Editor’s note: I wrote this narrative several weeks ago, but I was uncertain if I would publish it, as it includes a lot of personal information Based on these concerns I took the unusual step of having Julie read it so she could offer her opinion. She said that I should publish it, and here it is. She advised that it should be read, not just skimmed. Mike
Both sets of my grandparents came to America at the turn of the last century. I’m not sure how many governmental hoops that they had to jump through to be admitted, but I don’t think that there were that many. Their biggest obstacle was a lack of money. My grandfathers came to the US alone and saved for years so they could afford to send for their wives and children.
They took on the jobs that no one else wanted, and they worked tirelessly for low wages. They lived in crowded and unpleasant conditions. They went without. My grandparents sacrificed because they believed in the American dream. They wanted more for their children, and they knew that their peasant roots not only cast them, but also cast their offspring to a life of limited options.
With the reunification of their families, their hardships continued. Without a good command of the English language and sparse formal educations, they took any job that they could get. My maternal grandfather worked as a custodian in a bookbinding factory, my paternal grandfather worked as a laborer for International Harvester. It is likely that their co-workers considered them inferior because they were foreign. Perhaps they saw them as stupid, dirty, and lazy.
My grandparents came to America because they wanted more, not less. More for their children and grandchildren. They emphasized hard work and focused their children on the American dream. They imparted on them strong values. They stressed the importance of education.
My father became the chief engineer of one of the largest high schools in Chicago. One of his brothers was an electrician, the other an assistant foreman. His sisters worked in offices and factories until they married and started families of their own.
My mom was a stay at home mom. Her brothers became factory workers, engineers, a CEO of a manufacturing company, and a founder of a financial institution. One sister worked as a telephone operator, the other as an accountant.
My generation advanced further with almost all of my cousins earning a college diploma, and many getting advanced degrees. Our former peasant family now includes university professors, scientists, health care providers, teachers, financial investors, business professionals, bankers, writers, a professional entertainer, social workers, a lawyer, a speech pathologist, and even a former opera singer. None of these careers would have been possible if our grandparents remained in Slovakia. We advanced to the level that we were capable of, and we were not limited by our position in society. Along the way, we contributed to our country. Our careers allowed us to create new jobs, to educate, to heal, to discover, to help, to entertain. My family benefited greatly by being allowed to come to America, and we gave back significantly. Our country is a melting pot where new mixes with old. Fresh ideas mingle with classic thoughts. Innovation is celebrated, tradition is respected.
The story of immigrants is not that different from the story of working-class men and women who were given the ability to attend college via the GI bill after WWII. Just like the immigrants, they brought with them enthusiasm and new ideas. Just like the immigrants, they were given an opportunity, and they gave back. Just like the immigrants, the country benefited as much as the individual.
This inclusion lesson is often repeated but typically ignored. When we are inclusive all benefit when we are exclusive many lose. At one time women were excluded, as were blacks, Catholics, Irish, Italians, Jews, and countless other groups. What would this country be like if their contributions were ignored?
Tom was born in the Polish town of Turin. His father owned a lot on the outskirts of town where he planned to build the family home. Initially, he constructed a small 3 room utility building and moved in with his wife and Tom. This was supposed to be temporary housing until the main house was built. Unfortunately, the ground was never broken on that house.
The utility building was elementary. It had electricity, but no hot water. The kitchen sink drained into a tank that needed to be emptied, and the toilet was located in an outdoor shed. The toilet used a wooden holding box, and when Tom was old enough, it was his job to remove the waste and bury it in the backyard.
Tom’s father was a brick mason, and he appeared to go to work most days, the problem was that he didn’t bring home any of his earnings. It was likely that much of those funds were spent on alcohol, a substance that fueled his dad’s anger.
His mother worked a variety of jobs to make ends meet that ranged from sewing linings into purses to custodial work at a factory. She was frustrated and angry with her husband’s habits and physically took that frustration out on Tom.
Tom not only grew up in poverty, but he also grew up on his own. He remembers being a very small child who was left alone and afraid as his mother worked the night shift. He recalls washing his pants and waiting for them to dry, as he only had one pair to wear. Tom had to learn to problem solve and take care of himself, there was no one to help him.
Things may have been stressful at home, but Tom had dreams. He was a bright student who did well in school. He had a goal to become a doctor, and he dreamt about being a surgeon in America. In fact, his nickname was, “Medic,” during his early school years. However, something changed when he entered the 6th grade.
Tom says he just gave up, and he wasn’t sure why. Within the same breath, he notes that things were getting worse at home. Tom checked out in 6th grade, and because of his lack of academic interest, he was slotted away from a university education and into a technical school. His future was now cast, his dream of becoming a doctor evaporated into fantasy.
The technical school was simple, in fact too simple, and Tom was bored. He would attend classes three days a week and then go into the field for the remaining two. “They sent me to a factory to be trained by factory electricians. The electricians would set up some electrical circuits incorrectly and then go on their rounds telling me that I should try to figure out what they felt were difficult problems. I found that the solutions were obvious. I would fix the circuitry within minutes and then read the newspaper until they returned. I was bored out of my mind.”
His initial three years of technical school grew into six with advanced electrical training which Tom said he did mostly to avoid getting drafted into the brutal and punitive Polish army. He graduated but never worked as an electrician. He saw the limitations of his life in Poland. He could possibly get a small sales job, perhaps he could be hired to work maintenance in a factory. His life was condemned by events that happened when he was 12 years old.
In those days the Polish government controlled the banks and thereby controlled the exchange rate for the conversion of Polish Zloty to the world standard US dollar. The official exchange rate was artificially high making it very difficult for the average Pole to acquire the dollars necessary to buy luxury items, as dollars were the currency of choice. Tom saw this discrepancy and entered into a new business, which he refers to as his career in banking.
He would stand in front of the bank and offer a better exchange rate than what was offered inside. His actions weren’t illegal, but they weren’t sanctioned. Despite being officially frowned upon his customers included government officials and even a few members of the Polish secret police. “They wanted the best exchange rate too,” said Tom.
In a year and a half, Tom had saved several thousand US dollars. Life was good with plenty of cash, and he even purchased a Polish made Fiat. But he was quick to realize that his golden days of banking were temporary as the government was in the process of normalizing the official exchange rate.
Tom didn’t want a life as a factory electrician, and there was no future in banking. He needed to think outside the box and looked to do what many other Poles had done before him. A friend had returned from the US where he had worked for several years. His pal told Tom of enormous salaries for minimal work. Tom says, “I knew that he was a bullshitter, but if what he said was even half true working a few years in America could change my life in Poland.”
Tom developed a plan. His friend’s brother in the US invited him to come to America. He would come, work, and save every penny. “If I could save $20,000 a year I could have $100,000 in 5 years and return to Poland to start my own business.” The only Visas that were available were tourist Visas, and even these were hard to come by, but by some miracle, Tom got one and boarded a plane bound for Chicago. He didn’t speak a word of English, and he had no real skills.
The LOT jet banked over Lake Michigan giving Tom a clear view of downtown Chicago. He was awed by the skyscrapers and the lights of the city and felt both excited and afraid. His Polish friend’s American family arranged for some temporary accommodations, and his number one priority was to find a job. He had $4500 in his pocket; that money would only last so long. He had no real skills, he didn’t speak English, and he didn’t have a work permit. The only jobs available for such individuals are the jobs that no one else wants, and that is precisely what Tom got.
Tom was hired to be the assistant to the maintenance supervisor at GM’s training center. His primary qualification was that he didn’t speak English. His boss was extremely verbally abusive and would go crazy if his underling would dare talk back. Tom couldn’t talk back because he couldn’t speak English. Naturally, that that didn’t stop his boss from blowing up. Screaming transcends all languages.
Like many immigrants, Tom knew that he needed to make his own way and he was determined to keep his job. If his boss expected 100%, Tom would give him 110%. Other workers at the plant saw his efforts, and they started to befriend him and teach him words in English. Now in his 20s, Tom was more than happy to be a student again, and he took every opportunity to practice his new language. He supplemented these impromptu lessons by listening to the radio and trying to mimic the announcer. “In the beginning, I had no idea what I was saying. I think it took me about two years to understand the language well, and longer than that before I was comfortable having a real conversation.”
Tom continued to do his job at 110%, and eventually, he became friendly with his boss who acknowledged his efforts, but then the job ended, and he was without an income. Examining his options he decided to try his hand at starting his own business, and he became a small scale remodeler. “Other Polish guys were doing this, and I just followed their lead. I knew that I needed to work and I felt that I had learned many skills working at the training center. I was up for the challenge.” He placed ads in local papers and started to do small remodeling and home repair jobs. Tom is a likable person who goes above and beyond for his customers which helped him to get word-of-mouth business. His social demeanor attracts friends, and soon he was connecting with quality tradesmen who would later become his subcontractors.
Tom started to buy tools, a habit that continues to this day. There is always some exciting innovation that seems to catch his eye. He is a lifelong learner who likes discovering something new and interesting. One skill led to another, and he moved from small scale remodeler to larger construction jobs. Eventually, he became a general contractor. Just like when he was working at General Motors, Tom learned from those around him, and he has become competent at just about any building task. He enjoys learning new things, but he also feels that he needs to know how to do any construction job so he can make sure that his subcontractors are delivering their best possible work.
In the 1990s the US government wanted everyone to have a social security number. Despite being a Polish citizen, Tom got a social security number and a driver’s license. Just like every citizen, he paid taxes and obeyed the law. The only problem was that he wasn’t a citizen and didn’t have any of the benefits or protections of being one.
I asked Tom when he knew that he was going to stay in the states and he replied that he never had an aha moment. “I procrastinated about going back to Poland, and one thing led to another. I slowly realized that I had become an American and that there was nothing for me in Poland.” By embracing America Tom had assimilated, and he didn’t even realize that he was doing it.
In the mid-1990s a lady hired him to build a back porch. That lady’s name was Daphne, and she is now Tom’s wife. They have a son name, Charlie who is the apple of Tom’s eye.
We can choose to let our past determine our future, or we can decide it on our own. Tom chose the later path and has worked hard to be a present and engaged father. He wants his son to know that he is valued and loved. He wants his son to feel safe and to have a normal childhood. He wants more for his son; he wants Charlie to have options. “I don’t care what he does as long as it is something that he wants to do. I do hope that whatever he does makes the world a better place on some level.”
I write this chapter with some trepidation, as this is Tom’s story, not mine. However, I feel that it is necessary for you to know a bit more about me to understand the entire scope of this work.
Some of you know parts of this story from previous writings so this chapter may be one of repetition. I am not writing this chapter to gain pity or sympathy. The reality is that I presently have a wonderful life with people who genuinely love me and care about me. I have been able to accomplish just about any goal that I have set for myself, and I feel that I have made a positive impact in this world. Life is good!
I work with individuals who have had horrific childhoods, my childhood was not horrible. In fact, on the surface, it seemed just fine. I lived in a house, I had two parents, I had 4 siblings, and I even had a dog. My dad told me on a regular basis that I was fortunate because I had the best father in the world, and I believed him.
I did have 4 siblings, but they were much older than me, and their interests were focused elsewhere. My mother was kind and very smart, but she was chronically ill and often near death. My dad told me that I was causing her stress and that this stress would kill her. I was afraid to get sick; if I bought a virus into the house, I was told that my mom could catch it and die. Once, as a small child, I developed abscesses on my backside. They continued for weeks as they oozed infected and noxious pus. I never told anyone and treated the infection as best as I could on my own. I worried that my mother would discover my infection when she did the laundry, but I was never questioned about it. I was grateful for this latter fact as I felt that I must have done something wrong to get such horrible and painful boils. During my childhood, I assumed that any problems at home were due to me. I just didn’t measure up. I was not good enough. I was an oddball who didn’t fit in.
I don’t think my father was a bad person, I think he was just done having kids before I was born. His way of motivating me was not congruent with my personality. I already felt different, and so I was willing to accept any criticism as fact. I didn’t realize that I was dyslexic, and I agreed that I was stupid when I couldn’t read in the second grade (I eventually developed my own technique to read). I have never been very coordinated but I looked like a football player. I accepted the fact that there must be something wrong with me because I wasn’t athletic, despite looking like an athlete. I also accepted that what my father called me was true: fat pig, piece of shit, dumb ass, lazy, useless. I’m not trying to be dramatic by stating these facts; I do think that I was a great disappointment to my father, which is why he reacted so negatively towards me. He had a different attitude towards my sister who was very pretty and also very popular. Seeing these contrasting attitudes sealed the fact that there was something that just wasn’t good enough about me. People characterized me as sweet, sensitive, and kind, not tough, strong, and athletic. I was hardly the kind of boy that a dad would want to brag about.
I learned to be as invisible and as independent as possible. I felt that I could only depend on myself, and when things went wrong in my young life, I blamed myself and tried to figure out a solution.
Despite the above, there was a part of me that felt differently, and that part was fed by outside adults and events in my life. Why would a nun tell my parents that she thought that I was smart and talented. “God has plans for Michael. There is something very special about him,” she said. How could I take an achievement test in the 5th grade and score at the 11th-grade level if I was stupid?
Despite being shy and an introvert I had friends, and one of them soon became my best friend. His name was John, and I saw him almost every day. Our relationship was more that of brothers than friends. I helped John and John helped me. We supported each other as we faced grade school, then high school, then college. He was the person who I could talk to about most things and not feel like I was defective or odd. He didn’t seem shocked if I told him that I was afraid of something or that I was feeling inadequate. In fact, he often had the same concerns. With John, I started to realize that many of my fears were typical of boys growing up, and they didn’t mean that something was wrong with me.
These positive experiences made me question my negative self-assumptions to a degree. The nuns wanted me to go to private high school, but my father decided that I would go to Gage Park High School, which was not only poor academically, but also dangerous. “If you really want to learn you can do it anywhere,” he said.
The week before I matriculated to high school I had recurrent nightmares about going there. I would wake up in a cold sweat, and short of breath. The following mornings I would convince myself that my dreams were the result of my anxiety, and not prophetic.
Unfortunately, my nightmares were realized, and I sought the help of a person in authority who then betrayed me. That betrayal threw me into a traumatic tailspin which caused me to shut down emotionally. My sister Carol recalls that time, and noted that my mother had commented to her, “I’m really worried about Michael, something must be terribly wrong.” My mom never inquired how I was doing, but even if she had, I would have likely said that I was fine. I believed that I had brought the problem on to myself and it was totally my fault.
Formally sweet and trusting, I became angry and cynical. I no longer trusted adults and I no longer sought out friends. If someone wanted to be my friend they had to reach out to me. Even then, it would take a very long time for me to trust them. I was grateful that I was an introvert as I could always find something to do with myself. I no longer gave a shit about school. Despite my attitude, there were teachers who would seek me out, be kind to me, and support me. In different ways, they said that I was special and unique, not weird or odd. They told me that I had the ability to achieve any goal that I set my mind to. Part of me believed them.
I started to examine my life, and I began to see a pattern. Bad things were happening in my life, but I always was given a lifeline to keep me afloat. A nun’s comment, a best friend, some caring teachers. I became aware of something else that was happening in my life. I called that thing, “The Force” when I talked to others about it, but I feel that in reality, it is the hand of God.
This Force can be mild, or so strong that it is virtually impossible for me to resist it. It has directed me my entire life, and when I listen to it, I move in the right direction. This Force has changed my view of the world and my concept of a Higher Power. I see God in my life not as some powerful regal being on a golden throne, but as an entity that has a direct interest in my well being. I have had traumas in my life, but I have always been given the resources to cope with them. Out of those traumas I have become more empathic, caring, and understanding of others. I have become an excellent problem solver, independent, and very, very strong.
After graduating from high school, I decided that I needed to be my own person and that I would pursue my life as I saw fit. I could no longer be a chameleon who gave everyone what they wanted from me, I had to be authentic and genuine to myself. I would succeed or fail based on my actions, and I wouldn’t blame the past for not reaching my goals. I was going to move forward, and no one or nothing would stand in my way. I put one foot in front of the other, and I didn’t look back.
In 2015 our home was almost 30 years old, and the bathrooms were falling apart. We could wait no longer, and I started the process of finding three contractors to give us estimates on the work.
I already knew of one contractor that I wanted to contact, his name was Tom, and he did a job for us 2 years earlier. We had a disastrous re-roofing done that was literally peeling off the house 8 years post installation. Julie had found Tom’s company on Angie’s list, and based on its excellent reviews we contracted with him to remove the old shingles and replace the roof.
Tom was the best contractor that I ever had worked with. He went above and beyond to get me the color of shingles that I wanted, and when the job was completed, he cleaned up every inch of our front and back yards. He even used a magnet to make sure that there were no errant nails left behind.
There was a quality of Tom that I couldn’t explain. Despite our limited contact I really like him. This made no sense to me as after the high school incident, it typically would take a very long time for me to trust someone. I felt a sense of connection with Tom, which was also very odd. But the job lasted less than a week, and both of our lives moved forward. I thought to myself, “That guy must be a helluva salesman if he was able to to get a cynic like me to trust him.”
One Saturday, in the spring of 2015 I gave myself the task to contact Home Advisor to get the names of contractors to bid on my bathroom job, but first I was going to spend 5 minutes catching up on Facebook. Up popped a photo under the Facebook byline, “People You May Know,” it was Tom. He had never popped up prior to that time. I was a bit startled, and I remember mumbling, “OK God, I was going to call him anyway.” This felt like a joke, as at the time I really didn’t think that God was picking my bathroom remodeler.
Tom was the first contractor to do an estimate. I had a rough idea of what I wanted to do with the bathrooms but hadn’t told him yet. He whipped out his iPad and started to show me what he thought should be done. It was exactly what I had wanted, only better. I had an idea of how much I wanted to spend, and I asked Tom what he thought the cost of the job would be. My opinion, which was based on a number that popped into my head, and his amount were the same. I knew that by protocol I should get two more estimates, but I signed him on the spot.
The bathroom jobs were complex and involved moving walls, building a new closet, and a variety of other tasks. The overall project took many weeks. Tom would come every day to check on the progress of his subcontractors, and by coincidence, this was often at times when I was free. Brief contacts over tile selections became more extended conversations, and I looked forward to his visits. During one of those conversations, he told me that had had 6 other jobs going on simultaneously. This completely shocked me as I was getting such a VIP service that I was sure that I was his only active project.
The remodel was reaching completion, and I was feeling that I didn’t want our connection to end. I don’t initiate friendships, as I said above, and it takes me a very long time to trust anyone. Why was I was sharing things with this contractor that I didn’t share with other people?
I’m not very good at asking someone to be my friend, as I have no practice at it. I sat Tom down and started to babble. My efforts were sincere but cringeworthy. Tom replied, “Sure I’ll be your friend, but I don’t think anyone has ever asked me to be their friend quite like you just did.” After he left, I felt a rush of fear and embarrassment. “He is probably telling his buddies about what just happened, and they are all laughing at me,” I thought. That was not the case.
Like in many friendships, Tom and I talk a lot. Early in our friendship, we were talking about something when suddenly I was overtaken by that Force feeling that I get. The feeling was powerful but seemed utterly ridiculous, and I tried to push it out of my consciousness. The harder I pushed it down, the stronger it pushed back. Finally, and to my great embarrassment, it erupted from my mouth. “Tom, I’m having this overwhelming feeling that my job is to protect you. You are younger than me, stronger than me, and your life seems to be going well. Why in the world would I need to protect you?” I was shocked at what was coming out of my mouth, and I felt that if he didn’t believe that I was crazy when I asked him to be my friend he surely would feel that I was nuts now.
I had deliberately turned away from him when I said this as I didn’t want to see him laughing at me. When I did look in his direction I didn’t see disdain, I saw deep thought sprinkled with sadness and moistened eyes. After a few moments, his sad expression faded and we moved on. The feeling of embarrassment lifted completely from me.
We were already helping each other in a variety of ways, but those efforts did not explain this command, and it took a few more weeks before the truth would be revealed.
Several weeks later we were sitting in his office on 5th Avenue, talking and drinking coffee. In some obtuse way, the topic of citizenship came up. “Are you a US citizen?” I asked. “No,” said Tom. “In fact I’m illegal.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Tom had been in this country for over 25 years. He was married and had a kid. He owned a house and a business. He was responsible and law abiding. “What!” I blurted.
Tom said that he never got around to it. One thing led to another, one year to another. “It’s OK, don’t worry.” He told me. “Are you outta your mind!” I retorted back.
Obama was president at that time, but it still seemed like things were not going well for immigrants. “Tom, you have a wife and a young kid. They could deport you, and you might never see Charlie again. Have you thought of that!” It was clear that he had thought of that, but he said, “Don’t worry, I’ll be OK.” Now I knew why I was getting the feeling that I needed to protect him, he was in real danger.
Dear reader, I need to reveal to you a part of my personality. Given enough provocation, I can be relentless and unyielding, and this is especially true when I feel that someone I care about is in danger. Just ask my wife and kids, and they will confirm this.
Rome was not built in a day, and it took some time before Tom moved into action. I continued to serve in my role as a “pain-in-the-ass” motivator (Tom’s term). This is a method that I can’t use in my psychiatric practice, however useful it may be. Tom did all of the real work, which was both tremendous and time-consuming. Each phase of the process took much longer than it should have, and there were long silent periods where one document had to arrive before the next step could be attempted. All in all, the process was started almost 3 years ago.
In December Tom and his wife were summoned by immigration. Tom asked me to print up some photos demonstrating that he had been with Daphne for all these years. This request was on short notice, and interestingly I had precisely enough photo paper to complete the task and not one sheet more, probably just a coincidence.
Tom told me that the investigator said to him, “If you get your residence card I bet the first place that you will visit is Poland.” Tom replied, “Actually, I want to go to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.” Tom had long ago crossed the line to being an American, he just didn’t have the paperwork.
A week ago Tom received his permanent resident card (green card). In three years he is eligible to apply for full citizenship. Of course, he is planning on doing this.
The Power Of Connection
Two people who on the surface are very different. Two people who beneath the surface are very similar. Two best friends.
What is the power of connection and why is it so important? In the above narrative, I told you one of the ways that I have helped Tom. I did not tell you the countless ways that he has helped me. I will have to save those for another post.
I was sitting at a business meeting with Tom and a salesperson, who was trying to sell him SEO services (internet search engine optimization). I have done SEO work for Tom, and so I know a bit about the topic. I kept asking the young man questions while I pointed out some of his hyperbole and inaccuracies. Finally, and being very frustrated he looked at Tom and said, “Who is this guy?” Tom looked straight back at him and said, “Mike helps me, and I help Mike.” I could not have come up with a better answer of how I would define our friendship.
Tom came to America wanting the same thing that my grandparents did. He wants the same limitless future for his son that they wanted for their children and grandchildren. Tom may have been here without a green card, but he was no criminal. He paid his taxes, but couldn’t really benefit from them. He built things for others, created jobs, and raised a family. He just wanted a chance to prove himself and to have a life that was determined by his own abilities. He didn’t want to be limited by decisions that he made when he was 12 years old. He is a bright and creative individual who deserves to be able to express his talents.
Tom needed me, as my unyielding persistence drove him towards the formidable task of applying for permanent residency. My friend John moved away years ago, and I needed a best friend. Someone who I could see almost every day. Someone who would accept me for who I am, and not judge me. Someone who I could talk to about my fears and feelings of inadequacies. Someone to do guy things with.
Tom is not a number or a label, he is a human being. I’m sure that his story is not that different from many others. They want to have a future. They want to live up to their potential and succeed or fail based on their abilities. They want their children to have the chance of a better life.
I understand that the United States can’t solve all of the problems of the world, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t tackle some of them. So many of our resources are spent defending ourselves from others. How much could be invested in extending ourselves to others?
We are more powerful as a country when we embrace diversity, that is a proven fact. Yet, it is easy to hate those who are different from us and to unrealistically blame them for our troubles. Once you accuse someone of your failures, you become powerless to make change for yourself. Diversity brings new ideas and new energy to the table.
Most of our families immigrated to this country at some point. What would your life be like if your ancestors were denied entry?