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.
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
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-
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;
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-
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
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
“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
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.