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 "sonny boy."
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 emergency.
The next day I began to "learn" America.
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 home."
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 upon departure.
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 without fail.
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 individuals.
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.