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PART ONE

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

PART TWO

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

A note to fans of Little Golden America: as of issue No. 22, Admit Two adopted a PDF format, which means you will have to access individual back issues to get to further chapters of Ilf and Petrov's American adventure.

 

 

oLittle Golden America                     by    ILYA ILF AND EUGENE PETROV

_______________________________________________________________________

o

 

 o

Chapter Four…

   Appetite Departs While Eating

 

 

THE NEWCOMER need have no fear about leaving his hotel and plunging

into the New York jungle. Despite the amazing sameness of its streets,

it is well-night impossible to get lost there.

Yet the secret is simple. The thoroughfares are divided into two

types: the perpendicular ones, or avenues; and the horizontal, or streets.

Thus the island of Manhattan has been laid out. Parallel to each other

are First, Second, and Third avenues. Then parallel to them is Lex-

ington Avenue, Fourth Avenue, a continuation of which from the cen-

tral railway station bears the name of Park Avenue (that is the street

of the wealthy), Madison Avenue, beautiful (shopping district) Fifth

Avenue, Sixth, Seventh, and so forth. Fifth Avenue divides the city into

two parts, the East and West. All these avenues (and they are many)

are crossed by streets, of which there are several hundred. And if the

avenues have certain distinguishing attributes (some are wider, others

are narrower; there is an elevated over Second, Third, Sixth, and Ninth;

in the middle of Park Avenue is a grass plot; on Fifth Avenue tower

the Empire State Building and Radio City), the streets are quite in-

distinguishable, and even old New Yorkers cannot tell one street from

another by any outward signs. The geometry of New York is violated

only by meandering Broadway, which crosses the city diagonally on its

run of a score of miles.

The main shoals of pedestrians and automobiles advance along the

Wide avenues. Under them like coal mines lie the black and damp,

four-track tunnels of subways. Over them is the iron thunder of the

elevated. Here are al the types of transport – even several old-fashioned,

double-deck autobuses and streetcars. Doubtless, in Kiev, where street-

car traffic has been removed from the main street, people would be

amazed to hear that down Broadway, the liveliest street in the world,

a streetcar still hobbles along. Woe to the man who must cross the

city, not lengthwise but crosswise, and who would be stricken with the

insane idea of taking a taxicab for that purpose! His taxi will turn into

a street and head straight into a chronic cul-de-sac. While policemen

drive the snorting automobile flocks down the length of the avenues,

hordes of indignant schlemiehls flocks down the length of the avenues,

narrow lanes that cut the city – no, not lengthwise but crosswise. The

queues stretch for several blocks, chauffeurs fidget in their seats, pas-

sengers impatiently stick their heads out of windows and, falling back

in anguish, open their newspapers.

It is hard to believe, yet it is a fact that some seventy years ago on

the corner of Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street, on the very spot

where more automobiles can flock together in five minutes than there

are in all of Poland, stood a wooden inn which had the following two

significant notices posted for the benefit of American travelers:

 

IT IS FORBIDDEN TO GO TO BED IN BOOTS

 

and

 

IT IS FORBIDDEN FOR MORE THAN SIX

GUESTS TO SLEEP IN ONE BED

 

We left the hotel to lunch somewhere, and soon found ourselves on

Forty-second Street. During our first days in New York, no matter

where we were bound for, we invariably landed on Forty-second Street.

In the crowd, which carried us along, we heard shreds of that quick

New York speech which surely must be as strange to the ear of a Lon-

doner as it is to the ear of a Muscovite. Along the walls sat boys –

bootblacks, who drummed their brushes on their crudely fashioned

wooden boxes, touting for customers. Street photographers aimed their

cameras at the passers-by, choosing usually ladies with escorts or tour-

ists from the sticks. After clicking his camera, the photographer would

approach the object of his attack and press on him the printed address

of his studio. For twenty-five cents the photographed pedestrian may

have a candid photograph of himself, a splendid photograph, in the

uninhibited act of raising his leg.

Under the sooty spans of a bridge, in the shadow of which gleamed

mud left over from last night’s rain, a man with hat slant and an open

shirt was delivering a speech. About a score of the curious gathered

around him. He was a propagandist for the ideas of the recently as-

sassinated United States senator from Louisiana, Huey P. Long. He

spoke on distribution of wealth. His listeners asked him questions. He

replied. His chief task seemed to be to amuse his audience. Not far

from him, on the sunflecked sidewalk, stopped a fat Negress of the

Salvation Army. She wore an old-fashioned bonnet and run-down shoes.

She took a bell out of her suitcase and rang it loudly. The suitcase

she placed on the sidewalk at her feet. After waiting for a few disciples

of the late-lamented senator to desert to her side, squinting against the

sun, she began to bellow something, rolling her eyes and banging her

own fat bosom. We went several blocks, but the shouting of the Negress

was still distinctly heard in the component noise of this restless city.

In front of a ready-to-wear store a man walked calmly back and

forth. On his back and on his chest he carried two identical placards:

“This Place Is On Strike.” In the next street were a few more pickets.

Over the large show window of a corner store, despite the sunny

morning, gleamed the blue letters “Cafeteria” in electric lights. The

cafeteria was large, bright, and clean. Along the walls were glass cases

filled with beautiful, appetizing edibles. To the left of the entrance was

the cashier’s booth. On the right was a metal stand with small slot

athwart as in a coin bank. From the opening emerged the end of a

blue pasteboard stub. Those who entered tugged at this end. We also

tugged. The melodic clang of a bell resounded. One stub was in our

hand, and through the slot of the coin bank another blue stub popped

out. Then we did what all New Yorkers do when they dash into a

cafeteria for a hurried bite. From a special table we each took a light

brown tray, placed on it forks, spoons, knives, and paper napkins; and,

feeling extremely awkward in our heavy overcoats and hats, went to the

right end of a glass-enclosed counter. Down the entire length of this

counter ran three rows of nickeled pipes on which we conveniently

placed our trays and slid them along after placing each dish upon them.

The counter itself was a tremendous camouflaged electric plate. Soups,

chunks of roast, sausages of various lengths and thicknesses, legs of

pork and lambs, meat loafs and roulades, mashed, fried, baked, and

boiled potatoes and potatoes curiously shaped in pellets, globules of

Brussels sprouts, spinach, carrots, and numerous other side dishes were

kept warm here. White chefs in starched nightcaps, aided by neat but

heavily rouged and marcelled girls in pink headdresses, were busy plac-

ing on the glass cover of the counter plates of food and punching that

figure on the stub which indicated the cost of each dish. Then came

fish in jellied sauces. Then came bread, rolls, and traditional round pies

with apple, strawberry, and pineapple fillings. Here coffee and milk

were issued. We moved down the counter, pushing our trays. On the

thick layer of chipped ice were plates of compotes and ice cream, oranges

and grapefruit cut in half, large and small glasses with various juices.

Persistent advertising has taught Americans to drink juices before break-

fast and lunch. In the juices are vitamins which are presumably bene-

ficial to the customers, while the sale of juices is indubitably of benefit

to fruit merchants. We soon succumbed to this American custom. At

first we drank the thick yellow orange juice. Then we passed to the

translucent green juice of the grapefruit. Then before eating we began

to take the grapefruit itself (it is covered with sugar and is eaten with

a spoon; its taste reminds one somewhat of the taste of an orange with

a dash of lemon in it, although it is juicier than both these fruits).

Finally, with some trepidation and not all at one, we began to imbibe

the mundane tomato juice, peppering it a bit beforehand.  That proved

to be the tastiest of all and the most refreshing, and it best suited our

South Russian stomachs. The one thing we did not learn to do in

America was to eat melon before dinner. Yet that takes the place of

honor among American hors d’oeuvres.

In the middle of the cafeteria stood polished wooden tables without

tablecloths, and beside them coatracks. Those who wished could put

their hats under their chairs, where there was a special shelf for that

purpose. On the tables were stands with bottles of oil, vinegar, catsup,

and various other condiments. There was also granulated sugar in a

glass flagon wrought in the manner of a pepper shaker with holes in

its metal stopper.

The settling of accounts with the customers was simple. No one could

leave the cafeteria without sooner or later passing the cashier’s booth and

presenting the stub with the total punched in it. Here also cigarettes

were sold and one was free to take a toothpick.

The process of eating was just as superbly rationalized as the pro-

duction of automobiles or of typewriters.

The automats have progress farther along this road than the café-

terias. Although they have approximately the same outward appear-

ance as the cafeterias, they differ from the latter in that they have car-

ried the process of pushing food into American stomachs to the point

of virtuosity. The walls of the automats are occupied throughout with

little glass closets. Near each one of them is a slit for dropping a “nickel”

(a five-cent coin). Behind the glass stands a dour sandwich or a glass

of juice or a piece of pie. Despite the shining glass and metal, the

sausages and cutlets deprived of liberty somehow produce a strange

impression. One pities them, like cats at a show. A man drops a nickel,

acquires the right to open the little door, takes out his sandwich, carries it

to his table and there eats it, again putting his hat under his chair on

the special shelf. Then the man goes up to a faucet, drops his “nickel,”

and out of the faucet into the glass drips exactly as much coffee and

milk as is supposed to drip. One feels something humiliating, some-

thing insulting to man in that. One begins to suspect that the owner

of the automat has outfitted his establishment, not in order to present

society with a pleasant surprise, but in order to discharge from service

poor marcelled girls with pink headdresses and thereby earn a few more

dollars.

But automats are not overly popular in America. Evidently the bosses

themselves feel that there must be some limit to rationalization. Hence,

the normal little restaurants, for people of modest means, belonging to

mighty trusts are always full. The most popular of these – Childs – has

become in America a standard for inexpensive food of good quality.

“He dines at Childs”: that means that the man earns $ 30 a week. In

any part of New York one can say: “Let’s have dinner at Childs,” and

it would not take him more than ten minutes to reach Childs. At Childs

one receives the same clean handsome food as in a cafeteria or an auto-

mat. Only there one is not deprived of the small satisfaction of looking

at a menu, saying “H’m,” asking the waitress whether the veal is good,

and receiving the answer: “Yes, sir!”       

Generally speaking, New York is remarkable because it has every-

thing. There you can find the representatives of any nation, secure

any dish, any object from an embroidered Ukrainian shirt to a Chinese

stick with a bone handle in the shape of a hand, which is used for back-

scratching, from Russian caviar and vodka to Chilean soup and Italian

macaroni. There are no delicacies in the world that New York cannot

offer. But for all of it one must pay in dollars. And we want to talk

about the preponderant majority of Americans who can pay only cents

and for whom exist Childs, cafeterias, and automats. When describing

the latter establishments, we can boldly declare that this is how the

average American is fed. Under this concept of the average American

is presupposed a man who has a decent job and a decent salary and who

from the point of view of capitalism is an example of the healthy pros-

pering American, happy and optimistic, who receives all the blessings

of life at a comparatively low price.

The splendid organization of the restaurant business seems to confirm

that. Model cleanliness, good quality of produce, an extensive choice

of dishes, a minimum of time lost in dining. All that is so. But here is

the trouble. All this beautifully prepared food is quite tasteless – color-

less in taste. It is not injurious to the stomach. It is most likely even of

benefit to it. But it does not present man with any delights, any gus-

tatory satisfaction. When you select in the closets of the automat or on

the counter of the cafeteria an attractive piece of roast, and then eat it

at your table, having shoved your hat under your chair, you feel like a

buyer of shoes which proved to be more handsome than substantial.

Americans are used to it. They eat fast, without wasting a single extra

minute at the table. They do not eat; they fill up on food, just as an

automobile is filled with gasoline. The French gourmet who can sit

four hours at a dinner, chewing each piece of meat in exultation, wash-

ing it down with wine and then smacking every mouthful of coffee

with cognac – he is, of course, no model man. But the cold American

eater, bereft of the natural human desire to get some satisfaction out

of food, evokes amazement.

For a long time we could not understand why American dishes, so

appetizing in appearance, are so unappealing in taste. At first we thought

the Americans simply do not know how to cook. But then we learned

that that alone is not the point: the crux of the matter is in the organi-

zation itself, in the very essence of the American economic system.

Americans eat a blindingly white but utterly tasteless bread, frozen

meat, salty butter, unripe tomatoes, and canned goods.

How does it happen that the richest country in the world, a country

of grain growers and cattle raisers, of gold and remarkable industry,

a country which has sufficient resources to create a paradise, cannot

give the people tasty bread, fresh meat, real butter, and ripe tomatoes?

Near New York we saw waste places overgrown with weeds, for-

saken plots of earth. No one sowed grain there, no one raised cattle

there. We saw there neither setting hens with chicks nor truck gardens.

“You see,” we were told, “it simply would not pay. We cannot com-

pete here with the monopolists from the West.”

Somewhere in Chicago, in the slaughterhouses, they kill cattle and

transport the meat throughout the country in frozen form. From some-

where in California they ship frozen chickens, and green tomatoes which

are supposed to ripen in transit. And no one dares to challenge the

mighty monopolists to a fight.

Sitting in a cafeteria, we read Mikoyan’s speech, which said that

food in a socialist country must be palpatable – that it must bring joy to

people – and it sounded like poetry to us.

While in America the business of feeding people, as any other busi-

ness, is built on this single consideration: does it pay or does it not

pay? It does not pay to raise cattle and to have truck gardens in New

York. Therefore, people eat frozen meat, salty butter, and unripe to-

matoes. Some businessman discovers that it pays to sell chewing gum,

so people are taught to chew this cud. Cinema pays better than theater;

therefore, cinema develops while the theater is neglected, although from

a cultural standpoint the American theaters is much more important

than the cinema. The elevated bring an income to certain companies;

therefore, New Yorkers become martyrs. Along Broadway, through

all the crowded traffic, with a hellish screeching, a streetcar hobbles

along – only because it pays one man, the owner of an ancient streetcar

company.

All the time we were there we felt an irresistible desire common to

all Soviet people to complain and to offer suggestions. We wanted to

write to the Soviet control and to the party control and to the Central

Committee and to Pravda, but there was no one to complain to, and

there is no such thing in America as “a book of suggestions.”