Becoming American in New York



Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NY 11222

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Greenpoint

Becoming American in New York
Photo by Sabine Heinlein

When asked why I left Germany for New York, I have two answers, depending on my mood and on the patience of the listener. The short answer is: I fell in love with an American.

The second answer is: On our birthdays my sisters and I were given pieces of silverware from a prestigious German manufactory that names its models after big cities. My sisters’ models were called Stockholm and Helsinki. Mine was New York.

My destination was clear. At 26, I flew to New York. What followed was a seven-year journey that included a terrible marriage, Byzantine immigration procedures and a divorce. Eventually I found love again. Now settled, I could afford to worry about other things. My frustration over not being able to participate in the political process grew. It was time to become an American citizen.

The long line at the Department of Homeland Security in front of 1 Federal Plaza in downtown Manhattan was a condensed version of a city that never fails to astound me. A wrinkled Hispanic mother gently guided her adult son with Down Syndrome. An Asian woman put on lipstick using a compact mirror. A Caucasian businesswoman rolled her eyes while texting compulsively. The line crept toward the checkpoint like a snake cut into pieces, its parts haphazardly reattached.

According to my appointment letter, my citizenship test and interview were scheduled for 12:05 pm. The specificity of the time made me believe this would be a relatively fast procedure. After the first two hours of waiting it became clear this was not the case.

I looked at the 200-odd people around me. We were all so tired. The years leading up to this appointment had been filled with mounds of paperwork repeating the same questions. How many times can you attest that you have never been part of a terrorist organization? At what point do you crack when asked whether you had ever been a member of the Nazi party? How on earth would they find out if you were a habitual drunkard or prostitute? And who had a clear conscience when asked whether she had ever committed an offense?

Except for the flags and the yellowed photos of Peter Jennings and Ivana Trump proudly presenting their citizenship certificates to an apparently cheap camera, the waiting room resembled an ER. Burgundy plastic chairs connected at the joints bounced you along with your pained neighbors.

Announcers called out names through two speakers. They sometimes overlapped and we would hear only muddled syllables. I considered my name’s possible pronunciations. Sab-eyen Heen-leen? Say-been Heyen-lin? Sa-bin Hin-lin?

After five hours of bursts of cursing from my fidgety neighbor, my name was finally called. To my surprise the caller didn’t even forget the e at the end of Sabine.

Smirking from behind a big pile of files, the immigration officer started the routine. Was I a prostitute? A drunkard? A member of the Nazi party? Or of the Greenpoint YMCA? (I had dutifully noted my membership when asked what associations I was part of.) Had I committed any crimes since I mailed these forms? I shook my head.

Had I really been out of the country only once in the last couple of years? I said that when I got remarried we went to Puerto Rico. But that didn’t count.

The officer handed me a form and told me to read a sentence from it. “Alright,” he interrupted me before I could finish. “Now write: ‘I honeymooned in Puerto Rico.’ ” He caught himself. “ ‘Honeymooned’ isn’t a real verb, but write it anyway.” I did and we both chuckled.

Angela, the woman who owns my local laundromat on Greenpoint’s Manhattan Avenue, once told me how she applied for citizenship in 1977, after having spent several years in the U.S. illegally. Back then illegal immigrants could become citizens if they had given birth on American soil. Her officer told her to write, “I love New York.” She still cracks up remembering her response. She wrote, “I ♥ NY.” In fact, Angela ♥s NY so much that she moved her entire family from Nicaragua.

Testing my patience over a five-hour stretch was far more painful than testing my knowledge of American history. Why do we celebrate the 4th of July? What do the stripes on the flag represent? What is the name of the ship that brought the pilgrims to America? Piece of cake. The officer left out the more difficult questions: How many amendments to the Constitution are there? Name those that address voting rights. Who said, “Give me liberty or give me death?”

Four weeks later I was invited to the naturalization ceremony at a courthouse in downtown Brooklyn. To my German eyes, incurably attuned to efficiency and order, the event seemed chaotic and ludicrous.

An exasperated officer was trying to arrange the tide of people flooding the foyer into an orderly line. Many of the 300 soon-to-be citizens had brought their entire extended families. The wobbly line inched to the checkpoint. Trying to stay calm, I reminded myself that this is also why I wanted to be part of this country; whenever you think you know what to expect, you fall right back down the rabbit hole.

In the courtroom the New York narrative continued. The woman in charge was munching on Cheetos and the background echoed with the question, “Where are you from?” In the front row sat the tired, the pregnant, the limping, the old. One at a time, we were called to hand in yet another sheet of questions. Prostitute? Drunkard? Communist? Polygamist?

The hours passed like a dense fog. Eventually, the Cheetos lady explained that when she knocked three times it meant the judge was about to arrive and we were to rise.

We heard three knocks and all rose in unison. False alarm. A child was amusing herself by knocking on wooden pews.

Finally the appropriately named Judge Go arrived. We faced the American flag and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. I had goose bumps.

I grew up believing that gestures and symbols of national pride were a recipe for disaster and that I could only be proud of my own choices and achievements. I chose to move to New York. I traded a rather rigid and homogeneous society for one that is utterly diverse and remarkably flexible. I traded bike rides through parks for an uncomfortable commute in a sticky and crowded subway car. I traded blinders for a 360-degree panoramic view. But most importantly, I survived years of ups and downs in New York. That’s what I’m proud of.

Judge Go interrupted my thoughts. She encouraged us to vote and said that in other countries people walk barefoot for miles to execute that right. She told us that she arrived as a child on a boat from China into the chilly morning mist enveloping the Golden Gate Bridge. For a long time she doubted that she would ever be as successful as the natives. Now she was a judge.

“It is only in America that this can happen,” she said. “Tomorrow you will have a child that can become President of the United States.”

I was giddy on my way home. What was this new hungry citizen to do? My new husband, a Mexican immigrant, had left me a surprise in the fridge: a cupcake from a Polish bakery in Greenpoint adorned with an American flag from a 99-cent store run by Arabs. This is why I came to New York and this is why I wanted to be an American. I took my first bite.

Sabine Heinlein is the author of the narrative nonfiction book Among Murderers: Life After Prison (University of California Press, 2013). She has received a Pushcart Prize, a Margolis Award, an American Literary Review Award and fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell and NYFA.

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