It struck me that simply delivering slabs of the new book probably wasn’t a great idea – lack of context and all that. Better instead to offer up a few choice bits which give a flavor of what is to come. To that end, here’s another excerpt from early on in the book. The narrator’s grandparents have just arrived in America from Germany – not in New York, but New Orleans. Hope you like it. (Oh, and talking of context. The date, I should tell you, is 1905.)
The ship’s arrival at the dock prompted a flurry of activity. Frederick and Jette stood on the deck and gazed down at the troop of men who ran to and fro, securing ropes and erecting gangplanks, shouting to each other in a strange language. Jette’s fingers curled around Frederick’s arm.
‘Look at them,’ she whispered.
Frederick nodded. He watched the dockworkers in fascination. He had read about Negroes, but there had been none to be found in the streets of Hanover. The men’s huge muscles gleamed in the afternoon sun. Some laughed and joked as they hauled cargo along the gangplank and on to the quay, others whistled and sang. Frederick thought of the grim-faced men at Bremen who had loaded the same cargo two weeks earlier in sour silence. His heart ballooned. What sort of country can this be, he wondered, when even the hardest jobs are performed with such joy?
When my grandparents finally arrived onshore, they queued to register their arrival in America. Frederick entered his name and occupation in a large ledger and signed his name with an exuberant flourish.
Last year I went to the State Historical Society of Louisiana iand found the book my grandfather signed. Its heavy covers were sheathed in decades-old dust, its spine a mosaic of fragmented leather. The pages were ochre-stiff and pungent with the smell of creeping decay. The paper crackled beneath my touch. And then there it was: FREDERICK MEISENHEIMER, ANGESTELLTE. Clerk. Page upon page of faded signatures preceded this entry, and page upon page followed. Our story was just a single line in this vast narrative of hope. Every family in those pages had begun their journey here before spreading out in waves across the country, on the crest of their immigrant dreams.
My grandfather’s signature itself was utterly unreadable, a defiant, optimistic scrawl. I traced a finger across the faded ink.
As part of the price of their tickets, the steamer company had booked each passenger one night’s stay in a hotel opposite the docks. After a fresh battery of inspections and interviews, Frederick and Jette followed the other passengers across the wide street.
That evening they ate at the hotel restaurant. In the middle of the room stood a table groaning with food. After two weeks of soup and herring, the new arrivals just stood and stared. There were hams dotted with cloves; thick, dark slabs of Creole pork; vast platters of fried chicken; piles of shrimp the size of a child’s fist and coated in a fiery red sauce; and ribs – more ribs than you could imagine, glistening sweet and brown. There were huge ears of corn, shining with butter; potatoes, fried and boiled; buckets of green beans; and, at the centre of the table, a huge, bubbling pot of jambalaya. There was a hill of white rolls, so fresh they spilled steam when you opened them up. There were plates of fresh fruit – oranges, bananas, mangoes, thickly sliced pineapples, plums. Jette and Frederick fell on the feast before them. They piled their plates as high as they could, and then went back for more. They were silent as they ate, every mouthful a new eruption of strange flavours. Their lips tingled with the kiss of spice.
When the meal was finally over, Jette let out a small moan, equal parts distress and satisfaction. ‘I’ve never eaten so much in my life,’ she said, wincing. ‘I need to go and lie down.’
Frederick looked around him. Some passengers were still eating, blinking in astonishment as they chewed. His first night in America! He knew that sleep was far away yet. ‘I’ll stay down here a while,’ he said.
‘Remember we have a long day tomorrow,’ said Jette, kissing him softly as she left.
Frederick drank a glass of cold beer and thought about the strange new world waiting for him outside the front door of the hotel. He pushed his empty glass across the counter, counted out the correct change, and stepped out on to the street.
It was still murderously humid, even though the sun had long since gone down. My grandfather stood for a moment on the street corner. He caught the sharp aroma of fresh tar from the nearby docks, then the sweet scent of bougainvillea, drifting by on a languid breeze. He planted his hat firmly on his head and set off down the street, away from the water: into America.
Frederick must have been quite a sight. He had not shaved for two weeks, and his ginger beard was even wilder than usual. He still wore his velvet suit, which by now was filthy and crumpled beyond recognition. He looked the worse for wear, but he had never felt more excited, or more alive. Shiny trams shuttled past him, bells clanking loudly as they sailed up the wide street, gravel dust floating in their wake. On the sides of the tall brick buildings were posters adorned with giant bars of chocolate and bottles of milk. Beneath the pale glow of the streetlamps, the sidewalks teamed with life. Couples walked past arm in arm, their heads close together in a cloud of sweet nothings. Sharply-dressed men prowled past him, their hats pulled down over their eyes. Packs of thin-limbed children scuttled by in the shadows. Frederick felt their hungry eyes upon him. As he walked on, the cobbled streets narrowed. The windows of upstairs apartments were flung open to the night, and from time to time the warm air was punctuated by raucous laughter or angry shouts from somewhere above him. Women leaned out of their kitchen windows and gossiped to their neighbours across the street, oblivious to the pedestrians passing below. He listened to their crackling, high-pitched delivery, not understanding a word.
After an hour or so, Frederick sat down on a bench and rested. He was thirsty, and hot. He wiped his brow and thought about returning to the hotel. Just then, the sound of a cornet floated through the air. Frederick listened. This was not the sort of dry fugue that echoed through Hanover concert halls. The instrument had been unshackled: it spiralled upwards in bewildering syncopated patterns, a whirlwind of graceful elision and complex melody. The music streaked into the night, every note dripping with joy. My grandfather stood up, thoughts of return forgotten. He followed the sound.
Half way down a nearby side street stood a building lit up like a beacon, bathing the sidewalk in its warm glow. A sign hung over the door: Chez Benny’s. The strange music spilled out of open windows. As he approached, Frederick could hear other instruments –clarinets, a trombone, a banjo. He peered inside. Through a fog of smoke Frederick could see a large room crammed with people, some at small tables, some standing, others dancing. At the far end of the room, six musicians stood on a stage. The cornet player was at their centre, his eyes tightly closed as he blew his horn. Staccato flurries of notes ripped into the night, ragging the up-tempo tune. Behind him the other men were swinging in a sweet, scorching counterpoint of rhythm and harmony. The cornet player bent his knees like a boxer as he delivered each new blistering line of attack. Hot glissandos shimmered in the air, tearing up the joint.
After a moment, Frederick became aware that someone watching him from the front door of the club, a tall Negro. The man took a step towards Frederick and said something. Frederick shook his head in apology.
‘No English,’ he muttered.
The man said something else – which, to his astonishment, Frederick understood. It took him a moment to register why: the man was speaking French.
‘We’re full,’ he said, his accent fragrant with the echo of elsewhere.
‘Who is that?’ asked Frederick in French, pointing through the window.
‘You can’t come in. We’re full.’
‘But I just want –’
‘Are you blind?’ said the man angrily. ‘This club is for blacks.’
Frederick blinked in surprise. He turned and looked again at the audience.
‘You can’t come in,’ said the man again.
‘I’ve never heard such music before,’ said Frederick.
‘Just arrived?’ asked the Negro.
‘This afternoon. From Germany.’
‘Germany?’ The man whistled. ‘You’ve come a long way.’
Frederick looked back at the stage. One of the clarinet players was soloing now, a wailing chorus of glee. ‘Who is that cornet player?’
The man slowly extended his index finger, pushed the rim of his hat upwards, and then pointed through the window. The cornet player stood at the side of the stage, clapping his hands and stamping his foot in time to the music. ‘That,’ he said, ‘is Buddy Bolden.’