Section C:
A Family of Firsts
In my family, success is weighed by a single standard: the ability to be first. It does not matter what you are first at as long as you are first at something.
My relatives came from Europe at the height of the Machine Age (机器时代). Every day, something else in America was new and first. The first flush toilet (抽水马桶), the first radio, the first hat with a fan. My family got first fever. Foods and other good ideas all counted. Styles, inventions, phrases, too. The sole standard for being first at something was simply not having heard that somebody else had done it. Then you earned the right to say the wonderful words: "I did it first!"
My great-grandfather on my mother's mother's side invented the toodle. The toodle is a little square of paper with a bit of mustard (芥末) rolled up into it. You could take a toodle to work in the morning with a piece of cold meat and squeeze some fresh mustard on it at lunch.
This great-grandfather, the toodle inventor, had three daughters: Ruthie (露茜), the first girl who ever made a curtain into a jacket; Gertie (格尔蒂), the first girl who ever made a jacket into a curtain; and Polly (波莉), my grandmother, who perfected a brush to clean the inside of a water tap. "Just because you can't see it doesn't mean it isn't dirty," she was fond of saying.
Polly was proud of the fact that every inch of her apartment was touched by human hand at least twice a year. She even dusted the tops of doors, using a top-of-the-door duster made of old stockings, stuffed with more old stockings. Old stockings have always been perceived as a challenge by my family. My mother uses hers as an onion bag, an idea she says she invented. She also takes credit for being the first person to use both legs of a pair of stockings at the same time, one leg for onions, one leg for potatoes or garlic. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Perhaps my most famous relative of all, the one who really left his mark on America, was Reb Sussel (莱伯·萨塞尔), my great-grandfather on my father's father's side. According to family stories, he introduced the pastrami (五香烟熏牛肉) sandwich to the world. In 1879, Reb Sussel left his native country to find fame and fortune on the streets of New York. He had worked at a mill in the old country, but, finding the wheat business too much of a grind, began selling pots and pans off his back. He had no home and would sleep in the basements or stables of the people he sold pots to. While praying one morning he was kicked by a horse.
Reb Sussel knew how to butcher meat, so he decided to change his job and opened a small butcher shop. The first week, a friend stopped by and asked if he could store a trunk in the back of the shop. "I'm just going back to the old country for a few years," he said. "If you store my trunk, I'll tell you how to make pastrami." As the story goes, Great-Grandpa took the trunk, learned how to make pastrami, and began selling big pieces of pastrami over the counter. Soon he was selling it by the slice. Then, between two pieces of bread. He met up with my great-grandfather on my mother's side, who introduced him to the toodle, and before long, people were coming to his shop for sandwiches more than they were coming for meat.
My father's father, Jacob Volk (雅各布·沃尔克), took credit for the wrecking ball. Jake took his wrecking ball all over lower Manhattan Island (曼哈顿) in New York. Painted on the sides of all his trucks were the words "The Most Destructive Force on Wall Street". He married Granny Ethel (格兰妮·爱丝尔), who was so beautiful she did not have to be first at anything. She was, though — the first calendar girl in Princeton, N.J. In the early 1900's her picture was used by a bank there for its first calendar. That's where Grandpa met her, in the bank. She was so beautiful, she once received a letter addressed:
Postman (邮递员), Postman
Do your duty
Deliver this letter
To the Princeton beauty.
It was dropped off right at her front door.
My grandmother on my mother's side invented the shoe pocket. It was her belief that if you always kept a nickel in your shoe, nothing bad would happen to you. You could always make a phone call. You could always buy something. You would never be broke. But the nickel could slide around. And if it could slide around, it could slide out. So she constructed a small pocket that fastened to the inner sole. That way, any pair of shoes could have its own secret sum of money.
Me, I have yet to make my mark. I am still waiting to find a first. Sometimes I think my life is too comfortable. Why should I mother an invention if all my needs are met? But then something gets my attention, and I begin to think of new uses for items such as old light bulbs or eggshells. When you come from a family of firsts, whether you like it or not, you're thinking all the time.
When you come from a family of firsts, you never forget the burden and the inspiration of your past.