Out in the New World

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Synopsis

1882. Pawel Chmielewski, unwilling to marry or comply with Bismarck’s Kulturkampf, reluctantly leaves his native Bydgoszcz and boards the Nordeutscher for nowy świat, the new world. Pawel is a Christian anarchist with a proclivity for the same sex—a set of markers that gets our young picaro into some very tight squeezes as he moves from New York to Chicago to San Francisco, linking him up along the way with Kelso Hamilton Sim, a Devonshire squire come to the San Joaquin Valley to marry and grow grapes. Out in the New World (complete at 130,000 words) is a story of love and labor in 19th-century America.

Out tracks the travails of Pawel from steerage in the Atlantic to Castle Gardens, from Illinois dolomite mines to the Haymarket Affair. Forced to flee Chicagoski in 1886, Pawel heads to the Barbary Coast in San Francisco, where he witnesses labor’s anti-Asian backlash and befriends Ru in Chinatown. Charged with sodomy, Pawel ends up in Kaweah, a socialist utopian community in the Sierra foothills. The rest is, as they say, not just history, but story—an adventure that moves from Poland to Hamerica, from Exeter to Visalia, from Central Park to Yosemite.

Portmanteau

He took the fat wooden hangers out, made room for his Bible, Bakunin’s manifesto on anarchy, thankfully thin, stuffed neatly between testaments. The guards at Castle Gardens would no doubt rifle through his dirty frontier shirts and gravy-stained zupan. (He wore the other clean vest, embroidered in red and black by his Aunt Majarska, on board the steamer). To find the good book, immigration in New York would have to dig through hog bristles, a box of consecrated wafers for Jadigwa in Chicagoski, the scapulars for his cousins, and what was left of the smoked twarog, smelling up the inside of the already musky valise, the calfskin rectangle found by his father in the back of some shop in Lublin and handed to him without a word—together with a ship ticket. The suitcase said it all: leave Bydgoszcz.

Pawel got the message. Not just from his sister but also big brother Aleyska, who now held a post with the Prussian government and bowed fawningly before Aleyska. Aleyska had not so subtlety placed the text of Paragraph 175, the 1875 sodomy law, under Pawel’s pillow a year earlier. The night his father thrust the case upon him, Pawel packed the dilapidated and peeling bag, its brass rivets missing at one end, its leather handle detached from the metal rivet loop but held tight by twine, its snap buckles still functional (the click of those rusted clips so satisfying, so final, as he sat on the top of the case to secure its closure).

Days later, he had grown accustomed to the pluck and explosion of those clasps when he lifted the onerous suitcase on to the seaweed mattress that would be his bed for two weeks on the Nordeutscher from Bremen to the fourth partition they called Amerika. Sprung open like a jack in the box, out rolled the white onion and tin of dirt with beet seeds his aunt insisted he carry to the new world, though she knew he’d probably be stuck in a basement tenement sharing a bed with some garlicked Galician if he ever made it across the border, through Hamburg and Bremen, over the angry swells of the Atlantic in the hull of a screw steamer, two weeks of vomit, cold water, and unburied feces. “The Lord is our Savior,” she intoned, crossing herself as she saw him carefully secure the framed 5 by 7 photo (a carte de visite) of Stanislaum in his cassock and white starched collar, beneath his felt calendr, the traditional cap he had a distinct feeling he would not be caught dead wearing on the streets of American Polonia.

That photo propped itself up against the lid of the suitcase when he snapped it open after lugging the bag to the foot of the metal bunk. There were Stash’s eyes, staring at Pawel as he curled up with his life jacket, holding on to the tin and onion so they would not roll on the floor as the ship horn moaned and the steel steamer embarked. Were those tears he detected in his friend’s watery eyes? Could a photo capture them? He knew then how hard it would be to close the lid on his possessions in the cramped space of the ship’s hold.

“Why am I here? Jesus, what did I do to deserve this? Tell me,” Pawel bemoaned as he curled on a 2 by 6-foot pad covered in stained canvas, his berth on the SS Nordeutscher, his unshuttable suitcase blocking any leg stretch, leaving him prenatal on his side. He hugged his life jacket, watched a sea of overcoats and satchels flood the wooden aisles of this dark hull full of single men. He couldn’t even sit up, the two-foot clearance in the bunks hardly enough for a chin on an elbow, his evil eye insufficient to ward off a 200-pound German from heaving his trunk onto the shaky metal frame above him, before the Prussian landed like a sledgehammer on the creaking slats. Two weeks of this?  Mein Gott in Himmel. Thank heaven no one had yet to claim the bed beside him, six inches from Mishu, the little bear his cousin Hattie sewed as a gift for their cousins in the Ńowy swiat, the new world that had become his unwelcome destination. “Mishu is mine now,” he told himself.  “I don’t care if I’m 19.”

He didn’t care if the cold iron pipe between his mattress and the bed next to him would hardly obscure its occupant from perusal of his mascot—an observation that would, no doubt, lead to a litany of eyerolls and muttered epithets. Pedale, schwul, sodomite—all the sticks and stones that broke the bones of Pawel’s ilk, faggots that kindled fires meant to send his kind to burn in hell—according to his Papa. When Pawel closed his eyes on the chaos of the ship, he could see his father’s overalls and mud-caked boots trudging across the dirt clods toward him and Helga on their hands and knees, fingernails black from digging potatoes and heaving them into crates. “He doesn’t look drunk to me,” Helga had warned, as they watched his downturned mustache amplify in their field of vision. It was only three in the afternoon. The geese were in the pasture with Pawel’s little brother Wladek and his tapping stick; the sun was a dim glow beneath canvas clouds sailing over the family’s flat farm, green acres of rye east of Bydgoszcz, the city Prussian occupiers had renamed Bromberg. Helga, feisty and older by 11 months, had just finished another round of “Go not near the wagon. Nor with its axle play. Nor let a young man kiss thee. Whatever he may say.” Her favorite tune. What a lovely pastoral scene in Posen that afternoon.

“Pawel,” his father had growled across furrowed rows, his handlebar mustache strangely reminiscent of plowed ground. “Get your rear end over here. Now!” Pawel threw the hoe to one side and lifted his tired but pounding heart up to the Lord. He knew he was beyond beating now—almost as tall as his father. The old man could hardly reach his black and blue butt if he did try to put Pawel’s head between his legs. A greater punishment, he knew, awaited him.

“I know why I’m here, Jesus,” Pawel continued to talk to himself. “You need not answer me. I know I must reap what I’ve sown.” He had read Corinthians over and over again, heard the priests blast Leviticus in his ears—Christians suddenly enamored of an Old Testament book which prohibits a lot more than his lot, including wearing coats that mix cotton and wool—the very ones hanging in their closets. Hypocrites. A collective “whoa” from his shipmates suddenly pulled Pawel out of his reverie. The Nordeutscher keeled to port, the hull dwellers en masse starting to slide like skaters on downhill ice, rolling and bumping. “Sorry, young man,” a tobaccoed old beard said to Pawel as he lifted his haunch from the side of Pawel’s bunk.

“They’ve hoisted the main,” a voice cried out. “The Baltic wind blows west.” Pawel heard a creak in the mast-pole casing that stood in the middle of their low-ceilinged digs, breaking up a row of wooden tables and benches. A stairway up to the deck was suddenly crowded with black hats channeling upwards to watch the vessel catch the gale. The captain was wasting no time making headway.

Pawel stayed put, feeling the first quease in his stomach. The bratwurst he ingested before boarding was repeating. Where did they say the facilities lay? Could he leave Mishu and his portmanteau unattended among this throng of strangers? The vomit advisories had been almost more sickening than his actual abdominal rumblings. “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” he recited to himself. Pawel’s constitution, after all, was notoriously strong—11 cups of ale one memorable naked night at the lake a while back had produced only an anvil headache the next morning. But he’d never been to sea—never even seen the sea, much less the ocean. Yes, he’d rowed on lakes near the farm, fishing with worms for white fish; he’d skinny-dipped with Stach countless times in the murky waters of Koronowski Lake, and once or twice they’d swung from tree ropes into the rusty inlets of the Vistula River. But sloshed around in the bow of a 500-foot steamer, under the forecastle, breathing ripe pits of sweaty trunk toting passengers, many as terrified as him? The sheer claustrophobia of it all. Pawel—a loner—who walked for hours with his wolfhound Irku in the hills, throwing sticks between beech trees, composing sonnets, collecting cerulean forget-me-nots for the girls at home—he suddenly sardined in a wooden hold with a mess of Jews, Russians, Germans, and Poles. He lifted his heart: “Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, our life, our sweetness, and our hope. Turn thy most gracious eyes of mercy toward us.”

He needed air; he needed light. The Lord, he knew, helps those who help themselves. Especially those who have helped themselves to one too many servings of sauerkraut in Bremerhaven. What choice had he but to climb out of that dungeon if even for a moment. It dawned on him that the septuagenarian trespasser who had bumped into his bunk was now situated with his pipe on a wooden bench across from Pawel’s berth, his hands on his knees, apparently lost in thought. His white beard and round face brought Father Piotr Ściegienny to mind, the famous champion of peasants from Lublin who wrote the Golden Booklet, and agreed—if they paid his transport—to appear at a meeting of the Young Polish League in the basement of an old Jesuit seminary near Market Square at Bydgoszcz’s old town. What a raucous congress that was—Stach and Pawel leaning against a wall in the back listening to the call for peasant cooperatives and equality, calls for true anarchy—the abolishment of all involuntary hierarchies—calls for the end of positivism—its submission to Bismarck’s German re-education camps that had quashed their red and white Land of Polonia. “Organic Work be damned!” his mates had shouted, rising from their wooden chairs, told to hush by the organizers, worried that Prussian police might get wind of their basement fervor. Actually, his papa had slapped Pawel’s bowed head that afternoon in the harvest fields not because of the rumors about him and Brother Stanislaus—the young priest they called Stach who had taken him under more than his wing—but in reaction to Pawel’s attendance at that radical communist gathering of Bakunian thugs, seeking to disrupt prosperous enterprise under the organized aegis of the Kaiser. Not that Pawel’s father disfavored independence, but he was one of those Wallenrodyzm drones—accepting servility under Prussian occupation until a national movement could emerge.

Pawel’s sighting at the Polish Commune League meeting turned out to be—that lovely October afternoon in the potato trenches, the rye fields still waving in the white wind, Helga trying to keep her head down as she witnessed yet another father/son contretemps—the immediate motivation—if impetus were needed—for his father’s chastisement of his ridiculously romantic and foolhardy second son, whom he had begrudgingly sent off to study with the Jesuits at his wife’s behest. His father had repeatedly cuffed his ears every time he attempted to explain: his desire to better the lives of villagers, his curiosity about the philosophy of Proudhon and Marx, his interest in politics. “You will ruin us,” his father finally muttered, kicking dirt on Pawel’s boots, grabbing his shoulders and shaking him as his son kneeled before him now, penitent under the iron fist of the Chmielewski patriarch, to whom Pawel was tied by sinews of blood and guts—his second begotten son. “Father, father, why have you forsaken me?”

“Excuse me, kind sir,” Pawel addressed the Venerable Bede across from him as he slipped off his mattress, tucking Mishu beneath the coarse wool blanket that came with his state room, covering his suitcase with his overcoat. The senex raised his white mien, easily as massive as his forehead, and pierced Pawel’s interrupted recollection with the moody and dour stare of a true Pole—blue eyes sunken into the gloom of countless brow-besieging winters. The patriarch frightened the young traveler more than a thousand oceans, but Pawel felt his steady trust beneath that stony endurance.

“I am Pawel Chmielewski, son of a peasant farmer from Pomerania, may it please the Lord to introduce myself.”

The old man said nothing for what seemed like a minute, then nodded slowly, his beard moving like the head of a mountain goat. Pawel girded his loins, quelling the call of his bubbling digestive tract.

“I wonder if I may prevail upon you to consider overseeing my luggage for a moment while I go on deck for a breath of air. You see, sir, I am feeling somewhat unsettled in the stomach, and your earlier politeness struck me as a sign of courtesy.” Pawel tried to hold back the gagging that was visiting his esophagus, revenge of a slather of mustard that inhabited his expanding intestine.

White beard nodded again. “It will be my pleasure, Master Chmielewski. Your companion will be safe with me.”

“What?” Pawel asked himself, as he slinked his narrow torso through the crowd toward the stairs, bowing graciously to his accommodating elder. Did Mishu escape no one’s attention? Helga had knitted a sweater for his mascot, a facsimile of Casmir’s medieval castle sewn across the bruin’s chest. Its red turrets must stick out, Pawel conjectured. He was beginning to feel better already, one hand finally on the thick twists of nautical rope that served as a handrail. He looked up to see a drift of clouds skating across the lake of sky above his head. It was October now, late October. Maybe he should have brought his overcoat with him, but white shirtsleeves and his vest seemed enough to brace the breeze for a time—as long as he could hold on to his lunch. Pawel was, after all, just an oversized adolescent, not six feet tall, no thicker than the railing he leaned over as he met the floor of the deck and inhaled pure unadulterated oxygen, unscented with anything but salt, punctuated with nothing but a quarrel of gulls fighting over inedible crusts of stale bread already being jettisoned by his traveling companions.

 He elbowed and shouldered his thin-man frame toward the gangway, eventually grabbing a square of rigging to allow him to peer over the bow of the enormous sea horse, the screw steamer unfazed by whitecaps and swells. She cut through the crests, the sharp knife of her bow, the occasional flap of a ruffling sail, like sheets on the family’s clothesline back home, brought tears to Pawel’s sea-spray eyes. His sisters wrestling the laundry as another storm gathered. He looked down at the jade waters breaking into foam and mist, into rainbows of condensation, white froth spewing up from the stolid and thankless metal hull of the grand ship. For now out of the hold, his looming regurgitation seemed on hold as well. He felt the wind against his pointless mustache, that thin line of facial hair that was supposed to signal his blossoming virility. He turned to feel the gust hug his back, feel his body in the palm of God’s hand, feel the embrace and exhilaration of mysterious providence.

Maybe he did deserve to be here—maybe he was meant to leave behind his loves—family, parish, country—Helga, Stash, the Polish Commune—meant to abandon his romantic ideals—equality, justice, free love. Maybe. The wind was bringing water to his eyes. It was blowing Bydgoszcz across the Baltic. Maybe he was meant to be the prodigal son, even if he had left home under protest with no inheritance but a few rubles, a stuffed animal on loan, a disintegrating portmanteau. Maybe after he squandered the gold he was told he would find on the streets of Chicago, after he clawed himself out of his cousin Zosa’s boarding house where a cot in a probably flooded basement amidst her pigeons awaited him along with a pick and shovel for his 12-hour days in the quarry with his uncle’s greasy sons sporting overalls and foul-mouthed shoulder chips, jeering and gesticulating as they imitated their egghead relation fresh from the homeland. Pawel imagined them with their rolled-up sleeves and newsboy caps, elbows on knees as they sprawled on stairs of the family boarding house, swigging growlers and stuffing brown bread into their smug mouths, as they mimed Pawel’s German grammar and Shakespeare quotes, their high-brow cousin now getting his comeuppance, forced to break his back and admire their veined forearms. Troglodytes. Once Pawel saved enough to make his fortune writing letters and articles for the Polish Daily News and the radical journal Zgoda, he would sail home first class, lavish his fortune on London theatres and Bavarian spas, and throw himself into the arms of his papa, begging forgiveness—once lost but now found. The fatted calf slaughtered and roasted at his homecoming feast, Stach at his side, his brother Aleysha chastened…

A dubious scenario at best, his parable pipe dream no more than a tern darting off the mast like a lark at break of day arising, like a splinter from a split log, a stone thrown from the banks of the Brda at a head-bowed boy wandering with his dog and singing Schubert songs to himself. Pawel knew he was an oddball. Suddenly he was pelted by some other falling object that darted off his head. He wiped his sleeve across his eyes and looked down at his feet, rubbing shoulders with cotton sleeves and musty woolen coats of anxious strangers cranking their necks over the starboard rail beside him, the scent of wet wool heft mixed with thick noses hanging over rough patches of hair on unknown faces six inches from his anxious eyes. All were jostling for position, trying to maintain dignity in the forced intimacy of steerage, even on this narrow section of deck, nodding and bowing to one another, mumbling “halo” with trepidatious timidity. They were on this ark together—for God knew how many days.

“Has a gull seen fit to anoint me? To shower me with some omen of guano?” Pawel asked himself, feeling his scalp. It would not be the first time he’d been shat upon—not the first projectile that had been hurled at this misfit. He bent over to find out what in the name of God had glanced off his temple. He found a small box on the deck between the scuffed boots of the man beside him, leaned down to scoop it up. Not larger than a new potato, it fit in the palm of his hand as he struggled to stand upright amid the trousers and knickers and suspenders, some covering rather formidable bulges. On the cover of the wooden box the letters spelled Bryant and Mays, Flaming Fusees, London. A tiger curled warily through the lettering. Pawel spoke little or no English, even if his skills in German and Russian had won him high marks in school. Where had this matchbox come from, this deus ex machina? He could see that the red-tipped phosphorus sticks were still plentiful as he slid it open. Looking to his right and left, he raised the box to his fellow emigrants but received only a blank stare from a Lithuanian and headshake from the square-jawed farmhand to his right.

“God bless you, young man,” Pawel heard someone shout in crooked German from above. He craned his neck toward the upper deck, which featured a gangway overlooking the crowded third-class digs. A man in a wide straw boater gestured to him with his arm outstretched over the rails, holding a wooden pipe. He wore a cream-colored sack coat, only single buttoned, with broad lapels, hardly the high-buttoned waistcoat common on the streets of Warsaw and Hamburg among the Beau Brummels Pawel had admired. The man’s slacks in the same color beige seemed almost a kind of linen though Pawel suspected fine wool, given his British matchbook and the man’s stilted German. When the cheery fellow tipped his hat, Pawel could see the red-head and fair freckled skin that matched a red bow tie, offset by his starched club collar. He was smiling, imploring Pawel with a stretched arm to come around to the gangway which led at a steep slant from lower to upper decks, mouthing “bitte” and “komm” as he smiled broadly, making his way toward the ramp. “Entschuldigen” is a lengthy mouthful when one is trying to excuse himself for walking over feet and tapping shoulders, but Pawel was carefully avoiding Polish—in part because he knew the reputation of his people for pointless arrogance and stubborn inconsequence. After all, Russia, Prussia, and Austria, had long ago decided that Poles were not only partitionable but exterminable, if that was a word. And in America, Poles were called, Pawel heard, “the slave-trade of the North,” hard-headed but docile sources of dirt transport and hole digging with idiot sticks. Pawel was keeping his Polish pride to himself, as he weaved his way through his intransigent comrades.

At the gangway, he saw the match man heading down the aisle watching his progress. Pawel bound up the wooden ramp like a good Samaritan, but as Helga was wont to say, he was soon to discover that no good deed goes unpunished. At the top of the ramp, a chain loop like an untied noose, draped across the entrance to the first-class deck. Beside it a ship steward, bespectacled, trim mustached, buttoned up and down in navy blue with his matching pilot cap stood guard against the approach of the barbarian hordes below. He saw Pawel coming and stepped in front of the chain, ready to assert his authority over this upstart Polish crow—his nationality obvious, Pawel had forgotten, from the embroidery on his vest.

“Verboten,” the sailor intoned on Pawel’s approach, shaking his index finger. Pawel held up the matchbook in defense.

“Kind sir, good day and god bless you. I come only to return a fallen...” but Pawel’s formal address was interrupted by the broken German of the pipe smoker, who had arrived in haste.

“Steward,” he said rather imperiously, “this young gentleman has come to return the matchbox I have dropped. Please let him pass so I may thank him appropriately.”

“I am sorry, sir, but I have explicit orders to prevent all interaction between our cabined passengers and the peasantry in steerage. The captain has good reason to maintain this division. This youth may carry disease or seek to abscond with your valuables. I must warn you against any intercourse with this…” he paused and looked at Pawel, trying to assess the degree of his insignificance, “this farmhand.”

“Abscond? Did you say abscond, my good man?” The Brit suddenly let out in English, preparing to launch into high dudgeon. But how to do it in German? Instead he seemed to take a deep breath and smile at Pawel who stood below him on the ramp, looking up. “On the contrary, steward,” the Englishman continued in a combination of languages, “this young gentleman is, out of the kindness of his heart, laboring to return the only box of matches I have brought on this voyage. He has found what was lost and is now in good faith returning it out of sense of courtesy and honesty. I will see to it that he is rewarded. In the meantime, will you do me the favor of unleashing the gangway and allowing me to pass down in order to recover my fusees?”

“If you insist, sir, but I strongly advise against it. There are desperate people in steerage—men without means or morals. Not just Polish peasants, but Jews and gypsies.”

“Enough, steward,” Pawel’s new friend interrupted, perhaps seeing the sailor’s fists suddenly clenching. Mutiny on the Nordeutscher.  “I will take full responsibility.” He nimbly raised the chain and ducked under it, his straw boater tumbling down to the upturned faces in steerage, suddenly engrossed in this minor altercation. When the square-jawed farmhand in open shirt and twill knickers caught the falling hat, he waved it over his head and shouted, “Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves!” in an almost unintelligible accent, but caused the heads below to repeat its chant for a brief moment of tension-breaking cheer.

As Pawel descended the gangway, his new friend thrust out his hand. “Godspeed, good man. I am beholden to you, addicted as I am to the devil tobacco. Please, allow me to introduce myself. I am Kelso Hamilton Sim of Devonshire Retreat. My German is admittedly deplorable, but I am without any Polish. Still, at your service.” He bowed slightly. Pawel deftly slipped the matchbook into his palm as the straw hat passed over the heads of the passengers toward his smiling freckled face.

About the Author

Casey Charles

After teaching Shakespeare and queer studies at the University of Montana for many years, Casey Charles commutes between Missoula and Palm Springs, California. Most recently his memoir Undetectable has come out from Running Wild Press in 2024, adding his work across genres. He has published two novels, a nonfiction account of the Sharon Kowalski case, a poetry collection, and book of essays on law and film. His writing draws on his experience as an activist, attorney, and outdoorsman.