I wrote most of this commentary on Wednesday morning before the Capitol was stormed. Such cataclysmic events have a way of dividing life into before and after. But after rereading it I think it still applies.
My wife didn’t understand my sense of wonder when I plucked a yellowing postcard from a stack of them the night of the Georgia runoff elections and tried to explain its significance to her. It was a postcard sent to my mother, signed by her parents and their friends, in August, 1946 from a restaurant called Le Café Arnold, It was located at 240 Central Park South in Manhattan. The card showed the interior of the restaurant – tidy rows of set tables apparently meant to convey refinement in post-war New York. There was also an insert of Arnold himself over the words “Host to the discerning”.
The address was important because it sat downstairs from the apartment where my mother’s paramour lived with his parents. On a subsequent evening a year after that postcard was sent my mother’s family and her boyfriend’s met at the apartment and then went downstairs to Le Café Arnold for dinner. When the party returned to the apartment afterwards to play cards – that seemed to be common practice in the days before television became a household appliance --- my mother and her boyfriend, both in their early twenties, stole away to neck on a bench along the park. “I was so deliriously happy just to be there with him,” she wrote in her diary.
Out of curiosity I did a cursory Google search for the restaurant but came up empty-handed. So it felt like a small but precious gift, while working on a family memoir, to find myself in possession of an image of the establishment and of Arnold himself. My mother’s diary, which she kept from the time her family immigrated to the United States ahead of World War II through the late 1970’s, isn’t just a record of her life but also New York City’s, its stores and restaurants, movie houses and nightclubs, through multiple decades.
The most impressive thing about the postcard is that it exists at all. Even more so, that it’s one of hundreds starting in early Twentieth Century in a half dozen languages with images ranging from the buzzing metropolis of Bucharest, where my mother’s family lived during the 1930’s, to the lake at Grossinger’s hotel and country club in the Catskills. “Don’t believe the pictures,” her girlfriend Gloria writes in September ‘47, “we’re freezing and not swimming.”
The souvenirs survived my family’s flight from Russia during the Revolution, their exile in Romania during the 1920’s and ‘30’s, and their escape to safety in the United States as the shadow of Nazism and anti-Semitism spread across Europe.
“Am very glad I am keeping a diary,” my mother explained in one of the earliest of the thirty-five marbleized school composition notebooks she used to record her life. “Everything passes so quickly and one can hardly remember after a while. This way there remains something.”
The morning after the Georgia runoff I heard the Reverend Raphael Warnock, who’d won one of the races, describe his journey as the son of a mother who picked cotton and tobacco during the 1950’s, as “The American Story.”
It’s one moving American story, all of them part of “The American Story.” My mother’s, which couldn’t have been more gracious, was another. But what she and Reverend Warnock share is a sense of amazement about America and its possibilities. The storming of the Capitol was disturbing for many reasons. But one of the most profound is that it shattered the myth many of us had of America as a safe haven. My mother said that as soon as she arrived on our shores as a teenager she felt instantly at home. Not only that. She felt at home for the first time in her life.
The last four years have sorely tested one’s faith in the United States, culminating in the last few days. What we’ve discovered to our profound disappointment, at least some of us, is that, yes, it can happen here.
“As I write this commentary,” I wrote Wednesday morning, “Congress is about to convene for what is supposed to be the routine certification of the 2020 Presidential election’s results. By the time it airs that should have happened. In the meantime, a not insignificant minority of Republican senators and congressmen and women will attempt to overthrow democracy.
That they’ll fail is small comfort. What is encouraging, however, is that Georgia’s election results suggest that with Herculean effort and unfortunately an obscene amount of money, democracy can still prevail, if only by fractions of percentage points.
The big question is whether the last four years was an aberration or a portent of worse to come. Those pushing to overturn the election results have apparently placed their bets on autocracy or at least the power of disinformation and the anemic attention spans of average Americans.
I know, as the child of immigrants, that there are no more patriotic Americans. They’ve seen how bad things can get wherever they came from. And that the United States is, or at least was, the exception to the rule.
A Congress split down the middle won’t achieve miracles. But it can put the pieces of the American Dream back together again. People of good faith, if their leaders have the courage to tell them the truth instead of pandering to their fears and prejudices, can do the rest.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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