Welcome, to the Bottom Rung

Taking pause from a new book, I rest elbows on the counter of a favorite diner. Cool to the touch, the counter offers a blank slate to the day’s tempest-tost. The Formica surface is shopworn; smoothed and chipped by an unending march of elbows and hands and cups and plates. Despite worn appearance, the diner thrives; the result of an always open gate. Sideways glances and grunts and calls across Formica greet new arrivals as they search for a place to hang their hat. Straight ahead, cooks adorned with once-upon-a-time-white aprons and Red Sox caps turned backward scurry past an opening carved in the diner’s rear wall. Steam rises and falls with the cadence of the kitchen.

From atop the wall’s gaping maw, scribbled meal tickets hang like crooked teeth. Upon a tongue of polished steel, plates idle like whispered dreams. Piled with steaming sides of hash browns, fries, and gravy-covered potatoes, meals are warmed by a dangling red light, appearing more like a swollen tonsil than a heater of short order food.

From the mouth of the kitchen, steam drifts forward to rub my nose.

A bell chimes, calling forward a tattooed waitress. Speaking Spanish, she parlays with a cook before scanning a ticket. Reaching across the gleaming tongue, she secures a plate, turns on her heal, and flashes me a faux smile. All business, she grabs a ketchup bottle and rushes toward the far end of the counter.

I return the smile, but the gesture bounces off her shrinking back.

I return attention to my book, coffee, and BLT; the sandwich recently warmed under a dangling red light. The click clack of cutlery, the back and forth of kitchen instructions (in both English and Spanish), and the twang of country music mingle with steam to fill the diner with a sense of home.

Distracted, I look about.

Behind me, families, couples and singles fill a honeycomb of tightly packed booths.  From wooden posts marking the border of each booth, jackets and coats rest like sleeping sentinels. Overlapping conversations gather to form the drone of a busy hive. As sounds join soothing sights and scents, I scan the length of the counter. To my immediate left and right, neighboring stools rest empty. Past my frontier of empty seats, slumping singles hover over steaming plates, appearing as huddled masses.

At the far end of the diner, burning above the counter like a flickering torch, a muted television displays a pair of jabbering heads. White males dressed for success take turns frowning, pursing lips and rolling eyes in pantomime. Periodically, the screen’s imprisoned lightning demonstrates the jabbering pair’s arrival at smug agreement. Though words are missing, their feelings are worn upon crisp white sleeves. These talking heads offer the viewing masses no beacon-hand, glowing with a world-wide welcome.

Turning from the TV, I sip warm coffee.

From a place far away, memories of meals shared with my son step forward to tap my shoulder. Welcoming distraction from the television’s muted message, I greet those memories warmly. We embrace under the scent of diner food and the work-a-day sounds of a busy kitchen.

And seeing me drift upon a tide of memories the waitress returns to stand before me. She leans across the counter, baring the top of a sun scorched chest. A gold cross falls from behind a too-tight Tom Petty concert shirt. Flecks of sunlight are reflected from the golden hand of Jesus as he swings above the counter’s gleaming shore.

From a distance the waitress whispers, “Everything all right here, sir?”

Distracted by the cross’s reflected light I give her a halfhearted nod. Then, as if waking from a dream, I look up and raise my cup. “Oh, sorry. Yeah. Everything’s perfect; just perfect.”

She serves up a second faux smile before topping off my coffee.

I smile back.

This time the smile finds its mark.

But rather than share a real-world grin, she creases her brow as if working a sum.

Perhaps she remembers me. In years past my son and I considered ourselves regulars at this diner. Every Tuesday, we made a habit of grabbing dinner here. Over BLTs and buffalo burgers we’d share secrets, concerns and dreams. Sometimes we’d quarrel. And sometimes we’d sit in silence, enjoying each other’s company.

He’d drink Coke. I’d drink coffee. We’d snatch fries from the others’ plate; he avoiding my ketchup, me avoiding his hot sauce.

And seeing me wade into a tide of memories, the waitress takes her leave.

Warm mug in hand, moments pass lazily.

Then, at the counter’s far end, the waitress grabs a remote control and points it at the TV. She stabs at the air as voices of two males dressed for success begin to compete with the drone of the busy hive. Mouth agape, the waitress loiters before the screen. Sharp words fall from the flaming torch as the all-news channels spews forth today’s helping of enternewsment; the unseemly combination of news and entertainment. Above slumping counter-dwellers, talking heads wag fingers, warning of the risks of immigration.

Ever so slightly, the flickering flame dims.

Frowning, I return attention to my book, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I’m struggling with the story’s unfamiliar African names and find myself rereading pages. The reward, however, is worth the effort.

I’m soon interrupted by the groans of stools on either side of me. To my left, the familiar shape of opinion fills a seat. His face is round and leathery. Of undiscernible color, he’s thick-necked and meaty across the middle. He wears a flannel shirt and a sullied MAGA hat. The cuffs of baggy blue jeans are tucked into a worker’s boots. Grey whiskers march across a jutting chin. His eyes are heavy and sad, weighed by concerns buried deep within. He smells of Purell and a day’s hard work. Sausage-fingered hands come to rest upon the counter. Appearing relaxed and confident, he strums his fingers. He cocks a wayward eye in my direction.

Respectfully, I give my neighbor a nod.

Respectfully, he tips his hat.

To my right, facts makes haste to fill the vacant stool. Tucking jet black hair behind a curious ear, she’s all business. Dressed in modest office attire she’s cool and composed. Her white blouse is pressed to perfection. Just below the neck, a single button is left open to expose the hollow of a graceful neck. Rolled sleeves display the sinewy reach of my neighbor to the right. Her arms are long. As are her fingers.

Shifting in her stool, she tugs a pencil skirt toward runner’s knees. She stares ahead, monitoring activities in the diner’s busy kitchen. Eyes grow narrow as if seeking to understand the kitchen’s varied conversations. She turns and catches my stare. And rather than look away I give her a nod. She flashes a smile before returning attention to the kitchen. Nodding a pointed chin toward the gaping maw she whispers, “The American dream.”

To my left opinion clears his throat. It’s a sound filled with phlegm. Turning from facts, I tilt my head his way. Our eyes meet as he grunts toward the kitchen. He looks away, peering down the counter at the TV. Returning his attention my way, he grunts again. As if in conspiracy, he leans to the right and bumps my shoulder with his. “The American dream? Is that what she said?” He shakes his head in disbelief.  “I’ll tell you this; fucking immigrants are the worst thing to happen to this country.” He points to the TV’s dimming flame to join talking heads in smug agreement, “Worst fucking thing.”

I hold up my Kindle, shaking it for emphasis. “Right, well, on that note I think I’ll keep reading, but thanks for letting me know what you think, buddy.” I return to my book as opinion crosses arms atop a healthy stomach. His arms rise and fall with heavy breaths. He gives me an exaggerated “Humph.” And peeking from the corner of my eye I notice his arms are hard, chiseled by time and a lifetime of hard labor. He inclines his head to better monitor my peeking efforts before continuing his monologue. “We’re Americans, ya know. You and me.” He points to a new image on the TV featuring stooped men and women waiting with baggage at what must be a US/Mexico border crossing. “And that wretched refuse? It’s trash.”

I place my Kindle on the counter and turn to face opinion. I stare at my neighbor. His eyes shimmer like the surface of a roiling stream. In response, he gives me a stage chuckle.

Catching the standoff, facts weighs in. “Um, excuse me.”

Turning away from opinion I watch as facts leans forward to place elbows upon shopworn Formica. I give her a quick scan. I can’t place her nationality. Her features are neutral, lacking a hint of ethnicity. She’s the color of blank paper. Her skin is rough; as if patched together from uncountable sources. Black hair flows upon a river of knowledge. Again, she tucks a wayward strand behind her ear. Dark eyes appear as bottomless wells, devoid of emotion. Blinking slowly, she catches me in her stare. And placing her chin in a callused hand she leans toward me. She smells of nature and Ivory soap.

Facts forces a smile. “I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation.” She juts a chin toward my neighbor to the left. “I love how confident you are in yourself, Mr. Opinion.”

Opinion snorts. He spreads hands wide, “Just build a wall.” He shrugs before coming to conclusion, “Keep ‘em out. That’s’ what I say.”

Ignoring opinion, I can’t help but wonder what might have become of my family if a wall – either physical or bureaucratic – had existed when we arrived a century ago. And considering my ancestors’ arrival at an air-bridged harbor, I dig past memories of meals with my son to a Thanksgiving day 45 years in the past.

Facts places a hand upon my wrist. “What?” she asks. “What have you unearthed?”

At the far end of the counter, talking heads grow silent.

I look from opinion to facts and back to opinion. Facts moves her hand up my arm to rub my shoulder. She urges me forward, “Share history with us.”

And at the intersection of opinion and facts, I close eyes and begin to drift.

***

With our new home’s inaugural Thanksgiving meal winding down, guests scatter about. A source of pride, this house is the first home owned by a member of my father’s family. Modest in size, the house is warm and smells of slightly burnt turkey. And gravy. And beer. And smoke. The combination washes over me.

After 100 years we own a home.

With Irish coffee served and dessert plates scraped, moms and grandmothers retire to the kitchen where they clean dishes and whisper about boys sent off to Vietnam. Men of Irish descent drift about the house. Some come together to share secrets, concerns and suggestions. Some quarrel. And some sit in silence, enjoying each other’s company. Nearly all of them drink.

With men drinking either together or alone, siblings and cousins join in a game of hide and seek. The game spans the four stories of our home if you include the unfinished basement (scary) and unfinished attic (even scarier).

Rushing to and fro, boys and girls search the house for a well-hidden child. Clomping footsteps rattle glassware, eliciting sharp-tongued warnings from moms and dads alike.

And during the hunt, I actively seek to avoid my two grandfathers, their whereabouts presently unknown.

I avoid my father’s father because he scares me more than the attic. His raspy voice and unblinking stare are interrupted only by a lighting strike; sometimes issued with cutting words and sometimes with an open palm, but always without warning. When I annoy him – which is more often than not – he issues a simple warning, “Cross me and I’ll drop you like a sack of potatoes.”

I avoid my mother’s father because of his desire to spend time with me. He’s kind and gentle and wishes nothing more than to share family lore with a favored grandson. He seeks to whisper the workings of the world to a 10 year old boy. And though his pipe smells of comfort (and every now and then he lets me take a puff), and I know he loves me, I avoid the time sink of his company, for once on his knee I am trapped.

Separated from my searching siblings and cousins I take a break from our game to sneak into our tiny kitchen. I want to drink like men drink. Sneaking past buzzing moms I spy a collection of open Miller High Life bottles guarding the counter. Tip-toeing past jabbering ladies I notice a half-filled bottle. The drone of conversation and the din of an AM radio’s country music conceal the sounds of squeaking Keds. Smoke swirls overhead as I approach the counter.

Mom faces the lone window as she rinses glasses in the sink.

Save for my mother’s mother, the ladies pay me no mind. Monitoring her sneaking grandson, my grandmother gives me a wink. She places a crooked finger across thin red lips.

With an eye on mom I snatch the half-filled bottle from the counter and begin to chug. The jabbering stops as I choke down stale beer. My gulping efforts ride roughshod over the voice of Johnny Cash to fill the kitchen with the sound of mischief. Instantly, mom wheels about. And seeing her little boy swigging beer, she stamps her foot and makes a grab for my arm.

I lurch back, bumping into the warm oven door. She growls over the words of Johnny Cash, “Give me that goddamned bottle!”

Again she stamps her foot.

She raises an open palm, eager to dole out a handful of Irish justice. Quickly, she lunges toward me.

But I’m practiced at the art of judicial evasion.

With a quick bob and weave I step sideways. And rolling the empty bottle across the counter I dart from the kitchen. Mr. Cash stops singing in time for grandmother to howl, “Now that’s an Irishman for ya!” Fleeing into the adjoining dining room I hear the ladies burst out laughing. Heart pounding, I can’t imagine what’s so funny.

Rushing through the dining room I seek a place to hide. My head swirls as a half-bottle of beer winds its way through a 70 pound Irishman. Making haste I exit the dining room, run through the living room, and turn into the den where I find my two grandfathers sitting in stony silence.

Their wheezing breaths thicken stagnant air.

Skidding to a halt I slam my shins into a low-slung coffee table, spilling a whisky and scattering a plate of Milano Cookies.

“You stupid fool!” hisses my father’s father. “Barging in here like a drunken sailor!”

His right hand darts out, falling just short of my chin. If successful, he would have dropped me like a sack of potatoes. And having missed his mark, he simply grunts. Eyeing me, he seems to decide he’d rather remain seated than get up to knock me down. He flexes fingers before returning his right hand to an empty lap.

“Sorry,” I grovel. “I didn’t know you were in here.”

With an eye on my father’s father, I gather cookies. Pulling my flannel sleeve low, I dab at drops of whiskey. The scent of cheap booze fills my nostrils.

I shudder.

My father’s father leans forward, placing sharp elbows on even sharper knees. “You can’t be acting the fool, boy. People be expecting that of us.”

Avoiding eye contact, I mumble, “Expecting what, grandpa?” Fumbling, I try to stack the cookies, not daring to take one.

“Expecting you to be the fool.” He slaps his hand across a boney thigh. The sound is crisp and sharp; an inkling of the sound I might have expected upon my chin.

“Look at me when I’m speaking, lad. Get over here.” Inching toward grandpa I’m drawn into his stare. Black embers of coal, long ago extinguished, burrow into me. He frowns at my tentative approach. In four short steps I’m close enough to smell him.

He smells of whisky.

And sour milk.

And slightly of urine.

His brow creases. He reaches for my arm but I step back. Again he frowns.

“Your blood’s Irish, no?”

“No. I mean, yes. Yes, sir.”

Swinging his right arm wide he scoffs, “The likes of you be representing us in this land of milk and honey.” He points toward the window, “And everyone out there be expecting the likes of you to be a drunken fool (he was drunk at the time).”

He falls back in his chair. Slender shoulders slump. “And if you play the fool you’ll not be getting work in this town. That’s as sure as Christ on the cross.”

He looks out the window toward a sinking sun and sighs, “It wasn’t as bad for me as it was for me poppy. But still, when I left school and went a knocking (on doors looking for a job) they looked down on me.” He smooths threadbare pants before continuing, “I couldn’t get an office job so I ended up unloaded ships on the Hudson.” He stiffens his back. “Did that for years; before Con Edison let me in the door.”

He rubs spider-veined cheeks with scaly fingers. His hand shakes as he continues, “But, I tell you this; when I was a boy, oh Lordy it was different then. Me poppy couldn’t get an indoors job outside a gin mill.” My grandfather blinks slowly, “He ended up making barrels at the docks. He was a cooper; and a proud cooper at that.”

He purses lips as final words drip to the floor, mingling with spilt whiskey. “No Irish need apply.” Startling me, he jerks his hand forward, as if in spasm, before pointing toward my mother’s father, sitting cross-legged across the room. “Tell him.”

My mother’s father nods. “Your grandpa’s right. I remember before the war, when I’d be looking for work and they’d see I was Irish. They’d look at my application and ask what Church I attended.” His words were soft and polished. “And when I told them Our Lady of Mount Carmel, they’d smile and say they’d be gett’n back to me.” He smirks, “They always smiled.”

He puffs a brown pipe before shaking his head. “Of course, they never did get back to me. So, I ended up selling tools and then appliances for Sears because, to most folks, we Irish were liars. And liars were figured to be good salesmen.”

He turns away and speaks to the past. “You know, I never did lie. Not to a Catholic. Not to a Protestant. Not to a Jew. Not once. But (and for emphasis, he removes the pipe from his mouth and points the saliva-soaked end toward me) I’ll tell you this, I was the best salesman in the city.” Satisfied, he puffs his pipe before repeating, “Best in the city.”

He beckons me forward and taps his knee. I approach but remain standing. He places his hand upon my shoulder and pulls me close. He smells of holidays. And pipe tobacco. And clothes pulled from a cedar chest. “You remember this, boy.” He looks to my father’s father for emphasis. “You remember our people were at the bottom of the ladder; the very bottom. And when the first wave of Irish went looking for work they’d be met with a sign; No Irish need apply.”

NINA,” hisses my father’s father. Black eyes squint. He stares through pinholes, “And now it’s up to you and your brothers and sisters to be standing on our backs; to fight your way up the ladder, just like we did, all those years ago. Just like the first Roman Catholic President, John F. Kennedy did (both of my grandfathers make the sign of the cross). And just like your daddy be doing today. We not be coming here so you could act the fool.” He slaps his thigh. “We came here so you could have what we was denied.”

I nod, wondering what I’m supposed to say.

My mother’s father leans in close; so close the pipe smoke on his breath overwhelms all other smells. “And no matter how high you climb on that ladder you remember our kind was once holding tight to the bottom rung … while the people on top be stepp’n on our fingers.”

He squeezes my shoulder as if intending to snap a collarbone. “And someday, when you see someone on the bottom reaching upward – like the Negroes and the PRs (the day’s phrase for Puerto Ricans) be doing – you remember this; they’re the same as us. They be having the same dreams, the same wants of noth’n more than a day’s pay in exchange for a day’s work. Only thing that’s different is now they be on the bottom instead of us. And instead of stepp’n on their fingers we gotta be pulling ‘em up.” He stares past me into the future, “Cause now, as the Lord Jesus Christ is my witness, our kind knows how to climb to the top; to be president of these United States.” He leans forward to place his forehead against mine, “And, laddy, we remember what it’s like to be on the bottom.”

***

The stool groans as I lean back, look up and stare at the ceiling. Next to me, facts shimmies forward in her seat. She presses a shoulder against mine. Cold to the touch, she whispers, “Go on. Tell us. What was it like for your kind?”

Opinion seeks to interrupt, but facts holds him off…

Our kind – the Irish – occupied the bottom rung for years.

We fled Ireland during the Great Hunger. From 1845 to 1852 or thereabouts we arrived to grasp the golden ring of the ladder’s bottom rung, appearing to the inhabitants of this nation of immigrants as trash washed upon their shores.

We were the wretched refuse; a threat to a nation’s current inhabitants.

At the time, Irish refugees seeking a life in America were thought to “… take jobs away from Americans and strain welfare budgets. They practiced an alien religion and pledged allegiance to a foreign leader (the pope) … they were accused of being rapists…”[1]

As reflected in John Hilling’s painting of 1854, “The Burning of Old South Church in Bath, Maine”, those on the upper rungs were less than welcoming. In addition to stepping upon our fingers, they torched our houses of worship.[2]

And sketching a picture still applied by men of prejudice today “…the image of the simian Irishman … was given new life by the pens of illustrators … that dripped with prejudice as they sketched Celtic ape-men with sloping foreheads and monstrous appearances.”[3]

In the good old days of America, we were monsters threatening those on the rungs above. Rather than guide us to the next rung, the fearful men and women of America shunned the newcomers and excluded us from gainful employment.

NINA,” hisses the memory of my father’s father.

Opinion rolls his eyes.

Facts taps my forearm, urging me forward.

In pursuit of facts I run a search for the phrase, “No Irish need apply” and find the phrase appears 29 times during 1854 in NY Times employment advertisements. The phrase “Irish need not apply,” yields 7 results during the same year.[4]

And it wasn’t just New York fearful of the “sloping foreheads and monstrous appearances” of the newest round of immigrants. The practice was widespread. A review of Newspapers.com data yields over 1,400 instances of “No Irish Need Apply” advertisements between “… 1873 – 1887 with Pennsylvania (203), Illinois (187), New York (161), Kansas (105), and California (91)” leading the pack.[5]

Opinion squirms in his seat.

But now – three lifespans later – my kind no longer grasps the bottom rung. The rung is free for others to grab.

Others like those from Mexico, the Middle East, Africa, South America, and the Caribbean.

Others like my wife.

As husband I bear witness to the price of dreams paid by my wife, the Caribbean immigrant, as she sought a foothold upon our nation’s ladder.

Opinion feigns a yawn as I recall my wife’s journey.

With a few thousand dollars to her name my wife’s mother, a recent widow, arrived from St. Maarten with her three children. My future wife was 11 at the time.

The same winter my grandfathers were schooling me in the lessons of immigrant respect, my future wife witnessed ice outside of a glass for the first time. She and her sisters marveled at the wonders of falling snow outside an apartment building in New York City.

Attending public high school she came to see academics as a stepping stone toward the American dream. She grasped for the next rung. Following high school she put herself through college. She then earned a master’s degree. Thereafter, she applied to medical school. She applied more than once as she refused to give up when admission appeared beyond her grasp. She fought for her future. She fought for an American dream.

And upon acceptance to medical school she worked toward an MD as the mother of two small children.

My wife, the OB/GYN; my wife, the surgeon; my wife, the immigrant, looked for no help from our government. She looked for no aid other than student loans she’d repay over time. She looked for nothing more than an opportunity to grasp at the next rung.

And today – above all else – she considers herself an American.

Opinion slaps the Formica counter. “That’s just one bullshit story. Just one!” Exposing sharp teeth, he howls, “I mean, she got lucky. Just like your pappy and grand pappy! The rest of ‘em are rapists and ne’er-do-wells, I tell ya.” He picks something dark from his teeth and, inspecting the brown blob, nods toward the TV, “They don’t do shit.” He jerks his chin toward the kitchen, “Except maybe cook a burger or two. Best to keep ‘em outa here, I say.”

I look to facts and she sighs. She places her hand upon mine and gives me a gentle squeeze. Her touch remains cold.

Slowly, I shake my head, saddened by opinion’s persistence.

She strokes my arm. “Tell us then. With whom do you side; facts or opinion?” Withdrawing her hand she snaps slender fingers. The sound is crisp and clear, echoing through the diner. I blink as she vanishes from her seat.

And searching for facts I find what I’m looking for. Slowly she returns to my side. In her arms she carries stacks of papers and figures and academic reports. Taking her time she spreads the bounty across the counter.

I face opinion, “You are entitled to your two cents, but you risk ignorance if you ignore facts.”

Opinion frowns as I continue, “Shall we take a look?”

Leaning forward I notice the Economic Policy Institute suggests, “One way to quantify immigrants’ contribution to the U.S. economy is to look at the wages and salaries they earn, as well as the income of immigrant-owned businesses, as a share of all wages, salaries, and business income in the United States. For the United States as a whole, immigrants’ share of total output was about 14.7 percent over 2009–2011, which is larger than immigrants’ 13 percent share of the population.”[6]

Opinion turns toward the pair of talking heads on TV. He mumbles, “Even so, they’re still taking our jobs…”

Facts hunts for evidence, “Let’s continue. What else do we see?”

From the National Bureau of Economic Research I note, “… each new immigrant produced about 1.2 new jobs, most of which (go) to native-born employees.”[7]

I turn to opinion, “In other words, each new immigrant generates one and a fifth new jobs … often to the benefit of resident Americans. Now that’s a kick in the nuts, huh?”

He grumbles as I plow through data. Poking around to see if job creation is a recent trend associated with immigration I find a report from the New American Economy noting in 2007 (the last year data is available) businesses owned by entrepreneurs of immigrant descent employed over 5.9 million individuals.[8]

I place my hand on opinion’s forearm, almost in sympathy for his fading position. “So, in addition to generating a disproportionate income and generating new job opportunities for existing Americans, it appears immigrants build businesses and generate employment for nearly 6 million Americans. That, I did not know.”

Scouring facts I find, “…in 2014, America’s foreign-born population owned close to three million businesses, generating over $65 billion in business income … and 40.2 % of 2016 Fortune 500 firms were founded by immigrants or their children.”[9]

Wondering about the demographics of entrepreneurial immigrants I dig deeper.

“In 2014, 19.1 percent of entrepreneurs in the United States hailed from the Middle East and North Africa, 11.1 percent were foreign-born Hispanics, and 10.6 percent were Asian immigrants. This was while the national rate of entrepreneurship among working Americans was 9.5 percent.”[10]

Startled by the strength of facts, opinion pushes back in his stool. He sits stiffly. “Those people are criminals. Just like your kind were; slope-headed drunks . These folks are criminals; plain and simple.”

Again facts weigh in. As noted by the Cato Institute, immigrants are two to five times less likely to commit a crime and be incarcerated than American born citizens. The truth is, approximately “…1.6% of immigrant males 18-39 are incarcerated compared to (an incarceration rate of) 3.3% for native born…”[11]

And though not the point of this discussion, the Cato Institute notes education or lack thereof might contribute to crime rather than status as an immigrant.

Opinion drums the counter as I proceed.

In fact, “…in 2010, 10.7 percent of native-born men aged 18-39 without a high school degree were incarcerated compared to 2.8 percent of Mexican immigrants and 1.7 percent of Guatemalan and Salvadoran immigrants.”[12]

Opinion looks away. I speak slowly, hoping he’ll digest the message conveyed by facts. “It appears, immigrants are more likely to start a business than end up in jail.”  As suggested by the New American Economy’s 2016 report, “immigrants were almost twice as likely as the native-born … to start a new business in 2015.”[13]

Opinion seethes. “You’re telling me those damn Middle Easterners and Africans and Hispanics and Asians … are making businesses and generating jobs and not murdering and raping and crashing planes into buildings?”

I begin to speak before he cuts me off, “You of all people should know what they can do.” He glares through me, “You really are dumber than you look.”

In response to his outburst I look to facts.

As noted in the Harvard Business Review, “Immigrants constitute 15% of the general U.S. workforce, but they account for around 25% of U.S. entrepreneurs (defined as the top three initial earners in a new business). This is comparable to what we see in innovation and patent filings, where immigrants also account for about 25% (of patent findings).”[14]

And, in terms of overall impact on scientific research, we find over 38.4% of American scientists surveyed (a total of 17,182 scientists spanning 16 countries were surveyed) emigrated from another country before conducting their research in America.[15]

I look to opinion and shrug, “Do you think those immigrants took 38.4% of the scientific positions from those born in America?”

Hearing no response, I continue, “And immigrants take risks.”

Opinion raises his voice, “Yeah, like taking drugs and stealing cars and making bombs.”

Facts wags a finger across the counter, “Not so, my friend.” She looks to me, “Well, I don’t know about you (she looks across me to opinion), but I’m learning something here. Please, go on.”

Again, I shrug, “It seems immigrants are committed enough to risk it all and leave a familiar home for a chance at the American dream. I’m guessing folks like my grandfathers and great grandfathers didn’t come here with the intent of sitting on the sofa to collect a check.”

Next to me opinion scowls. Watching the stream of facts wash over him I continue, “And check this out.”

“In 2014 the New American Economy and Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce reported over 50% of L.A.’s self-employed residents were immigrants in 2014. These self-employed businesses totaled over $7 billion, or 41.7 percent, of self-employed income for LA County during the year.”[16]

Opinion leans in close, his breath smelling of sour milk. “I don’t give a shit what you say, you’re gonna get what you deserve with a country full of immigrants.”

I feign shock in my response, “You mean, like workers and jobs and scientists and new businesses and scientific discoveries? Gosh, opinion, I hope you’re right.”

Opinion slides from his stool and stomps toward the door, leaving a trail of swear words in his wake.

Without emotion, facts bows and takes her leave.

Sitting silently at the counter, I return to my coffee and BLT. To my left and to my right stools stand empty as the hanging TV doles out today’s helping of enternewsment.

The TV screen features stooped men and women waiting with baggage at a border crossing, their pockets full of dreams.

And as these newcomers grasp for the first rung of the American ladder, how shall we behave?

Shall we heed the lessons of those before us?

Shall we draw strength from the preponderance of facts?

Or, as my Irish grandfather chided, shall we act the fool?

I for one shall side with the lessons of those before us and with the preponderance of facts to welcome…

“Your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”[17]

Turning from the TV, I sip warm coffee. The click clack of cutlery, the back and forth of kitchen instructions (in both English and Spanish), and the twang of country music mingle with steam to fill the diner with a sense of home.

Despite worn appearance, the diner thrives; the result of an always open gate.

 

 

Author’s note: Please accept my apologies in advance for any errors you may find. I hold research in the highest esteem and recognize I am no researcher. Should you find an error please LMK (as the kids say) so I may correct my tale and – facts permitting – perhaps my position. With this note in mind, I hope you focus upon the spirit of the article as opposed to my inadvertent errors.

[1] Christopher Klein, When America Despised the Irish: The 19th Century Refugee Crisis, History Channel, 3/16/17

[2] “The Burning of Old South Church in Bath, Maine” by John Hilling, included under the title of this article and depicting the burning of a Catholic church by an anti-Catholic mob on July 6, 1854, painting date 1854

[3] Christopher Klein, When America Despised the Irish: The 19th Century Refugee Crisis, History Channel, 3/16/17, author’s note: I have removed the illustrators’ (as opposed to artists’) names from the quote as I prefer not to echo such names in the halls of history

[4] Mark Bulik, 1854: No Irish Need Apply, Times Insider, 9/8/15

[5] Sheila Langan, 1,400 No Irish Need Apply, Irish Central, 8/6/15

[6] Daniel Costa, David Cooper, Heidi Shierholz, Facts About Immigration and the U.S. Economy, Economic Policy Institute, 8/12/14

[7] Gihoon Hong and John McLare, Are Immigrants a Shot in the Arm for the Local Economy?, National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 21123, 2014 date not cited

[8] Reason for Reform, New American Economy, 10/11/16

[9] Nearly 6 Million Workers Employed at Immigrant Owned Business, New American Economy, 10/11/16

[10] Nearly 6 Million Workers Employed at Immigrant Owned Business, New American Economy, 10/11/16

[11] Alex Nowrasteh, Immigration and Crime – What Research Says, Cato Institute, 6/14/15

[12] Alex Nowrasteh, Immigration and Crime – What Research Says, Cato Institute, 7/14/15 (online posting)

[13] Reason for Reform, New American Economy, 10/11/16

[14] Sari Pekkala Kerr and William Kerr, Immigrants Play a Disproportionate Role in American Entrepreneurship, Harvard Business Review, 10/3/16

[15] Chiara Franzoni, Giuseppe Scellato and Paula Stephan, Foreign-Born Scientists: Mobility Patterns for 16 Countries, Nature Biotechnology, 12/7/12

[16] Caroline Anderson, Taking Risks in a New Home, Los Angeles Business Journal, 8/29/17

[17] Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”, 1883

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