A number of people have asked me (I continue to be surprised by both how many people read NLT, and even who the readers are) to explain what I meant yesterday when I said that I can tell an American at a hundred paces by the way he walks.
One reader--a scholar, and so speaks to it--writes that Aristotle links gait to character. He does indeed, and, if there is an American character it would be reflected in the American gait, would it not? I believe it is. But no scholarship here. I’ll tell you a story about when I first discovered that Americans walk, well, like Americans.
I lived in Munich in the academic year of 1968-69. I was studying German and attended some philosophy seminars at the university (which, being continental philosophy that was preached, soon made me mad). I was alone, lived in a cheap pension and then a studentenwonheim, worked (as a "black", i.e., off the books, laborer) at the main marketplace unpacking bananas from refrigerated cars for seventy-five cents an hour, and then got a great job working in a factory (Dr. Stiebel Werke). I spent a lot of time with Germans and East Europeans and didn’t talk to an American for the first four months or so. By early Spring I became terribly homesick.
Think about the word "homesickness." It is an illness brought about by being away from home. I repeat, an illness. I had never been this ill before (or, I emphasize, since!). The physical effects were something like seasickness; my head was sick and the whole heart faint. I wasn’t missing the pretty Southern California coastline, you understand, or big cars or hamburgers. I was missing Americans, a certain kind of people with certain qualities I liked, was at home with. I missed my people.
So I went searching for Americans. At the first sign of the illness, I just kept my eyes open for Americans. I didn’t see any. Then, as illness progressed, I started searching for Americans. I went to places where (I thought) they were likely to be. Alas, they were not. I kept at it. I pressed hard. But nothing. Things got so bad that I was unable to sleep. I would wake in the middle of the night and prowl the city with my eyes wide open. Nothing. I got into the habit of going to the main railroad station in the middle of the night (it was one of the few places open all night). I would sit and drink coffee and talk to whoever was there; mostly Germans of questionable character drinking much too much beer. Sometimes we would talk about America; but no Americans.
One night--very late, it must have been 3 A.M., I was heading home from the station, turned a corner and was thunderstruck. There was a man walking in front of me, going in my direction. There was no one else on the street. My eyes focused on him for a second and, within another second, I was running toward the man (approaching him from behind) because I realized (in a kind of Hegelian augenblick) that this was an American man walking. I came to an abrupt stop on his left side, panting, blurted out something like, "Please, I am an American, I need to talk with you. Please. Do you mind if I walked with you a bit?" Needless to say the man was surprised. But he recovered his composure quickly enough and was magnanimous enough to allow me to walk and talk with him. The conversation was not about the mysteries of things, or the latest political news, or gilded butterflies, or tales of American grandness. No, it was about his home town of St. Louis, and the virtues of the Cardinals of his town, and why the National League was superior to the American (being a Yankee fan I disputed this). It was about small things. But that was enough, and with each step and each sentence of the conversation I felt the contagion leave my soul and began to regain my health. Oh, how wonderful it was, to be healthy again! I wanted to hang my cap on the horns of the moon! An hour later we parted company; he had, in his own way, understood that he had given me a gift. I was whole again, I was happy.
The next day (in daylight) I was walking down the street and noticed three men walking a few yards in front of me (they were also black) so I saddled up to them and was prepared to say hello, expecting a howdy in return, when I heard them speaking in Hungarian! I was shocked, but decided to talk to them (at first in German, they spoke no English) and discovered they were from Ghana, studying law (amazingly enough!) in Budapest, and were in Munich playing the tourist. Their Hungarian, by the way, was flawless. So we parted company and as I let them walk on I looked at them walking from behind. I realized they couldn’t possibly have been Americans, and wondered why I hadn’t seen that before. They walked as if they were not at home in the city or in the world, as if the sky would fall in on them at any time, as if there was a thundercloud above them instead of a shining sun, as if they were afraid to displease the gods.
From then on, whenever I felt a touch of the illness grab my soul, I would venture into a crowd, keep my eyes open and look for men who stood tall, walked with purpose, were unafraid, and even had a kind of jocularity in their walk. Even if I didn’t talk with them, it was good enough just to know that they were around and, whenever necessary, I could talk with them and be at home.