The Normandie is reputed to be a masterpiece of French technique and art. Its technique is indeed splendid. Admirable are its speed, its fire-fighting system, the bold and elegant lines of its body, its radio station. But as for art, surely the French have known better days. There were, of course, the faultlessly executed paintings on the glass walls; but the paintings themselves were not in any way distinguished. The same might be said of the bas-relief, the mosaic, the sculpture, the furniture. There was a profusion of gold, of coloured leather, of beautiful metals, silks, expensive wood, fine glass. There was much wealth but little real art. As a whole, it was what French artists, helplessly shrugging their shoulders, called “stile triomphe”. Not long ago in Paris, on the Champs-Elysees, was opened a Cafe” Triomphe, sumptuously upholstered in the boudoir manner. A pity! We should like to have seen as partners of the remarkable French engineers who created the Normandie equally remarkable French artists and architects. All the more is the pity since France has such people.
Certain defects in technique – for example, the vibration in the stern, which threw the elevator out of commission for half an hour – and other annoying trifles must be charged not against the engineers who built this first-rate ship, but rather against the impatient orders of their clients who were in a hurry to begin exploiting the ship under any circumstances in order to secure a blue ribbon for record speed.
On the eve of the ship’s arrival in New York there was a gala banquet and an evening of amateur entertainment managed by the passengers themselves. The dinner was the same as ever, except that a spoonful of Russian caviare was added. Besides that, the passengers were given pirate hats of paper, rattles, badges with blue ribbons on which “Normandie” was inscribed, and wallets of artificial leather, also with the trade-mark of the company. Gifts are distributed to prevent pilfering of the ship’s property. The point is, the majority of travellers are victims of the psychosis of collecting souvenirs. During the Normandie’s first voyage the passengers stole as mementoes a huge quantity of knives, forks, and spoons. Some even carried away plates, ash-trays, and pitchers. So, it proved more convenient to make a gift of a badge for a buttonhole rather than lose a spoon needed in the ménage. The passengers were overjoyed with these toys. A fat lady, who throughout the five days of the journey had sat in a corner of the dining saloon all alone, suddenly in a most businesslike manner put the pirate hat on her head, discharged her popgun, and attached the badge to her bosom Evidently she regarded it as her duty to take advantage conscientiously of all the blessings she was entitled to by virtue of her ticket.
The petty-bourgeois amateur entertainment began in the evening. The passengers gathered in the saloon. The lights were put out, and a spotlight was trained on a small stage. There, her entire body trembling appeared a haggard young woman in a silver dress. The orchestra, made up of professional musicians, regarded her with pity. The audience applauded encouragingly. The young lady opened her mouth convulsively and shut it at once. The orchestra patiently repeated the introduction. Sensing forebodings of something frightful, the audience tried not to look at each other. Suddenly the young lady trembled and began to sing. She sang that famous song, “Parlez-moi d’amour,” but she sang it so quietly and so badly that her tender call was not heard by anyone. In the middle of the song she quite unexpectedly ran off the stage, hiding her face in her hand. Another young lady appeared, and she was even more haggard. She was in an all-black dress, yet bare-footed. Sheer fright was written all over her face. She was a bare-foot amateur dancer. The audience began to glide out of the hall stealthily. None of this was at all like our buoyant, talented, vociferous amateur entertainments.
On the fifth day the decks of the steamer were filled with suitcases and trunks unloaded out of the cabins. The passengers moved to the right side, and, holding on to their hats, avidly peered into the horizon. The shore was not yet visible, but New York’s skyscrapers were already rising out of the water like calm pillars of smoke. An astounding contrast, this – after the vacant ocean, suddenly the largest city in the world. In the sunny smoke dimly gleamed the steel extremities of the hundred and two storied Empire State Building. Beyond the stern of the Normandie seagulls swirled. Four powerful little tugboats began to turn the enormous body of the ship, pulling it up and pushing it toward the pier. On the left side was the small green statue of liberty. Then suddenly it was on the right side. We were being turned around, and the city turned around us, showing us first one and then another of its sides. Finally, it stopped in its tracks, impossibly huge, thunderous, and quite incomprehensible as yet.
The passengers walked down covered passageways into the customs shed, went through all the formalities, and emerged into the streets of the city, without having once seen the ship on which they had come.
2. The First Evening in New York
THE CUSTOMS shed at the docks of the French Line is immense. Under the ceiling hang large iron letters of the Latin alphabet. Each passenger stops under the letter with which his surname begins. Here his luggage will be brought to him from the ship and here it will be examined.
The voices of the arrivals and of those meeting them, laughter and kisses, resounded hollowly throughout the shed, the bare structural parts of which made it seem rather like a shop where turbines were being manufactured.
We had not informed anyone of our impending arrival, and no one met us. We waited under our letters for the customs clerk. Finally he came. He was a calm and unhurried man. He was in no way affected by our having just crossed an ocean in order to show him our suitcases. He politely touched the upper layer of our belongings and did not look any further. Then he stuck out his tongue, a most ordinary, moist tongue, a tongue devoid of all gadgets whatsoever wetted the huge labels with it and pasted them on our travelling-bags.
When we finally freed ourselves it was already evening. A white taxi-cab with three gleaming lanterns on its roof, looking like an old-fashioned carriage, took us to the hotel. At first we were tormented by the thought that because of our inexperience we had got into the wrong taxi, into some antiquated vehicle, and that we were funny and provincial. But, having fearfully looked out the window, we saw that automobiles with just as silly little lamps as ours were going in all directions back and forth. We quieted down a little. Later we were told that these little lamps are placed on the roof, so that the taxi may be more noticeable among a million other automobiles.
For the same reason taxis in America are painted in the most garish colours – orange, canary, white. Our attempt to take a look at New York from an automobile failed. We drove through quite dark and dreary streets. From time to time something rumbled hellishly under our feet or something else thundered overhead. Whenever we stopped before the traffic lights the sides of the automobiles that stood beside us hid everything from view. The chauffeur turned back several times and asked again for the address. It seemed that he was somewhat anxious about our English. Now and then he would look at us patronizingly, and his face seemed to say: “Never mind, you won’t get lost! Nobody ever got lost in New York.” The thirty-two brick stories of our hotel merged with the rufous nocturnal sky.
While we were filling up short registration cards, two men of the hotel service stood lovingly over our baggage. On the neck of one of them hung a shining ring with the key of the room we had selected. The elevator lifted us up to the twenty-seventh story. This was the commodious and calm elevator of a hotel that was not very old and not very new, not very expensive and, to our regret, not very cheap.
We liked the room, but we did not pause to explore it. Hurry into the street, the city, the tumult! The curtains of the windows crackled under the fresh sea wind. We threw our overcoats on the couch, ran out into the narrow corridor covered with a patterned carpet, stepped into the elevator, and the elevator, clicking softly, flew down. We looked at each other significantly. After all, this really was a great event! For the first time in our lives we were about to walk in New York.
A thin, almost transparent national flag with stars and stripes hung over the entrance to our hotel. Only a short