It took a tragedy of unprecedented scale for the nation to embrace Gotham—traditionally imagined as a land unto itself, rife with the most un-American of things, like sophistication, rudeness, and sin. And as Americans gathered New York close, mourning its crushed skyline and scrambling to sustain life here with their own blood, so New Yorkers adopted America. Last week, leaders urged New Yorkers to fly Old Glory from every home and business to give proof of national pride. Flag sales catapulted in a place where such sentiment might once have been dismissed as so much hee-haw.
The “rush to patriotism,” as one broadcaster put it, reflected the natural desire in the face of danger to distinguish friends from enemies, to privilege the monolith over plurality, to crave familiarity and revile the unknown. New Yorkers were formerly a breed of our own—in the happier days when elections were the big news, even “Latinos, blacks, Asians, Jews, and white ethnics.” But now a town already struggling with one test is put to another: to prove that this polyglot metropolis is American enough.
“He thought I was dead,” said Christina Benedicto, a housekeeper at a midtown hotel, of her husband’s reaction when he couldn’t reach her right away from the Philippines, where he lives with the 10-year-old daughter she works here to support. So did the family of one Barbadian woman, the nanny to a family in Battery Park City. When the towers collapsed, she was evacuated to New Jersey, where she spent a sleepless night pining for her kin down on the island.
The worst must have befallen some of her countrymen, said Jean Alexander of the Caribbean American Center of New York. “Lots of back-office people in those buildings were Caribbean. They worked in every single one of those brokerage houses,” she said. Asociacion Tepeyac, a worker-advocacy center in Manhattan, fielded dozens of phone calls from families all over Mexico, whose loved ones worked as cooks and cleaners at the World Trade Center to send money home and are gone now. But “50 percent of the Mexican population in New York City are singles, without parents or family support here. There are no people who are going to ask about them,” said Tepeyac executive director Brother Joel Magellan SJ last Wednesday. “The people who lived (through the attack), they came to our office yesterday,” he said. “We asked, how many Mexican people involved, they say hundreds.”
When terrorists felled the World Trade Center and the city went into lockdown last Tuesday, the parameters of being American here took literal shape. Checkpoints, border closings, shut bridges and tunnels, became the dividing line for 8 million people, the difference between this side and that. Cleveland seemed as far as Cairo when phone calls refused to connect and global news media beamed the disaster into living rooms on all continents. The world was at once suffocatingly small and achingly vast. In the immediacy of disaster, fearing death, being loved, and loving were American enough.
As shock turned to coping, government leaders called on New Yorkers to do as Americans do and resume business as usual. So when 19-year-old Bangladeshi Zarihul Haque could not go to school on the Lower East Side last Wednesday, he used his free day to pitch in with family friends, who opened their East Village eatery for lunch. Arabs and Indians in neighboring storefronts supplied police officers with water and cigarettes and residents with their everyday bodega necessities—even cycling down barren streets to deliver door-to-door.
On deserted Allen Street, one Asian man toiled alone at a construction site, stooped over a bucket of cement that he mixed with a trowel. A few Chinatown grocers opened their doors to hungry neighbors, while the Italian-Brazilian couple behind the Little Italy Gift Shop on Grand Street answered the clamor for postcards depicting the outdated skyline. In the South Bronx, Afrifa Alex of Ghana, a New Yorker for all of three weeks, put in a day of refrigerator maintenance, learning the trade from a crew of South Americans who didn’t need English to understand his need to work. The immigrant economy that undergirds the city in ordinary times last week pumped industry into a paralyzed town. That seemed American enough.
And what could be more American than the scene on Jackson Heights’ Roosevelt Avenue just after sunset last Wednesday, when Ecuadoran Fred Camino, Indian Cecil Brandel, and Singaporean Chris Yee claimed a spot on the sidewalk for a leisurely chat. Comfortable as brothers, the unlikely trio “met doing business,” according to Camino. In fact, they pointed out, hurriedly finishing each other’s sentences, they last convened on business on July 13, 2001, in a conference room on the 80th floor of one of the twin towers. “Now, we share more than that,” said Camino as his buddies nodded. With their parents in far-off countries, they were a makeshift family the morning of the terrorist attacks, working their phones to try and locate each other. “It’s just not business,” Camino says. “There’s a moment that will never be lost.”
But as grief turns to vengeance and the nation demands consensus in its pursuit of the ultimate dissenters, there is the threat that the bar will be raised, that something more absolute will decide who is American enough. Oliver Kung anticipated the unspoken challenge last Wednesday. “I’ve lived in New York longer than I lived in Hong Kong!” the Chinatown garment worker exclaimed, with a note of defiance familiar to anyone who has had to answer for appearance or assumption. Josefina Alvarado of Hunts Point may hardly speak English, but, she insisted, it’s been 20 years since she arrived here from Mexico. For Manhattan merchant Prashant Goyal of India, it’s been 35.
“People look at my face and they think I did it,” said Min Wahid, a Pakistani Muslim, as he manned his phone-card stand on 74th Street in Jackson Heights last Wednesday. The line for international calling cards was six deep even at 8:30 in the evening. A stranger, Wahid said, had threatened him that morning, muttering as he passed, “I will fix you.” Against mounting evidence, Wahid hoped the current crisis was another case of Oklahoma City-identity, where the culprit would turn out to be homegrown. “We pray for that,” he says, “because otherwise, it will be a difficult life for us.”
It already is, with racist sentiment and violence flaring across a nation fueled for war. At least one New Yorker has suffered for his skin tone, a Bangladeshi who was brutally beaten and cursed before the day of terror had even closed. The invoking of Pearl Harbor and calls to tighten borders and keep better track of who’s who have put all who look and sound different on edge. The mayor’s warnings not to indulge xenophobic urges only hinted at the scourge feared by those who’ve caught hatred even in better days.
The recent tragedy demolished this city’s native sense of invincibility, but to threaten the diversity that is its other signature with sudden requirements of flag and faith only adds another casualty to the list. Working to the bone, surviving in the toughest of times, finding friendship in a swarm of 8 million—these are the feats that make a New Yorker. Time was, being a New Yorker was more than American enough.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 18, 2001