The old man at the bar, the one with the pegleg, the eye patch and the parrot on his shoulder told me this one. He claims it's all true.
You think it was all yo ho ho and a bottle of rum, and sixteen men on a dead man’s chest. You think it was all peg legs and eye patches and cute little parrots squawking polly wants some trafe, eh, you bastard son of a bitch. We had nothing in those days, nothing at all.
Imagine yourself, six or seven years old, not two dimes to rubb together, fresh off the boat and held, separated from your dear old mother—the whore, how else did she earn passage?--on Ellis Island, damp and cold and wet and hungry and coughing up your lungs with what the fat old Mick inspector thought was TB (every third or fourth immigrant had it when I come over in 1913.) Separated from your mother, and left to rot in a ward until a state issue doctor (and this is worse than Russia, I tell you) pokes and feels and prods and looks at your tongue and says in some ungapatch of a language, ‘This boy don’t got Tuberqlossis, this boy got a slight miasma of the croup.’ But by then of course the damage is done and your mother has gone and you are left to find her in a strange land where you speak none of the language and half out of your wits with fear and without a dime to eat and hungry and as stupid too as a clam and without no one to ask for help.
So your first night in this land that is paved with gold, which is what they tell you on your way from shetl to Stockholm, you sleep filthy and hungry and cold in the doorway of a pickle factory, hoping maybe for a little stem they should throw your way, but nuthing. Up the next day, bright and early, to look for mama, but no dice, there’s a thousand babush that look like her, a hundred thousand that smell like
her, but not one what is her. So what are you to do? would you do, mister professor, k’nocker, big shot, at stranger in a strange land. You look for work is what wise guy. You look for work and you find it, carrying finished pieces in fifty pound bundles from one end of floor to another, from the arm lady to the torso lady, fifty pound bales-- more than you weigh yourself, goddammit, and you are running these fuhstunkenah bales back and forth fourteen hours a day, six days a week, with no time for lunch or dinner or, god forbid, even a break to take a crap, and it is hot and noisy and dusty in there and when you collapse from the heat and the lack of nourishment, the bastards give you a not-so-gentle kick in the kishkas and bid you up and at ‘em or your tossed out on the street owing them money for some who- knows-what reason.
Your remaining waking hours, you look for your mother, anything, anything would be better than returning to the filthy shit hole you pay two dollars a week for and share with eight other youths in similar straits, with the crapper a mere three floors up and no window to boot.
Then one day, a sharpie with a suit of clothes and a wad of green that could choke a gentile on Christmas, pssts me over and says sonny, you want some of this?, flashing this wad, and what am I, a schmuck, this is America, of course I want some of this, that’s why I’m here, that’s why the whole friggen country is here, what do I have to do, by this time knowing the motto of America, if not the language: Nuthing from nuthing. Sign me up says I and call me schvare arbiter. So they do and the next thing I know I am back on the water in a cot near the boiler shoveling tons of coal and breathing in the black dust a good sixteen hours a day, and being buggered the other eight, all for a few bucks a week promptly stolen from me from the sharp who signed me on, having forgotten to tell me I had to pay for my accommodations.
Two years of this is what I endure, when in Macao (the second wickedest city in the world or so I’ve been told) I squeeze my emaciated self through a porthole and dive into the brackish drink and make weigh to shore.
Eight years old I am when I exchange one hell for another for a third time! But what am I to do? What would you do?
Eight years old and in Macao alone —- worse, even, than being seven and in New York alone. Macao-where a boy costs less than a woman and a woman costs less than a cigarette. Unable to speak to anyone. Yiddish, my only voice unheard anywhere within three thousand miles of the place. The English I spoke, pidgin only, and who would help me, a lowly Jew, a nothing, a lost, impoverished soul with nothing to offer the world? Who would come to my aid? Who could I turn to?
Federico Wang, that is who. Wang and only Wang, a Shanghai Jew. A privateer (a pirate, if you insist) whose domain spread throughout the south seas. From Macao, to Borneo. From Timor, to Sarawak. From Mindoro, to Leyte. Wherever there were ships in the south Pacific, one of Wang’s fleet was in pursuit.
Wang, an old man already at the time he rescued me, had amassed the most formidable fleet in the south seas. Larger in number than that of the Dutch East India Company, more manoeuverable, if not swifter, than the hulking oil-powered British ships based that plied the region, Wang had built an empire all empires are based on: buying cheap and on what selling dear.
Yes, the purloined, their crews captured and slaughtered. Yes, all of that is true. But what of it, I ask. The early twentieth century was a time of economic rapine, of avarice and despoiling. What was done with me in both America and Macao was done to thousands, maybe millions like me. It was a time of pogroms, of cruelty, or forced labor, servitude, abuse. Yes, damme you! it was a time of piracy. So be it. We worked. We lived. We survived. We grew rich.
Your Rockefellers robbed the land. Your railroad men robbed the people. So, we did it asea, that makes it a crime?! Avast, with ye. Avast, as Wang himself used to say. Call us what you will, it matters nothing to me.
Wang had ships, dozens of ships, and men loyal to him and to themselves. Many of Wang’s crews were like me. Lost boys, waifs, strangers, Jews, deported by greed into a cesspool like that I have described above, and rescued by Wang. Many others were coolies and other Orientals -— Malays, Sarawaks, Bagawans—even a few Malagasys thrown in. Men with pirating in their blood, for pirates their people had always been. The Jews and our Oriental brothers came together. We worked together. We became one.
Still like dogs, we worked, but now we worked for us. That ship over there, laden with hardwood, bound for America. That one, 14 degrees SSW, she’s out of two weeks out of the Spice Islands, loaded to the gunwales with teas and cinnamon and cloves. Millions these ships brought us. And we grew ever stronger and more powerful, accumulating riches, men and ships. And Wang distributed these riches, and rich we all became. And that’s the way it was until the Japanese and their Greater East-Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere put an end to it all.
But we survived and now we are rich, we are respectable. He among us without sin, you bastards, you cast the first stone!
As told to Ad Aged by
Moishe “Long Arm” Berkowitz
British Virgin Islands.