Soon after arriving in New York, Barnet opened a small grocery store. He quickly found out that life wasn’t easy for “greeners,” as the newly arrived immigrants were called. One day, he was shocked to discover that he’d run afoul of the law.
A letter had arrived at his shop in a language he did not understand. He innocently showed it to his Hungarian, Romanian, and Polish customers. One woman advised him to throw it away because a boy had written it to her servant girl! Unsure of its contents, Barnet set the letter aside and thought no more about it.
As Barnet wrote in his autobiography, at about nine o’clock that evening, a well-dressed young man entered his shop and asked in English whether he had received a letter for a Miss Frumkin.
Barnet said that a letter had been delivered to him but that he didn’t understand it. He had shown it to a few customers and was told the letter was not for him:
“Here, you can have it.” I handed the letter to the man, and he began hollering at me. “What right do you have to open a letter that does not belong to you? You know I can send you to prison for this!” I did not reply. Firstly, I didn’t understand what he was talking about. Secondly, I got so scared that I didn’t know what to say. The man walked out and soon returned with another man, who said to me, “You’re under arrest. Come with me to the police station.”
Scared and confused, Barnet reluctantly left the janitor in charge of his shop. He soon worried that the man would forget to lock it up for the night:
As soon as I entered the police station, they put me behind iron bars like a terrible criminal. I became philosophical. Taking my mother’s attitude, I thought, “God will help” and I calmed down. I sarcastically said to myself, now I shall have a chance to sleep a bit. I put my coat under my head and lay down. I reminded myself that I had left the store unlocked and in the care of the janitor. What shall I do? I didn’t see anybody to tell them what happened to me.
At that moment, the door opened. I was told to come out. A man came over and said, “Go home. You must be here tomorrow morning at ten o’clock. The judge will be here.”
Barnet found his friends waiting for him when he returned to his store. One woman told him that her son had bailed him out, and that he would represent him in court the next day. She had told her son about the incident and spoke kindly about Barnet, saying that he was a lonely “greener” who was being framed—and after all, he was a good man and a hard worker who had just sent tickets to bring over his entire family from Russia!
In the morning I went to the store as usual, carried breakfast to the customers, stayed in the store until ten o’clock and then went to court, escorted by a dozen men and women like a bridegroom to the altar, some sympathizing, some cracking jokes about the matter.
I felt miserable.
One man said, “A greener is a greener. That man had no right to arrest you. Did he show you a warrant? Did you ask him if he had a warrant? He must have been a friend of the boy, a pimp like him, a make-believe detective.”
I didn’t even know what a warrant was—or a pimp!
In court, the same young man who had seen me the night before in the police station, came over and showed me where to sit. Then he left.
My turn came. I was sworn in. The judge asked me to tell everything I knew about the matter. In broken English, I told him that the letter was delivered to my address, that I opened it but could not understand it. At that moment, the lawyer handed the judge a paper. After reading it over, the judge said, “Case dismissed.”
My lawyer asked me if I wanted to sue the boy and his detective. I said, “No, I don’t like to go to court.”
On the way back to the store, that boy approached me, showed me a fist and said, “Wait, you are not through with me yet!” Then he walked away.
I thanked the lawyer and asked him to send me a bill. He said I did not owe him anything.
My friends were waiting for me when I returned to the store, and they were happy to see that I was free. Until that event, I did not know how many friends I had in that neighborhood.
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