What is Your Name?

April 24, 2008
By Zane Pokorny, Amherst, NH

Sokolov stepped off the train into a sea of people. Their voices clamored together into a deafening hum that filled Sokolov’s ears, and the rancid smells of Chicago charged up his nose. He loved it.

At first he had feared the crowds. They brought back unwanted memories, from worse times. The last crowd he had been in before he stepped onto the ship that would take him to a new life, the Nikita, had stolen his family from him. The mighty Czar did not look kindly on the lowly Jews, and they suffered for it. His diet of black bread and spoiled fish on the Nikita was a feast next to what Sokolov’s family got in their last days in Russia. The conditions of the Nikita were so bad that many died, but not Sokolov. He refused to. He would not die now, not after what he had escaped from.

Sokolov was in many ways average. His height was average, his hair and eye color the same as everyone else in Russia, and he had the same build as all the other farmers. Their hard work made them strong, but lack of food made them small. They did not expect much from their soil, and received less. By the time he reached America, Sokolov’s feet were strong too; strong and rough. He had to walk all the way to the boat that took him here.

America truly was the land of opportunity. Sokolov had stepped off the Nikita with his ragged clothes and the emotional burden he dragged, with no skilled talents to speak of. He had been a farmer in Russia, he and his family subsisting off of the poor soil that was imprisoned in hard ice for most of the year. Here, he could do almost anything he wanted, he thought.

The job that Sokolov finally found was at a kosher butcher shop. He cut up hunks of raw meat every day, and he only got one dollar a week for it. The owner of the shop was another Jew, another immigrant. He too was poor, and had to save every cent to feed his family. Sokolov understood this, but for one dollar a week he did not take pleasure in dissecting lumps of meat and having blood splatter his shirts, and he especially did not enjoy the smell of his work following him to his home every night. Dealing with customers slowly taught him English, and reading the newspaper with the help of his boss helped him learn to read. He was forced to do these things, if he wished to live in American society instead of on the outside of it. However, he took pleasure in many American things that he had not experienced before. He saved some of his money for them. His favorite was coffee.

Sokolov took a sip of his steaming coffee and opened up his newspaper. He read the print and was captivated by the advertisement in front of him. Chicago was holding a fair in honor of the man who discovered America, Christopher Columbus, a fair that promised to be the greatest the world had ever seen. It needed workers. Sokolov remembered reading about the World’s Fair Paris held years ago, and he thought about how he wished he could have gone at the time. Such an amazing idea! A place where the greatest minds in the world could come together and, without prejudices, create the greatest peaceful gathering ever thought of. Sokolov started putting some money aside. He was going to Chicago.

Sokolov grasped the rail of the train and pulled himself up. This was a different Sokolov, at least in appearance. He wore a fresh new suit, hand-tailored to fit. If he wanted to be successful in America, he had to look successful. He stepped onto the train, and found his face a little too close to another man’s. The man didn’t back down, though, but instead chewed his wet cigar stump and smiled, showing his stained yellow teeth.

“Welcome aboard, sir!” His smoky breath slid into Sokolov nostrils.

“Thank you,” he coughed, pushing past the grinning man, who turned to greet the next person.

The car was crowded, and after putting his single bag into the rack above each seat, he looked down at the man sitting in front of him. His head leaned against the window and his hat was pulled low over his eyes. His suit was much shabbier than Sokolov’s expensive new one; he could even see the loose weave of the cloth. His shirt was untucked and his striped tie sat loosely around his unshaven neck. Sokolov looked up and noticed the rest of his face was unshaven too. His shoes, though leather, were worn and scuffed. None of the hues of his clothes exactly matched. Sokolov imagined that his eyes were bloodshot. He looked like he was about to fall apart.

And yet, there was something about him. He seemed like the kind of person where, even if both his legs were broken, he would still try to stand. His back was straight against the seat even though he slept, and he smelled earthy and nice, like a forest changing seasons. Sokolov instantly liked him, and so sat down next to him. The train gave out a shrill whistle and started to move. The sound made the mismatched man jerk forward, the hat sliding off his head. He picked it up, looked around, and noticed Sokolov.

“Hello.” His voice was deeper and rough from sleep, but kind. It was also heavy with a Russian accent. “My name is Mikhail Zolnerowich. The pleasure is mine, I am sure.” He extended his hand. Sokolov took it and felt its rough and strong grip. A working man, for sure.

“My name is…John Bird,” Sokolov said.

“I see. And, John Bird, where are you going?”

“To Chicago.”

“What will you do in Chicago, Mr. Bird?”

“I want to help build the Columbian Exposition.”

“Build? But your suit is too nice for you to be a worker, surely?”

Sokolov smiled at that. “Maybe. Or maybe I want to look nice. If there are two men trying to work at the same store, and they are identical, but one has stains in his shirt, threads sticking out, tears in the fabric, and the other has a clean, expensive new suit, who will the owner hire?”

“So really, you are not as expensive as your coat tells me.” Zolnerowich’s voice was serious, but his mouth was smiling.

“Yes, you could say that.”

“An American, living the American Dream.” Zolnerowich sighed.

“Yes. Aren’t we all?” Sokolov’s question was symbolic, but Zolnerowich answered it.

“No. I do not believe we are. I do not think we are all American. I do not feel we are all here to just live this American dream.” He pulled at the last word. “What did you say your name was?” He sat forward, waiting an answer, but his eyes told Sokolov he already had found one.

“John Bird.”

“I don’t believe you.”

Sokolov was surprised at the audacity of Zolnerowich’s statement, but he held his face still. “What do you mean you don’t believe me? That is my name. John Bird. You know this.”

“It is not. Yes, I know that John Bird is what you say your name is, but it is not. You are immigrant, like me. You are not American. John Bird is American name.” Zolnerowich’s voice was calm. The way he looked through Sokolov’s new identity amazed him. Despite his appearance, Zolnerowich was intelligent, perceptive. “In fact, perhaps you are Russian, like me. A Jew, even.” Sokolov let his astonishment fall onto his face.

“Yes, this is true, Mikhail. I am Russian, I am Jew. How you know this, I do not understand.”

“In America, anything is possible. Here everyone holds their head high, wears nice suit and dress, has something to eat when they are hungry. Oh yes, your suit is nice. Yes, you hold your head high. Yes, you seem well fed, even.” Zolnerowich laughed at that, and Sokolov could not help but smile. “But even as you hold your head high, there is weight on top of it, forcing it down. Even though you wear nice suit, there is sadness in your eyes. You disguise your voice with American accent, but your mother country still pushes through. This is how I know you are Russian. This is how I know you are Jew. I know this, because I was once in the same place as you.”

At this, Sokolov laughed. “Now you have worn shoes and cheap suit? If you were once in the same place as me, perhaps you should have tried to stay!” Zolnerowich smiled at this, but it was the smile a father gives to a son that shows a wrong opinion. His eyes did not blink.

“No, my friend. You are mistaken. The possessions you see that I have seem poor, but I am rich. Your suit may seem expensive to someone else, but I see a poor man.”

“And why is that?” Sokolov was incredulous.

“You have forgotten yourself, Mr. Bird. No, I will not call you that, because that is not your name. You are nameless.” He paused, but continued to stare at Sokolov.

“My name is –-”

“You are nameless, because you have forgotten yourself. You disguise yourself; you take a new name, all to try to forget your past. You are running from it, and now it is gone. You have left your mother country. You have no past. You spend all your money on a new suit to impress the boss of this exposition, but there is no guarantee that you will be hired. You could be on the streets, with no money. So you have no future. Now, look at yourself, sitting here on this train, with no past and no future. You have nothing. Now look at me. I may seem shabby, but I hold my head high. I keep my name. Mikhail Zolnerowich! A true name! Perhaps at times I am shunned because of it, here in America, but I hold on to it. Why? It is my past. I treasure it! This is why I am rich.”

He turned to Zolnerowich. “I see. Perhaps this is how you feel, but I do not. My past is where it should be, behind me. I do not wish to return. I will not.”

Zolnerowich shook his head. “Eventually, you must. We all must. I wish you well, my friend.” He turned and tilted his hat back over his head. Sokolov smiled.

Sokolov stepped off the train into a sea of people, their voices melding together into a wordless chorus. He loved it. He could disappear in this crowd and leave behind his troubles. He stepped out of the train station and into the crowd. He headed down the biggest road he could find, deeper and deeper into Chicago. He knew these roads always led to the center. He thought about Zolnerowich and what he said. Sokolov realized the truth in the man’s words, and he was ashamed of himself. He must accept his past, and move on to his future without its burden. He started to look for a way to find out where the Fair was.

Finally, he had arrived. Behind Sokolov stood Chicago, a city of smog and filth, but also a city of people who lived the American Dream. They looked past the flaws of the city and bettered it. They bettered their own lives. In front of him stood The Columbian Exposition, The World’s Fair, the White City, his future. He walked through the gates and into the nearest building. There, a man stood behind a desk, who looked up at Sokolov.
“What do you want?” the man asked.
“I’m looking for a job here.” Sokolov let his Russian accent into his words. It was his true voice.
“Well, you came to the right place, buddy. What’s your name?”
Sokolov smiled. “Sokolov. Dimitri Sokolov.”

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