Thursday, September 11, 2014

From whence I come. (This being a story of my Grand-Father.)

I've written before about my grand-father, Morris Tannenbaum, who settled in Philadelphia in 1913 and who opened up his tailor shop in the basement of a row-house some years later. While he never had two pin-cushions to rub together, and died a youngish-man in 1936 when my old man was just eight, he somehow in the short time he was alive, was able to earn the sobriquet "The Worst Tailor in Philadelphia."

According to my father, every seam he sewed was crooked. No two pant's legs or sleeves were even and there was barely a suit that left his shop without extra room across the back should you, for some inexplicable reason, develop a hunched back.

Morris cut his tailoring teeth in a city called Krasnoyarsk (pronounced Krasnoyarsk), Siberia's third largest city, and judged, by Chekhov of all people, as its loveliest. It was also an important junction on the Trans-Siberian Rail Way, and that's where our story begins.
Life was cheap as the Trans-Siberian Rail-Way was being built. Thousands died, many more wish they had.

With baggy pants down around their ankles, the cry of "Hem boy!" would ring out.

It's hard, really, to appreciate the magnitude of the job of building the Trans-Siberian. It's nearly 6,000 miles long and was built through some of the most desolate and forbidding terrain in the world. What's more, in the summer, temperatures could drop to 200-below (Celsius) and it got even colder in the winter.
Temperatures dropped to -200 (Celsius.) Colder in the shade.

The railway was built over the decades beginning in 1890 when my grand-father was just a spit of a boy. The men who constructed it were a) liberated serfs; b) drunken rabble; c) political convicts; d) criminal convicts and e) Jews for whom any labor represented a step up from the abject poverty of shtetls that would make Anatevka look like Greenwich, Connecticut.

My grandfather got a job as a "hem boy" for the railroad.

The workers who laid the tracks were given by the Trans-Siberian one pair of work pants. By the time they had reached Krasnoyarsk, they had generally lost so much weight from eating their meager rations, that their pants were down around their ankles. Of course, when you're pounding in spikes all day, having your pants fall down isn't just embarrassing, it's downright dangerous.

So the railroad hired scores of "hem boys" who would run along the rail way waiting for a worker to sing out "Hem boy!" Then they hustled over to pin up and hem the workers' pants.

There's no telling how many hems my grand-father shortened this way. Or how he managed to last the years he did. But somehow he lasted long-enough to save what he needed to land in America and start a new life on our teeming shores.

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