Though this may sound like a joke, it’s certainly no joke, for I’m not a joking type: When I came to the US in 1975, the very first American song I learnt was “Old McDonald Had a Farm.” Though I could not properly pronounce any of the words, and understood only half of them, at most, I sang along with all the other kids in Miss Dogen’s class at McKinley Elementary in Tacoma, Washington. To this day, I remember one kid cracking up at me, and if I should ever see his laughing face again, I’m sure I’ll recognize it even after many decades. I’ll confront my adversary, “Hey, man, it wasn’t very cool of you to laugh at me, like, a century ago!” Anyway, as I was swaying back and forth and mouthing along, “And on that farm he had a cow, E-I-E-I-O,” I was thinking in Vietnamese, “Cute, the natives here are peasants at heart, for they love to sing stupid songs about cows,” but I was wrong, wrong, wrong, of course. It’s remarkable, and risky too, that only 2% of this nation’s people produce food for the rest, and doing any sort of farm work is about the last thing most Americans want to do.
With more reliance on machines, fewer farm hands are needed, but the remaining ones are paid like raw fertilizer. According to the 2002 National Agricultural Workers Survey, the latest available, a farm worker makes just $6.84 an hour, if paid by the hour, or $8.27 an hour, if paid by the piece (and converted to hourly). Since most Americans won’t bend over and sweat bullets under a hellish sun for such chump change, 78% of our crop workers are foreign-born, with over half of them illegal immigrants. A solution seems obvious. We can stanch our influx of foreigners, since this will force wages to be raised high enough to attract fat-assed Americans, like me, you and our in-laws, into picking strawberries, apples and melons… “No way, Jose,” sayeth Old McDonald, “for this will jack up my prices and make me so uncompetitive, I won’t be able to export my crops or even sell domestically, for Americans will prefer to buy imported veggies and fruits, E-I-E-I-O!”
True blue Americans are also averse to farm work since it’s seen as a step backward. For destitute immigrants, however, just making it into this country is progress, and even if they can’t stand toiling in the fields, at least they can view it as a stepping stone to something better. In any case, the ideal trajectory is to move from the farm to suburb or city, not the other way around, and since this is a worldwide phenomenon, there’s a global disdain of rural people, for they’re called hicks and bumpkins in every language. We feel a twisted pride at being totally amputated from nature and, worshipping the city, we’re even conditioned to rank ourselves according to its size. “My city is way bigger than yours!” Ah, but which will last longer, city or country?
Ruminating over these thoughts, I arrived in Pasco, Washington, and it was comforting to return to this state, for though I only stayed there a year, it was my first American home. Before I got off the train, though, I was able to corner an actual farmer, a man in his late 40’s. Sitting in the lounge car, I asked him some basic questions as we hurled past Ritzville, then Connell, “Is there a bias against white laborers? I mean, if a white guy and a Mexican guy shows up, who would you hire?”
“You can’t really put it like that, because I work with labor contractors. I don’t hire individual laborers.”
“What I mean is, Is there a general perception that Mexican guys just work harder?”
“It doesn’t matter because white guys don’t show up! You don’t have to turn down people who don’t show up!”
“Oh c’mon, man, there must be some white guys who show up. In your estimation, what is the percentage of whites among farm laborers.”
“Oh, no way! Only one percent?!”
“Well, maybe a little bit more, but not much more. I see Mexicans and other Latinos, but also some Asians. Japanese, Chinese, I really can’t tell the difference.”
“Yeah, some Filipinos.” Then, “Nowadays, a farmer’s profit margin is so slim, with fuel cost going up, plus fertilizers and pesticides, everything going up, so if I don’t plan very carefully, I may even lose money! It’s hard to find good workers, so the labor contractors have us by the balls. If he’s fast, a worker can easily make $100 a day.”
“Yes, very fast, but on the other hand, you have people who are paid by the hour who are very slow! Getting back to what you were saying about white workers, I think it would be a good idea to allow kids to work, like in the old days, so they can be introduced to this kind of labor.”
“When I was 13, I picked strawberries. This was in Salem, Oregon.” An old school bus picked us up. It was mostly a kid thing and entirely legal. Among the teens and even pre-teens were a few Asian adults.
“Did you like it?”
“I didn’t do it for long, but I actually did. I only made, like, seven bucks a day, but I was very proud of it. Back then, a bar of chocolate was only 20 cents, I think.”
“When I was eight, I already knew how to drive a tractor. My legs were so short that each time I had to shift gear, my entire body would slip down and I couldn’t even see above the steering wheel.” He laughed. “When you let kids work, they mature quicker, but the state has to get into everything. They like to stick their nose into everyone’s business!”
When I was 13, I also tried to sell made-to-order song compilations, as recorded off a cheap radio onto a cheapo cassette. If you gave me a list of, say, “Love Will Keep Us Together,” “Disco Duck” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends,” etc., I would wait until those exact songs came on the radio, at which point I would have to push PLAY and RECORD immediately, for if too much of a song is cut off, you wouldn’t pay me, would you? Though I only charged five cents per tune, I only managed to sell a single cassette, for the kid’s dad promptly told him to stop patronizing this copyrights violating criminal. I don’t think he would have, anyway, since my sound quality was clearly felonious. I’m recalling this episode primarily to show that poor immigrants and other destitute people often come up with the weirdest ideas to make money, from the ingenious to the farcical. In an overly regulated society, however, this natural drive is often stamped
out, and at a very early age at that. We’re bred to be cogs.
I got off the train, entered the station and walked past a couple of Mexican cowboys. Sitting by their sparse luggage, they were waiting for the Nueva Estrella bus to Los Angeles. After a ten minute walk, I saw the first sign of downtown, the Templo Ejercito De Salvacion, with some guy sitting under a nearby tree. Hunched over, a large and slovenly woman was patiently picking up a bunch of something from the sidewalk. I doubt they were cigarette butts, for there couldn’t have been that many to harvest. Against a slatted chain link fence, a handful of ragged men rested on the sidewalk.
Things spruced up in downtown proper, and I walked past Manualidades Carlitos, Carniceria La Barata, La Princesa Family Clothing/Ropa Familiar, Las Estrellas Muebleria, Mi Casa Muebleria, Viera’s Bakery and Joyeria Esmeralda, etc. On many stores, about the only English was the “OPEN” sign. Since even the worst beer on Amtrak was $5.25, I had been a teetotaler for a day and a half, so I had no need for any carniceria or agencia de viaje, but in looking for a cheap beer oasis, I somehow managed to miss the charmingly named Library Tavern, which I’d only spot on my way out. I did stumble onto a very festive farmer’s market, with kids running around and folk music from a guitar strumming duo called Winters and Skalstad.
Needing a cheap hotel, I had booked an out-of-the-way one in Kennewick, across the Columbia River. I asked a Hispanic man to point me to a bridge, but he said he had just gotten into town the day before, so had no idea. A second Hispanic man gave me directions in Spanish. The handsome suspension bridge was bookended by three homeless people, with a couple sleeping on the grass next to a shopping cart on the Pasco side. In Kennewick, a white bearded man in a dirty denim jacket slumbered on a rustic, lumber bench outside the Veterans Memorial. Next to him was a raw and irregular wooden cane.
Stepping onto the bridge, I encountered a frank warning, “NO JUMPING OFF BRIDGE / $250 FINE.” Since it’s only 48 feet above water, I’m not sure if you’d meet the Devil by leaping from it, but just to be on the safe side, I’d counsel that you securely attach to one of your big toes a Ziploc bagged money order for $250, exact, just so you can square your account with the government post mortem.
I’ve crossed from Juarez, Mexico into El Paso, Texas, but the shift from Pasco to Kennewick may be even more abrupt, for only in the second case does Spanish disappear almost entirely.
With its endless strip malls, much of Kennewick is rather nondescript, but it does have a dignified historical downtown. After an excellent lunch in Andy’s, a diner where older folks can cheerfully annoy the Mexican waitresses with long winded tales about their grandkids or great grandkids, I decided to walk into Parkade, and it was there that I met Jack.
Behind bar, colorful gambling tickets were as prominently displayed as liquor bottles, and I noticed a couple with sexually suggestive names, Lick It and Booty Call. To pick your pocket, they must appeal to the playful infant inside you. Hence, the bright colors and cartoon figures. It’s all a game, you see. Sex also fits into this lure since it is, at bottom, nakedly infantile, especially in its fantasy form. Let’s play! Bare, even a senior citizen is just a child, and will even act like one. Will you be a good girl?
The “Game of the Day” was Ale House Rock, and Katie, the bartender, would shake the plexiglass box vigorously, and convulsing her own small frame, before pulling out a ticket. Though this couldn’t have improved the odds one whit, it showed that Katie was trying hard to land you a winning combination. Handing her a stiff Lincoln, a man in a cut-off plaid shirt got five bright tickets to scratch.
Ah, it’s great to be back in Washington State, for everywhere I looked, I could see the colors and logos of my favorite corporate-owned teams: Mariners, Seahawks and the carpetbagged Sonics! Before first pitch, soldiers marched onto the diamond and stood stiffly as the singer belted, “Rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air.” Then followed a well-staged reunion of a small boy with his soldier father, returning from his imperial posting in Afghanistan. “That’s just great,” the TV announcer gushed. The Mariners Moose did his little jig.
OK, let’s just meet Jack already! With his golf shirt, slacks, easy manner and gray, thinning hair, Jack came off as a well-situated man near retirement, “I’ve been in this area my whole life. I haven’t even traveled. My wife doesn’t like it. I went to a friend’s funeral this morning, though, and it got me thinking. This fellow, I knew him for over forty years. He was always in great shape, played golf, played tennis, didn’t even have a beer belly, then suddenly, he dropped dead! It got me thinking. Maybe I should enjoy myself a little.”
“What are you waiting for, then? You should take a little trip! Just go!”
“Maybe I should. I’ve worked my whole life. Five years ago, I retired, but that didn’t even last a year. I got so bored, I went right back to work!”
“What do you do?”
“I’m an inspector. I inspect construction sites.”
“Well, I’m a writer. This is my first time in Kennewick. I just got off the train this afternoon.”
“I can’t say there’s a whole lot to see around here. Pasco, where the train station is, has a lot of Mexicans, so that’s a bit different, but Kennewick and Richland are just houses, with a few bars like this.”
“Has Pasco always been Mexican?”
“Ever since I was a kid, there were Mexicans there, but now there are more. Way back then, there were many Asian farmers, you know.”
“Yeah, mostly Japanese, but also Filipinos. The Japanese were truck farmers. The Fujimotos had a lot of kids. I went to school with a couple of them.”
Truck farming is a single family cultivating a modest plot of land and selling what they produce locally. Though this practice has been pushed to nearly extinction by agribusiness, its idyllic image is often used by agribusiness itself to pimp everything from gooey, pseudo heath food concoctions to reconstituted chicken. The decline of truck farming has resulted in the loss of financial autonomy for countless American families. It’s hard to imagine what a few acres used to mean. From the 1908 Yearbook of the Department of Agriculture, “Where markets are good, the income is so large that a family can make a living on a very small area of land. In fact, 10 acres would be a large truck farm, and 2 or 3 acres properly managed, with good markets, will bring a fair living to an ordinary family.” With his truck farm a dim memory, Old McDonald has become super efficient at cranking out preternatural chalupas for Taco Bell, E-I-E-I-O!
With a new interest in healthy eating, truck farming is staging a comeback, and though we have a long way to go, it is the wave of the future, as Globalism unravels thanks to higher fuel costs due to increasing scarcity and, most alarmingly, a rash of wars over remaining resources. Those who insist we’re going through an energy revival must be passing methane between their ears each time they fill up. Five years ago, gas was just $2.45 a gallon, more than buck less than today, and, ten years ago, $1.84.
On its last leg, Globalism will continue to seek out the cheapest labor. Jack revealed, “Around here, they’re now importing workers from Thailand.”
“I’ve never heard of that! How many are they bringing in?”
“So even the Mexican workers are not cheap enough!”
“How long do they stay?”
“That, I don’t know, but I know there’s a bunch in Yakima, picking apples.”
Later, I’d discovered news stories about 600 Thai workers being brought here in a human trafficking scheme concocted out of Beverly Hills by one Mordechai Orian, an Israeli citizen. In Thailand, peasants went into debt to pay recruiters up to $21,000, but once here, they weren’t making $2,000 a month as promised, but much less, and sometimes nothing. Instead of three years of regular work, they were often furloughed without pay. Some lived in a shipping container. Some were beaten. Workers spoke of eating just bananas and even hunting birds with rubber band slings because they were so hungry.
Though the Department of Justice was notified of this case in 2003, they didn’t prosecute until 2009, only to drop all criminal charges in 2012. Unbelievably, even guilty pleas were dismissed. (Though American justice is certainly not blind, Eric Holder should be dubbed Eric the Blind!) In the end, Orian, along with several guilty farms, were only slapped with fines, but let’s not lose sight of the core problem here, which is your government’s own human trafficking scheme, for why bring in foreign workers when so many Americans are out of work, underemployed or seriously underpaid? And please, don’t feed me the cow patty about ruddy unemployment statistics, for those figures are as bogus as, say, anything that’s barfed up daily by Washington DC. If adequately paid, Americans will work on farms, so one solution is to supplement their wages, and this won’t just yield economic but social benefits as well, for a people should know how to grow their own food.
Besides agriculture, the other big employer in the Tri-Cities area is the Hanford Nuclear Plant. For decades, it was the main provider of plutonium for America’s nuclear bombs. Though mostly decommissioned, it still employs 11,000 people to monitor and somehow clean up the irradiated mess. I asked Jack if the locals were worried about living next to one of the most toxic sites ever.
“People don’t really want to talk about it much. Too many of them must go there every day. There is a higher incidence of anencephaly around here, though, and everyone’s aware of that.”
“What is that?’’
“That’s when a baby is born with only half a brain, or no brain at all!”
“So it’s just a risk of living here!”
“The odds are still pretty low!”
To put bacon on the table, you must play Russian Roulette with your newborn’s brain, so to speak. Moving from such grimness, Jack and I talked about Lewis and Clark, Jack’s love of buying old books, Armstrong Custer’s virtue as a writer and, finally, The Kennewick Man, which is a 9,300-plus-year-old skeleton found in the shallows of the Columbia. Though local Indian tribes want him back for burial, some scientists are contending that this man was possibly Caucasian, and thus not one of their ancestors, and it is imperative that his remains be made available for further studies. If he’s indeed Caucasian, then his people did not walk across the Bering Strait from Asia.
When talking about any spot on earth, the word “native” is always relative, for no one has sprung from the ground anywhere. Innumerable tribes have washed over this grassy carpet, and most have disappeared without a trace. We’ve fought and slaughtered each other unendingly to claim this or that knoll, if only for a moment. Though only a fool would think of any place name as final, it’s positively goofy to place quotation marks around, say, “Canada” or “British Columbia,” for, using that logic, you’d need to do that with each place on earth, and even for the earth itself, for who’s to say that the realm we inhabit, in its totality, shouldn’t be called “heaven,” “mother of mothers,” “eternal battle ground,” “sometimes shaking,” “convenient foot rest” or “great big ball of shit”? Even a concept like “country” can be interpreted differently, for the Vietnamese, for example, don’t say “I come from this country,” but “I come from this water.” Water is country in Vietnamese. Though born in Vietnam water, I now live in a water called America. Oh my, how rapidly has this water gone downhill! The water has gone berserk. Seriously, though, is our water up the septic creek without an Aqua-Bound paddle? Like you, I fear where this water is going.
Chatting in a bar, my most enjoyable conversation with Jack was continuously tinted, mocked, challenged or perverted by an unending stream of background music. As we discussed the mysterious Kennewick Man, Rage Against the Machine screamed in our ears, “Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me! Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me! Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me! Motherfucker! Uggh!” In moments like this, I sincerely wish I had lived 9,000 years ago. It was about time to go, in any case, for neither one of us was too sharp by this point. Out of the blue, Jack asked, “What do you think of lesbians?”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I answered, “I don’t know. I like them.”
“That’s good because there’s one standing right next to you!” Jack gave me a conspiratorial smile. “And she’s pretty too!” Jack then jumped off his stool to go to the bathroom. It really was time to go.
Walking two miles to my hotel, I spotted a garage and driveway turned into an old timey gas station. It was most lovingly erected, this nostalgic shrine to gasoline! Then at a print shop, there were two cartoon soldiers with “Bring Them Home Safe” painted onto its plate glass window. Stripped of weapons, they were presented as chubby toddlers with button noses, huge eyes and smiling, lipless mouths. In the eyes of the home folks, our expensively trained killers are just helpless babes. Downtown, there’s also a small ceramic elf with a sign, “SUPPORT OUR TROOPS.”
The next day, I returned to Parkade hoping to see Jack again, but there was no one there but an aloof barkeep, so after an uncomfortable pint, I crossed the street and entered Players, which from a distant I had misread as Prayers. What is this, a born again bar? It was Sunday. Inside, I quickly made the acquaintance of Pablo, a natural ham, “I have the smallest dick in the world, but women love me, because I know how to listen.”
And to prove it, he showed me three beat up cell phones, “Each phone is for a different girlfriend.” I still don’t get it. He also had two lollipops in his pant pocket, so the man must suck.
Born in Mexico, Pablo has been in the Tri-Cities area since he was three, so he’s basically a native. In 1966, Pablo was sent to Vietnam, and though he signed up for an extra tour, he insisted to me he never shot anybody, “Everyone has a mother. I love human life! I don’t want anyone’s mother to cry. I’d rather be shot at than to shoot anyone! I didn’t kill nobody.”
“Where were you stationed in Vietnam?”
“I don’t remember. I don’t want to remember! When I came home, my father asked me about Vietnam, and I said, ‘It has become a part of me!’ Every place you go becomes a part of you, so Vietnam has become a part of me. It’s inside me!”
A Kennewick man, Pablo avoids the Mexican taverns in Pasco, “My own people don’t like me! I’m comfortable here, in this bar and across the street. Players used to be off-limits to non-whites, though. If you came in here ten years ago, they’d have killed you!”
Sitting one stool over, a white patron corrected him, “Fifteen years ago.”
“OK, so fifteen years ago, they would have killed you!”
Ah, the crudities of ethnic affiliations! Kennewick and Richland were historically sundown towns, which means that all blacks and browns had to get out by dusk, and even in Pasco, blacks were mostly confined to East Pasco, across the railroad tracks. Pasco’s status as the Tri-Cities’ enclave for all lower-tiered residents continues to this day, for the area’s two homeless shelters are in Pasco.
Pablo also told me he was an oil painter, and that he could conjure up, from memory alone, the perfect likeness of my unstable mug. Beat it, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and all the rest! Lest you think Pablo is all arts and humanities, he also showed me his crude side when he went after the bartender, “Hey Lisa, when are you going to take me home?”
“You’ll never get me drunk enough.”
“She’s thinking about it,” he winked at me. “It will happen sooner or later.’
“You better stop thinking about it,” Lisa said, “because it will never happen.”
“Hey, I’m not into red-headed women!”
“My hair is not red.”
I thought it was odd, Pablo’s sudden nastiness, but he went even further, “I’m not into bowlegged women!”
“Hey, I ride horses,” Lisa said matter-of-factly.
“I don’t care! I’m not into bowlegged women!”
Trying to shift the mood, I interjected, “Pablo’s infatuated!”
“He’ll get over it,” Lisa calmly said.
Before Pablo left, he ticked off for me a list that’s all too common among men, “I’ve been with a German , a Bosnian, a Russian, many white women, one Mexican but never an Oriental woman, a Vietnamese woman.”
At 62, Pablo’s trophy hunting expedition can’t last much longer, for it doesn’t matter if his mind will age or not, his carcass will be stricken down before he knows it. Already, every other front teeth is missing, with the remaining barely anchored in his eroding gums. No orange juice guzzler, this pirate look-alike, although with a black cowboy hat instead of a tricorne. Scurvy or no, Pablo will continue to forge ahead for there’s no time to lose!
Though I spent two nights in the Tri-Cities area, I only booked a hotel room for a single night. As my train was scheduled to leave very early in the morning, I decided to save a hundred bucks and sleep at the station, and if this wasn’t possible, I could easily curl up outside somewhere. I had scoped out a few likely spots and it was warm. I’ve slept behind a bush, outside a school gym, under a truck and, in El Cerrito, California, on someone’s porch swing. Yes, the last one is very bad, and I sincerely apologize, but it was irresistible, that super comfortable porch swing, with a cute canopy, even, so thank you, Sir or Ma’am, for your involuntary hospitality! Again, I apologize. Once I slept under the veranda of a San Antonio restaurant. Thanks to an hours-long thunderstorm, the temperature plummeted, and so I had to wrap several undershirts around my head to keep it warm. That obviously sucked.
This time, though, there would be no discomfort whatsoever, for the Amtrak employee was kind enough to let me stay inside as he locked up for the night. He even warned me against locking myself out should I decide to step outside. Also, sleeping at the station allowed me to hit downtown Pasco at the crack of dawn, and so I was in Viera’s Bakery before 5AM, to find the place already hopping with farm laborers coming in to grab donuts the size of a baby’s head, and other enormous pastries. Since everyone’s in a hurry, there was no need for any tong etiquette. People loaded up their sugary kickstarters on plastic trays, paid then marched out.
Since my train was way late, I had extra time to wander, and thus I ran into a 65-year-old man, waiting alone at a bus stop. With his deeply wrinkled face and missing teeth, he looked at least a decade older than 63-year-old Jack. He had on a blue hoodie and his denim jacket looked hard, it was so new. Born in Pasco, he went into the Army “to see the world” and got as far as New York, “I passed through Philadelphia, but I didn’t see much of it. I’ve also been to Denver and I worked in Phoenix for ten years. Five years ago, I moved to Boise, Idaho. I’m in town to see my nieces and nephews. My wife died three years ago. Like many people in my family, she died of diabetes. All of my brothers and sisters are also dead. I’m the only one left. I have a brother who died of diabetes when he was only 35.”
As he was talking, I could see a chubby fellow waddling by with a gallon bottle of orange soda. He was headed for the Thunderbird, a motel with a cheap weekly rate. As Pasco’s most troublesome spot, it’s visited daily by the cops. Grinning, I actually blurted, “It looks like that guy is going to die of diabetes too!”
Turning around to look, the old fellow chuckled ever so briefly, “You’re probably right.”
When I asked about jobs in Pasco, he said, “It’s potato packing season, so you shouldn’t have a problem getting a job here. You can sort potatoes or cut them into french fries. They’ll pay you nine or ten bucks an hour. That’s more than Boise, where they only pay about seven an hour. The cost of living is much cheaper there, though.”
Rudely terminating our chat, the 65 bus came, so there went another person I’d never see again, though his visage will stay with me forever thanks to photography. In fact, he’s closer to me now than much of my family. Promiscuous, the photograph is cheap, but these fading, badly shot, often kitschy and disposable images are all that will remain of us when our bones are tucked into the ground, to be dug up by whomever, whenever. No matter how dastardly or noble, words and deeds won’t hold in flitting minds that are often addled with bullshit, but calcium approaches immortality. Sort of. When the Kennewick man closed his eyes nearly 10,000 years ago, he couldn’t have known his frame would one day fascinate, inspire and disrupt. For many whites, the idea that whites have thrived on this continent millennia before Columbus establishes that whites are also “Natives” here, which means that American Indians have no intrinsic claim to this vast territory, and later arriving whites were just coming over to join their long-lost relatives, so to speak, and not genocidal invaders.
Again, this native argument is inherently flawed, since no one is intrinsic to any place. This entire earth, mother of mothers, provisional heaven or absolute hell has been irrigated with blood from continual dispute, and if you’ve been granted a reprieve from such stark violence, don’t forget that it’s all too pedestrian to be bombed or burnt from your cozy hovel, and to witness the map of your nation go up in flames. Just ask the Libyans, Iraqis or Ukrainians, or the so-called Americans not too long from now, if events continue on their current conjecture. A tireless sower of mayhem and always looking for a fight, the butcher will be butchered, and to save our own skin, each of us will have to settle on a cleaner identity.
Wednesday, July 30, 2014
Thanks to a reader, I found out that Craig Brown has just told a lie about me. Responding to a reader's question about my disappearance from Common Dreams, Brown wrote, "We don't use 100% of any writers submissions - we make editorial judgments. Linh Dinh stopped submitting to us after we chose to pass on one of his 9/11 truther pieces."
That is a complete lie.
From mid 2010 to early 2012, I was a regular contributor to Common Dreams, but my last piece there was published on March 5, 2012. After that, I continued to submit at least ten more pieces, but they were all rejected without even a response email, so I stopped.
This has nothing to do with 9/11, but Brown is citing 9/11 to caricature me as a 9/11 fanatic. He's claiming that I became so upset by his rejection of one of my "9/11 truther pieces" that I decided to boycott Common Dreams. This is pure nonsense, and he knows it.
As the editor of Common Dreams, Brown has a right to reject whatever he feels like, but he shouldn't lie about it, and as an organization that gets around $400,000 a year from foundations, many of which are closely linked to the Democratic Party, Common Dreams is also lying when it claims to be "100% reader supported."
When Jeffrey St. Clair of CounterPunch explained his break with me, he also painted me as a conspiracy freak, so this is a handy smearing tactic for at least two "progressive" editors.
Though I stand behind everything I've written about 9/11 (or the death of Bin Laden, for that matter), I obviously write about so much more, and the bulk of my writing is grounded in direct observations. Now, I'll get back to my Tri-Cities Postcard, which should be up by Thursday, at the latest. As Joe Bageant used to say, "In art and labor!"
Also, do check out "Doug Buckwald on Common Dreams."
Wednesday, July 23, 2014
Without alerting me, Dissident Voice added a footnote to my latest Postcard, "1 At least one DV editor finds that referring to the Indigenous peoples of the western hemisphere as incorrectly being from the Indian subcontinent is bad form," so I've just asked them to include this also:
Author's explanation: When I was in Wolf Point, the word "Indian" was routinely used by people with Sioux, Assiniboine or Chippewa blood to describe themselves. As for the allegations of abuse of children in the Wolf Point schools, I first became aware of the issue from reading a long article by Christine Rose, a prominent activist who maintains the website, racismagainstindians.org, with an Indian Education Resources page, among other features. In the article, Rose routinely uses "Indian" when referring to the Wolf Point children. Since I don't presume to be more correct than the people of Wolf Point or Christine Rose, I've used "Indian" in my Wolf Point Postcard. While "Indian" is obviously a historical misnomer, "Native American" is itself problematic since the people who were here before Columbus never saw themselves as Americans. In the end, a Sioux is no more a "Native American" than a Palestinian a "Native Israeli," but we're trapped in talking about a colonized people in the colonizers' language. As Russel Means has pointed out, English is itself a problem. Finally, if you come to Wolf Point next month, you can attend a pow wow in neighboring Poplar. The participating tribes call it Poplar Indian Days.
10:16 AM update: After Dissident Voice refused to run my explanation, I've asked them to remove my Postcard from their website, so they have.
Tuesday, July 22, 2014
As published at CounterCurrents, Information Clearing House and Intrepid Report, 7/22/14:
It always amazes me how many people get on a train just to play cards, for outside their windows, a most amazing world is constantly unfurling. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Southwest Desert, Northern Plains, Cascades or Rocky Mountains, they don’t look up from their miserably dealt hands to notice that Eden is just a glass barrier away, but that’s how it is with the uber domesticated. They prefer a shrunken, airless civilization, as contained in 52 puny pieces of laminated carton, to the unscripted richness they’re entitled to at all times. Although it’s free, they don’t take it. O heaven, often it becomes so beautiful, I just want to kick open that emergency window so I can jump outside, tear off my Ross, brand names for less, sale rack clothes, and run a hundred miles, just so I can see everything a bit better through my cheap bifocals. I want to rub tumbleweed on my privates and feast on anything that crawls or sleeps out there. I want to eat pebbles! OK, Saint Jerome, now I give the microphone back to you!
Sitting on the train a while, you do get weird, for this mode of transportation, like all mechanical conveyances, is a derangement machine. From submarine to bike, to roller coaster, each teases and jerks the mind, and transports it to some place entirely unnatural. We’re only meant to walk, shuffle or hop on our own two feet, grasshoppers. As Kafka writes in “The Wish to Be a Red Indian,” one does not need spurs, reins or even horse, but before we get off this damn train, let’s eavesdrop on this conversation between mother and son.
“We were here. Now we’re about here. Soon we will be here.” With her lavender nail, she pointed at three spots on a map.
Responding, a boy no older than five jabbed at a random place on this nonsensical piece of paper, “And right here is a waterfalls, mom, and if you fall into it, you die!” To show that he was serious, he contorted his face and made a loud farting sound with his mouth.
It was already dusk when I rolled into Wolf Point, for my train was seven-hour late. In this town of 2,700, downtown is just three blocks and visible from the station. Flanked by modest, two-story buildings, Main Street was mostly empty, and I encountered no other pedestrians as I passed Missouri Breaks Brewing, a movie theater then the Elks Lodge. That’s two bars already within one block, but after crossing 3rd Avenue, I quickly spotted three more, Dad’s Bar, Stockmans 220 Club and Arlo’s. Though these seemed more promising than the first two, I couldn’t decide, so I asked the only other person in sight, a short, squinting man who was smoking a cig on the sidewalk, “Which one should I go in, man?”
Stockmans had two spooked wagon wheels stuck to its marquee-like false front parapet, and inside, it was spacious, with about a dozen gambling machines at the front, and two pool tables at the back. There were only five other customers. “I just got off the train,” I confessed to the man who had steered me in. “I’ve never been here.”
Mervin Running Bear is his name, he said. Though born in Wolf Point, he has worked in Alaska, on crab and halibut boats, and in Washington State as a construction worker.
“So what do you do now?”
“Oh, everything: construction, house painting, roofing, plumbing, whatever.”
“Can you do brick work?”
“I’ve done that too! I’m not a real professional at anything, but I can do everything.”
“That’s good! You’re good! I used to be a housepainter, but I was like the worst housepainter.”
“If they pay you, you’re good!”
Though Mervin’s words are lucidly presented on this screen, and move along snappily, without stumbling, they were actually huffed up raspily, eyes squinting, with quite a bit of strain in real life, as if his tongue was too hungover to move. His brain fluid must have been 100 proof. “I also worked for the Chinese restaurant next door,” he continued. “I did prep work,” and he made chopping motions with his right hand. “Richard Chan, I know him. He died.”
Merv introduced me to Ray, whom he called “the nutty professor,” and Monk, a fat, oafish man with clear menace in his eyes. When I asked Monk if he was married, he roared, “Why get married when you can get it for free! Putang! Suck this helmet off my shaft, bitch!” Over the next two days, each time I mentioned Monk to anybody, the response was invariably “Oh, that guy’s an asshole!”
As for Ray, he teaches sixth grade at North Side, Wolf Point’s lone middle school. A decade ago, this school system got unwanted attention when it was revealed they had padded rooms to confine children, almost always Indian, and that teachers and counselors were prescribing Ritalin, without authority, to countless kids. A white teacher was fired after molesting three Indian girls, and an Indian wrestling star committed suicide after being kicked off the high school team, just before the state tournament, for having chewing tobacco. Though Wolf Point is on a reservation, the tribes have no say over the schools, which are run by a board that is almost always exclusively white.
Scouring several school rating sites, I could find only one review of a Wolf Point school: “There are 4 teachers that actually teach, care about education of students and enjoy and work hard at teaching their field. This school has daily fights in the halls, is a FEDERALLY failing school for 8 years, only looks out for their “favorite” students. These are those from the “right” family, or family owns a business in town, or are personal friends […] The Senior year is a year of crafts, PE, multiple shop classes—a joke. There is no preparation for a trade/skills for future, college prep classes are a joke—subject to mood of tired teachers waiting for retirement. Counselors spend time with their favorite students and ignore rest of student population. If students make bad choice there is no due process, just expelled for the year and told, “see you next year.” […] Shop class is sit in your seat and you get a C—if you glue something together you get an A. Literally. The district is out of money and can’t make payroll next year 2013. Staff morale is terribly low. I have put 7 kids thru this school, there are more examples, just out of space.”
An indication of the poverty in Wolf Point is that 98% of the public school children qualify for free or reduced priced breakfast and lunch, compared to 40% statewide. For many parents here, this is about the only benefit of sending their kids to school. With Wolf Point being so poor and remote, it’s hard to attract any qualified professionals, so at the local clinic, doctors routinely work on five-month contracts. Barely here, they’re already looking forward to escaping.
Soon a woman nicknamed Chickadee came in. In her 60’s, she also appeared groggy. Seconds after we’d been introduced, she leaned her forehead onto mine, “I’m in mourning. My nephew committed suicide two days ago.”
“How old was he?” I asked, our foreheads still attached.
“Twenty-two. Oh, he was a beautiful kid! My son died of exposure in Denver, and my other son was stabbed to death by his girlfriend. Come,” and she led me by the hand to a plastic wrapped styrofoam board hung over the door. On it were six dim photos of Andrew “Gator” Robinson, alone and with family. The largest image, however, was the logo of the Denver Broncos, a blue and white horse head in profile with red, flowing mane and a red, sinister eye.
After serving in the Army for two years, where he was a tank crewman during Desert Storm, Gator returned to Wolf Point and worked in construction, road maintenance and as a part-time firefighter. He had a turbulent, intermittent nine-year relationship with Doran Flynn, but by November 26, 2008, they were living in the same house with their two sons. That Friday, pay day, Gator came home early to take Doran out to celebrate their nine-year anniversary. At Stockmans, their second bar that night, Gator finally fell asleep, however, so Doran drove him home, thinking she would return to whoop it up some more. What happened next is unclear, but Gator ended up with abrasions on his hands and face, bruises on his scalp, contusions on his arms and legs, and a single stab wound to the heart. Charged with involuntary manslaughter, Doran was jailed for two years and now lives on the opposite side of the state. Gator was only 37 when he died.
After half an hour in town, I had become aware of three premature deaths already, but it was just the beginning of a long list of tragedies. “And your other son,” I asked. “How did he die again?”
“On the street, in Denver. He died of exposure after drinking Jack Daniel’s and cough medicine. He wanted me to come see him, but I never did. Now I feel so bad. Had I shown up, maybe he wouldn’t have died!”
“It’s not your fault, you couldn’t have known.” I clutched her hand a little harder.
Suddenly looking shifty, Chickadee whispered, “Mervin is getting jealous because we’ve become friends!” Walking hand in hand, we returned to our stools. After I bought her a Coors Lite, however, she demanded a Jagermeister. I said sure.
“Now that you know about me, what about you? What are you doing here? What do you do?”
I could have said “PayPal-buttoned, reader-supported blogger,” but I opted for the short answer, “I’m a poet. A writer.”
It took two seconds for Chickadee’s face to become flint hard, “I don’t believe you!”
“OK, then,” I Iaughed. “What do you think I am?”
Seeing Chickadee leaning forward, I obliged, so with our foreheads clumped together, she positively seethed, “You are a nothing!”
Poet, nothing, same difference, but it was strange to see it turned into an accusation, so I laughingly retorted, “What’s wrong with being a nothing? Everybody’s a nothing!”
Coming to my defense, Mervin leaned over Chickadee’s shoulder, “I’m a nothing too!”
“See, we’re all nothings!”
Not content to settle with this, Chickadee had to squeeze in a final verdict, “But you’re really a nothing!”
I had not slept in a bed in three nights, so I should have gone straight to my hotel after Stockmans, but I decided to check out Elks. Like Moose International, Elks was founded as a white men only organization, but both have since allowed women and non-whites, excluding only atheists. When not used for meetings and, I don’t know, bizarre or goofy rituals, the Elks Bar/Casino in Wolf Point is open to the public, so in I barged to discover an all-white clientele. It had a much better beer selection than Stockmans, and the atmosphere was also more subdued, with no clumping of heads, suicide shrines or tales of death. I tried to strike up a conversation with the man to my right, but it didn’t go very far. No one was unfriendly, though, and I stayed a while. After learning I had just gotten off the train, a woman gave me detailed direction to my hotel, and the barkeep even offered to call the Homestead Inn to ask if there was a shuttle.
“Don’t worry! It’s only, what, a mile away? I can walk. It’s no problem.”
“It’s after dark now, and the bad types come out.”
“It’s OK, really. I’ll walk!”
Wolf Point is 50.5% American Indians and 42.5% whites, yet its mayor is white, and this is because the Indian population has a higher number of minors, who cannot vote, and also because many Indians live just outside the town’s boundaries, so even though they work, shop and drink in Wolf Point daily, and send their kids to school there, they have no say over its leadership. What you have, then, is a white-ruled town in the heart of an Indian reservation, and to show that this matters, consider that two years ago, the Tribal Council voted unanimously to request that Custer Street be changed to Crazy Horse Street. Addressing City Council, a tribal leader, Stoney Ankeltell, explained, “Custer was an Indian fighter and he massacred a lot of innocent women and children. It seems grossly inappropriate to have his name on the Assiniboine and Sioux reservation.” A month later, this was casually rejected, with Councilman Craig Rodenberg announcing, “We decided not to go forward with any change.” Councilman Lee Redekopp affirmed, “The name stays the same.” Mayor Dewayne Jager concluded, “That takes care of that.”
I’ll give you another illustration of who’s in charge. For the nation’s Bicentennial Celebration, a small equestrian statue was commissioned by Wolf Point. Sculpted by Floyd Tennison Dewitt, a Wolf Point native then living in Amsterdam, it was placed in the middle of Main Street and became the town’s focal point. A plaque states that “Homage to the Pioneer,” is the work’s title. Since pioneers were settlers, this means the whites who swarmed in to displace the Indians that were massacred, starved or corralled into reservations. Above the first plaque, however, there is a smaller one with a revised title, “Homage,” and on the town’s website, there is an explanation that this bronze is an all-inclusive “homage to the American Indians and the community’s pioneers and founders.” For this to make sense, there would have to be both Indian and Cowboy, sitting side by side, sideways, on one horse, but as is, the lone rider is unmistakably white, holding a cowboy hat and wearing chaps and spurs, so no matter how cute the dancing around, it’s clear that this is an homage to the annihilation of the Indian, and not his presence, then or now. If Indians were deciding, this would be a sculpture of Sitting Bull, but save for a clumsy bust over his grave, there’s no public effigy of the great Indian leader anywhere in the US, period. You will have to go to Denmark to find one, and it’s only in Legoland, a novelty theme park.
Although there is no bronze of an Indian in Wolf Point, you can find two wooden Indians inside its hangar-like museum. It’s a matching lamp set, with a stylized eagle on the loin cloth of the muscular brave, and a circular, target like design over the crotch of the sexy squaw.
Next morning, I got up just before dawn to explore. After passing McDonald’s, with its American flag flashing on an electronic sign, Old Town Grill and Lucky Lil’s Casino, I was surprised to hear Cat Stevens singing. At first, I thought it came from a car radio, then I realized there was a speaker mounted outside Albertson’s, the supermarket. All day long, there would be plaintive rock emanating from it. “And if I ever lose my hands, lose my plough, lose my land…”
Trailing his labrador retriever, a white man had on a black T-shirt, “TEENAGED DAUGHTER SURVIVOR.” Draped in old military jackets, three middle-aged Indian guys straggled by. The one with a camouflage hunting hat made eye contact and nodded his head. I grinned, “How’re you doing?” A cop car slowed, rounded the corner, then slowed again as it reappeared a minute later, coming from the opposite direction.
Since the bars were still closed, I was forced to enter an eatery. There were three Indian warriors, Duck, Bob Tail Bear and Cloud Man, on the menu’s cover of Old Town Grill, and at each table, there was a red phone.
“What is this for?” I asked the lone waitress.
“Oh, it’s to call me if you need something!”
“Well, shouldn’t I, like, just talk to you?”
“Yes, of course! The owner installed them when this place opened 35 years ago. Can you imagine how exciting it must have been then? I wasn’t there. I’ve only been working here 32 years.”
I had me some boffo chicken fried steak, my first decent meal in a day and half. At the next table, two kids played, drew and occasionally threw a rubber ball around. Once it landed under my table so the boy had to crawl under it. From the kitchen came the music of Eminem.
“What is that noise?” Chuckling, a patron asked the waitress, and no, he didn’t use the red phone either.
“The noise coming from the kitchen.”
“Oh, you mean the music? It’s the cook’s music.”
“That’s music?! It sounds like a rig with a flat tire!”
Eminem ain’t all that, but all across America, you see rural kids dressing and acting like urban gangstas and ho’s, but such is a result of the deliberate program to make us as depraved, and hence as helpless, as possible. Stripped of self control and respect, we’re being hypnotized by our masters into worshiping death, destruction, gross consumption, bright vomit and bestial sex, and we’re even being charged to have these foul and funky effluvia dumped on us. Of course, the ones who don’t pay will still get splattered on. A raging and infantile solipsism has become our national posture.
Speaking of posture, mine would be somewhat altered by a black doberman pinscher a day later. We’ll get to it. Meanwhile, I left Old Town Grill in great spirit. After walking ten minutes, I hit the Silverwolf Casino, which also doubles as a funeral chapel, I kid you not, with open or closed casket wakes. Among the slot stuffing zombies, occasionally you’ll find a dressed up cadaver, such as that of Dakota’s, Chickadee’s unfortunate nephew. Since every Montana bar is already a mini-casino, a place like Silverwolf faces a lot of competition. Here, many convenience stores are also casinos.
Attention, all of you with the shakes! Each day, the first Wolf Point bar to open is Arlo’s, so under its bucking bronco and cowboy sign I entered, to find two grizzled dudes at the bar talking about fishing, with side remarks about being broke yet not eating just Spam, thanks to what God has tossed into creeks, rivers and lakes. They discussed how this or that fish was jumping, or not, from this or that fishing spot, but as a city fool, I can’t tell a ling fish from a humpback whale, so much of this discussion lapped right over me. The electronic beeps, burps, rings, fanfares, cymbal rides and phony cachinks of the gambling machines provided background noises, as did the clashes of pool balls from the half-dark back.
In Arlo’s, it’s either Bud or Bud Lite if you want to go draft. On the wall, there’s a large drawing of an ass kicking a man in the ass and knocking his glasses and beer pitcher from him. Its caption, “WELCOME TO ARLO’S / HAVE A ‘KICK ASS’ TIME!” After one dude left, I talked to the other, Darrel, who’s better known as Cheeseburger, or simply Cheese. Half white, half Chippewa, 57-year-old Cheese has lived in Wolf Point his whole life, save for the 17 years he worked for Union Pacific, when he mostly slept next to the tracks from North Dakota on through Glacier National Park.
“I built those tracks you’ll be riding on when you head up those mountains.”
“You slept outside all those years?”
“Pretty much. For living in a tent, I was paid an extra $700 a month.”
“How much is that altogether?”
“$3,000, after tax.”
“You did well!”
“Yeah, I did great. Fact is, I liked it anyway. One time, my wife and kids came out to see me, and they also had to sleep in a tent. My boys liked it so much, they didn’t want to go back to Wolf Point.”
“How many kids do you have?”
“Six, but only three naturals. The others, I adopted.”
“Two of them are relatives. Nieces. The other one, his dad died in a car crash in Canada. I got along with his mother quite well, so I put him in school.”
“You’re a pretty nice guy!”
“But he’s an asshole!” Cheese laughed. “Little asshole, he tried to beat me up when he was fourteen, but couldn’t. I was thirty-five. He tried again when he was sixteen, eighteen, twenty, twenty-two… The fucker, I made him play sports, made him play football. I made him enlist in the Army. He wanted to go overseas, but I put an end to that. You little asshole, you still can’t kick dad’s ass!”
“Are your kids still around?”
“They don’t live around here no more. They’re in Billings, Wyoming, Minnesota, California, Canada… They’re all over the world. They want concrete!”
After a sip of Bud Lite, Cheese continued, “I taught my kids how to survive, how to fight, how to kill, how to be good. I showed them how to care for children. Elders. How to care for the animals.” With a pause after each exclamation, Cheese then barked, “Put up your own tent!
Haul your own wood!
Start your own fire!
Dig your own shit hole!
Your own fire pit!
You must watch your surroundings.”
Cheese then mellowed, “I’m down by the bend. Sucking on a Bud Lite, I roll me a big doobie. I watch the sun comes up, the sun goes down. The moon comes up, the moon goes down. I listen to the deer playing behind me, rabbits running beside me, but these kids, living on concrete, surrounded by garbage, these kids are fuckin’ spoiled!”
“When you say you’ve taught them how to kill, what do you mean? Who do you kill around here?”
“What enemy? I don’t see any enemy around here!”
“There are always enemies around!” Then, “You have to be careful around here. You come in here, and everyone’s laughing and smiling, but the second you turn your back, they can become the biggest assholes in the world! Someone may be watching you, then follow you as you leave this bar, so you’ve gotta be careful around this shit hole. I was born and raised on the rez. I know.”
Cheese said his sister was pissed off because she didn’t see him in church the previous Sunday, “I did go, but I left early, before mass started. I wasn’t there, but I was there in spirit.”
When I mentioned Chickadee and her nephew, Cheese said, “That’s also my nephew. He hanged himself.” Then, “See that cane over the bar? The woman who carved that hanged herself too.”
In Arlo’s, I also met Jack, a transplant from New York, and Darryl, a white farmer who grows wheat and raises cattle. I overheard Jenn, the bar manager, jokingly speak of a plan to round up five Wolf Point ho’s and bring them to a Williston man camp, “Make some quick bucks, you know! It’s all about looks, right? She’s got to be worth pokin’!” Fracking country is only 86 miles away.
Without knowing the context, I also heard Cheeseburger shout, “It’s all my parents’ fault, Goddamn it! I want to be white! I want to be German!” The sarcasm was particularly biting considering “INDIAN PRIDE” was on the back of Cheese’s baseball cap. Also, on his fleece vest was a green button with a marijuana leaf and “It’s 4:20 somewhere.” The Ann McNamee song begins: “I don’t need an analgesic, I am not in pain / Bring me a ritual, a tribal game / Moonlight on the water, shadows on my mind.”
When Ervin, a man with mutilated hands, declared, “I’m a Sioux!” Cheeseburger retorted, “Well, you’re a short Sioux!”
“Fuck you too, fag boy!”
And so it went, with much bantering and laughter, but occasionally also melodramatic accusations, drunkenly delivered. Here, people are remarkably open, but they will also turn skeptical suddenly, as in, “That’s what you say,” accompanied by a sharp look.
When a tallish young man walked in, many of the patrons rushed to the door to give him a hug. While others beamed at his presence, he himself showed no emotions and said next to nothing. His eyes were scarcely more alive than a dead fish’s. A soldier, he would be home for a month before being sent back to Afghanistan. Nineteen, he wasn’t even old enough to drink, so after a minute, he disappeared.
The next morning, I got up way too early, so decided to turn on the TV. Looking for the local news, I stumbled onto a livecam of some bird nest over an orange-lit parking lot, with a road and darkened hills in the background. Every now and then, I could hear a distant car, but mostly there were just cricket sounds. Strange, I thought, why would an entire channel be devoted to this? When the bird finally stirred, however, I realized it was an eagle, and so I watched it shift back and forth for a while. It was pretty silly, I agree, and I wondered how many others doofuses were doing the same. Suddenly, though, the channel went blank without warning, and there was no more eagle!
On my last morning in Wolf Point, I walked South from downtown, and the further I went, the shabbier the houses became until I was staring at a couple of decrepit trailers. Though no one was in sight, I could hear an old man talking to someone. Suddenly, a barking dog came charging and bite me, hard, on my right thigh. This left a bloody gash and bruise that would only heal a month later. Luckily, though, his teeth didn’t make contact with my skin, as he didn’t bite through my jeans. From the shadows, the old man raised his voice and the dog backed off, and that’s how I met Alfred Comes Last.
“That’s strange, he usually doesn’t do that. You OK?”
“Yeah, I guess so. Is that your dog?”
“No, but I know the woman. She’s inside.”
“I’m just visiting. I’m just walking around to check out this town.”
“There isn’t much to see.”
“And where are you going so early?”
“To the Senior Center. I volunteer there. You want to come? They have free coffee.”
The pain was bad enough, I felt like pulling my pants down to see how my damn thigh was doing, but I sucked it up and followed Al to his destination nearly two miles away. Along the way, Mr. Comes Last told me his life story.
Born in 1942, Comes Last is a pioneer in his tribe, for he was the first to become a welder. After the tribal authorities sent him all the way to San Jose to learn his trade, he stayed in California to work, before moving to Arizona, Colorado and Washington, where he welded ships, rail cars and farm equipments, etc. In Wyoming, he taught other Indians to weld, then did the same after moving back to Wolf Point. With three women, Al has six children, and he’s been with his current wife for 36 years.
“When I was a kid, there was only one frame house in Wolf Point. The rest were made of logs.”
“Each family has just one log house?”
“Didn’t the richer people have more?”
“We were all the same. No one had any money.”
“How big was a log house? How many rooms?”
“Two, a kitchen and dining area, and a bedroom. At night, though, we’d sleep in both rooms.”
“How many brothers and sisters did you have?”
“There were eight of us.”
“Eight?! So ten people slept in two rooms?!”
“That’s just how it was.” Then, “A lot has changed here. The kids today only know how to drink and smoke.” He let out a grunting laugh. “If the grids go down tomorrow, how will they survive?”
By now, we had reached the Senior Center. Each day, it serves over a hundred hot lunches for free. With increasing poverty, there are fewer resources available in Wolf Point, with Basket of Hope Food Bank and several thrift stores shutting down recently, and the Lord’s Table, a soup kitchen, inoperative because of a break in. After Al had introduced me to Sue, the Senior Center’s director and cook, we got coffee and sat on the narrow porch to look at the traffic zoom by. A hundred yards away, freight cars were parked on the tracks.
Smoking an American Legend, Al lamented, “When I left the house this morning, I had nearly a full pack, but people kept bumming cigarettes off me, so now I only have a half pack. They always say, ‘I’ll pay you back! I’ll pay you back!’ but they never do.” Tersely and without emotion, Al then let on that one of his sons had died in a house fire just two weeks before, and a daughter was in a Billings hospital. Having fallen down the stairs the previous day, she had a blood clot in her brain. “My wife is with her. I should hear from her soon.”
“Is your daughter conscious?”
“I don’t know. She wasn’t.”
“I’m surprised at how calm you are. This is pretty serious!”
“I’m praying inside.” Then, “Us Indians have a saying, ‘Deaths come in threes,’ so since my son died two weeks ago…”
“You’re waiting for two more deaths?!”
“I hope my daughter doesn’t die. My wife should call soon.”
“I’ve been here a couple of days, and I’ve heard of several deaths already. I talked to this woman, Chickadee. She said her nephew just killed himself.”
“Yeah, he hanged himself in a closet. His mom had just taken a shower. She was getting ready to go to work, you know, and when she opened the closet to get her clothes, she saw him. A lot of people die around here. Everybody’s dying. Most of my friends are dead. They destroy their liver or die in a car crash. It’s the alcohol. Some weren’t even forty-years-old.”
A small, dark man, Al wore dark glasses and a weathered hunting cap. On his gray hoodie, there was an irregular, black stain near his heart. The steel door opened and Sue came out to hand Al a phone. Without turning away, he spoke briefly to his wife in a small, flat voice, then informed me after he’d hung up, “She’s OK. My daughter’s OK.”
“That’s great news! They did a good job, the doctors.”
“Yes.” Then, “You know, most of the medicine men these days are fakes. They’ll take the people’s money, but they can’t heal them.”
“You’re talking about the Indian medicine men?”
“Yes, the Indian ones. Most of them are fake. When I was a kid, we had a great medicine man. He healed my grandfather. After he had been struck by lightning, they brought him to the hospital in Poplar. My grandfather was all burnt, he had no skin left, but at the hospital, he said he wanted to be taken back here, and so the medicine man covered my grandfather’s body in herbs and oil, then buried him for three days, with just his head sticking out. For three days he just drank water and ate nothing. People didn’t know what was going on, they thought the medicine man was going to kill him!” Al chuckled. “But the ground took the electricity out, and so my grandfather was healed. He lived to be 92, and it was me who dug his grave and buried him. In the old days, the medicine man didn’t even ask for money. People paid what they could, or they would just give him some food or a blanket, whatever.”
Before I left Wolf Point, I’d see Mervin and Cheese again, and Al and I had a few beers at three bars altogether. On the street, we’d run into Kerri, his youngest daughter, and their interaction was rather curious, for it was filled with melodrama. Slurring, she’d fling vague accusations at him. It was not yet noon, yet she was totally clobbered, and when she laughed, I could see that her upper front teeth had been knocked out. In March, Kerri had been at a meth and alcohol party where a man was stomped on the face repeatedly and kicked in the stomach. He died two days later of a ruptured liver.
Any place I go, I gravitate towards the bars, so of course I’d see drunken people, but nowhere else have I seen so many folks so shit-faced from morning until last call. As I mused over these thoughts at the train station, a tall and smiling gentleman approached me and asked if I liked Wolf Point. I said yes, and meant it.
His name was Thomas, he said, and he was grateful for his wonderful life, “After high school, I enlisted in the Navy, and thanks to that, I’ve seen the world. I’ve been to Japan, Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Australia. I’m very blessed. I have a great wife and two great children. My son is in college, and my daughter was a contestant for Miss Montana. I’m very blessed. I’ve had a good life.”
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen so many drunken people, but then I thought, The sober people are working and not on the streets!”
“Yes, alcoholism is a huge problem here. My dad was an alcoholic, but I haven’t had a drink in 21 years! A year after I got married, I told myself I didn’t want to drink again, and I haven’t.”
“I didn’t want to turn out like my dad. I’m a businessman. I have work to do.”
“What do you do?”
“I had a convenience store and gas station in Frazer. The tribes lent me $25,000 to open this business, but I worked long hours and made almost no money. It hasn’t worked out. I asked the tribes for another $25,000, but they refused. Before this, I was an assistant manager at the Walmart in Williston. I also opened a bank in Wolf Point, but that didn’t work out either. I’ve worked in various offices. I’ve taught.”
“So what are you going to do now?”
“I’ll figure out something. I have a degree in business administration from the University of Montana. I’m very good at managing people.”
Frankly, it was weird to have such a sober conversation with this perfectly composed man, and one who was cheerful, grateful and optimistic in spite of his own derailments. After the train arrived, Thomas introduced me to his neatly dressed, calm and confident son, then I got on to go further West.
Though much longer than usual, this Postcard is incomplete and would even be misleading had I not met a final Wolf Point character, Candy, and it was entirely by chance that I found myself sitting across from this lady, nearly a week later, as we were heading East from Portland.
Seeing the WPT tag over her seat, I could tell where Candy was heading. As I had learnt by now, everyone knows just about everyone else in Wolf Point, and so Candy cheered up when I mentioned Merv, Chickadee and Cheese, etc. “I was Cheeseburger’s girlfriend for a day!” she laughed. Of Mervin, she remarked, “He had a lot of potential, but it has all gone to waste.” Also, his last name is Garfield, and not Running Bear.
“Twice, I saw him drinking in the morning, before 11, and each time, he said he had already worked that day.”
“He works in the bar! I like that guy, but he has his mean streak. He used to be beat up his girlfriends.”
“I’d never guess. He seemed so mellow.”
“He is, usually.”
“I also met Alfred, an old man.”
“Yes, a short guy in his early 70’s.”
“I thought Alfred was still in jail. He violated his daughter!”
“You’re kidding me?! Are we talking about the same Alfred?”
“If it’s an old man, then it’s Alfred Comes Last.”
Pulling out my camera, I found a photo of Al and showed it to Candy on the viewfinder. “Yes, that’s him!”
“Had I not talked to you, I’d go home thinking he was just this sweet old man. I met his daughter, too. She would curse him, then hug him. It was very weird to watch.”
“Yes, it’s a pretty messed up place,” Candy sighed, “but it’s home.”
“How often do you return?”
“About once a year, a year and a half. A friend of mine just got his left leg sawed off, right up to his buttocks, so I’m going home to take care of him.”
“Wow, you’re a great friend!”
“I’ve known him since I was 15. He messed up his leg because he was trying to clean it with bleach.”
“Clean it with bleach?!”
“I’m sure he was drunk. He has diabetes. It’s a huge problem in Wolf Point. Before she died, my mom also got one of her legs sawed off.”
And so on and on it went, a litany of horrors. Her daughter, Sky, is a meth and heroin junkie who for years endured an abusive boyfriend who beat and spat on her face, almost daily, “and big, globby spits too.” One of Sky’s four children is in a foster home, while another has been adopted by an aunt. Candy’s own boyfriend jumped onto the back of her truck. Enraged, he banged on her rear window as she sped away, but suddenly, the banging stopped, and Candy thought the man had merely exhausted himself and not fallen off, his spinal cord snapped. “I haven’t been with a man since he died in 2009. I moved to Oregon. I used to cry all the time, I was a cry baby, so they finally had to put me on medications, but now I don’t feel anything. At my mom’s funeral last year, I didn’t even cry, and that’s not right.”
So what does this all mean, and how has it gotten to this? In the 19th century, the Sioux could amass hundreds, and sometimes even thousands, of warriors to fight the US Army, and they kicked Uncle Sam’s treacherous ass several times, with the most humiliating the butchering of vain and foolhardy Custer and over 300 of his troops. Led by Red Cloud, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, the Sioux was a tribe to be feared, but now, on reservations from Pine Ridge to Fort Peck, where Wolf Point is located, they are but a travesty of what they used to be, mired as they are in misery and aimlessness.
After the Indian has been killed, only an addicted and defeated American has emerged, but this is hardly the final chapter, for as the US itself becomes broken, the red man’s resilience, resourcefulness, probity, simplicity and toughness will resurface to help lead us all out of this glammed up farce. That is, if they don’t decide to settle some old scores.
Writing in 1782, Ben Franklin observed, “The Indian Men when young are Hunters and Warriors; when old, Counsellors; for all their Government is by Counsel of the Sages; there is no Force there are no Prisons, no Officers to compel Obedience, or inflict Punishment.—Hence they generally study Oratory; the best Speaker having the most Influence […] Having few artificial Wants, they have abundance of Leisure for Improvement by Conversation. Our laborious Manner of Life compar’d with theirs, they esteem slavish & base; and the Learning on which we value ourselves, they regard as frivolous & useless.”
I don’t know about you, but it sounds infinitely saner than what we have now, and it’s not like we aren’t heading in that direction anyway as we power down. Of course, many will shake, scream and leak from all orifices as they withdraw from the all-American buffet of Rush Limbaugh, Jon Stewart, Robin Thicke, Miley Cyrus and R. Kelly, a man who once filmed himself pissing into an underage girl’s mouth.
Tuesday, July 15, 2014
As published at CounterCurrents, Dissident Voice, Information Clearing House and Intrepid Report, 7/15/14:
Oil made this America-dominated, futuristic world, and with its increasing scarcity, will unravel it. Most pampered yet most disappointed, we’re living in the age of peak oil, water, gold, copper, wheat, rice, cabbage, porn, greed and banking shenanigans, etc., for with more mouths than ever going after a shrinking donut hole, the ugliness is just getting started, and let us not forget, this age of oil has also been an era of mass carnage, a century of resource wars that have wiped out hundreds of millions, but for the survivors, us grubby schmucks, what a cool ride, eh?
But wait, wait, here comes the game changer, a fracking revolution that will make the USA energy independent, and extend this gaseous joy ride for a few more decades, at least. If you believe the hucksters, North Dakota and Texas as deus ex machina will lead this sagging nation to a new epoch of prosperity.
Each well can be fracked up to 18 times, and for each fracking, you must pump millions of gallons of water, 25 railcars of sand and more than 500 chemicals into the ground, less than half of which is sucked out, meaning much of the toxic cocktail stays in the earth to poison the soil and water until Jesus returns, pigskin in hand and singing “God Bless America,” but let’s not be tree-hugging terrorists here. If not for this, we’d be forced to invade innumerable countries to steal their oil, God forbid. To not rape their lands there, we must violate our own foundation, but just to be on the safe side, we’re doing both, of course.
This empire will be defended at all costs, even if the entire world is blown up and this nation itself destroyed, for nation and empire are not one. A nation is the total fabric, the water and soil that nourish, the all consuming ant hill, while the empire is the violent wet dream of a few sneering egotists. It’s the fist fuck that kills. The Amtrak route that goes from Chicago to Portland, Oregon is called Empire Builder, and it was on this train that I saw Williston, North Dakota for the first time. With so much freight traffic coming in and out of Williston, the Amtrak train is always delayed, from several hours to half a day, and so the conversations on board often focused on fracking as we approached the Bakken Shale Play. The conductor said, “Yes, this is a hassle, but I also look at it as our country’s future!”
Having sold drilling rights to an oil company, a tall, beefy man in golf shirt and khaki shorts intoned, “Of course, the money is nice, but more importantly, our family has become a part of history.”
Wearing a blue, Abbey Road T-shirt, a boy of about eight boasted to the portly woman from outside Spokane, “My grandpa is, like, the President of Exxon. He keeps a notecard on everyone he’s met. Me and my mom, we flew from New Jersey to Boston, where we stayed a few days, then we flew to Chicago, where we got on this train. We will get off in White Fish, Montana. In Montana, we have a house like a castle. It has a deck overlooking the river. Sometimes I go swimming in that river.”
A man was pointing out the different crops, wheat, hay, soybeans and oats. He said, “My family has always been in farming, but I now work for the Klondike Cheese Factory, in Wisconsin.”
“And where you’re going?”
“Stanley. To see my girlfriend.”
“She works there?”
“Yes, she’s a project manager for a new shopping center, but she’s about done. Soon she’ll move in with me.”
“Yes! We first met 20 years ago, then I got married. That didn’t last. A couple years ago, I looked up my girlfriend on FaceBook, and there she was!”
“Well, not really. Everybody’s on FaceBook.”
“I mean, it’s incredible that you’re hooking up again.”
“We’ve always been meant for each other, but stupid me, I married the wrong woman. I have three houses: One I rent out, one I live in and one I use as a fishing lodge. It’s just a cabin, really, on my sister’s property. All of my brothers and sisters live within a five-mile radius. My new house is really nice, man, but it needs a woman’s touch, you know what I mean?”
“It sounds like you’re doing OK at the cheese factory.”
“Yeah, I make $17 an hour, but I’m the sanitation supervisor. A new guy would make 11 an hour. It’s not bad, but many of them can’t take it. One dude quit just after a day! I don’t even bother learning their names until they’ve been there a while. For the first couple of weeks, I just call them, ‘Hey, new guy!’”
“Your girlfriend’s OK with moving to Wisconsin?”
“Yeah, she’s made her money. They’ve been paying her $125,000 a year, but she’s worked her tail off! She won’t make half of that in Wisconsin, but a meal won’t cost her $25 either.”
“She may not even find a job in Wisconsin!” I laughed.
“Yes, that’s true too!” He then fumbled with his cell phone for a minute before showing me a photo of his girlfriend in a business suit. She’s surrounded by a dozen men, also in suits. Smiling, they’re all wearing hard hats and holding shovels.
Looking out the window, I saw a distant red barn, an abandoned church and, episodically, car and appliance cemeteries rusting in the failing sun. Smoothing out the baserunning path of a spiffy diamond, a white haired gent waved from his small tractor. To not disappoint the old fart, someone must have waved back, I hope. Inside this long, steel tube, our bodies shook nonstop, as if sobbing. A man in his 50’s observed, “I’ve taken this train many times. Fifteen, twenty years ago, you could see so many buffalos, elks and pronghorns, but now, there’s almost nothing left. It’s very sad.”
To service hundreds of oil rigs, many roads have been carved out of the landscape, and fences have gone up, so there’s a “fragmentation of habitat due to energy development,” to quote a fish and wildlife official, and even without accidents, fracking is inherently toxic, but we also have more than a thousand spills of oil and chemical-laced fluids a year, in North Dakota alone, so it’s no wonder that the only wildlife thriving these days in the Northern Plains is the sexually hard up and hard-drinking roughnecks.
Approaching Williston, we could see with increasing frequency trucks and tankers on nearby roads, and long trains carrying oil, chemicals and sand. Here and there a rig, and we passed an austere man camp, then another. This time, I would not stay, but only get off on my way back from Portland. When I told the conductor of my intention to spend time in Williston, however, he let lose this alarm, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you. It’s the most dangerous place!”
“Oh, c’mon! How bad can it be?!”
“You have male-on-male rapes there. They’ll spike your drink, then rape you, they’re so desperate. People are killed and robbed, and the cops won’t even come, since they’re overwhelmed.”
“But I already made my hotel reservation!”
“I’d rather lose the money. It’s not worth it. You may get killed and dumped in a field, and no one will ever hear from you again.”
“You’re making it sounds like the most dangerous place on earth. I’ve been to Detroit and Camden. Surely I can deal with Williston.”
“It’ll be worse, I guarantee you. One time the crew ordered a pizza delivery, and we just locked the doors until it came. I don’t even dare to step outside in Williston.”
“You must be joking, right?”
“No, I’m not. If there’s a shooting or stabbing in Williston, the cops will ask, ‘Is he dead yet?’ If the person’s already dead, the cops will just let the body lie there, and only get to it when they can. It’s out of control. It’s hell on earth.”
“How can people function if it’s so dangerous? What about the locals, the people who’ve always been there?”
“They keep off the streets, especially women. If you’re stuck there, you’re stuck there, but the only women who go to Williston anymore are the working girls.”
A man in his early 50’s, the conductor had said all this without even a gleam in his gray eyes, so he was excellent at keeping a straight face, but then he stated, “Last year, there were 3,700 murders in Williston,” which would average out to over ten a day, and though I roared in laughter, he still would not smile.
Besides the ridiculous body count, much of what the conductor said isn’t out of line with current Williston lore, with incidents of male-on-male rapes sworn to by countless people in spite of repeated police denial and the complete absence of news accounts. On the train away from Williston, I talked to a man whose wife worked as a nurse in its hospital for 13 months, “Did she hear of male-on-male rapes?”
“No, but it was crazy enough. Lots of fights. Beatings, stabbings, sometimes shootings. One time a guy came in who had been slashed by a prostitute,” and he laughed at this amusing memory. “He was this big black dude, and he had hired two prostitutes, and as he was busy with one, the other went through his stuff. When he started bitching about it, the one he was with took out a knife and slashed him across the belly. After they stole from him and took off, he had to drive himself to the hospital, and that’s how he showed up at the emergency room, all bloody, with one hand holding in his entrails.”
“It’s not a good idea to hire two prostitutes. Even if they don’t steal from you, it’s too confusing.”
“You’re right!” And the cheerful man, Anton, laughed again. Though Russian, he was born in Brazil, came to the US as an infant and now lives in Woodburn, Oregon. Though he owns ten acres of farmland, it’s not enough to pay the bills, so he must work as a painting contractor. In fracking country, Anton has a crew of five, and they all live in a rented farm house 35 miles from Williston, “I pay them $20 an hour, and we work six days a week. I brought them from Oregon, because it’s cheaper that way. The ones who are already in Williston would want to be paid 30.”
When Anton arrived in Williston three years ago, eating choices were limited yet expensive, but now, with new restaurants opening, he can get a reasonably price meal at Rice and Spice, for example, and the line at McDonald’s isn’t nearly as long. Rents are still preposterous, with a two-bedroom going for $2,500, higher than Chicago or Seattle, but Anton is only paying $1,250 for his out of the way farm house. Exhausted drivers are what worries him most, not violent criminals, “There are a lot of accidents there. I was rear-ended recently, so my back and neck are hurting again. The guy didn’t even have insurance. This really pisses me off! I’ll have to see a doctor when I get back to Oregon.”
A week after seeing Williston for the first time, I finally pounded its sidewalks, and the experience was, well, anti-climatic, for here was a pleasant and still tranquil Midwestern town. I was neither mugged nor raped on sight, but then again, I’m no catch, admittedly. Yes, there were two strip bars right by the train station, Whispers and Heartbreakers, but there were also the Lord’s Ten Commandments painted on a nearby building. A few thoroughfares, Second Street and Second Avenue among them, were busy with truck traffic, but the rest were quiet, even sleepy. Moms, kids and ordinary women strolled downtown streets. Teenagers wandered. Outside the Salvation Army Store, three bikes were left unattended, and on a store poster, grandma licked an ice cream cone, “ICE CREAM / OLD FASHIONED / IT’S GOOD!” It was near the 4th of July, so flags were everywhere, and outside a home with a miniature, plastic castle, I spotted a sign that pleaded, “COMBAT VETERAN LIVES HERE / PLEASE BE COURTEOUS WITH FIREWORKS.” I ran into a handsome, polyresin buffalo in front of a modest home, then a bronze moose outside the Moose Lodge. Seeing me snapping it, a man shouted out, “Hey, I just sculpted that!” I passed an Asian bistro, Basil, and its price for pho, $14.50, did make me jump, but later I’d pay just $8.95 for an acceptable lunch buffet at China Sun, 1 ½ mile from downtown.
I entered through a bowling alley. As I sat down, the cashier said to the only other customer, a lanky black man standing at the counter, “You’re not working today?”
Ignoring her question, he replied in an African accent, “I need a Chinese girl.”
After a long moment, she said without emotion, “Go to China.”
“I went to China. There were no Chinese girls there. I need a Chinese girl here.”
After another drawn out minute, she monotoned, “I’m no Chinese girl.”
In this flat manner, they ping ponged back and forth until his to-go order was ready. After lunch, I went to my hotel, a Super 8, which cost me $108.87 per night, a great bargain in this steep town. On the way, I’d see several help wanted signs. In the window of Conlin’s Furniture, a help wanted sign promised a salary of $50,000+, with health and dental benefits, 401K, paid vacation and “a beautiful work environment.” “You owe it to yourself to stop in and fill out an application,” it plead. The unemployment rate for Williston is less than 1%. From the parking lot of Super 8, I could see the sign for DK’s Lounge and Casino, so that’s exactly where I headed after a quick shower. Country music greeted me as I opened the door. After easing onto a stool, I asked the barkeep what she had on tap and ordered a Beaver Creek, based on its charming name alone. A fine IPA at five bucks for a 20-ounce mug, it was not nearly as expensive as I had feared. Settled, I surveyed my environment to find the ratio of men to women to be about 6 to 1, which is about average for most bars anywhere, especially in the late afternoon. The two loveliest women, young and slim, turned out to be waitresses, however. A man to my left explained, “The prettiest women in this town all come from elsewhere. The local chicks are like yetis.”
“You know, the abominable snowman, or, in this case, snowwomen!”
“Oh, c’mon, man, I’d never call a woman that.”
“You might not say it, but you would think it!”
“Well, since the men are beefier here, the women have to beefy.”
“That’s one way to look at it. It’s their insulation, their winter packing. It does get cold here.”
“Hey, maybe these nice looking women aren’t even real! They’re just hologram! I bet you can put your hands right through them,” and I stuck my arms straight out.
“Ha, ha! I’ll call Erica over so you can try.”
“No, man, don’t do that. I just got here. I don’t want to get beat up! Do they have a bouncer here?”
“Not today. Only on weekends.”
“So it’s really not that bad. What would happen, though, if I do something really stupid.”
“The clientele will take care of you.”
“I’ve heard so much about this place. I was expecting more chaos, but look at this,” I waved at the bar, “it’s pretty mellow right now. I’d even say it’s melancholic.”
“It won’t be if you return on Friday. There will be 300 guys in here and you’ll be lucky to get a seat at the bar. Have you seen the movie 300?”
“No. What’s it about?”
“The Persians are invading Greece, so you have this army of 300 fighting them, and it’s the same kind of rampage here. You have so many different states, so many different attitudes all converging on one small town that’s just not ready to deal with such a rampant onslaught. There’s too much testosterone here, so you even have males raping males, and that’s why I’m getting out of here!”
“What about the prostitutes? I imagine there must be hundreds of them here. Shouldn’t that relieve some of the pressure?”
“How much are they charging, by the way?”
“Oh, I have no idea! I have no idea.”
“But listen, listen, if I was a prostitute, I would run right here and make some quick bucks, no?”
“But it’s not safe here! If you’re a woman, and you’re by yourself, you run the risk of having the shit beat out of you if you come to a hotel room.”
He then pulled up some Backpage ads on his cell phone, “Look at these! ‘My first time in Williston.’ Then there’s ‘I just got to town, and I’m ready to play.’ Check this out: ‘I want it in my mouth.’ ‘Smoothy Skin, Luscious Lips, Extreme Water Flow.’ What the hell?! This one, ‘PETiTE EXOTiC ASiAN DOLL,’ has ‘NO BLACK MEN THNKS.’ So a bunch of them are here, like you say, but there are risks, because there is so much violence here. You have bar fights, stabbings. The men are beating each other up!”
“But you haven’t seen any violence yourself?”
“No, not yet, but I’ve had enough.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Just since November, so eight months, but I also worked for a year on an oil pad in Killdeer.”
“Maybe you’re just burnt out.”
“That too. They have me cleaning these pipes all day long, and I work 80 hours a week. The tips of my left fingers are numb and my right hand tingles. All day long I must hold this machine and sometimes I must lift these heavy pipes that are covered in oil and muck. It doesn’t matter how good your gloves are, they’re very hard to hold on to, so I’m done, man.”
“What about the chemicals? Do you worry about all the shit you’ve been exposed to?”
“Well, I don’t know. When I was on the rig, I heard all these warnings about the H2S gas, about how it can destroy your sense of smell, then kill you without you even knowing, but there’s also this crap that must be sucked from the ground and hauled away, and we’re talking water, chemicals and all the natural, you know, whatever that’s deep down in the earth, but the combination of it all is something no human should ever smell. The nauseation, oh God! I mean, you must check the level. You must bend over and look into the hole. It’s not exactly like an outhouse, which we’ve both experienced, but over time, the continual smell of it, honestly, hell, there were times I was ready to drop to my knees! It’s like your body knows. No human being should ever have to smell that.”
“So it’s probably best you’re getting out of here, before it really kills you!”
“Well, I’m done. Soon enough, I’ll go back to Grand Forks, five hours East of here.”
After AC/CD’s Hell’s Bell, Johnny Cash came on, and it’s remarkable how soothing yet invigorating was his music. Jaunty, smirking, it exuded endurance and defiance, but with a touch of melancholy. For the men and women who’re toughing it in Williston, the Man in Black is as good a patron saint as any.
“On the train, I met this stripper who was going to Grand Forks to work,” I continued.
“She can’t be, because there’s no strip joint in Grand Forks. Maybe she meant Fargo?”
“No, Grand Forks. When I asked her what she was going to do in Grand Forks, she just smiled and said, ‘I give people pleasure.’ She said she could work anywhere.”
“So she’s a prostitute!”
“Yes, but she also said she was a stripper, but maybe she just wanted to sound classier. She did have the Space Needle tattooed on her left forearm. That’s pretty classy.”
“Yeah, man, the Space Needle has a lot of details. It’s not like the St. Louis Arch or the Washington Monument. To do a proper tattoo of the Space Needle, you must include the elevator and the rotating restaurant at the top.”
“I see what you mean.”
“So this chick said she started stripping in Seattle, but they charge a girl $120 a night to dance there, so she moved to Portland, where it’s only 30 bucks. Now she’s going to Grand Forks.”
“What do you mean charge a girl?”
“These clubs don’t pay but charge a girl to dance.”
“$120 a week?”
“No, a night! So they must make at least that in tips to break even.”
“I’ve heard they’re charging the same in Williston.”
“That’s what I’ve heard. Have you been down there?”
“I’ve only been to Whispers once. I saw this 48-year-old dancing.”
“You know, different men have different tastes. Some like them old.”
“If she told you she was 48, she was probably 55 or 60!”
“I felt kinda bad for her, so I did tip her a dollar.”
Since coming to Williston, my new friend, David, has only touched or been touched by a woman one other time, when he went to a beauty salon to have his back hair removed. In his early 40’s, he does have a girlfriend, a woman in California. Born in the Philippines, she married an American, then divorced him. Though David said they had been dating for 14 years, how strong can this long-distance relationship be? Maybe she’s just a hologram! Or an emoticon.
Before leaving, David asked a waitress a few questions for my benefit, “Miss, this is your first night, right?”
“What brought you up here?”
“To North Dakota? My husband.”
“What state are you from?” I chimed in.
“I used to teach in Boulder!”
“Oh, yeah? What did you teach?”
“I live in Philadelphia. I just got here. I thought Williston would be a lot crazier.”
“Yeah, everyone makes it out to be so awful, like oh my God, and that you can’t even go out at night, but it’s not so bad. It’s fine here, really.”
“So what does your husband do?” David continued. “Is he working in a shop or on a rig?
“Oh, nice, so he must be making decent money. Just out of curiosity, though, can we ask you why you’re working here?”
“Cause I don’t want to sit home all day to watch TV and eat. That’s no fun! I actually have two jobs. In the daytime, I work for Stallion.”
“Stallion! What do you do for them?”
“I’m just cleaning for them now, but they’re training me to drive a truck. I should get my permit soon. Then I’ll really be a productive person.”
“Hey, you’re becoming more North Dakota!” I stupidly added. Not only had I slept sitting up on a train the night before, I was well sloshed by this point.
“More North Dakota? You mean I should add fifty pounds and put on more makeup?” She laughed.
“At least fifty pounds. Winter is coming! When in Rome, ah, you must eat more fried chicken!”
“That’s not what they eat here, dude,” David corrected me.
“Whatever. When in Rome, eat more chicken fried steak!”
“I feel fine now, but maybe I’ll take your advice.” Laughing, she walked away, and soon David also left.
DK’s was still buzzing, but since the jukebox was mute, I could hear someone telling jokes from behind the black curtain that split this huge bar. Unlike me, he was no drunk fool but a real comedian, one Mike Brody from the Twin Cities, and though I have no doubt his lines could disarm and undress, and his delivery ruthless yet nuanced, I could hear no laughter or applause whatsoever, so it’s quite possible he was performing for himself alone.
Soon, though, my attention was drawn to a woman sitting to my right. In her early 50’s and rather exhausted looking, she was having trouble getting the attention of the barkeep, Erica. Talking to her, I found out her name was Verna, and that she was working as an administrator at a man camp, “Our company is considered a leader in this field. We only work with companies. We don’t take individuals. Halliburton is one of our main clients.”
“How much do you charge for a person per night?”
“You know, I don’t even know! They don’t tell me, but it’s around $150.”
“But they get three meals a day, right?”
“Yes, they eat very well.”
“And they can’t bring guests or alcohol in, right?”
“Absolutely not! But it’s not a prison,” she laughed. “They can always leave. They can come here.”
Arriving from Polk County, Wisconsin, Verna has been in Williston for a year and four months. She’s originally from St. Paul. In Wisconsin, she worked for Spooner Train, an outfit that offers dinner on a moving train, at $50 per person, or dinner, drinks, then an overnight stay on a parked train, at $299 per couple. They sell nostalgia, basically.
“I came here thinking I’ll get a job at the airport. It has turned out well, but I’m tired. Everybody’s tired here. That’s why there are so many accidents. I was just rear-ended.”
“How many hours do you work a week?”
“Wow, that’s so many! Why won’t they hire two people and give each 40 a week?”
“No one will come then. You get paid more because you work more. It’s not so much they’re paying you more per hour, it’s the fact they’re giving you more hours. Every six weeks, though, I get two weeks off.”
“Do you go home?”
“Yes, but that’s another story. My home has been trashed!”
“What do you mean?!”
“Squatters! The last time, I went home, I discovered that it had been broken into. My white carpet is now red and purple, and there were beer cans and liquor bottles all over.”
“What about your electronics? Did they take your TV?”
“No, they didn’t take anything. I’m sure they were planning on coming back. There was no hurry. They’re probably there right now, partying.”
“Oh, man… So did you call the police?”
“Yes, I called, but the police are useless. They haven’t done anything. They didn’t even bother to take fingerprints.”
“What about your neighbors? Did they see anything?”
“I have no neighbors. There are no other houses around.”
“It sounds like a teenaged thing. Maybe a bunch of teenagers broke into your house and use it for parties.”
“Whoever they are, they know that I’ve left to work in another state.”
“You know, maybe the cops are not investigating because the kids who broke in are related to them.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised.”
“Maybe the cops themselves broke into your house! So, anyway, there’s nothing you can do about this?”
“No security system?”
“They can always cut the wire. They’re not stupid!”
“Maybe you can plant landmines in your yard!”
“That’s an idea. At this point, I’ve given up on that house. After I bought it, it went up in value, so I put in on the market at $240,000, but it didn’t sell, so I lowered it to 169, finally, but at this point, I won’t even get that. It will take a lot to fix. You know, they even broke some of my windows, so that my pipes burst from the cold. At this point, I don’t care if a tornado hits it!”
“I think you should go back and lob hand grenades at the house, get even with these motherfuckers!”
“You know, I can’t even get worked up over it. I’m tired. For years, people have been messing with me.”
“What do you mean?”
“Have you heard of crowd stalking?”
“Yes, but who are stalking you?”
“I don’t know, but that’s the whole point.”
“I don’t understand. I mean, what do they want from you?”
“I don’t know either.”
“Maybe I’m stalking you!”
“Maybe you are.”
“Maybe I’m one of them!”
“Even in Williston, strange things have happened. My car has been broken into several times. Someone slashed my armrest. Why would they do that? Another time, someone cut some of the wiring under my hood.”
“So someone’s really messing with you, but why?”
“I don’t know. I wish I was actually crazy, so I could be cured, but it’s worse this way, because I have no idea what’s going on.”
“How long has this been happening?”
“For years! Once, someone scrawled “HI” into the dirt on my TV. I’m wondering why God is allowing this to happen.”
“To test you?”
“Test me for what?! I already believe in Him! I used to really believe in Him, but since I got here, I’ve only been to church twice.”
“Oh, two different churches. I don’t believe in religion, only in God, so any church will do.”
“Now that you’ve made some money, maybe you can run away, very far away!”
“I’m sure they’ll find me.”
The lights had gone up, so it was about time to leave. Around 29-year-old Erica, a small crowd of supplicants had gathered, but each would walk out of here as needy as ever. Erica works 9 ½ hours a day and makes a pretty penny, but it’s also time for her to move on. Soon, she’ll be a field operation assistant for Oasis, another oil services company. With an 11-year-old at home, she wants weekends and all holidays off. One hundred percent Williston, native Erica is as lovely as they come, not that she needs any endorsement from a dirty old creep. “Thank you, ma’am,” I muttered as I staggered into the night.
Approaching Williston from the North, you’ll see an indigo sign with white lettering, “WELCOME TO WILLISTON / BOOMTOWN, USA.” On the back, there’s a black and red tableau of 14 men in hard hats, all busy carrying planks, pushing a wheelbarrow, climbing up a ladder, painting or standing on a scaffold, etc. The caption, “Will!ston / It’s getting better together.” Around town, you can also find posters that blares, “Excuse our mess!” but with “mess” crossed out, to be replaced by “progress.” A shopping center is being built, and East of downtown, luxury condos have gone up. Beneath this triumphant optimism, however, there is a toxic current that is poisoning not just bodies and souls, but also the fractured foundation of this still beautiful town, for when the rigs are hauled away, sooner rather than later, all that will be left will be an unholy mess.
In the window of Skinful Pleasures, a downtown tattoo parlor, there’s a sign, “Walk-ins Welcome!” Next to it, however, there’s a “Fuck You” black T-shirt. Although this juxtaposition is merely coincidental, it also sums up Williston’s ambivalence towards its lucrative rape. Fracked ten thousand times, North Dakota will never be the same.
With few industries, North Dakota has long been reliant on the military to feed its coffers. Hence, its nuclear base in Minot, drone bases in Fargo and Grand Forks, and drone research facilities in Grand Forks, Grand Sky and elsewhere. The University of North Dakota even awards a bachelor’s degree in Unmaned Aircraft Systems Operations, the first of its kind worldwide, needless to say. (“Mom, I think I want to major in drones!”) Fracking, however, may turn out to be this state’s worst pact with the devil.
On the day I left Williston, there was a bazaar downtown, with stalls set up right in the middle of Main Street. In the mild sunshine, I saw no roughnecks or fracking whores, only ordinary families leisurely perusing knickknacks and clothing racks. Smiling, two girls sat to have their caricatures done. On a table, there was a donation jar to help kids from Rickard Elementary go to Washington DC this April. There, they will visit the Air and Space Museum, among other attractions. Wearing a “Home of the Brave” T-shirt, a blonde-haired, skinny boy played God Bless America on his flute. He was excellent, too.
Hola, It's Io
- An essay by Susan M. Schultz
- Interviewed by Matthew Sharpe
- Interviewed by Phạm Thị Hoài (in Vietnamese)
- Audio file of an interview by Leonard Schwartz
- Audio files on Pennsound
- YouTube videos
- Posts at the Harriet Blog
- Free Love Pix
- Two poems at Green Integer
- Two poems on Mipoesia
- Two prose poems in Jacket
- Poems translated into Arabic by Tahseen al Khateeb
- A short story in Jacket
- Eight Vietnamese poets translated into English
- Seven Contemporary Italian Poets
- A translation of Roberto Castillo Udiarte's "Vita Canis"
Bouncer, Janus, Bellhop
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.