Better in America
April 13, 1912, New York City
Francois Babineaux hurried along the alleyway, bearing a sack of meal on his shoulder that weighed sixty pounds- a bit heavy for a twelve-year-old boy to be hefting, but he didn't have an overabundance of options. 'Everything will be better in America' Papa and Mama had said. Yes, it was much better. He earned twenty-five American cents each week- paid on Friday- the equivalent of one and one quarter francs- three quarters of a franc more- and he only had to work half of one hour longer each evening. He did not yet have building in which to sleep, but the greengrocer on Market Street sold him bruised apples two for a penny, and once a week he bought a loaf of day-old bread, not baguette, mind you, but some kind of soft American white bread- from a widow woman for ten American cents which came in a tiny coin the American's called a dime. He had found a window well where he could stash his belongings and so far no one had gotten to them. Every day he walked by a school- the school Mama and Papa had promised he would attend- and see the other children laughing and playing. Of course things were better in America. At home he had taken Fridays off for studies. He could read quite well and had mastered arithmetic. In America he had Saturday and Sunday free, but schools were closed then. For Francois there was no school in America. What Papa had read in the newspapers was all a lie. Americans lived no better than Frenchmen. The paper had boasted of colleges, claiming that any man's son could go there. Francois had dreamed of college. He wanted to be a lawyer, and fight for those who had no champion. But there would be no college for François. He would never step inside a schoolroom again. Oh how he wished they had stayed in France! He would bet Jeanette-Marie did not feel so. She seemed most satisfied with the man she had married. This Mr. Thorwald Ronaldson- a man from Sweden with a two year old daughter and an infant son. Never you mind that Jeanette-Marie had seen but fifteen summers- Thor had snapped her up like a hungry tiger.
"It is the only way we can get into America, François," his sister had told him, "And Mr. Ronaldson desperately needs someone to care for those children seeing how Joni died birthing the baby."
"Let him hire you as a nanny then," François had countered, "With the promise of employment, they will surely let us come in."
"Now think little brother. Mr. Ronaldson cannot afford to pay me to take care of the children- he will need to buy a house. And he is saving money so his sister Ingrid can come next year. No, he needs a wife."
"Let him find someone else then," François had begged, "You are too young Jeanie! We will go home to France!"
"And face that ocean again?" Jeanette-Marie had asked, "No, I think not, little brother. And besides, Papa and Mama wanted us here, you know this is so. Things will be better in America, François, you will see. Now, I must go; Mr. Ronaldson is waiting with the priest." And so, at fifteen and one half years of age, Jeanette-Marie Elizabeth Babineaux had pledged herself to Thorwald Ronaldson 'for better or worse, in sickness or health, until death shall us part.' The five of them had left Ellis Island as a family. That had quickly changed; François had listened outside Thor and Jeanette-Marie's bedroom door one night.
"When will young François be leaving?" his brother-in-law had asked.
"Leaving?" Jeanette-Marie replied, "Leaving for where, chérie?" François hands had balled into fists. Certainly, she had wed Thor only so they would be given an entrance into America, and because of his children. But less than a week of marriage, and she is calling him 'darling'.
"To get a job and a place of his own." Thor explained.
"Not for several years I do not think," his sister had said, "He is after all, only twelve."
"I worked at a sawmill when I was twelve."
"Oui. And at such an age I was a seamstress's assistant. But Thorwald, this is America! François, he has a brilliant mind, he should finish school, maybe go to college and really make something of himself. Is that not what this 'American Dream' is all about? No classes? That the common man can rise above where he was born, and need be 'common' no more?"
"Jenny, when I agreed to marry you, I wasn't planning to take on your orphaned brother as well. He is of age to support himself, or at least bring something to our table."
"S'il vous plaît, ma chérie, c'est mon frère, ma seule famille." Jeanette-Marie spoke rapidly in French. "I'm sorry, my dear." She said when Thor cleared his throat reminding her that he did not speak in her native tongue, "François is all the family I have left, please let him stay."
"No, and that is my final word on the subject."
"François, I will always love you," Jeanette-Marie had told him a few days later, as he is leaving. "I do not think this is right, but he is my husband, you know I cannot disobey."
"Of course, Jeanie, you must respect your husband." François had sneered, "I am glad things are so much better for you here in America." Jeanette-Marie had tried to explain, but François had slammed the door in her face. He had been lucky enough to find a job at the Waldorf Hotel fetching groceries for the chef. François suspected it was actually a part of someone else's job, but they would rather pay him to do it, which was fine; he badly needed the money, and few people were willing to hire a young French boy. He couldn't even apprentice to a skilled tradesman. At home he would have now been studying under Pierre DuPont, a master shipbuilder in Biarritz. It wasn't as good as being a barrister, but at least he would have the hope of someday supporting himself and his own family. Not with twenty-five cents a week. He was saving every penny he could, hoping to return to France and indenture himself to Monsieur DuPont. But the cost of passage across the Atlantic was so high; he would be too old by the time he could afford it. But it was a beautiful dream, and in his lonely gray world, François needed every dream he could find to keep himself going.
Six months passed then a year, and then two. It was now June of 1914, and François was fifteen years old. Thor had gotten a good job making furniture, and he and Jeanette-Marie lived in a three bedroom house with their children. Jeanette-Marie had given birth to a baby boy last March, and was now expecting another child- from the look of her; François thought the babe would arrive in autumn. He'd not spoken to his sister since leaving her house, and had not even met his nephew. Little else had changed for François. He now worked for Salvatore Santiago, a fine Italian man who ran a store on the East side of the city. The pay was better, and the hours good. François had worked hard to rid himself of his accent, not because he was ashamed of his homeland, but the other boys his age teased him mercilessly. For the same reason he had changed his name from François Babineaux to Frank Babin, which was much more American sounding. François had one day off each week, and every Sunday. Mr. Santiago was devout Catholic, and refused to open the shop on the Sabbath so he and his employees could attend Mass. François, unlike most of his coworkers, did not go. He had no desire to. Hadn't so much as see a priest since Jeanette-Marie's wedding day, and if he ever did, it would be too soon. It still made François angry when he thought about that day. How could a man who claimed to be God's messenger possibly at best turn a blind eye to, at worst condone, such a travesty to allow a mere child to wed a perfect stranger? François was very angry at that priest- well, at the Church in general. At God too- was not all this His doing? He was mad at Thor to be sure, at Jeanette-Marie, definitely at the men who wrote the newspapers Papa had read which made him decide to come to America, at Papa and Mama themselves, though he supposed they couldn't help what had happened, and completely furious with this United States of America. It was not better here. He was still a poor Frenchman, who did not belong anywhere. He hadn't yet enough money to go home, and was looking at a ship sailing in September for Haiti, a French colony in the Caribbean Sea. François had half a mind to join the crew, but not come back. He hated to leave Jeanette-Marie and the babies because he in no way trusted Thor, but there was not future for him in America.
Monday night, François tramped back to the warehouse he lived in well after dark. He'd gone to a pool hall after work, had a few drinks and gambled a bit. By the time the evening was spent, most of his friends were drunk and he'd lost three dollars. His parents had never liked gambling or drinking, but François indulged in the formed quite regularly, hoping to win enough to sail home. As for the latter, he always knew when to quit and had never gotten drunk. François was looking at the ground instead of where he was going, and bumped into another man in the dark.
"Oh, I am sorry Monsieur," he said quickly, "I was not watching my steps as closely as I ought."
"Quite all right." a voice in the dark said, "Your voice- you are from France?"
François found talking to a perfect strange whom he couldn't see a bit peculiar, but did not say so. "Oui, Monsieur. That is, yes, sir. From Guethary."
"I see. And what is your name, boy?"
"Frank Babin, sir."
"Frank Babin! That is not a Frenchman's name."
"Yes sir. My mother christened me François Jean-Mark Babineaux, but some of the other fellows enjoyed making fun of it, so I changed." He shrugged even though the other man was unable to see the gesture."
"I see," the stranger said, "What does your mother think of your being out so late and drinking, Frank?"
"My parents are both dead, sir; I lost them on the ship here."
"I am quite sorry to hear that, Frank. Have you any other family?"
"My sister, Jeanette-Marie, lives in the city, but we have not spoken since her husband threw me out."
"Was this because of your drinking that he evicted you?"
"Oh, no sir, it was a long time ago."
"Frank you are not old enough to have seen a long time. You must have been very young indeed."
"Oui. I was twelve, monsieur."
"Twelve!" the man exclaimed, "That is not right, my friend. I am very sorry for you. Now, come along with me to my house, and let us talk where it is more comfortable."
François followed the stranger as though he were the pied piper, not thinking how unusual this was. The man led him to a small cottage, opened the door and the stepped into a small room with a fireplace. The man proceeded to build a fire as it was a damp evening. While his host saw to the menial task, François observed him. He was likely in his middle to late twenties, with mouse brown curly hair, and fair skin. As he stood up, François guessed his height to be somewhere around five feet, ten inches, and noticed that his eyes were the same shade of blue as the ocean in the winter.
"That is better, is it not?" the man said, "Now, I have been unforgivably rude. I have asked a great many questions of you; Frank, but you do not even know my name. I am sorry for my breach. I am Hiram Davidson, and I am very glad to have met you tonight, Frank."
"And I believe the pleasure is mutual, Monsieur."
"Oh, do let's dispense with the formalities. We are friends, are we not? Now, you were telling me about this brother-in-law of yours. He sounds like a real character."
"Thor, he is…" François, hesitated to speak ill of his elder. "I do not know him well. I met him only two weeks before our parting. He did not wish me to be there, this I do know. He told Jeanette-Marie I was old enough to fend for myself."
Hiram shook his head, "That is wrong. He will someday regret being so hasty."
François shrugged, "You know what they say. Everything is better in America." François had grown so accustomed to repeating the adage to himself, that it did not occur to him that another person might find it peculiar.
"I beg your pardon?" his friend said, "What you mean, they say?
"Oh, Hiram, haven't you read the newspapers? Everyone around the world is reading about how much better things are for Americans! My father, he read of how much prosperity there was here, and he had to bring us to this paradise across the ocean. Look at me now!" he ranted, forgetting decorum. "I am an orphan, I cannot see my sister or my nephew, and I live in a warehouse, and work as a clerk in a grocery store. There is a girl I like, but can I court her? No! Even if I had the money, her parents say I am not good enough. Had we stayed in France I would still have my family, we would live in our home, and I would be now an assistant to Pierre DuPont, a master shipbuilder." François finally stopped to take a breath, almost able to feel the rage emanating from him. It had been bound up for a long time, and it felt good to let off some steam.
Hiram didn't seem fazed by François' tirade. "You are very angry about this, eh Frank?"
"Who would not be? Of course I am angry!"
"Your anger, my friend, it is not good. Not at all."
"What do you mean, not good?" François demanded, "I should think it perfectly normal. Let's us switch places for a while, and see how long it is before you're angry."
"Have you ever had a splinter in your finger, Frank?" Hiram asked slowly. "Have you noticed that if you do not pull it out straightaway it will become infected, and the wound will fester, and ooze pus? So it is with anger. If you do not forgive right away, it will become hatred and bitterness festering in your soul, and oozing out into your life. Have not you noticed it happening to you, Frank? Very slowly, this bitterness, seeps out, perhaps effecting how you treat your friends, maybe clouding your judgment at the tavern…"
"Come now, I hardly think we know one another well enough to talk of such, Hiram." François said. He was thoroughly uncomfortable with the conversation because Hiram was right about him.
"You see what I mean, don't you, Frank?" he asked, "You have trusted me tonight to tell me things I suspect you reveal to no one. I am honored. But there is another I think you should tell. Forgiveness is good, my friend. It is very good for you. You should speak with God about this matter, He will-"
"God?" Frank spat the name back in Hiram's face, "I think I do not wish to speak with Him. Do I really want to know the One who occasioned the death of my Father and Mother, leaving me and my sister alone in the world? I do not. Do I want to grow close to He whose messenger, a priest of the Holy Church wed my sister to a man she did not know when she was but fifteen? I should say not!"
"I do not believe God was responsible for your parents' decease. I expect that some illness was to blame." Hiram said, "As to what the priest who married your sister was thinking, I know not. It was assuredly a lapse in judgment. I confess I do not count them the Lord's messengers any more than you as I am not Catholic, but I think you should consider, my friend, this is the same God who brought you and I together tonight- I cannot help but believe to the end that we might talk so, and that I might tell you about the way through which you can meet him. I said you need to forgive those who have wronged you. Yes, you do. But now I want to talk to you about the God who can forgive you. You have blamed Him for wrongs not on His part, Frank. You have broken His laws and thereby grieved His heart. For all of this He is still willing to wash your sins away, my friend. He is good, and ready to forgive you. All that awaits is for you to trust in Him and none other…"
François did not know what the time was when he left Hiram's house that night. Only of one thing was he certain. That through a series of circumstances he did not choose, and could not reverse, and because of what One Man did one day nineteen hundred years before, miles away, one thing was better in America. Because it was here he had met with That Man, through the glorious Gospel, and nothing could ever be the same again.