‘Is That Allowed?’ ‘It Is Here.’
Three immigrant stories that illustrate what makes our country great.
The Wall Street Journal: July 7, 2012
There’s something Haley Barbour reminded me of called the Gate Rule. The former Mississippi governor said it’s the first thing you should think of when you think about immigration. People are either lined up at the gate trying to get out of a country, or lined up trying to get in.
It says something about the health of a nation when they’re lined up to get in, as they are, still, with America. It says, of course, that compared with a lot of the rest of the world, America’s economy isn’t in such bad shape. But it says more than that. People don’t want to come to a place when they know they’ll be treated badly. They don’t want to call your home their home unless they know you’ll make room for them in more than economic ways.
And so this July 4, a small tribute to American friendliness, openness, and lack of—what to call it? The old hatreds. They dissipate here. In Ireland, Catholics and Protestants could be at each other’s throats for centuries, but the minute they moved here, they were in the Kiwanis Club together. The Mideast is a cauldron, but when its residents move here, they wind up on the same PTA committee. It sounds sentimental, but this is part of the magic of America, and the world still knows it even if we, in our arguments, especially about immigration, forget.
So, three stories of American friendliness, openness and lack of the old hatreds.
There was a teenager who came here with his parents and younger brother. They arrived New York and got an apartment on 181st Street and Broadway. He spoke little English but went right into public school. The family needed money, so when he was 16, he transferred to night school and got a day job at a shaving-brush factory. He wore big, heavy rubber gloves and squeezed bleaching acid out of the bristles. Soon he went part time to City College, and then he entered the U.S. Army.
This is a classic immigrant story. It could be about anyone. But the teenager went on to become an American secretary of state, and his name is Henry Kissinger. Here is another part of the story that is classic: how Americans treated him. The workers at the factory were older than he, mostly Italian-American, some second-generation. They wanted to help make him part of things, so they started taking him to baseball games. “It was the summer of 1939. . . . I didn’t know anything about baseball,” he remembered this week. Now here he was in the roaring stands at Yankee Stadium.
About the people in the bleachers, he said, “the most striking thing was the enormous friendliness, the bantering.” In Hitler’s Germany, “I saw crowds, I’d go to the other side of the street.” Here, no sense of looming threat. “That I would say was a very American part of my experience.”
He was “enchanted” by the game—”the subtlety, the little nuances—you can watch what the strategy is and how they judge what the opponent is likely to do by the way the fielders position themselves. . . . It is a game that combines leisure with highly dramatic moments!”
And there was the man called Joe DiMaggio. The factory workers would sort of say, “If you take a look at Joe DiMaggio,” you will learn something about this country. DiMaggio was “infinitely graceful” as a fielder, “he would sort of lope towards the ball . . . nothing dramatic, he didn’t tumble, he didn’t strut, and he made it look effortless.” He didn’t “stand there wagging his bat. . . . He would just stand there with his bat raised. . . . He was all concentration.”
Years later they met, and Mr. Kissinger, faced with his boyhood idol, that symbol of those early years, was awed. It was like being a kid and meeting a movie star: “I didn’t know exactly what to say to him.” They became friends. “He had a fierce kind of integrity.”
So Henry Kissinger learned some things about Americans, and America, thanks to a bunch of Italian guys in a brush factory downtown. They were good to him. They were welcoming. Probably when they or their people were new here, someone was good to them.
That is American friendliness. Here is American openness—meaning if you are open to it, it will be open to you. Mary Dorian was an uneducated Irish farm girl with no family to speak of and no prospects She came to America on her own, around 1920. She wrote to the one girl she knew, a distant cousin in Brooklyn, to ask that she meet her at the ship. She landed at Ellis Island, went to the agreed-upon spot, and the cousin wasn’t there. She had forgotten. Mary, my grandmother, spent her first night in America alone on a park bench in lower Manhattan.
She went on to find Brooklyn and settle in. She joined an Irish club and a step-dancing club. They didn’t have anything like that back home. We make a mistake when we worry that sometimes immigrants come here and burrow more into their old nationality than their new one. It’s not a rejection of America, just a way of not being lonely, of still being connected to something. She met her husband in an Irish club, and she got a job hanging up coats in a restaurant. Then she became a bathroom attendant at Abraham & Strauss on Fulton Street in downtown Brooklyn. When she died in 1960, a lot of black people came to the funeral. This, in a Brooklyn broken up into separate ethnic enclaves, was surprising, but it wouldn’t have been to her. They were her coworkers from A&S, all the girls who worked in the ladies room, and their families. They loved her.
When she died, Mary Dorian had a job, a family and friends. She had come here with none of those things. She trusted America, and it came through.
As for the old hatreds:
There was a 7-year-old boy who came over from Germany on the SS Bremen. He was travelling with his younger brother—they too were fleeing the Nazis—and a steward. The Bremen anchored on Manhattan’s west side on May 4, 1939, and the children were joined by their father, who was already in New York. They stood on deck watching the bustle of disembarking, and then the boy saw something. “Across the street from where we were, and visible from the boat, was a delicatessen which had its name in neon with Hebrew letters,” he remembered this week.
He was startled. Something with Hebrew letters—that was impossible back home. He asked his father, “Is that allowed?”
And his father said, “It is here.”
It is here.
The little boy was Mike Nichols, the great film and stage director, who went on to do brilliant things with the freedom he was given here.
Sometimes we think our problems are so big we have to remake ourselves to meet them. But maybe we don’t. Maybe we just have to remember who we are—open, friendly, welcoming and free.
Happy Fourth of July to this tender little country, to the great and fabled nation that is still, this day, the hope of the world.
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