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What does it mean to be an American?

Tik Toker travels across country and stops in Mansfield to ask the question

  • 9 min to read
What does it mean to be an American?

MANSFIELD -- Rik Nagel is a photographer and location scout by trade in New York City. This summer, in the midst of COVID-19 and social unrest, he decided to use his new found free time to travel across the lower 48 states to capture America as it is in 2020. 

On Sunday, Oct. 11, he stopped in Mansfield after my wife offered him hospitality earlier in the summer should he ever travel this way.

We talked for hours about his travels and the project he is working on, "America 2020: Hindsight."

Nagel has been living out of his car for over 100 days now and has interviewed nearly 500 people across the country, asking them a series of 5 to 6 questions including, "What does it mean to be an American?" and "What's one thing you would do if you were in charge?"

He ultimately hopes to turn this into a documentary on a historical year.

Some might think it's crazy to invite a "stranger" from TikTok into your home, but we had one of the most magical evenings and conversations we have enjoyed in a long time.

He interviewed my wife and I and our good friend who was also over for dinner for his documentary, and I also recorded parts of our conversation and asked him a few questions about his journey so far.

You can read our Q&A below and follow Rik on TikTok @riknagel or on Instagram @riktree.

Q: What inspired you to do this?

A: So I was in New York during the pandemic, living in my 400 square foot apartment and going outside once a week. To be honest, I was kind of happy not having to stress about work, cooking for myself and finding more time to be creative. 

Then my mom, who was 88 at the time and living in Pittsburgh fell ill. She's OK now, but was in the hospital. So I hopped in my car and went to Pittsburgh to see her, but because of COVID I couldn't get into the hospital. So while staying at her place, she called me one day and said, 'Don't go downtown, they're protesting.' This was just after George Floyd died. And I was like, 'Cool, OK, I'm going downtown.' 

After walking downtown for a minute wondering if I'm going to be able to find this protest, I then came across a massive group of people walking in front of me. It was boisterous, mixed crowd. Very peaceful and loving. So I kept my distance and began taking pictures. 

There really wasn't any chaos, but we turned around one of the blocks and the air just changed. People weren't moving forward anymore, they were stopping and the crowd was dissipating. There was something happening. Then I saw this young black girl who was in the middle of the street shouting, 'This is the time our white allies need to come to the front!' So I'm like, OK I am being called.

I beelined it up there and the cops, in full gear and armored vehicles, were on one side of the street and everyone else was on the other. And I'm like, an older white guy with cameras so I stand right in the middle of the street. People gathered in closer, mostly because this one girl was inspiring them and chanting, 'Hands up, don't shoot!' Then, all of a sudden, within five minutes, rubber bullets and gas were being shot across the street. 

I'm just taking pictures and the gas got really bad and I felt myself get hit in the back of the head. So I just did not expect this to happen and felt like I needed to get out of there. I wandered a couple blocks away and watched three guys bust into a GNC. And this one guy came out and he had this big thing of protein powder and ran up next to me to his friends and was like, 'look what I got!' And I just said to him, 'you're not helping - what you guys just did is going to be on the news tonight, it's not going to be the protest that I saw earlier.' 

Then one of his friends noticed the gash in the back of my head and was like, 'you need to get to a hospital.' So I found my car, went to the hospital, they stitched me up with three staples and I eventually went home. 

It was that experience that sparked this journey. I was like, 'this just isn't the America I know. This isn't what I'm seeing on the news. This was a peaceful protest that went south fast and it's not because of any of the reasons they're saying. I was there, I saw it.' 

And I'm just not the guy that goes and lives out of his car. I literally Googled, 'how do you live out of your car?' and watched a couple YouTube videos, got a camping mattress, a sleeping bag, my camera stuff and made a little TikTok video.

I only had about 50 followers at the time and I just said that I'm going to go ask Americans what it means to be an American. After I woke up the next day to pack my car, I had about 700 followers, so I'm like 'oh maybe I'm not alone in this.' That was 113 days ago. 

Q: I feel like the protests over George Floyd was the perfect storm. Everyone had been in quarantine for over 2 months, addicted to social media more than ever and were already uneasy. Then this happened and there were no sports, no concerts, no distractions and millions of people were unemployed, so I felt even from the beginning this was going to be big and last for awhile. And it seemed like just about everyone was open to having a conversation at the beginning. What are your thoughts?

A: That's exactly right. We had the video of Floyd getting killed and it was so clearly wrong. There was no debating it. And we were finally primed for this. Poised to have a conversation. Then there were protests. Then there was looting and rioting. And that sucks, but it just shows the level of anger that is out there. And if we had leadership that would have said, 'OK, let's talk about this. It's clear. Let's deal with this now, cause we all have the time and we're all on board.' But instead...

Q: So, how many people have you talked to and what's your process on who you decide to interview?

A: Probably 400-500. At this point, I just get up, get in my car and start driving each day. And I go by instinct. I kind of have plot points of where I want to go, but I really just see someone and I'm like, 'I want to ask them' and I've been really lucky with that. 

Q: Aside from interviewing people, you've been exploring caves and doing a lot of nature photography. Did you set out to do that as well?

A: Yes. I really just like nature a lot. I'm a location scout and a photographer, so every time I'm watching a movie or someone posts an Instagram picture of a cool place, I'm like, 'Oh my God, I want to photograph there, that's amazing.' For years, I've made these plot points on Google Maps of these places. So those are the points I want to hit - places I've always wanted to go or little things I've wanted to see and take pictures of. 

Q: Is there one overarching thing you've learned about Americans from all the people you've talked to?

A: I have a couple things that have shown up over and over. 

First thing is - we are an entitled nation. We are incredibly entitled and we think just because we were born here that we deserve things. The first time I noticed this, I think it was a guy who was sitting in his van in a long line of people. I approached him and asked him what he was in line for and he said a food bank.

So I talked to him and one of his answers (to the question, what does it mean to be an American?) was 'being an American is a responsibility.' And the vast majority of people say being an American means freedom - but it's only like the really poor, the really empathetic and foreigners who say that 'with freedom comes responsibility.' So I think the first thing is that we're really entitled and it's killing us. 

Another thing is freedom. Everyone thinks freedom is super important, but no one really knows what it is, except 'I get to do whatever I want' and some people will say, 'within the law' or whatever.

Then, when asked the question about what we need to do to heal the country, everyone says that we need to listen. And so I started asking people, 'Well, do you listen to people on the other side?' And there was this one woman in North Dakota, we had a great conversation. She had this Trump flag flying from her back porch overlooking the Missouri River and she was like, 'No, and I guess what I mean by listen is, over there, they need to listen.' And that sums it up! Everyone wants to be heard, but no one wants to listen and they know they have to. 

Also, one thing I've noticed about the difference between the two sides, and there are a lot of sides not just two, but one thing I've noticed about the difference between rural and urban is, rural - if my car breaks down, someone will stop and get out and be like, 'Well looks like you got a flat tire, I got a jack, and I know Kenny down the way and he'll hook you up and take care of you.' But when you talk about all those people in that city over there that they don't know and can't see, well 'forget them.'

But then you go to the cities and people are like, 'hey man we gotta take care of everyone - we're the richest nation ever, we have education, we have healthcare, we gotta give this stuff to people' all while they're stepping over a homeless person and not see the individual. So they have the big picture, but are tuned out to what's in front of them. 

Q: What's one thing you've learned about yourself through this process?

A: Wow. That's a good question. So much. 

First, I've learned that I don't need as much stuff as I thought. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was perfectly happy to watch TV, play video games, work on my camera stuff, shop online for Amazon and I was like, 'Cool this is a little break.' Now, I don't want to shop at Amazon anymore. I don't need anything. I have a Subaru that I've been living out of and I don't need much more than that. I've spent more time with me, with my thoughts, making myself laugh on long drives. And realizing like, what's important to me?

I think I was stuck. I was stuck on living in New York and working and ... my core values are the same, but I just don't need the stuff I thought I needed. 

And I've learned that I'm a lot stronger. I never thought I was a weak person, but I've found courage in situations that I walk way from and I'm like, 'Yeah man you did that. Cool. Yes, it was scary and yes you didn't want to do it, but you did it.' I figured out I can handle a lot more than I thought I could. 

Finally, I've learned to listen. I've really learned to listen, not only to other people but to myself. And to nature. Sometimes when I just don't know an answer, I'd normally be like, 'OK, let's break this down and think about all the options,' but when you stop and you just listen, sometimes the answers are clearer. The choices are clearer. So those are my big things. 

Q: Is it new to you to notice that we're a very entitled nation and did you recognize some of that in yourself too?

A: Yes. I think generally I'm a very empathetic, generous person. But yeah, I work in TV commercials. And I'm starting to think if that's really the best use of my skill set. If this project goes somewhere that'd be awesome, but if not I'm really thinking about going back to school, studying psychology and becoming a therapist. Because we're going to have a lot of mental issues after this period for a long time. And I know I can listen, talk to people, plus all of my skills I've used to get into people's homes, take pictures, bring a crew of 100 people to shoot a commercial for Subaru to sell people crap that they may or may not need, I'm like 'I could be listening to one person instead and maybe change their life that afternoon.'

Q: So, what drew you to this area of Ohio and do you have any expectations?

A: I have no expectations. I'm hitting all of the lower 48 and Ohio is one of them. 

Why am I right here (in Mansfield) specifically? I'll tell you why. A lot of people on TikTok offered me a meal, a shower, a place to stay, but you are the first people who have come through in providing me a meal and shelter after offering it. Now, people have given me money and I've met some amazing people.

But the reason I'm right here is because of your generosity in terms of giving me what you said you would. 

And what do I want to see in Ohio? First of all, I want to talk to as many different voices of Ohio as I can. And I want to see the beauty of Ohio that people don't know about in other states.

The little things - crazy Halloween decorations in someone's yard where they've gone out of their way to do it for the past 30 years and even though their kids have moved on and their grandkids don't come around, they do this anyway.

I want to see a cityscape that was planned and accepted by the city and a business came and built it and it has really interesting lines. And I want to meet the people that are really hurting and how does Ohio treat them?

I want to see everything that Ohio is and see it like a family member, not a tourist. 

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Platform Director

Platform Director at Richland Source. Lifelong Cleveland sports fan who also enjoys writing, camping, comedy & living in Mansfield with my wonderful family.