These days the rap is that we're living through a distinctly un-American blip in American history: Diminished expectations for many, radical reversals for the extra unlucky. Gone is the idea of doing better than our parents, or doing better than we ourselves did 10 years ago. But this country is built on wave after wave of such reversals. One wave included my own family.
My father and grandparents arrived in New York 58 years ago, fleeing the communists who had seized their native Czechoslovakia. New York City was the end of a three-year odyssey that took them from Switzerland to North Africa and back. For Rudolf Perina, who was 37, it was the beginning of a second adult life. In Czechoslovakia, he'd been a lawyer and racecar driver who managed his family's lumber business. But he spoke little English and read almost none, so he gladly accepted a job washing dishes at a Manhattan restaurant. On his second day of work, misfortune struck–-he mistook sulfuric acid for dish soap and suffered third-degree burns.
Nowhere in my grandfather's lengthy memoir does he rue how far he'd fallen. In fact, a half century after his escape, he wrote only of the paradoxical calm that settled over him while in existential limbo: "I found myself on the border of West Germany with one briefcase, a pair of pyjamas and 5000 worthless Czech crowns. I left everything behind, but to my surprise, left the worries behind, too. This change in my life was so sudden, so astonishing, that I did not have time or reason to worry."
As his hands healed, he began the slow climb to professionalism that countless immigrants have made before and since. Only when he'd re-established some semblance of the life he'd lost did his anxieties return, but never again with the same vengeance.
Manhattan is unrelenting-the restaurant kitchen in which my grandfather spent those two ill-fated days is long gone. It sat just a block away from the sunny loft in which I now work. If my grandparents could rebuild from scratch, I think, what is there for me to lose?
Today would be my grandfather's 96th birthday, and so I celebrate his saga, one of many. These stories are America's foundation: comebacks not preordained but won through gritty determination. And for some, a psychic payoff for turmoil that was so searing in the moment.