Deportation dates are usually not announced ahead of time, so as to discourage escape attempts. William Suess was in a jail cell at the federal detention center in Charleston, Mo., when he got a knock on his door. He put on jeans, a flannel shirt, and white tennis shoes. Then a pair of immigration agents took him to the St. Louis airport.
Suess, then 49, had a packed suitcase his mother had left for him and a plastic bag with his T-shirts and underwear from detention. He and the agents checked their bags, cut in line for security, and boarded the plane first. Suess sat in a center row near the back with an agent on either side. The agents slept during the flight, but Suess stared at the GPS map on the screen in front of him. The plane traced an arc over Canada, Greenland, Iceland, and England. Suess asked a flight attendant why the path wasn’t straight. She said the strange trajectory reflected the shape of the Earth.
The plane landed in Frankfurt, a city of about 700,000 on the Main River in Germany. Suess turned to the groggy agents and asked, “Now what?” They deplaned with the rest of the passengers.
A boyish officer from the Bundespolizei, or federal police, met them at the gate. Suess thought for a moment he was headed to a German jail, but the officer made polite conversation in accented English as he led the trio to an office in Terminal C. Suess stood uncertainly beside a desk while an older officer typed and the younger one inquired about his crimes in America.
“Have you ever been in trouble in Europe?” the officer asked.
“This is my first trip abroad,” Suess said.
“You have a clean slate in Germany, then,” the officer said. “You’re free to go.”
I don’t even know where I am, Suess thought, as he made his way alone to baggage claim. Where the fuck am I going to go?
He wandered the airport for an hour, holding his suitcase in one hand and the plastic bag with his shirts and underwear in the other. He passed a crowd of hired drivers who held signs with the names of passengers. At the edge of the crowd stood a man with a piece of notebook paper at his chest. The paper said, “Wilhelm Süß.”
The man brought him to a cab, and they drove together to the city’s red-light district, the Bahnhofsviertel, a seething slab of nowhere wedged between the skyscrapers that shadow the European Central Bank and the annihilating, stone-and-glass train station, the Hauptbahnhof, a nerve center of train tracks and subway lines. The area swarmed with hustlers, sex tourists, and junkies, some asleep on the sidewalk with needles in their arms. The cab stopped at the curb before a six-story homeless shelter at 18 Rudolf St. “The people here will help you,” the man from the airport said.
The door to the shelter was locked. Suess pushed an angry-sounding buzzer, and it opened with a click.
When the Allies carved Germany into zones of occupation at the end of World War II, the United States imposed a strict nonfraternization policy on its troops. Soldiers weren’t allowed to speak with German adults or children, and if they fathered a child with a local woman, paying to support the child was considered aid to the enemy. The policy was so widely flouted that, by the end of 1946, the military scrapped it to save face.
During the four years of occupation, U.S. soldiers fathered 37,000 illegitimate children in Germany. In 1950, when Harry Truman declared West Germany the next front in the Cold War, America replaced its occupation force of 80,000 with a protective force three times as large. U.S. soldiers were told to befriend Germans, bring them onto bases, and invite them into their homes. There were movie dates and mixers at the officers’ clubs. Newspapers filled with wedding announcements for German women and American men. A popular German cartoon in the early 1950s showed a parade of small children waving American flags. America, it said, “could just send uniforms for the kids instead of more troops.”
In early 1960, 19-year-old Erika Süß of Augsburg, Bavaria, realized she was pregnant. The child’s father was a U.S. soldier, but Süß didn’t know which one. She’d been dating a man from the Airborne. Another soldier, meanwhile, had been stalking her. One night, while Süß was babysitting at an American couple’s home, her stalker came by, called to her from the porch, and disappeared just before the couple returned. Süß walked alone down the path to the penny streetcars and was raped in the black winter night.
Süß’s boyfriend, since stationed elsewhere, stopped responding to her letters. Her family forbade her from telling police about the rape, became enraged when she refused an abortion, and kept her out of sight. On Oct. 23, 1960, she gave birth to Wilhelm Süß. Less than a year later, she left with him for America.
Süß became Suess and Wilhelm, William. Erika married and settled in Brentwood, Mo., where Suess grew up with two half-brothers, two half-sisters, and a life much like those of his classmates at Mark Twain Elementary. His mother called him Sweet William, and sometimes Wilhelm, but when he asked about Germany, it upset her. Suess clashed, sometimes violently, with his stepdad, and he resisted being adopted. His stepgrandfather, though, had taken him riding on the back of a red 1947 Indian motorcycle when he was small, and eventually he mowed enough lawns to buy a small off-road bike of his own. Suess sped through town to reach the trails in the surrounding woods, local cops often in pursuit until he disappeared into the trees, feeling free.
When Suess was about 18, his mother gave him his green card and told him to put it somewhere safe. “Permanent Resident,” it said, and below that, “Country of birth: Germany.” It had no mention of citizenship. All that struck Suess about the card was the tiny photo, which showed a round-headed baby with a few strands of hair, like Charlie Brown. “That’s you,” his mother said. The idea of citizenship confused him — he couldn’t imagine being anything but American, and any alarm bells about legal technicalities were muffled as he chased girls and roared around on a Triumph Bonneville chopper. When he applied for a marriage license at 20, he marked himself as a U.S. citizen, because that’s what he considered himself. Then he joined the Army.
It was only in 1981, when his unit was scheduled for deployment to Germany, that he realized the potential implications of his immigration status. An officer called him aside on the blacktop at Fort Carson, Colo.
“Suess,” he said, “you’re not going.” Being born in Germany made Suess a German citizen, the officer explained, which meant that if he went there, he might not be allowed to return. But the Army could get him his U.S. citizenship, Suess was told. He went to an office on base, filled out some forms, and left his green card with the clerk. By then his unit had already left for Germany, but he considered the citizenship matter resolved. He never saw the green card again.
After his discharge from the Army, Suess’ marriage fell apart. He used drugs, joined an Illinois motorcycle gang called the Wind Tramps, and built a rap sheet of crimes that ranged from petty busts and bar fights to burglary. In the late 1980s, the Tramps were busted in a federal sting, and “Wild Bill” Suess was arrested — along with guys named Lightning and Diablo — and convicted of conspiracy to sell in excess of 15 kilograms of cocaine. Before Suess was released in 2001, and again in 2006, after he fell into old habits and did another prison stint, he was taken to a conference room, where two immigration agents complimented his English. Both times, Suess explained his history, saying he wasn’t German but American, and the agents seemed to agree.
His second time out, Suess was determined to go straight. Erika was living alone in Richwoods, Mo., and she owned a vacant modular home nearby, set deep in 72 acres of woods. Trespassers had stripped the home of its appliances, cabinets, and light fixtures, and they used the woods to cook crystal meth. At the request of his mother, who was also fighting breast cancer, Suess moved in. He brought a mutt named Fuel, his girlfriend Laura Smith — blonde, blue-eyed, and pretty, even with just six teeth — and three years of parole.
Bringing order to the chaos was like penance for Suess. Six feet tall, hard-featured, and lean, with a thick black mustache and Man-in-Black gait, he walked the woods with a rifle strapped to his back and his ponytail hanging to the waist of his jeans, firing into the ground when Fuel growled at suspicious sounds in the brush and standing sentry in the road to peer into passing trucks. He piled the bleach containers and half-cooked batches of dope into a field and burned them. He found work as a carpenter, converted an old mobile home into a garage, filled it with tools, and renovated the house. He wore through chainsaws as he cleared the trees that had stretched to the windows. He finished his parole in 2009 and set a wedding date with Smith for the fall. He laid a base of rock beneath the driveway and at the end put a homemade wrought-iron gate. There were posts around the house and, in the garage, rolls of chain-link fence.
One summer day in 2009, Smith left to spend the day at a lake, and Suess headed to town to buy cigarettes. On the way, he noticed two black SUVs idling at an intersection. He stopped at the post office and then the country store next door, buying himself Marlboros and a Diet Coke. When he walked out of the store, a black SUV was at the post office. Suess returned to the dirt road that led to his house to find another SUV blocking his way. He slowed to a stop and climbed out to see what was wrong, and the second SUV roared up behind him. Plainclothes men jumped out, handguns drawn. Suess shot his palms up in front of his chest.
“We’re federal ICE agents,” one of the men said.
“What the fuck is ice?” Suess asked.
“Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” the agent said.
“Well, what’s that got to do with me?”
That evening Smith returned to an empty house.
Suess awoke the next morning in the federal detention center in Charleston, Mo., wearing an orange jumpsuit and prison slippers. The other cells held men from Latin America, mostly, and some from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. They seemed suspicious of Suess, who learned through the grapevine that many thought he was an ICE spy. What’s happening to me? he thought. I’m right back where I started.
Suess wanted badly to return to the life he’d built, and without a fixed sentence, the anxiety was stifling. Some of his fellow inmates had lived in their cells for years, with no chance for bail, while their cases dragged on. The weeks turned to months, and bills piled up at home. Through the bars of his cell he yelled ridiculously for a judge.
After seven weeks, a van brought Suess to the Department of Homeland Security office in downtown St. Louis. He seated himself in a cube of a room, law books spread before him on a table. Mounted high on the opposite wall was a video monitor, and on it floated the gray-haired Honorable John A. Duck, beamed in from the immigration court in Oakdale, La.
“What am I doing here?” Suess asked.
“I do not have to answer your questions,” Duck replied. “That’s why you need an attorney.”
“I can’t afford an attorney,” Suess said. “I should be able to get one from the court.”
“You are a criminal alien. You are not an American citizen, and you don’t have the rights of a citizen. The United States doesn’t have to provide you with an attorney.”
“I am an American citizen,” Suess said.
Duck looked down at the paper in his hand.
“Your name is Wilhelm Suess. You were born in Augsburg on Oct. 23, 1960. You are a citizen of Germany.”
“No, no, no,” Suess said. “I’m American. I’ve been here all my life. I even served in the military, and they did my papers. Can’t you have them find my papers?”
“Did you stand before a government official and swear an oath?”
“No,” Suess said. “But they said I’d be a citizen.”
“Do you always believe what other people tell you?”
“How can I prove this to you?”
“I don’t have to answer your questions. You’re in the process of removal.”
“Removal from where?”
“You’re going to be removed from the United States.”
Duck reached up and fiddled with the camera, to start formal proceedings. According to the court’s audio record, the hearing lasted two minutes and 28 seconds.
“Mr. Suess, do you speak English?”
“Very well, the language will be English,” Duck said, then began speaking so rapidly Suess could barely understand him. “Sir, this is your first appearance in my court in removal proceedings and as such you are entitled to a delay in your case if you wish, either to better prepare your case or to acquire an attorney. Or, we may go forward today, whichever you desire.”
There were nine seconds of silence.
Suess’ mind had stalled. In Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, when Gregor Samsa confronts his family after waking in bed as a cockroach, his father, wielding a cane and newspaper, forces him back into his room. Gregor tries to explain, but his voice is garbled. From his father, all he hears is an angry hiss. In the odd little courtroom, Suess suddenly saw himself as small and repulsive, and he realized he was being driven away.
“What do you wish to do?” Duck said.
There was a pause of six seconds. Rage and nausea clouded Suess’ senses. Duck’s face blurred on the screen.
“I thought we went over this,” Suess said, meekly. “Never mind. Just go. I’m done.”
“You wish to go forward today and represent yourself?”
“No, sir. I can’t — I can’t even see.”
“Do you want me to continue the case to let you try to get a lawyer? … Sir?”
The case was continued. Judge Duck rose and left the courtroom.
Suess looked up a young pro bono attorney named Stephen Hoeplinger at a Christian legal charity in St. Louis, and they met in a conference room at the detention center. Fresh-faced and suited, with clipped fingernails, Hoeplinger told Suess to resign himself. “They’re going to deport you. You’ve got nothing to stand on,” he said. For the next hour he tried to explain.
Children born out of wedlock and overseas are automatically American only if the mother is a U.S. citizen. Acquiring citizenship through the father requires his consent, plus convincing evidence of paternity and a promise of financial support. The process Suess started in the military was only partly completed. He was a permanent resident with a criminal record.
Prior to 1996, people like Suess could escape deportation through a legal hatch. During 212© hearings, judges considered things like rehabilitation, family ties, military service, muddled paternity, and a lack of connection to the country of origin, especially for those who immigrated as kids. University of San Francisco law professor Bill Hing, one of the country’s top deportation experts, who tried scores of 212© hearings, says of Suess, simply, “I would have won that case.”
Congress swept the hearings away in a 1996 upheaval of the immigration laws that made deportation often automatic for everything from murder and violent crime to drug possession and shoplifting. Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas, who sponsored the bill, later wrote his colleagues saying the total removal of judicial discretion in cases like Suess’ had been a mistake, and requested a fix. But the idea of supporting criminal aliens gained little traction in Congress.
When Suess was arrested in the summer of 2009, America was in the midst of a new deportation push. Hoping to appear both tough and humane on illegal immigration, Barack Obama has ramped up deportations but moved the focus to people with criminal convictions. Local government agencies increasingly share information with immigration authorities in hopes of weeding out criminal aliens. Things like spending a night in jail, applying for food stamps, or even finishing parole now make someone more likely than ever to pop up on the ICE radar.
Obama deported nearly as many people in one term as George W. Bush did in two. With an eye to DREAM Act supporters, the administration has argued that the emphasis on immigrants with criminal records means those who came to America when they were young are effectively left alone. But many people who arrived in the country as children have had brushes with the law, leading to an uptick in what Manuel Vargas, senior counsel at the Immigrant Defense Project, calls “tragic cases” — long-term residents deported to countries that are essentially foreign. This might mean places like Vietnam and Cambodia, where the previous U.S. military presence has left situations like Suess’, or Latin America. “Folks who are for all practical purposes American wind up being deported under these aggressive policies,” Vargas says. “Sometimes all they can remember is living in the United States.”
On Sept. 25, 2009, Suess’ mother picked up a maid of honor, a preacher, and her daughter-in-law-to-be and headed to the detention center in Charleston.
One Friday afternoon eight years earlier, Smith had been at her favorite haunt, a bar called Roy Bob’s, squeezed between a highway and the Kaskaskia River in her tiny hometown of New Baden, Ill., when she heard the rumble of motorcycles arriving. In walked Suess with two of his friends, tattoos stretching down his arms and long hair pulled into a riotous ponytail. He bent down to put a song on the jukebox, and she tapped him on the shoulder. “Give me two hours to mess up all that hair,” she said, grinning as he looked up in surprise. They spent the weekend together and every one they could after that.
Smith, 30 at the time, grew up near Roy Bob’s in a double-wide trailer set on telephone poles in the river’s flood lands, where she still lived with her parents and three sisters. Smith’s father, a retired truck driver, had tried hard to keep his daughters away from bikers, but the family saw that Suess was good for her, settling her down after years of hard living. When the river flooded, the water often rose to Smith’s porch. Suess would send his bike screaming down the highway to get her attention, then wait as she made her way to the roadside in the family’s paddle boat. Smith found Suess to be a “sweetie,” a rebel with an outsized heart. She started a journal from their first days together and wrote that she’d stick with him no matter what.
At the detention center, Smith waited for Suess in a small conference room, wearing a white, off-the-shoulder wedding dress. Suess entered with a guard, in shackles, wearing an orange jumpsuit. He gave Smith a gold wedding ring, and she gave him the black Harley-Davidson ring she’d been wearing on her thumb since his arrest.
Before his second court date two months later, Suess shaved his mustache and cut his hair with a beard trimmer. His mother and Smith brought documents they hoped could help: proof of his military service, tax receipts, his driver’s license and Social Security card, and letters from neighbors saying Suess had brought them freshly killed game or used his pickup to drag their vehicles from the mud. The hearing lasted one minute and 33 seconds. It ended with a removal order and a warning that Suess would do 10 years in prison if he ever returned. Less than a month later, he found himself at the door to the homeless shelter in Frankfurt.
Peter Glitz, a sturdy man with a full head of frizzy hair, glasses, and a thick, graying stubble, has been a social worker with Frankfurter Verein — the Frankfurt Society, a social services agency — for 20 years. He speaks conversational English and is assigned to retrieve people like Suess who tumble through the U.S. immigration laws and land in the Frankfurt airport, which fields most of Germany’s transatlantic flights. One or two show up every month, the most desperate of the people America deports to Germany each year. They’ve arrived steadily for years — about 20 so far in 2013. Members of a local American Episcopal church had first noticed the problem in 2002, while volunteering at an airport mission. Now the church leaves clothes and welcome packets at the mission (a pocket dictionary, toiletries, a map) and posts a document titled “A Practical Guide for People Returning to Germany” on its website. Glitz’s cell phone rings on weekends and in the middle of the night with calls from consulates or relatives letting him know that someone is en route. Sometimes deportees arrive with no warning at all.
For years there was little coordination with German authorities, but Glitz says the country’s diplomats in America now realize “that this is a problem,” and try to get people like Suess on the Frankfurter Verein’s radar. Germany issues temporary passports to deportees, and once they arrive, they’re treated no differently than Germans who grew up in Germany. “Nobody in Berlin is thinking about what happens 30, 40, or 50 years after an American GI leaves Germany. And the American government sends its soldiers to foreign countries to make peace, to make war, and other things, and they don’t take care of what happens after they leave. This is the result,” says Glitz.
Deportees arrive in a haze of shock and jet lag. Some wear numbered prison clothes. Those who have no luggage sometimes exit from an unexpected gate, making it hard for Glitz to find them. “I met a guy [one] January, and it was, let me say, zero degrees, here in Germany. He came from Florida, and he was wearing a Hawaiian shirt. He had shorts on, and he had shoes that weren’t covered. And he had a little gray box. He lived in the U.S. for 50 years, and everything he had was in this little gray box. These people arrive with nothing, and no idea what’s happening. We got him clothes at the airport. It was too cold for him to go outside.”
When cases like Suess’ show up in the European Court of Human Rights, the judges often stop deportation. If people lack ties to their countries of origin, they’ve reasoned, it’s an abuse to send them back. In January 2010, the court heard the case of Abdul Waheed Khan, who emigrated from Pakistan to the United Kingdom in 1978, at age 3, and was later convicted of attempting to import heroin. EU law “protects the right to establish and develop relationships with other human beings and the outside world” and recognizes “an individual’s social identity,” the court ruled. Khan remained in Britain and received 1,750 euros plus interest for his legal costs. Even if stalled immigration reform picks up steam in America, with the issue’s politics already so difficult, people like Suess are unlikely to find relief. When told about Suess and others like him in Germany, ICE responded with a statement: “ICE is focused on sensible, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens and egregious immigration law violators.”
In the fall of 2008, a year before Suess arrived, I pulled up the hood of my sweatshirt and walked into the Rudolf Street shelter. The inside of the elevator was covered in scratches. Some were short messages in German, or names, but mostly they were senseless and frantic, as if someone had been clawing at the walls. Gary Guzik, of Phoenix, lived on the fifth floor in a room that had the nightmarish feel of a college dorm-cum-cell, with a Super Nintendo hooked to a television, used movie posters taped to the walls — Disturbia, Happy Feet — and an end table piled with books that he’d scrounged from the trash. On the beige popcorn ceiling, a spatter of blood was fading. Guzik swore it wasn’t his and rolled up his sleeves to show me his unmarked arms.
Guzik and I were both 24, and for the next few months, I watched as he tried to piece together a new identity. The shelter was a transit point. Eight deportees were living there. The other residents, who smeared excrement on the bathroom walls and screamed alone in their rooms, called them Ausländer — the foreigners. From the shelter, or a separate home for women, the Ausländer made confused trips to the social services office, where they tracked down birth certificates, got ID cards called Ausweis, which Germans carry, and registered for welfare and language classes. When their caseworkers felt they were ready, the Ausländer would get apartments in the city, the rent paid by welfare.
Most of the Ausländer were much older than Guzik. They seemed resigned to eking by on the government rolls and were already practiced at digging bottles from the trash at the end of the month. Even the blue-collar jobs many had held at home required, in Germany, special certification, via classes taught in the impossible native tongue, with its complex matrix of cases, declensions, and inverted syntax. (“I cross the street,” one complained. “How the fuck can the street cross me?”) But Guzik dreamed of going to college in Germany. He thought he could pull meaning from his deportation and make it his second chance. He called himself a newborn baby in a man’s body, and he wanted badly to become German. Sometimes, he even spoke English with an affected halt.
For the other Ausländer, each trip to the social services office seemed only to add to the horrible farce. One went back, sobbing, and tried to return all the documents he’d amassed. Another, a Texan, sat at a table in a needle exchange and injected enough heroin to stop his heart, but paramedics revived him with electric paddles. Then he flew to Mexico, crossed the border, and resumed life with his wife and family, only to be discovered, sent to prison, and deported a second time. “Here I am again,” he told me.
One man came with stage 3 cancer and was dead within months. Another, crippled, was carried by ICE agents from the plane. Still another, a former boxer in his sixties with short-term memory loss, has wandered the Bahnhofsviertel for years, as if he just arrived, complaining that his fighting career is wasting away. An old woman was deported for forging checks. A mother wept when I asked about her young kids, and so did a hardened ex-con. I sat on a park bench with a former drug dealer as he made his first sale in 20 years; someone snorted heroin from my notepad; a one-time guest on Jerry Springer begged for change.
Some had learned from prison or detention that adoption papers had been misfiled or biological parents weren’t who they’d been told. Some had thought they were redeemed until a driver’s license renewal or food stamp application had flagged them on an ICE computer. Others had come at the end of long prison terms. They called Germany a prison without doors — and they were also locked inside their minds, endlessly mulling the misfortune and mistakes that had somehow led them to Rudolf Street. One Ausländer described them as crabs in a bucket, scrambling to escape. If one neared the top, the others, in their chaos, pulled him back. Glitz knows just one who transitioned into what might be considered a normal life. He married a cleaning woman from the shelter, 10 years his senior, and she bought him a car.
When I last visited Frankfurt in September, recent deportees included Norbert Langys, a U.S. Army veteran from Chicago, and a Florida man, Ralf Kamins, who was pining for his wife and three children, the youngest 4 years old. “I just want my kids,” Kamins said. On previous trips since meeting Guzik, I’d stood with him in the line at a methadone clinic — he’d gotten hooked on heroin after “reality hit,” he said then — and visited him while he was living with a German girl of 16; he served me home-cooked dumplings as they pantomimed a normal life. The girl, now 19, had become his fiancée, and the couple had a 2-year-old daughter. Guzik was coming along in his German and apprenticing as a salesman in a used furniture store. Sitting on his porch in a Yankees hat and wraparound sunglasses, he said he felt grateful to Germany — “There’s not many people in the world who get to start again from scratch” — but that he would always feel like a foreigner there. “It doesn’t matter where I am, I’m still gonna be who I was. And the government in America can’t change that.”
Suess’ sixth-floor room in the homeless shelter had a balcony with a concrete ledge, where he sat, legs dangling, rocking furiously, wondering how it would look if he slipped. He could see the Hauptbahnhof below and hear the constant, echoing chimes of its automated announcements as the Ausländer who’d trickled into Frankfurt before him crept like insects through the Bahnhofsviertel.
All that work to get off the bad path, and what do they do? he thought. Stick me right in the middle of it. He took ecstasy and speed, found himself staring into parked cars at laptops and cell phones, and grabbed other residents by the throat to slam them against the shelter’s walls. His fellow deportees scoffed at the idea that Smith would join him in Germany; some had seen the same hopes fade. With all the commotion at the shelter, he barely slept. One night, he woke to another Ausländer yelling drunkenly in the hall. When he walked out to quiet him, a man with a steak knife burst from a nearby door, slashing the Ausländer in the shoulder, arm, and hand. Suess scurried back to his room, panting, covered in the drunk man’s blood, and he thought, Oh my god. I’m in hell.
Suess descended into a constant rage — at America for deporting him, at Germany for accepting him, at himself for fumbling away his identity. Germans were offended by the way he waved his hands when he spoke, trying to make them understand, and if he showed them his Ausweis, they looked at him with disgust. He felt encased in soundproof glass. The thought of starting over crushed him. He roamed the city thinking of ways to kill himself instead — sink to the bottom of the Main River, maybe, and slowly freeze, or disappear in front of a passing train.
Suess bought a cheap cell phone and used it to call his wife from his spot on the ledge. Usually the reception was poor. One night, as Smith’s voice flooded with static, he launched the phone six stories to the street, where it shattered with a tic.
He would leave the shelter at night. In jeans, a St. Louis Blues hockey jersey, and his tennis shoes, he’d take off running into the biting cold, darting senselessly through a maze of winding, interchanging streets, in any direction that seemed to lead away. He ran for hours at a time, stopping for cigarette breaks on the bridges that crossed the Main and leaning over the rails to stare into the freezing water. He ran until there were houses instead of buildings, and in front of the houses, fine German cars. The air felt warmer when the snow fell, covering the city in a clean sheet of white. He slipped and slid and fell as he scrambled down the unmarked streets.
These runs took him to Christ the King, the American Episcopal church. He wasn’t much of a churchgoing type, but he wanted to speak English with people who were in Germany of their own free will. He sat in a pew in back, and on his first few trips, when the pastor paused to welcome new visitors, he didn’t stand. But one Sunday he got up and spoke. “My name is William Suess. I got deported and all my family’s gone and I’m here by myself,” he said. “I lived all my life in America. But now I call Germany home.” He started to cry.
Deportees have drifted in and out of the small congregation for years, sometimes becoming regulars, often looking for money or food. Suess asked for nothing. Arriving early to a walkway covered in snow one Sunday, he scraped it clean it with slabs of cardboard from the trash, turning his hands blue, then watched as the churchgoers trickled in. People asked how he was doing, and eventually he started helping with projects at their homes — clearing basements, installing cabinets, anything to feel of use. He stopped grasping for meaning in his confusion, collected himself, and began to make his way slowly through it. He sat at a bank of computers in a public library and tried to figure out the language software. He found a food pantry that on Friday afternoons sold bags of groceries for a euro and a church that had free lunch at 11 and sandwiches at 4. He took the small chunk of money he saved that way and opened a bank account with two debit cards. He filled his locker and then the suitcase beneath his bed with trinkets and gifts — housecoats, sweaters, knit women’s booties — and canned food. He pestered the social office relentlessly, in English interspersed with mispronounced German, to allow his wife to come. At first, they were reluctant to add another dependent to the rolls. By March, Smith had a spot in a women’s home.
“Tell everybody that everything is for sale,” Suess told her over the phone. “If they come with money, they can have it. You put everything else out in the field and burn it.”
The tools left the makeshift garage, and the garage, furniture, and extra clothes went up in flames. When Smith was gone, one of Suess’ brothers took the wrought-iron gate.
One brisk Saturday last month, I knocked on the door of a ground-floor apartment in a leafy Frankfurt suburb. Smith answered wearing a purple cardigan and sunglasses perched atop her head. She smiled to reveal the full set of teeth that she’d received from Germany’s health care system just after she arrived.
Smith led me into a comfortable place with a small backyard and Weber grill, far nicer than the other welfare-funded apartments I’d seen deportees call home. There were finished wood floors in the halls and living room, homely tiles in the bathroom and kitchen, and painted white walls, all done by Suess. He and Smith had moved in during the fall of 2010. The gifts and trinkets he’d hoarded for her — which he’d first carried to the women’s shelter over several trips, and then crammed into a small room in a couples’ shelter where they later spent a few months — were spread neatly along the shelves. Much of the furniture, and the collection of tools outside, had been donated by friends from the church to repay Suess for his handiwork. He was out running errands, but Fuel, his mutt from Missouri, shipped over by Smith’s sister, was sprawled on the couch. Smith served homemade iced tea.
She’d been terrified at the women’s shelter, still struggled with her language classes, and always missed home. She and Suess had to visit a food pantry on Fridays to make ends meet. But she hadn’t second-guessed her decision to join him in Frankfurt, “not a once,” she said. “This is a walk in the cake compared to what I would have to do by myself back at home.”
Suess strolled in wearing jeans and dirty tennis shoes, his hair cut short and graying. He seemed proud of the life he was putting together: He was learning German slowly, picking up bits and pieces as he went. He’d figured out one word — Süß, or sweet — after hearing it repeated on commercials for candy and juice. “I finally get it,” he said. “I’m Sweet William.” His hand motions still made a spectacle when he spoke the language — “If someone tied your wrists to your ankles, you wouldn’t be able to talk,” Smith quipped after an exchange with the neighbors — but he was gradually making himself understood.
Suess had met a man at church who owned a lot of property in the nearby countryside and needed help with the upkeep; he’d also been hard at work helping to fix up an old mill. He didn’t make much from the work, since welfare recipients must give most of their wages to the government, but it could keep him busy for years, an idea that seemed to put him at ease. He was also comfortable in the apartment, which he’d built up much as he did the modular home he left behind in Richwoods. When he moved in, in fact, he’d been stunned to find the apartment stripped bare — even the kitchen sink was gone, the norm in Germany when changing homes. All that remained, dangling from wires in the ceiling, were a few naked light bulbs. Suess nearly broke down when he first surveyed the scene, awash in panic and frustration. Been there, done that, he thought, as he grudgingly started the work, but he continued all the same.
“I still can’t understand why I’m here,” Suess said. “The papers say I’m a German citizen, but I’ll never feel it. I’m an American. I am. There’s no way I can not feel like an American. I’ll just do my best to fit in. I’ll start again with nothing. Because I have no choice.”
On some days, Suess would admit later, his new life was tougher than he let on. He might stay in bed for days on end, unable to move. Smith would try to rouse him, jumping on the mattress, enticing him with pancakes. He might respond by saying things so vicious he’d spend days wishing he could take them back. He still battled his dark side, which he called “self” — he was recently stopped for driving drunk in a car a friend had given him, leaving him faced with stiff fines and a good deal of guilt. But he said he could keep pressing ahead, especially with Smith there. “I’m not going to say I don’t know if I would be alive without her, but I wouldn’t be in this position. Now I want to live,” he said. “At least we got this house, and I got my little job, and we got our friends, and we can learn.”
Suess took me outside, where a moped, a 1983 Piaggio, sat on the sidewalk. He got it as a gift and painted it from light blue to black. Back in Illinois, when Suess was a road captain in his motorcycle club, he loved to take the job of stopping traffic during bike rallies. He’d block an intersection until the procession went by, and then speed over to the next one, opening up the throttle on his souped-up Harley and ripping past his friends at more than 100 miles an hour. “Full throttle” was his motto then, and he got it tattooed on his chest.
Now he was learning to be content riding around his neighborhood at 50cc. He put on a jean jacket and black bucket helmet and mounted the Piaggio. Then he twisted the handlebar accelerator as far as it would go, and the scooter buzzed slowly down the street. “I just gave a new meaning to the term full-throttle,” he said.