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Kurt Discovers America, 1926-1929, as told by Kurt Albert Matthia


As Told By Kurt Albert Matthia

As I got off the boat on October 4, 1926, I was grateful to the immigration authorities for letting me enter the United States in spite of the fact that my sponsor did not come. I also appreciated the people who had given me the twenty-five dollars to show the authorities. I found them on the pier. They were nice enough to have waited there for two and one-half hours.

When I gave them the money back they asked me where I wanted to go I said I wanted to go to a German section, and they told me they would take me to the elevated railway. New York City then had, and may still have part of, an elevated railway system that ran on tracks supported by steel structures above many of the streets. The elevated railway was usually called the "el" for short. The traffic would drive on the street under the tracks. They took me to a station on the elevated railway system and told me to get off at the Eighty-sixth Street station. They said that on Eighty-sixth Street I would find German speaking people, and it would be no problem for me to find a room there somewhere. So, after they left me by the station with my two suitcases, I had a peculiar feeling I had in me. I thought, now what do I have to face? What do I have ahead of me? I stood there with heavy heart, with no knowledge of the language. Everything was absolutely strange. The train soon came and I got aboard. I had my coat on. I was afraid to take it off. I couldn't carry the two suitcases and the coat over my arm too. So I kept it on and perspired -- really perspired. People must have thought I was a little sick in the head as they were in short sleeved shirts. I finally got to Eighty-sixth Street with my two suitcases and sweating.

I went downstairs and out of the station and on to the street. There I stood. Now, who can I approach? I walked around for half a block -- and another block. Finally, I had courage enough to approach somebody that seemed to look German. They were German! There were many Germans there. I think about ninety percent. I finally got a room then for five dollars on Eighty-first Street. It was the only five dollars I had.

As I went into the room, I found it was a little hole with a transom. There was no window except the transom, which is a little window over the door to the hallway that can be opened for ventilation. In New York, downtown, at that time with that hot weather in October, it was nothing to brag about -- a sleeping room with a transom. There was a long hall outside the room, and no air came in that way either. So you know it was a really hot room. Anyhow, I decided to make the best of it. I put my suitcases down and went for a walk outside first. I wanted to see something of where I was before it got too dark.

Later I went back up to the room again. I was tired, got undressed, and went to bed. Suddenly, I was being bitten! I soon discovered I had bed bugs in the bed! I had never experienced bed bugs in my life before that night - my first night in America. I had heard though that they smell when you kill them. They're kind of ugly. They give you a hard time and suck the blood out of you like a mosquito. There were so many that I couldn't stay in the bed. I got dressed again and stayed in a chair all night. I pondered what I could do -- I knew I couldn't stay there. I couldn't do that every night. It would make me sick. I decided to run out of the room without telling the lady anything. She wouldn't give me the money back anyhow. I decided I would sneak out, and that way I didn't have to give any explanation.

I left the place early in the morning with my suitcases. I was on the street by eight o-clock in the morning. Then I wondered, what am I going to do now with no money? What could I do? I walked along the street, and I saw a woman standing at the gate of her fence in front of a brownstone house. Most of the houses in New York were brownstone houses. I approached her. She looked German for sure, I thought and I spoke German to her. She smiled, and I told her that I needed a room. She did speak German and said she had a room. Then I told her that I had no money and explained what had happened -- that I had rented a room but I couldn't stand the bed bugs. She felt sorry for me. It was nice that I had met that type of person. She said that I could stay and pay her when I got a job. Heavenly Father was with me at that time I'm sure.

On the following Monday the woman who gave me the room looked in a German paper to find a job for me. She found an advertisement from a lock factory in the Bronx and even took me there. On about October 10th, I got my first job in America with the Keil lock factory for twenty-six dollars a week. At that time it was not too much, but it was enough to live on and more.

The factory was in the East Bronx at about 140th Street East. It was convenient to commute there from where I lived on Manhattan by the Third Avenue E1. The factory was about one block from the station. My job was to assemble inset locks that would fit into a slot cut back into a door from the edge. Each lock had a spring-loaded bolt, a deadbolt, and two buttons on the frame edge to select whether the outside knob would operate the spring-loaded bolt. The locks were threaded to accept a tumbler type key. My boss was a Czechoslovakian. Since I didn't speak either English or Czech, another German who worked with me and had been in America a few years acted as translator. To overcome the language problem, I bought several books on learning English and studied during the evenings.

With twenty-six dollars a week, I was able to pay back my landlady. My rent was six dollars a week. Although she also served meals there, I chose to eat at a nearby restaurant. It cost me seven dollars for a weekly meal card there. I really had no other expenses besides carfare which was a nickel each way. I didn't date at that time either. By Christmas, I was able to pay off the four hundred Deutschmark loan my parents gave me so that I could come to America and send them again as much more.

After working at the lock factory a while, I asked for a raise through my translator. My boss said that my work was very good, but that he couldn't give me a raise for two reasons. The first was that I put my foot up on a crossbar under my work bench. Through the interpreter I said that he wasn't paying me for what I did with my foot! I said the reason I stood that way was because of the hole worn in the wooden floor in front of the bench. There was really a deep hole worn away by people standing in front of the bench.

His second reason for not giving me a raise was that I still didn't work fast enough. I asked him to show me how to do it faster, and he put together a lock for me at my workbench. He threw it together really quickly without making sure that each of the brass castings fit properly. When he was done, he couldn't turn the key by hand. He put a file handle through the hole in the key and turned the lock. I was amazed by this demonstration. I had learned my trade in Germany where it was a matter of pride to have everything just right. As I had put each lock together, I made sure each piece fit just right and that I could turn the key with just two fingers -- not even the whole hand! Having watched him, I asked if the lock would not be returned to the factory. He said people in America usually didn't return things like that -- they just lived with it. All this was through the translator. Now that I understood what he wanted, I was able to immediately double the number of locks I made.

Although I never felt good about making poor locks, I got a raise to thirty-seven dollars a week. This was really a lot more than I needed to live on, and I was able to start saving money.

I lived there at the boarding house for a while longer. In the end, I just had to leave there. The landlady was a widow, and, what should I say, she had her eye on me. I didn't feel like getting involved. I was a young man who had just come over to the United States and had `other problems to worry about. So, her interest bothered me a little bit. She also had a daughter who was my age. The widow was about fifteen years older than I. She was not a bad looking woman, but her daughter looked better to me. I tried to maintain peace between she and her daughter, but each one knew that the other was interested -- the daughter especially. She told me she was very upset with her mother, because her mother tried to flirt with me. I said, "Well don't take that seriously. I'm not going to fall for that anyhow so why should you worry?" Finally, after a month or two, I decided I'd better leave altogether.

For a short while I stayed at another boarding house near Eighty-sixth Street, but I didn't stay downtown long. When my friend Kurt Franz came over from Germany, we both took a room in a very nice private home near 241st Street in the West Bronx on Van Cortland Street. This was near Van Cortland Park. I liked this area much better than Manhattan, and it turned out to be only a block from where Margaret lived.

Close to the time I moved, I left my job to take up the electric welding trade. I appreciated the job I had at the lock company. It had been a blessing to get that job within a week or so after arriving in America. They had trained me and were happy with my work. I felt some obligation to stay on there, but I didn't want to. So I started looking in the papers for something else.

I always read both the German and American newspapers This helped to improve my understanding of English, but maybe not my talking. I found an ad for electric welders in the German newspaper. The pay was ninety dollars a week -over twice what I was getting at the lock company. I said, boy this is the chance for me. I had to go down for an interview. The job was with a company that had an electric welding contract with the New York Steam Company. They hired me along with about twenty other welders.

The New York Steam Company was like a giant central heating plant for Manhattan. The plant was located on and used water from the East River. The steam produced in the plant was piped under the streets to skyscrapers all over the City. They had to make what is called dry steam. Normally steam condenses quickly into water. In order to pipe the steam all over the city, the steam had to be superheated and brought up to about five-hundred pounds per square inch of pressure. The work we did was experimental work on equipment used to superheat the steam.

After about six months, there were rumors that the job was coming to an end. Two or three welders had already left. The company I worked for had lost their contract. I figured I would go find another welding job because it paid so well At this time the engineer that worked for New York Steam came and talked to me. I didn't know him, but he always had a friendly smile. Although the plant burned coal dust and was full of boilers and other machinery, he wore white gloves. He dressed as if he were on a ship. They had sixteen Spanish women working at the plant who kept the place continuously spic and span. It was a beautiful place.

The engineer came over and said, "Kurt, would you like to stay with us? We have some more work and need a full-time welder."

I asked, "Why me? You know I speak very badly English."

He answered, "I'll tell you why I want you. I've been watching all of you guys. Most of them were on the roof or smoking on the tower. You were only off when you had to go to the bathroom -- like everybody else. You're steady and do a good job. That's why I picked you."

"Thank you for the compliment," I said. "Well, I can only try. I would like to have a steady job. You pay me well. You tell me what to do and I will try to catch on and do it." So, I stayed on and did more experimental work in and around the boilers.

Looking into the fire box was like looking into hell. It was a big open room with a window. Coal was made into dust and continuously blown into the room. Inside were big coiled tubes in which the water was heated and made into steam. Inside it was lit up like hell. I did some welding in the fire box -- when it was shut down. I had to climb in real narrow spaces behind the coils and weld on protective plates that would prevent the ends of the tubes from burning out. You really had to do a good job because of the very high pressure it had to withstand.

The water goes from the tubes in the fire box into boilers where it is stored. There were ten or twenty boilers, each about twenty feet long and three feet in diameter. They had me welding some contraption inside the boilers which was for superheating the steam inside the boilers. I did not understand the principle at that time, but I had to go inside the boilers and weld together a contraption the whole length of the boiler inside. The welding was very hard because the metal was thin and had many seams.

The job was extremely difficult I had to go in and out through a very small manhole. All around were hot steam pipes. Inside there was barely enough room to squeeze through. The boiler was always shut off, but a little steam leaked through. It was always very hot and moist inside I worked in a bathing suit because of this. There was not enough room to use a welding helmet, and I could only use goggles. Remember the boiler was only three feet across and I was laying on my back. Inside the boiler was covered with scale and it was difficult to strike an arc. I would often get shocked because it was so wet. Most of the welding was overhead as I welded down the twenty feet from the far end to the manhole. The sparks fell on my head, and it was very hard on my eyes. Holding the rod overhead continuously was very difficult, but I was quite strong.

I worked under these conditions sometimes as long as twenty-eight or thirty hours straight when it was necessary. Naturally, they couldn't make steam while I was working inside the firebox. I made big money for back then. I was quickly able to save one thousand dollars. I hoped to save enough to return to Germany and get an education.

In the Summer of 1928 I burned my back really badly on a steam pipe as I came out of the manhole of a boiler. There was a Spanish fellow who always watched just outside the manhole in case I needed something or in case something happened to me. It was really hot that day and I needed to get out for some air. He was supposed to watch out for me, but he had fallen asleep. This incident and the difficult working conditions made me leave the New York Steam Company. I met Margaret in October of 1928. Shortly after we were married in April of 1929, I said, "No more." I had been there almost two years.

© 1999 Kurt A. Matthia

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