“Coming 2 America”

(from Germany, not Zamunda)

My last name is actually Schröder, with an umlaut, but it sounds just like “Schroeder.” And that’s what callers would hear me say when I picked up the phone. At least in the 1980s, when in Germany the only strangers you’d be on a first-name basis with were toddlers and puppies. I had heard that people in California were more laid back. What I didn’t know was that public transportation on the West Coast was even more casual…

That’s why I ran out of buses when I tried to make it from San Francisco International Airport to Palo Alto for my very first job interview — after my very first and very delayed flight to America. I got as far as Redwood City. It was early evening and for some reason that meant the end of the line had moved up north and there were no more connections going south. Luckily, what Redwood City in 1985 lacked in buses it made up for with an abundance of payphones at every street corner. I decided to call a cab and somehow managed to immediately lose two quarters to Pacific Bell. To my endless surprise a friendly female voice came on and offered help. A live operator? That’s something I had last seen in “The Big Sleep” and “Dial M for Murder.” In California, of all places, they had apparently survived outside of movies. The operator said she was sorry for my loss (of 50 cents!) and apologized on behalf of Pacific Bell.

The phone company being sorry? In Germany everything related to telephones was owned by the government and run by the minister for the post office whose concern for customer satisfaction was alarmingly limited. There was exactly one rotary dial model to choose from and it came in two cheerful colors — off white and mud green. Public phone booths came in yellow on the outside and often smelled the part inside.

While all of this went through my head, I only heard half of the next bombshell the operator was dropping. “You want to send me what?” I asked. She: “Pacific Bell would like to reimburse you for your loss. We will send you half a dollar by check.” Me (hesitant): “But I live in Germany.” She (jokingly): “That’s no problem. We have sent letters overseas before. Can I have your name, please?” Me: “Schröder” She (understanding “Schroeder”): “Oh, do you write symphonies?”

I don’t recall my answer. I just remember being too stunned and jet-lagged to pull off something equally witty like, “Only when I travel with my toy piano.” But this first conversation on American soil along with a check for 50 cents that arrived two weeks later via air mail (it got framed and never cashed) was the beginning of a beautiful friendship with America. The feeling is still there although the US and I went through a little bit of a rough patch during the past 5 years. I ended up living in the Bay Area for a number of years and my children learned to skate in Snoopy’s Home Ice arena in Santa Rosa built and owned by Charles M. Schulz. Unknowingly, I kept following the Peanuts trail when I moved to the Twin Cities in 2007 to work at the University of Minnesota’s Academic Health Center. On my first day, I was greeted by a statue in the lobby erected in honor of St. Paul’s most famous cartoonist — a giant Lucy, appropriately dressed in a white coat. Unfortunately, I never asked but I am pretty sure this was also the name of my favorite Pacific Bell operator. I like to think she’d be thrilled that I ditched my umlaut.

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