Coffee Spillovers

Revisiting 50’s Vienna - an Awkward Encounter

On The Town | Dardis McNamee | November 2006

A crisp, sunny Satruday morning of late summer, with the snap of autumn in the air.  A woman sat outside at sidewalk table of a Gasthaus in Vienna’s 2nd District, reading the International Herald Tribune. While not exactly warm that day, it was pleasant to be outside in the glistening morning light and by 10:00, the tables were filling up.

Thus it was that an aging Viennese man, face chiselled with the years, asked if he could share the table. "I noticed your English newspaper," Joseph Herzig said, by way of explanation, as he took a seat and continued.

"I live myself in America now almost 50 years," he said proudly, sliding easily back into the Viennese dialect of his youth. He had left Vienna for Detroit to find work in 1957 at the age of 19 and gotten a job as a machinist for General Motors. He worked hard and saved, bought real estate, and over time became a rich man, renting low income housing to the poor. He married an Irish school teacher, and their two children had also prospered.

Now he was back on an annual visit, to see his mother in the small family apartment on Karmelitergasse, and other relatives near his country house in the Weinviertel.

The conversation meandered easily, the woman listening politely, the man warming to his paradigm story of the American Dream.

"We have a great life there," he concluded. But what about Detroit, the woman asked, with its closed factories and high unemployment?

"Of course we don’t live in Detroit," he assured her. "Who could live in Detroit? With all those niggers…" She froze. But he didn’t notice, and went right on.  "You can spend all the money you want fixing the buildings up, very nice, just like the government says, and six months later, guess what? Those niggers’ve turned ‘em right back into a slum.

"Not like the immigrants, you know. We got the Polish people, the Pakistanis, the Vietnamese. You put them in a building, and pretty soon they make it nicer than before. But the niggers – they’re just living off the welfare, and everybody else is paying."  By this time, the woman had caught her breath, and managed to interrupt the stream of words.

But, she protested, the average welfare recipient is on the rolls for less than two years. And doesn’t the condition of American blacks have more to do with poverty than race?

"I’m in the real estate business, and I have to be careful," Herzig asserted. When he rented his luxury apartments, he often had to make an instinctive judgment based only on a voice on the telephone. He claimed to be able to tell accents apart, and to distinguish a quality tenant from an "undesirable" in just a few sentences.

"So I am particularly pleased when I get a good one," he said, "like this one fella, a doctor, educated at Oxford. You may call me a snob, but that makes a difference." Dr. Richard Campbell, that was the man’s name, accepting a top position at the Detroit Medical Center – now this was the right kind of tenant. After a friendly chat, they set a time to show the apartment. And at the appointed hour, the doorbell rang.

"So I open the door, and – pooph! – the man was black as the ace of spades!" Joseph Herzig burst out laughing, at the preposterous situation, and disarmingly, at himself. "He knew right away what I had expected; it was all over my face. But we both had a good laugh.

And I went right ahead and rented him the apartment. He has become quite a good friend."

So he had understood… but in his own way.

"There was a man who had made something of himself," he said.

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