Under the Sun of That Dream

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

— Martin Luther King Jr.

My father grew up at the bottom of a hill. My mother lived at the top of that same hill, in Washington Heights, New York City, in the 1950s and 1960s. Both were the products of refugee families.

My mother’s father, an avid reader of the news, left Germany just as the Nazis began to hang signs railing against “Juden!”

My dad came to America in 1954, literally on a banana boat, leaving in the middle of the night, fleeing a coup that would be followed by decades of bloody war in Guatemala. My dad’s father was a well-known journalist with connections in government. They left my grandmother and my two aunts behind to be sent for six months later. My dad was 6 years old.

For years, they lived at the bottom of the hill in New York. It was a slum, and it still is. My grandfather worked at a plastic factory, from which, my dad tells me, he would come home at the end of the day and peel off bits of plastic that had melted onto his face before bed.

The top of the hill, only blocks away, wasn’t so bad. Despite opposition from some family members, my parents married, and there I was raised.

Growing up as a child of a mixed marriage comes to my mind this Martin Luther King Day. Today, as I do most days, I drove to the office on a congested MLK Boulevard. Over lunch, I walked past the downtown library, where flyers promote upcoming meetings offering “An Honest Discussion of Race” — a topic promised again and again everywhere. I stopped attending these lectures years ago when I realized that these talks weren’t all that “honest” and that they were not attended by anyone actually interested in discussing anything.

Among my fondest childhood memories are our Sunday trips down the hill, amazingly steep it seemed, to have lunch at my grandparents’ apartment. There, my grandfather and I would eat a snack on the fire escape and watch young hoodlums in the street below messing with parked cars, harassing passing girls and generally looking for trouble. My grandmother in the kitchen would attempt to pan fry hamburgers for her American grandsons. Bottles of beer — not cans: Sunday was a special day — went around as we watched moonwalks, football games and reruns of Flash Gordon.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the couch we watched TV from was where my dad slept those years he grew up — it was a small apartment for five people, and he never had a bedroom.

But he studied hard. He became a citizen. He learned English and was a star gymnast in his high school. He got a job at the New York Public Library, at one point collecting the works of the recently deceased composer Henry Cowell. He attended City College, and entered the Baruch Graduate School of Business.

He left Baruch after one year to support a wife and two children, and to pursue a career in a field that was just taking off: telemarketing. I remember his fine suits and cufflinks, his waking up early to catch the train in the dark morning hours. He would come home late with stacks of printouts, and work after dinner at our dining room table, beside a propped-open briefcase. He would talk about clients and new responsibilities he had just undertaken. It all seemed to me as incomprehensible as a magician’s craft, which really is how a father’s job should seem to an awestruck young child.

What impressed me most then and still does was his fairness. In my years growing up, I never once heard him make a racist remark. Never once. Not in passing. Not in anger. Not in jest. He was never angrier than when at age 9, I came home repeating a joke that used the “N” word that I had heard from a friend. Frankly, I didn’t even know what the word meant. I was stunned that he would telephone my friend’s parents, as he never called them before. As he explained the meaning of the word to me, I could tell it hurt him to discuss it, and hurt him more to think that I might one day use it again.

His fairness also played into his business. Throughout the 1970s, he pioneered the telemarketing divisions of several companies, quickly rising up the ranks. At a time when laws were needed to break up the discriminatory employment practices of many corporations, my dad saw the opportunity in hiring talented people of all backgrounds — precisely those who were discriminated against in other places of business.

To a bigoted eye, they may have appeared a jumble of colors and genders. But in reality, they were ambitious professionals thankful for a chance and ready to work hard to prove it. When he founded his own company, in 1984, he hired minorities even to the highest executive levels.

By employing talented people overlooked by the old boy’s club, my dad’s core belief in fairness gave him the edge over competition.

There was no March on Washington in my dad’s life. There was no Selma or Edmund Pettus Bridge. There were no church bombings. There was no James Earl Ray, no Lorraine Motel.

But he was a refugee who worked hard to be a successful American. Life threw obstacles at him, but he overcame. He entered the country a native Spanish speaker and was thus threatened (as schools did in those days) with being held back, but he learned English — more perfectly, in fact, than almost anyone I know. Who else could tell his son, then a college English teacher, the difference between “continually” and “continuously” without missing a beat?

He got involved in a nasty series of lawsuits with former business partners in the late 1980s. Then a divorce in the early 1990s. Lawsuits kept coming in those days.

Then, in late 2004, the U.S. government implemented the National Do Not Call Registry for telemarketers. I heard the news over the wires while I was working for The Associated Press in Washington. Businesses were panicking. I called my father that night, expecting despair.

But he had an impish tone in his voice. After listening to me for a few minutes, he broke in: “Do I sound worried? This is going to drive the weaker companies out of business and leave the good ones with more work. This will be good for us.”

Today, he is remarried and lives in a peaceful suburb of Chicago, thousands of miles from Guatemala. His company has employed 100,000 people in more than 20 locations across the globe. At his headquarters, rising-star executives in his employ listen to him with fierce admiration. My dad’s in his early 60s, and after visiting China a few years ago to check into business opportunities and to lecture at business schools, he thinks he may one day retire there and resume a childhood love of painting.

Years ago when I learned that I had passed my exams and would thus be completing graduate school, my first call was to him.

I could tell that he was weeping over the phone line. He very rarely cried.

“Oh, Erik,” he said, “I’m crying because I’m happy. Finishing graduate school is something that I was never able to do.”

“Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.”

— Martin Luther King Jr.

Erik Kestler
Whiskey & Gunpowder

January 17, 2011