Settling in New York City
They eventually settled on Cherry Street, a "cold-water basement flat with no windows," on the Lower East Side. His father, unable to find comparable work as a cantor in New York, took a job at a kosher meat market and gave Hebrew lessons on the side, and struggled to support his family. He died a few years later when Irving was thirteen years old. With only a few years of schooling, Irving found it necessary to take to the streets to help support his family. He became a newspaper boy, hawking The Evening Journal. On his first day of the job, according to Berlin’s biographer and friend, Alexander Woollcott, the boy “stopped to look at a ship about to put out for China. So entranced was he that he failed to notice a swinging crane, and he was knocked into the river. When he was fished out, after going down for the third time, he was still holding in his clenched fist the five pennies that constituted his first day's receipts, his contribution to the family budget.” His mother took jobs as a midwife, and three of his sisters worked wrapping cigars, common for immigrant girls. His older brother worked in a sweatshop assembling shirts. Each evening, when the family came home from their day's work, Bergreen writes, "they would deposit the coins they had earned that day into Lena's outspread apron."
Music historian, Philip Furia, writes that when eight-year-old "Izzy" quit school to sell newspapers in the Bowery, he no doubt would "hear the hits of the day drift through the doors of saloons and restaurants" that lined the streets of New York. He found that if he sang some of the songs while selling papers, people would toss him coins in appreciation, which gave him a vision of things to come. One night to his mother, he "confessed his life's ambition—to become a singing waiter in a saloon."
Before turning fourteen, according to Woollcott, he began to realize that "he contributed less than the least of his sisters... and he was sick with a sense of his own worthlessness." Bergreen writes that it was at this point that he left home to become a "foot soldier in the city's ragged army of immigrants." Berlin entered a lifestyle along the Bowery where an entire subindustry of lodging houses had sprung up to shelter the thousands of homeless boys choking the Lower East Side streets. "They were not settlement houses or charitable institutions; rather, they were Dickensian in their meanness, filth, and insensitivity to ordinary human beings."
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