Below is the beginning of a little experiment in self-publishing.
Today and once a week for the next twelve weeks, I’ll be posting a very short story to this site. If you have a few moments, please read it. If you like it, feel free to pass on the address of this humble blog to others you think would be interested. And if you are so moved, please click on the donate button below to contribute a dollar toward the purchase of more Porcupine Puffs™, which the author eats each morning before composing his stories. There is, of course, no obligation to do any of the above. Family members, friends, and the author’s students are encouraged not to send payment.
Monday, May 20, 2013
Thursday, May 16, 2013
As published at OpEd News, Dissident Voice, CounterPunch, Information Clearing House, CounterCurrents, Noticias de Abajo and Intrepid Report, 5/16/13:
In most European cities and towns, the church is at the center, with a square in front of it. In Texas towns, it’s the courthouse. In New York, it’s Times Square, where you can be dazzled by bombastic signs from the world’s largest corporations. In Washington, the Mall affords long vistas of the Capitol, Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. You are meant to be awed and feel elated, so proud you might send the President or Pentagon a bounced check. In many American downtowns, banks occupy the tallest buildings, and downtown stadiums are also named after banks. Perpetual debt has become our civic and personal identities, and even in our down time, we can chillax by basking in the glow emanating from Citi Field, Bank of America Stadium, Barclay’s Center, PNC Park, Wells Fargo Center, Citizens Bank Park, Lincoln Financial Field, Chase Field, BankAtlantic Center, Comerica Park or M&T Bank Stadium, etc. Thank God for the banksters, for they have brought within reach, for each of us, an overpriced college education, an upside down house, a mesmerizing, brainwashing machine in each room and a messed up country. Federal Reserve notes dribble from their asses, which we can scoop up, with interest, of course, if our credit score hasn’t been scorched. I mean, what else does a citizen need?
The Lackawanna County Courthouse commands the center of Scranton, PA. From the monuments on its large, handsome square, a visitor can make some reasonable guesses about the makeup and character of this city. There are prominent statues of Christopher Columbus and Thaddeus Kosciuszko, and a monument to Casimir Pulaski, so it’s clear that there are many people of Italian and Polish blood here, but what’s most striking about this square is a series of huge granite slabs with inscriptions on them. Free of all images and decorative embellishments, these quotations are presented, quite severely, as civic lessons, and they take a while to decipher, for the slabs occupy a large area. On the “DISCIPLINE” slabs, we read: “Being a soldier means I embody the will to serve. If called up, I will salute, pack my rucksack and not look back. For better or worse, no matter where I go, no matter what I do, I will always have the heart of a soldier—Kate Blaise 2005.”
In the “PATRIOTISM” section, we’re told, “I felt that I needed to take my place in line. I didn’t want to avoid the war of my generation… you want to be part of American history—Max Cleland ca. 2001.”
Then under “DUTY,” we’re taught: “We grew up with… a sense of responsibility to this country. You didn’t even think about it. If the country was at war and had a need, you served—Charles T. Hagel ca. 2001.”
The message is clear: One must be willing to kill and die in any war, without questions. These slabs were approved by a three-member Lackawanna County Commission, but two of these politicians, A.J. Munchak and Robert C. Cordero, are now serving lengthy sentences for bribery, extortion and tax-related charges. As they preached sacrifice and duty, they robbed and looted to enrich themselves, and let us not kid ourselves by thinking this is some weird, coal country aberration or Pennsylvania joke. As a sign at Occupy DC summed up, “OUR GOVERNMENT IS FAR MORE CORRUPT THAN YOU REALIZE.”
Too many Americans consider themselves untouched by government corruption. It’s no skin off my skinny ass, they still think, as corruption sinks this entire ship. United by insane greed, our corrupt banks, corporations and government have gutted this land. Just look around you. They have shipped away our industries, deprived us of a dignified working life and sent our sons and daughters to one war after another, all to feed their insatiable greed. There is no war on terror, much less one for democracy. All of our wars are wars of greed. You kill or die so your laughing rulers can make another killing, and by butchering or being slaughtered, you also endanger or wreck the lives of those closest to you.
Before you can become a badass crook in majestic DC, you must start small, in places like Little Rock, Austin or Chicago, etc., and many of our elected thieves have learnt how to steal while in the private sector. Compared to the billions that routinely disappear inside the Beltway, the shenanigans in Single A Scranton are laughable, really, unless it happens to you. Before Munchak got elected as a county commissioner, on a platform promising reform and transparency, no less, he was just a nickel and dime accountant, but it was in this capacity that he managed to dick over, big time, one Carol Orloski.
A lifelong waitress, Carol loved her work and was excellent at it, “I met so many interesting people,” but then she felt an intensifying chest pain that couldn’t be ignored, and which turned out to be rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. “I was in so much pain, I couldn’t lie down, so they had to put some morphine in me. Now I know how people can get hooked to morphine. You could have sawed my legs off and I wouldn’t have cared.” Forced to quit her job, Carol applied for disabilities, only to find out that the social securities she thought she had paid all these years had been withheld, and pocketed, by Munchak, who handled the restaurant’s payroll.
Carol’s disability benefits would have amounted to $300 a month, chump change to some, but coupled with her lost income, the shortfall has proved crippling. Carol’s husband, Chuck, hasn’t had a raise in four years, and the family’s health insurance, covering them plus two sons, is an exorbitant $14,400 a year. Compounding this crisis, they have also lost their family home.
Chuck’s father, a truck driver right after serving in World War II, had paid off this house decades ago, but when the old man became sick, troubles began. With Carol also sick, they couldn’t take care of pop at home, so they tried to have him admitted to a veterans’ hospital. “My dad fought and got shot in the Philippines,” Chuck filled me in. Chuck himself joined the Army, and was almost sent to Vietnam. “I wanna be an Airborne Ranger! Live the life of sex and danger! I wanna kill some Charlie Cong!” Once, when Chuck was too exhausted to chant that, the drill sergeant made him carry his rifle across his shoulders, squat, then hop up and down while shouting, “I’m a fuckin’ frog! I’m a fuckin’ frog!”
Chuck and Carol waited and waited, but heard nothing from the Veterans Administration, a very familiar scenario, so after months, they finally placed pop into a nursing home, thinking the insurance company would pay. Not so fast. After seeing the old man shaving in bed one morning, a nurse informed the insurance company that their client was not “actively dying,” and so the cost, $185 a day, was shifted to Chuck and Carol, who of course could not pay. Money is so tight, they have to resort to a church pantry once or twice a month, like countless families across America. Food stamp use is at an all-time high. Not far from my Philly apartment, a truck comes by periodically to give away free fruits and vegetables. They disappear immediately. To save on gas money, Chuck has recently purchased a used motorbike, and his 21-year-old son works at a CVS pharmacy, though they only give Dan about 15 hours a week. One has two choices now, to be grossly underpaid and underworked, or grossly underpaid and overworked. Meanwhile, inflation spirals.
“The nursing home already got paid, so why did that nurse have to say anything?” I asked Chuck.
“I don’t know, but the end result is we lost our house.” During my three-day stay in Scranton, Chuck drove me by this two-bedroom, one-basement home several times, “That’s our old house!”
You can bleed in this country’s army, and sweat honestly all your life, but everything can disappear nearly instantly, because in this debt-based system, missed payments are only one lost job or one serious illness away. Remember that we have, by far, the most expensive health care system in the world, though one of the sickest populations among industrialized or advanced nations, and please, no snickers at “advanced” or “industrialized,” for our body scanners and drones are undoubtedly state of the art. In any case, it’s a rare citizen who owns his dwelling out right, and even then, there are rent-like taxes to be paid into perpetuity.
In our media, working class people are endlessly caricatured as ignorant and racist buffoons, so they only have themselves to blame if they’re struggling. Too stupid, lazy, drunk, drugged up, spoiled and fat, they deserve to have their jobs taken by illegal immigrants, though of course even American engineers, computer technicians and doctors are deliberately being displaced by foreign imports. Our ruling class has employed this strategy for a very long time.
Carol’s grandparents were from Bialystok, Poland. Every so often, Russian soldiers would cross the border to rape Polish women. “This is no place to raise a family,” her granddad said, so they came to Pennsylvania as part of a huge influx of Eastern Europeans. Most of the men found work in the hellish coal mines. Like naked mole rats or Viet Congs, they tunneled in the dark. Horses and donkeys worked underground, then were kept in pitch dark, underground stables. Many men and boys were crushed, drowned or blown up, with 58 miners killed in a single incident in 1896, yet when these men fought for better working conditions, they were dismissed as anarchists and foreign troublemakers. Goons, many of whom were also immigrants or sons of such, were brought in to beat or even kill protesters, as during the Lattimer Massacre of 1897, where 19 unarmed marchers, carrying a large American flag, lost their lives. But workers also fought back, for you can’t change much without spilling blood, that’s for sure. The Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902 lasted six months, which is incredible considering the miners barely had enough to eat even when they were paid regularly, but their sacrifice and resourcefulness finally yielded a 10% pay increase, half of what they demanded, and the eight-hour workday. Coal price doubled during this time, forcing the federal government to step in as mediator between workers and management. Mid-term election was coming up, and Teddy Roosevelt couldn’t risk having voters angry at his Republican Party. You have to hit them where it hurt, obviously, and threaten them, before they will even begin to take you seriously. I told Chuck about a sign I had seen at the demand-less Occupy Wall Street, “REVOLUTION IS FUN,” which gave us both a hearty laugh. Progress is difficult because idiocy is renewed with each generation, and evil often deepens with age.
Divide and conquer. Bosses and their bought media stoked up xenophobic sentiments against complaining workers, though these back breaking toilers had been brought in precisely because they were foreign, and easier to abuse. Then as now, an excess of labor is needed to flatten wages and tamp down workers’ demands. What a simple tactic, yet I’ve had the hardest time pointing this out to many a PhD in our various La La Land universities. A seasoned prof at a prestigious U intoned, “Rights for undocumented workers are the civil rights struggle of our time. It’s also not cost-effective to deport them.” First of, one must do what’s right, whatever the cost, and if we follow her logic, there would be no border checks, and anyone who shows up must be granted citizenship immediately, hence their entitlement to all “civil rights.” We can’t have dreams deferred, can’t we? Borders aren’t merely physical obstacles that reward those who can somehow make it to the other side, and that’s why visas and immigration laws exist for all nations, to sort out who have entered legally, but in her mind, to brand people illegal is to discriminate against them already. So, professor, will a hundred million new comers lower our unemployment rate? How about seven billion? The world’s worst illegal immigrant is Uncle Sam, however, for he has bombed, shot and drug smuggled his way into innumerable countries.
As an American citizen, I have lived as an adult in three other countries, England, Italy and Vietnam, where I was born. In each, I had to deal with the local immigration laws, which I often found annoying if not exasperating, but at no time did I feel I was entitled to live there just because “no human being is illegal,” which is true, of course, but also irrelevant to the immigration debate. Speaking of borders, I met a curious man in El Paso last year. Seeing the back of my head outside the famously haunted De Soto Hotel, he addressed me first in Spanish, before I turned around. “You don’t speak Spanish?” In his 60’s, he had on a blue felt cowboy hat, and a bucking cowboy bolo tie. He lived in the spooky, low rent building, with his son and a shared bathroom, he said, and not only that, he was Pancho Villa reincarnated. The general had returned to straighten out a few things. Villa will take all the money from the US government and give it to people who actually deserve it. To make up for them being destroyed during World War II, he will bring all Japanese to the US. America paid 37 countries to bully Japan, Villa informed me. He will also relocate the entire Vietnamese population to America and Chihuahua, and ship all Americans to Africa. He will do all this as soon as he can get rid of a foot tumor planted by an evil loan shark, witch doctor. It shouldn’t be a problem.
Perhaps Villa was a college professor in disguise, with a graduate seminar in foreign relations? In any case, his hallucination is scarcely more absurd than the recovery, as pimped, with feelings, by many of our pundits. For a no-nonsense take on our steep decline, let’s meet Carol’s mom, Mrs. Florence Laschinski. A white haired widow living alone in a neat, fairly spacious house, she had seen the rise then fall of our labor movement. Born in 1928, she quit school at 13-years-old to scrub kitchen and bathroom floors, then entered a factory for the first time at 15. A member of the Ladies Garment Worker's Union, she toiled inside various factories for 47 years. There were 168 of these clothing manufacturers in the Scranton area, from Forest City to Pittston, but when Mrs. Laschinski retired in 1990, there were only two. Now there are none.
“Look at what just happened in Bangladesh,” Mrs. Laschinski said. “We can’t compete against that.” Working in unsafe conditions to make clothes for Western retailers, more than 1,100 people died when a building collapsed. Five months earlier, 117 more perished in a factory fire. In the US, it took similar disasters, and many bitter struggles by American workers, to improve labor conditions. In 1911, a Manhattan factory fire killed 146 garment workers, and injured 71.
It pains Mrs. Laschinski to see opportunities denied to her children and grandchildren. With economic collapse comes social decay. In her very neighborhood, Mrs. Laschinski has seen too many young people messed up with alcohol or heroin, with no goal in life but scratching lottery tickets. In her days, nearly everyone was self-reliant and busy. At 85, she still remembers vividly an incident when she was seven-years-old. A neighbor had been given free galoshes, but one pair didn’t fit, so it was handed to Mrs. Laschinski. Walking home from school, her classmates suddenly shouted, “Hey, you’re wearing free shoes!” “No, I’m not!” But the evidence was right there, with WPA from her soles imprinted in the snow.
“The girl who laughed hardest at me later bought a house just behind me, and every now and then, she would bring her two sons over for me to watch, as she picked up her husband, you know, and I always gave her kids something to eat. It’s funny, but she said, ‘my kids don’t eat much,’ but each time I gave them a plate of spaghetti, they’d ask for a second helping!”
It’s true one can’t walk through Mrs. Laschinski’s door without being fed. Within five minutes of entering her home, I was presented with an excellent plate of roast beef, candied yam, coleslaw and mashed potatoes.
“Does that woman remember laughing at you?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
Scranton’s official unemployment rate is 9.3%, compared to 7.5% nationally, so the real figures are at least twice as high. Mrs. Laschinski never got past the eighth grade or read anything but Reader’s Digest, but you only need common sense to know that if you don’t make anything, you’re way up an exhausted coal vein without even a dollar-store candle, made in China. Within a generation, Scranton has lost hundreds of factories of all kinds, with the only manufacturer left the General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems plant. This jibes perfectly with our national policy, for we have stopped making anything that anyone can use or wear, only mega weapons that will blow up the entire planet.
OK, we still make nails. I found some nails the other day that were actually made in the USA. Hurrah! Maybe Springsteen can dash off a new tune. “Nails in the USA!” The logics of neoliberalism demand that workers everywhere must strive to endure the lowest possible wages and the most inhumane, unsafe and environmentally damaging conditions possible, for only then will they be competitive. Free trade really means nearly free slavery.
With their municipals bankrupt, the cops of Scranton, Taylor and Old Forge are becoming extra aggressive in snagging tipsy drivers, so the bars, already hurting, are quickly going out of business. The first floor of Chuck and Carol’s apartment was a bar, but that has shut down, as have several other taverns on the street. If there’s one thing worse than a depressed neighborhood, it’s a depressed neighborhood without places for people to gather. The houses still look very well kept and dignified, however, which is a tribute to the people living here, but one only has to talk to them for the frustration and pain to come out.
Perched on a honeycomb of pooped out coal mines, Scranton might just sink into the ground if someone coughs or farts too loudly, so why won’t my buddy, Chuck Orloski, move his family somewhere else? But it takes beaucoup cash to relocate, obviously, and in Bethlehem, Trenton, Philly or, hell, faraway Lubbock or Denver, there still aren’t enough jobs, only endless headaches. Unlike our ruling class, we can’t just wreck this dear ship, then step off it laughing.
As I finish this piece, Chuck sends me an update, “Today's Scranton Times-Tribune front page covers a large fire engulfing a Taylor home. Article has a full-color photo of burning home. In smaller print, it states, ‘police say man fled with heroin, suffered burns.’” So yes, Sir, we’re certainly in the midst of an economic recovery, with more pharmaceutical outfits sprouting up by the day.
Thursday, May 9, 2013
Wednesday, May 1, 2013
As published at OpEd News, Dissident Voice, CounterCurrents and Intrepid Report and CounterPunch, 5/1/13:
As every story is a meandering road, each road is also a story, or, more accurately, an infinity of stories. An abandoned trail that leads from nowhere to nowhere, with no wayfarers, only a rare roadrunner, snake or javelina, would still be an endless source of human-interest tales, or, more likely, tails. Haven’t you heard of the ancient saying, “Even the fool is wise after the Interstate,” especially if he drives off its exits often? Though a stuttering man of few sentences, terrible eyesight and beer fizzled memory, I have managed to drag back a sackful of observations from my snooping around San Jose’s Story Road.
Each of my visit to San Jose is a kind of homecoming, for my father, brother and, uh, absolutely composed, considerate and non-screaming stepmother are still here, and have lived here for decades. Though I have no sentimental attachment to this place, I also don’t hate it. Personal crap can be tedious, and I’m not trying to bore you, only clarifying that I have my own rather lengthy Story Road in San Jose.
When I arrived in San Jose in 1978, it wasn’t yet the much-lauded Silicon Valley, but simply a dozing, loudly snoring place, with orange groves even, a kind of Gilroy but with the ten-story Hotel De Anza. I watched minor league baseball, inspected faux Egyptian artifacts. There were even less art and culture in San Jose back then, as if that’s possible. On television, a somber message, “The San Jose Art Museum. Ignore it and it will go away.” Down in Monterey, they claim John Steinbeck, and up in Oakland, there’s a huge upscale-dining complex named after Jack London, but San Jose has no native writers to mummify, trot out or turn into a piñata for tourists to whack at. That’s because no writer has ever lived in San Jose, and no notable artist either. (Yes, Mark Tansey spent some time here, but that’s about it, and that’s super lame for a major American city.) Now, I’m not saying that as soon as a bona fide wordsmith steps foot in San Jose, all the air will rush from his body, and all the blood too, but the Bay’s crotch has been creatively impotent.
By 2007, the computer industry has transformed San Jose into the wealthiest metropolis in the entire country, and with all this cash came a sheen of sophistication. Not only didn’t the San Jose Art Museum slink away, it now regularly features pretty hip shows, as with its current exhibits of Eric Fishl and contemporary Chinese photography. Downtown, the charmingly seedy dives have been replaced by bistros, gastro pubs and martini lounges, and in the beautifully designed and manicured Santana Row, sexy people come out to browse Guccis, Ferragamos and Teslas. Cushioned armchairs and couches are placed outside, under shady trees. Roses, tulips and daisies bloom. Here, even a toilet scrubber is decently attired, though there’s nothing you can do about the lowlife tourists who infiltrate to ogle and buy nothing, save perhaps a cup of joe from Peet’s. Draped in markdown merchandises from Ross, the “Dress for Less” store, they annoyingly blight this gorgeous tableaux. There ought to be a law, people, a dress code to shoo away these corny riffraff, though the snapshots they post on Flickr do provide free advertising. It’s not worth it.
Suddenly I remember that I was supposed to give you a quickie tour of Story Road, so let’s go there, right now, and begin with the charmingly named Chot Nho Café, which in Vietnamese means the “Suddenly Remember Café.” No city outside Vietnam has as many Vietnamese as San Jose, where they make up 10.4% of the population. Like the Indian-run convenience store, Vietnamese nail salons have become a national institution, familiar to Americans from Anchorage to Key West, but the Vietnamese nudie coffee houses are, so far, limited to California. A what coffee house? Well, let’s go in and find out.
It is just before noon, and the place is packed. Five nearly naked women, four Vietnamese and one white, are walking around serving hot and iced coffees, at $5 a glass, and free hot and iced tea, frequently refilled. Eighty five percent of the clientele are Vietnamese men, with most over 40-years-old, including a handful of white haired elders. At a central table, a Hispanic and a black guy are playing cards, and along one wall, there is a dozen video poker machines. What really overwhelm the senses are the loud hip hop and the 20 TV screens around the walls, showing sports nonstop, with one reserved for CNN. As if this isn’t enough, you can also order a plate of rice or noodles. So sit back and enjoy Premiere League and Seria A soccer, endless ESPN analysis of anything that was tossed, thrown or bounced last night, Anderson Cooper looking so earnest, Lil’ Wayne hollering, “I don't use rubbers, and I don't plan no kids, girl,” an iced coffee with way too much ice, and shadowy flesh fluttering by. Don’t stare too hard, now. Presently, one of the women is dancing on the brightly lit counter and flashing her touching assets. In the Silicon Valley, she’s showing off her silicone peaks.
With its emphasis on staring, and not touching, talking or any other kind of interaction, not even eye contact, and with its insane bombardment of the senses, what’s happening in this café is essentially an American phenomenon, in spite of its Vietnamese cosmetic touches. In a Saigon sex café or karaoke bar, a male client would talk, grope and sing along with his hostess, they would have to deal with each other as individuals, no matter how phony or bizarre their interactions, but here, this physical and psychic intercourse is relieved from both partners. Here, we dread the face to face contact, for the face, any face, is too intense for us. We flee each other’s faces by hiding our faces in FaceBook. Oh please, don’t make me look at your face again, for it is simply too sexy, beautiful, sad and grotesque, and please, don’t look at my eyes, nose, mouth and forehead with your mercy or judgment. Look at my photos, and I’ll look at yours, OK?
Across the street from Chot Nho Café are two spiffy shopping centers, Grand Century and Vietnam Town. They are owned by the same man, Tang Lap. Let’s quickly examine the ups and downs of this developer’s resume, for they reflect larger economic trends. Grand Century opened in 2001 and quickly became the center of Vietnamese commercial and social life in San Jose. Pumped by its success, Tang and other Vietnamese-American investors then bought a struggling mall, Vallco Fashion Park, for $80 million in 2005. Vallco only had a 24% occupancy rate, but Tang clearly thought he could revive it. He was wrong. The economic crash that began in late 2007 only made matters much worse. Original investors bailed out, others dove in, and by 2009, Tang and his crew were desperately trying to dump their disaster on any sucker. With no fools nearby, Tang was forced to cast his nest wide, and who did he snare but a food processing magnate in distant Ho Chi Minh City, one Tram Be. Be paid Tang $64 million cash. His nose still bleeding, Be can now boast to his boozing buddies that he owns an American shopping mall, one with Macy’s, Sears, JCPenney, a 16-screen AMC theater and a “glow in the dark” bowling alley. His mall has the “making of an international lifestyle center,” he can slur, quoting his own brochure, before he’s cut off by a wiseass, “Hey, Be, on my recent trip to San Jose, I stopped by your mall to admire it, but I saw almost no one in there. I thought I had walked in on a bomb drill or something, for all I could see was a few security guys. The food court was empty, the stores were empty, so what’s up with that, Be?”
Swallowing the recovery jive dished up daily by the US mainstream media, Be probably still thinks he will get the last laugh, for when the US economy is back on its feet again, his dismal mall will be filled with frolicking consumers shoving and stepping on each other to buy anything and everything. His merchants won’t be months-late on their rents, and the food court will be overflowing with jiggly folks washing down mounds of fried stuffs with rivers of fizzy corn syrup.
Tang knows better. Though he was lucky to salvage a hubcap or two from his Vallco wreck, he was still stuck with Vietnam Town, his most ambitious project ever. This huge mall of 185 units was supposed to be finished in 2007, yet stands mostly empty even now. The bank that funded it went bankrupt itself, and the new bank that took over the debt started to foreclose on Tang, which forced him to declare bankruptcy. Prospective merchants who had forked over huge deposits couldn’t cover their balances, for banks’ lending standards had stiffened, and housing prices had plummeted, making less available as collaterals. What a mess is right, though driving by on Story Road, you might think that’s all is well, that here is a salient example of the Vietnamese-American success story.
Vietnam Town is adjacent to Grand Century, so it was obviously conceived by Tang to be an extension of his older mall, but why would you want to concentrate so many Vietnamese businesses in one place? If you line up, say, five pho joints in a row, the competition among them will drive prices down, hurting their bottom lines, then knock out the weakest, but what’s terrible for business is often great for consumers. Cutthroat competition also forces innovations, and since we’re already in Vietnam Town, let’s step inside Pho 90 Degree to sample some unusual dishes such as oxtail pho, pho with Kobe beef or pho with smoked veal. Yum, yum, yum. I know that’s a lot of food, but don’t worry, it’s my treat.
On the back wall of Pho 90 Degree is a large mural of Florence, with its unmistakable Brunelleschi dome and Palazzo Vecchio. You might think that this is some leftover from a pizza joint, but no, it was commissioned by the current Vietnamese owner. Though this is as ridiculous as seeing a painted panorama of Hanoi in an Italian restaurant, none of the Vietnamese diners find it odd. Vietnamese have a penchant and high tolerance for the culturally incongruent. In most Vietnamese-American homes, you’ll find videos of a Vietnamese variety show called “Paris by Night,” which is usually filmed in Las Vegas. In a Hanoi home, I saw a large portrait of Napoleon on a horse, though the owner, a well-known journalist and poet, no less, cared nothing about the Corsican. Nguyen Huy Thiep has a fictional 19th century Frenchman observe that Vietnam has been raped by Chinese civilization, but it’s also true that it has been raped by several other civilizations as well, including French and American, and here I should clarify that one needs not invade or occupy a country to rape or impose one’s sweating and huffing heft on it. Forced to repeatedly absolve the foreign on a massive scale, Vietnamese have adapted by eagerly adopting the alien, if only very superficially. I mean, most, if not all, of these diners don’t know or care that this is Florence or even anywhere in Italy, and on a Paris by Night video, you might find Vietnamese dressed up as Mexicans and pretending to play mariachi.
Now we continue down Story Road, and it’s odd to be walking, I agree, for no one walks in San Jose except the homeless. We’ve seen a few homeless people already, panhandling on median strips near Grand Century, but now we come upon tents lurking in the woods around Coyote Creek. Driving by, you might fleetingly glimpse a tent or two, but you must get out of your car and risk walking into the bushes to realize how large this encampment is, how damning this evidence of our economic, political and social collapse. Entire families live here, many with children. Look at that crib lying in the shade. Intending to stay a while, if not permanently, people have erected barriers and fences for privacy and protect their few belongings. They use ice chests to keep food cold, cook with propane stoves. Thanks to San Jose’s mild climate, no one risks freezing to death, but as in all tent cities, of which there are now hundreds, if not thousands, across this great, indispensible nation, sanitation is a huge problem. When not shooed away by a security guard, some of these homeless bathe at the fire hydrant at Story and Roberts, and the woods provide a breezy or sun-splashed bathroom. You can let everything hang out as you bequeath to this earth a portion of yourself, a kind of down payment towards death. If you decide not to go green, however, there are the nearby shopping malls. Sometimes these homeless even stray into Chot Nho Café to survey, if only too briefly, even more atavistic baring and bearings, before they’re finally booted out.
San Jose is tolerating the Story Road tent city, for now, but in March, its police tore down a more conspicuous encampment near the airport. It’s all about appearance, of course, for you can’t have out-of-town visitors see destitution or squalor as their first impression of San Jose. Before the last Super Bowl, New Orleans also cleared out a large homeless community living by its train and bus station. As a nation, we also have no plans to fix our economic problems, only cosmetic touches to disguise them, such as the fixed unemployment and inflation rates, and constant media assurance that the recovery is on course, or even accelerating. Meanwhile, costly wars continue, as well as job outsourcing, dressed up as “free trade” agreements.
Between the splendor of Santana Row and the wretchedness of these tent cities, there is the ordinary San Jose of tacky strip malls and mostly pleasant looking houses, and in these, life is still going on as usual, no? Look again. Take Jay, who lives in this 400K house with his wife, Tracy. Born in 1970 in New Hampshire, Jay earned an engineering degree from Carnegie Mellon, then served nine years in the Navy, where he rose to become a commander of a nuclear submarine, based in Philadelphia. Discharged, Jay moved to San Jose in 2002, where he worked for Digital Equipment Corporation, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard and, finally, AQT, from 2007 until now. (For reasons that will be obvious, I’ve disguised Jay’s current employer.) Though a small company, AQT was raking in the bucks, and up until four years ago, had 25 well-paid employees. Jay was making $120,000 a year. With revenues down, the firing started, however, and now AQT is reduced to five workers, with their salaries slashed. Jay is only making $60,000 a year, not much in expensive San Jose, with its $4 gas and sky-high real estate, yet his boss, whom Jay sneeringly calls Ho Chi Kevin, sees this as a huge favor, for Jay’s being paid for doing next to nothing. (Neither man is Vietnamese, by the way, but balding white guys, just in case you’re wondering about the Ho reference.) To keep Jay occupied, Ho Chi Kevin often sends him out on stupid errands, “The other day, he had me buy some apples for him, but when I brought them back, he said they weren’t the right kind of apples!” Looked at me bug-eyed, Jay shook his head several times, “So I said, ‘Well, what kind of fuckin’ apples do you want?!’ Actually, I didn’t say fuckin’, I just said, ‘Well, what kind of apples do you want then?!” And guess what, he couldn’t even tell me! He just sent me out to get a different kind of apples, and I had to try several times before I got it right. Did I get an engineering degree for this? I used to run a nuclear submarine! Do you need an engineering degree to buy freakin’ apples?!”
To be misused or unused has become our common lot. In nearly every field, corporate, military, civic, media, entertainment and academic, talent and integrity are wasted, if not punished, as ruthless crooks, groveling connivers and grinning morons rise to the top. Jay and I were sitting at an outdoors table outside AQT. It was working hours, but Jay was clearly not missed, for there was next to nothing for him to do inside. Hey, for 60 grand a year, most people wouldn’t mind running back and forth to the supermarket for Fuji, Cortland, Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, Blue Crappy, Pacific Rose, Gala, Ginger Rose, Monsanto Mutant or 666 Snake-Endorsed Special, whatever, boss, I’ll get it for you! The ax can slam on Jay’s neck at any moment, however, so he doesn’t know if today will be his last at AQT. For four years now, Jay’s been frantically trying to find another job, entry level, whatever, but nothing has come through. “So what’s plan B?” I asked.
“I don’t have a plan B, but plan C is to move to Taiwan to teach English.” Jay’s wife was born in Taipei. “I really don’t want to do that. I am an American. I want to live in my own country.”
Ho Chi Kevin is hanging onto his skeletal crew because he believes a recovery is just around the corner. Be, too, is waiting for a recovery, as are his tenants in their empty stores. In downtown’s Cesar Chavez Plaza, the homeless also wait, but for what, they’re not quite sure. Even as job applications are sent into the void, mortgage payments ignored, bankruptcies filed and tents spread in shadow or sun, San Jose still gleams from afar, or as you speed by in your car.
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
As published at OpEd News, Dissident Voice and Intrepid Report and CounterPunch, 4/24/13:
Other people’s lives come fluttering to us in the tiniest fragments, and these we gather, when we bother to, into an incoherent jumble of impressions we pass off as knowledge. Further, our ears, eyes and mind are all seriously defective and worn-down, making intelligence a dodgy proposition, at best. Our memory also crashes daily, if not secondly, our verbal skills poor, and when we examine ourselves, there are the added distortions of endless exculpation and vainglory. In short, no one knows ish about ish, though some ish does get much closer to the real ish. One thing for sure, amigo, if you ain’t aiming for ish, you ain't gonna get ish.
From behind my cranium, a reflective voice, “As you get older, more things happen, you know what I mean, and it’s not much fun either.” The speaker is a middle-aged white male, talking to another suspect of a similar description. They have both committed a list of crimes, small, large and unspeakable, too long and various to summarize here, or anywhere. Eager to please, speaker has a sweet tendency to laugh uproariously at the slightest joke or witticism hacked up from any vocal cord, no matter how stupidly inspired or ineptly delivered. Speaker is traveling from Denver to Elko, Nevada.
Four feet behind my brain stem, another voice, on another bus, “Dude, I lost my virginity in a sedan, and it was like the most gnarly experience ever. I don’t know how people have sex in a car. Dude, you might as well get out and lay on the ground. I’d rather have sex on fuckin’ mud!” Speaker is a young white male chatting up a young black female. It is unclear why he keeps addressing her as “dude.”
Now, permit me to hand you a chunkier fragment of life. We have just passed Winter Park, Colorado, and sitting next to us is a white male in his late 30’s. From Denver to Salt Lake City, he will not buy food or drink at any rest stop, but only smoke. If you look down, you will see a loaf of Bimbo in his duffel bag. White bread is all he has chewed on since Tulsa, and will eat until Boise, where he has a sister. Siblings will then drive to Vegas, where they can blow at least part of the sister's $4,000 tax return, “We won't gamble much, maybe just $30 or $40 at a time.” Fun over, they’ll head to Bakersfield, CA, to see relatives. He will be away from home three weeks. Now, any man who can be gone that long is likely unemployed, and broke too, obviously, unless he is a rabid fan of Bimbo, for whom nothing but Bimbo will do.
Now, excuse me for a sec, for I must reach inside my shirt and pants to scratch myself. When you sit on a bus for too long, whatever skin issues you have simply blossom! Tissues flake, scale, crack and even ooze something like Hawaiian Punch gone bad. Thus gross and itchy, I decided to get radical back in Kansas City, and, no, I didn’t bomb its Federal Reserve Building. My solution was strictly personal, discreet, though en plein air. It had been snowing hard for hours, and the streets were mostly deserted. Having not washed in days, I decided to leave the bus station, filled as it was with blizzard and economic refugees, to crouch down by the side of a nearby building, take my pants off and rub snow on my inguinal regions. That's a fancy phrase to indicate my second, more candid head and adjacent backdoor, the one leading to the lugubrious dumpster. I froze my nuts off, but felt super clean afterwards, cleaner than I had ever been, in fact, on this phantasmagoric earth.
Constantly exposed, thus deprived of privacy, for just a few days, I was already getting weird, so it's hardly surprising that many who have to be outside all the time are borderline mad, if not ravingly so. Denied the silence and space to reflect, they often argue with themselves out loud, as if to shut up and shut out the unceasing white noise. In Oakland, I saw a young woman, draped with a thin comforter, who'd crouch down often to pick something from the ground. At first I thought she was scavenging cigarette butts, then I realized she was picking up anything that wasn't stuck to the sidewalk, a tiny scrap of paper, a dry leaf, a match stump, a candy wrapper... Not content to pick up the pieces, she'd kneel down on the concrete to arrange them, to give them order and meaning.
Grinning goofily, she danced jerkily for half a minute. She had on a hooded, plaid jacket, black pants, blue sneakers and a dangling, plastic earring. Her hair was sheared short. For nearly an hour, she loitered in front of an all-night convenience store, the one with Marilyn Monroe and the King of Pop on its walls, and Obama and lottery ads in its window. The proprietors, an Indian couple, had to keep their eyes out for shoplifters and those sneaking coffee refills. Thinking a passerby had addressed her, she answered him, but the dude coldly replied, "I wasn't talking to you." A man tossed a still longish butt on the ground, so I pointed it out to our dancing scrounger. She snatched it. Wanting to find out what's up, I decided to buy two tall boys of Tecate from a store half a mile away. None was closer. "Sweet," she said when I finally handed her a beer. We were sitting in a bus shelter. It was chilly enough that night.
"What's your name?"
"Jillian," she grinned. "Jill."
"How old are you?"
"You don't look twenty-seven. You look maybe twenty-two, twenty-three."
"How long have you been on the streets?"
"Two and a half months."
"You should go home. Oakland's fucked up. Where are you from?"
"Where in Oregon? What town?"
"It's near Canada."
"Canada?!" I laughed. "Canada is not next to Oregon. Where are you really from?"
"Here and there. I've lived in Riverside."
"Riverside is not in Oregon. Where's your mom?"
"I talk to my mom everyday."
"Oh yeah? How do you talk to her, with a phone card?"
"I talk to her in my head."
A man in his 40's came by and offered Jill cigarettes for what remained of her beer, less than half a can. Without hesitation, she gave it up for two cigs. He swigged, then shared that he was getting off the streets the very next night, having found a single occupancy room in San Francisco for $135 a week.
Jill's face may be in post offices across the country, as MISSING, or probably not. Maybe no one's missing her. Up in Berkeley, there are hundreds of young people living on the streets, but those tend to band together, or at least pair up. This one was alone. I bought Jill a warm coffee from the lousy store, and she gave me a green pill. She popped three, so I ate mine, for it is impolite to refuse anything that someone else deems appropriate for her own mouth and body, be it possum, field rat or whatever American youths feel they must ingest to endure an absurd present and rudderless future, as wrecked by their elders.
Of course that was stupid, for I don’t even do drugs, and am adverse to all pills, even the common aspirin. In fact, I dread, fear and deeply, deeply despise all chemicals, chemistry and even chemists, and never pass one without giving him the meanest look. My potassium, sodium, chloride and phosphorous-laden blood rapidly boils at the sight of any periodic table. If I see a pharmacy, I cross the street. (Are you happy now, Mrs. Reagan, or should I say, Are you, by chance, high on your pills, ma’am?) Yes, sometimes you must say no, but all it all, you should say yes to just about everything that’s offered without malice or commerce in mind. Great travel writer Paul Theroux doesn't eat meat, and V.S. Naipaul doesn't drink alcohol, so they are missing out on a very important bonding ritual with their subjects, I think. If you come to my resplendent mud hut, you better swallow what I slop in front of you.
When Jill started to walk north, away from relatively safer downtown, I shouted after her, "You should stay at the square," meaning Frank Ogawa Plaza, where the Occupy encampment was, by the way, "You shouldn't walk that way." But she kept going and going, while picking up pieces of nothing along the way.
What is madness, anyway? I mean, who isn't insane in various ways, none all too subtle, for there is no person who isn't farcically deluded and mad, none except me, of course, though I'm foggily aware of Ben Franklin's foggy observation, "Each mofo walks around in a fog, but since the air seems clear around each, he doesn't know he's in a fog." Who's to argue with Philly's greatest MC ever? Of course, Ben's right. We're all fogged up, and being exposed to the elements day and night, and in constant danger of being robbed, raped or killed, won't likely clear up anyone's head. Near Oakland’s Lake Merrit, I saw a man trying to cross the street in a wheelchair, so I gave him a push.
"Where are you going?"
"That bus stop right there."
"OK, I'll push you. It's a lot easier for me."
"You got that right."
Jeff was his name, and he had lost his right foot in a motorcycle accident. In Daly City, I'd see a bumper sticker, "OUR NATIONAL HEALTH PLAN. DON'T GET SICK!" And don't get amputated or brain-damaged either, not even for Uncle Sam, for you may end up on your local sidewalk after leaving your mind, limbs or mama maker in Iraq. The parade's over, if there was one. In Richmond, I'd run into a poster, "I left the nightmare of war only to find myself in a [sic] another. Are you a homeless veteran?"
"Hey, man, you want a beer? I'll cross the street to get us some."
"No, that's all right, I already have beer, and you can have one too if you like. It's in my bag."
"No, man, I'm not going to take your beer."
Though not a veteran of the explosive streets of Baghdad, but merely the shaded and elegant promenades of picturesque Oakland, as stewarded by the just, wise, measured and upright Jean Quan, Jeff had clearly gone mad, for he slurred, “I have two houses, man, and you can stay in one if you like. It’s a little small but it’s nice. We’ll take the bus there. It’s only ten minutes away.”
“If you own two houses, what are you doing on the streets?”
“No, man, I’m not on the streets. I’m not. Do you want a beer? I have beer.”
It was awfully cold that evening, and Jeff was shivering as he spoke. A bus came, but Jeff made no effort to get on. I’m not sure he would be allowed to board it, in any case, not that he had anywhere to go, really. Though he didn’t look terribly dirty, Jeff did reek of days-old sweat and urine. He smelled homeless. Another bus came, then another, but Jeff would stay outside all night, as he had so many nights.
I went back to the same area on other days, but never saw Jeff again. I did encounter “the guided one,” however, a man in his 60’s with stringy, salt and pepper whisker, and a cap over his hoodie. Mahdi’s belongings were stacked on two shopping carts and a most unusual, highly modified bicycle, and they weren’t together but in three spots, over some distance. I’d think that if you didn’t have a door and lock, you’d want to keep all your stuffs within immediate reach, to prevent them from walking away, but clearly Mahdi was willing to sacrifice this security to stake out a vaster territory. In his own way, he was practicing imperial overreach.
Of course, Mahdi’s no emperor of anything, not even of ice cream. He has lost all but a few scraps, with even his ideas stolen from him, “I see these houses all over Oakland painted in the color scheme I came up with years ago. People are making lots of money from these fancy houses, but they’re using my color scheme, and I’m not getting a penny from it.”
“What color scheme are you talking about?”
“It’s purple, green and brown. You see it everywhere, but, you know, sometimes they change it slightly. I came up with this color scheme years ago, decades ago! It has spiritual significance, for it brings harmony to all those who dwell within. You will feel calmer, you hear me, just by looking at it. Remember: Purple, green and brown. I call it my Intergalactical Cosmic Color Scheme.”
If Mahdi had three drummers behind him, you might mistake him for Sun Ra. OK, I’m sorry, Mr. Ra, for you are the man! And a Philly badass, no less, just like B Franklin!
Not content to steal Mahdi’s color scheme, the ungrateful world will soon snatch from him an even greater invention, Mahdi’s magnificent sleeping bicycle. Attached to the frame is a cubicle, made of cardboard and milk crates, where you can actually lie down. You can’t pedal while reclining, however, but then an RV owner can’t sleep and drive either. In any case, Mahdi’s invention is surely the RV of the future. After Social Security is finally wiped out, a retiring worker can be sent off with one of these tiny apartments on wheels, and when he dies, it will also serve, conveniently and economically, as his coffin. Seeing Mahdi’s ingenious bike, smartasses had dubbed it all sorts of insulting names, “One guy called it the ghetto train, but this isn’t a train, and it’s not ghetto. Once they’ve stolen my idea, they’ll mass produce my bike and make lots of money. You will see it all over Oakland, and all over America.”
You won’t see any bizarre homeless contraption in Jack London Square, however, for it is spic and span and dominated by upscale restaurants. Should London's ghost amble from his Klondike Gold Rush cabin, now preserved on the square, this friend of the downtrodden would be aghast to be surrounded on all sides by bankers, stockbrokers, lawyers, "civic leaders" and assorted war profiteers kicking it back in luxurious surroundings, while enjoying filet mignons, lobsters and chardonnay, as served up by the loveliest daughters of the working class, of course, while their uglier cousins are left huddling in tents, not half a mile away.
Chased by the sky-high rent in San Francisco, not to mention Berkeley, yuppies and hipsters alike are fleeing to Oakland, fueling a mini boom in select neighborhoods, but much of the city is still a desolate mess, with homeless people everywhere. Pushing shopping carts, they scavenge for plastic and aluminum. Outside the Alameda County Administration building, they set up tents each night, and remove them each dawn, with their area hosed down by custodians, before the first clerks and secretaries arrive. Overflowing from San Francisco's Chinatown, Asian immigrants, mostly Chinese, have also given Oakland an economic boost, with hundred of stores and restaurants opening. Oakland’s Chinatown's cheap eats have naturally attracted the homeless. I saw a man bought some lo mein, with bits of vegetables and pork, for just $1.50, haggled down from 2 bucks. The owner, a Vietnamese woman, said that at the end of each day, she'd give food to three homeless guys, one black, one white and one Chinese. At another dirt cheap joint, I saw a homeless man enjoy rice gruel with traces of chicken and preserved egg, plus a decent pork bun, for just $1.75 and 55 cents, respectively. The self-served tea was free and unlimited. On three chairs at his table were trash bags holding his possession.
In Oakland’s Chinatown, then, our destitute mingle with their more fortunate neighbors and with tourists. Some sleep on its sidewalks, while more dwell in tents, on its fringe. A family has wisely placed their tent on the other side of a fence meant to keep pedestrians from straying onto a freeway exit ramp. This fence now protects, among other things, their little girl’s pink bike.
Another sad and increasingly common feature of American life also makes a daily appearance in Chinatown. Each morning, at 8AM, at least six full buses depart for various casinos. Years ago, one had to trek to Reno to lose one’s shirt, but now, there are “gaming facilities” all over Northern California, and the Chinese, long susceptible to gambling, are only too eager to get burnt. Solemnly they return from their wallet-emptying excursion, with that free bowl of duck noodles their only winning for the day. Soon, though, they will head back to the slots and tables, to get fleeced again and again.
For a taste of local entertainment, I went to a Tourettes without Regrets show. Hugely popular with those in their twenties and thirties, this episodic event is split in two parts, with the first billed as a “psychotic erotic vaudeville showcase.” It turned out to be a series of monologists stridently defending their sexual orientation, access, performance and misery. It was all about sex, and terrible sex at that, yet judging by the many hoots, hollers and appreciative laughs, it was very cathartic for the audience. The second part was a poetry slam, with aggressive rhymers pitted against each other to boast and trade insults. Again, the tone was insanely strident. This night’s one focus, its lone star, so to speak, was a petty and narcissistic ego that had to scream to the world that it was indeed happy and somehow fuckable. Under no disguise did love or any akin emotion make an appearance that night, and “you” was nearly always accompanied by an insult or accusation. The social and political were also no-shows. It was all about the solipsistic self, and the defiant defense of such. To many of us today, that’s social and political enough.
Monday, April 22, 2013
Saturday, April 20, 2013
Friday, April 19, 2013
As published at OpEd News, Dissident Voice, Intrepid Report, CounterPunch and CounterCurrents, 4/19/13:
Sightseeing buses are for those who deeply dread the places they’re visiting. You can’t really see a city or town from a motorized anything, so if you claim to have driven through Los Angeles, for example, you haven’t seen it. The speed and protection of a car prevents you from being anywhere except inside your car, with what’s outside rushing by so fast that each face, tree and building is rudely dismissed by the next, next and next. You can’t pause, come closer, examine, converse, sniff or step on something, so what’s the point of visiting Los Angeles like this, except to say that you’ve been there.
Like television, the private automobile was invented to wean us away from our own humanity. From each, we’ve learnt how to amp up our impatience and indifference towards everything, and with life itself. Anything that’s seen through a screen or windshield becomes ephemera, with its death nearly instant. You don’t have to switch channel or run over it, it will disappear by itself. All screens and windshields have been erected to block us from intercourse. Of course, I’m writing this on a screen, and you will read it, patient reader, while staring at a screen. Screen-bound, then, let’s visit Los Angeles.
UC Berkeley hosted me for a month, and I used my time in Northern California to explore a bunch of places, but with my academic responsibilities done, I decided to take a megabus to Los Angeles, a city I had only visited a handful of times, and knew hardly at all. Evelyn Waugh wrote, “There is no place that isn't worth visiting once.” I'll amend that to say, “There is no place that isn't worth visiting a bunch of times, with each subsequent visit richer than the last.”
My coach rolled into Union Station at 3AM, and right outside, I encountered the homeless, with their belonging stored in trash bags or beat up suitcases. I then crossed LA Plaza, where many more homeless slept around a statue of a priest brandishing a crucifix. From afar I assumed it was Saint Francis Xavier, the dude who brought the Inquisition to India, complete with slow and methodical mutilation of children, with their parents’ eyelids removed so they could not shut out the blessed spectacle, and women raped by rapiers, and men’s penises hacked off, you know, the entire package, but thank God, up-close I discovered it was only Father Jupinero Serra, who merely beat his Indians, as far as we know. American Indians, East Indians, whatever, all you can do is convert to them to Catholicism, blue jeans, knife and fork, happy hours, Monsanto, a lousy cheeseburger or Neoliberalism. It’s all good.
Crossing Main, I then saw perhaps a hundred people lying on the grounds of Nuestra Senora Reina de Los Angeles, a beautiful church founded in 1784. Some folks were in tents but most were just under a blanket, prone or curled up on cardboard, with shopping carts, bags and the occasional bicycle parked near them. Blue, green or yellow tarps were tied to fences to make up half-assed leantos. In the dark, a handful of souls were arising. One man quietly pissed. Waiting for a free breakfast at 5:30, another gent asked me what time it was. On Spring, I encountered dozens of tents on both sides of the street. In late 2009, I had been precisely here but hadn’t see any of this, so these tents had only accrued in the last few years, with many more coming, I’m sure, unless the authorities decide to raze, with their occupants chased to another part of town. Magnificent City Hall was only two blocks away.
Across the country, I’ve seen many small flags stuck to tents, as if to declare that this, too, was America, and of course it was, and becoming more representative by the day. Though they flaunt no political signs, these tents on concrete or city grass are no less of a statement and indictment than the Occupy encampments. In fact, I’d say that they are more so, since you don’t have to read anything to understand exactly what they mean. No joking or contradictory messages distract from the fact that hundreds of thousands of Americans have been reduced to living like savages in this self-proclaimed greatest country on earth.
In Oakland, a man in his early 60’s said to me, “Human beings are not supposed to live like this. Look at the birds and squirrels. They can go where they want and sleep where they want. These animals can piss and shit where they want and still look civilized. Man, I’d rather be an animal!”
Many of our homeless are also on wheelchairs, so this is how we treat our lame, feeble and sick, even the horribly injured or diseased. In Berkeley, there’s a diaper-wearing homeless man with a huge blood and pus-caked wound on the right side of his head, yet he’s forced to be outside from before dawn until early evening. Around the Downtown Berkeley Station he hovers each day, to be ignored, mostly, by the thousands who walk by him, the way one instinctively averts one’s eyes from a piece of shit on the ground.
Our criminal bankers, meanwhile, are kept in high style with billion-dollar bailout after bailout, as served up, shuffling and grinning, by our criminal politicians, with the entire criminal enterprise sanctioned by American voters, whether conservatives, liberals or progressives, and explained away or ignored by our moronic or dishonest intellectuals. It’s no wonder we’re bankrupt.
Critical thinking is dead in this country, at least in the public sphere, for the most serious and urgent questions are never asked, or only briefly aired to be ridiculed. Take the Boston bombing incident. It is known that the FBI has lured and guided many fanatical idiots into participating in fake bomb plots, with each step of the process meticulous planned by their FBI handlers. Duds planted, these framed fools can be triumphantly arrested by the US government as it points a finger at its chosen enemy. Now, I don’t claim to know what is happening in Boston, which is still ongoing as I type, with the second suspect still at large, but I have a strong hunch he will never live to see a court room, for a serious investigation into his network of backers might just turn up Uncle Sam himself, for this terror incident benefits American global and domestic agendas, and not, by any stretch of the imagination, Chechens or Muslims in general. Further, if two dorks want to massacre Americans, they can just as easily pick a supermarket, shopping mall or even airport check-in area, instead of the heavily guarded finishing point of the Boston Marathon, swarmed that day with hundreds of cops and undercover agents, not to mention bomb sniffing dogs. Also, I don’t see the Boston Marathon as having special significance for those who hate Americans, for it is an international meet routinely won by foreigners. For the US government, however, any major event allows it to bring in agents to facilitate the planting of duds or bombs, as it sees fit. Finally, let’s not forget that our terrorist government has often aligned itself with, and manipulated, lesser terrorists of every stripe and level of competence, from Italy to Syria, and many, many other countries. Without question, we are the most prolific generator of terrorists the world has ever seen, and we actually like it that way.
Back to LA. Iconic City Hall is something to behold, all right. Erected in 1928, it was retrofitted in 2001 to be “base-isolated,” that is, it can now withstand, supposedly, an 8.2 earthquake, so as Los Angelenos freebase from Burbank to Gardena, City Hall itself is hovering over nothing while running on fume. Bankrupt by the crooked banks, it has also seen its manufacturing, residents and even porn stars fleeing to less arid pastures. LA’s unemployment rate is among the highest in the nation.
It was still pre-dawn when I made it to 5th and Broadway, and who did I run into but the appropriately named Eric Hurt. Born in Compton, Hurt went to San Jose State and was signed by the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent. A cornerback, he played four games on special team, and returned four kickoffs for an average of 17.8 yards, with a long of 24 yards. Several injuries ended his career after one season. Hurt is now 55-years-old and homeless. To prove that he was an NFL player, Hurt carries, at all time, a Cowboys team photo from 1980. Hey, at least this still confident looking man got to cradle that fabled pigskin four times before he got knocked stupid into 2013.
Across the street from Hurt, I saw two people sleeping in front of Rite Aid, then half a block away, an old, white bearded guy lying in front of a shuttered store, and what was his name but “Storm.”
“Yeah, like the weather. That’s my name.”
Not to sound superstitious, but, parents, please don’t tempt fate by naming your child Earthquake or Mudslide, especially if you live in LA, and if you’re an aspiring athlete and your first or last name is Hurt, Spavin, Concussion or Lame, then maybe you should consider changing it. Of course, just calling your offspring Richard or Jewel doesn’t mean that he or she won’t end up on Skid Row.
It was now around 5:30, so buses were already delivering workers downtown. Many got off one, just to wait for another. Most of these early risers were Hispanic, I noticed. In the orange glow of the still-lit street lights, they hurried past Broadway’s clothing stores, electronics shops, restaurants and botanicas. A black sanitation worker swept, while a white cop on a Segway woke up a sleeping woman, “You have to move on.” She sat up groggily, a middle-aged woman all alone on a dirty sidewalk, but plopped right down as soon as he was gone. To prevent it from being stolen, she was lying on the handle of her collapsible shopping cart.
It was now light, and I had made my way to Skid Row. Nearly five thousand homeless people live here. On sidewalk after sidewalk, they have set up their crude dwellings made up mostly of tarps and cardboard. I saw shopping carts all over, and a few bicycles. Bodies lay on cardboard, bedding or sometimes just concrete, but trash was generally confined to trash cans. There was a commotion at 5th and Gladys, with cops and an ambulance, and people were speculating that it might have been a stabbing.
I talked to Fred, a Hispanic man in his mid forties, and he said he would have to move to another block since one of his neighbors was too volatile, and perhaps not quite right in the head, “I just don’t feel safe around that guy.” I offered to buy him a beer, but he said he had stopped drinking. “If I had one, then I’d need another, then another,” he chuckled. Then how about a coffee? No, he said. He didn’t need anything.
In LA’s Skid Row, destitution is on vivid display and goes on for block after bustling block. Warmly lit by the Southern California sun, squalor is bright and lively here. Even in winter, a light coat is sufficient, and most folks don’t need to wear two or three pairs of pants to keep warm. Stores and restaurants are few and not of the best quality, of course, but you can also get what you need from an underground economy. If your pants are too raggedy, you can buy a new pairs, for no more than $5, from this man right here, and this upstart entrepreneur ambling around with a slightly used blanket will let you have it for $2, after some haggling. I saw a security guard buy a charity shirt from a homeless guy, which didn’t surprise me in the least, for the rent-a-cop lived on a fixed budget too. One pink slip and he might end up on Skid Row.
I walked for a few blocks, but could find no store that sold beer, for having eaten only a boston crème for breakfast, I was getting hungry again, and since I didn’t want to waste time in some eatery, at least not yet, a cold, tall can of yeast would have to do. I hollered at a random dude, “Yo, where can you get some beer around here?” Follow me, he said, then led me to a fat man sitting on a folding chair next to a cooler, from whom I bought a Colt-45 for me and a Steel Reserve, alcohol content 6%, no less, for my guide. They cost but $1.50 a piece, though after dark, it would be $2.
It was thus I met Jay, who told me he had worked all sorts of jobs, at a store, in a factory making aluminum siding, and as security guard at a warehouse. He had a wife who stayed at home, and had a lover, or lovers, he suspected, for she was becoming increasingly distant towards him, and when he got home early one day, said to him, “What are you doing here?” in a way that irritated him to no end, and from which he never recovered. He finally placed his wedding ring and a brief yet carefully worded note on his pillow, and left before she woke up. They never saw each other again. Jay then boasted of other women, and of a threesome escapade, after which he was tipped $200 by one of his lovers.
“What about the other one?”
“She liked it too.”
“But two hundred bucks?! Man, come on, you got to be shittin’ me!”
“You know what they say, Once you try black, you’ll never go back.”
O, why was I born a scrounging shadow of a poet, and not a resplendent and strutting gigolo? And with my luck, my threesome would have me permanently locked in a room, No Exit style, with my mother and mother-in-law, Herr Doktor Freud.
Continuing my interrogation, I then asked, “Hey, how do you get pussy on Skid Row?”
“No, for you.”
“Shit, man, it is easier to get pussy here than it is to get food!” Jay did add, “It won’t be high grade pussy, but it is still pussy.”
Leaving Jay, I thought I had exhausted this line of inquiry, but then I met Johnny Velasco. Clean and trim, Johnny looked younger than his 53 years, and his living area was also neat and clean. Mike, in a blue muscle T and blue Nike cap, worn backward, sat on a canvas chair. Peacefully dozing, he never got up to burp a single word, even as Johnny waxed insanities about him. Per Johnny, Mike was the coolest guy the world, practically, “He's like the Dos Equis man! Women come down from Brentwood to pick him up!”
“If he’s so cool, what the fuck is he doing on Skid Row?”
“He’s just chillin’, man, he doesn’t need to be here. He’s just relaxing.”
So here we had our second gigolo, one still extant, and not reminiscing. Like paunchy, middle-aged guys scampering to Bangkok, or Japanese broads landing in Java, a few Brentwood housewives or caress-less bachelorettes have discovered the comforts of really cheap loving. At this rate, they can hang on to their cuddly toy for a week or more, or until they get sick of their chatty dildo, all without having to endure jetlag or airport groping. Why fly to the Third World when it is already here, and becoming more pronounced by the day?
For those with lots of cash stashed away, the coming years will be an orgy of cheap thrills dished up, for next to nothing, by a ballooning army of increasingly desperate Americans. They won’t just screw us figuratively, then toss us a penny. They will do it literally.
Tuesday, April 16, 2013
As published at OpEd News, CounterPunch, Dissident Voice and Intrepid Report, 4/16/13:
In Sartre’s “No Exit,” hell is depicted as a room with two women and a man, which is fair enough, for a threesome is never what you envisioned it would be, in the privacy of your own hell. Hell is also “other people,” “les autres,” for in the company of another, one’s vanity, smugness, extreme prejudices and fantasies, whether philosophical, political, charitable or pornographic, are rudely disrupted. One must readjust and realign one’s flesh and ideas, must calibrate if not refute them, in toto and in shame, when faced with another, which in most cases is no hell at all, but a kind of heaven so awesome and humbling that we, as media-abetted cowards, must evade constantly. OK, cheese overture over, now get the hell away from me!
How about some choice fromage, my dear? Laughing Cow? Sit next to me, be my hell until Topeka do us part. Of all the lovely bodies in the world, why are we suddenly together? It must be destiny, for we are a perfectly-matched couple, whether hetero, homo, transexual or even transpecies, and thankfully race, skin tone and birthplace no longer serve as barriers, for we are together, see? Tight, tight, tight. We are a couple.
Let's see how others do it. Across the aisle is Samantha. She appears no older than 22. Heading to Georgia, she got on in Denver yesterday, where the temperature never rose above 40, yet she had no coat on, only a thin blanket over a strap blouse. The reason, one must assume, was to show off the tattoo on her chest, a large skull with bat wings. Let's us now listen to her speech. It is genteel all right. "May I ask you another question, Sir?" This, on a bus where "motherfucker," "fuck off" and every other kind of "fuck" fly about freely. Her seatmate is a sixty-year-old man whose diction is nearly as formal, as in, "These candies are very good, in my opinion." A Serbian, he's teaching her basic words, at her request, "zdravo," "dobro" and "bombona," etc. A lovely dancing couple, they are careful not to step on each other's tongue, with the pattern they're making lurking forever in their minds, as well as mine, a mere observer, but soon, too soon, she will abruptly leave him, for this is how it usually ends, in Topeka, Kansas.
OK, OK, so traveling from Kansas City to St. Louis, I had the luck to be abutted to a curious lady. In her mid 40’s, she had hard features accentuated by severe, even aggressive, makeup. She looked mean, all right, but had a calm, often soothing voice, even as she was spewing some nasty stuff. Overhearing her cell phone conversations, I gathered that she had just abandoned her apartment in St. Paul, and was heading to Kentucky, where she had family.
Her boyfriend had gotten rough on her, so she was dumping his ass, “You lay your hand on me, I’m going to waste you stupid ass, you lame ass nigga, and I won’t need a man to do it. I’ll kill you myself. No, you shut the fuck up! It’s over. I called 911 on you, and I’m calling the landlord, right about now. You’re always acting like you’re in charge, but you ain’t in charge of shit! You have three days to get the fuck out of there, you hear me? You’re occupying that place il-le-gal-ly. They’re going to change the lock on your stupid ass.”
Then she called her daughter, “What’s up? I can’t even hear you. Speak up! Why are you getting all sneaky on me?! Listen, listen, just listen to me. I’ve moved, I’m out of there, I made up my mind, so you have three days to get your ass out, you hear me? Oh, shut the fuck up! You don’t know nothing about nothing. You can't do shit! You can’t even fuck! All you know how to do is to eat pussies. I’m going to come back from Kentucky just to kick you the fuck out, bitch!”
Then she called her ex-landlord, “Yes, Sir, I’m out of there. I know, I’ve been behind on the rent, but I’ve decided to vacate your property. There’s a man in there, but he shouldn’t be there, he’s in there il-le-gal-ly, so you should change the lock on him. No, Sir, you have a good day.”
Note that all of the above was said in the most composed voice, and not just because the driver had warned, repeatedly, that loud noises of any kind, as well as drugs or alcohol, were not to be tolerated. Ignoring these prohibitions, a young man slipped into the tiny bathroom, and soon the entire coach was uplifted by a sweetly titillating fragrance. “A skunk,” a wise man informed us, but my seasoned seatmate immediately corrected the dumbass, “No, that’s some great weed.”
Independently coming to the same conclusion, the driver then shouted, “You, in the far back, please come forward!” And as the young man in a DieMonsterDie T-shirt wended his way up front, the driver added, “Son, I knew grass before you knew green grass!” The toker was made to dump his stash, undoubtably for the driver to smoke later, with his wife and kids while watching Dancing with the Stars or some shit. Toker then had to turn around to apologize to all the other passengers. “Kick him off,” my seatmate hollered, but seeing his distressed face, I decided to pipe up, “Let him go! He’s only a kid!” Apparently changing her verdict, my seatmate concurred, “He don’t know nothing.” “Yeah, let him go,” a few other voices chimed in, and the horror punk fan was spared from being stranded in the middle of heaven or hell, depending on what you're smoking.
Seriously, dude, you don’t want to mess with an interstate bus driver, for as long as you’re in that tight, barely reclining seat, you’re subjected to their full spectrum domination. Most are cool, no doubt, but some are certifiably world-class a-holes. In El Paso, I saw a driver berate a rider like a mother her child, and in Cleveland, two passengers were prevented from boarding for having alcohol on their breath, and I likewise for refusing to have my camera stored in the hold. When I loudly protested, this driver simply mouthed “fuck you” twice, and that was that, for he had the final say, for a driver's words are papal to those without wheels or the means to fly or ride the rails. Easing into Indianapolis, an elderly driver blessed us, “If this is your final destination, then may you be eternally protected by the benevolence, forgiveness and wisdom of our Lord, Jesus Christ.”
Winding through snowy Colorado, a driver offered us a rare prospect for employment, “Greyhound is hiring. I repeat, Greyhound is hiring. If you were a friend or a family member, I’d not recommend this job, but since you are perfect strangers, I’ll say that it is not such a bad job.” Later, he’d spoon us more comedy, “If you are somehow unhappy with this ride, there is a form you can fill out to complain about me. For your information, my name is Sammy Taggart. Again, I am Sammy Taggart. If you are satisfied with this trip, however, and want to compliment me, my name is Chuck Hernandez.”
OK, let’s hop back on the bus rolling through Missouri, with a hard yet sweet woman sitting next to me, but how is she sweet, you may be asking? First of, she was sharing her cigarettes and food to all those around her, and even offered me a taco. Bought yesterday in another time zone, it was still some kind of meat wrapped in a tired shell, with hot sauce galore and a sprig of cilantro even. She was also being motherly to a young man just released from prison. He was in for “eight and a half,” he confided, and I had to assume he meant months and not years, since he didn’t look older than 25. He hadn’t eaten in three days, he added, but didn’t elaborate. Though tough featured and well built, he appeared very subdued, even meek.
Seeing this kid, I was reminded of a garbage man turned crack dealer I knew back in Philly. He went from making $1,200 a month to $600 a day, so what did he do but slosh around in lots of pussies and booze for a couple of months, before he was caught and sent to jail for 5 ½ years. His demeanor changed whenever he recalled being locked up. I mean, on the face of it, it didn’t sound half bad, with not much to do and cable TV, besides, at only $14 per month, way better than the outside, for sure, an excellent deal that included all of the Phillies, Flyers, Eagles and Sixers games, and certainly worth committing a felony or two for, with or without collateral damages, but the constant violence he saw in there scared the living coitus out of him. Like my late buddy Tony, he talked of guys having their assholes slit with a razor, so that tradition is still going strong, apparently, at least in Pennsylvania.
The hard woman sheltered a daughter and her man, and simply slogged along, rent unpaid and all, until he raised his hand to her, provoking this latest drama, which she handled with considerable equanimity and aplomb, I must say. For many of the lower class, life lurches from crisis to crisis, with frequent slides into disaster. If this was an airplane, such an overheard tale would draw irritated looks, if not indignant complaints, but here no one gave a flying Twinkie, for each had his own harrowing sequence to hash over or, more likely, forget.
Let’s meet another survivor, a man I encountered in Kansas City a month earlier, on my way West. A blizzard had stranded over a hundred people at this modest bus terminal. Minus the handful who were willing or able to pay for a taxi cab and hotel room, we just slept wherever we could, or not at all. I lay on a steel bench, with my lower legs draped over its end, and the thickness of my hoodie serving as the thinnest pillow. It did keep my ears warm. Though my eyes were closed, I never lost the consciousness that I was stuck in Kansas City, with no clear timeline for escape. Unable to drift into dreams, I’d get up repeatedly to wander around the brightly lit station, with its TV tuned to CNN nonstop, and its benches and floor sprawling with bodies, including kids and the very old, as in nearly morgue ready. Hell is the American mainstream media earnestly beaming charades, mirages and spins 24/7, though thankfully the volume was kept low.
Seeing a squatting man, I immediately knew he was foreign, but only after we started talking, did I realize he was Vietnamese. We then switched from English to our native tongue. Of mixed race, Tung likely had American blood in him from the Vietnam War, though there were Aussie and New Zealander troops there too, as well as contractors and reporters from dozens of other countries. A mild man, Tung sported a moustache and donned a cheap-looking, dun baseball cap featuring an eagle perched on the stars and stripes. Forty-three-years-old, he had been in the US 11 years, and was working as a boner at a pork processing plant in Greenbush, MN, making $16 an hour, for $400 net a week. Previously, he had been at a beef plant in Sioux City, Iowa, but that place only paid $300 per week.
Greenbush is near the Canadian border, and the region is almost entirely white, but from Tung I learnt that 80% of the workers at this pork plant are non-white, with many Africans, Mexicans and Asians, with the Burmese so adept at this grueling work, they're allowed to chew betel leaves on the job, with trash cans nearby to catch their spittle. Saving what he could from his modest pay, Tung had returned to Vietnam eight times, with six months his longest stay. Back in tropical Can Tho in the Mekong Delta, he would eat and drink well, and idle his time away, but that too would get tiresome, and his dollars would evaporate, so back to frozen Minnesota he would fly. Recently he passed out at the slaughter house and woke up in an emergency room, but since it happened just before he clocked in, even before he had a chance to put on his gloves, it wasn't considered a work place incident. Tung spoke wistfully of a fellow Vietnamese who had gotten clipped by a forklift. The lucky man broke his chin, so thereafter was assigned the easiest tasks, on top of his medical compensation.
In the morning, with my bus still unscheduled, I trudged through the snow into town. There, I saw several fine examples of empty buildings being jazzed up to entice elusive tenants. All over America, this has become an art, and a booming business for graphic designers. In the past, this cosmetic would be a waste of money, for any prime piece of real estate would soon be rented, but now, even a well appointed edifice in an excellent location might stay empty for years, if not permanently. Behind plate glass windows, handsomely suited men and women are shown surveying and marching towards a bright future, "RETAIL SPACE FOR LEASE," and on the sign board of yet another empty store, "YOUR NAME HERE." In St. Louis, white letters are painted onto a window, BEAUTIFUL HISTORIC BUILDING. $6 BASE RENT. Will Design / Build Interior Space. Let's Talk!"
With so many Americans unemployed, shouldn’t people like Tung be kept out of the country? With a smaller labor pool, wages would go up, and the tougher jobs would become more attractive, or at least more worthwhile, though consumer prices would spike. The problem in Tung’s case, however, is that America’s foreign policies have resulted in him being here at all, and I don’t mean just the country, but the earth itself. Further, since our military and banking tentacles have such a wide reach, many other immigrants can rightly claim to be a bastard of Uncle Sam, although he may not have been, literally, their motherfucker.
Let’s meet, then, such a person. Traveling from Salt Lake City to Reno, I sat across the aisle from a darker skinned, middle-aged man in a Bulls knit cap. We had just passed the Lovelock Correctional Center, which the driver pointed out was the residence of one OJ Simpson. Hitchhiking was prohibited in this area, announced a billboard. Presently, Bulls knit walked forward to ask another passenger something. This second man had on an Army Airborne cap. He said, “Man, you’ve got to learn how to speak English better if you’re going to do business in this country. Not everybody is going to be as nice as me.”
Airborne then dialed a number to ask why Bulls knit's phone card didn't work. Done, he spoke very slowly to accommodate the foreigner, “They said you spent the minutes already. They said you spent your minutes calling Afghanistan. Hey, are you from Afghanistan?”
“Yes,” the war refugee blurted in a tiny voice.
“Afghanistan! Man, I love that country!”
So there you have it. If only we would stop loving so many countries, the Bulls knits of the world won’t have to come here in ragged droves to ride our hellish buses and snag our worst jobs, and our goofy young men won’t have to assist the very people they had just bombed or droned. Our young ladies also won't have as many chances to learn how to mispronounce "hello," "good" and "candy" in Serbian, Arabic, Urdu or Somali, etc., but that's a loss I think we can handle.
With killing and looting making up the DNA of any empire, however, we won’t veer from our bloody ways, at least not of our own volition, though with the US of A rapidly winding down and entering its autophagous phase, state-sponsored butchering and mugging will be increasingly performed in your face and on your body. Hell has come home.
Thursday, April 11, 2013
As published at OpEd News, Dissident Voice, CounterPunch and Intrepid Report, 4/11/13:
Of all the words uttered by a person, only a few remain unforgettable to any listener, for these can charm, haunt, humiliate, annoy or terrify even decades later. My friend Lan, for example, is reduced in my mind to a single joking sentence, “This time I’ll probably have to sell my body,” and I’ll never forgive X for sneering, “I ain’t got none!” With a public figure, the lingering words can even be misquoted, or conjured up out of malice or adoration, as likely the case with the incipiently subterranean Margaret Thatcher (the Milk Snatcher). Though there’s no record of it, she’s repeatedly cited as having intoned, “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.” The public likes this faux quotation because it neatly sums up Thatcher’s disdain for the bottom half, for “losers,” so to speak, and also because it sounds pretty funny.
Well, I’ve seen many wars (based on lies) since my 26th flame out, and I’m still riding the losers’ express to the no-payout casino, as racketeered by Uncle Sam, or, rather, Ben, so I’m obviously not a member of the Union League. Carless, with my Virginia driver’s license long expired, I’ve ridden countless coaches across town, state and country. I’ve rolled with a vast army of losers, but, like I’ve insisted many times, losing is not easy, in this or any other culture. To lose day in and day out requires all of your physical, mental and spiritual energy, for who bear the weight of this nasty empire, amigo? It’s the bottom half that build, maintain, fight and die for this nation, that is, for its ruling class, the winners who never ride buses. Soon, perhaps we will come to our sense, unite and redirect our weapons.
Recently, I took a bus from Philly to Oakland, then back, with several stops each way, scheduled or not. I heard and saw much, on and off the bus. Repeatedly, I’d hear of people losing jobs or making less, much less, than just a few years ago. Yes, there were a few with a positive economic prospect, but they were by far in the minority. In St. Louis, I met a 52-year-old lady who hadn’t found work in several years, though she had spent decades as a live-in baby sitter or caretaker of the elderly. At the welfare office, she was told she’d have to wait until she was 55. “So what am I going to do for three years? I still have to eat!”
From St. Louis to Terre Haute, I sat next to a 41-year-old manager of an Outback Steakhouse. Yes, business is down, way down, from five years ago, but this year has started out slightly better than expected, so he’s keeping his fingers crossed. Joe did admit that they used to have three cooks come in the morning, each with a different set of responsibilities, but now they were down to just one. “So one guy is doing the work of three?!” I blurted.
“Well, yeah,” Joe laughed, “but he’s fast.”
“He’s not getting paid three times as much, though.”
“Of course not, but he’s gotten five raises.”
“You’re lucky you have this guy.”
Are you, too, doing twice or three times the work for roughly the same pay? With 101 million working-age Americans without jobs, or not interested in working, as the brainwashing media would have you believe, there are plenty who would gladly snatch your paychecks should you go slack for even a second. With outsourcing of jobs and deliberate importing of immigrants, legal and illegal, our ruling class is guaranteed a surplus of labor in just about every profession.
Jim grew up on Long Island, served 2 ½ years in the Airborne, studied at a culinary school in Allentown, PA, worked as a pastry chef in Burke, VA, then moved to Springfield, MO, to be with his second wife. He was going to Allentown to see his two daughters, 10 and 13. He had never been west of Springfield, and had only driven through Chicago, twice. As a grade school student, he interviewed Yankees pitcher Phil Niekro, “and that’s something I’ll never forget.” He regrets not being a cop. “If I had a chance to do it all again, that’s what I’d be.”
Entering Cheyenne, I saw an inquiring ad, “Missing a tooth?” Then a large billboard, “8 Million a Day for Israel. It just doesn’t make any sense.” I got off my coach and walked three miles into town. In summer, Cheyenne may appear more cheerful, but in early April, it was overwhelmingly gray and brown, with most of the larger buildings left over from the 70’s and box-like. On Lincoln Highway, there was a line of motels advertising “clean room” for under $30, so I had likely overpaid for mine, booked online for $70. I had spent two nights on the bus, and would have to endure two more likewise before reaching home.
Cheyenne has long lost its inter-city rail service, but there’s a Depot Museum on its main square. It being winter and even colder than usual, few visitors were present, and as I photographed a John Wayne image through a store window, a uniformed soldier suggested that I should go inside for even better shots. Earlier, a man had pointed out Sanford’s as a cheap yet decent drinking hole. Cheyenne folks were remarkably friendly. Presently, however, a man with bad facial skin strode up, carrying a cheap six pack. I can’t recall who said what first, or second, but in no time, he had become my unofficial tour guide. Meth visage said I could get $1 beer at the Drunken Skunk if I ordered some food. If I liked to look at dancing girls, well, there’s the Green Door, just down the street. Meth boasted of once making $54 in a single day, just giving tips to tourists, mostly European, and taking photos for them. Meth had a single occupancy room at the Pioneer Hotel, and I was tempted to buy two six packs of tall boys, which would likely gain me entry into the sparse or messy world of Meth and his buddies, one of whom was already walking beside me to act as my second unofficial tour guide. To offer unsolicited service is common in all Third World countries, so with Meth and others like him across this increasingly desperate land, we’re getting a glimpse of what’s to come.
Having just gotten into town, and with my bus leaving the next afternoon, I decided to pass on the Pioneer. Underdressed in a thin jacket and slacks, I was freezing as I wandered, but I toughed it out for another hour or so before ducking, finally, into the Eagle’s Nest. With its proximity to the Hitching Post, my hotel, I wouldn’t have to stumble too far to lie down at the end of my boozing. I planted myself on a stool, near a boisterous group rolling dices on the bar. There was two pool tables and two beers on tap, Bud and Bud Lite. Before long, I found out that the cheerful lady next to me was named Ginger. Her easygoing boyfriend was Terry. The lanky cowboy, Jim. The bartender, Leaf.
Up to three years ago, 45-year-old Ginger, born and raised in Amarillo, was a manager at a video rental store, making $18 an hour, but it went out of business. She then bartended, at this very joint, but it didn’t suit her, so now she works in an appliance store, making just $8 per, before tax. To add to her troubles, she and her husband of 23 years filed for divorce, “I never really loved him. I met him when I was just 21. He got me pregnant, so we got married.” She had only known two men before him, Ginger confided, and two men after, before she met Terry, “the love of my life. Now I finally know what’s it’s like to be loved, to be wanted. Now I finally have someone who is glad to see me at the end of each day.”
Ginger has three daughters, 23, 22 and 9-years-old, with the 22-year-old serving in “North Korea,” she said.
“You mean South Korea?”
“No, North Korea.”
“It’s South Korea,” at least two voices chimed in. “South Korea!”
Overhearing that Ginger had only been with six men, Leaf also interjected laughingly, “Six guys?! I’ve been with so many more. I loved fucking.”
Ginger got me a Tecate, so I bought her a Salty Dog, or maybe it was a Fuzzy Navel. In any case, things went south not long after, but we’ll get to that later. Meanwhile, let’s meet Jim, a lanky, Stetson-wearing 53-year-old with most of his front teeth punched out, or maybe in, and he had simply swallowed them, with a chaser.
Jim was born in Oakland, where his mom died of heroin. He has nine kids that he’s aware of. “I’m still in touch with each of them, and I’ve taken care of all of them.” Maybe he has. A seasoned crane operator, Jim was in town for a new job that paid $29 an hour, big bucks in these times and parts. The work would only last a few months, however, then it’s on to Casper, Wyoming. Using the internet to find gig after gig, he had bounced around the country. It’s good that he had no wife and kids at home, for it would not be possible to drag them along his gypsy route. Jim had no real home, in fact, only rooms at cheap motels, and tonight, like every other night, naturally, he didn’t want to sleep alone. Seeing two lovelies at a table, he grinned at me, “Are you with me? I’ll get them for us.”
There is no stability in the system. Hardly anyone knows if he will have the same job, live in the same place or own the same store a year from now, much less ten. The era of a father handing the family business to his son is a quaint and ridiculous notion, is already mythical. There is no continuity here, only anxiety, if not outright fear. How can a society move forward like this? Something will have to blow. Radical changes are in store, and it’s up to us to ensure that we don’t become permanent casualties of this arrangement.
Jim had been drinking since 10:30 in the morning, and it was creeping towards midnight, so dude was well lubricated, and running out money also. Jim was down to three bucks, so I gave him two for one more shot of whiskey. Earlier he had said to me, apropos of nothing, “You look like a dangerous guy.”
“Me?! Fuck! I’m the biggest pussy in the world!”
Jim turned out prescient, sort of, for when I heard him refer to me a “Chinese guy” who had just given him two bucks, I immediately hopped off my stool to strangle him, with my thumbs pressed deep into his jugular. The motherfucker froze. Now, if we have been chatting, then I’m no longer a Chinese, Vietnamese or any kind of ethnic guy. I’m Linh, or even Lee, if you can’t quite pronounce my name. You wouldn’t appreciate it either if I called you “this black dude” or “this white woman,” after we’ve had a conversation, or even before.
Though my logic was sound, my action was foolish, at best, if not suicidal, for I couldn’t knock down a Justin Bieber standee with a right cross if you gave me three tries, but Jim, as I’ve already noted, simply froze, which prompted Ginger to comment, “I’m impressed.” Letting go, I actually said, “Next time I won’t be so tender.”
Stoked by booze and Lynyrd Skynyrd on the juke box, we had all become fast friends, though before the night was over, Ginger would lose her cell phone, start to sob, “This is why I don’t drink,” and get into a fight with boyfriend Terry over a Doug Supernaw song, the one with mom being run over by a freight train just after being freed from prison. She thought it was hilarious. He didn't think so.
"I don't like country music. I just don't get it."
"You don't have to like country music to have a sense of humor!"
So ended my first day in Cheyenne. I saw and heard enough to know that things were rough here, as they were throughout my recent travel. Downtown, there was a sign on a handsome high rise, “THIS BUILDING IS NOT EMPTY. IT IS FULL OF OPPORTUNITY,” and nearby, the art-deco theater advertised movies for only $3.50. Here and there, posters warned against meth addiction.
The next morning, I stepped over used syringes on my way to the bus station. There, the driver made us wait nearly half an hour in the cold, even though the bus was right there, with its door wide open. He treated us like losers, and we didn’t dare to upset him. Had we stirred, the bossman might deny us our only chance out of ruination, if only towards another dire strait. Like Jim, I’m missing several teeth, actually, for this is Uncle Ben’s America. Eight million a day for Israel. Are you with me? Words, words, words. I’ll get them for us.
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
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