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Immigrants to America, Immigrants to Sobriety

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Next week is Patriots’ Day in six states—Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, Florida,  Wisconsin, and North Dakota—that remember the beginning of the Revolutionary War at Lexington and Concord in 1775. The quasi-holiday gets me thinking in 2023 about two other dates, 1623 and 1903.

Four hundred years ago—1623—was the year most settlers in Jamestown and Plymouth, the two English outposts in America, were no longer homeless. Half of the original Pilgrims had died, but the rest finally had sufficient shelter and food. The previous year in Virginia, members of the Powhatan tribe had killed one-fourth of the settlers, but many natives had died—and from then on tribal power waned. Tragically, the slave trade was already underway.

Life was hardest for blacks, but most whites did not have it easy. Archeologists Barbara and Cary Carson say the typical mid-Atlantic white household through much of the 1600s included “a wife, husband, two children, and perhaps a servant gathered together in the perpetual dusk of their sheltered cottage . . . their dinner is cornmeal mush boiled in an iron pot. . . . They drink milk or water from a common cup, tankard or bowl passed around.”

Five people, one room, no indoor plumbing: The Carsons describe how “the room grows completely dark except for the glow of embers on the hearth.” Then all slept on the dirt floor, covering themselves with canvas sheets or bed rugs. Bugs, damp, and light seeped through cracks in the chinking that held together the unpainted planks of the walls.”

Jump centuries to 1903—when living conditions aren’t much better for new immigrants. That year one of my grandfathers—Rachmiel (Robert) Green—arrived in Boston from Lithuania. He first lived 15 miles southeast of Lexington, in Boston’s North End, which featured rows of three-story tenements. He rented a space in a two-bedroom apartment. A husband, wife, and children slept in one room. Grandpa and another tenant shared a thin straw mattress on the floor of the second bedroom.  

The kitchen was the most-used room. It had the only sink, so everyone washed there. The landlady used it to wash her family’s and the tenants’ laundry. One toilet in the hall served the four families on the floor plus eight tenants. If each family had three children, that made it one toilet for 28 people. 

Rachmiel had to find a job to avoid being homeless. He formulated a business plan as he passed by Jewish shopkeepers in their doorways and Italian organ-grinders on streets crowded with pushcarts. His father, Yudl, has taught him about mattresses. Straw mattresses after years of use are dirty, uncomfortable, and often loaded with lice, fleas, and bed bugs. Wouldn’t families and boarders sleep better and be happier if he fumigated and restuffed old ones?

Rachmiel went door-to-door, sometimes carrying four mattresses at a time on his strong back. His workday was sixteen hours, but he received pay from satisfied customers when he returned their restuffed mattresses. He eventually moved up to a pushcart, then to a wagon drawn by a horse with three legs, and then to a four-legged one.

He worked far more than 40 hours per week. His work was not ergonomically correct, but he provided a vital service to others and a financial service to himself and his descendants. He improved his living situation and got his own apartment. In a few years he went from peddling used mattresses, to making new ones, to starting his own company—United Bedding—and opening up a furniture store in East Boston.

Rachmiel’s business survived a fire and burglaries. He did not forget how he started: fifty years after arriving in Boston he still sold used mattresses, for eight dollars each. Later, he moved seven miles north of Boston to a growing Jewish suburban neighborhood. He bought there a two-story house with a yard that eventually contained three horses and a cow. Later he bought another two-story house, rented out the first, and had six children who became solidly middle class.

My point in writing about settlers 400 and 120 years ago: Life for newcomers in America has always had stress. Immigrants today go through hard times to better times. So do many immigrants to sobriety. My grandfather, and many formerly homeless people whom I’ve interviewed, had and have a great sense of accomplishment. We should work hard to allow everyone the opportunity to work hard and achieve career success. Now in Los Angeles, a few homeless people get expensive apartments and thousands are left on the streets. Other cities have their own distortions that destroy equal opportunity and turn life into a lottery. We can do better.