Electric City

By Elizabeth Rosner

October 2014


Karl August Rudolf Steinmetz waited in an interminable line with close to a thousand other steerage passengers on the deck of La Champagne. It was July 1, 1889 and the temperature so blistering that most of the passengers, wearing multiple layers of clothing, stood nearly paralyzed with heat exhaustion. One might have expected pandemonium, or at least a kind of restless excitement, but this was the last in a lengthy series of degradations to be endured, and there was nothing to do but bear it.

Steinmetz was still trying to stifle the cough that wracked him for much of the two-weeks-long crossing from Le Havre to New York. He knew that the first order of business upon arrival at Castle Garden meant passing the medical inspection, and he had more than the average challenges to worry about. Standing slightly over four feet tall and with the same hunched back that disfigured both his father and his grandfather, he was all too aware of innumerable physical ailments guaranteed for someone shaped like him. He had even temporarily foregone his greatest pleasure, cigars, in order to give his cough opportunity to subside. Today, mentholated throat lozenges filled his pockets, and he slipped yet another one into his mouth as he watched for the line to inch forward.

Just ahead of him in the queue, a young yet gaunt-faced woman was surreptitiously breastfeeding, shrouding herself as well as the infant in a webbing of brown wool shawls. In the name of modesty, Steinmetz thought, she is nearly suffocating the child. He tried not to stare, resisted every impulse to suggest that she give the poor creature a chance to breathe some fresh air. But of course he had no idea what words she would understand. During the voyage he had counted at least thirteen different tongues, muttered and shouted and cried out in dreams. The sea of humanity astonished him. And here they all were, making way for a new land, carrying what they could on their backs.

"Look out there, you!" "Move up, and stay in line!"

Directives in his new language flew all around him. He felt the press of those eager to reach solid land, while trunks and crates and baskets and satchels were hoisted onto shoulders and carts. There was altogether too much to absorb: light bouncing off the surface of the seawater; children wailing from hunger and weariness; smells of damp wool and unwashed bodies mingling with the stench of the harbor. And within shouting distance, Steinmetz could see several other steam ships with their equivalent load of human cargo, waiting for the brutally slow processing to be completed.

The arrival building rose impressively at the dock's edge, its Rococo style both reminding him of Bavaria and yet also suggesting a reinvention, more modern, certainly cleaner and less ravaged by soot and weather. Two eagles sculpted in granite posed above the grand entrance, a symbol of this brave world. Not to mention the graceful countenance of the green lady in the harbor, her arm stretched toward heaven with a gilded torch. "I lift my lamp beside your golden door..." something like that.

His peripheral vision again took in the masses of people pulsing against him. How many would be turned away for carrying visible signs of disease, not to mention for reasons of insanity ("caused by conditions on the ship," Steinmetz muttered to no one). How many like himself would be grilled in a vocabulary they don't yet possess, asked to prove their capability for earning a living, demanded to name someone in the States who is willing to sponsor them, help them settle. Were they expecting to be penniless or did they vow to work hard like Good Americans?

Like plenty of others, no doubt, he was significantly weakened from the journey—terrible food, little enough fresh water, overcrowded sleeping compartments and whimpering youngsters at every turn—but he allowed himself a palpable thrill at being so very close now to the true beginning of the rest of his life. It seemed clearer than ever from this vantage point that both Vienna and Zurich could not have made suitable refuge for a Socialist such as himself; the same political constraints met him there just as those he had fled from in Breslau. His fellow mathematics student and friend Oscar Asmussen, a Danish American, had been the one to persuade Steinmetz to join him on this cross-Atlantic voyage. No matter that all he could afford was steerage class, while Asumssen would take his place on an upper deck.

"Would you prefer to end up in some Bavarian prison? Or dead?" Such were the simple equations declared by his friend, and Steinmetz had been unable to refute their logic.

Europe, for him, was over. He was about to step onto an unfamiliar shore, with its promises of renewal and freedom, and adopt it as home.


Inside the vast entrance hall, Steinmetz gazed upward to the curving ceiling and saw a pair of red, white, and blue American flags hanging limp in the hot air. Having been exhorted to leave behind all cases and bundles, trudging up a wide staircase along with his fellow passengers, he noted the team of medical evaluators peering down over the balcony, studying all of them for obvious signs of infirmity. Steinmetz imagined how pathetic he must look from their viewpoint, no way to hide his compressed frame, his uneven legs. But at least he wouldn't be seen straining for oxygen or raggedly wheezing like so many on the stairs above and below him.

On this second floor, with doctors scanning each individual in a matter of seconds, scribbling with chalk on dark coat sleeves and lapels, Steinmetz tried to present himself with as much dignity as possible, under the circumstances. To be publicly examined by strangers was to be the finale of the humiliations, he hoped.

Just ahead of him, a powdery B and P were hastily sketched on an elderly woman's woolen shoulder; her cataracts and ghastly pallor couldn't be mistaken by even a layperson. Steinmetz observed adults and children of all ages being directed to one side or another, led toward clusters of those who would be taken to the island's hospital for treatment. He heard loud-voiced assurances that they would be seeing American doctors, not taken back on board.

"You are not being sent home," a hoarse young man barked over and over. Protests in multiple dialects were elaborately offered in return.

"You are not being rejected. Just need to get stronger first, that's all." The young man flexed his muscles as though to demonstrate or perhaps translate, but the gesture was met with baffled expressions.

Steinmetz felt his heart pounding in empathy, knew his own strength was a matter of doubt. Having traversed one treacherous ocean, this seemed to him yet another sea of distress, with feverish looks on nearly every face, even the ones who were passing inspection. The middle-aged woman to his right was wearing about seven or eight skirts, so much material it must have been like carrying around an extra fifteen kilos of weight. What a clever inspiration, he thought, and managed a smile. Why not wear everything you own instead of packing it into a suitcase. 

His turn had finally come. He held out his passport, looked straight into the eyes of the medical officers, and waited.

The pair of sandy-haired doctors assigned to him wore similar mustaches, one with spectacles and the other without. Almost in unison, they jotted rapid notes on their clipboards and shook their heads. In mere seconds their stethoscopes revealed he was suffering from bronchitis, his eyesight was poor, and even a cursory glance deemed him a truly un-promising figure on all counts. A chalk mark on his sleeve was to be the inevitable result: L for Lameness.

This was the moment when Asmussen shouldered his sizeable frame through the throng and began waving a stack of paper bills toward the faces of the officials.

"This money," he sputtered. "All of this belongs to my friend here, Herr—I mean Professor Steinmetz. It's been saved for him especially!" Asmussen, having easily cleared each inspection as a returning citizen, stood in an impressive white blazer on the far side of a high oak desktop, fluttering the money again.

"And allow me to mention the most important thing. He's a mathematical engineer with a first-rate mind. A genius! An ideal American, I assure you!"

The younger of the two doctors squinted back and forth between Asmussen and Steinmetz, his chalk poised in mid-air. The older doctor adjusted his spectacles as if re-considering the object before him. Steinmetz stood patiently, like a mule, he thought, until they finally and wordlessly stamped his documents with their approval. Money had spoken. He would be allowed to disembark, set free to place his feet on dry land, accompanied by his single trunk and his beloved cigars.

But one thing would be left behind, drowned between the Old World and the New. From this day on he would call himself by an American designation, one that reflected his new identity, his determination to start over.

Charles Steinmetz.

The middle initial P. would come later, followed eventually by his full inclusion of what the letter represented: P for Proteus, the god of changing shape. His classmates had given him the nickname back in Breslau, a kind of teasing but without cruelty in it. They claimed it had to do with his mind's phenomenal fluidity, shifting from one intellectual pursuit to another.

He knew too that being called Proteus was simply an acknowledgement of what was impossible to ignore, his hump, his twisted frame. Quietly he maintained a conviction that this was as God-given as his mind, to be accepted without complaint.

Hardly anyone knew about the near-constant pain in his torso and limbs. There were few positions in which Steinmetz could remain comfortable for long, a favorite being perched on a stool like some exotic bird, to allow himself the possibility of rearranging his weight whenever necessary and also gaining some much-needed height when others were sitting nearby.

He would be his own invention, in this land decidedly famous for liberty of ideas and expression. Breslau would recede into blurry memories of forgotten faces, along with those of Vienna and Zurich. Unlike his grandfather and his father, he had already vowed never to marry, never to sire offspring doomed to carry the same deformity. He was perfectly sure of this, at the age of twenty-four, confident he had some other legacy to leave behind.

Finally on the same side of the gate, threshold of the New World, the two travelers embraced in triumph. Steinmetz, whose head was nearly two full feet lower than his friend's, gripped Asmussen around his thick waist.

"At last, at last!"

He turned his curving back to the harbor and the Atlantic Ocean, strode forward into the future.