Walk Like An American

Finding New Yorkers

A Discussion about Home on the 9/11 Anniversary

Constantino Diaz-Duran is a fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University. He is chronicling his walk from New York to Los Angeles to celebrate his eligibility for American citizenship. Follow Constantino’s progress.

What makes a New Yorker? I have biked, walked, and subway’d my way around the five boroughs for years, and I have yet to find a concise way to describe us all. As I walk across the country seeking to define the word “American,” I cannot help but also seek a better way to capture the essence of the city I love so much.

New York, maligned as it is by some, is the quintessential American city. And at this point in my journey I can confidently say that in my fellow New Yorkers I have seen the essence of the values shared by Americans across the land. New Yorkers, in spite of appearances, are a warm, hospitable people. As a Southern lady put it a couple of weeks ago, “They have a hard shell, but once you crack it, they’re soft as butter.”

I was not a New Yorker on September 11, 2001. I lived in Washington, D.C., at the time. I won’t write yet another article full of personal anecdotes about that miserable day. Let it suffice to say that, though I am only now officially becoming an American citizen, it was on that day that I became an American by heart. It happened as I walked home that evening. At the corner of 17th & M, with not a soul in sight, and just a few blocks from the White House, I crumbled. The images of the morning’s events playing on the TV screens at the National Geographic Headquarters, and the marquee that read “God Bless America,” hit me like a ton of bricks. The emotions I had kept in check all day got the best of me and I wept, on the curb, for what seemed like hours.

I knew I was home the minute I moved to New York a few years later. My first apartment, on the Lower East Side, was (pardon the word, but it’s the only one that suits it) a dump. We had mice and cockroaches, it was dark, humid, and tiny. The shower was in the kitchen. And I loved it.

My first summer in the city marked the fifth anniversary of 9/11. I remember holding back a tear when, from the front steps of my building, I saw the beams of light that rose from Ground Zero. This year, on the tenth anniversary, I sought the company of other New Yorkers. I found them on the shores of Lake Hartwell, which marks the border between Georgia and South Carolina. We spent the evening talking about the city, America, and wanderlust.

Heidi and Manfred arrived in New York from Germany in 1964. “There was gold to be found on the streets of New York,” remembers Heidi. “If you worked hard for it,” adds Manfred. Well, they did, and they found it. “We arrived here with no money,” says Heidi, “and had to work so hard, but this country has repaid us for it a hundredfold.”

Manfred and Heidi became American citizens in 1972, and even though that meant giving up their German citizenship (Germany did not allow dual citizenship at the time), they never hesitated. “Of course not,” says Manfred, “not for one minute.” Heidi adds that she would not have wanted dual citizenship even if it had been an option. “You can’t sit on two chairs,” she says. “It just doesn’t make sense to me. We are Americans, and we are proud to be Americans,” and after a pause, she concludes, “and I’m very much a New Yorker.”

In 1982, Heidi and Manfred set out on the trip of a lifetime. In their early 40s, they decided to take a break from the rat race and see the world. They rented out their house in Queens and a cottage they owned in Long Island, and spent eight years on a sailboat, exploring the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. They started out by sailing down the Intercoastal Waterway to Miami. “We saw America behind the scenes,” says Heidi, “and fell even more in love with it.” They then explored the Caribbean, South America, and went as far east as Turkey.

“In Greece, and other places, people told us we should fly the German flag because it would be safer,” says Manfred, “but we never dreamed of it; we were always proud to fly the American flag.” Heidi says that to her, “it would have felt phony.” It reminded me of the stripes and stars I fly from my backpack – I knew exactly what she meant. It never crossed my mind to bear a Guatemalan flag.

Always the hard workers, the couple took on odd jobs during their trip. In St. Thomas, they spent a year cleaning charter boats to save up some extra cash. “We scrubbed the toilets, everything, we did not care,” says Heidi. That, I think, is the New York and the American spirit. If you want something, you work for it – and you go for it. And it is that spirit that these two New Yorkers and I chose to focus on as we remembered 9/11. Our little gathering was one of hope and happiness. That day ten years ago was tragic, but I, for one, am done crying about it.

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*Photo by Constantino Diaz-Duran.