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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 Five…

  We Seek an Angel Without Wings

 

 

TIME PASSED. We were still in New York and did not know when or

whither we should proceed. Yet, our plan included a journey across

the entire continent, from ocean to ocean.

That was a fine, but essentially a quite indefinite, plan. We had made

it up in Moscow and had discussed it ardently all the way to America.

We paced scores of kilometers over the decks of the Normandie damp

with ocean spray, arguing about the details of that journey and dousing

each other with geographic nomenclature. At dinner, drinking the pure

but weak wine from the cellars of the General Transatlantic Company,

we muttered almost senselessly, “Kahleeforneeya,” “Tyekhas,” or some-

thing equally beautiful and enticing.

The plan was astounding because of its simplicity. We were to ar-

rive in New York, buy an automobile, and ride, ride, ride until we

arrived in California. Then we would turn around and ride, ride, ride

until we arrived in New York. It was all simple and wonderful, like

an Andersen fairy tale. “Tra-ta-ta” sounds the klaxon, “tru-tu-tu” sounds

the motor, we ride across the prairie, we swing over mountain chains,

we quench the thirst of our trusty machine with the icy water of the

Cordilleras, and the great Pacific sun casts its blinding brilliance on our

tanned faces.

In short, you can see for yourself that we were a bit “touched,” and

roared at each other like chained dogs: “Sierra Nevada,” “Rocky Moun-

tains,” and the like.

But when we stepped on American soil everything proved not so

simple and not so romantic.

In the first place, Tyekhas is not called Tyekhas, but Texas. But

that was only half the trouble.

None of our new friends in New York offered any objections to our

purchasing an automobile. Travel in one’s own automobile is the cheap-

est and most interesting means of transportation in the States. Railroad

travel would cost several times as much. Besides, you cannot see Amer-

ica from a train window. It is not a writer’s business to do anything

of the kind. So, as for the automobile idea, our suppositions met with

approval. The difficulty was in finding a man who could go with us.

We could not go by ourselves. We knew the English language well

enough to engage a room in a hotel, to order a dinner in a restaurant,

to go to a cinema and understand the meaning of a picture – knew it

even to the extent of conversing about this or that or the other thing

with some indulgent person who was not in a hurry to go anywhere –

but we knew no more. Yet more was precisely what we needed. Be-

sides, there was one other consideration. The American automobile high-

way is the kind of place where, as the winged word of the chauffeur

has it, you ride straight into the open grave. Here you need an ex-

perienced guide.

And so, quite unexpectedly, there opened before us an abyss. And we

stood on its very edge. We actually needed a man, who:

could drive a machine to a perfection;

knew America to perfection, in order to show it to us properly;

spoke English well;

spoke Russian well;

had sufficient cultural background;

had a good character, otherwise he would spoil the journey;

and

did not like to make money.

The last point was obligatory, because we did not have much money.

We lacked it to such an extent that, to tell the truth, we had very

little of it.

Thus, as a matter of fact, we needed an ideal creature, a rose without

thorns, an angel without wings. We needed a complex hybrid: a guide-

chauffeur-interpreter-altruist. Michurin himself would have given up. It

would have taken scores of years to breed this hybrid.

There was no sense in buying an automobile until we found the

appropriate hybrid, yet the longer we stayed in New York the less

money we had left for an automobile. We solved this complex problem

daily, and yet we could not solve it. Besides, there was almost no time

for thinking about it.

On the way to America we did not take into consideration one thing:

hospitality, American hospitality. It is limitless and far outstrips every-

thing possible or conceivable of its kind, including Russian, Siberian,

and Georgian hospitality. The first American you meet will not fail

to invite you to his house or to a restaurant to drink a cocktail with

him. At each cocktail party you will find ten friends of your new

acquaintance. Each one of them will not fail to invite you to a cocktail

party of his own, and each one of these will have ten or fifteen friends.

In two days you suddenly acquire a hundred new acquaintances, and

within a week several thousand. It is simply dangerous to spend a year

in America, because you will be a confirmed drunkard and a kind of

Gleb Uspensky tramp.

All the several thousand of our new friends were filled with one

desire: to show us everything that we would want to see, to go with

us wherever we’d like to go, to explain everything to us that we did

not understand. Remarkable people are these Americans. It is pleasant

to be friends with them, and it is easy to do business with them.

We were almost never alone. The telephone of our hotel room began

to ring in the morning, and it rang as regularly as that in an informa-

tion bureau. In the rare and brief intervals between meetings with nec-

essary and interesting people we dreamed of this ideal creature still out

of our reach. Even our amusements were most businesslike, spurred on

by such advice as:

“You must see it; otherwise, you will never know America!”

“What? You haven’t been in a burlesque? Well, but then you haven’t

seen America! Why, that is the most vulgar spectacle in the world!

You can see it only in America!”

“What? You haven’t been to the automobile races? Excuse me, but

you don’t know what America is!”

It was on a bright October morning that we made our way by auto-

mobile out of New York to an agricultural exhibit in the little town

of Danbury, in the state of Connecticut.

We will say nothing here about the roads on which we traveled. That

would take time, inspiration, a special chapter.

The red autumnal landscape stretched on both sides of the road. The

leafage was red-hot, and when it seemed that nothing in the world

could be redder there appeared another grove of maddeningly Indian

color. That was not the design of the forest around Moscow, to which

our eyes were accustomed, where you will find red and bright yellow

and soft brown. Here everything flamed as in a sunset, and this amaz-

ing conflagration around New York, this Indian sylvan gorgeousness,

continued all through October.

A roar and a clatter was heard as we approached Danbury. The flock

of automobiles rested on the slopes of a little valley that was still green.

There the exhibit was laid out. Policemen stretched out their arms for-

biddingly, chasing us from one place to another. We finally found a

place for the automobile and went to the stadium.

At the round tribune the roar was heartrending, and over the high

walls of the stadium flew small stones and hot sand, thrown up by

machines around the sharp turn. It would have been easy to lose an

eye or a tooth. We hastened our footsteps, shielded ourselves with our

arms, just as the Pompeians must have done when their native city was

perishing in a volcanic eruption.

We had to wait in a small queue to buy tickets. Around us was the

clatter of a drab, provincial fair. The vendors, who have been described

more than once by O. Henry, loudly praised their wares: strange alumi-

num whistles, carved swagger sticks, sticks crowned with dolls, all the

trash found at a fair. A cow with beautiful eyes and long eyelashes was

being led away. The beauty swung her udder enticingly. The owner

of the mechanical organ danced to the tune of the deafening music of

his contraption. A swing in the shape of a boat attaché to a green

metallic rigging made a complete circle. When those who were swing-

ing were high in the sky, their heads down, the purehearted and hysteri-

cal feminine scream that broke forth carried us at once from the state

of Connecticut to the state of Moscow, to the Park of Culture and Rest.

The vendors of salted nuts and cheese-cracker sandwiches yelled at the

top of their voices.

An automobile race is an empty spectacle, dreary and morbid. Red,

white, and yellow racing machines with straddling wheels and num-

bers painted on the sides, shooting out like rocket volleys, flew past us.

One round was succeeded by the next. Five, six, sometimes ten, ma-

chines competed at the same time. The audience roared. It was fright-

fully boring. The only thing that could possibly amuse the public would

be an automobile accident. As a matter of fact, that is what people came

here for. At last it occurred. Suddenly, alarm signals were heard. Every-

one jumped from his seat. One of the automobiles flew off the track

while going full speed. We were still pushing our way through the

crowd which surrounded the stadium when we heard the frightful

baying of the ambulance. Through its windowpanes we managed to see

the injure driver. He no longer wore his leather helmet. He sat there,

holding on to his blue skull with both hands. He hand an angry look.

He had lost the prize for which he had risked his life.

In the intervals between heats, on a wooden platform inside the cir-

cle, circus comedians were playing a scene which portrayed four clumsy

fellows building a house. Naturally, bricks fell on the four fools. They

smeared each other with the cement mixture. They beat each other with

hammers by mistake, and in sheer self-forgetfulness sawed off their

own legs. All this concoction of tricks, which had its origin in the dis-

tant antiquity of Greece and Rome and is still brilliantly carried on by

such great master clowns like Fratellini, was excellently done by the

clowns of the Danbury fair. It is always pleasant to watch good circus

work, and its ways, polished through ages, are never boresome.

The fair came to an end. The visitors in the wooden pavilions were

few in number. On long tables in the pavilions lay large lacquered vege-

tables that seemed inedible. The orchestras performed farewell marches,

and all the visitors en masse, raising clouds of dust over the clean dark-

yellow sand, made their way to their automobiles. Here were demon-

strated (and sold, of course) trailers for automobiles. 

Pairs of Americans, in most cases composed of man and wife, would

go inside and exclaim for a long time, impressed by the trailers. They

examined the enticing inside of the trailer, the comfortable beds, the

lace curtains on the windows, the couch, the convenient and simple

metal stove. What could be better? You attach a trailer like that to an

automobile, drive out of the thundering city, and drive and drive to

wherever your eyes may lead you. That is, you know where you are

driving. The eyes “look into the forest,” and they see the Great Lakes,

the beaches of the Pacific Ocean, the canyons, and the broad rivers.

Groaning, man and wife would crawl out of a trailer. It was to ex-

pensive. Here in Danbury were trailers at $350 and some at $700. But

where can you get $700? Where can you get the time for a long trip?

The long columns of machines flew soundlessly back to New York,

and after an hour and a half at a good clip we saw the flaming sky.

Skyscrapers shone from top to bottom. Over the earth gleamed the flow-

ing lights of the cinemas and the theaters.

Carried away by the storm of life, we decided to devote the evening

to acquaintanceship with entertainment for common people.

A “nickel” is what Americans call a small nickel coin of five cents.

With all its appearance nocturnal New York tells the pleasure seeker:

“Give me your nickel! Drop your nickel! Part with your nickel and

you will be happy!”

The clicking noise comes out of the large amusement stores. Here

stand scores of pinball tables of all kinds. You drop a nickel in the

proper slot; automatically a cue is liberated by a spring, and the pleasure

seeker, having decided to spend the evening in revelry, can shoot a steel

ball five times. For a certain number of points won he receives a card-

board certificate from the master of the establishment. A half year spent

at regular play and, in consequence of the regular dropping of nickels,

the reveler has the necessary number of points to receive his prize—one

of those beautiful prizes that stand on the shelf. That may be a glass

vase or an aluminum cocktail shaker, or a table clock, or a cheap foun-

tain pen or safety razor. In brief, here are all the treasures at the mere

sight of which the heart of a housewife, a child, or a gangster contracts

with sweetness. Americans spend hours in such lonely entertainment,

in a concentrated, indifferent manner, without anger and without exul-

tation.

Having finished with the pinball, one may go to an automatic sooth-

sayer. She sits in a glass case, yellow-faced and thin. Before her in semi-

circles lies cards. It is taken for granted that you must drop a nickel.

Then the soothsayer comes to life. Her head begins to bob, her chest

to heave, and a wax arm glides over the cards. This is no spectacle for

impressionable people. It is all so stupid and so horrible that one is in

danger of losing his mind. A half minute later the fortuneteller freezes

into her previous position. Now you must pull a handle. From the

crack falls the prophecy of your fate. It is in most cases a portrait of your

future wife and a short description of her attributes.

The stores of these idiotic wonders are disgusting even when they are

located in the center of a city full of tinsel and noise. But somewhere

on the East Side, in the dark alleys, where the sidewalks and pavements

are littered with the refuse of the daytime trade, among signboards

which testify to the extreme poverty (here you can get a shave for

five cents, lodging for fifteen), such a store, dimly lighted, dirty, where

two or three figures silently and joylessly click at pinball, where by

comparison an ordinary game of billiards becomes a genuine triumph

of culture and intellect – there it is mortal boredom.

The head can ache from work. But it can also ache from amusement.

After the amusement stores we found ourselves in another strange

amusement establishment.

The clatter of jay imitates so far as possible the clatter of the elevated

Railway. People crowd around a glass booth in which sits a live cashier

Girl with a set, waxy smile on her face. This is a theater called “Bur-

lesque.” This is a variety show for thirty-five cents.

The hall was full, and the young, determined ushers placed people any-

where at all. Some did not find seats. They stood in the aisles without

taking their eyes off the stage.

On the stage a woman sang. She did not know how to sing. She had

the kind of voice that din not entitle her to hold forth even at birthday

parties for the most indulgent relatives. She also danced. One did not

have to be a balletomane to realize that this person would never become

a ballerina. Yet the public smiled approvingly. Apparently in this audi-

ence there were no fanatics of singing and no balletomanes. The audience

had come here for something else.

The “something else” was explained when this singer of songs and

dancer of dances suddenly began to tittup across the stage, casting off

her clothes as she cut her capers. She cast them off quite slowly so that

the audience might examine this artistic mise en scène in all its detail.

Suddenly the jay cackled, the music stopped, and with a bedroom scream

the girl ran into the wings. The young men who filled the hall applauded

enthusiastically. A master of ceremonies, a man of athletic appearance

dressed in a dinner jacket, came out on the stage and made a businesslike

proposition:

“If you applaud harder she will take off something else.”

Such an explosion of applause broke loose then as even Mattia Battistini

or Anna Pavlova or Keane himself, the greatest of the great, could never

expect in a lifetime from any audience. No! Mere talent cannot win such

a public!

The performer again passed across the stage, sacrificing what little

was left of her garments. To satisfy the theater censorship, she held a

bit of clothing before her with one hand.

After the first dancer and singer another came out and repeated exactly

what her predecessor had done. The third one did what the second had

done. The fourth, fifth, and sixth did not make any new contributions.

They sang without voice and without ear, and they danced with the

grace of a kangaroo. But they disrobed. The other ten girls took their

turns in faithfully repeating the same performance.

The only difference between them was that some were brunettes (these

were few in number), while others were light-haired lambs (there were

more of these).

This Zulu solemnity continued for several hours. It is pornography

mechanized to such an extent that it acquires a kind of industrial and

factory character. There is as little eroticism in this spectacle as in a

serial production of vacuum cleaners or adding machines.

A small soundless rain fell on the street. But had there been a storm

with thunder and lightning it would not have been heard.

New York itself thunders and gleams much more thoroughly than

any storm. It is an excruciating city. It constantly rivets all attention to

itself. It makes your eyes ache.

Yet it is impossible not to look upon it.