Northeast Times

Author finds inspiration in Port Richmond

Lee Fish­man found her­self im­pressed with the cour­age of im­mig­rants try­ing to build lives there. So she de­cided to write a book about it.

Rija Malacovik waited for her hus­band, Josef, out­side a Bustleton Av­en­ue res­taur­ant. He didn’t ex­pect her to be out­side. In fact, Rija was hop­ing he wouldn’t spot her at all. Her in­ten­tion was to fol­low him. Josef had kid­napped their little girl, and Rija and a friend aimed to tail him to wherever it was he was hid­ing her.

Rija (pro­nounced REE a) and Josef Malacovik are char­ac­ters in Lee Fish­man’s first nov­el, Edge of a Dream, the tale of a Bos­ni­an im­mig­rant fam­ily’s struggle to build a new life in Phil­adelphia.

The nov­el’s ac­tion takes place in Cen­ter City, Port Rich­mond and the North­east, Fish­man said May 2 dur­ing a break at her job in the Cent­ral Lib­rary, 19th and Vine streets. But the book also gives read­ers a look at a part of their own city that they might not know.

It’s a Phil­adelphia that has be­come the new home of many people who were born over­seas. The Malacoviks and their story were in­spired by the im­mig­rants Fish­man met on the job. Now the Free Lib­rary’s as­sist­ant chief of cent­ral pub­lic ser­vices, Fish­man worked many years help­ing im­mig­rants get ready for job in­ter­views. The strength, cour­age and smarts of the people she met im­pressed her.

“If I were in their place, I thought, ‘How would I feel?’ I would be over­whelmed,” she said as she sat in her old work sta­tion last week. “They wer­en’t.”

Rija, Josef, their child and her moth­er are sur­viv­ors.

LIV­ING in A WAR ZONE

Bos­ni­ans of Croa­tian an­ces­try, they lived through 44 months of ar­til­lery shelling of their ho­met­own of Sa­ra­jevo dur­ing the war that raged after Yugoslavia split apart. Many city res­id­ents fled to des­tin­a­tions all over Europe, but Rija and her fam­ily came to the United States, where they wanted their piece of the Amer­ic­an dream.

The nov­el’s title is drawn from the idea of that quest, Fish­man said.

“It’s about life around the edges of the Amer­ic­an dream, which is not all we think it is,” she said. “People who come here are sur­prised by how chal­len­ging it can be.”

Bey­ond that, Josef and Rija don’t have the same dream. She wants a safe, stable fam­ily life. He wants fast money. They settle in Port Rich­mond, where their little girl at­tends the myth­ic­al St. Casimir’s School. Josef isn’t home much. He is off work­ing a con­struc­tion job in At­lantic City, and from there he dis­ap­pears for a while.

Left to make her own way, Rija takes a job clean­ing of­fices in Cen­ter City. To say she gets taken ad­vant­age of would be soften­ing the story. Her pay is lousy and she re­ceives no be­ne­fits. The first co-work­er she meets has no idea where Bos­nia is or that there was a hor­rif­ic war there not long ago.

“I do re­mem­ber something on the news, but I didn’t un­der­stand it,” Rija’s co-work­er, Car­lene, said. “I’m try­ing to pic­ture where Bos­nia is.”

GET­TING TO KNOW YOU

Fish­man didn’t pick Port Rich­mond as her Bos­ni­an char­ac­ters’ new home be­cause she lives there her­self. She doesn’t. She lives in Cen­ter City and grew up in Bucks County. But over the years, she got to know Port Rich­mond, and she drew some in­spir­a­tion from it.

“I got fas­cin­ated with the neigh­bor­hood,” Fish­man said. “I learned that a lot of new­comers live there. It hit me as a good, sol­id Phil­adelphia neigh­bor­hood.”

One of the book’s char­ac­ters is Mr. Gracek, a Port Rich­mond en­tre­pren­eur and Rija’s land­lord. He’s smart and he knows all the angles, Fish­man said, so Rija sees him as a role mod­el.

Port Rich­mond, however, is Rija’s home, not Josef’s. He is off on his own, Fish­man said. She tells Josef’s story and Rija’s in al­tern­ate chapters for most of the book un­til “things start to get a little tricky,” Fish­man said.

Josef does come back for a while, but he is eas­ily drawn in­to easy-money schemes, so he is soon gone, tak­ing the couple’s 6-year-old daugh­ter with him.

De­term­ined to find her daugh­ter, Rija first turns to po­lice for help, but she is told her hus­band has every right to take his child. She then re­cruits a friend, and the two of them find out that Josef fre­quents a Bustleton Av­en­ue res­taur­ant. It’s there that they wait to put eyes on him; they fol­low him across the Betsy Ross Bridge to New Jer­sey.

Fish­man sees Rija as a tough-minded 20-something wife and moth­er who has sur­vived a war of eth­nic cleans­ing.

“She’s un­re­lent­ing in de­fense of her fam­ily and not above bar­gain­ing in blood to save them,” Fish­man said.

Josef, on the oth­er hand, is charm­ing but ca­pri­cious. He’s a wan­nabe wheel­er-deal­er who sees his vis­ion of Amer­ic­an suc­cess col­lapse.

MEET THE AU­THOR

Lee Fish­man, 57, was brought up in Bucks County and at­ten­ded Ne­sham­iny High School be­fore pur­su­ing her Eng­lish de­gree at Temple Uni­versity. She moved to the city after col­lege and has been a Phil­adelphia res­id­ent ever since. She and her­hus­band, Ben­son, live near the Cent­ral Lib­rary. They have two grown chil­dren.

Fish­man has been with the Free Lib­rary of Phil­adelphia since 1995, work­ing at the Work­place Ca­reer Cen­ter.

“One of the things I did there was to ini­ti­ate and pro­duce the first ‘Entry Level Job Fair,’” she said.

The fair sought to help people move in­to the work­force; the 10th an­nu­al event was held last month.

Be­sides be­ing in­spired by the stor­ies of the im­mig­rants she met while work­ing at the lib­rary, Fish­man found ideas in news­pa­per stor­ies, snip­pets of over­heard con­ver­sa­tions and “tiny bits and pieces of people’s lives.”

The au­thor is work­ing on her second book, Me­di­um’s Guild, which also is set in Phil­adelphia.

“I love Phil­adelphia,” Fish­man said. “It’s a great and liv­able city brim­ming with art, cul­ture, great people, fant­ast­ic food and fun.”

“Edge of a Dream” is pub­lished by the Trans­Me­dia Pub­lish­ing Group and is avail­able as an e-book at Amazon.com. It is avail­able as a trade pa­per­back at Amazon, and also at Joseph Fox Books, 1724 Sansom St.

You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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