Richard Ebel was hopeless in business.
This is how the story goes.
In 1928, a friend offers unsolicited advice.
“Richard,” it is believed he said, “if you want to make it in business, you need to move to America.”
“What am I going to do in America?” Richard wonders out loud, his head perhaps in his hands.
“You, my friend,” says his friend, “are going to buy a White Castle franchise.”
And so Richard, looking for an escape from the reputation for failure that years later will emanate from the eyes staring out of his driver’s license, takes his friend’s advice.
And a few months later, the visa is granted. Notice of the approval arrives on a postcard to Richard’s apartment in the Lankwitz neighborhood of Berlin.
Richard opens the envelope. He looks at the number, 2194. He pictures himself behind a mop, painting wide wet stripes across the linoleum of a White Castle restaurant. Sipping hot black coffee from a thermos as he watches his chattering customers tuck into their piles of steamed, square burgers while snow piles up on the curbs of Flatbush Avenue. He sees himself in a narrow twin bed, reaching up to pull the chain on the light as the comic book he’s been reading drops from his hand.
But he can’t picture any of this.
And so the visa goes into a drawer, and then into a safe deposit box.
Why not? What’s so hard to picture? What better ideas keep him planted in his life? What strokes of industry, of genius, twist themselves in his mind to appear as mistakes in the making?
He marries Anna, a Polish-Jewish shop girl, in 1936. They live on Weimererstrasse 28, in Berlin. In 1938, their firstborn son arrives. This same year, Polish Jews living in Germany are expelled by Hitler. Anna’s parents and her brother Hermann are wrenched from her. She wonders why she didn’t leave for Uruguay years before with her brothers David and Israel. She looks at Richard, her eyes narrowing with contempt, but her rage at him is just a thin icy crust over a well of fear. Falling in love with a hapless business man? She should never have allowed herself to do this. And there is a baby now. Her life is cumbersome, impossible, grave.
The Nazi bureaucrat at the visa office sneers when Anna, Richard, and baby Henry arrive. He seems to take a rich pleasure in informing them that eighteen-thousand names trump their own on a list for exit visas.
And then Richard remembers.
He hurries to the safe deposit box on a wet winter afternoon when evening seems to have arrived at lunch. There, in a glossy vault in the basement of the bank. Number 2194. The White Castle restaurant on Flatbush Avenue he will never own.
The family returns to the visa office with a 10-year old postcard still safe in its envelope. Their names are miraculously bumped towards the top of the list for visas.
On December 14, 1938, the family sets sail for New York City from Rotterdam.
As he leans over the railing, watching his life recede along a flat horizon the color of porcelain, a sharp wind slicing his face, Richard considers that maybe this is all he will ever know of what it feels like to be successful in business. It is a half-baked idea, a notion conjured but then abandoned, that has saved his life. That makes it possible for me to write these words now.
Seventy-one years later, the Number emerges once again from its envelope, from its safe deposit box. The same number that got the Ebels out of Germany may also get them back.
I want the moral of this story to be that there is no such thing as wasted inspiration. That even lost and forgotten ideas will point us towards our life’s work.