No. 8: Totally Unprepared Am I To Face A World Of Men

Please picture a very tall, glossy desk with a scary bespectacled bureaucrat peering down

Please picture a very tall, glossy desk with a scary bespectacled bureaucrat peering down: “Vee vould like to see your fahzer’s passport. Zee one wiz zee yellow star.”

I finally get Peter Bauer on the phone.

Not his real name.

Peter’s on a soundstage in Queens, directing the new CW series about hot male models. 

In a random coincidence that illustrates the miniscule acreage of Hollywood and supports my use of  pseudonyms, Peter works every livelong day with Casper Fleming, the delightful man I told you about who introduced me to this whole re-naturalization concept in the first place. 

I ask Peter to tell Casper I say “hi.”  Within five seconds it’s clear we have about seventy people in common and I could easily waste my entire chat on a pointless game of Hollywood Squares.  So I nip the schmooze in the bud and get down to it.

I ask Peter how much paperwork he scrounged in order to present his case for re-naturalization to the German consulate.  Peter describes to me in generous detail the imperious consulate official who gives him the stink-eye when he doesn’t produce his deceased father’s Nazi-era passport with yellow star as proof.

In this moment, Peter realizes he’s not going to be welcomed home with open arms smelling cleanly of ‘4711’ cologne.  No, he’s going to have to argue his case and not let the bureaucrat’s disdain get the better of him.

Peter presents his father’s draft registry certificate from 1939.  Mr. Bauer had fled Germany in 1936 for London, and Peter has in his possession the London consulate-issued draft paperwork.  But the bureaucrat, whom it is easy to picture looking quite exactly like a 40-something Rolfe from The Sound of Music, but with the sunburn under his eyes he gets whenever he does his ironing in the nude on his Westwood balcony, says that the draft certificate is not proof that Mr. Bauer was a victim of persecution, per se.

Peter points out to Rolfe that the middle name typed on his father’s draft certificate is “Israel.”  This was not the middle name given to Mr. Bauer by his parents, but rather a labeling tactic of the Third Reich, helpful in identifying Jewish men.

It is very easy to picture Rolfe looking long and blankly at Peter, then darting his eyes down to the draft certificate, then returning his gaze to Peter.  “This is never going to happen for you,” Peter reports the little lederhosened shit as saying.  Apparently, while this London-issue draft certificate demonstrates that Mr. Bauer was not in Germany during the war, it doesn’t necessarily indicate that he had been persecuted

I wonder if Rolfe is actually deeply ambivalent about the elder Mr. Bauer having sided with the British.

Peter wonders what the fuck is with this guy. 

Peter speaks fluent German, he has a philosophy degree from a German university, and he considers trying to go to the mat with Bicycle McWhistlestein.  But then he decides against it.  Still.  You’d think the Federal Republic would be thrilled to have Peter as a prodigal son.  He’s a talented guy and could direct the shit out of Tatort.

But then Peter remembers.  His grandmother spent the war in Tunisia.  After the war she filed for and received reparations.  The Federal Republic would have to acknowledge that anybody receiving post-war reparations would qualify as a victim of persecution.  Wouldn’t they? You think the German Feds would pay out otherwise?

The blonde bureaucrat squints at Peter, then lets out a curt sigh.  “Okay,” Peter remembers him saying.  “You have a shot.  But it will take a year.”

Two brisk months later, Peter Bauer gets his greenlight from the Federal Republic.  All he needs to do is sign on the dotted line, get stamped in the right spots, and he’s a German citizen.  Armed with a fresh load of contemporary paperwork, he strolls back into our local German consulate.  Rolfe is still there.  And apparently he’s warmed up considerably.  Now I’m picturing Rolfe leaning dangerously far back in his desk chair, wearing a track suit and a gold chain and grinning around the wet stub of a cigar, for some reason. “Peetah, you crazy bastard,” he barks warmly.  “Velcome home.”

Thank you, Peter Bauer, for answering my question.  My dead German father’s measly Berlin birth certificate and my grandparents’ Berlin marriage certificate are going to make Rolfe chuckle.  I need serious vintage bureaucratic back-up.  And I’d better get my stammer in control.

I ask my mother to dig up what she can.  The Hirsches were big-time industrialists whose factory towns still stand, and there’s a display about their contribution in one of the Jewish museums outside of Berlin.  My mother and her siblings also received reparations.  Should anybody care for a receipt of my pedigree.

I call my brother David, whom I haven’t seen in something like four years.  David lives in San Francisco, and he is sitting on a cache of our father’s archival paperwork.  And he has a scanner.

David is going to help me.  Also, I think we’re probably going to party and go hiking.  Possibly simultaneously.

Perhaps it’s slightly disgusting that when I belabor the torments of my childhood I describe David as my half-brother, and need to hit home that our connection is theoretical and fraught.  But when he can help me get my EU passport all of a sudden he’s my “brother” and Henry, who two days ago could not be seen in the same room with the word “Dad,” is suddenly “our father.”

Perhaps in this way I am more like my good buddy Rolfe than I’d like to think.

On Monday, I leave for San Francisco.

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No. 9: Wandering Jews

I’ve started to fill out my Application for Naturalization According to Article 116 (2) Basic Law.  The Federal Republic wants to know all about me, as well as information on my son, my parents, and my grandparents.  Where is everybody born?  When did everybody land?  Where and when did my parents get married and divorced?  What about my grandparents, where did they live in Berlin?  What were they wearing?  What color was their parachute?  Is it true that Orthodox Jewish girls give the best head?

Occasionally I suffer from poor reading comprehension, an outshoot of my impatience that’s rooted in my chronic rage, and yet I swear to you the National Archives told me to look at the State Archives, and the State Archives sent me back to the National Archives.

Jesus, research is so annoying and time-consuming.  I could be here all day on the archival merry-go-round, I could be here all year, I could write a PhD.  Can’t the Federal Republic of Germany just hand me my papers and send me on my way to Berlin Gay Pride?  I want Esquire magazine to pay me to party to Turkish hip-hop, goddammit!

Bottom line: Just another plot against the Jews.

I don’t even think a wildly functional family group has all this info on one another, which brings to mind existential questions about how fleetingly each generation stays in the mind, let alone the files, of the next.  We’re here so very briefly, and only maybe, maybe our grandchildren are going to have a clue about the tracks we left, even if we do a great job as parents.   Do you have the address where your grandparents were living when they got married?

This supports my general argument that all children should be given family names.  Unless you want to accelerate the process by which you unload and reject the past, in which case Cody and Madison are perfect choices.

So now I am asking my mother to help me fill in the blanks.  What does she remember?

It seems kind of unfair that I am asking her to help me make sense of my father, since he left and she provided the food, shelter, clothing, holidays, reading list, bat mitzvah invitations, and the terrific pots and pans she gave us as wedding gifts.  On the other hand, if I blog about Henry then she’s off the hook where some of the darker chapters are concerned, at least for now.  This could be a good thing for the whole family.

My mother is concerned about the tax implications if I become a New German Jewess.  She wants me to contact her tax attorney to discuss.  This is maternal advice I will be ignoring.  On the other hand, my mother also tells me that I have a distant cousin, a young Israeli photographer living in Berlin, and that he has asked her about doing an apartment swap.  Maybe he would like to swap apartments with my family in Los Angeles?  Yes, please, mother dear, work that Jewish Geography and let’s cook up a little cultural exchange.

Then I found out from my dear friend Haley that a friend of hers, a prolific director of film and TV (see today’s image for a hint), is also first-generation German Jewish, and he got his dual citizenship, and in fact if McCain had won he’d be there now, hitting the Berlin party circuit with Brad Pitt while I sit here being given the high hard one by the National Archive.

So I dashed off a little note to him:

Hey [Haley’s Besty]:
I’m a writer and a first-generation German Jewess trying to address all sorts of deep-seated personal issues by applying for German citizenship through the Federal Republic’s “We’re Sorry About The Holocaust Please Come Home” Program, which I understand from Hallie you know a thing or two about.

This is a long-procrastinated personal project that I even decided to start a blog about, despite my blog ambivalence, or blence, as I think they’re now calling it.

If you have any time to share with me your own process of pursuing dual citizenship, I’d be very interested to hear about it.  The main piece of advice I’d like to ask (before even hearing if you have any time to share on this, but, you know, ask and ye shall receive), is how much geneological research and leg-work you did in advance of submitting your application.  I’m neck deep in naturalization records, because I’m not sure of the exact date that my father and his family landed in NYC (and there are other holes in the story that I might be able to supply the bureaucratic process if I search diligently enough), and I’m not sure if I need to be.

I would be utterly delighted to come to your neck of the woods for some face-time and provide caffeine, alcohol, pretty much any mood-altering substance if you give me enough heads-up, or perhaps a pile of marzipan (did you grow up on the stuff as I did?) so that I’m not just take-take-take.  Or a phone chat would be splendid, too.

Thanks for the possibility of penciling me in,

Kathy Ebel

No. 10: I Cannot Guarantee That I Am 100% “Restored”

David and I were up until 2 AM.  Going through documents, sitting side by side on the guest-room sofa behind our laptops, filling out our forms, planting the hydroponic seeds of the hangover I have today.

After breakfast, I call the German Consulate to make an appointment.  The outgoing message says that the operator is on another call, please call back.  It takes a few calls to get an actual person.

“Hello,” I say, “I’m calling to make an appointment to discuss applying for restored German citizenship under Article 116, paragraph two.”

“Yes, I will transfer you to Tmfrrsh Vermgshhr,” the operator says in a neutrally toned German accent.  I wonder how many calls she gets like this a day?

The operator transfers me to the voicemail of Thomas Vogelbacher, only I don’t know the guy’s name is Thomas Vogelbacher because he speaks quickly on his outgoing message and I can’t make out the name.  He says on the message that an email is the best way to reach him, but then he spells out his email address too quickly for me to jot down.  So I call back the operator.  She transfers me back to his voicemail and I leave a message.  But when I hang up, I’m doubtful.  What if he doesn’t get the message?  What if he overbooks himself in the meantime?  He said the best way to reach him was email.  So I call the operator back and ask her to transfer me again.  Her tone stays neutral, although if I were her I’d be annoyed.  This time I get his email address jotted down, and I dash off an articulate plea:

Dear Mr. Vogelbacher:

I am hoping that you will be able to schedule an appointment for me and my brother, David Ebel, to meet with you and begin the application for restored German citizenship under Article 116, par. 2.

My brother and I are descendants of a German Jewish family from Berlin who fled Germany during the Third Reich.  We have an archive of many original documents dating back to the 19th century that includes our father and grandparents’ Third Reich passports, and can provide great detail about our family’s history in Berlin as well as the circumstances and timing of their escape.

I live in Los Angeles and am returning tomorrow evening, so this is a very rare opportunity for my brother and I to visit the consulate together.  (We were planning on walking in to the offices tomorrow, and only just realized that an appointment is necessary.)

I would be most grateful if you could accommodate us and look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely yours,

Kathy Ebel

I then begin to check my email maniacally.  And within about 30 minutes, he responds.

Dear Mrs Ebel,

I do have 5 appointments already for tomorrow. I could meet you around 11.30 am, if you do not mind that I have remainings of a flu that prevented me from working last Friday and yesterday. Today is my first day and I cannot guarantee that I am 100% “restored”. Please let me know if despite my health condition you still would like to come in tomorrow at 11.30 am.


Sincerely,
Thomas Vogelbacher
Vice Consul
German Consulate General

 

Yes!  Alright!  High-five!  Way-to-go, relentless Jewish girls everywhere!

David and I drive down to Utrecht Art Supplies and get a few portfolios with clear plastic sleeve inserts.  We come home and unpack the accordian file, spreading our documents across his granite kitchen island.  We separate the official documents from the family correspondence, creating a special pile of random envelopes and copies of our Uncle Richard’s various documents.  (Uncle Richard is developmentally disabled and, thanks to the trust fund my grandmother established for him, has lived most of his adult life in an assisted living facility in Florida.)

As David painstakingly scans each document, some of which are cloth bound booklets with many crumbling pages, I organize the portfolios.  We are going for a chronological approach.  Our earliest document is a bound family geneological record book, or “Hammilien-Stammbuch,” dating to 1866.

We see that the Ebels were granted visas in 1938.  Also, their Nazi passports don’t have Jewish stars.  Is this going to screw us? If you get out before it’s too late, does that mean you haven’t suffered enough for your grandchildren to come home?

And yet we also have a typed personal memoir that tells the story of Anna Ebel’s family.  Our grandmother’s parents and siblings, the Salomons, were naturalized German citizens during the Third Reich, but not full citizens.  The Germans expelled them back to Poland.  Only our grandmother escaped expulsion, because she was married to our grandfather, whose family had resided in Berlin for close to 100 years.  There is a frenzy of Ebel paperwork in 1938 between the Polish and German bureaucracies, and we have the copies. I don’t know what any of it means, despite parking myself infront of an online German-English dictionary for a good part of the afternoon.  But I suspect that our Grandfather scurried to get our Grandmother’s German citizenship secured just as the rest of her family was being expelled to Poland.

My grandmother’s family hid in a “peasant’s house” in Poland.

They were betrayed by a Jewish acquaintance who was a Nazi sympathizer.

They were shot.

Dear Mr. Volgebacher:

Yes, please, we would like to meet with you tomorrow at 11:30 AM.

We have no concerns about your health but do wish you a speedy recovery.

Although I am aware I can go through the Los Angeles office, my brother is in possession of all of the original documents and I appreciate the opportunity to present them to you, as well as the rare chance for my brother and I to have the conversation with you together, as well as in person.

Many thanks again and we look forward to seeing tomorrow.

Sincerely,

Kathy Ebel and David Ebel

No. 11: I ♥ Thomas Vogelbacher

Here we are, my brother and me.  Staggering down the very long hall to our respective bedrooms.  It’s almost two in the morning.

Every page of the Ebel Archive has been scanned.  Two portfolios have been assembled: one with official documentation, the other with personal correspondence, presented chronologically.  David and I have discussed talking points, in case the German Vice Consul is a meanie and we are forced to defend our position and intentions.  I have a whole spiel cooked up about the long chain of German heritage that the Nazis broke, and how we seek to repair that chain and look forward to a promising future with our German brethren, or something.  We agree on a To Do list for the morning and an 8 AM wake-up call.  I set my own alarm for 7:30.

Here we are again, six hours later.

Caffeinated and scurrying around, because it takes time for 140 years of German-Jewish paper-trail to churn from the color printer, because for a moment there is not enough paper or color ink in the printer, because David realizes he doesn’t have a stapler and the one he nicks from his roommate’s bedroom runs out of staples, because I smack into the printer with my hip and knock the tray off and can’t get it snapped back in, because David want my opinion on what shirt works best (“The black dress shirt with the purple stripe,” I say.  “It looks like you already live in Berlin.”), because now we have to swing past Office Max for a stapler and a folder en route to the German consulate.  Because we are determined to be prompt, with the idea that promptness will make us seem more German.

I’m wearing white jeans, strappy patent leather sandals with a Cuban heel, and a thin grey merino wool sweater, since you asked.

Here we are, dashing into Office Max.  “I think we should split up,” David says.  “You have the vision for the folder,” I recommend, “so I’ll focus on the stapler.”  I am snapping photos as we hurry down separate aisles.

“How are you today?” the cute Office Max cashier says, flashing her dimples at David.

“David,” he replies.  She laughs. I can objectively observe that David is cute, charming and well dressed, yet I am stunned by the magnitude of his chick-magneticity.  He turns to me.  “Shit.  You better do all the talking,” he deadpans.  “I’m just going to be sitting there in front of the guy, and when he asks us why we think we deserve German citizenship, all I’m going to be able to come up with is ‘David,’ and that’s no good.”

The top on the Beemer’s down, because I’m stapling documents and loving the dope white plastic folder David selected as David dodges daredevil bike messengers.

The German Consulate is a gorgeous brick building, set back on a tony residential street behind an ornate gate, flanked by flower beds and a big fountain, and we slide effortlessly into the rock star parking spot expressly chosen for us by the Jewish God.  David’s convertible looks particularly fetching in front of this Russian Hill mansion.  “Oh, look!” I say.  “It’s the Ebel Schloss!  How nice of the Germans to let us have it back!” The older Malaysian gentleman in the security uniform peers at us through the gate.  He wants to know if he can help us.  “We have an 11:30 appointment with Vice Consul Vogelbacher,” I explain.  The gate opens.

In the sunny lobby, the blonde receptionist of a certain age with sophisticated glasses frames requests our ID’s.  We have a seat in a conference room with a view of the fountain and gardens.  Ten minutes later, Vice Consul Thomas Vogelbacher hurries in.

Vogelbacher looks like Leo DiCaprio, but younger. His burgundy-striped tie matches his burgundy dress shirt.  David and I rise to greet him, and, with a casual flourish, Thomas Vogelbacher makes a chivalrous point of shaking mine first.  We are seated.  Vogelbacher beams at us, apologizes for sounding congested, although he has a really terrific complexion and a respectable base tan, and seems like the sort who pursues rigorous Bay Area sport on the weekends.  He asks who in our family is the displaced German citizen through whom we hope to have our citizenship restored.  David and I look at one another.

“Well,” David says.  “We’re here basically because our father, Henry Ebel, left Germany in 1938 with his parents, our grandparents.  They were fleeing the Nazis.”

“Yes, of course,” says Vogelbacher, nodding sympathetically.

“But our grandparents kept records of our family that date back to 1866,” David continues, “so there’s a long bloodline of Ebels we can present.”

“Ah,” says Vogelbacher.

I indicate our groovy plastic folder.  “We’ve made you a full set of color copies, but we’ve brought the originals to show you.”

“Yes, this is necessary.  We will submit copies but I must confirm their authenticity by looking at the originals.”

David pushes the black portfolio over to Vogelbacher and opens the cover.  Vogelbacher blinks.  The first item is the Ebel ‘Hamilien Stammbauch.’

“This is very, very old,” Thomas Vogelbacher says softly, leaning forward in his chair.  It’s a Jewish Diasporic Antiques Roadshow moment.

Vogelbacher tenderly drinks in each page of our portfolio like a delighted grandfather scanning baby pictures.  He can’t believe what we have.  And how both rare and perfectly preserved our documents are. He’s gratifyingly amazed and moved by our grandparents’ Third Reich passports, by the Holland-America passenger list on which the Ebels appear in Tourist Class, by the frenzy of 1938 correspondence between our grandfather, Richard Ebel, and the Polish consulate, as Richard tried to get our grandmother Anna’s German citizenship confirmed before she is expelled to Poland along with her parents, the Salomons, and her brother Hermann, who are murdered in 1942 when their Polish hiding place is revealed by a Jewish Nazi sympathizer, by our grandmother’s “Arbeitsbuch,” essentially her resume in book form, issued by the Nazis.  Overcome with deference, Vogelbacher doesn’t even want to touch our grandfather’s 1932 driver’s license, and he nearly topples over when he sees that we have the original naturalization papers that were issued to our family in New York over a few years in the mid-1940’s.  “How did you get these?” he exclaims.  “It is very unusual to have such a thing, and for most of my customers, a giant hassle to secure copies that can take more than a year.”

I like that Vogelbacher uses the word ‘hassle.’ It occurs to me that at some point I will have to learn German, and that my German will never be as good as Vogelbacher’s English.  And it’s funny that he refers to us as his ‘customers.’  But it seems that among the three of us, we are each buying what the other is selling.  The phrase ‘unabashed love fest’ comes to mind.

Vogelbacher tells us that the restoration of our German citizenship is not just a credential that will likely be conferred to us on the basis of human rights, but that it is a legal matter, guaranteed to us constitutionally.

He points out that once we have our German citizenship, and once my son Clyde becomes a dual German citizen, too, John and I should consider looking to the EU for educational opportunities.  “You will have many choices in the EU for your son’s education,” he points out.  “And your tuition will be a fraction of what it would be for international students, and perhaps a better deal than what is available to you in the United States.”

I hadn’t thought of that angle.

I try out my “long chain of heritage broken by the Nazi’s now healed by the triumphant return of Kathy and David Ebel” spiel.  Vogelbacher cocks his head thoughtfully.  “I fear you might have a misconception, this idea of the long chain,” he responds.  “Actually, the history of anti-Semitism in Germany is long and troubled.  Many, many times that chain has been broken.  Of course the Third Reich is the sickest, most disturbed chapter.  But the Jews have endured rejection and prejudice throughout the history of Germany.”  He fires off several key dates spanning two centuries of Jewish persecution.  He suggests films we should see.  (He favors The Fall, while The Pianist made him shudder.)  Thomas Vogelbacher should totally be made an honorary Jew.  I would personally love to host a post-bar mitzvah brunch for him in my Berlin rooftop garden.

Is there Jewish Fever in Germany?  You know, like Jungle Fever, but thoughtful German guys who have wood for Jewish Girls?

Thomas Vogelbacher asks if we would be interested in a tour of Berlin provided just for returning citizens like us.  Do we have cousins or other relatives who might also like to become German?  ‘Cause that’s totally happening if we’re feeling it.  What about family members of the “victim generation?”  Any of those still around?  Because Germany will provide one of us a free plane ticket to return to Berlin with any surviving elder statesmen.  Would we like to connect with the rabbi of Berlin’s new synagogue?  He’s a great guy and his wife is well connected.  Vogelbacher jokes that he hopes too see us in Berlin for Christmas, since the consulate throws a great party.  “Once you have your citizenship,” he says, “I can make many suggestions of resources that you might find interesting.”

Umm…yeah.  You could say we’re interested.

“So…do you think we have a compelling presentation?” I ask.

Vogelbacher looks at me for a beat, then smiles benevolently.  “Many of my customers have no idea what has happened.  They do not even remember their father’s name,” he says.  “I can make no promises, but I expect you will have your citizenship restored in the next three months.  And you know,” he continues, turning his attention to me, “once your paperwork is assembled you can have it approved in Los Angeles at the consulate there, to save you a trip.”

“I know.  But I think I might want to come back here with my son.”

“It will be an excuse for another visit,” my brother David says, smiling at me.  I kind of have a little crush on my brother right now.

It bears repeating:  Thomas Vogelbacher can make no promises.

I have to ask for help to find the ladies room, even though I have followed the blonde receptionist’s directions.  That’s because the bathroom door is camouflaged by wood paneling so that it disappears against the wall, giving it the distinct feel of a hiding space in a peasant’s cottage.  I duck inside and see the two large circles of perspiration that have bloomed on my formerly pristine sweater.

David and I get back into the car and lower the top.

“Oh.  My.  God,” I say.

“Wait,” says David.

“What, you think they’re watching us?”

David stares straight ahead as he pulls out of our rock star parking spot.

“Okay,” he says, as we rocket up the street.  “Now we can freak out.”

No. 12: The Number

1928 Richard Ebel visa envelope

1928 Richard Ebel visa postcard back

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.

The Number.

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.

No. 13: The Other Depression

Oh, right.  That Depression.

Did my grandfather have very good or very bad timing?

Richard Ebel receives his first greenlight to leave Germany on July 14, 1928.

That’s the date on the postmark of the postcard that saved his life and is going to do some as-yet-to-be-determined thing for mine.

Yesterday I am wondering why my grandfather didn’t set sail, join the throng, open the White Castle, meet the determined young secretary/ Rabbi’s eldest daughter, sneaking out for a gobble of treif, find the jolly, wisecracking circle of Greenhorn friends with whom he would play cards, smoke cigars, and eventually open a talent agency on Tin Pan Alley.

Yesterday I chalk it up to a sweet spot in my grandfather’s life, where cosmic forces and inertia are totally making out.  Where fear of displacement and loneliness conspire to keep him displaced and lonely, only in his own life in Berlin, not across the sea where his accent will be amusing.  Or maybe it was plain old depression…

…Depression.

I wake up at 3:12 AM with one thought in mind.

A vintage chart of plummeting stock values.

You know, The Depression.  The one we’re in the process of living up to.

Richard Ebel has a notion of a better life planted in his ear by a friend with better timing.  He discusses his idea with his mother, Berta.  She refuses her fears of his leaving and instead applauds his entrepreneurial spirit, which she worries about easily as much.  At her kitchen table, a sugared coffee and a half-eaten almond horn at his elbow, Richard draws up a spreadsheet.  If he takes his lunch to work instead of meeting friends, if he forgets the idea of the automobile for which he’s been saving, by next October he should have enough saved for his relocation expenses and the White Castle franchise itself.

But then October 24, 1929 rolls around.  Black Thursday.

“This is no time to have a big idea,” my grandfather tells himself, locking the lid of the safe deposit box, the visa tucked inside, his thoughts turning with reluctance and hope to a littler idea, the Polish-Jewish shop girl.

At this very minute in America the jagged rollercoaster of the markets is having its way with our imaginations.  Babies will be born from this fear, and hamburger franchises will congeal in the bank’s basement tomb, and people who were thinking about leaving will stay.

Also, somebody is about to remember something they put away ten years ago, and it’s about to change everything.

At this very moment, she is searching her pockets for the key.

No. 14: I’ll Have What He’s Having

MTV documentary in which I appeared in 1993: The Seven Deadly Sins.

Sin I represented: Anger.

Celebrity with whom I was paired: Ice-T

Number of times Ice-T and I saw one another or spoke: 0

Subject matter of my featured spoken word piece, taped at the Nuyorican Poets Café:  My stepfather.

How my brother, then in high school, knew that the girl in the MTV documentary was me: he recognized the baby photo featured in the art direction of the segment.

What my father said when he called me on the phone soon thereafter, having not spoken to me for 19 years:  “It is I.”

How I interpreted his sudden interest: the lure of what seemed to be at the time a whiff of literary recognition.

Where my father sometimes took me as a child: the Museum of Modern Art.

Notable childhood MoMA experience: purposefully whacking a sculptural piece constructed from twine,  old boots and a tin can, setting off the central alarm system.

How my father reacted: He yelled at the guards and criticized the bullshit art.

How I last pictured my father: tall, imposing,  in a fringed suede jacket, white oxford, jeans, brogues.

What I wore to meet my father in front of the Museum of Modern Art:  purple long-sleeved tee shirt, vintage ankle-length black velvet skirt, black wedge heels.

What I carried: vintage purse.

How my father looked: frail, white-haired, effeminate hands and limbs.

What my father wore: belted trench coat, jeans, running shoes.

What my father carried: plastic Korean market bag.

What my father said when he first saw me: “I see you got all dolled up.”

What happened at the diner where we went for lunch:  The waitress arrived while I was in the ladies room, and when I returned to the table my father had just finished ordering.  “I’ll have a tuna sandwich on toasted wheat with lettuce,” I said, “and a cup of cream of tomato soup.”

“That’s funny,” said the waitress.  “Your father just ordered the exact same thing.”