My first haircut in America would have
taken place on a Wednesday in February of 1959. It didn’t. There
were two men talking inside the little barber shop in Tallahassee,
Florida, and one of them swung around as I entered. "It’s Wednesday.
We’re closed, sonny boy," he grunted. I left, deeply hurt. You
see, although not yet twenty-three, I had already been appearing
in public for ten years as a concert pianist. I was not anyone’s
Some months later, I needed
a travel document. An immigrant’s green card did not correspond
to the Europeans’ idea of a passport, so the good folks in
Tallahassee arranged a meeting with the district’s congressman,
and to Washington I went. The office door, once I found it,
proclaimed the Honorable Bob Sykes. "Bob?" I said to myself
"A mere youth in the hallowed halls of Congress?"
Once inside, a venerable
man in his sixties rose from behind the desk. "Hi, I’m Bob,"
he said, stretching out a hand. That’s how I learned that
it was all right for me to be "sonny boy" in America.
I was a good many years
away from becoming a citizen who could vote, but it didn’t
matter. I hardly spoke enough English to explain my quandary,
a highly unusual one at that. It didn’t matter. In a few minutes,
"Bob" was on the phone to the Immigration and Naturalization
Service and, together, these two American public servants
figured out how this Hungarian refugee could have a piece
of paper upon which a pedantic Swiss consular official could
imprint a visa.
The year 1959 seems a century
away. Having escaped from Hungary after the revolt against
Soviet occupation had failed, I arrived in the United States
on the 8th of January at the end of a two-day journey, the
last twenty-two hours of which were spent aboard a Pan American
DC-6 chartered for Hungarian refugees. We landed in New York
where, after a sparse lunch, I was pushed onto a train. It
took another twenty-four hours to get to Tallahassee.
Dinner time on the train.
The conductor hands me a card. The only words on the card
I could understand were "check one." I had heard that America
was so rich, people didn’t pay with currency, they just wrote
checks. I didn’t have a checkbook; consequently, I assumed
that I could not have dinner on the train. In any case, the
$23 which represented my total earthly holdings were for an
The next day I began to
For sure it was strange.
The people, the clothes, the houses all looked strange.
As for food, I figured the quality of meat might make up for
the absence of flavor; salad was obviously a religion. What?
Only one kind of mustard? And why does everyone insist on
making each bite difficult by putting down the knife and changing
the fork over to the right hand? No one spoke any language
other than English. Boys I didn’t know told me to "take it
easy"; girls practiced throwing batons in the air while carrying
on a conversation. It was all very, very strange.
Slowly I learned to eat
the food, to speak and understand the language, to live with
the strange customs. Soon, I resumed my concert career
which required trips to Europe. Every time I returned, I found
America a little less strange. Then, one day, the immigration
officer at New York’s Idlewild airport—as it was then called
—admitted me with the words, "Good afternoon, sir. Welcome
He didn’t have to say it.
Remember, I wasn’t even a citizen.
It was as if someone had
turned on huge spotlights in my brain. For the first time,
I began to contemplate the practical implications of what
is called equality in the affairs of man. This much-abused
phrase suddenly rang true. I knew it was the law in America,
but this officer demonstrated something beyond the law. As
a public servant, he was, of course, carrying out the law
in examining my documents. But as a human being, he was offering
me a partnership in being American. He did so without any
high-minded or high-handed platitudes. He simply indicated,
if I wanted to share the land he called home, that would be
just fine. How much more equal can you be?
I began to look around me
with different, clearer eyes. At first, I recalled, I thought
it ridiculous that "real" Americans could not identify themselves.
Identity papers are staples on the Continent of Europe, ranging
from the "looser" Western version to the obsession that Russians—Russians,
not necessarily Soviets—have with documents. Now, I realized
how much that had to do with personal freedom. In Europe,
West and East, you have to register your address with the
police. Americans have a hard time believing this. In 1959,
no American had even heard of a driver’s license with a photo.
And this was the only country where no one checked your papers
Hand-in-hand with these
liberties went the custom of not building fences around one’s
property, of not locking cars and homes, of making deals—large
and small—on a handshake. Trust was in the air. People, for
the most part, behaved toward one another in a civilized manner—the
same way they groomed and clothed themselves. It was an entirely
American phenomenon to travel on a crowded bus in summer heat,
yet experiencing no discomfort when inhaling air through one’s
nostrils, unavoidable in most other countries. Appropriate
conduct was expected and offered; it was also reciprocated
But the most telling difference
was in attitudes. While people elsewhere operated on the premise,
"If I haven’t got it, he shouldn’t have it either," Americans
seemed to say, "If he’s got it, I ought to be able to have
it too, if I just work hard enough." The ability of generation
after generation actually to fulfill such desires helped maintain
what appeared to be a union not merely of fifty states
but, more importantly, of some two hundred and fifty million
By the time I got my citizenship
in 1964, I was grateful and immensely proud to be told by
the judge in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that I would not be a
Hungarian-American, nor any other hyphenated American. While
no one suggested then, or had since, that I disown or forget
my upbringing, I was now, simply and officially, American.
More than three decades
have passed. Are the people who come here still grateful for
the opportunity? Are we still a union of some 250 million
individuals? Am I still "American," plain and simple? Above
all, do we still live by the principle of looking upon things
others possess not with envy, but as an incentive for us to
work that much harder?
Some changes are obvious.
Pan American Airways is no more, on the other hand there is
a profusion of mustards in every supermarket—indeed, new flavors
come our way from an endless parade of chefs on television.
But in the early 1960s most Americans did not build walled-in
communities with guard houses. Americans knew how to live
and work together, and new efforts were underway to
make sure that this greatest of benefits would extend to all
men, women and children in the land.
That is not what happened.
As we approach the end of the millennium, Americans seem to
be less and less able to live and work together. We have left
the path that rendered this nation unique, and uniquely successful.