Several years ago, when I was still a member of corporate America, I had a friend named Idel T. We worked for the same company, and I saw him every day. He's the guy who came into my office every morning and emptied my wastebasket.
Idel and his wife, Irina, and their two daughters were part of the tide of Russian-Jewish immigrants that has swept onto American shores during the past 20 years or so. Like thousands of others, they settled in Detroit.
Idel was well past retirement age when I knew him. He had wispy white hair and his shoulders were a bit stooped.
But he didn't want to sit at home. He wanted to be out, in contact with people, experiencing America. So he took a job emptying wastebaskets and shredding the huge stacks of computer printouts generated by our department.
"Georgie," he'd tell me with a big grin, "if I no do my job, whole company stop. I am most important person in company except for president."
Every day when Idel came into my office, we'd talk. We talked about what was going on in the world, what Gorbachev was doing, whether the communists would ever give up power, the violence in the Middle East, or the latest terrorist outrage. We talked about American politics, too: about elections and promises and scandals.
Sometimes Idel told me about his life in the Soviet Union, or showed me pictures. One fading snapshot, rounded and smoothed at the corners, showed him as a young man with slick dark hair and a pencil-thin moustache, cutting a dashing figure in his Red Army uniform.
In another picture, a middle-aged Idel stood next to a stocky man in front a brick industrial building. He and the man were dressed in long overcoats and wide-brimmed fedoras.
"This is warehouse where I was manager," Idel told me. "This man," he said, jabbing the photo with his finger, "he was communist boss at warehouse. He think he was big shot!" he said, his voice colored with bitterness.
Idel had experienced the horrors of a repressive dictatorship and a failed economic system. One day, he told me a story about trying to get a telephone in Russia.
He and Irina were living in a tiny apartment in a large building in the suburbs of Moscow. Only one apartment in the building had a telephone. Idel wanted a telephone, too. So he put in his application and began to wait. Weeks of waiting turned into months. Months turned into years.
When they finally left Russia, they still had not received a phone.
But when they got to Detroit and moved into an apartment, Idel called the telephone company. (This, of course, was back in the days when the telephone company actually supplied telephones.)
"I tell them I want phone in my apartment," Idel told me. "And they say OK, they will come in two days. And in two days they come and bring telephone, just like they say. And then," he paused here for effect, "and then they ask me what color I want!"
Idel's voice was full of wonder, as if he still could not believe what he was telling me.
'Think about it, Georgie," he said. "In Russia we wait 20 years and never get telephone. In America they come in two days and ask what color we want."
As I think they used to say on some TV sitcom, "What a country!"
I have not seen Idel in several years. Knowing him enriched my life. I miss him now.
I'm glad he got out of Russia. I'm glad he was able to work. I'm glad he could finally speak freely, about any subject he chose. And I'm glad he was finally able to get his telephone, and get it in any color he wanted.