4:30PM, Wednesday, September 24th
Kesler Lecture Hall of Hickok Hall
1220 First Avenue NE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
THE ART OF TRANSLATION: LINH DINH IN GRINNELL
(A reading of my poetry translations from the Vietnamese, plus some of my works that focus on language.)
8PM, Thursday, September 25th
Bucksbaum 131 - Faulconer Gallery
1210 Park Street
Monday, September 15, 2014
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
As published at CounterCurrents, Intrepid Report, Information Clearing House, Diacritics and Daily Dissident, 8/14/14:
Before we start, I must admit that I didn’t set foot in Wisconsin this time, but only saw it from the train as I crossed it going West, then East. (I had been to Madison and Milwaukee before.) This, then, is really a train Postcard, but the long distance train is a community in itself. In fact, Americans seldom have such thorough conversations as when they’re trapped on a long distance train. If only more of us could be confined that way, we would relate to each other a whole lot better, but such a wish also conjures up citizens being packed into boxcars as they’re sent to hard labor, or much worse. How many Americans will cross this country without seeing any of it?
Ah, the ecology of the long distance train! If Lewis and Clark were alive, they would freak out over the outlandish fauna to be discovered on the Empire Builder! Where else will you find a woman trying to eat some very badly-made, meatless fried rice, only to give half of it to a stranger, “The plastic spoon is clean. I wiped it off real good with a paper napkin.” Since she couldn’t afford the $7.25 for chicken and rice at the Spokane station, she had asked for just rice, but then it tasted “like popcorn,” she discovered with a grimace. The other lady couldn’t afford anything at all, however. Hence, the leftover with a used spoon.
Or take a young man from Missoula who was trying to hit on a woman by giving her a cup of instant noodles, “Yes, you can have it! I just ate one myself. It’s pretty good! Really, you can have it.” Tall and lanky, he wore a gray baseball cap backward, a Marines jacket and charcoal colored, thrift store trousers. Like his face, everything he had on was worn and faded. After spending $4.50 on those two cups of MSG-flavored ramen, he was left with just $13.
Sitting in the lounge car, the woman of his fancy was with three friends, two of them male, and though they didn’t seem all that interested in his plight, the Missoula man kept sharing, “By the time I get to Fargo, hopefully it’ll be night, so I can sleep at the station. After that, I’ll find a shelter and stay there a week, maybe a month. It won’t be my first time in a shelter. A buddy was supposed to put me up, but after talking me into coming, he stopped answering the phone and even changed his friggin’ number, but I figure sooner or later I’ll run across him in Fargo. I’ll bitch slap him! I had a place in Missoula, but I gave that up, so he definitely has an asskicking coming for leaving me on the friggin’ street. I’ve spent all my money on this train ride, and I won’t go back to Missoula, because there’s nothing for me in Missoula. In Fargo, I’ll take any job I can get, dishwashing, janitorial… I can’t lift anything heavy because I had a car accident. In 2006, I had a seizure behind the wheel and cracked my skull, broke my back and a bunch of other bones.
“I have this bad habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, I guess. Funniest thing is, I got married in Lake Tahoe, California, then woke up the next morning on an Indian rez outside Minden, Nevada. How the hell did that happened?! My wife, this Indian woman, must have poisoned me. Twice, I’ve been on dialysis. I was down to 99 lbs., and I used to weight 200. I was 22, she was 46, and she died at 53. Suddenly, I was living on this Indian reservation. Yeah, I quit drinking when I woke up and married to that!
“You’re lucky to have someplace to go after getting off this train. I thought I had a place! I’m all right, though, I have 13 bucks. I’m not worried. That’s enough for a pack of smoke and a meal, then I’ll check myself into a shelter.”
Though train passengers are more affluent than bus riders, for sure, you’d be surprise by how many poor people you’ll find on Amtrak, for some towns have no air or bus services, while on some other routes, the fare differences between bus and rail are minor enough that one might as well take the much more comfortable and civil train.
On the train, the top 20% or so go to the dining car for every meal, while the rest of us settle for the café lounge. Some skip eating and drinking altogether for their entire journey. Between Chicago and New York, I sat next to a friendly yet glum man who ingested nothing, not even a drop of water, for 21 hours, and near Clifton Forge, West Virginia, I overheard this dude boast that he had been starving for two days. He couldn’t bring himself to cough up $6.25 for a damn cheeseburger, he said, so he was boycotting it out of principle. Who can blame him? Give me the Dollar Menu or give me death!
Going to your seat on a plane, you pass through the first class compartment, and there you can see, very starkly, the larger, couch-like seats with no shared armrests, more ample leg room and much better dressed people who have gotten on before you. They will also be the first ones to jump off. On a train, however, the dining car is like a mythical realm to the bad broth slurpers, with what’s happening there only wafting downstream as improbable rumors crackling over the intercom: “Today’s seafood catch of the day is a mahi-mahi filet, served with two sides, at $23.75. The Amtrak signature steak is $25.75…” Yes, yes, I hear you, there are always rich and poor in any society that comes after hunting and gathering, but do mind that gap, eh!
Since they know what it’s like to be ordered around, waitresses and bartenders tend to be the best tippers. Conversely, those who have only been waited on can be extremely demanding, if not rude, to the waitstaff. With their multiple requests, they will send a waitress scurrying back and forth to the kitchen, and they’ll nonchalantly ask that a menu item be tailored made. So fixated on getting their ways, some won’t relent even when they’re on a train. A woman from Sharon, Massachusetts complained to me about her dining car experience, “They only had one vegetarian dish, pasta with vegetables, so I ordered that, but I didn’t want the pasta, only the vegetables, but when I asked the waitress to withhold the pasta, she gave me all this attitude! She said they were already made, and I could pick out the vegetables myself, but I didn’t want to look at the pasta and be tempted to eat it! I’ve lost a lot of weight, you see, and I didn’t want that pasta in front of me. Everything I said drove this psycho waitress nuts! When I asked for skim milk instead of whole milk for my coffee, she just glared at me, and after I had told her I didn’t want a bun with my salad, she brought it out anyway! In fact, she brought out two! She was trying to get at me, you see.”
When our train stopped in Milwaukee, I thought of Woodland Patterns, the best poetry bookstore in the entire country, and of Grace, who showed up there when I gave a reading in 2005. I had not held her since 1985. Giving me a tight hug, Grace said, “You haven’t changed,” then she stole one of the books I had brought for sale, I think. I can’t blame her. Like so many of us, Grace had wanted to be an artist. Erasing Grace and Milwaukee, the train chugged and whistled its way to Portage, and that’s where Kelly and his daughter got on.
With his body always tilting to the right, Kelly doesn’t walk, he staggers, and that’s how he entered the lounge car. Sitting across from me, Kelly had to strain to speak, and sometimes his eyes would shut, his head would droop forward and he’d nod off for ten seconds or more, “I was a sheet metal worker. My brother and I had a business. I didn’t have insurance for myself since I hardly ever climbed up that ladder. I was trying to save some money, you know…”
“Kelly!” I had to grab his arm to wake the man up.
“It’s my pain medicine. It puts me to sleep.”
“You were saying you didn’t have insurance?”
“Oh, yes, so I fell thirty feet! I’ve had operations on my right knee, upper right arm and back. I’m always in pain. On top of that, my wife is bipolar. I’m messed up in the body, she’s messed up in the head!”
“So where are you going on this train?”
“I’m taking my daughter on a trip. She’s 16. I want to clear her head…”
“Kelly! You want to clear her head.”
“Oh yes, I want to remove her from the bad influences. It’s impossible to raise a kid these days, because whatever you’re teaching them, it’s contradicted by the television and internet, so who do you think they’re going to listen to? My daughter was fine until she discovered boys a couple of years ago.”
“So where are you going?”
“We’re going to Portland, hang out for a couple of days, then rent a car and drive down to San Francisco.”
Though I could clearly see Kelly dozing off on Interstate 5, I only said, “Your daughter will love San Francisco! She hasn’t been there, right?”
“She hasn’t been anywhere. My daughter has only visited Chicago and Milwaukee. I thought she would enjoy this trip more, but she’s been pretty blasé so far. She’s at her seat, texting. I thought I was sitting next to a ghost, and that’s why I came up to this lounge car.”
“Maybe she’ll get into it more after a day or two.”
“I can only hope. My daughter needs to see how large this world is. We live in a tiny town where everybody’s in everybody’s business. People know exactly how much money you have, and so the rich kids hang out with the rich kids. If you’re poor and you hang out with the rich kids, people would think you’re just sucking up to them.”
Hit the road and you’re likely to learn a whole lot, but this can’t happen if you keep your eyes welded to that tablet. From Clifton to La Crosse, the train passed several sand mines, and we also saw idle boxcars loaded with sand. The fracking boom in nearby North Dakota and elsewhere has ramped up considerably sand mining in Wisconsin. Along with jobs and revenues, this mining has also generated silica dust that causes lung cancer and silicosis, and the miles long trains that rumble through cities and towns day and night disrupt traffic and sleep. Mining’s economic benefits must also be revised downward, since automation has trimmed the workforce, and mining’s boom and bust nature attracts transient, out of state workers who take much of their earnings elsewhere. Finally, since mining is always a tremendous act of violence against the landscape, thousands of acres of verdant Wisconsin are being turned into waste land just so this American joyride can zoom along for a tad longer. Like North Dakota, Wisconsin is also a casualty of fracking, but don’t tell this to Governor Scott Walker, for he’s so gung-ho about sand mining, he’s publicly thanked “God and the glaciers.”
Just to stay chubby, we’re eating the country itself, not to mention a good chunk of this earth, but this self-devouring orgy is clearly winding down, and as our world is tapped out, man will slide down the oily pole of modernity. With bombs and drones, then sticks and stones, everyone will fight everyone else for the remaining scraps.
On the train, I met a man from Racine who gave me a preview of what’s coming. A Vietnam vet, George discussed what he had learnt about basic survival, but he only arrived at it via a preamble about a TV documentary, “If a story is passed from generation to generation, sometimes people put yeast in it, inflate it, sometimes it becomes astronomical, but PBS did such an excellent, extraordinary documentation, and that’s why I love PBS. I think every American should give them something, because they’d go from nature to biology, oceanography, photography… You name it and PBS covers it.”
Before I engaged George, he had been sitting there for maybe an hour, just staring out the window. A thin, black man, he wore a sparse moustache and had on a “WISCONSIN” baseball cap. George started out speaking very softly, but gradually became more animated, “This show was about a Japanese who was living in a cave, and everybody thought, Oh man, this can’t be, but the Vietnamese did it! This one gentleman. Cookie… I can’t pronounce his name. Kekanazi? Cookienazi? It’s so tremendous, his great desire to survive, I could feel it!
“So this man ate raw fish, he ate snails, anything that an American or average person would turn their stomach to or hold their nose and say, ‘I can’t eat that,’ but I’ve learnt in Vietnam, Don’t say what you can’t or won’t eat, because if you get hungry enough, and if you’re cut off from your supply, and your only means of survival is what God has put here on this earth, and you learn from the tribesmen and villagers of Southeast Asia or wherever… Man, you’ll find some of the best eating in the world!
“I’ve eaten squirrel and water buffalo. I’ve eaten orangutan. We didn’t have to find them, they found us. We’d go into a sector that was really theirs, and they’d be hanging out in the trees and looking at us. They weren’t scared. The baby orangutans would be inquisitive, curious, like children, and as we set up our base camp, they’d wait until we had our backs turned to snatch something and run off! They’d steal our food and weapons. They might take an M-16, and as large as their fingers are, if you have the safety off, their finger would get caught in the M-16, and it would go off while they’re up in the trees!
“We were invading their territory, so they had to be wondering, What are these strangers doing in my home? I’m not the invader, you are! You’re destroying my lifestyle, my habitat, my food supply, and I just want to know what’s going on down there? You have to look at it from an animalistic point of view.”
To endure Vietnam, George had to adapt to its environment, and to survive in the jungle, he became a neo-primitive, but his quest for assimilation was so fierce, he even learnt to speak Vietnamese and Loatian, “People think the only dimension that exists is what we can see, but I’ve learnt from the Asians, from the Laotians, that’s not true. I speak Vietnamese and Laotian. Something comes natural. Vietnamese is part Chinese, French and Japanese combined. You may be Oriental, but if you go to Spain, you might recognize a word here and there, and you’d be like, How do I know that word? So I listened to the Vietnamese talk, and soon enough, I could also say la le, di di ma, di di ma wa, you know what I’m saying?”
Actually, I had no idea what he had said, but not wanting to interrupt this man’s train of thought, I betrayed neither mirth nor bafflement.
George, “If people keep telling you that you’re going to die, that we’re going to kill you, and if you give up your weapon, we’ll treat you nice. If they repeat that over and over, you’ll pick up the language too.
“I went to Cambodia and Laos. Being there, what I found as the greatest experience, more than the war itself, is talking to the people, and instead of spending my time going to the village to get, you know, I decided I want to get an education, and who’s better to tell you about a situation than the average American, the average Laotian? They told me stories that were absolutely unbelievable.”
Finding an eager listener, George expounded at length on numerous topics, including sagging pants, “Every time I see them I always get into an argument or a fight, even at my age, because I can’t stand these ignoramuses. I’d say to them, ‘Remember you’re a man, and a black man, so pull your goddamn pants up! That’s right, I’m talking to you! We didn’t struggle all those years, didn’t go to demonstrations and marches so you can humiliate all of us like that!’ They’re acting like fools and animals, man, like penguins, because that’s not walking. They’re wobbling! If you’re black and you say anything bad about the black community, they’ll call you an Uncle Tom, but you have to get through to these knuckleheads. Take the knock out game. There ain’t nothing funny about that! Hitting old people from behind… You know that 62-year-old man they hit in Philadelphia? They’re lucky it was him and not me, because I’d have chased them down and pumped lead into their heads, then I’d call the police!”
George on the sad shape of the American Indian, “They’re on everything but a horse.” He spoke of a Cherokee co-worker, “She escaped the rez at 15, ran off with a biker, a nut, and they’re still aren’t married 16 or 17 years later. ‘We’re still getting acquainted,’ she said. Acquainted! She can’t be older than 31 or 32, but she goes to the doctor more often than I do, She’s having another back surgery this summer. I said to her, ‘You have more pain, you go to more appointments than I do, and I’m 62. I’ve been hit with shrapnel, had a concussion, had my legs messed up from jumping out of airplanes, had my rib broken, but you’re in worse shape than me, and what have you done but ride around in a truck with your boyfriend? It just hurts me to see another suffering American, like you, not knowing what you’re entitled to, so you should reconnect with your tribe to get your share of whatever compensation the tribe is getting from the US government.’ She didn’t appreciate me telling her all this, and even got mad at me, so she said, ‘Mr. Shepherd, I’ve got work to do.’ I explained to her, ‘Not once have I made a pass at you. Not once have I physically or verbally assaulted you, so why are you angry at me?’ And she is a beautiful woman, but as good as she looks now, she must have been a superstar as a teenager!”
George knows something about getting his just compensation, for he had to fight the Department of Veterans Affairs for 10 years to be classified as a victim of Agent Orange. Before this, he was only getting “kibbles and bits” in disability payments. America’s neglect of her veterans is a disgrace, he said, “Why do we continue to spend money on murder and mayhem while our veterans sleep on the streets?” In spite of all this, George’s patriotism is unalloyed, “This is the greatest country on earth, and there’s nothing more beautiful than the sight of that flag flying. Each time I look at it, I just want to choke up. I knew in my heart I was born to be a soldier. I knew in my soul, I was born to be a warrior. I also knew that God did not put me here to be dormant or a fool. When I was a kid, I didn’t like cowboys and indians, I played with a Sherman tank. ”
George signed up for an extra year of fighting in Vietnam, “I did it to save my brother, because I knew he wouldn’t be able to take it. There’s a law that said only one son from each family could be in Vietnam at a time. I had another reason, but it’s something civilians will never understand. It’s a burning desire called esprit de corps in the military, and in civilian life, it’s called compassion. It’s a love for those who have made the greatest of sacrifices so you, yourself, can go home.
So you’re home and you’re walking around and you see the corner store, and you think of a restaurant you’d like to eat at, and everything is so nice, the trees, the vegetation, and you’re thankful that God has granted you another day on this earth, and somebody you know waves at you, ‘How you doing?’ and you go, ‘Hey man, what’s up!’ and everything should be just fine, but it isn’t, really, a pretty sight, because no one knows what you’ve gone through, and no one cares. How many beers can you have before you feel like killing yourself?”
George spoke of a Marine who served five tours, “On this fifth tour, he didn’t come back. I went to his funeral, and it was a closed coffin ceremony. You see, people think there must always be a body inside that coffin, but sometimes a coffin is just for show. Lots of time, there’s nothing to send back but some bone fragments, half a boot, bit of clothing, a bible or dog tag, so whatever you have, you put inside that coffin. If you have nothing, then it’s just an empty coffin that goes into the ground.
“The captain was married to an Eskimo, and each time we came over, she always treated us like she had known us forever. He had such a beautiful, happy, peaceful family, and his kids had so much manners and were so humble. I’m their adopted godfather. I’d kill a brick for one of them kids.”
George spoke lovingly of his late wife, whom he was married to for 33 years, and of a grandson who was shot for trying to help a stranger, “He saw this man step on a woman’s face, and he just had to do something, because that’s the kind of man he was. That’s how he was raised.”
George’s son graduated from Clemson, and he himself went to three colleges and a vocational school. He’s also been jailed four times, however, “I didn’t hurt anybody. One of my convictions was for writing bad checks.” With his emphasis on family, education, discipline and personal improvement, George is typical of many working class Americans, especially of his generation, but his enthusiasm for the military is also all-too-common. Firmly believing in the dignity and honor of serving his country, he ignores its contradictions and abuses, many of which he has seen firsthand. After shooting the shit with and shooting Southeast Asian villagers, tribesmen and orangutans, George came home as a good American soldier, and the same Communists he risked his life fighting are about to buy weapons from American manufacturers, and why not, since America is an equal opportunity death merchant that has armed just about every country, militia or drug gang. Just call this toll-free number!
Though America’s ideology will gyrate, twerk or U-turn from moment to moment, her allegiance to war profiteering is unshakable, and as she destroys humanity, she speaks of civilization so constantly that the word itself has become suspect. “Democracy” and “freedom” she has long crapped on beyond recognition. From Portland to Williston, I sat behind a young man who spent all of his waking hours being mesmerized by a computer game. Candy, a gregarious woman with Sioux blood, asked him, “What are you playing?”
Without looking up, he growled, “Civilization Builder.”
“So what’s the point? Are you building up civilization from scratch?”
“Are you defending what you already have?”
“Oh, I get it, you want to get a lot more!”
Now, before you laugh at this young man’s naked and childish admission to wanting more, remember that greed and lust for power are fairly universal traits that spread across the political spectrum, though only on the conservative end are they openly admitted to and even touted as virtues. The war instinct is also found in all surviving cultures, with tiny pockets of pacifism remaining thanks to the mercy or tolerance of their larger societies. Again, it is mostly those who self-indentify as conservatives or traditionalists who openly embrace war as not only necessary for the survival of society, but as a crucible for the development of each individual’s character. To them, a rejection of war is not just cowardly and unrealistic, but a refusal to, literally, become a man.
Exploiting these convictions, American war profiteers have few problems selling any war to the American public, and that’s why you see the generic “Support our Troops” stickers and signs everywhere, but what these unquestioning war supporters don’t realize is that, in this endless war that’s being waged by their masters, they’re also collateral damage and enemy. Fighting against themselves, they’ll wave the flag until they’re bombed back to the stone age, and perhaps by friendly fire even.
Tuesday, August 5, 2014
As published at Information Clearing House, Intrepid Report and CounterCurrents, 8/7/14:
Our train was hugging the Columbia River. Sitting in the lounge car, a father looked at that huge, snaking ribbon of silvery water and said to his young son, “I’m just jonesing to go fishing. That’s the first thing we’re going to do when we get home!” Then, “That Colts shirt really looks great on you, Jack!”
Later, he explained to a stranger, “We’re originally from Portland, but it just got too squirrely for me. I’m a traditional guy, I like to keep things simple, so I just had to get out of there.”
Speaking about his wife, the man said, “My wife is a people person, but I’m a bit on the crunchy side.”
About seven-years-old, Jack had been silent all this time as his dad chattered, but now he interjected, “You mean crusty! You’re crusty, dad, not crunchy.”
Everyone who was within earshot cracked up, and of course, the kid was right, for the opposite of being gregarious is being crusty or cranky, and not a Granola Bar-munching, tree-hugging pot smoker who dwells in the Hawthorne District of squirrely Portland. Crunchy, the man certainly wasn’t, and not crusty either, for he’s positively bubbly sitting across from his son as Oregon and Washington sped by outside the windows.
East of Davenport, Iowa, you might be slapped with a fine if you dare to use “squirrely” in any sentence, and “crunchy” is too self-consciously cute and misleading to be of much use to anyone who’s not squirrely. No regional idiom, it’s just a subcultural burp that, hopefully, won’t linger too much longer. In any case, how crunchy is Portland really?
All over this country, there are places of refuge, towns and cities where people go to escape prevailing mores and tastes. Some of these oases are merely regional. If you’re a Montana free jazz musician, poet, vegan activist blogger, transsexual hipster flaneur, nude yogic speller of inappropriate portmanteaus or just a plain, generic weirdo, you might gravitate towards Missoula. If you’re in Eastern North Carolina, Carrboro offers kindred spirits. Nationally, San Francisco and lower Manhattan were for many decades magnets for American misfits of all types, but their exorbitant rents have sealed them off to the vast majority of us, provided we don’t care to sleep on cardboard.
Though hardly cheap, lesser cities like Austin and Portland have therefore emerged to welcome artistic, political and, most lucratively, lifestyle refugees from the rest of America. “KEEP AUSTIN WEIRD” is the unofficial civic slogan for one and, what else, “KEEP PORTLAND WEIRD” for the other. Who said that crunchy and squirrely types are more original than middle America? Just because they’re into, say, biodegradable ear plug piercings or butt plugs made from recycled F-16 tires does not mean they’re not, essentially, copycats and clones.
In a consumerist culture, people rebel by buying a different brand, and instead of staging a real rebellion, which requires secret planning and stealthy strikes, American pseudo radicals are constantly fingering themselves as soon as they hit the sidewalk. It’s a fashion thing. In this illusionistic and narcissistic society, it’s imperative that you look a certain way if you want be slotted into one of the socially acceptable subgroups. It’s all cosplay, all the time, for even the nerd look has been commodified and imbued with irony.
Before my recent trip to Portland, I hadn’t been there in over five years. In late 2008, I came up from California, and between Klamath Falls and Eugene, I chatted with an older man, Bob, who had worked for 31 years in a sawmill in Florence, on the Oregon Coast.
“The spotted owl fuss put me out of work,” he lamented. “These environmentalists live on the East Coast, never been out here, so they don’t know how much forest we have. Just look for yourself,” he indicated with a nod. Sitting in the lounge car, we stared at the blonde fields, viridian evergreens and snow-tipped mountains. Canadian geese flecked a small patch of sky. The winding lake seemed short of water. Even at four thousand feet in November, there was no snow.
“You can cut them responsibly, and they’ll grow back,” he continued. “Many old growth trees are already rotted in the center, so a storm would knock them all down anyway. Wasted.” To illustrate, Bob drilled his index finger vigorously into his left palm. “Since our logging industry is mostly dead, we have to buy lumber from overseas, from people who really don’t give a hoot about the environment.”
With the sawmill silent by the river, Bob got hired by Safeway, the supermarket, but business was slowing, the town depressed and what’s worse, many people would rather drive 60 miles to shop at Walmart. The fishing industry was also dead. Without logging and fishing, Florence had opened a retirement home, a golf course and a casino in Hail Mary bids to revive its economy.
At 60, Bob had two years of mortgage to deal with. “I just hope Safeway doesn’t go bankrupt. At my age, it will be hard to get hired again. I don’t want to move to the city to find another job. They might just turn me into a wafer, you know, a cracker,” Bob chuckled. “Do you know that Charlton Heston's film, ‘Soylent Green’?”
“No. What is it about?”
“It’s a sci-fi where old people are turned into a cracker. They become food.”
“That’s pretty funny!”
“Yes, it is, and that’ll be me in a few years.”
“Jonathan Swift suggested that Irish babies at the age of one should be eaten,” I countered. “Beyond one-year-old and it’s not cost efficient to raise them. Also, that’s the best age for the most tender meat, according to Swift.”
“What's his name?”
“Jonathan Swift, Irish guy.”
“And he was joking?”
“I think so.”
Not to be outdone, Bob related, “During the siege of Leningrad, some people ate their children.”
“After they’re dead?”
“No, they killed them and ate them. Some also sliced chunks from their own buttocks.”
“But,” I protested, “the lost blood! There’s no net gain!”
“Maybe not, but when you’re desperate, you’ll eat your own ass!”
Rolling into Union Station this time, I was wondering if the donut hole I was munching on was actually Bob, or maybe he had lucked into a winning Classic Gold scratch ticket, and was just kicking it back in his paid-off home.
With numerous small parks, several with man-made waterfalls, Portland has a greener and more attractive downtown than most other American cities, and with its many upscale shops and eateries, it also looks pretty affluent. It has extensive bike lanes, walking paths removed from motorized traffic and an excellent light rail system, so it’s easy to get around. Moreover, the streets aren’t overly wide, so they aren’t stressful to cross and car noises don’t aggravate.
From 1990 to 2010, Portland’s population grew by 33%, and it’s still spiking up, so clearly, this city’s allures are recognized by plenty of people, including an army of homeless. Ubiquitous downtown, they lie in a row on Burnside Street in Chinatown, sprawl under the Steel Bridge, sleep in and around Chapman Square. On many blocks, they sit and beg, and in every park, they hang out. Each dawn, mountain bike riding cops rouse the homeless from hundreds of commercial doorways, so the day’s commerce can commence. By the airport, a tent city called Dignity Village has existed since late 2000.
Many of the homeless here are younger than 35, and whether they’re gutter punks, deadheads, juggalos, rainbow family members or nothing specific, many have come to view being homeless as a lifestyle in itself, and not a temporary predicament. Though they welcome a couch or hotel room every now and then, their long term aim is not to gain employment and permanent shelter, but to keep from doing so for as long as possible. Many of them were in the Occupy camps and this is hardly a surprise since their non-goals, if you will, echo the non-demands of that failed movement. Instead of fighting back, American rebels not only embrace their disenfranchisement, but consider this defeat a victory. Now as then, many of them occupy city parks, while their overlords sneer down at them from surrounding bank towers.
On the edge of Chapman Square, I saw a young man writing with yellow chalk on the paved walkway:
“Environmental / geopolitical / spiritual trends are increasing the importance of the task of restructuring / replacing / recycling our political / economic institutions. 'Occupations' or 'humanity hubs' can help us with this task by peacefully creating spaces for political / economic experimentation”
Above the northeast corner of this statement, he had written in turquoise chalk:
I LOVE YOU.”
No older than 25, he had been homeless for a couple of years, he said, “I get by on food stamps, and I couch surf. I don’t really use money any more.”
“How long will you go on like this?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re young, so it’s easy to tough it like this, but what if you get older? What if you get sick?”
“I don’t know. I’ll deal with it when I get there.”
“You know, the Occupy movement made homelessness a model. That’s what they were doing. They became symbolically and publically homeless, but why should we occupy a park when they get to occupy everything else?! If all we’re after are these parks, if we just want to become bums, then they’re perfectly happy with that. We’re not threatening them at all! We should threaten them, man! We shouldn’t retreat into these parks. We should threaten them where they are!”
He smiled, didn’t say anything and seemed anxious to get back to his chalk manifesto, so I shut down my rant and moved on. Let’s not forget that Time Magazine had “The Protester” as its 2011 Person of the Year, so if the mainstream media can chuckle and affectionately muss up your dread locks like that, it means you’re no threat to the status quo. I know a middle-aged Wall Street denizen who used to drop by Zuccotti Park on his lunch breaks to hang out with the many cute protesters. It was almost as exciting as going to a go-go bar. Still gorging on Wall Street, he’s fond of calling himself an “Occupy Wall Street veteran.”
Walking South from Chapman Square, I stopped at Keller Fountain Park and sat next to a homeless man about my age, that is, 50. Though he wore glasses, one lens was missing while the other was entirely wrapped, several times, with black electrical tape so that it bulged out like a vinyl tumor. He had a large plastic container of what looked like cooked macaroni, but its skimpy coat of tomato sauce had turned gray. With a plastic spoon he ate the sour smelling dish. Though the high that day was 85°F, he had on several layers of grimy clothes, for it was just more convenient to wear everything he owned. What skin he showed on his arms and legs was splotched with reddened lesions in various degrees of freshness, crimson scabs, tiny eruptions of pus, now hardened, and bloody scratch marks. Even when he’s caught in the rain, I doubt that much water can reach his skin beneath its permanent layer of greasy dirt.
Since the dude didn’t feel like chatting, I moseyed on and ran into a shirtless young man with a 750ml bottle of Aristocratic Gin. As he marched down the street, he raved and glared at passersby then, still agitated, sat down on the curb for a few second, only to get up to splash on the sidewalk all of his remaining liquor, a good half bottle. That’s roughly four bucks, I quickly calculated with genuine regret. Needless to say, he wasn’t in a conversational mood.
Ah, and now, finally, we come to Bonnie, a sweet and most candid woman of 61-years-old. Though women on the streets tend to have more stuff than men, Bonnie had absolutely nothing beyond her orange sneakers, blue and white strap dress, necklace, ring and dirty pink jacket. As I walked by, she yelled, “Mister, can I please use your phone for a moment?”
She asked me to dial her boyfriend and mother several times, but no one answered. Bonnie left a message for her man, “Where are you? Are you mad at me?”
“Let’s call him back later,” I suggested. In the meantime, Bonnie told me her life story: She was born in Washougal, WA, which is just northeast of Portland, “We’re famous for our toilet paper. There’s a paper mill in Camas. I worked there.”
“What else have you done?”
“I was a makeup artist for Revlon. I modeled for this girl. She’s an artist. I used to be so beautiful! You should have seen me! I was a cook. I’ve done just about everything.”
“Were you a good cook?”
“Yeah. When I felt like it!” We both laughed. “For a year, I did that. I went from one job to the next. I was working 16 hours a day, with an hour break in the middle. Then I went to college, for a while. I studied secretarial science. I worked four jobs while I was in college.”
“You had no time to study.”
“Yeah, I did. I got every single question on all my final tests perfect, because I had a baby and I wanted to take good care of her. My second husband hit her, and I didn’t want to have a husband no more. He might hit me. I wanted to have a good job so I could take care of her.”
“How many kids do you have?”
“Just two, but I also had three miscarriages and seven abortions.”
“Seven abortions?! Some people die just after three or four.”
“I know. My first one was the worst. My fever was up to 104 something. They hadn’t gotten all the contents out of me, so I had to go into the hospital again.”
“How old were you?”
“And when was your last abortion?”
“I’m not sure, but I was in my 30’s. You know, what it is is I get pregnant real easy. I just kept getting pregnant. Once a woman gets pregnant, then her body is more prone to get pregnant again and again.” Bonnie giggled.
“And three miscarriages?”
“Those came after the abortions.”
“And your two kids, where are they now?”
“My son is in the Army, in Texas, and my daughter’s in Seattle. She orders parts for Boeing. She’s doing really well. My daughter just went to Italy with her husband.”
“She can’t help you out?”
“No, I’m too proud to go up there and beg.”
“And your parents?”
“My mom is in Vancouver. My dad killed himself. My younger brother, too. He died just a year ago. The anniversary is coming up. I feel awful about it. If I had reached out to him more, maybe he wouldn’t have died. My brother was just 51 when he hanged himself. He was a mechanic for the railroad, but he had a drinking problem, so they fired him, then his wife left. My father also worked for the railroad, but he was an engineer. My father was 70 when he shot himself.”
“Why don’t you go stay with your mom if she’s in Vancouver? You know, just walk across that river?”
“She’s loaded, too, but I can’t rest if I go there. She’s a go-getter. She always wants to do stuff so she won’t leave me alone to just rest, and I can’t detox if I’m around her. I have a drinking problem, you know.”
“How often do you drink?”
“Every eleven or twelve days.”
“Oh, that’s not bad at all. You don’t have a drinking problem!”
“Yes, I do, because every time I drink, I get sick, and I need medication to come out of it. I’ve been to detox a bunch of times. I’ve been stripped naked and thrown onto the concrete floor.”
“So you do have a drinking problem!”
“Yes, I do!” We both laughed. “But I have more problems than that. I’m also bipolar, and I have post traumatic stress. Noises bother me. That’s why I have to put these into my ears.” As Bonnie showed me two skin-colored, molar-sized pieces of foam, I was surprised that she had had them on all this time. To stand life, Bonnie needs to have it muffled. “I was beat up a lot. My dad used to beat me real hard when I was a little girl. He beat me all the time. Messed me up.”
“How many siblings do you have, Bonnie?”
“I have three brothers and two sisters. I’m the oldest. I took care of them.”
“So you’re like their mom?”
With her disabilities, Bonnie was receiving $1,500 a month in benefits, so that should have been enough had she been frugal, but she ended up homeless anyway. As someone with an alcohol problem and seven abortions, careful planning is not her forte, obviously, and she is bipolar, after all. Also, this is a culture where the advertisements, songs, movies and TV shows are constantly glamorizing and sexualizing all sorts of impulsive behaviors, so though Bonnie may appear much different than the younger homeless of Portland, they’re basically the same. Stumbling from dead end jobs or no jobs at all, they’re alienated, often addicted and can’t see beyond their next feel good moment. Last winter, Bonnie slept outside, “Oh, it’d get so cold, so it doesn’t matter how good your sleeping bag is, and then it’d start to rain, and all these men would try to rape you.”
If you had seen Bonnie inside, say, a bingo hall or a Denny’s, you might mistake her for a Norman Rockwell grandma, but if you talked to her at length, you’d hear her laughingly ejaculate, “I’m fooooucked!” Of course, Norman Rockwell types all over the country are also fooooucked. Bob, too, might be fooooucked, and he’s as wholesome looking as can be. At this very moment, he just might be eating his own ass, seasoned with a bit of ketchup stolen from the local McDonald’s. Moreover, should he need to wipe his buttocks as he’s feasting on it, he can get free toilet paper from Bonnie’s hometown, for it’s a tradition to toss free rolls to cheering onlookers during its annual parade.
In Portland, I also met Sam, a 35-year-old unemployed metal fabricator, welder and boat painter. Born in Laos, Sam came to the US at 2-years-old, has lived all over this country and is now homeless. When moving around, Sam pushes an old man’s walker with all of his belongings strapped to it.
With Sam, I entered Ming Lounge, a grubby bar in Chinatown, and there I talked to Laquita, an unemployed woman in her late 30’s who’s planning on starting a business recycling tires. She’d done her homework and was convinced she would succeed. After losing her electrician job in Texas, Laquita came to Oregon to take advantage of its more generous welfare provisions, and with the state’s help, she had moved into a new apartment. Half Belizian, half American black, she spoke of retiring in Belize someday.
Ming Lounge’s bartender, Britney, was born in Morgantown, West Virginia. After getting her batchelor's degree in agribusiness, she moved to Philadelphia, then Portland. She loves Portland, she said. Her boyfriend is raking in the bucks selling rubber fetish wear and rubber and titanium jewelry. Ah, so there is still manufacturing left in America! On second thought, though, I’m sure these tongue rings, skin eyelets, hider plugs, collars, cuffs, open grid double strap halter bras and penetrable thongs are all made in China. It really is over.
Along with the visible decay that can be seen in cities and small towns alike, there is a widespread malaise afflicting the American spirit, and this is most acutely felt among the younger set. If they have gone to college, then they are most likely crippled with insane debts while stuck in a job that doesn’t require their overpriced yet diluted education, acquired with bankster loans. To make ends meet, they’re living in a crowded, shared apartment or at home with mom and dad, again. As for the professions, many are rotten with fraud, corruption or other immoralities, what a quaint word, so that to hold even the lowliest job in the military, police, government, banking, accounting, insurance, health care, media, advertising or the academy, etc., is to swim among crooks and liars, and it’s all too easy to become a cynical and sinister asshole yourself. In an image-dominated society, public relations is everything, so the most crucial task, always, is to maintain a sexy or dignified appearance, and to hell with what happens behind the scene. In a Camden tent city, I met a young man who had wanted to be a policeman, but after a few months on the job, he just had to quit, “You don’t even know how corrupt it is.”
Living in such a sick climate, it’s no wonder there is pervasive disaffection. The Occupy Movement started by focusing on Wall Street, and that’s where Herman Melville placed Bartleby. For reasons never explained, Bartleby, the Scrivener became increasingly non-cooperative at his job, so that “I would prefer not to” became his stock answer to each command from his mild-mannered and tolerant boss. Bartleby became so good at saying no, he finally said no to life itself. Even in beautiful Portland, many people have become Bartlebys.
It’s not all roses here. Per capita, Portlanders ingest more anti-depressants than residents of any other American city. They also commit suicides at a much brisker rate than the national average. Last year, five people jumped off Vista Bridge alone, and in 1998, a homeless, heroin-addicted young couple hanged themselves from the Steel Bridge. For almost an hour, they dangled in full view of thousands of downtown office workers, motorists and train passengers. From the man’s 13-page suicide note, “I think I’ve decided on an old-fashioned public hanging […] The Steel Bridge shall be my gallows.” Ah, squirrely Portland! Sexy and hip, you’re not shy about showing the world what you have, whether in your many strip joints or even in death.
Wednesday, July 30, 2014
As published at Information Clearing House, Intrepid Report, CounterCurrents and Daily Dissident, 7/31/14:
Though this may sound like a joke, it’s certainly no joke, for I’m not a joking type: When I came to the US in 1975, the very first American song I learnt was “Old McDonald Had a Farm.” Though I could not properly pronounce any of the words, and understood only half of them, at most, I sang along with all the other kids in Miss Dogen’s class at McKinley Elementary in Tacoma, Washington. To this day, I remember one kid cracking up at me, and if I should ever see his laughing face again, I’m sure I’ll recognize it even after many decades. I’ll confront my adversary, “Hey, man, it wasn’t very cool of you to laugh at me, like, a century ago!” Anyway, as I was swaying back and forth and mouthing along, “And on that farm he had a cow, E-I-E-I-O,” I was thinking in Vietnamese, “Cute, the natives here are peasants at heart, for they love to sing stupid songs about cows,” but I was wrong, wrong, wrong, of course. It’s remarkable, and risky too, that only 2% of this nation’s people produce food for the rest, and doing any sort of farm work is about the last thing most Americans want to do.
With more reliance on machines, fewer farm hands are needed, but the remaining ones are paid like raw fertilizer. According to the 2002 National Agricultural Workers Survey, the latest available, a farm worker makes just $6.84 an hour, if paid by the hour, or $8.27 an hour, if paid by the piece (and converted to hourly). Since most Americans won’t bend over and sweat bullets under a hellish sun for such chump change, 78% of our crop workers are foreign-born, with over half of them illegal immigrants. A solution seems obvious. We can stanch our influx of foreigners, since this will force wages to be raised high enough to attract fat-assed Americans, like me, you and our in-laws, into picking strawberries, apples and melons… “No way, Jose,” sayeth Old McDonald, “for this will jack up my prices and make me so uncompetitive, I won’t be able to export my crops or even sell domestically, for Americans will prefer to buy imported veggies and fruits, E-I-E-I-O!”
True blue Americans are also averse to farm work since it’s seen as a step backward. For destitute immigrants, however, just making it into this country is progress, and even if they can’t stand toiling in the fields, at least they can view it as a stepping stone to something better. In any case, the ideal trajectory is to move from the farm to suburb or city, not the other way around, and since this is a worldwide phenomenon, there’s a global disdain of rural people, for they’re called hicks and bumpkins in every language. We feel a twisted pride at being totally amputated from nature and, worshipping the city, we’re even conditioned to rank ourselves according to its size. “My city is way bigger than yours!” Ah, but which will last longer, city or country?
Ruminating over these thoughts, I arrived in Pasco, Washington, and it was comforting to return to this state, for though I only stayed there a year, it was my first American home. Before I got off the train, though, I was able to corner an actual farmer, a man in his late 40’s. Sitting in the lounge car, I asked him some basic questions as we hurled past Ritzville, then Connell, “Is there a bias against white laborers? I mean, if a white guy and a Mexican guy shows up, who would you hire?”
“You can’t really put it like that, because I work with labor contractors. I don’t hire individual laborers.”
“What I mean is, Is there a general perception that Mexican guys just work harder?”
“It doesn’t matter because white guys don’t show up! You don’t have to turn down people who don’t show up!”
“Oh c’mon, man, there must be some white guys who show up. In your estimation, what is the percentage of whites among farm laborers.”
“Oh, no way! Only one percent?!”
“Well, maybe a little bit more, but not much more. I see Mexicans and other Latinos, but also some Asians. Japanese, Chinese, I really can’t tell the difference.”
“Yeah, some Filipinos.” Then, “Nowadays, a farmer’s profit margin is so slim, with fuel cost going up, plus fertilizers and pesticides, everything going up, so if I don’t plan very carefully, I may even lose money! It’s hard to find good workers, so the labor contractors have us by the balls. If he’s fast, a worker can easily make $100 a day.”
“Yes, very fast, but on the other hand, you have people who are paid by the hour who are very slow! Getting back to what you were saying about white workers, I think it would be a good idea to allow kids to work, like in the old days, so they can be introduced to this kind of labor.”
“When I was 13, I picked strawberries. This was in Salem, Oregon.” An old school bus picked us up. It was mostly a kid thing and entirely legal. Among the teens and even pre-teens were a few Asian adults.
“Did you like it?”
“I didn’t do it for long, but I actually did. I only made, like, seven bucks a day, but I was very proud of it. Back then, a bar of chocolate was only 20 cents, I think.”
“When I was eight, I already knew how to drive a tractor. My legs were so short that each time I had to shift gear, my entire body would slip down and I couldn’t even see above the steering wheel.” He laughed. “When you let kids work, they mature quicker, but the state has to get into everything. They like to stick their nose into everyone’s business!”
When I was 13, I also tried to sell made-to-order song compilations, as recorded off a cheap radio onto a cheapo cassette. If you gave me a list of, say, “Love Will Keep Us Together,” “Disco Duck” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends,” etc., I would wait until those exact songs came on the radio, at which point I would have to push PLAY and RECORD immediately, for if too much of a song is cut off, you wouldn’t pay me, would you? Though I only charged five cents per tune, I only managed to sell a single cassette, for the kid’s dad promptly told him to stop patronizing this copyrights violating criminal. I don’t think he would have, anyway, since my sound quality was clearly felonious. I’m recalling this episode primarily to show that poor immigrants and other destitute people often come up with the weirdest ideas to make money, from the ingenious to the farcical. In an overly regulated society, however, this natural drive is often stamped
out, and at a very early age at that. We’re bred to be cogs.
I got off the train, entered the station and walked past a couple of Mexican cowboys. Sitting by their sparse luggage, they were waiting for the Nueva Estrella bus to Los Angeles. After a ten minute walk, I saw the first sign of downtown, the Templo Ejercito De Salvacion, with some guy sitting under a nearby tree. Hunched over, a large and slovenly woman was patiently picking up a bunch of something from the sidewalk. I doubt they were cigarette butts, for there couldn’t have been that many to harvest. Against a slatted chain link fence, a handful of ragged men rested on the sidewalk.
Things spruced up in downtown proper, and I walked past Manualidades Carlitos, Carniceria La Barata, La Princesa Family Clothing/Ropa Familiar, Las Estrellas Muebleria, Mi Casa Muebleria, Viera’s Bakery and Joyeria Esmeralda, etc. On many stores, about the only English was the “OPEN” sign. Since even the worst beer on Amtrak was $5.25, I had been a teetotaler for a day and a half, so I had no need for any carniceria or agencia de viaje, but in looking for a cheap beer oasis, I somehow managed to miss the charmingly named Library Tavern, which I’d only spot on my way out. I did stumble onto a very festive farmer’s market, with kids running around and folk music from a guitar strumming duo called Winters and Skalstad.
Needing a cheap hotel, I had booked an out-of-the-way one in Kennewick, across the Columbia River. I asked a Hispanic man to point me to a bridge, but he said he had just gotten into town the day before, so had no idea. A second Hispanic man gave me directions in Spanish. The handsome suspension bridge was bookended by three homeless people, with a couple sleeping on the grass next to a shopping cart on the Pasco side. In Kennewick, a white bearded man in a dirty denim jacket slumbered on a rustic, lumber bench outside the Veterans Memorial. Next to him was a raw and irregular wooden cane.
Stepping onto the bridge, I encountered a frank warning, “NO JUMPING OFF BRIDGE / $250 FINE.” Since it’s only 48 feet above water, I’m not sure if you’d meet the Devil by leaping from it, but just to be on the safe side, I’d counsel that you securely attach to one of your big toes a Ziploc bagged money order for $250, exact, just so you can square your account with the government post mortem.
I’ve crossed from Juarez, Mexico into El Paso, Texas, but the shift from Pasco to Kennewick may be even more abrupt, for only in the second case does Spanish disappear almost entirely.
With its endless strip malls, much of Kennewick is rather nondescript, but it does have a dignified historical downtown. After an excellent lunch in Andy’s, a diner where older folks can cheerfully annoy the Mexican waitresses with long winded tales about their grandkids or great grandkids, I decided to walk into Parkade, and it was there that I met Jack.
Behind bar, colorful gambling tickets were as prominently displayed as liquor bottles, and I noticed a couple with sexually suggestive names, Lick It and Booty Call. To pick your pocket, they must appeal to the playful infant inside you. Hence, the bright colors and cartoon figures. It’s all a game, you see. Sex also fits into this lure since it is, at bottom, nakedly infantile, especially in its fantasy form. Let’s play! Bare, even a senior citizen is just a child, and will even act like one. Will you be a good girl?
The “Game of the Day” was Ale House Rock, and Katie, the bartender, would shake the plexiglass box vigorously, and convulsing her own small frame, before pulling out a ticket. Though this couldn’t have improved the odds one whit, it showed that Katie was trying hard to land you a winning combination. Handing her a stiff Lincoln, a man in a cut-off plaid shirt got five bright tickets to scratch.
Ah, it’s great to be back in Washington State, for everywhere I looked, I could see the colors and logos of my favorite corporate-owned teams: Mariners, Seahawks and the carpetbagged Sonics! Before first pitch, soldiers marched onto the diamond and stood stiffly as the singer belted, “Rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air.” Then followed a well-staged reunion of a small boy with his soldier father, returning from his imperial posting in Afghanistan. “That’s just great,” the TV announcer gushed. The Mariners Moose did his little jig.
OK, let’s just meet Jack already! With his golf shirt, slacks, easy manner and gray, thinning hair, Jack came off as a well-situated man near retirement, “I’ve been in this area my whole life. I haven’t even traveled. My wife doesn’t like it. I went to a friend’s funeral this morning, though, and it got me thinking. This fellow, I knew him for over forty years. He was always in great shape, played golf, played tennis, didn’t even have a beer belly, then suddenly, he dropped dead! It got me thinking. Maybe I should enjoy myself a little.”
“What are you waiting for, then? You should take a little trip! Just go!”
“Maybe I should. I’ve worked my whole life. Five years ago, I retired, but that didn’t even last a year. I got so bored, I went right back to work!”
“What do you do?”
“I’m an inspector. I inspect construction sites.”
“Well, I’m a writer. This is my first time in Kennewick. I just got off the train this afternoon.”
“I can’t say there’s a whole lot to see around here. Pasco, where the train station is, has a lot of Mexicans, so that’s a bit different, but Kennewick and Richland are just houses, with a few bars like this.”
“Has Pasco always been Mexican?”
“Ever since I was a kid, there were Mexicans there, but now there are more. Way back then, there were many Asian farmers, you know.”
“Yeah, mostly Japanese, but also Filipinos. The Japanese were truck farmers. The Fujimotos had a lot of kids. I went to school with a couple of them.”
Truck farming is a single family cultivating a modest plot of land and selling what they produce locally. Though this practice has been pushed to nearly extinction by agribusiness, its idyllic image is often used by agribusiness itself to pimp everything from gooey, pseudo heath food concoctions to reconstituted chicken. The decline of truck farming has resulted in the loss of financial autonomy for countless American families. It’s hard to imagine what a few acres used to mean. From the 1908 Yearbook of the Department of Agriculture, “Where markets are good, the income is so large that a family can make a living on a very small area of land. In fact, 10 acres would be a large truck farm, and 2 or 3 acres properly managed, with good markets, will bring a fair living to an ordinary family.” With his truck farm a dim memory, Old McDonald has become super efficient at cranking out preternatural chalupas for Taco Bell, E-I-E-I-O!
With a new interest in healthy eating, truck farming is staging a comeback, and though we have a long way to go, it is the wave of the future, as Globalism unravels thanks to higher fuel costs due to increasing scarcity and, most alarmingly, a rash of wars over remaining resources. Those who insist we’re going through an energy revival must be passing methane between their ears each time they fill up. Five years ago, gas was just $2.45 a gallon, more than buck less than today, and, ten years ago, $1.84.
On its last leg, Globalism will continue to seek out the cheapest labor. Jack revealed, “Around here, they’re now importing workers from Thailand.”
“I’ve never heard of that! How many are they bringing in?”
“So even the Mexican workers are not cheap enough!”
“How long do they stay?”
“That, I don’t know, but I know there’s a bunch in Yakima, picking apples.”
Later, I’d discovered news stories about 600 Thai workers being brought here in a human trafficking scheme concocted out of Beverly Hills by one Mordechai Orian, an Israeli citizen. In Thailand, peasants went into debt to pay recruiters up to $21,000, but once here, they weren’t making $2,000 a month as promised, but much less, and sometimes nothing. Instead of three years of regular work, they were often furloughed without pay. Some lived in a shipping container. Some were beaten. Workers spoke of eating just bananas and even hunting birds with rubber band slings because they were so hungry.
Though the Department of Justice was notified of this case in 2003, they didn’t prosecute until 2009, only to drop all criminal charges in 2012. Unbelievably, even guilty pleas were dismissed. (Though American justice is certainly not blind, Eric Holder should be dubbed Eric the Blind!) In the end, Orian, along with several guilty farms, were only slapped with fines, but let’s not lose sight of the core problem here, which is your government’s own human trafficking scheme, for why bring in foreign workers when so many Americans are out of work, underemployed or seriously underpaid? And please, don’t feed me the cow patty about ruddy unemployment statistics, for those figures are as bogus as, say, anything that’s barfed up daily by Washington DC. If adequately paid, Americans will work on farms, so one solution is to supplement their wages, and this won’t just yield economic but social benefits as well, for a people should know how to grow their own food.
Besides agriculture, the other big employer in the Tri-Cities area is the Hanford Nuclear Plant. For decades, it was the main provider of plutonium for America’s nuclear bombs. Though mostly decommissioned, it still employs 11,000 people to monitor and somehow clean up the irradiated mess. I asked Jack if the locals were worried about living next to one of the most toxic sites ever.
“People don’t really want to talk about it much. Too many of them must go there every day. There is a higher incidence of anencephaly around here, though, and everyone’s aware of that.”
“What is that?’’
“That’s when a baby is born with only half a brain, or no brain at all!”
“So it’s just a risk of living here!”
“The odds are still pretty low!”
To put bacon on the table, you must play Russian Roulette with your newborn’s brain, so to speak. Moving from such grimness, Jack and I talked about Lewis and Clark, Jack’s love of buying old books, Armstrong Custer’s virtue as a writer and, finally, The Kennewick Man, which is a 9,300-plus-year-old skeleton found in the shallows of the Columbia. Though local Indian tribes want him back for burial, some scientists are contending that this man was possibly Caucasian, and thus not one of their ancestors, and it is imperative that his remains be made available for further studies. If he’s indeed Caucasian, then his people did not walk across the Bering Strait from Asia.
When talking about any spot on earth, the word “native” is always relative, for no one has sprung from the ground anywhere. Innumerable tribes have washed over this grassy carpet, and most have disappeared without a trace. We’ve fought and slaughtered each other unendingly to claim this or that knoll, if only for a moment. Though only a fool would think of any place name as final, it’s positively goofy to place quotation marks around, say, “Canada” or “British Columbia,” for, using that logic, you’d need to do that with each place on earth, and even for the earth itself, for who’s to say that the realm we inhabit, in its totality, shouldn’t be called “heaven,” “mother of mothers,” “eternal battle ground,” “sometimes shaking,” “convenient foot rest” or “great big ball of shit”? Even a concept like “country” can be interpreted differently, for the Vietnamese, for example, don’t say “I come from this country,” but “I come from this water.” Water is country in Vietnamese. Though born in Vietnam water, I now live in a water called America. Oh my, how rapidly has this water gone downhill! The water has gone berserk. Seriously, though, is our water up the septic creek without an Aqua-Bound paddle? Like you, I fear where this water is going.
Chatting in a bar, my most enjoyable conversation with Jack was continuously tinted, mocked, challenged or perverted by an unending stream of background music. As we discussed the mysterious Kennewick Man, Rage Against the Machine screamed in our ears, “Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me! Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me! Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me! Motherfucker! Uggh!” In moments like this, I sincerely wish I had lived 9,000 years ago. It was about time to go, in any case, for neither one of us was too sharp by this point. Out of the blue, Jack asked, “What do you think of lesbians?”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I answered, “I don’t know. I like them.”
“That’s good because there’s one standing right next to you!” Jack gave me a conspiratorial smile. “And she’s pretty too!” Jack then jumped off his stool to go to the bathroom. It really was time to go.
Walking two miles to my hotel, I spotted a garage and driveway turned into an old timey gas station. It was most lovingly erected, this nostalgic shrine to gasoline! Then at a print shop, there were two cartoon soldiers with “Bring Them Home Safe” painted onto its plate glass window. Stripped of weapons, they were presented as chubby toddlers with button noses, huge eyes and smiling, lipless mouths. In the eyes of the home folks, our expensively trained killers are just helpless babes. Downtown, there’s also a small ceramic elf with a sign, “SUPPORT OUR TROOPS.”
The next day, I returned to Parkade hoping to see Jack again, but there was no one there but an aloof barkeep, so after an uncomfortable pint, I crossed the street and entered Players, which from a distant I had misread as Prayers. What is this, a born again bar? It was Sunday. Inside, I quickly made the acquaintance of Pablo, a natural ham, “I have the smallest dick in the world, but women love me, because I know how to listen.”
And to prove it, he showed me three beat up cell phones, “Each phone is for a different girlfriend.” I still don’t get it. He also had two lollipops in his pant pocket, so the man must suck.
Born in Mexico, Pablo has been in the Tri-Cities area since he was three, so he’s basically a native. In 1966, Pablo was sent to Vietnam, and though he signed up for an extra tour, he insisted to me he never shot anybody, “Everyone has a mother. I love human life! I don’t want anyone’s mother to cry. I’d rather be shot at than to shoot anyone! I didn’t kill nobody.”
“Where were you stationed in Vietnam?”
“I don’t remember. I don’t want to remember! When I came home, my father asked me about Vietnam, and I said, ‘It has become a part of me!’ Every place you go becomes a part of you, so Vietnam has become a part of me. It’s inside me!”
A Kennewick man, Pablo avoids the Mexican taverns in Pasco, “My own people don’t like me! I’m comfortable here, in this bar and across the street. Players used to be off-limits to non-whites, though. If you came in here ten years ago, they’d have killed you!”
Sitting one stool over, a white patron corrected him, “Fifteen years ago.”
“OK, so fifteen years ago, they would have killed you!”
Ah, the crudities of ethnic affiliations! Kennewick and Richland were historically sundown towns, which means that all blacks and browns had to get out by dusk, and even in Pasco, blacks were mostly confined to East Pasco, across the railroad tracks. Pasco’s status as the Tri-Cities’ enclave for all lower-tiered residents continues to this day, for the area’s two homeless shelters are in Pasco.
Pablo also told me he was an oil painter, and that he could conjure up, from memory alone, the perfect likeness of my unstable mug. Beat it, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and all the rest! Lest you think Pablo is all arts and humanities, he also showed me his crude side when he went after the bartender, “Hey Lisa, when are you going to take me home?”
“You’ll never get me drunk enough.”
“She’s thinking about it,” he winked at me. “It will happen sooner or later.’
“You better stop thinking about it,” Lisa said, “because it will never happen.”
“Hey, I’m not into red-headed women!”
“My hair is not red.”
I thought it was odd, Pablo’s sudden nastiness, but he went even further, “I’m not into bowlegged women!”
“Hey, I ride horses,” Lisa said matter-of-factly.
“I don’t care! I’m not into bowlegged women!”
Trying to shift the mood, I interjected, “Pablo’s infatuated!”
“He’ll get over it,” Lisa calmly said.
Before Pablo left, he ticked off for me a list that’s all too common among men, “I’ve been with a German , a Bosnian, a Russian, many white women, one Mexican but never an Oriental woman, a Vietnamese woman.”
At 62, Pablo’s trophy hunting expedition can’t last much longer, for it doesn’t matter if his mind will age or not, his carcass will be stricken down before he knows it. Already, every other front teeth is missing, with the remaining barely anchored in his eroding gums. No orange juice guzzler, this pirate look-alike, although with a black cowboy hat instead of a tricorne. Scurvy or no, Pablo will continue to forge ahead for there’s no time to lose!
Though I spent two nights in the Tri-Cities area, I only booked a hotel room for a single night. As my train was scheduled to leave very early in the morning, I decided to save a hundred bucks and sleep at the station, and if this wasn’t possible, I could easily curl up outside somewhere. I had scoped out a few likely spots and it was warm. I’ve slept behind a bush, outside a school gym, under a truck and, in El Cerrito, California, on someone’s porch swing. Yes, the last one is very bad, and I sincerely apologize, but it was irresistible, that super comfortable porch swing, with a cute canopy, even, so thank you, Sir or Ma’am, for your involuntary hospitality! Again, I apologize. Once I slept under the veranda of a San Antonio restaurant. Thanks to an hours-long thunderstorm, the temperature plummeted, and so I had to wrap several undershirts around my head to keep it warm. That obviously sucked.
This time, though, there would be no discomfort whatsoever, for the Amtrak employee was kind enough to let me stay inside as he locked up for the night. He even warned me against locking myself out should I decide to step outside. Also, sleeping at the station allowed me to hit downtown Pasco at the crack of dawn, and so I was in Viera’s Bakery before 5AM, to find the place already hopping with farm laborers coming in to grab donuts the size of a baby’s head, and other enormous pastries. Since everyone’s in a hurry, there was no need for any tong etiquette. People loaded up their sugary kickstarters on plastic trays, paid then marched out.
Since my train was way late, I had extra time to wander, and thus I ran into a 65-year-old man, waiting alone at a bus stop. With his deeply wrinkled face and missing teeth, he looked at least a decade older than 63-year-old Jack. He had on a blue hoodie and his denim jacket looked hard, it was so new. Born in Pasco, he went into the Army “to see the world” and got as far as New York, “I passed through Philadelphia, but I didn’t see much of it. I’ve also been to Denver and I worked in Phoenix for ten years. Five years ago, I moved to Boise, Idaho. I’m in town to see my nieces and nephews. My wife died three years ago. Like many people in my family, she died of diabetes. All of my brothers and sisters are also dead. I’m the only one left. I have a brother who died of diabetes when he was only 35.”
As he was talking, I could see a chubby fellow waddling by with a gallon bottle of orange soda. He was headed for the Thunderbird, a motel with a cheap weekly rate. As Pasco’s most troublesome spot, it’s visited daily by the cops. Grinning, I actually blurted, “It looks like that guy is going to die of diabetes too!”
Turning around to look, the old fellow chuckled ever so briefly, “You’re probably right.”
When I asked about jobs in Pasco, he said, “It’s potato packing season, so you shouldn’t have a problem getting a job here. You can sort potatoes or cut them into french fries. They’ll pay you nine or ten bucks an hour. That’s more than Boise, where they only pay about seven an hour. The cost of living is much cheaper there, though.”
Rudely terminating our chat, the 65 bus came, so there went another person I’d never see again, though his visage will stay with me forever thanks to photography. In fact, he’s closer to me now than much of my family. Promiscuous, the photograph is cheap, but these fading, badly shot, often kitschy and disposable images are all that will remain of us when our bones are tucked into the ground, to be dug up by whomever, whenever. No matter how dastardly or noble, words and deeds won’t hold in flitting minds that are often addled with bullshit, but calcium approaches immortality. Sort of. When the Kennewick man closed his eyes nearly 10,000 years ago, he couldn’t have known his frame would one day fascinate, inspire and disrupt. For many whites, the idea that whites have thrived on this continent millennia before Columbus establishes that whites are also “Natives” here, which means that American Indians have no intrinsic claim to this vast territory, and later arriving whites were just coming over to join their long-lost relatives, so to speak, and not genocidal invaders.
Again, this native argument is inherently flawed, since no one is intrinsic to any place. This entire earth, mother of mothers, provisional heaven or absolute hell has been irrigated with blood from continual dispute, and if you’ve been granted a reprieve from such stark violence, don’t forget that it’s all too pedestrian to be bombed or burnt from your cozy hovel, and to witness the map of your nation go up in flames. Just ask the Libyans, Iraqis or Ukrainians, or the so-called Americans not too long from now, if events continue on their current conjecture. A tireless sower of mayhem and always looking for a fight, the butcher will be butchered, and to save our own skin, each of us will have to settle on a cleaner identity.
Thanks to a reader, I found out that Craig Brown has just told a lie about me. Responding to a reader's question about my disappearance from Common Dreams, Brown wrote, "We don't use 100% of any writers submissions - we make editorial judgments. Linh Dinh stopped submitting to us after we chose to pass on one of his 9/11 truther pieces."
That is a complete lie.
From mid 2010 to early 2012, I was a regular contributor to Common Dreams, but my last piece there was published on March 5, 2012. After that, I continued to submit at least ten more pieces, but they were all rejected without even a response email, so I stopped.
This has nothing to do with 9/11, but Brown is citing 9/11 to caricature me as a 9/11 fanatic. He's claiming that I became so upset by his rejection of one of my "9/11 truther pieces" that I decided to boycott Common Dreams. This is pure nonsense, and he knows it.
As the editor of Common Dreams, Brown has a right to reject whatever he feels like, but he shouldn't lie about it, and as an organization that gets around $400,000 a year from foundations, many of which are closely linked to the Democratic Party, Common Dreams is also lying when it claims to be "100% reader supported."
When Jeffrey St. Clair of CounterPunch explained his break with me, he also painted me as a conspiracy freak, so this is a handy smearing tactic for at least two "progressive" editors.
Though I stand behind everything I've written about 9/11 (or the death of Bin Laden, for that matter), I obviously write about so much more, and the bulk of my writing is grounded in direct observations. Now, I'll get back to my Tri-Cities Postcard, which should be up by Thursday, at the latest. As Joe Bageant used to say, "In art and labor!"
Also, do check out "Doug Buckwald on Common Dreams."
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
Without alerting me, Dissident Voice added a footnote to my latest Postcard, "1 At least one DV editor finds that referring to the Indigenous peoples of the western hemisphere as incorrectly being from the Indian subcontinent is bad form," so I've just asked them to include this also:
Author's explanation: When I was in Wolf Point, the word "Indian" was routinely used by people with Sioux, Assiniboine or Chippewa blood to describe themselves. As for the allegations of abuse of children in the Wolf Point schools, I first became aware of the issue from reading a long article by Christine Rose, a prominent activist who maintains the website, racismagainstindians.org, with an Indian Education Resources page, among other features. In the article, Rose routinely uses "Indian" when referring to the Wolf Point children. Since I don't presume to be more correct than the people of Wolf Point or Christine Rose, I've used "Indian" in my Wolf Point Postcard. While "Indian" is obviously a historical misnomer, "Native American" is itself problematic since the people who were here before Columbus never saw themselves as Americans. In the end, a Sioux is no more a "Native American" than a Palestinian a "Native Israeli," but we're trapped in talking about a colonized people in the colonizers' language. As Russel Means has pointed out, English is itself a problem. Finally, if you come to Wolf Point next month, you can attend a pow wow in neighboring Poplar. The participating tribes call it Poplar Indian Days.
10:16 AM update: After Dissident Voice refused to run my explanation, I've asked them to remove my Postcard from their website, so they have.
Tuesday, July 22, 2014
As published at CounterCurrents, Information Clearing House and Intrepid Report, 7/22/14:
It always amazes me how many people get on a train just to play cards, for outside their windows, a most amazing world is constantly unfurling. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Southwest Desert, Northern Plains, Cascades or Rocky Mountains, they don’t look up from their miserably dealt hands to notice that Eden is just a glass barrier away, but that’s how it is with the uber domesticated. They prefer a shrunken, airless civilization, as contained in 52 puny pieces of laminated carton, to the unscripted richness they’re entitled to at all times. Although it’s free, they don’t take it. O heaven, often it becomes so beautiful, I just want to kick open that emergency window so I can jump outside, tear off my Ross, brand names for less, sale rack clothes, and run a hundred miles, just so I can see everything a bit better through my cheap bifocals. I want to rub tumbleweed on my privates and feast on anything that crawls or sleeps out there. I want to eat pebbles! OK, Saint Jerome, now I give the microphone back to you!
Sitting on the train a while, you do get weird, for this mode of transportation, like all mechanical conveyances, is a derangement machine. From submarine to bike, to roller coaster, each teases and jerks the mind, and transports it to some place entirely unnatural. We’re only meant to walk, shuffle or hop on our own two feet, grasshoppers. As Kafka writes in “The Wish to Be a Red Indian,” one does not need spurs, reins or even horse, but before we get off this damn train, let’s eavesdrop on this conversation between mother and son.
“We were here. Now we’re about here. Soon we will be here.” With her lavender nail, she pointed at three spots on a map.
Responding, a boy no older than five jabbed at a random place on this nonsensical piece of paper, “And right here is a waterfalls, mom, and if you fall into it, you die!” To show that he was serious, he contorted his face and made a loud farting sound with his mouth.
It was already dusk when I rolled into Wolf Point, for my train was seven-hour late. In this town of 2,700, downtown is just three blocks and visible from the station. Flanked by modest, two-story buildings, Main Street was mostly empty, and I encountered no other pedestrians as I passed Missouri Breaks Brewing, a movie theater then the Elks Lodge. That’s two bars already within one block, but after crossing 3rd Avenue, I quickly spotted three more, Dad’s Bar, Stockmans 220 Club and Arlo’s. Though these seemed more promising than the first two, I couldn’t decide, so I asked the only other person in sight, a short, squinting man who was smoking a cig on the sidewalk, “Which one should I go in, man?”
Stockmans had two spooked wagon wheels stuck to its marquee-like false front parapet, and inside, it was spacious, with about a dozen gambling machines at the front, and two pool tables at the back. There were only five other customers. “I just got off the train,” I confessed to the man who had steered me in. “I’ve never been here.”
Mervin Running Bear is his name, he said. Though born in Wolf Point, he has worked in Alaska, on crab and halibut boats, and in Washington State as a construction worker.
“So what do you do now?”
“Oh, everything: construction, house painting, roofing, plumbing, whatever.”
“Can you do brick work?”
“I’ve done that too! I’m not a real professional at anything, but I can do everything.”
“That’s good! You’re good! I used to be a housepainter, but I was like the worst housepainter.”
“If they pay you, you’re good!”
Though Mervin’s words are lucidly presented on this screen, and move along snappily, without stumbling, they were actually huffed up raspily, eyes squinting, with quite a bit of strain in real life, as if his tongue was too hungover to move. His brain fluid must have been 100 proof. “I also worked for the Chinese restaurant next door,” he continued. “I did prep work,” and he made chopping motions with his right hand. “Richard Chan, I know him. He died.”
Merv introduced me to Ray, whom he called “the nutty professor,” and Monk, a fat, oafish man with clear menace in his eyes. When I asked Monk if he was married, he roared, “Why get married when you can get it for free! Putang! Suck this helmet off my shaft, bitch!” Over the next two days, each time I mentioned Monk to anybody, the response was invariably “Oh, that guy’s an asshole!”
As for Ray, he teaches sixth grade at North Side, Wolf Point’s lone middle school. A decade ago, this school system got unwanted attention when it was revealed they had padded rooms to confine children, almost always Indian, and that teachers and counselors were prescribing Ritalin, without authority, to countless kids. A white teacher was fired after molesting three Indian girls, and an Indian wrestling star committed suicide after being kicked off the high school team, just before the state tournament, for having chewing tobacco. Though Wolf Point is on a reservation, the tribes have no say over the schools, which are run by a board that is almost always exclusively white.
Scouring several school rating sites, I could find only one review of a Wolf Point school: “There are 4 teachers that actually teach, care about education of students and enjoy and work hard at teaching their field. This school has daily fights in the halls, is a FEDERALLY failing school for 8 years, only looks out for their “favorite” students. These are those from the “right” family, or family owns a business in town, or are personal friends […] The Senior year is a year of crafts, PE, multiple shop classes—a joke. There is no preparation for a trade/skills for future, college prep classes are a joke—subject to mood of tired teachers waiting for retirement. Counselors spend time with their favorite students and ignore rest of student population. If students make bad choice there is no due process, just expelled for the year and told, “see you next year.” […] Shop class is sit in your seat and you get a C—if you glue something together you get an A. Literally. The district is out of money and can’t make payroll next year 2013. Staff morale is terribly low. I have put 7 kids thru this school, there are more examples, just out of space.”
An indication of the poverty in Wolf Point is that 98% of the public school children qualify for free or reduced priced breakfast and lunch, compared to 40% statewide. For many parents here, this is about the only benefit of sending their kids to school. With Wolf Point being so poor and remote, it’s hard to attract any qualified professionals, so at the local clinic, doctors routinely work on five-month contracts. Barely here, they’re already looking forward to escaping.
Soon a woman nicknamed Chickadee came in. In her 60’s, she also appeared groggy. Seconds after we’d been introduced, she leaned her forehead onto mine, “I’m in mourning. My nephew committed suicide two days ago.”
“How old was he?” I asked, our foreheads still attached.
“Twenty-two. Oh, he was a beautiful kid! My son died of exposure in Denver, and my other son was stabbed to death by his girlfriend. Come,” and she led me by the hand to a plastic wrapped styrofoam board hung over the door. On it were six dim photos of Andrew “Gator” Robinson, alone and with family. The largest image, however, was the logo of the Denver Broncos, a blue and white horse head in profile with red, flowing mane and a red, sinister eye.
After serving in the Army for two years, where he was a tank crewman during Desert Storm, Gator returned to Wolf Point and worked in construction, road maintenance and as a part-time firefighter. He had a turbulent, intermittent nine-year relationship with Doran Flynn, but by November 26, 2008, they were living in the same house with their two sons. That Friday, pay day, Gator came home early to take Doran out to celebrate their nine-year anniversary. At Stockmans, their second bar that night, Gator finally fell asleep, however, so Doran drove him home, thinking she would return to whoop it up some more. What happened next is unclear, but Gator ended up with abrasions on his hands and face, bruises on his scalp, contusions on his arms and legs, and a single stab wound to the heart. Charged with involuntary manslaughter, Doran was jailed for two years and now lives on the opposite side of the state. Gator was only 37 when he died.
After half an hour in town, I had become aware of three premature deaths already, but it was just the beginning of a long list of tragedies. “And your other son,” I asked. “How did he die again?”
“On the street, in Denver. He died of exposure after drinking Jack Daniel’s and cough medicine. He wanted me to come see him, but I never did. Now I feel so bad. Had I shown up, maybe he wouldn’t have died!”
“It’s not your fault, you couldn’t have known.” I clutched her hand a little harder.
Suddenly looking shifty, Chickadee whispered, “Mervin is getting jealous because we’ve become friends!” Walking hand in hand, we returned to our stools. After I bought her a Coors Lite, however, she demanded a Jagermeister. I said sure.
“Now that you know about me, what about you? What are you doing here? What do you do?”
I could have said “PayPal-buttoned, reader-supported blogger,” but I opted for the short answer, “I’m a poet. A writer.”
It took two seconds for Chickadee’s face to become flint hard, “I don’t believe you!”
“OK, then,” I Iaughed. “What do you think I am?”
Seeing Chickadee leaning forward, I obliged, so with our foreheads clumped together, she positively seethed, “You are a nothing!”
Poet, nothing, same difference, but it was strange to see it turned into an accusation, so I laughingly retorted, “What’s wrong with being a nothing? Everybody’s a nothing!”
Coming to my defense, Mervin leaned over Chickadee’s shoulder, “I’m a nothing too!”
“See, we’re all nothings!”
Not content to settle with this, Chickadee had to squeeze in a final verdict, “But you’re really a nothing!”
I had not slept in a bed in three nights, so I should have gone straight to my hotel after Stockmans, but I decided to check out Elks. Like Moose International, Elks was founded as a white men only organization, but both have since allowed women and non-whites, excluding only atheists. When not used for meetings and, I don’t know, bizarre or goofy rituals, the Elks Bar/Casino in Wolf Point is open to the public, so in I barged to discover an all-white clientele. It had a much better beer selection than Stockmans, and the atmosphere was also more subdued, with no clumping of heads, suicide shrines or tales of death. I tried to strike up a conversation with the man to my right, but it didn’t go very far. No one was unfriendly, though, and I stayed a while. After learning I had just gotten off the train, a woman gave me detailed direction to my hotel, and the barkeep even offered to call the Homestead Inn to ask if there was a shuttle.
“Don’t worry! It’s only, what, a mile away? I can walk. It’s no problem.”
“It’s after dark now, and the bad types come out.”
“It’s OK, really. I’ll walk!”
Wolf Point is 50.5% American Indians and 42.5% whites, yet its mayor is white, and this is because the Indian population has a higher number of minors, who cannot vote, and also because many Indians live just outside the town’s boundaries, so even though they work, shop and drink in Wolf Point daily, and send their kids to school there, they have no say over its leadership. What you have, then, is a white-ruled town in the heart of an Indian reservation, and to show that this matters, consider that two years ago, the Tribal Council voted unanimously to request that Custer Street be changed to Crazy Horse Street. Addressing City Council, a tribal leader, Stoney Ankeltell, explained, “Custer was an Indian fighter and he massacred a lot of innocent women and children. It seems grossly inappropriate to have his name on the Assiniboine and Sioux reservation.” A month later, this was casually rejected, with Councilman Craig Rodenberg announcing, “We decided not to go forward with any change.” Councilman Lee Redekopp affirmed, “The name stays the same.” Mayor Dewayne Jager concluded, “That takes care of that.”
I’ll give you another illustration of who’s in charge. For the nation’s Bicentennial Celebration, a small equestrian statue was commissioned by Wolf Point. Sculpted by Floyd Tennison Dewitt, a Wolf Point native then living in Amsterdam, it was placed in the middle of Main Street and became the town’s focal point. A plaque states that “Homage to the Pioneer,” is the work’s title. Since pioneers were settlers, this means the whites who swarmed in to displace the Indians that were massacred, starved or corralled into reservations. Above the first plaque, however, there is a smaller one with a revised title, “Homage,” and on the town’s website, there is an explanation that this bronze is an all-inclusive “homage to the American Indians and the community’s pioneers and founders.” For this to make sense, there would have to be both Indian and Cowboy, sitting side by side, sideways, on one horse, but as is, the lone rider is unmistakably white, holding a cowboy hat and wearing chaps and spurs, so no matter how cute the dancing around, it’s clear that this is an homage to the annihilation of the Indian, and not his presence, then or now. If Indians were deciding, this would be a sculpture of Sitting Bull, but save for a clumsy bust over his grave, there’s no public effigy of the great Indian leader anywhere in the US, period. You will have to go to Denmark to find one, and it’s only in Legoland, a novelty theme park.
Although there is no bronze of an Indian in Wolf Point, you can find two wooden Indians inside its hangar-like museum. It’s a matching lamp set, with a stylized eagle on the loin cloth of the muscular brave, and a circular, target like design over the crotch of the sexy squaw.
Next morning, I got up just before dawn to explore. After passing McDonald’s, with its American flag flashing on an electronic sign, Old Town Grill and Lucky Lil’s Casino, I was surprised to hear Cat Stevens singing. At first, I thought it came from a car radio, then I realized there was a speaker mounted outside Albertson’s, the supermarket. All day long, there would be plaintive rock emanating from it. “And if I ever lose my hands, lose my plough, lose my land…”
Trailing his labrador retriever, a white man had on a black T-shirt, “TEENAGED DAUGHTER SURVIVOR.” Draped in old military jackets, three middle-aged Indian guys straggled by. The one with a camouflage hunting hat made eye contact and nodded his head. I grinned, “How’re you doing?” A cop car slowed, rounded the corner, then slowed again as it reappeared a minute later, coming from the opposite direction.
Since the bars were still closed, I was forced to enter an eatery. There were three Indian warriors, Duck, Bob Tail Bear and Cloud Man, on the menu’s cover of Old Town Grill, and at each table, there was a red phone.
“What is this for?” I asked the lone waitress.
“Oh, it’s to call me if you need something!”
“Well, shouldn’t I, like, just talk to you?”
“Yes, of course! The owner installed them when this place opened 35 years ago. Can you imagine how exciting it must have been then? I wasn’t there. I’ve only been working here 32 years.”
I had me some boffo chicken fried steak, my first decent meal in a day and half. At the next table, two kids played, drew and occasionally threw a rubber ball around. Once it landed under my table so the boy had to crawl under it. From the kitchen came the music of Eminem.
“What is that noise?” Chuckling, a patron asked the waitress, and no, he didn’t use the red phone either.
“The noise coming from the kitchen.”
“Oh, you mean the music? It’s the cook’s music.”
“That’s music?! It sounds like a rig with a flat tire!”
Eminem ain’t all that, but all across America, you see rural kids dressing and acting like urban gangstas and ho’s, but such is a result of the deliberate program to make us as depraved, and hence as helpless, as possible. Stripped of self control and respect, we’re being hypnotized by our masters into worshiping death, destruction, gross consumption, bright vomit and bestial sex, and we’re even being charged to have these foul and funky effluvia dumped on us. Of course, the ones who don’t pay will still get splattered on. A raging and infantile solipsism has become our national posture.
Speaking of posture, mine would be somewhat altered by a black doberman pinscher a day later. We’ll get to it. Meanwhile, I left Old Town Grill in great spirit. After walking ten minutes, I hit the Silverwolf Casino, which also doubles as a funeral chapel, I kid you not, with open or closed casket wakes. Among the slot stuffing zombies, occasionally you’ll find a dressed up cadaver, such as that of Dakota’s, Chickadee’s unfortunate nephew. Since every Montana bar is already a mini-casino, a place like Silverwolf faces a lot of competition. Here, many convenience stores are also casinos.
Attention, all of you with the shakes! Each day, the first Wolf Point bar to open is Arlo’s, so under its bucking bronco and cowboy sign I entered, to find two grizzled dudes at the bar talking about fishing, with side remarks about being broke yet not eating just Spam, thanks to what God has tossed into creeks, rivers and lakes. They discussed how this or that fish was jumping, or not, from this or that fishing spot, but as a city fool, I can’t tell a ling fish from a humpback whale, so much of this discussion lapped right over me. The electronic beeps, burps, rings, fanfares, cymbal rides and phony cachinks of the gambling machines provided background noises, as did the clashes of pool balls from the half-dark back.
In Arlo’s, it’s either Bud or Bud Lite if you want to go draft. On the wall, there’s a large drawing of an ass kicking a man in the ass and knocking his glasses and beer pitcher from him. Its caption, “WELCOME TO ARLO’S / HAVE A ‘KICK ASS’ TIME!” After one dude left, I talked to the other, Darrel, who’s better known as Cheeseburger, or simply Cheese. Half white, half Chippewa, 57-year-old Cheese has lived in Wolf Point his whole life, save for the 17 years he worked for Union Pacific, when he mostly slept next to the tracks from North Dakota on through Glacier National Park.
“I built those tracks you’ll be riding on when you head up those mountains.”
“You slept outside all those years?”
“Pretty much. For living in a tent, I was paid an extra $700 a month.”
“How much is that altogether?”
“$3,000, after tax.”
“You did well!”
“Yeah, I did great. Fact is, I liked it anyway. One time, my wife and kids came out to see me, and they also had to sleep in a tent. My boys liked it so much, they didn’t want to go back to Wolf Point.”
“How many kids do you have?”
“Six, but only three naturals. The others, I adopted.”
“Two of them are relatives. Nieces. The other one, his dad died in a car crash in Canada. I got along with his mother quite well, so I put him in school.”
“You’re a pretty nice guy!”
“But he’s an asshole!” Cheese laughed. “Little asshole, he tried to beat me up when he was fourteen, but couldn’t. I was thirty-five. He tried again when he was sixteen, eighteen, twenty, twenty-two… The fucker, I made him play sports, made him play football. I made him enlist in the Army. He wanted to go overseas, but I put an end to that. You little asshole, you still can’t kick dad’s ass!”
“Are your kids still around?”
“They don’t live around here no more. They’re in Billings, Wyoming, Minnesota, California, Canada… They’re all over the world. They want concrete!”
After a sip of Bud Lite, Cheese continued, “I taught my kids how to survive, how to fight, how to kill, how to be good. I showed them how to care for children. Elders. How to care for the animals.” With a pause after each exclamation, Cheese then barked, “Put up your own tent!
Haul your own wood!
Start your own fire!
Dig your own shit hole!
Your own fire pit!
You must watch your surroundings.”
Cheese then mellowed, “I’m down by the bend. Sucking on a Bud Lite, I roll me a big doobie. I watch the sun comes up, the sun goes down. The moon comes up, the moon goes down. I listen to the deer playing behind me, rabbits running beside me, but these kids, living on concrete, surrounded by garbage, these kids are fuckin’ spoiled!”
“When you say you’ve taught them how to kill, what do you mean? Who do you kill around here?”
“What enemy? I don’t see any enemy around here!”
“There are always enemies around!” Then, “You have to be careful around here. You come in here, and everyone’s laughing and smiling, but the second you turn your back, they can become the biggest assholes in the world! Someone may be watching you, then follow you as you leave this bar, so you’ve gotta be careful around this shit hole. I was born and raised on the rez. I know.”
Cheese said his sister was pissed off because she didn’t see him in church the previous Sunday, “I did go, but I left early, before mass started. I wasn’t there, but I was there in spirit.”
When I mentioned Chickadee and her nephew, Cheese said, “That’s also my nephew. He hanged himself.” Then, “See that cane over the bar? The woman who carved that hanged herself too.”
In Arlo’s, I also met Jack, a transplant from New York, and Darryl, a white farmer who grows wheat and raises cattle. I overheard Jenn, the bar manager, jokingly speak of a plan to round up five Wolf Point ho’s and bring them to a Williston man camp, “Make some quick bucks, you know! It’s all about looks, right? She’s got to be worth pokin’!” Fracking country is only 86 miles away.
Without knowing the context, I also heard Cheeseburger shout, “It’s all my parents’ fault, Goddamn it! I want to be white! I want to be German!” The sarcasm was particularly biting considering “INDIAN PRIDE” was on the back of Cheese’s baseball cap. Also, on his fleece vest was a green button with a marijuana leaf and “It’s 4:20 somewhere.” The Ann McNamee song begins: “I don’t need an analgesic, I am not in pain / Bring me a ritual, a tribal game / Moonlight on the water, shadows on my mind.”
When Ervin, a man with mutilated hands, declared, “I’m a Sioux!” Cheeseburger retorted, “Well, you’re a short Sioux!”
“Fuck you too, fag boy!”
And so it went, with much bantering and laughter, but occasionally also melodramatic accusations, drunkenly delivered. Here, people are remarkably open, but they will also turn skeptical suddenly, as in, “That’s what you say,” accompanied by a sharp look.
When a tallish young man walked in, many of the patrons rushed to the door to give him a hug. While others beamed at his presence, he himself showed no emotions and said next to nothing. His eyes were scarcely more alive than a dead fish’s. A soldier, he would be home for a month before being sent back to Afghanistan. Nineteen, he wasn’t even old enough to drink, so after a minute, he disappeared.
The next morning, I got up way too early, so decided to turn on the TV. Looking for the local news, I stumbled onto a livecam of some bird nest over an orange-lit parking lot, with a road and darkened hills in the background. Every now and then, I could hear a distant car, but mostly there were just cricket sounds. Strange, I thought, why would an entire channel be devoted to this? When the bird finally stirred, however, I realized it was an eagle, and so I watched it shift back and forth for a while. It was pretty silly, I agree, and I wondered how many others doofuses were doing the same. Suddenly, though, the channel went blank without warning, and there was no more eagle!
On my last morning in Wolf Point, I walked South from downtown, and the further I went, the shabbier the houses became until I was staring at a couple of decrepit trailers. Though no one was in sight, I could hear an old man talking to someone. Suddenly, a barking dog came charging and bite me, hard, on my right thigh. This left a bloody gash and bruise that would only heal a month later. Luckily, though, his teeth didn’t make contact with my skin, as he didn’t bite through my jeans. From the shadows, the old man raised his voice and the dog backed off, and that’s how I met Alfred Comes Last.
“That’s strange, he usually doesn’t do that. You OK?”
“Yeah, I guess so. Is that your dog?”
“No, but I know the woman. She’s inside.”
“I’m just visiting. I’m just walking around to check out this town.”
“There isn’t much to see.”
“And where are you going so early?”
“To the Senior Center. I volunteer there. You want to come? They have free coffee.”
The pain was bad enough, I felt like pulling my pants down to see how my damn thigh was doing, but I sucked it up and followed Al to his destination nearly two miles away. Along the way, Mr. Comes Last told me his life story.
Born in 1942, Comes Last is a pioneer in his tribe, for he was the first to become a welder. After the tribal authorities sent him all the way to San Jose to learn his trade, he stayed in California to work, before moving to Arizona, Colorado and Washington, where he welded ships, rail cars and farm equipments, etc. In Wyoming, he taught other Indians to weld, then did the same after moving back to Wolf Point. With three women, Al has six children, and he’s been with his current wife for 36 years.
“When I was a kid, there was only one frame house in Wolf Point. The rest were made of logs.”
“Each family has just one log house?”
“Didn’t the richer people have more?”
“We were all the same. No one had any money.”
“How big was a log house? How many rooms?”
“Two, a kitchen and dining area, and a bedroom. At night, though, we’d sleep in both rooms.”
“How many brothers and sisters did you have?”
“There were eight of us.”
“Eight?! So ten people slept in two rooms?!”
“That’s just how it was.” Then, “A lot has changed here. The kids today only know how to drink and smoke.” He let out a grunting laugh. “If the grids go down tomorrow, how will they survive?”
By now, we had reached the Senior Center. Each day, it serves over a hundred hot lunches for free. With increasing poverty, there are fewer resources available in Wolf Point, with Basket of Hope Food Bank and several thrift stores shutting down recently, and the Lord’s Table, a soup kitchen, inoperative because of a break in. After Al had introduced me to Sue, the Senior Center’s director and cook, we got coffee and sat on the narrow porch to look at the traffic zoom by. A hundred yards away, freight cars were parked on the tracks.
Smoking an American Legend, Al lamented, “When I left the house this morning, I had nearly a full pack, but people kept bumming cigarettes off me, so now I only have a half pack. They always say, ‘I’ll pay you back! I’ll pay you back!’ but they never do.” Tersely and without emotion, Al then let on that one of his sons had died in a house fire just two weeks before, and a daughter was in a Billings hospital. Having fallen down the stairs the previous day, she had a blood clot in her brain. “My wife is with her. I should hear from her soon.”
“Is your daughter conscious?”
“I don’t know. She wasn’t.”
“I’m surprised at how calm you are. This is pretty serious!”
“I’m praying inside.” Then, “Us Indians have a saying, ‘Deaths come in threes,’ so since my son died two weeks ago…”
“You’re waiting for two more deaths?!”
“I hope my daughter doesn’t die. My wife should call soon.”
“I’ve been here a couple of days, and I’ve heard of several deaths already. I talked to this woman, Chickadee. She said her nephew just killed himself.”
“Yeah, he hanged himself in a closet. His mom had just taken a shower. She was getting ready to go to work, you know, and when she opened the closet to get her clothes, she saw him. A lot of people die around here. Everybody’s dying. Most of my friends are dead. They destroy their liver or die in a car crash. It’s the alcohol. Some weren’t even forty-years-old.”
A small, dark man, Al wore dark glasses and a weathered hunting cap. On his gray hoodie, there was an irregular, black stain near his heart. The steel door opened and Sue came out to hand Al a phone. Without turning away, he spoke briefly to his wife in a small, flat voice, then informed me after he’d hung up, “She’s OK. My daughter’s OK.”
“That’s great news! They did a good job, the doctors.”
“Yes.” Then, “You know, most of the medicine men these days are fakes. They’ll take the people’s money, but they can’t heal them.”
“You’re talking about the Indian medicine men?”
“Yes, the Indian ones. Most of them are fake. When I was a kid, we had a great medicine man. He healed my grandfather. After he had been struck by lightning, they brought him to the hospital in Poplar. My grandfather was all burnt, he had no skin left, but at the hospital, he said he wanted to be taken back here, and so the medicine man covered my grandfather’s body in herbs and oil, then buried him for three days, with just his head sticking out. For three days he just drank water and ate nothing. People didn’t know what was going on, they thought the medicine man was going to kill him!” Al chuckled. “But the ground took the electricity out, and so my grandfather was healed. He lived to be 92, and it was me who dug his grave and buried him. In the old days, the medicine man didn’t even ask for money. People paid what they could, or they would just give him some food or a blanket, whatever.”
Before I left Wolf Point, I’d see Mervin and Cheese again, and Al and I had a few beers at three bars altogether. On the street, we’d run into Kerri, his youngest daughter, and their interaction was rather curious, for it was filled with melodrama. Slurring, she’d fling vague accusations at him. It was not yet noon, yet she was totally clobbered, and when she laughed, I could see that her upper front teeth had been knocked out. In March, Kerri had been at a meth and alcohol party where a man was stomped on the face repeatedly and kicked in the stomach. He died two days later of a ruptured liver.
Any place I go, I gravitate towards the bars, so of course I’d see drunken people, but nowhere else have I seen so many folks so shit-faced from morning until last call. As I mused over these thoughts at the train station, a tall and smiling gentleman approached me and asked if I liked Wolf Point. I said yes, and meant it.
His name was Thomas, he said, and he was grateful for his wonderful life, “After high school, I enlisted in the Navy, and thanks to that, I’ve seen the world. I’ve been to Japan, Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Australia. I’m very blessed. I have a great wife and two great children. My son is in college, and my daughter was a contestant for Miss Montana. I’m very blessed. I’ve had a good life.”
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen so many drunken people, but then I thought, The sober people are working and not on the streets!”
“Yes, alcoholism is a huge problem here. My dad was an alcoholic, but I haven’t had a drink in 21 years! A year after I got married, I told myself I didn’t want to drink again, and I haven’t.”
“I didn’t want to turn out like my dad. I’m a businessman. I have work to do.”
“What do you do?”
“I had a convenience store and gas station in Frazer. The tribes lent me $25,000 to open this business, but I worked long hours and made almost no money. It hasn’t worked out. I asked the tribes for another $25,000, but they refused. Before this, I was an assistant manager at the Walmart in Williston. I also opened a bank in Wolf Point, but that didn’t work out either. I’ve worked in various offices. I’ve taught.”
“So what are you going to do now?”
“I’ll figure out something. I have a degree in business administration from the University of Montana. I’m very good at managing people.”
Frankly, it was weird to have such a sober conversation with this perfectly composed man, and one who was cheerful, grateful and optimistic in spite of his own derailments. After the train arrived, Thomas introduced me to his neatly dressed, calm and confident son, then I got on to go further West.
Though much longer than usual, this Postcard is incomplete and would even be misleading had I not met a final Wolf Point character, Candy, and it was entirely by chance that I found myself sitting across from this lady, nearly a week later, as we were heading East from Portland.
Seeing the WPT tag over her seat, I could tell where Candy was heading. As I had learnt by now, everyone knows just about everyone else in Wolf Point, and so Candy cheered up when I mentioned Merv, Chickadee and Cheese, etc. “I was Cheeseburger’s girlfriend for a day!” she laughed. Of Mervin, she remarked, “He had a lot of potential, but it has all gone to waste.” Also, his last name is Garfield, and not Running Bear.
“Twice, I saw him drinking in the morning, before 11, and each time, he said he had already worked that day.”
“He works in the bar! I like that guy, but he has his mean streak. He used to be beat up his girlfriends.”
“I’d never guess. He seemed so mellow.”
“He is, usually.”
“I also met Alfred, an old man.”
“Yes, a short guy in his early 70’s.”
“I thought Alfred was still in jail. He violated his daughter!”
“You’re kidding me?! Are we talking about the same Alfred?”
“If it’s an old man, then it’s Alfred Comes Last.”
Pulling out my camera, I found a photo of Al and showed it to Candy on the viewfinder. “Yes, that’s him!”
“Had I not talked to you, I’d go home thinking he was just this sweet old man. I met his daughter, too. She would curse him, then hug him. It was very weird to watch.”
“Yes, it’s a pretty messed up place,” Candy sighed, “but it’s home.”
“How often do you return?”
“About once a year, a year and a half. A friend of mine just got his left leg sawed off, right up to his buttocks, so I’m going home to take care of him.”
“Wow, you’re a great friend!”
“I’ve known him since I was 15. He messed up his leg because he was trying to clean it with bleach.”
“Clean it with bleach?!”
“I’m sure he was drunk. He has diabetes. It’s a huge problem in Wolf Point. Before she died, my mom also got one of her legs sawed off.”
And so on and on it went, a litany of horrors. Her daughter, Sky, is a meth and heroin junkie who for years endured an abusive boyfriend who beat and spat on her face, almost daily, “and big, globby spits too.” One of Sky’s four children is in a foster home, while another has been adopted by an aunt. Candy’s own boyfriend jumped onto the back of her truck. Enraged, he banged on her rear window as she sped away, but suddenly, the banging stopped, and Candy thought the man had merely exhausted himself and not fallen off, his spinal cord snapped. “I haven’t been with a man since he died in 2009. I moved to Oregon. I used to cry all the time, I was a cry baby, so they finally had to put me on medications, but now I don’t feel anything. At my mom’s funeral last year, I didn’t even cry, and that’s not right.”
So what does this all mean, and how has it gotten to this? In the 19th century, the Sioux could amass hundreds, and sometimes even thousands, of warriors to fight the US Army, and they kicked Uncle Sam’s treacherous ass several times, with the most humiliating the butchering of vain and foolhardy Custer and over 300 of his troops. Led by Red Cloud, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, the Sioux was a tribe to be feared, but now, on reservations from Pine Ridge to Fort Peck, where Wolf Point is located, they are but a travesty of what they used to be, mired as they are in misery and aimlessness.
After the Indian has been killed, only an addicted and defeated American has emerged, but this is hardly the final chapter, for as the US itself becomes broken, the red man’s resilience, resourcefulness, probity, simplicity and toughness will resurface to help lead us all out of this glammed up farce. That is, if they don’t decide to settle some old scores.
Writing in 1782, Ben Franklin observed, “The Indian Men when young are Hunters and Warriors; when old, Counsellors; for all their Government is by Counsel of the Sages; there is no Force there are no Prisons, no Officers to compel Obedience, or inflict Punishment.—Hence they generally study Oratory; the best Speaker having the most Influence […] Having few artificial Wants, they have abundance of Leisure for Improvement by Conversation. Our laborious Manner of Life compar’d with theirs, they esteem slavish & base; and the Learning on which we value ourselves, they regard as frivolous & useless.”
I don’t know about you, but it sounds infinitely saner than what we have now, and it’s not like we aren’t heading in that direction anyway as we power down. Of course, many will shake, scream and leak from all orifices as they withdraw from the all-American buffet of Rush Limbaugh, Jon Stewart, Robin Thicke, Miley Cyrus and R. Kelly, a man who once filmed himself pissing into an underage girl’s mouth.
Hola, It's Io
- An essay by Susan M. Schultz
- Interviewed by Matthew Sharpe
- Interviewed by Phạm Thị Hoài (in Vietnamese)
- Audio file of an interview by Leonard Schwartz
- Audio files on Pennsound
- YouTube videos
- Posts at the Harriet Blog
- Free Love Pix
- Two poems at Green Integer
- Two poems on Mipoesia
- Two prose poems in Jacket
- Poems translated into Arabic by Tahseen al Khateeb
- A short story in Jacket
- Eight Vietnamese poets translated into English
- Seven Contemporary Italian Poets
- A translation of Roberto Castillo Udiarte's "Vita Canis"
Bouncer, Janus, Bellhop
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.