That American Thing — Sandi Sonnenfeld

Miklos Sandor first saw his future wife Elissia when she was a contestant in the Miss Liberty beauty pageant held at the Hungarian Jewish Social Club of Detroit. Miklos had forgotten about the beauty contest when he stopped in at the Club after work. It was Thursday and he was thinking about the car.

Miklos Sandor didn’t want just any car; he wanted one that he had helped build at Mr. Ford’s Motor Car Company. Miklos Sandor wanted a 2.9 liter, monoble sv, four‑cylinder Tin Lizzie with a capacity cruising speed of forty‑five miles per hour and a detachable hood. The list price for the new 1925 edition was eight hundred and sixty dollars. Miklos had sat down with a pencil and paper and figured out that if he saved five dollars weekly, one quarter of his salary, he could own the car in eight years, seven months, and twenty‑one days. So every Thursday when he got paid, Miklos stuffed five dollars into his right sock and played chess with Morty Feldman at the Club.

The Hungarian Jewish Social Club of Detroit had been established in 1911, nine years before Miklos Sandor had come to America. It was located on the second floor of a walk‑up flat on McKinley Street. It was leased from the Polish man downstairs who sold religious articles for the Catholic Church. In order to get upstairs club members had to walk through the store. Whenever Sonia Moskowitz, Morty Feldman’s married sister, passed by the silver and gold crucifixes hanging on the wall by the back stairs, she would suck in her breath, and, covering her eyes with her hands, sidestep her way to the haven above. And Morty Feldman, watching his sister, would throw his arms up in the air and say, “Lord give me strength that my sister should be such a greenhorn.”

It was Morty who arranged the Miss Liberty contest. At first the women of the Ladies Musicale Society were opposed to the idea. Nice Jewish girls did not pose in front of men they said. But Morty wooed them very gently, complimenting the president of the Musicale Society on her choice of chicken or liver whenever she shopped at Feldman’s Kosher Meats. It helped, of course, that Sonia Moskowitz was also on the board of the Musicale Society, the vice president, and that she had a niece, Morty Feldman pointed out, who was very nearly twenty‑one and very still unmarried.

“Besides,” Morty argued, “Andrej Juscko, you know Andrej Juscko, the one who puts the seats in with Miklos Sandor at the car company? Andrej’s brother, Benjamin, the doctor in Long Beach, New York, had just been to a beauty contest and there were lots of Jewish girls competing. They even wore bathing suits. Benjamin Juscko said that they were very nice girls. After all,” Morty finished, “it’s the American thing to do.”

And that was that.

So when Miklos Sandor arrived that Thursday evening he saw fourteen young women taking their places up on a small raked stage. And he saw Morty sitting in the front row, a giant red boutonniere pinned to his best double-breasted suit. Morty had been delegated Head Judge of the contest by the Men’s Lecture Society. And sitting next to him, her oversized body spilling out over the rickety hardback chair, was Sonia. There was to be no mishegas. Her niece Leah was Contestant Number Five.

The girls were to be judged in two ways: on talent and on grace. The talent portion was first. Most of the girls recited poetry or sang. Leah played Liszt on the club’s old upright piano. But Number Seven, with the wavy auburn hair and perfect oval face, made Chicken Paprikosh, Miklos’ favorite dish.

All the men went up to the stage to try it.

“Pretty good, huh?” Morty said to Miklos.

“Here,” Miklos said, slipping him the five dollars from his sock.

“What’s this?” Morty asked.

“Leah plays well,” Miklos said. “But Number Seven must have used four shots of whiskey in the chicken.”

Morty took another bite of the dish, then pawed the bill with a greasy‑gravy hand.

“That your car money?” he asked. “Her name is Elissia. Her father was a furrier. Well‑to‑do. I think he died recently, that’s why they came to America. She just arrived from Budapest a month ago.”

“A Tin Lizzie,” Miklos said, “doesn’t look like that in a white apron and black stockings.”

The second part of the contest was just beginning when Sonia Moskowitz noticed the crumpled money sticking out of her brother’s pant pocket. Morty never had any money. Something was wrong, very wrong.

“Stop the contest!” Sonia yelled, rising to her feet. The women gathered around her.

“Sonia,” they asked. “What’s wrong? Are you ill?”

Sonia pointed her index finger at her brother, hand shaking with rage. “This is America. We don’t believe in bribery. It’s against the law.”

Leah began to cry. The other contestants clustered nearby, whispering. Except Elissia, who looked around the smoky cramped room, searching. Her eyes came to rest on Miklos. He was a lean, tightly built man with wavy brown hair and a bristly mustache. His eyes almost matched the color of his skin, a warm gingerbread. He was looking back at her. Elissia lowered her head.

“What a tsimmis,” Miklos said.

“Ah, let’s play chess,” Morty said. “Sonia’s rampages give me gas.”

While they were setting up the game pieces in the corner of the room, Elissia walked over to them.

Miklos stood up when she approached, trying to make the most of his five‑foot‑six‑and‑a‑quarter‑inches. The last three‑quarters was the result of elevated shoes, which had been his first purchase in the United States.

“It was you, wasn’t it?” Elissia asked in Hungarian. “You ruined the contest.”

“You would have won anyway,” Miklos answered. “You’re the most beautiful.”

“My name is Elissia Balog,” she said. And head held high, she walked gracefully out of the room.

Miklos beat Morty in six moves.

He was engaged to Elissia in six months.


Miklos Sandor was in love with speed. He loved speed as much as he hated his short height, which was why he was very troubled by Mr. Albert Einstein’s recent theory of relativity. He didn’t understand all of the theory; he only understood that as one moved faster time decreased. And that if one were to move at the speed of light, time would actually stand still. But there was another part of the theory: that as one moved faster, one’s mass became denser and smaller. A body would widen sideways, but shrink vertically. Miklos thought he was quite short enough already, but there had to be a way to go fast. Really, really fast.

As a boy back in Kremitz, he used to watch the local soccer team practice. The ball went very, very fast. Miklos couldn’t wait to go to school so that he could learn to play soccer too. The boys practiced dribbling with their feet and passing the ball back and forth. Miklos tried to dribble faster than anyone else. Once when he was seven, Miklos ran so quickly that the ball got caught up in his legs, knocking him over. He fell on a pile of dirt and stones.

When he came home from school that day, his mother Rachel, looking at her only child’s dirty scratched knees, wordlessly sat him on the kitchen table. Wetting the white rag she always used for first aid, Rachel washed him. While she washed, Rachel Sandor told her son a story about Great Uncle Schlomo.

Great Uncle Schlomo sold horses. He had a magic touch with horses, the Baron Este would say, even if he was a Jew. So all the local gentry bought their horses from him. But Schlomo’s magic touch, however, didn’t lie within his hands as much as in his strong stocky feet. For whenever Schlomo sold a herd of horses to the Baron, the next night he would sneak into the royal stables and steal one back. He didn’t want the horse for his own use; he just liked the thrill of riding away as fast as he could, laughing when the stable hands awoke confused and tried to chase after him. He rode so quickly that the stable hands never saw his face so they never could prove who he was. The horse always reappeared on the next day, looking better groomed than ever. Schlomo was, in spite of everything, an honest man.

“Besides,” he argued whenever his family warned him of the danger, “a baron can do with a little aggravation from a Jew.”

One day, however, a Sandor mare gave birth to a shiny sorrel colt. Schlomo loved the colt and named him Sises, the Hungarian word for speed. Schlomo knew that the Baron would buy the colt as soon as he heard how beautiful he was. But Schlomo didn’t want to give Sises up.

So this time when Schlomo stole the horse from the Baron’s stable, he didn’t return it. Instead, he fled on Sises into the Carpathian mountains. Schlomo stayed there three days until he was overcome with hunger. He might have been a genius with horses; he was totally inept when it came to hunting. He stole back to his brother’s house late at night.

“You can’t stay,” his brother greeted him. “The Baron knows.”

“It’s just as well,” Schlomo said. “I have been wanting to see America anyway.”

He left that night. The family sent the horse back to the Baron’s stable with effusive apologies. The next day the Baron’s men came to arrest Schlomo. When they saw he wasn’t there, they took all of the Sandor horses, leaving the family without a livelihood.

“So you see, Miklos,” his mother said, finishing the tale. “Wanting to go fast is not a good thing.”

Miklos was always very impressed by his mother’s stories. When he was five and his father died, Rachel and Miklos had to move to his uncle’s farm. Rachel had told Miklos then a story about changes. She always ended her stories the same way.

“So you see, Miklos, God created change and therefore it is a good thing,” or “telling lies is not a good thing, but education is a very, very good thing.”

Miklos always tried to guess whether it would be a good or a bad thing before his mother finished the story. But this tale about Uncle Schlomo, Miklos liked better than all the rest.

“Ma, just how fast could Sises go?”

Rachel lifted her son off the table, “Go do your chores.”

Miklos left the kitchen dribbling an imaginary soccer ball.

His mother shook her head, a tiny bob up and a quick nod to the left. And she continued shaking her head that way right up till the time Miklos was asked to join the National Soccer Team when he was seventeen. He never did get to play, however, because of the War. Miklos was among the first to be drafted.

But he smiled secretly to himself when placed in the cavalry section of the 23rd Hussars. If he wore his riding boots all the time, Miklos was five‑feet‑six‑and‑a‑half‑inches tall.

He named his horse The Baron.

The men in the 23rd Hussars weren’t quite aware that they were part of the statistics that would lead to the phrase, “The Great War.”   They simply knew that on the days they got shot at, they were supposed to shoot back and on the days they moved, they had to move fast.

But most days, they just sat in makeshift camps and waited. It was during one of these times that Miklos acquired the magazines. Stash, one of the soldiers in the company, had found a pile of magazines while he was in the woods relieving himself. He brought them back to camp intending to burn them for warmth.

Miklos was cleaning tack when Stash brought them in, but he saw a Bleriot monoplane on one of the front covers.

“Could I see that?” Miklos asked.

Stash shrugged, but he handed it over to Miklos.

The magazine was shiny old and damp. On every page were diagrams and pictures of racing car transmissions, aircraft cockpits, and wing descriptions. The print was foreign, but Miklos clearly knew it was a technical manual. He made out some numbers, 74 kph, 1000 m/s. Miklos was suddenly very excited.

“Listen,” he said to Stash. “Don’t burn these. They might be valuable.”

“What for?” Stash asked. “They’re not even in Hungarian.”

“No,” Miklos said. “Italian.”

“Ah, how do you know?”

Miklos didn’t, not for sure.

“I have some old rags in my knapsack,” he said. “If I give them to you, will you let me have the magazines?”

“Why should I, Jew boy?”

Stash had almost ten years on Miklos and six inches. He was a beefy man, with stocky legs, huge hands, and a face the color and texture of white birch. He also had on his right buttock a red boil the size of a sand dollar. Miklos knew this because the Sergeant had asked Stash why for the past week he had been walking his horse, instead of riding. Stash rolled up his uniform sleeves. Miklos could see the blue‑purple veins bulge on Stash’s lower arms.

Crouching low, Miklos charged at Stash. Head down and forward, Miklos butted Stash’s stomach like a soccer ball.

Stash had been waiting for Miklos to swing his fists. He was caught totally off guard. The air squeezed out of him, Stash crumpled to the ground on his rear. Stash yelled.

The men in the company came running. Two of them bent down to help him up.

Stash stared hard at Miklos, rubbing his sore buttocks.

“Rags burn better than paper anyway,” Miklos said, picking up the magazines.

He took them to his tent.

On May 23, 1915, Italy, on the basis of a promise from the Allied forces that it could expand its territory, cut its previous ties with the Dual Monarchy and declared war on Austro‑Hungary. Thus began the Battles of the Isonzo. In the first four battles, the Hungarian forces beat back the Italians. The Italians, affected by the loss of two hundred and eighty thousand men, regrouped, and didn’t attack again until the following March. Once more they failed. Finally, in the Sixth Battle of Isonzo, in August of 1916, the Italians won Gorizia. The 23rd Hussars were among the Hungarian troops captured. The company, what was left of it, was interned at a prisoner of war camp in Siena, near Florence.

Despite an incessant lack of food, life in the POW camp was tolerable. They were relatively safe there and allowed a good deal of freedom. Miklos still had the magazines in his knapsack. Every day for two weeks he took them out into the prison hallway where Sergeant Grimaldi stood guard and sat down directly opposite him.

Miklos pretended to read the magazines, laughing loudly every few pages. Periodically, he looked up at the guard and winked‑‑a knowing wink, a wink that implied a lot. Finally, during the third week, Sergeant Grimaldi, tortured by this ritual, pulled a magazine out of Miklos’ hands. The guard scanned it eagerly, searching for the dirty pictures he was sure he would find. There were none.

“What is this?” Grimaldi asked frustrated, waving the magazine back and forth over his head.

“That, Sergeant, is exactly what I want to know,” Miklos said in incredibly bad Italian. He offered Grimaldi a French cigarette.

By the end of three months Sergeant Grimaldi had taught him to read Italian.

Miklos Sandor waited out the war, studying the art of going fast.

And when armistice was at last declared, he returned to his uncle’s house near Budapest. After a two‑week battle with pneumonia, Rachel Sandor had made her own armistice. She was dead. Miklos took the news very calmly. He merely removed the cigarette from his lips and crushed it in the dirt. From then on, once a year, on the anniversary of his mother’s death, Miklos Sandor gave up smoking.

Tobacco, like war, was not a good thing.


In 1920, Miklos booked passage on a boat to America. Where he then moved to Detroit. Where he met and married Elissia Balog.

In 1927, Miklos Sandor, Hungarian Jew, became Michael Sands, American citizen.

In 1928, Irving Solomon, the only child of Elissia and Michael Sands was born.

And in 1929, on the day the stock market crashed in New York, Michael Sands finally bought his Tin Lizzie. On that same day, he also quit his job.

To quit his job at the onslaught of the Depression was either an act of foolishness or an act of courage. Michael himself couldn’t really explain it. Yet something inside him cried out for change. Speed was the method through which he measured his life. And America, just then, was at a standstill. Michael Sands felt it was his duty and his privilege to get time moving again. Nine years installing cars seats was long enough. For in those nine years, years while he worked and loved and married and fathered a son, he had yet to solve Mr. Einstein’s problem.

But now, he had Irving. Michael wanted for his son what he himself never had. By giving to his son, he would be gaining for himself as well. With Irving and his Tin Lizzie, Michael Sands was convinced that he would soon discover the secret of speed at last.

“He’s meshuganah,” Sonia Moskowitz told Elissia. “Nobody quits their job. Not these days.”

Elissia Sands said nothing. She simply went to her closet, got out her fur coat that had been a gift from her father on her eighteenth birthday, sold it, and pocketed the money. The only thing that truly bothered her was that at the occasion when Sonia Moskowitz called Michael crazy, Sonia happened to be the person buying her fur coat.

The Sands opted for New York because Morty Feldman’s brother Joshua worked as a foreman for the New York Central. Joshua Feldman said he couldn’t promise anything, but he would do his best. That was enough for Michael. Driving eastward in the Tin Lizzie, whenever they crossed a town line Elissia would read the sign out loud. And Michael Sands would lean over to his one‑year‑old son, who lay in his mother’s lap, and read the accelerator gauge numbers into Irving’s ear.

“Michael darling, don’t be silly, he can’t understand you,” Elissia said.

“Twenty, twenty‑one miles per hour, Irving, twenty‑five. Irving look at the trees whiz by. Speed is a very, very good thing for one day you will go fast enough to see the entire world.”

“What’s the good of seeing it,” Elissia asked. “If you don’t slow down long enough to take a look?”

“You can look. As long as you don’t look back.”

“Hmmph,” Elissia said.

But crossing the state line into New York, both Elissia and Michael stared out the front windshield.

They rented a flat off of Hester Street for twelve dollars a month. Joshua Feldman called in a rash of poker debts. Michael Sands was employed in the freight yards of the New York Central Railroad. His main job was to load and unload merchandise and goods from the freight cars. He had another function as well. Men, and often women and children, sought refuge in the trains, riding back and forth across the country. Michael always talked with the stowaways before asking them to leave. There was one man, almost the same age as Michael, thirty, a thin reed‑like giant of a man, with a tattered, worn, illegally printed copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses tucked under his right arm. He had a shock of hair, the texture of spun yarn, that framed his face like a nicotine‑colored sun. The man’s name was Mr. Josephs.

“I’m a professor,” Mr. Josephs explained. “A professor of literature.”

Michael Sands was very impressed. He had never met a professor before. It reminded him of his old dream to attend college.

Mr. Josephs, who had no family and had once been to France, had been riding the railroads for eight months when Michael first met him. He ate at soup kitchens in various states.

Michael did not ask the professor to leave the car. Instead, he handed him his watch and a pencil and paper.

“Would you do me a favor,” Michael asked, “and every time you come to a new stop will you look at the watch and write down how long it took to get there?”

Michael was very happy that night when he got home. He kissed his son and handed his wife a red rose. In the four years that they had been married, he had never bought her flowers. It was a ridiculous extravagance.

“Well,” she said, rubbing the soft petals against her child’s cheek. “What have you done?”

Michael said that he was doing an experiment and a professor of literature was helping him.

“You’ll never see your watch again,” Elissia said. “What would a professor be doing sleeping on a train?”

But then she looked around at their own cramped apartment, at the dirty bathroom down the hall that they shared with eight other families, and fell silent. She, like the thousands of others living in tenements, found herself doing things that she had once thought unimaginable. She would just have to wait and see. And hope.

Elissia Balog Sands had plenty of hope.

On the following Tuesday on the six fifty-four train, Mr. Josephs returned. He had run out of paper so he had written the last few days’ times on various parts of his long body. Michael promised him that next time he would buy him a notebook.

Michael got out a railway map of the United States and traced the routes with his finger. The Professor, as Michael came to call him, collaborated with Michael for five months until he got a job writing a book about railway hobos for Mr. Roosevelt’s WPA. The Professor recorded places and times and Michael would figure out the speeds, tracing them on his map. As time passed, Michael began to decipher methods to make the intervals shorter. These figures too he wrote down on the map. Joshua Feldman learned of Michael’s map. Joshua Feldman showed it to his boss.

Michael Sands was promoted to night manager of the yard. Now on his days off, taking his family on a drive to the shore, Michael whispered train speeds into the ear of his son. When Irving had at last fallen asleep, Michael would drive a cool, easy, twenty miles per hour while Elissia recited, from an old, much‑carried book, the travels of Leopold Bloom.

It was on one of these trips that Irving spoke his first sentence. He stared straight at Michael and said, “Faster, Poppa, faster.”

Michael Sands readily complied.

In 1938, Michael Sands was promoted once more. He became manager in charge of shipping. They packed up the Tin Lizzie and moved uptown to a two‑bedroom apartment on Bathgate Avenue. That night in their new home, Elissia made chicken paprikosh for the first time in five years.

Irving flourished on Bathgate Avenue. He was imbued with his father’s desire for speed. By the time he was ten, he and Michael had taken apart the Tin Lizzie’s engine six times. Five out of those six times, they took it apart simply because they both liked to look.

And every evening when Michael came home from work, he kissed his wife, and called Irving into the kitchen.

“Well, Irving, what do you have for me today?”

“The average velocity of a star in space,” Irving recited, “is twenty‑one miles per second. And in order to travel one light year you have to travel six trillion miles.”

Michael clapped his hands and tapped his son’s forehead. His son was learning about speeds that nothing on earth could equal. On Irving’s thirteenth birthday, he exceeded his father’s height by three‑quarters of an inch. On that day, Irving was permitted to wash the car every Sunday on his own.

Sammy Schwartz, Irving’s best friend, helped him. Sammy lived in the apartment above the Sands. His father was an electrician. Sammy was fat. Not plump, or rotund, but roly‑poly layers of fat.

“That’s because his mother spoils him,” Elissia told her son. “You should be grateful that you don’t have such a mother.”

Sammy also wore glasses. Yet Sammy was smart, really, really smart. He could look at a number, any number, and in a matter of seconds derive all sorts of combinations. Irving found this talent quite useful in his studies of speed.

The boys always washed the car in the same way. Irving would borrow his mother’s washing pail and fill it with sudsy water. As there was no elevator, he then carried it down three flights of stairs. Sammy followed behind with two rags. Each time Irving was in danger of spilling the pail all over the steps, Sammy called out, “Ahoy, mate, water listing to the port side.” And Irving would pause on the next landing and re-grip the bucket once more.

In April of 1941, Elissia’s cousin Minnie gave birth to her fifth child. Michael and Elissia decided to go to Minnie’s apartment in Flatbush to see her.

Michael, of course, wanted to take the car. Elissia wouldn’t let him.

“It’s too noisy,” she said. “You’ll wake up the baby when you drive up.”

“Nonsense. And who cares if the baby wakes up? Isn’t that why we’re going over there in the first place, to see the kid?”

But Elissia was adamant. They would take the subway and then walk the block to Minnie and Dov’s apartment.

“Where we will ring the doorbell so we can get in which will wake the baby,” Michael said.

“Leave the car, Michael. It’s Irving’s day to wash it.”

So on that Sunday, Michael and Elissia Sands did indeed take the subway to Minnie’s house. And on that Sunday, Sammy Schwartz decided that it was time Irving Sands learned how to drive the Tin Lizzie.

“I can’t,” Irving said. “My father will kill me.”

“He’ll never know,” Sammy said. “You know how women are about babies. They won’t be back for hours. What could go wrong? You know how the whole damn thing works, don’t you?”

The Tin Lizzie was parked on the curb right in front of the building. By the time Irving and Sammy got outside, a crowd of kids had already gathered around. Normally, the boys on the street played stickball when they got together, but since Irving pitched the fastest, they came around to wait until he had completed his job. Besides, Poosie Ahern and Jerry Stone liked to watch fat Sammy puffing and grunting away as he bent over to wash the tires of the car.

“Irving’s going for a drive,” Sammy announced to all their friends. Sammy looked at Irving. Irving looked at all his friends gathered around. All his friends looked straight at the car. The keys were already in the ignition. Michael had left them with Irving so he could lock the car when he was done washing it.

Sammy squeezed himself into the passenger seat. He leaned over and honked the horn.

“Cut it out,” Irving said.

Slowly, almost reverently, Irving sat down in the driver’s seat. He smiled.

“Come on,” Sammy said. “Let’s go around the block.”

Irving gently pulled the car away from the curb. The stickball team applauded as the car rumbled down the street. Irving turned right, then left. They passed their school. And the local synagogue.

“Faster, mate, faster,” Sammy said.

Irving adjusted the clutch and pushed down on the accelerator.

“Where do you want to go?” he asked.

“Let’s go over to Valentine Street. We’ll show all the Micks what a real car looks like.”

“Sammy, I don’t think we should go there. And they’re not Micks.”

“Don’t be a jerk, Irving. They’re only Irishmen.”

Irving made another right. They were coming to the East River.

“Faster, Irving,” Sammy shouted, the wind starting to rush by his ears.

Irving took a left.

There was a long hill.

Irving pressed down on the brake.

Nothing happened.

“Uh, oh,” Sammy said.

The car began picking up speed. Irving pulled at the clutch, but it stuck fast. They were soaring now.

“The space through which a body will fall in a given time is equal numerically to one‑half the value of the acceleration of gravity, multiplied by the time squared,” Irving recited.

“What?” Sammy said.

“The space through which a body will fall in a given time is equal numerically to one‑half the value of the acceleration of gravity, multiplied by the time squared,” Irving said again. And would say when he told his father about it later, and continued saying until Michael Sands’ 1925 Ford Tin Lizzie finally came to rest on the back fender of Father O’Sullivan’s brand new, silver‑gray 1941 Buick Sedan, which was parked in front of the Saint Christopher’s Catholic Church.

“That American Thing” was originally published in the 1998 CAJE Newsletter after winning first prize in the David Dornstein Memorial Creative Writing Award for Young Writers, a contest sponsored by the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education.

Sandi Sonnenfeld’s stories and essays have been published in more than two dozen literary magazines, including Sojourner, Revolution House, The Storyteller, Hayden’s Ferry Review, ACM, Raven Chronicles, Necessary Fiction, Perigee and Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Sandi holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Washington, where she won the Loren D. Milliman Writing Fellowship. With the publication of her memoir, This Is How I Speak (2002: Impassio Press), she was named a 2002 Celebration Author by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, which recognizes writers whose work merits special notice. Sandi lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and the world’s most perfect cat. She currently is working on an historical novel set in 17th century Moscow.

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