Once upon a time, long ago, in a land not far from here, when I was a lifeguard, there was a woman who came to the beach almost every day. She was a matronly woman, perhaps in her sixties. She used to walk to our lifeguards’ chair-tower, look up at one of us, and, in a heavy Yiddish accent, ask, “Svim catcha! Is it gonna rrrein ta’day?” It got so that we used to look for her, and the first of us to spot her would whisper, “Here comes svim catcha!” Don’t misunderstand, we weren’t making fun of her. We liked her, and one reason why we did was that she would actually go into the water and swim, in a way we young men found charming. She would enter the water up to her ankles, put on a white rubber “bathing cap,” walk into deeper water and swim, her arms flailing, with her face down, fiercely swinging her head from side to side to breathe, for about ten minutes, traveling maybe twenty feet, then emerge from the water looking very happy.
Besides, we didn’t make fun of her because most of us had grown up with relatives who spoke with foreign accents. In my case with my immigrant Italian maternal grandparents. But, it’s not quite right to say that my Nonna and Papa had foreign accents. In fact, they never learned to speak English. (This did not, however, prevent their three sons from serving in the American military in World War II, each seeing a lot of combat, and one of them wounded while fighting Hitler’s army in the nation of — you guessed it — Italy.) It was in Red Hook, Brooklyn, then an Italian immigrant longshoremen’s neighborhood. Of the people there who spoke English, half did so with Italian accents. Except for the parents of my friend, Roy, who were Norwegian immigrants. Roy’s mother used to call him from their top-floor window, dragging out his name as, “ ’Oooy!” And the Jewish neighborhood tailor, who, with curling “sideburns,” perplexed us kids by wearing a black jacket and hat even on the hottest summer days. Then there were the old timers in a neighborhood not far away who spoke funny, like, well, like the guy in the movies — you know, Barry Fitzgerald. And a handful of Puerto Ricans who spoke what seemed to us like Italian in fast-forward.
I think of all this when I encounter today’s immigrants. Not just of the controversial, often heated, issues surrounding them, although, of course, I do think about these too. But, my mind goes back to Red Hook … well, as on a recent Sunday when I saw an Hispanic family buying ice cream cones in the Carvel store in Bridgehampton. Mama, papa, and three kids. The youngest was a boy about the age of three. He was wearing a red T-shirt with the inscription on it, “All American Boy.” I smiled and thought, Yeah, damn right! Just as I was, back in Red Hook. For it seems I was an authority on things American by the time I was fourteen years old. You see, when I graduated from P.S. 142 in 1953, having spent nine years there (K through 8th grade), two Italian grandmothers sat behind me at the commencement ceremony, all of us listening to our extremely moralistic principal go on and on, cautioning us kids about “the Philistines” in the world, and admonishing us to keep our “base instincts” under control. The Italian ladies spoke little English, and one asked the other what the principal was saying. The second lady answered in Italian, “I think it has to do with bas-e-ball. You know, ‘primo bas-e, secundo bas-e’… .” Then, they leaned forward and one of them asked me in Italian if the Philistines were a baseball team. I nodded, and said, “The Philadelphia Philistines.” The ladies sat back, satisfied.
There is a darker side to immigrants’ experiences, of course, past and, sorry to say, present. Fears about immigrants are perennial in American history. Consider what even such a tolerant man as Benjamin Franklin said in 1751 about German immigrants then coming to Pennsylvania: “This Pennsylvania will in a few years become a German colony; instead of learning our language, we must learn theirs, or live as in a foreign country.” The immigration history I know came cascading into my consciousness recently when I walked into an East End store. A woman behind the counter, a Polish immigrant, who speaks fluent English but with a Polish accent, no youngster, and in fact old enough to have a child in high school, was alone in the place. She was crying. I asked her what was wrong. “A woman just ruined my day,” she answered. She described how the woman harried and abused her under the totally false pretext of not liking the way she was being served, tossing merchandise on the counter and shouting, “Don’t you know who I am! Don’t you know what I can do!” (In fact, the immigrant lady didn’t recognize her and doesn’t know who she is.) The angry disgust I felt on hearing this was akin to that I felt years ago when I was doing research for a book I wrote about the largest lynching to take place in the U.S. history. I found a letter, dated June 9,1891, from the office of the mayor of New Orleans. Among other things it said of the Italian immigrants there at the time, “we find them the most idle, vicious and worthless people among us.” The letter added, “Except the Poles we know of no other nationality which is [as] objectionable as a people.”