The first immigrant I remember meeting frightened me. It was before Pearl Harbor. I was about 7, sick in bed in Brooklyn. The doctor had a shaved head and a heavy German accent. I thought of Nazis, but he was Jewish. He was kind and cured me.
Later, two brothers from Germany moved into my apartment house in Flatbush. They were dressed in Tyrolean green and had accents. I was about 10 or 11. Their mother invited me up to their apartment to play. After a few board games, we never played again; I realized we had different interests. One, Hans Mark, became secretary of the Air Force in 1979; the other, Peter Mark, became a Princeton professor.
These immigrants and others I’ve known have been on my mind as our nation seems to grow ever more divided over newcomers from elsewhere.
Back in high school at Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn, I was blessed with a Latin teacher with a thick Scottish burr. His acerbic wit lit the candle that got me through Cicero and Virgil and restored my ego.
In my 20s, when I was living in Manhattan, a nagging stomach ache led me to call a doctor I had never seen before. He saved my life by sending me to the hospital for an appendectomy. Thus, a displaced Austrian became my doc. During visits, he’d chat on the phone in various languages or read me stories he wrote before they appeared in The New Yorker magazine.
In Freeport, a Jamaican neighbor, a Caribbean Johnny Appleseed and my gardening mentor, plied me with a green called callaloo we ate for dinner. He also gave me shoots of other plants for my garden. We were allied against a common enemy: squirrels. On 9/11, his twins, firefighters, answered the call to duty at the World Trade Center. One survived. He’s a fire marshal today for the FDNY.
I walk to my bagel store in Baldwin to buy the newspaper. The man at the counter is from Honduras. We enjoy kibbitzing. Despite disparities in age and background, we hit it off. A few doors away, a Salvadoran makes great pizza.
At CVS in Baldwin, I spot a black skull cap and a Sikh turban behind the pharmacy counter. I’m moved to realize that the great American melting pot still perks.
I never met the two most important immigrants in my life, my grandfathers. Did my father’s pop, who came from Russia, sock one of the czar’s soldiers? Did my mother’s dad, who came from Austria, dip his toe in show biz? I’d always heard he performed in Yiddish theater.
A vague question has tormented me for years: Was my father born here, or brought to the United States as an infant from Russia? I remember taking a subway and bus to Fort Totten, Queens, to visit him in the Army coast artillery during World War II. Although he lived to age 92, I admit I never got around to asking him where he was born.
Questions of legal and illegal immigration roil the nation. Bipartisan bills for comprehensive immigration reform — for example, one sponsored by Sens. John McCain and Ted Kennedy in 2005, and another by the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” in 2013 — were reasonable, but understandably unsatisfactory to many. They failed. Now with fear of terrorism upon us, compromise seems harder.
The times call for vigilance and compassion, but not blindness to the virtues of immigrants.
Reader Harold Pockriss lives in Freeport.