Land of opportunity - and compassion

My first job in America was serving food at a cafeteria in a shopping mall in Louisville. It was a crowded place with dark walls, a few tables and booths, and a long steel counter.

Large aluminum trays of pale chicken, potatoes, and apple pie glowed under red warming lamps. My responsibility was the hot vegetable station.

Every morning when I got in, the assistant manager would yell at me: "Yo, baby!" That was his way of saying good morning.

Besides his disrespectful greeting, I didn't understand a word he said because he spoke African-American Kentucky slang, and my English comprehension was very poor to begin with.

When he saw my confusion, he yelled the same words, but louder. I'm not deaf, I'd fume silently. I'm Ukrainian! He would point in various directions, and eventually I would figure out what he wanted: Get the butter from the walk-in freezer; take out the garbage. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly had the writer referring to herself as Russian instead of Ukrainian.]

The cafeteria catered to the nearby senior citizen community. Between noon and four was the busiest. Elders came in twos, sometimes in small groups. They would take their trays and slowly start moving down the food line. I'd smile at them, but I hardly ever had an opportunity to say a word. They would ask for corn pudding or broccoli with cheese and I'd quickly fill the little side plates. They wouldn't look up; they'd just move on to dessert.

The assistant manager yelled at me for putting too much broccoli on each plate.

Here I made my first real friend in America. Oksana emigrated from Minsk, Belarus, with her husband, Simon, and her 7-year-old son, Max. She was a musician, a concert pianist. Having been in the country for only a year, she worked at the restaurant to support her struggling family until her husband could learn English and find a job. He was an engineer. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly located the city of Minsk.]

Every day, Oksana and I ate lunch together. She told me about her family in Minsk and how hard it was to explain to them why an educated musician had to work at a cafeteria.

"I tell my mother I plan and cater food for special events," she said. "It's close enough."

As employees, we were entitled to a 50 percent discount on selected dishes, and still I could only afford a side salad. Every day for lunch I bought a small diet soft drink and a side of crab salad. I was not sure I liked the mixture, heavy with celery and mayonnaise, but I thought it was cool to eat crab for lunch, and when I called home it would sound like something I should be doing in America. I didn't realize at the time that it was "imitation" crab.

One week after I got my work permit, I was making $4.25 an hour. There was no car in my immediate future. Besides, I would need to learn how to drive. I hated taking the bus.

In Kiev, Ukraine, the bus and trolley stops are always crowded. People talk and read newspapers as they wait. From the age of 7, I had ridden the trolleys and buses all over the city. When I was little, my Mom would take me on a trolley ride around the city. We'd sit in the back, snuggled against each other, and float by old cobblestone streets, the Opera House, the botanical gardens with their lilacs and chestnut trees.

In Louisville, it was different. There were no sidewalks. I had to walk on the street in scorching heat and swallow the dust kicked up by passing cars to get to the bus stop. Most of the time I stood at the stop alone. I felt exposed and underprivileged.

"America was supposed to be glamorous," I complained to Oksana.

"You are only 18," Oksana consoled me. "You have so much time to make things better."

I cried when I get home that night. I wanted to talk to Mom. I wanted to tell her how much it hurt my pride to be poor in America, and how I hated being bossed around by a man with no brains and no manners. I came to my senses before I placed the call, though. My parents had borrowed money to send me here. How could I complain?

Standing at the bus stop the next morning, I made endless promises to myself and recited them like a mantra all the way to my job: I will not let this become my life. I will work very hard and save all my money. I will buy a car and learn to drive. I will learn English. I will get a better job.

When I finally got to work, I found the place much busier than usual. It was the weekend, and the crowd had tripled in size. Along with the senior citizens came their children and grandchildren. Everything moved faster. That's when I got in trouble. Over the clattering food trays and the buzzing of the crowd I could not make out what the customers were saying to me. They grew frustrated and spoke more loudly. Fortunately, my partner came to the rescue. He signaled me to step aside while he covered both stations until the crowd subsided.

While he was helping me, I had a moment to look him over. He was a tall, muscular black man with olive eyes, wearing the restaurant's green polo shirt, khaki pants, and sneakers. As he stepped to the left I saw an electronic device attached to his ankle. I had no idea what it was.

Later, Oksana explained to me its sad purpose.

When the rush was over, my savior gave me a silent look. In his eyes I saw dignity and compassion. I was grateful and taken aback by his understanding. He never said a word.

"Hey, baby!" The assistant manager stood behind me. He was getting ready to yell at me again, but this time I didn't give him the opportunity. I turned to face him. Shaking with hurt pride, I managed to say, quietly but firmly, "My name is NA-TA-SHA. No 'baby,' no 'hey.' Understand?"

Startled, he backed up.

I glanced proudly at my companion. A wrinkle formed at the corner of his mouth, and he nodded ever so slightly: Things will be better from here. You just took your first step.

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