Gary Shteyngart, Novelist

In the late 1970s, coming to America after a childhood spent in the Soviet Union was equivalent to stumbling off a monochromatic cliff and landing in pure Technicolor. As an intensely curious child I remember pressing my nose to the window of the taxiing jet liner, watching the first hints of America passing by, and thinking: oh, that immense solidity! That finished, completed quality! The sweep of what used to be JFK’s Pan Am terminal with its “flying saucer” roof that told us we had left one century and landed in another; the purposeful, swift, but oddly humane stride of the first Americans brushing past us at immigration; the odd expanse of the springtime sky that didn’t press down on Queens as the Russian sky had trampled my stretch of Leningrad, but flowed past in waves, allotting a bit of itself to each red-bricked or aluminum-sided house, and to each of the lucky families that dwelled within.

The science fiction aspect, the intensity of arrival, did not leave me for the next hours, weeks, months. I felt like the convert to a new religion: everything was revelation. I will never forget the ride from the airport, my first highway overpass, the way the car (a private car, no less, bigger than three Soviet Ladas) leaned into the curve hundreds of feet above the greenery of Queens. Here we were floating through air as surely as the passengers of the airplane that had delivered us. And buckled into the back seat, with my parents also leaning into the airborne curve, I felt the same emotions I would experience when choking upon my first cheesy American pizza slice years later – elation, visceral excitement but also fear.  How would I ever measure up to the gentle, smiling giants strolling this land who launched their cars like cosmonauts into the infinite American sky and who lived like lords in their little castles on 40x100 foot lots in Kew Gardens, Queens? How would I ever learn to speak English the way they did? Informally, directly, with the words circling the air like homing pigeons.

But we found home too. The two unlikely words that I would learn in my new English: Garden Apartment. Our first place was modest by local standards, but it fronted a beautiful patch of trees and grass, where the friendliest of squirrels soon became my new friends. I shared with these squirrels many American peanuts, those salty, double-barreled nutritional nuggets, and together we shed our native furs to welcome summer in New York, our bodies sweaty, happy, strumming with possibility. The Americans we met were kinder than we had expected, kinder than any human beings we had known, and they furnished us with little gifts they thought Russians would like, for example cigarettes (my parents didn’t smoke), and little toy cars (as far as I was concerned, they have made all other gifts redundant). I remember lying on the grass with my loyal squirrels chirping in the trees above me, as I zipped a Hot Wheels Chevrolet Impala off a glossy pack of Marlboros. Those memories are my New World, because even to a child who knows little, there are some parts of the planet that are instinctively, intrinsically, more welcoming than others. And in the Garden Apartment above, I see my mother watching me from the window, the woman who had abandoned her own dying mother in Leningrad to bring me to America. Along with the individuals the Vilcek Foundation is celebrating this year, along with the first Americans my family had met who gave us their friendship and a foothold on their, now our, land, I wish to honor her.

  • Ralston Crawford: Torn Signs

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