights later there were footsteps on the attic stairs. Was it Louie? He had grabbed me where a girl should never be touched. Was he coming to rape and murder me? I hid under the sheets and shook. There was no way to escape.

Voices whispered. Bed sheets rustled. I felt safer when I heard children crying in the attic. I was not alone. After a long while, they were quiet, and I fell asleep.

Early the next morning a girl got out of one of the beds on the opposite side of the room. Short and thin, she appeared to be about nine years old. Pulling down the sheet on the next bed, she woke up a small boy.

She turned to me and said with a heavy German accent, “Goot morning.”

When I replied with, “Gutn morgn” in Yiddish, she smiled. Yiddish had evolved from German, and they were similar. Then she unwound her thick braids and brushed out long wavy blond hair. She looked like Cinderella. I’d cut off my long dark brown braids last winter and given myself a home permanent. I wished that I had her beautiful wavy hair.

She said “Macht schnell,” to her sleepy brother. They hurried downstairs to work. The boy swept, mopped and washed windows–Louie’s jobs. What was Louie doing now? The girl helped Mrs. Winters in the kitchen all day. Immigrants worked hard. I was glad that I was born in America and was not an immigrant.

Gretchen sat on my bed that night, and we managed to understand each other talking in English, German and Yiddish. They’d just come from Germany, and she spoke a little English. Her little brother didn’t. He was ten and she was thirteen. They had four younger brothers and sisters. Their father was seeking a job, and their family needed them to work.

I told Gretchen how my Aunt Pesel had just come over from a Displaced Persons Camp in Germany, and she and her husband had found jobs quickly.

Gretchen was surprised that my family was poor and that everyone in America didn’t have lots of money. Her family didn’t have enough to eat during and after the war. That’s why she was so thin. I thought she was very lucky to be alive, to have survived, unlike my family.

I was taught to hate Germans because they’d murdered my family and six million other Jews in Europe. But I liked Gretchen. She was soon my friend. Her bright blue eyes smiled at me as she braided her long blond hair for the night. But I wondered whether her father was a Nazi who had killed my grandmothers, aunts, uncles and cousins.
While Gretchen and her brother cried themselves to sleep at night, I thought of the New York Times photographs of Jewish concentration camp survivors who looked like corpses lying on the wooden shelves that were their beds. I felt strange sleeping with Germans, even innocent children. I dreamt that a snarling German shepherd handled by a black uniformed SS soldier pursued me through my Bronx neighborhood.

One night I asked Gretchen what her father did during the war. She stiffened as she said, “My father was a good soldier. He did what he was told. He’s a good man.”

I didn’t ask if her father killed Jews, even though I wanted to. She shouldn’t be blamed for his crimes. When my Folkshul Yiddish teacher declared that all Germans, including every child, should be sterilized so they couldn’t have any more children who would commit mass murder, I argued that every child deserved a chance no matter what their parents did.

That night I dreamt I was a little girl dressed in pink, walking into the gas chamber. Sitting up, I hit my head against the low sloping attic ceiling and cried out. The German children didn’t stir.

A week after the German children arrived, the three of us were invited to Sunday dinner with the Winters family. Mr. Winters, who hardly ever spoke to me, asked, “What kind of work do you plan to do?”

“I don’t know yet.” Why did he ask me such a serious grown-up question?

“Do something you can count on. You should have a small sandwich shop like we started with. People always need to eat.”

Mrs. Winters said, “First we had a sandwich shop, then a restaurant. We saved our money so we could buy this hotel. I never thought we would have such a beautiful hotel.”

Their daughter Elsie said, “Maybe she’d like to work in an office, like I did. Like I hope to again.”

I just nodded and didn’t tell them that I was hoping to go to college.

Then they all talked in German with the two new children. I understood just a few words of their rapid conversation.

After breakfast the next morning, Mr. Winters came out and said to me, “You screamed again last night.”

I looked at him in disbelief.

“You scream and cry in your sleep. You wake up Gretchen and Hans. We heard you scream from the lawn.” Mr. Winters looked mad at me.

Looking down at my feet, I wanted to disappear. I screamed at home when my mother or brother beat me, but I thought I’d behaved really well here.

“You’re waking our guests. We can’t have that. It’s best that you leave. You’ll feel better when you get home.”

I just nodded my head. Were they getting rid of me because they had the German children? Or did I really scream and cry at night and wake up guests? I didn’t want to scream ever again at anyone whether I was awake or asleep. But how could I control what I did in my sleep? I wanted to hide somewhere.

“Write to your mother and tell her you’re coming home.”

Defeated, my head hung low as I wrote the postcard to Mama. Exhausted, I was relieved that I only had one more week of serving, washing tables, sweeping and mopping floors.

When I left, Mr. Winters gave me a hundred dollars for the five weeks I’d worked there. That included twenty dollars in tips that he’d held for me. I’d worked seven days a week and deserved more.

On the drive to the railroad, I asked if Louie was still working at the hotel. Mr. Winters replied that Louie had disappeared weeks ago with his first paycheck. After he unloaded my suitcase at the station, Mr. Winters shook my hand and wished me luck.

Back home, Mama was proud that I’d made so much money for school clothes. She said it was fair pay with three meals a day. Her words made me feel good about what I’d earned.

Sitting in the kitchen with Mama, I was content to read for days. When I was thirsty, I went to the cupboard, took out a glass, filled it with water, carried it to the table and drank it while Mama stared nervously. I offered to wash dishes and pots, but Mama wouldn’t let me.

I never told Mama about the Winters family or Gretchen and how I liked them even though they were German. I knew that Mama had lost too much.




BIO: Beulah Amsterdam grew up in the Bronx on welfare. She worked as a waitress, clerk, telephone operator, dental assistant, and psychiatric technician, on her way to becoming a clinical psychologist. She has published poetry in her chapbooks, Black Frogs That Fly and Visit as well as in The Chiron, Tule, and Americas Reviews. Her memoir stories have been published in Gravel Magazine and Dime Show Review. She lives in Davis, California, where she is working on her memoir, Brucha's Daughter.