They came over slowly at first, in a trickle. They came because the Great Famine struck the Old Country, and the children crawled out of their huts starving, and fell upon the roads to die. Cats and dogs had to be swiped away from eating the dead babies, and it was not unusual to find a home where four or five dead bodies lay, dead from starvation. A good dinner was one potato boiled in disease ridden water. The English did not care, but kept up their ban on growing corn. My ancestors were forced to flee, and came to this land, this shining city on the hill, not in order to find a better life... but to survive. Not to give their children a better life... but to give them any life at all.
The year was maybe 1845. Maybe 1850. We don't really know. But that is the year that James Symien Lynch came over from the County Galway in Ireland and settled in the blackened heaving city by the water- Jersey City. He, like all good Irishmen, started a liquor store, which means he was probably a tough son of a bitch, although everyone in the 1850's was. He lived in the time when there were signs on store windows that said, "No Irish need apply." My favorite was always, "No dogs or Irish allowed". They were compared to locusts, like their coming was a biblical plague sent from God to destroy this hard working Protestant country. They certainly did not like my great-great-great-great grandfather's Catholicism. They threatened to hurl the foreigners from their land, to kill their families, to burn the Churches... until the newly appointed Cardinal in New York told the Establishment that if one Church was touched, the Irish would burn New York City to the ground. They fought.
In the 20's, another great immigration came, but this time, it was from Southern Europe. At least the Irish spoke English; the Italians had nothing. They looked different, too; shorter, darker, hairy, speaking a language that no one could understand and few cared to learn. They swarmed over the ocean, gathered in huddled masses along the coasts in the great cities. My great grandparents were among these; their first sight of America came from the groaning wooden decks of a ship that sailed under the Statue of Liberty and took them to Ellis Island, where they would plead to get into Promised Land. They were a humorous bunch- they could only speak English to each other, for while the old man was from the upper classes and spoke that kind of Italian, his wife came from the lower classes, so the twain never met for them. He owned silk mills in Paterson, which is the nice way to say that he was likely to be heavily involved in the Mafia back when it was the motherfucking Mafia (don't think Sopranos, think St. Valentine's Day Massacre). He eventually moved his family up out of Paterson, and into the nicer neighboring town where Italians were allowed to congregate. When he wanted to move to the town I now live in, the Irishmen that already lived here woud not let him buy a house; they didn't want "his kind" here. Funny how soon they all forget. He fought.
I don't know the history of the Polish side. What I do know is that my father's father grew up in town dominated by Polish Catholics and Italians, and he went to war at 17 to make sure that I could grow up in a world free from the threat of the Japanese Empire and the Third Reich. He fought for three years, watching his brothers die in battle by the at the mouths of the guns of the Axis powers. Some flew into mountains, others got shot down. It didn't matter. His cousin flew with the Flying Tigers, the men who flew P-40's with shark faces painted on them because they knew the Japanese feared them.
The whole experience scared the man to the point where it is no longer conceivable to picture him as a "normal". He despised war, and would shake his head when I told him I wanted to go to West Point, saying, "If there's ever another damn war, you'll find me last on line to get into it." He wouldn't see Saving Private Ryan. He was also a mean drunk, and not the best example to his kids. I hate to sound apologetic, but I think he could never come to grips with the horror of war, and the terrible things men do to each other. Either way, he did what men do- he did the best he could with the hand he was dealt, and he took care of his family... and his country.
My Lithuanian side was a hardened bunch. That family tree is rife with alcoholism from the tough lives they had to lead. My great great grandfather worked in the coal mines in Pennsylvania, toiled every day in the black dust that eventually suffocated him on his deathbed, dying of black lung. The seeds were planted there for my fondness for animals; every day, he would bring an apple for the donkey that worked in the mines as well. My great- great- grandmother used to give him a quarter a day to go get drunk at the local bar.
Slowly, these families interacted, crossed each other, in the great American country. It was a hundred and fifty years of history in America, and centuries in the Old Country, that got me to the point where I am today. My ancestors have fought in fields and alleys, killed men, to get me to the point where I am today. They fought.
All of this, all that history, all of it, all so you could be told that you don't have enough money, you don't have enough prestige, your family isn't rich enough, to go get a drink with someone.
"Rage" is the only way to describe it. I am proud of where I come from. I'm proud of this family, of all of them. I am proud to be an American, from a middle class, working family who fought and clawed their way over the years out of the depths of the cities and into the suburbs. Sure, there are certain people that stride across the pond and walk into millions of dollars. And that's fine. But that's not what my family did. They worked in the coal mines, they worked behind the bar, they worked in the mills and factories. They toiled and fought and warred to get me to where I am, every second of their work was so that I could be where I am today, and have the shot to not do what they did. They did it so I could write about them with pride, no matter what misgivings and flaws the had. They did it so I would remember.
And believe me... I do. And no derisive comment from any rich man is going to change that.