Learning to Speak

At precisely the age of 21 – the age of emancipation – he boarded a ship and sailed to America. Landing in New York in the middle of the Great Depression, he knew no one.

And, as was true for so many others, the immigrant knew little English. Just enough, and accompanied by gestures, to get by, one supposes.

He paced back and forth in front of a Times Square movie theater, agonizing over whether or not to spend 25 cents for admission. On those occasions when he did, he said his quarter bought him a newsreel, cartoon and two feature length movies.

He claimed to have learned to speak English by reading The New York Times. The soundtrack for the Times Square movies was not mentioned as his English tutor. That’s what he reported, anyway.

Initially, he found work in a factory receiving room, moving boxes. Later, he became a traveling salesman.

For a brief time he was partner in a firm that manufactured women’s wear. For a reason unknown to me, he left that business. In hindsight, a financial mistake, though I never heard him complain about or regret it.

And much later, I remember the two large stand-up suitcases, each with four wheels, both filled with wooden hanger-hung samples, that he’d schlep to the Jersey Central train station a dozen blocks away. And, from the train, he showed the product line . . . to someone, somewhere.

Later in life, the man devoted to the Times (though by then the Los Angeles Times), suffered from macular degeneration, an affliction that over time reduces and narrows one’s vision to about the size of a quarter. Eventually, all vision is lost.

No vision is easy to understand. Quarter-sized vision, less so.

Try reading horizontally across a line of text to the right side margin, and then finding the text’s continuation on the next line at the left margin when you’re sight is quarter-sized. It’s difficult. In addition to searching for the next correct line, which requires some concentration, one must also retain the partially-formed thought one just finished reading. In most cases, not an author’s complete thought.


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