Thoughts While Driving from Denver to Santa Fe:  A Northeasterner’s View of the Southwest

Before this trip, I’d never been to Colorado or New Mexico before.  I’d never seen the Rocky Mountains, and although I had been to Arizona, it was almost 20 years ago, and I didn’t get the same perspective that I had this time.  This time I found myself truly marveling at the landscape, the mountains, the desert, the overall expanse of land that exists in so much of the United States.

After all, I am a Northeasterner: born in the Bronx, raised in the suburbs of NYC, and a resident of New England since I was eighteen years old.  I’ve never lived in the country; I’ve never lived more than 90 miles from a major metropolitan area.  I now live a few miles from Springfield, Masschusetts, and about 25 miles from Hartford, Connecticut.  Although Springfield and Hartford aren’t huge cities, they are densely populated urban areas without much open space.

It’s true that from our home we can drive thirty minutes or less and be in fairly rural places—farms are nearby, and the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire are just two hours away.  But even in those places, you don’t see miles and miles of empty road surrounded by undeveloped land with barely a sign or gas station or store to be seen.

So driving through Colorado and especially New Mexico was eye-opening for me.  We took I-25 south from Denver and headed to New Mexico.  Here we were on an interstate highway, the speed limit 75 miles an hour, and within a short distance from Denver, we began to see mountains.  I snapped photo after photo as we sped by, trying to capture the Rocky Mountains from the car.

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Fortunately, we decided not to take I-25 all the way to Santa Fe, but stopped overnight in Raton, New Mexico, the first town over the state line from Colorado, about three hours south of Denver.  It was not a scenic place.  We stayed in a Best Western right off the highway, and the highest rated restaurant in town on TripAdvisor and Yelp was the place right in the Best Western.  It was not good.  But it was edible.   There was no nightlife in Raton, so we rose early to get started on the rest of our journey.

Before we left Raton, however, I’d spotted a brochure for “Historic Raton” in the motel lobby and asked the person at the front desk how to get there.  She very pleasantly gave me directions, though I have to think she wondered why I wanted to see the town.  The town consisted of two parallel streets of buildings (with two or three cross streets) about maybe a quarter mile long.  And almost all the buildings were empty, boarded up, out of business.  It was depressing.

Raton

Raton

downtown raton

Downtown Raton

But it was important for us to see.  This was a town that had once been an important mining town, according to the brochure.  Even more recently those stores and building must have been occupied.  What did the people who lived in Raton now do for work, besides work at the Best Western and the few fast food places near the highway?  Is this why so many people in this country feel so disenfranchised, so angry? Sure, there is poverty in all kinds of places all over the country.  Springfield itself has a large population of people who are unemployed or underemployed, living in desperate conditions.  But a whole town of almost all empty buildings? What must it be like to live in such a place?

We left Raton with a sense of gratitude for all that we have and with a sense of embarrassment that we generally take so much for granted.

And then we ventured on towards Santa Fe.  This time we took Route 64, a two-lane road running southwest into New Mexico.  For the first forty miles or so, the road ran straight and flat through miles and miles of ranch land.  The endless fields of dry beige and green grass, speckled here and there with cattle, were mesmerizing.  We both just kept saying, “This is incredible! Look at how much land there is.”  I wish my little iPhone camera could capture the scope of open land we saw.  There were mountains in the distance, but overall the land was flat and wide as far as we could see.

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Then we entered the Cimarron Canyon area, and the terrain suddenly changed.  We were surrounded on both sides by walls of tall evergreen trees and then incredible stone formations above and in front of us as we followed the winding roads up and down and up and down the terrain.  It was like going from a huge empty room into a tiny dark hallway that twisted and turned so that you couldn’t see where it would end.  And it was gorgeous.  It was truly gorgeous.

Entering Cimarron Canyon

Entering Cimarron Canyon

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And then it got better.  We passed through the canyon and emerged at the top of hill overlooking the Eagle Nest area with a large blue lake below us to the left and the mountains shadowing us to our right.  In just over sixty miles we had seen three very different types of terrain.  And barely a town or even many cars.  Who owned all those ranches? Who worked on them? Where did they live? We didn’t know.

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From Eagle Nest we drove another thirty miles to Taos, passing through more open land and more mountain roads.  We stopped briefly in Taos to stretch our legs, but we knew we were coming back there after our stay in Santa Fe, so we did not take the time to look around.

Quick stop in Taos

Quick stop in Taos

After following Route 64 for about 100 miles (and for just over two hours), we picked up Route 68 in Taos to take the “low road” or “river road” to Santa Fe.  The first portion of Route 68 was awe-inspiring as we looked down at the Rio Grande and climbed high and twisted roads over the mountains and back down again.  In front of us and to our left we could see the white snow-covered peaks of the mountains while to our right we could see the deep gorge that the Rio Grande had carved into the land around it.

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Finally, after passing through the rather non-scenic section of Route 68 near Espinola, we arrived in Santa Fe by lunch time.  And there we settled for the next four days, having now seen both how beautiful and inspirational our country can be and also how sad and empty it can be.

 

 

Streets: Conclusion (Bella’s adolescence)

The rest of the book was harder to read.  As Bella turned twelve and became less innocent, she became more aware of the squalor and ugliness of her world.  She wrote, “I was now twelve and acutely conscious of the sordidness of the life about me.  To escape, I hid behind my books and built up a life of my own in the public school I attended on East Broadway and at the settlement house on Madison Street.” (p. 66)

Her mother married one of the long time boarders and soon was pregnant.  Although their first year of marriage seemed fine to Bella, after the baby was born and soon developed a medical condition that left him scarred and covered with sores, her stepfather abandoned her mother, who was already pregnant with another child. They never saw him again. (There is no explanation of her brother’s condition, but it seemed to continue for several years so was not just a short-term childhood illness like measles or chicken pox.)

Supporting an extra child as a single parent created enough of an additional financial burden for Fanny that she and her children had to move to a less desirable street in the Lower East Side, Goerck Street.  Bella described it as a “tough block” where there were several bars, a lumberyard, and a garbage heap.  There were frequent bottle fights.   Most of the residents of the street were Galician Jews, but there were also Hungarian, German and Russian Jews as well as many Italian immigrants.

Fanny and her children moved their belongings to the new tenement with a pushcart, taking several trips to do so. Bella described the new building as follows:

“Our house, like the others, had four families on each floor, two to the rear and two to the front.  There were two windows to the front room which either faced the street or the yard, one window in the kitchen that faced an extremely narrow, lightless airshaft, and in the bedroom a tiny square window that faced the hall. … Separating the front room from the kitchen is what my mother called a ‘blind window.’  It was simply a square hole, framed by woodwork, which allowed some of the front light to filter into the kitchen and stop at the entrance to the bedroom.” (p. 82)

In this small, dark and airless space, Fanny and Bella found cockroaches and rats.  As before, Fanny took in numerous boarders to help her pay the rent and also took on sewing jobs to supplement her income.

Bella graduated from grade school and was determined to go to high school, unlike many of her classmates and friends who had to go to work in one of the factories in order to help support their families.  Fanny was fully supportive of Bella’s desire to go on to high school, even though she was told by many that she was foolish and should make Bella get a job instead.  Bella enrolled at George Washington High School in Manhattan, about two miles away from the Lower East Side, and was excited to be continuing her education.

Bella, however, did also take on a part-time job, working Sundays as a trimmer at a man’s coat shop on their street.  Her mother also received financial assistance and other support from the United Hebrew Charities and worked long, long hours sewing to earn extra income.   When the second baby was born in May, 1913, the charity covered her rent for the time that Fanny could not work. In return, however, the charity wanted Fanny to consider sending Bella to work full time.  Fanny resisted, and Bella continued to go to high school.  Bella resented having to justify her desire to continue school to the charity.

Bella, however, was now much more aware of the precariousness of their financial condition, and it was often a struggle to pay the rent, which was often paid late and in partial payments.  When she was not at school, Bella took care of her two baby brothers while her mother continued to work as much as possible, taking in sewing work.

Bella’s feelings at this time are poignantly conveyed in the memoir:

“I looked at the sleeping tenements and down at the street strewn with garbage and wet newspapers. Was this living?… It was all so hopeless.  When would it end?”  (pp. 103-104)

Although Bella still loved school and had friends with whom she had some good times, it is apparent that she no longer felt the somewhat joyful attitude she had had as a child.  Although it does seem that their financial condition was worse than it might have been earlier, the poverty and squalor she described must also have been very much present in the neighborhood where she lived when she was younger.   It is likely that as Bella was exposed to more of the outside world through school and books, she also became much more discerning and outraged by the conditions of her own world.

When Fanny finally was unable to pay the rent one month in 1914 and received an eviction notice, Bella offered to quit school.  Fanny refused to consider it, saying that Bella was “going to be a lady. Not like me, a schnorrer!” (p.110) Fanny swallowed her pride and begged the United Hebrew Charities for assistance.  They agreed to give her fourteen dollars, which she used to move her family out of the Lower East Side and up to First Avenue and 49th Street (where the UN now sits).  The charity also provided her with some sewing work.

Thus, Fanny and her children left the Lower East Side and moved to what was then called the Dead End neighborhood, an area of slums that were torn down in the 1920s.  This was not a move up, but a move to a cheaper neighborhood.

The last chapter focuses on Bella’s experiences while living in that neighborhood, a more mixed neighborhood where she had many non-Jewish neighbors.  The accommodation was comparable to what they had had on the Lower East Side, a three room tenement apartment.  Fanny was heavily dependent on United Hebrew Charities for support and grew increasingly despondent over her situation and over the health of her older son. At one point her relationship with Bella was so fraught with tension that Fanny lost her temper and began hitting Bella quite violently.  Bella realized that she needed to get away and spent the summer before her senior year working at a boy’s school in the Catskills as a chamber maid and waitress.

Bella somehow managed to graduate from high school while also holding down various part-time jobs, including working in another factory, tutoring, and helping her mother with extra sewing work.  She also continued to take care of her little brothers.  Right after she graduated from George Washington High School in June, 1917, whatever was left of Bella’s childhood innocence ended abruptly when her sickly little brother died from whatever medical condition had burdened him since infancy.  That is where Bella abruptly ends her memoirs as well.

In an afterword written by Lois Raeder Elias[1], who knew Bella for over thirty years, Elias commented that although Bella ultimately found great personal and financial success, saw the world, and knew many important and impressive people, she was permanently scarred and haunted by her years of poverty, growing up on the Lower East Side.  She never felt financially secure and lived always in fear of poverty.

If the chapters about Bella’s early childhood left me feeling somewhat hopeful about how our family lived on the Lower East Side, the rest of the book left me feeling incredibly sad.  How did our grandparents and great-grandparents cope with these conditions? How did Max, Hyman, and Tillie, all of whom were born in Europe, manage to pull themselves out of poverty and become a cigar dealer, a liquor store owner, and a grocery store owner in one generation?  How did all our grandparents manage to support and raise their children, who all somehow managed to achieve comfortable middle class or better lives in good neighborhoods in NYC and its suburbs?

Reading this book filled me with renewed respect and gratitude for our great-grandparents and grandparents.  We should never forget what they accomplished and what a gift that has been for all of us.

Bessie

Bessie


[1] There was a surprise gift inside this book when I received it.  I had ordered the book from a third party vendor through amazon.com, and inside the book I found a handwritten note by Lois Raeder Elias to friends named Sheila and Alan.  The note reads,”At last we have received copies of Bella’s memoirs. We thought they would never come.  This one is for you.  I hope you enjoy it.  I’ll talk to you this weekend.  On to Turkey! Love,  Arthur and Lois.”

I hope that Sheila and Alan, whoever they were, appreciated this book.  I fear that they just passed it on without ever noticing the card left inside by their friends, Arthur and Lois.