i wasn’t born in the states, so when describing myself i call myself german. perhaps german american would be more appropriate, but slipping ‘american’ in there has never felt natural. and i have to confess, i don’t really like calling myself an american.
i know it’s the land of the free where you can pursue happiness and have the right to free speech, but when i think of americans i have this terrible image in my head of people who are greedy, selfish, and overindulgent. it’s not accurate nor is it fair. although i’ve met some people in my life who certainly fit that profile, A. it’s a mixed bag since a lot of them weren’t even american and B. i know a hell of a lot more people who are anything but. and although this country certainly has its problems, there’s a lot about america to love.
i’m talking about this today for obvious reasons. it’s the ten year mark of a horrible tragedy that occurred in my favorite city.
i’ve been stewing about my own discomfort with this for a few days and i think i have a fairly good handle on where my disdain for calling myself an american comes from. it’s a combination of things that can be traced back to my childhood.
being relocated here from germany when i was just four years old has always irked me. we moved because of my father’s job with microsoft, which is why we ended up in seattle, washington. part of me feels robbed. like america took away the german in me. it took away my first language, it took away the childhood i could have spent in germany, it took away my family. of course i have my nuclear family here in the states, but if i ever wanted to pay anyone in my extended family a visit, i’d need to go the airport and fly east for around ten hours.
if you’ve never been plucked from your country of origin and placed in another country, you may not understand this feeling of displacement and unease. and i’m not pointing fingers at my parents or anyone else. there is not a single person to be blamed for how i feel, it’s just how i feel. anyone with a similar experience would probably agree with me that the word lost describes it pretty well.
another word now comes to mind. the word home. i don’t really know where home is. part of me truly feels like i can’t call anywhere home. real home. home implies comfort, safety, and origin. i call seattle home because it’s where my immediate family is. it’s where i did most of my growing up. it’s where i have all of my memories stored. but it doesn’t feel like my “real” home. i haven’t been back to germany for well over a decade, but when i conjure up the thought of germany in my head – it feels like my real home. i don’t think i have any memories of it, but i have formulated them vicariously through the pictures i have seen of me when i was a little girl and the stories my parents have told me over the years.
going back to my previous statement about americans, i’m pretty sure the reason for those assumptions resides in the fact that i was reared in bellevue, washington. being a ‘softie’ (a child of a microsoft parent that is, yes i coined this term on my own), i grew up with wealth and wealthy people around me. this is not something i like to discuss and unless i really feel i can trust someone, i rarely mention this fact. but i guess it’s time to let the cat out of the bag.
and to call all wealthy people greedy, selfish, and overindulgent is clearly stupid because it’s just not true. however, we humans have a way of focusing on the bad and forgetting the good. for every negative there may be four positives, but we’ll still focus on that one negative. so this is me focusing on that one negative :: the memories i have of certain people i grew up around who fit this profile. some were friends (at times) and some were not. again, it’s a mixed bag. all i can say is that i have seen, first hand, what wealth can do to a person.
i moved to new york city in two thousand and three. almost exactly two years after the towers had fallen. i moved there in august. i lived in a very
cramped cozy apartment with my best friend. when september eleventh rolled around, we went to our rooftop at dusk. i’m not sure if they still do this, but when i lived there they would shine two spotlights directly into the sky from where the two towers once stood. from our rooftop, we had a perfect unblocked view of those spotlights. i’ll never forget it. i remember feeling like i’d really missed out on something. had they still been standing, we would have seen them perfectly from our little patio.
if you’ve ever lived in new york, you’ll likely understand this sort of territorial feeling you have about the city. when you ever hear people talking about how “pushy” or “aggressive” new yorkers are, you’re blood will boil like mine does. new york has this connotation of being always and forever fast paced and abrasive. a lot of people i know claim that it’s a place they like to visit but they would never ever live there because of the city and its inhabitants “attitude.”
if you ask me ? i don’t have any memory of this “attitude” that so many people speak of. there were no more pushy or aggressive people in new york than there have been anywhere else that i have lived or visited. in fact, i think i’ve met more kind and friendly people there than anywhere else. new yorkers will do anything to help you out. i remember needing help on several occasions and people were all too willing to lend a hand.
i’ll never forget the time i was walking to my commencement ceremony at school. it was a warm day in may. i was wearing rubber flip flops and running a little late as i bolted down 13th street towards school. in typical new york weather fashion, it suddenly began to pour warm muggy rain. i had just crossed broadway when my flat flip flops slid on a well paved piece of sidewalk. it was a textbook perfect cartoon fall. my feet went in the air in front of my face, my umbrella went flying, and i landed hard, slamming both elbows on the sidewalk. my backpack had, thankfully, broken the fall for my back, but that in turn meant my elbows took the brunt of it. i hit the ground so hard that my vision went completely black.
i couldn’t move my arms and i was blinking and blinking and all i could see was black. it is still, to this day, one of the scariest experiences i have ever had. so i sat there, temporarily blinded, on the sidewalk, in the pouring rain, at the corner of one of the busiest intersections in manhattan. what happened next completely surprised me.
a stranger, who i couldn’t even see, pulled me under some scaffolding about ten feet away to get me out of the rain. my vision slowly returned to me and i realized that there were at least six people gathered around me asking me if i was ok and one of them brought me my umbrella (i still have that umbrella). i said i was, but that i couldn’t use my arms. i hadn’t broken any bones (as it turns out), but i think my elbows had locked and pain was coursing through my arms. so a very kind man asked if he could do anything for me. i wanted to call a friend and get into a cab, but i didn’t have the ability to do either. so i asked him if he could call my friend devin, instructing him as to where my phone was in my backpack.
at this point, i was pretty sure that this man was just going to steal my cell phone. but he didn’t. he found my friend’s number, hit the call button, and placed the phone between my shoulder and ear. he stayed with me until i was off the phone, put the phone back in my backpack, and proceeded to hail me a cab and give me a ten dollar bill. to the new yorkers that helped me out that day, thank you.
that is what i think of when i think of new york. i think of kind people. and when i think of new york, i also feel like it’s the closest i’ve ever come to feeling like my real home. maybe that’s because it’s closer to europe than the west coast, but i think it has a lot more to do with the city and the fine people who live there.
my heart goes out to all those who were struck by this tragedy ten years ago today. to their friends, their families, their co-workers, their what have yous. you are an amazing group of human beings who have single handedly renewed my faith in the human race and moreover, being an american.
[tattered. 35mm film shot on my manual nikon in new york city.]