I Am a Proud Grandchild
Of the Wretched Refuse
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 11, 2019 -- Not for the 18th time or the 1,800th time or the 18-millionth time, I am sitting in a hotel room thinking about 9/11.

All I can think about, as a native New Yorker from the untrendy boroughs, is my life right now.

The GroundLink driver to JFK, a charming young Bangladeshi man, regaled me with tales of the many differences of driving in New York and Dubai.

The shirts and slacks in my bag were laundered by a lovely Korean couple. I don't know their names, but I talk sumo with the husband, who often retreats to a corner of his shop to watch Japanese broadcasts on the Internet. My wife, whose clothes are squashed with mine because we were determined to pack for 11 days in one bag, uses a dry cleaner run by a Cambodian couple. She sometimes sells Cambodian food made with a barbecue she sets up in the parking lot. He keeps up with political dissent back home on the Internet.

While I'm gone, our house is being painted. The Brazilian guy I hired talks excitedly about his first visit to Europe in November. What can I tell him about Paris and London, he asks. He comes by every day to check the meticulous prep work being done by his Guatemalan employees.

My friend Tony, like me a native New Yorker from the boroughs, is swinging by to feed the little colony of feral cats that has adopted us. His ground maintenance crew--Americans and Ecuadorians--will be cutting my lawn and prepping my garden for fall. His top plant guy just got back from a two-week tour of Ireland and I can't wait to hear about his first-ever business class flight. One of Tony's daughters is married to a Chinese artist and they are raising a pair of multicultural, transpacific kids.

We flew over to Rome on Air France and one of the cabin crew apologized to me for speaking French. I told her it was fine, I understood French, and she then unleashed a word torrent that I mostly missed. The purser on the transatlantic leg couldn't wait to tell us how much she loves Italy.

My guy in Rome picked us up at Fiumicino and he entertained us with tales of his Caribbean cruise that started with an American Airlines flight to Miami. He was bummed that Havana, the original port of call, had to be changed. He asked me for hurricane news from the Bahamas.

We had lunch yesterday at a trendy new cafe founded by a Danish baker and an Italian chef. Our waitress, an Austrian native, apologized for her accent when I made her as a non-Roman. I allayed her fear by explaining in German that my Brooklyn accent was much worse. We both agreed our French was awful.

What's my point? Only that the world is a much smaller place than it used to be. That is good, it makes me happy. My life is so much richer for the people with whom I interact, both around the globe and at home in America.

Yet I am sad at how America is seen these days. Despite the endless, ugly rhetoric emanating from the White House, America is not overrun with bad people coming from other countries. In fact, America is seen as an increasingly unfriendly place even to visit.

Inbound tourism to the United States has plummeted. The U.S. Travel Association says the U.S. share of global travel has plunged to about 11 percent this year, down from nearly 14 percent in 2015. The decline will continue through at least 2022. If the organization is correct, that means a shortfall of 41 million visitors and an economic cost of $180 billion in international traveler spending.

Some of the granular numbers are shocking. Tourism to Washington by Chinese visitors was down 25 percent last year. Chinese tourism to New York is down by 12 percent in the first quarter of this year. Obviously, U.S.-China trade relations is at the heart of the Chinese decline, but fewer folks from many other countries want to visit.

Of all the ugly things that resulted from 9/11--the nearly 3,000 dead at what we used to call Ground Zero, the seemingly endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria--I think the worst is the souring nature of the American Experiment.

How can America be a place where hurricane-struck civilians just a hundred miles or so from Florida are denigrated as bad people? Why are they told they cannot come and seek refuge?

What is the mindset of a government functionary who tells you that Emma Lazarus' words at the base of the Statue of Liberty don't mean what they mean? Hey, you creep, all my grandparents came from Italy with nothing--literally, nothing--and sailed past that statue. Their children became lawyers and cops and firefighters and fought for this country in several wars.

What kind of president, twice married to immigrants, says America is full?

And who, I want to know, is Louisa Tucciarello? She said this in a Google review for a restaurant whose owners I help: "They come to our country for the opportunities and they treat us like trash. They forgot that we Americans have made their home very comfortable."

The "they" to whom she refers are a third-generation American of Italian descent and his Chinese-born wife, who worked hard to become a citizen. And if your name is Tucciarello, I am thinking you are not exactly a native American or a descendant from someone who arrived on the Mayflower.

What is wrong with the Cuccinellis and Trumps and Tucciarellos and Stephen Millers? This is America. We must never forget the people who made this country. Their parents and grandparents, immigrants all, that's who. Italians, Chinese, Greeks, Mexicans, Germans, Africans, you name it. Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Protestants, Hindus, Sikhs.

The terror attacks of 9/11 shook America to the core. But our core is what it always has been: People from all over the world who came, worked hard, contributed their foods and cultures and beliefs, and made America great.

For all its flaws, America has always been great. Our greatness comes from a willingness to welcome anyone who wants to be here. No tribe runs this place. A guy with a Kenyan father gets to be president. So does a guy whose great-grandfather was a German hustler who made money running brothels. The next president could be a woman of Indian-Jamaican heritage or a whiter-than-white gay guy. It could be a Midwestern woman with Slovene blood coursing through her veins or a New York Jew who lives in Vermont. Obama, Trump, the ones who might be next are all the same. If enough people vote for them, they get to run the joint. No blood tests to take.

But being America isn't easy. Being the kind of place people want to escape to and want to visit isn't easy. Being the kind of country that says all it takes to be American is to be born here isn't easy. Being the kind of place that lets you earn citizenship simply by yearning to breathe free isn't easy. Being the kind of country that says give us your tired and poor isn't easy.

Being America, the kind of America we claim to be, is hard. The hard is what makes it great.

Eighteen years after 9/11, I will not forget my family came to America as part of the huddled masses. I will not forget that their sacrifices made my life--and my life on the road--possible.

I am a grandchild of the wretched refuse. I am proud of it.

That is what I am thinking, not for the 18th time or the 1,800th time or the 18-millionth time, on this 18th anniversary of 9/11.