Thursday, January 15, 2004

The continuing adventures of the Ford Sociological Department, Detroit, 1922

(from Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides)

The curtain parts to gasps and scattered applause. A painted flat shows a steamship, two huge smokestacks, and a swath of deck and railing. A gangway extends into the stage's other focal point: a giant gray cauldron emblazoned with the words FORD ENGLISH SCHOOL MELTING POT. A European folk melody begins to play. Suddenly a lone figure appears on the gangway. Dressed in a Balkan costume of vest, ballooning trousers, and high leather boots, the immigrant carries his possessions bundled on a stick. He looks around with apprehension and then descends into the melting pot ... Now SYRIA descends into the pot. Then ITALY. POLAND. NORWAY. PALESTINE. And finally: GREECE.

Wearing embroidered palikari vest, puffy-sleeved poukamiso, and pleated foustanella shirt, my grandfather bestrides the gangway. He pauses a moment to look out at the audience, but the bright lights blind him ... In the front row Henry Ford nods with approval, enjoying the show ... His blue seagull's eyes dart from face to face as the English instructors appear onstage next. They carry long spoons, which they insert into the pot. The lights turn red and flicker as the instructors stir. Steam rises over the stage.

Inside the cauldron, men are packed together, throwing off immigrant costumes, putting on suits. Limbs are tangling up, feet stepping on feet. Lefty says, "Pardon me, excuse me," feeling thoroughly American as he pulls on his blue wool trousers and jacket. In his mouth: thirty-two teeth brushed in the American manner. His underarms, liberally sprinkled with American deodorant. And now spoons are descending from above, men are churning around and around ... as two men, short and tall, stand in the wings, holding a piece of paper ... and out in the audience my grandmother has a stunned look on her face ... and the melting pot boils over. Red lights brighten. The orchestra launches into "Yankee Doodle." One by one, the Ford English School graduates rise from the cauldron. Dressed in blue and gray suits, they climb out, waving American flags, to thunderous applause.

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