As published at Information Clearing House, CounterCurrents and Intrepid Report, 10/18/14:
This time, I got to New Orleans on a bus named Mega, and it also dropped me off at Elysian Fields. In Nola, there’s a street called Arts, so of course there has to be one named Desire, and Tennessee Williams clearly saw the two as intertwined, thrusting and plunging their bodies against each other. Of course, death will interrupt this coupling not just finally but every step of the way.
Across the avenue, there was Gene’s Daiquiris, with its colorful All Night Long, Suicide, Sweet Dreams and What The Fuck rum concoctions, etc., and on this side, there’s the Phoenix Bar, home of the Bears and Bear Trappers Social Club. If I was into hidemen, I could have headed to the second floor to be chained, strapped, whipped and have my parts serviced or abused to my heart’s desire, all while being showered with titillating insults. At street level, however, there’s no hint of this theatrical decadence, and since Elysian Fields has eight lanes, including two for parking, it’s mostly just cars zooming by endlessly, like they do all across this land.
I came to New Orleans to hang out with Brooks Johnson and his crew of squatters, see how they were scraping by on the fringe of a fringe city. Son of poet Kent Johnson, 29-year-old Brooks is struggling to stay afloat as he finds his way as a writer, artist and man. Half an hour after my evening arrival, we were sitting on the tailgate of his canopied, beat up pickup truck. Drinking Coors, we chattered. Before this, we had only met in Chicago in 2009.
“So how are you making a living, man?”
“I’m doing house painting and plumbing, but I was tutoring for Delgado Community College. They let me go.”
“They never said. They were just kind of dicking me around. They’d say they had the budget to hire me, and then no, and then yes, and then no.”
With so many humanities majors desperate for teaching jobs, colleges can afford to dick around just about everybody, even very accomplished candidates with multiple degrees.
“So how did you hook up with a contractor?”
“A lot of my friends work with this lady, Carol. She doesn’t have her license or anything. She hires punks and queers. I do house painting, plumbing and demo shit. I work off the book, have to, because this is the only way for me to make OK money. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to pay back my student loan.”
“How much do you owe?”
“$12,000, so it’s not too bad, comparatively.”
“But it’s still bad, because before you know it, it will become 20!”
“Totally! And it’s like, fuck, I’ve gotten just one job from my degree, and it paid $12 an hour for 20 hours a week.”
When a thumpingly raucous bus drove by, we had to pause. Here, you can rent a “party bus,” and at the high end, it’s like a 40-foot-long limousine with a granite-top bar, leather seats, flat screen TV, disco lighting and brain-damaging sound system. The cheapest version seems no more than an old, yellow school bus with a boom box. Since I don’t understand the allures of being trapped with a fixed cast of people inside a very narrow, loud and expensive moving bar, you won’t find me booking a party bus anytime soon. Still, it was charming to catch a glimpse of the laughing and hollering young people with their heads stuck out the windows.
“What did you major in?” I resumed.
Laughing, Brooks confessed, “English and art history.”
“There you go,” I laughed along with him, “It is pretty funny.”
“It’s hilarious! It’s like a fuckin’ scam. They got me! It’s based on a lie. It’s like, you can go to college, borrow this money, get a job and make it back.”
“For pointing some of that shit out, I can’t get hired now. I kept saying how problematic this whole set up is. Since you’re the paying customer, the professor will pretend that you’re some kind of a genius, that everyone’s a genius. He’ll flatter you to keep you hooked.”
“Yeah, totally. They have to keep you tied in and borrowing from the banks.”
I taught creative writing at Bard, Penn, Montana, Naropa and Muhlenberg. It’s not that people shouldn’t study English, art history, ceramics or creative writing, etc., but they shouldn’t be juked and jived about their dismal prospects while being fitted with a bankster shackle around their callow neck, and if they suck at what they do, and I mean really, really suck, then they should be told to cut their losses right now, rather than be led on so cynically by those who are only pretending to be nurturing. It’s you, young man or woman, who is supportive of your professors’ salaries, not to mention the bulging bureaucracy above them.
“The last thing you want to do is to scare them away,” I continued. “Let’s say they’re not doing the work, let’s say they’re really stupid or whatever, but you can’t warn them about how precarious their future is because you’ll be losing customers for the fuckin’ corporation!”
“Exactly, and the other part of it is, I liked that job a lot because I could be real with people. It’s the kind of dynamic education where you can be personal, one-on-one and talk about life and what’s going on.”
I chuckled, “But you’re not supposed to talk about life, man! That’s why it’s called a campus. You’re not supposed to point to anything outside, since it will scare the students! You weren’t a good soldier, man!”
“Exactly, and that’s why I was getting the stink eye from the other instructors. Another thing is, I didn’t have a shower for a long time. We were squatting and didn’t have running water, so we were just drinking rain water from a rain barrel, but finally, we got our shit together, so we’re stealing water now. It’s insanely easy! There’s a water meter in front of every house, so all you need is a copper pipe, a right-sized gasket and a water key from Home Depot. There’s a trick to it, but it’s very simple.”
“Can you steal electricity?”
“That’s a lot harder, and dangerous. What we have is a temporary electric pole. After we paid the tax lien on the property, we became its caretaker, so now we’re legal with the electricity.”
The property, a double shotgun, is owned by one Rufus Rose, a black man in his 80’s. Before the first squatter moved in, it had been left empty for six or seven years and was falling apart, with a leaking roof, sinking foundation and wrecked walls. Since Rose ignored his taxes for years, the squatters could claim the property by paying the city $1,200, but this modest sum is also all Rose needs to reclaim his house, and once he does that, these benign anarchists, or obnoxious spongers, depending on your point of view, can be booted out within a week. Instead of paying up, however, Rose tried to get the city to help him demolish the property, and he also came by to give the squatters a piece of his mind. The old man bought houses when they were dirt cheap, and he owns a bunch.
The white squatters moved onto this all-black block in the Eighth Ward one by one, and now there are five of them, four males and a female. When their neighbors saw them come in, there was widespread suspicion and even hostile looks, for who knew what these grungy types were up to, but all negative feelings have dissipated. “People have even given us food,” Brooks said. “One lady brought us spaghetti. Another gave us yaka mein. We’ve also brought food to our neighbors, and I’ve done a couple of easy repairs for them. You know, basic neighborly stuff.” After taking over the house, the squatters have put in a new roof, painted the front in cheerful colors and fixed this and that to make the dwelling more habitable and not an eyesore.
In Streetcar, Williams writes, “New Orleans is a cosmopolitan city where there is a relatively warm and easy intermingling of races in the old part of town,” and this appears to hold more than six decades later. Of course, the city now has a black majority, but its current mayor, Mitch Landrieu, is white, and Laudrieu’s father, Moon, also a mayor, is remembered for his fight in the 60’s against segregation. One can assume that those who can’t stand blacks, punks, queers or Vietnamese, etc., have removed themselves from New Orleans or never cared to live there in the first place, for this has long been one of the most eclectic and iconoclastic cities in all of America.
As for squatting, New Orleans has the tradition of the Batture Dwellers. Most numerous during the Great Depression, these are the poor and hardy folks who squat on a precarious strip of land between levees and river bank. Technically dwelling on the Mississippi itself, their homes are not just ramshackle stilted shacks and houseboats, but also fairly spacious and sturdy cottages. When a storm comes, the river swells and I picture a couple lying on a bobbing bed while, next door, a cursing old fart stands belly button-deep in a turbulent pool that’s garnished with Mardi Gras beads, aluminum cans and driftwood. “Oh shit,” he mutters.
Tennessee Williams never squatted in New Orleans, but he did skip out on his landlord, if we’re to believe the account in his autobiographical “The Angel in the Alcove,” “When I finally left there I fooled the old woman. I left by way of a balcony and a pair of sheets. I was miles out of town on the Old Spanish Trail before the old woman found out I had gotten past her.”
Now, it’s clear that this Postcard is anchored by the theme of petty criminality, with the implied justification that one’s soul, not body, cannot be sustained any other way, for if a person squats, defaults on a bank loan, steals water or software, he’s not trying to gain riches or comforts, but merely a bit of breathing room for his mind and spirit. Working at a restaurant and writing mostly on weekends, Tennessee Williams still couldn’t make rent so had to hightail from his landlady, but the eventual results are so nourishing for the culture, no one would think of faulting the genius. Most turnstile jumping or train hopping young writers, though, won’t yield even a single sharp sentence. Still, we must let as many of them go at it as possible, for not only may a Tennessee Williams emerge from the fray, but the much dimmer lights can also illuminate a basement or storefront theater for a moment or two. In any case, it’s the local culture that will sustain us, and not the calculatingly concocted poison that’s beamed relentlessly from the brainwashing centers!
“So what brought you down to New Orleans?” I asked Brooks.
“I’ve been trying to come down here for years. I rode a freight train down, like, eight years ago.”
“All the way down?”
“Most of the way down. I got to Memphis, but they pulled me off and put me in the Shelby County Jail for a couple of days. They gave me time served.”
“What did the judge say?”
“Basically, get the fuck out of here!”
“Was there a moral lecture?”
“Yeah, it was like, ‘You guys are living all wrong,’ that kind of stuff. It was my first time being in a jail. When I first went in, I was worried, like, oh shit, it’s going to be all race ganged out, but it was chill. Memphis is really a prison town. It’s either you’re a guard or you go to jail. That became clear really quick, and my worry about the race gang thing wasn’t real at all, because people were really helping us out.”
“They could tell you were just kids, right?”
“For sure, they were super cool about it. After we were charged, we were put in this holding cell, and I was almost in a prison riot, because they kept pushing people in until there were, like, 70 of us in this small room. People had to stand on these benches. Two guys were standing on the toilet.”
I roared at this detail, and Brooks laughed too. I said, “I’m sure it wasn’t too funny then.”
“Fuck, no, it was hot as hell! There were four dudes in the corner having a really serious conversation, then one of them said, ‘All right, if they put anybody else in here, we’re going to grab the fuckin’ guard and hold him until they let us out!’ It was one of those moments where it’s like...”
“Enough is enough!”
“Yeah, enough is enough. I knew I was supposed to be out soon, but I had to be down with this, although I might have had to stay there for a lot longer.”
“You didn’t want to be the lone pussy!” I laughed.
“Hell, no! You have to go all the way with it! Thing is, they didn’t put another person in and they let us out in about five minutes. It’s insane, man, but it’s not funny, really, especially with the women. Two of my friends, Candy and Vanessa, were kept at this prison that’s way out of town, and when they let you out, it’s at a time when no bus is running, you can’t get a cab and it’s a long walk to get anywhere, so women will walk down this road…”
“Yeah, and a car might stop to offer them a ride, but lots of time it’s an undercover cop who would arrest them on prostitution charges, and send them right back.”
“Why?! That’s bizarre, isn’t it?”
“It is super weird.”
“I half expected you to say the guy was going to rape them, or make a deal, you know, like if you suck my dick, I let you go.”
“Maybe that happens too, but from the stories my friends were told, it’s about revenue for the city.”
“So they’re just eager to keep people in?”
“I had a Philly friend. She tried to be a prostitute but wasn’t successful. I guess she just wasn’t good looking enough. She studied print making, by the way, and was pretty good too. Anyway, her first potential client was this Japanese guy who slammed a door in her face, so her pimp wasn’t too happy about that. Not knowing what to do, she just walked down the street, you know, and when she saw a cop car, she waved or some shit because she thought the cop would rescue her, but the cop then tried to fuck her, so she had to jump out of the car and run away from him! That’s the easiest thing, you know, because if you’re a prostitute and a cop fucks you, who’s going to care?”
“Exactly. Cops are predators, man. They got a gun. They got everything.”
In Tennessee Williams’ “The Poet,” a wandering, scrounging poet is occasionally raped when he sleeps outside, and though this leaves “his clothing torn open and sometimes not only a dampness of mouths on his flesh but painful bruises,” the poet doesn’t feel “any shame or resentment.” In “The Alcove,” Williams describes himself being more or less raped by a fellow tenant, a tubercular young artist who coughs up blood. It’s telling that Williams would depict the poet as a raped and battered being, but in a 1981 interview with the Paris Review, Williams also spoke of the “terrible indignities, humiliations, privations, shocks that attend the life of an American writer,” and this from a time when a serious artist like him could still be a national figure. Many of Williams’ plays were adapted for Hollywood or television. Arthur Miller wrote screenplays, married Marilyn Monroe and the TV movie of his Death of a Salesman drew 25 million viewers on CBS in 1985. I’m citing relatively recent examples to show that it wasn’t all that long ago when we still had functioning synapses between our ears. Jackson Pollock was profiled in Life magazine, and Steinbeck and Salinger were read by high school kids. Now, they have never heard of Mark Twain or think he might be a country singer, for in these gleefully illiterate and belligerently philistine United States, there is only a miniscule, coterie audience for any of the high arts, and this has been arrived at by design, of course, because it’s a lot easier to rob and manipulate an idiotic population. Though we have a vast cultural heritage, it’s being buried deeper and deeper, like a forgotten time capsule, while on the surface, blathering morons of every type are being pumped up and feted on a revolving stage.
Driving away from Elysian Fields, Brooks mentioned that a cop had been shot just outside Gene’s Po-Boys two weeks earlier. Both killer and cop were black. Half a mile away, the shooter had killed another man at a party. New Orleans’ murder rate is consistently about seven times the national average, and since 1985, it has led the nation in murders for 12 different years. In 2014, only 121 people have been killed through October 15th, however, so that’s a considerable dip from the all-time high of 424 in 1994. Most of the time, New Orleans is the Big Easy, with old men playing dominoes beneath trees, chickens crossing roads, slow walking, outdoor drinking and slurry trombones, but then the shots would ring out. Among states, Louisiana has had the most murders per capita for 25 straight years. It is also the third-poorest.
The latest murder involves two men and a woman. The shooter is the father of her two kids, while the victim was someone she “knew through a current sexual relationship.” Drunk, the hapless fornicator came by to borrow a scale, which was fine, but when he started to “squeeze” her, he was shot.
Leaving Marigny, we went to Fairgrounds, and at the Seahorse Saloon, I met one of Brooks’ squatmates, Heather, as well as his boss, Carol. In her mid 60’s, Carol was a very large woman with an extremely well-developed beer belly, but I shouldn’t talk, for my nickname during my house painting days was “Pol Pot Belly,” I kid you not. (Screw you, Hank, for giving me that moniker, though I wish you happy boozing and health wherever the hell you are.) Carol also had a very masculine voice, and as I shook her hammering hand, I actually thought she could be a man.
Raised on a small farm in Oklahoma, Carol was slim and pretty in youth, with the photos to prove it too. She married, had children, divorced, quit drinking then came to New Orleans at age 42. Carol hadn’t been in a bar in years, so was rather subdued this evening, but her pool game sure hadn’t left her, for she simply kicked Heather’s and Brooks’ asses in quick succession. Clownish with a cue, I didn’t dare challenge her.
In her early 30’s, Heather’s from a tiny village in South Dakota. She had on a black cap, black wig, black and tan top, black shorts, black fishnet stockings and black shoes, with just about everything quite weathered, like a beat up barn. Granting her bits of good luck, a tiny horseshoe pendant rested on her sternum. At seven O’clock from her right outer canthus, there was also a single French quotation mark, elongated and face down, but I forgot to ask her what it meant. Like Brooks and, in fact, all of the other squatters, Heather studied English in college. Paired with a fiddler, Heather plays guitar and sings in a plaintive, sometimes cracked voice, and the music is a combination of Appalachia and Dylan from his Desire album. They’ve performed at the Mudlark, a hub of underground arts. At the Seahorse, though, I hadn’t known that her lyrics tended to be queer, and so I asked if she had ever been married. “Look at me!” She guffawed. “Do I look like I’ve been married?”
“I don’t know! What does a married face look like?”
That night, I was given my own room at the squat, and though the sheet was stiff with old sweat, I was grateful to be taken in and horizontal. In the middle of the night, I had to get up, and since I didn’t know that the toilet was inside, and the shower a makeshift stall outside, I groped my way out to stand among the banana tree and chicken coup, beneath a crescent moon. With the weather so balmy, I felt I could kiss the equator and half a world away.
At Brooks’ age, I lived over a print shop in a space that was so poorly insulated, I froze my nuts off through two winters. It was almost as bad as sleeping outside, but with the smell of a kerosene heater plus chemicals from downstairs, not to mention the unceasing grinding of gears during the daytime. My sculptor roommate had two cats that didn’t seem to like the maddening cold any better than us, and when Betty, a scrawny oxicat, fell sick, Jay promptly suffocated her under a pillow, then threw her out with the trash.
As an unknown painter in Greenwich Village in the late 30’s, Franz Kline survived mostly on sugar and coffee, so it was definitely not a good idea when a friend asked Kline to take care of his German Shepherd. Starving, the dog tried to eat a bar of soap and died, which prompted Kline to remark, “It just shows you that a bohemian is someone who could live where an animal would die.”
To eat at all, bohemians must be extra resourceful. Before New Orleans, Brooks spent a couple of months in the California desert, and there he learnt to catch pheasants with a box trap, “All you need is a box, twig, rope and some breakfast cereal.” It’s a simple, almost childish skill, yet most of us don’t know it, and of course few can feather and gut a chicken. Perhaps they can set this up as a four-year, fully accredited program? Borrowing $100,000 from Bank of America, a student can major in gizzard removal.
Squatting or no, one still has to make a living, and Chris, the 32-year-old head of this crew, runs a tour guide business. Starting from The Sweet Palate, tourists are led through the French Quarter or nearby cemeteries, and they pay whatever they feel like at the end, which usually ranges between 10 and 20 bucks. Originally from Milwaukee, Chris is a playwright and fiction writer.
Rhode Island-born Jeremy, in his early 20’s, is a poet who admires Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch. This summer, he went to Humbolt County in Northern California to trim marijuana. Paid $200 a pound, he averaged 1 ½ pound per day, working 12 hours. Listening to books on tape, he endured this tedious task for three weeks. “It’s crazy to be in a room with thirty pounds of weed, and the illegality of it all also bothered me. It’s still a felony in California to grow that much weed, so even though I was just a trimmer, I don’t think I’m going to go back.” Since logging is dead in Humboldt County, pot growing is the meat, skin, heart and backbone of the local economy, and for pot price to stay high, its cultivation has to remain illegal. What you have, then, are a bunch of towns where just about everyone is a criminal, and they want to stay that way forever just to survive.
Connecticut-born Sergio, in his early 20’s, is also a poet. In a red bathrobe, he sat with the others on an old, frayed couch to watch a movie. I didn’t talk to him. Without cable television, the squatters get their screen fix by staring at videos. There were about 70 in the house.
In the end, though, there is no romance in going without a proper shower, stove or heating system, but one must handle it with resilience and even defiance and humor should that become one’s lot, and of course, poor artists are just a tiny fraction of the millions of Americans who have gone neo primitive, and this number will only spiral up. Missing a few utility payments, one will be plunged into the dark and cold, but at least there won’t be anything left in the refrigerator to go bad. Rotting slums, ragged trailer parks and tent cities already dot this “greatest of countries.”
For a contrast to Brooks, let’s check out, briefly, his girlfriend, Shira, from Brooklyn Heights. Twenty-four-years-old, Shira studied media arts at NYU and has already published a well-received comic book. Besides drawing comics, Shira also plays bass in punk bands and does performance art. Though only working part time in a library, she lives in a Mid City apartment that costs $1,100 a month. Clearly, Shira’s much better situated and more advanced artistically than the others, but she also comes from a completely different background. Her mom is a noted modern dancer, her brother a rising star in Hollywood and her dad was a publishing executive.
Burning to make art, poor kids ignore or are ignorant of the fact that it’s essentially a rich man’s game, but as Tennessee Williams observed, “If they’re meant to be writers, they will write. There’s nothing that can stop them. It may kill them.” Further, if a poor kid can tough it out somehow, he has stories to tell and experiences to relate that his more privileged peers have only read about.
In 2011, Brooks Johnson and another cultural guerrilla staged a demonstration at a Raul Zurita reading at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago. Flyers were handed out and two banners were unfurled from a balcony, “WHAT WOULD HAVE HAPPENED IF EMILY DICKINSON HAD BEEN PRESCRIBED PROZAC?” and “VIVA CADA.” The Prozac dig refers to the Poetry Foundation being funded by the maker of Prozac, Cialis and the autistic-causing Thimerosal. At the end of America, poetry is supposed to put you to sleep with a hard-on. Also, the Poetry Foundation’s President was John Barr, a former investment banker and leading figure in energy deregulation. Such a sick knot of symbolism deserved to be mocked, but the Poetry Foundation was certainly not amused. They called the cops.
Soon, too soon, it was time for me to leave, and before I went to the station, I sat for a while at Canal and Basin, right in front of the Simon Bolivar statue. As I ate some leftover Mexican meat balls, a black man in his mid-60’s, sitting on a nearby bench, started a conversation, “I have a new apartment, and it only costs me $300 a month!”
“Three blocks from here.”
“Sounds way too cheap!”
“I’m in this program. It’s brand new too, with a dishwasher and everything.”
“You damn right! You see that hotel there? People pay $150 just to sleep there for one night. That’s insane! I can’t imagine spending that kind of money, and for what?! All you’re going to do is shit, piss and lie down, and before you know it, it’s time to check out! It’s insane, I tell you. I’d rather sleep outside, on this bench.”
“I hear you.”
“I’m thinking of renting my room out. For $300, you can stay in my room for two weeks!”
“Then where would you sleep?”
“On the couch, but you can have the rest of it, and I won’t get in your way. I’ll be gone most of the day.”
“It’s a pretty good deal.”
“You need a room?”
“I’m leaving town.”
“How about $20 for just tonight?”
“I’m leaving, and I’m kind of broke too.”
“You don’t have $20?”
“Actually, no,” and I really didn’t. I had $19 which must last for the next 40 hours.
“I’m down to three bucks myself,” my new friend commiserated. “I want to buy a bag of weed, but I’m two dollar short.”
“When will you get more money?”
“The first! That’s three days from now. I’m on Social Security. I get $800 a month. I’m all right. I have some sausage and bacon cooked up at home, and I also have beans and rice with some butter in it. I’m all right.”
“Do you drink?”
“Very little. I know a place on Bourbon where you can get three cans of Budweiser for five bucks!”
“And how much weed do you smoke?”
“Just two bags, though sometimes I buy me a $10 bag.”
When a woman walked by, he shouted, “How are you doing, baby?” She ignored him. Turning to me, he growled, “She ain’t from here. People down here are friendly.”
Though in his 60’s, he was remarkably trim yet muscular, and to show off his physique, the old man wore a low cut, lead colored tank top, with an open indigo-and-white-striped shirt draped over it. Pop was stylin’, to tell you the truth.
“This chick I know can’t pay her phone bill,” he continued. “She’s $66 short, so she said, if I gave her that, we could have sex.”
“How old is she?”
“Thirty-two, and she’s pretty good looking too. She works at a strip club.”
“But you only have three bucks, though.”
“I wouldn’t anyhow. I have never paid for sex!”
“That’s pretty good!”
“All night long, they walk up and down Canal, trying to sell their pussies, while on Bourbon, they’re just trying to give it away! A woman can only do two things, sell it or give it away! I have never paid for sex!”
Most men have a hard enough time giving it away, much less selling it, and there’s no transcendence in their in-and-outs, but Oliver Winemiller, Tennessee Williams’ New Orleans gay prostitute, is described as not just a sexual but psychic savior, and even a Christlike figure, “To some he became the archetype of the Savior Upon The Cross who had taken upon himself the sins of their world to be washed and purified in his blood and passion.” Handsome yet missing an arm through a car accident, Winemiller is also compared to “a broken statue of Apollo,” but more than Jesus or Apollo, Winemiller is really a reincarnation of Bras-Coupé, a New Orleans slave turned bandit. Considered an avenging hero by blacks, and a demonic terror by whites, Bras-Coupé first became notorious for his dancing in Congo Square. A place for slaves to let loose once a week, Congo Square was an intensification of those qualities we’ve come to associate with New Orleans, wild, unassimilably alien, joyous but also seething. After he was shot by whites and lost his arm, Bras-Coupé got even by leading a growing band to rob and kill whites. The fictional Winemiller, on the other hand, kills only one rich guy, a yacht owner who has hired him to have sex in front of the camera. Denied ownership of their bodies and treated like meat, they both retaliate and are punished by death. New Orleans is itself a maimed yet transcendent whore, and unlike Las Vegas, it is essentially real.
In New Orleans, Amtrak and Greyhound share the same building, and with so much traffic passing through, I simply assumed the station would be open all night, but when I got there around 10:40PM for my 7AM departure the next day, they wouldn’t let me in, so I ended up, only too appropriately, sleeping on concrete under the Pontchartrain Expressway. Using a corner of my backpack as pillow, I curled up clutching my camera bag and managed to sleep fitfully until five, when the station finally opened. Around 3:30, a man lay down a few feet from me, which was not remarkable in the least, since we gave each other added security. A mugger would hesitate to approach a group of sleeping homeless, since there’s a pretty good chance someone is not quite sleeping, and may even have his eyes wide open in the dark. What was remarkable was a man who appeared out of nowhere to place a jacket under the sleeping man’s head, since he didn’t have anything to use as a pillow. Done with this task, he simply disappeared, and if I was a liar, I’d even add that he had one arm.
Saturday, October 18, 2014
As published at Information Clearing House, CounterCurrents and Intrepid Report, 10/18/14:
Saturday, October 11, 2014
As published at Information Clearing House and Intrepid Report, 10/12/14:
The American presidential election is a drawn out, byzantine process that involves precinct meetings, regional caucuses, state primaries and national conventions, all to give citizens the impression that their participation matters, for in the end, the lying buffoon who gets to stride into the White House has long been vetted and preselected by the banks, death merchants and brainwashing media that run our infernally corrupt and murderous country.
It’s foolish to expect a system to allow anyone who threatens it to the least degree to rise to the very top, for all those who benefit from this system will do all they can to snuff out such a pest each step of the way. He’d be lucky to get a job teaching freshman English at the community college, and is as out of place in this bloody scheme as an Iowa beaver trapper at a Hampton pool party. As for dissidents who get print space or air time, they are but harmless, distracting foils or court jesters. Since voting cannot change the system but legitimizes it, voters become collaborators to all of the system’s crimes, as well as their own destruction, for the system works against nearly all of them.
Don’t tell this to Iowans, though, for they take the election farce very seriously, with intense and subtle debates among themselves and close listening to bullshitty speeches from the corporation-jerked marionettes. Earnestly playing along with this sick charade, Iowans do get to claim the national spotlight every four years, though, for it’s here that the election “season” begins. Like a whistle pig, Iowa crawls out of its hole to tweet the worst possible omen to the rest of the country, “We have a new war criminal!”
Standing on its hind legs, the woodchuck screamed at me, “Oh, man, why be so negative?! And you ain’t never even seen our flat, featureless landscape, our splendid collection of parking garages and parking lots known as downtown Des Moines, not to mention our poetry factory farm, the Iowa Writers Workshop!”
All right, dude, I’ve atoned. I had been to 47 states, but Iowa wasn’t one of them, so it was with a clearly prurient excitement that I crossed the Mississippi into Burlington, Iowa. From my train seat, I could marvel at its one-span suspension bridge, but the midget statue of liberty was nowhere to be seen, which just means I must detrain the next time. OK!
Encased by steel, I crossed Iowa entirely and didn’t get off until my return trip, in tiny Osceola. With several first-rate colleges and consistently high SAT scores, Iowa once toyed with the nickname, “A State of Mind,” but decided to stay with the mysterious “Hawkeye State,” a nonsensical allusion to a forgotten Sauk Chief. Interestingly, the red man only makes up half a percent of the state’s population, compared to 1.3% and 8.9% in neighboring Nebraska and South Dakota, respectively. Osceola is named after a Seminole chief, and though only six American Indians now live in Osceola, its high school athletes are nicknamed, what else, the Indians. The civic banners hanging all over the center of town read, “OSCEOLA / HOME OF THE INDIANS.” Of course, the professional football team of Washington DC, that bastion of some the most ruthless white men for 200-odd years now, is called the Redskins. Perhaps Beitar Jerusalem F.C. will change its name to the Jerusalem Arabs once the last Palestinian has been blasted from Israel. The keffiyeh can be incorporated into their uniform.
Hissing, the groundhog just delivered a flying reverse kick upside my head, “What’s up with this Iowa-bashing bullshit, man?! Didn’t we just invite you to do your silly and, I strongly suspect, drunken song and dance at Grinnell and Coe?!”
Alrighty, alrighty, land beaver! I’ll introduce everybody to a super friendly quintet I met in Osceola: Kurt, a vending machine business owner; Monk, a retired sausage plant worker; Bubby, a woodpecker watcher; and Bill, an ex-air force sergeant, mailman and playboy. We’ll get to them. Leaving the station, I walked down a dull stretch of Main Street, past Leslie’s Dance Emporium, with its tumbling, clogging, jazz and hip hop dancing classes; Casey’s General Store, a chain gas station with convenience mart; La Pequena Mexican grocery; a bowling alley; a bank. Finally, a large, leafy square opened up in front of me.
Most of Osceola’s businesses were clumped around it, and on all the stores’ plate glass windows, rah rah slogans have been painted to cheer on the high school football team. Each was tailored to the business, for at the flower shop, it was “BLOOM UP A VICTORY.” At the bank, “CASH IN A WIN.” At the Chinese buffet, “STIR UP A VICTORY.” Though the local boys had lost all four of their games, such civic enthusiasm did slather a festive coat over this tranquilizing village.
Hey, haven’t you noticed that “village” is almost never used to describe any American settlement? Just about any fly speck across this land is solemnly declared a “city,” on government buildings, official stationery and cop cars, etc. Similarly, an American peasant is spiffed up as a “farmer” or “agricultural worker,” and an American coolie who keeps rolling over his payday loan, dwells in a shared squat, has four broken teeth left and must take two subways and a bus to each of his three jobs is merely a “low wage worker.”
After futilely trying to find a diner, I settled for the Chinese belly stuffer, housed as it was in the Masonic Temple. The illuminated array was certainly cheap enough. At the next table, two women discussed difficult, familial relationships and health hiccups. Compared to the egg drop, the hot and sour soup was perhaps the lesser of two evils, and after much deliberation, I elected the fried chicken over the clearly impeachable beef with broccoli. Looking for glasses to refill, the stoic waitress marched back and forth when not bitching about something over her cell phone. “Thanks a lot!” I waved at this suffering woman before dashing out the door for the West Side Tavern across the square. Over its entrance, there was a 3-D facsimile of a pool rack with crossed cues. I walked in.
To enter any unknown bar is to dive into an alien society, for here might be a meeting place for the local KKK, Hells Angels, Black Republicans, Born to Kill Vietnamese gang or, since we’re in Iowa, Most Ancient and Hermetic Order of the Eternally Windswept if not Snowed-In Cable Subscribers. Luckily for me, though, West Side turned out to be a most welcoming joint, for it took but a few seconds for the long-haired dude to my left to say, “How are you doing?”
“It’s my first time here. I just got off the train. This looks like a great place to sit for a while.”
“It’s the only place to sit,” he laughed and extended his hand. “I’m Kurt.”
I told Kurt I was on my way to Des Moines, and had just been to McCook, Nebraska.
“You got any more of that?”
“No, I said McCook, Nebraska.”
“Yeah, I just went to McCook, Nebraska.”
“Just to see it.”
“Dude,” he said, and just shook his head. To flush Nebraska from his mind, Kurt then told me about his nine-year-old autistic daughter, “Just this morning, my daughter said, ‘Dad, if you don’t get me a pepperoni pizza right away, I’m going to call 911!’ Isn’t that hilarious?! She’s smart, smarter than me, but her mind works differently. She has a different outlook.”
“How does she get along with other kids?”
“Not very well. They tease her all the time, she gets into fights, but I don’t blame them, because she’s the one that’s different.”
“So she has no friends?”
“She has an invisible friend called Tails.”
“It’s from the Sonic video game. My daughter solved that in three days. It took me twenty years! My daughter’s smart, but she just has a different outlook, that’s all. She can read and understand all the words, but she can’t make sense out of them.”
It turned out that Kurt’s not a native Iowan, “I’m originally from Austin, Texas. I got my girlfriend pregnant, or somebody did, but we moved up here to be close to her family.”
“So now you’re stuck here!”
“Oh no, man, a man ain’t never stuck…”
“I don’t mean that in a negative way. I mean, you like it here OK?”
“No, it’s horrible.”
“Yes, it’s too windy, too cold and you have all the politicians coming through, and they never stop coming. They’re always coming through.”
I paused to think about that for a moment. “Do you ever come out to hear the speeches, just to see what they’re like?”
“No. Why, do you have someone you want to kill?”
When his phone rang, Kurt said to me, “It’s my brother-in-law,” then he answered, “What’s up, big weed? Hey, fuckie! What’s going on, man? I’m glad somebody is talking about me. Thanks for calling me and for saying all that. Yeah, you’re the only who’s wished me a happy birthday today. Hey, do you want to have sex later? Damn! I have the pill and the blanket, and a blow up doll too if we get tired of each other.”
After hanging up, Kurt explained, “My sister died in February. Me and my brother-in-law are real close. He’s in Los Angeles.”
“It’s your birthday today?”
“Yeah, I’m fifty.”
“I’m also fifty! Hey, what do you do, man? How do you make a living?”
“I own vending machines. Forty of them.”
“Sounds like a pretty good business.”
“It’s enough to pay the bills, that’s all. My machines are in four different counties, so I must drive all over. I leave the house at four each day, and am done by ten.”
“Which means you’re here by 10:15!”
“Yeah, that’s about right.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad. I wouldn’t mind it. Hey, can you, like, expand your business? Put in a condom machine at this bar?”
Kurt shouted to the bartender, “What do you think, Milt? Should I put a condom machine in this bar?”
Rearranging a half drained bottle, the 60-ish man drily pronounced, “You must have sex to use a condom, and none of us has sex.”
“None of these guys can even get it up anymore,” Kurt informed me unsmilingly. “Iowa is just a bunch of old white farmers.”
When Kurt went out the back door to smoke, I followed him outside and there, I met Monk. Lounging on a ratty armchair, he was chomping on some spare ribs. Since the sun had dipped, the light had softened, and on the gravel, a bar patron had parked his John Deere mower, which Kurt found highly amusing. There were no commercial signs, hence no distracting language, and there were no sounds save for our talking. Across the street, the houses appeared well-maintained and peaceful.
I noticed that Monk had on two pairs of shorts, a stars and stripes one on the inside, and over that, one with the “Iraqi Freedom” military camouflage. Though Kurt had insisted to me that the economy was fine, and there would be no recession unless the Republicans returned to power, Monk had a different take, “In 1992, I already made $13 an hour at Jimmy Dean, the sausage plant. I was there for 20 years, but Jimmy Dean moved to Tennessee because they wanted to pay people $8 an hour.”
“How old are you, Monk?”
“Holy! You look about my age, man, and I’m fifty!” And it’s true that the people I met in Osceola were remarkably youthful looking. Perhaps the sodium acetates, natamycin, pimamycin, nisin, nitrites, potassium nitrite, sodium nitrite, itrates, sodium nitrate, potassium nitrate, sorbates, sorbic acid, sodium sorbate, potassium sorbate, calcium sorbate, sulphites, sulphur dioxide, sodium sulphite, sodium bisulphite, sodium metabisulphite, potassium metabisulphite, potassium sulphite and potassium bisulphite that are commonly used in meat processing have had a holistically curative effects in curing their still chattering carcasses.
Jimmy Dean abandoned Osceola in 1992, after its owner, the country singer, had sold his company to Sara Lee. Dean is most famous for Big Bad John, a ballad about a mythic miner. “Like a giant oak tree,” Big Bad John held up a groaning, sagging piece of timber so his fellow headlamped moles could escape from a collapsing pit, but no Big Bad John showed up in 1992 when the sky fell on 380 Osceolia workers. This story has become all too familiar, all over, for such is the wondrous mobility of capital!
In 1995, however, Hormel bought the shuttered plant, expanded it and now employs 677 Osceolians. A single company can make or break such a village, and Hormel is now Osceola’s savior, but it’s not all corn syrup, honey, for the average hourly wage at Hormel’s Osceola plant is, guess what, roughly $13 an hour, about what Monk made 22 years ago, even as the cost of everything has gone way, way up, especially housing and gas. In 1992, I could easily get a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Philadelphia for $500, but now, you must be prepared to fork over nearly three times as much.
“So you’re retired now?” I asked Monk.
“Yeah, I get $1,500 a month in Social Security.”
“That’s not too bad!”
“No, it’s not, and I inherited my house, so I don’t have to worry about a mortgage. My heating bill, though, is very high. I’m thinking about using my fireplace more, but the problem with that is you just can’t burn wood and step outside or go to sleep, since it might burn your entire house down!”
An indication of Osceola’s relative economic health is the slow but steady increase in population over the last several decades. As for the newcomers, many of them are Mexicans. They make up roughly 20% of the population. Back in the bar, I talked to 73-year-old Bubby. He said, “Osceola is sometimes referred to as Mexiola!”
“But I saw no Mexicans on the streets. Where are they? Do they ever come in here?”
“So where do they drink?”
“I have no idea.”
From several stools away, someone shouted, “There was a Mexican bar, but it closed down.”
Of course, people can just get buzzed at home, as Bubby often does while watching his bird feeder, “There’s one who acts like he owns the damn thing! He’d chase all of the other birds away!”
“Yeah, he’d chase the other males away.”
“What about the females?”
“The ones he’d mate with, you know, he’d let eat, but even then, he’d chase her away if he thought she had enough.”
“What a bird!”
“The others, though, would work together to get their food. One would distract this dominant bird, get him to chase him, while his buddies would swoop in and eat. You look at them and wonder, how big can their brains be, and yet they’re really smart. They know how to coordinate their actions so they can eat.”
“Yes, it is, and it’s really relaxing to sit there and watch them. Of course, most of the time, I’m drinking a beer!”
It’s exhilarating to know that these birds don’t just wave cute signs while being penned in a free speech zone, and I seriously doubt if they vote every four years to have yet another shamelessly pompous, unctuous and speechifying bird crap on their heads while committing the most evil crimes in their name.
In my early twenties, I looked at the old men who sat nearly all day in the same bar every day with a mixture of amusement and pity, for it seemed so dull and defeated, but as I got older, I realized that these were the luckier ones, for at least they had enough money and health to hobble out of the house each morning, and after a lifetime of seeing, doing and having things done to you, it was enough to just be left in peace to stew, or to swap stories, jokes and innocuous observations. In Osceola, it was, “Yes, I saw Mary yesterday and I gave her a big, old hug,” which I found terribly moving, and I laughed uproariously at this, “The St. Louis Condoms might just go all the way. Condoms! Condoms! All the way!” Of course, having about two kegs in me didn’t hurt.
Now, it is with a kind of terror that I introduce you to the most spectacular dude I met in Osceola, Bill the ex-mailman, Air Force sergeant and playboy. Arriving in an old, white car with amber strobe light on top, Bill parked his trim form to my right, and though he turned 80 that day, the man looked 20 years younger, I swear, and his mind was revving (loudly) as he recounted to me highlights from his improbable life. Several times, I had to ask the other barflies, “Is Bill bullshitting me?” We began, though, very mildly.
“There used to be a bunch of bars around here, but now there are only four.”
“There were twelve, Bill,” someone chimed in.
“Why do you think that is?” I asked Bill.
“First of, you can’t smoke in a bar anymore, and then there’s the internet. These days, people just like to sit home and watch movies on Netflix. I live in Woodburn, ten minutes away, and out there, there’s not one bar left.”
Besides Netflix, an early 21st century American is also kept in quarantine by FaceBook, Twitter, Tumblr and, of course, online porn. Kurt’s daughter is hardly the only one with an imaginary friend. How many Tailses do you have? Outside, there may be war, riot, financial collapse, pestilence, record drought or fracking earthquake, but I can’t even lift my head since my consciousness has been sucked into a screen, and my earbuds are rockin’. I don’t even know what’s going on in my room, much less outside.
“So how many people are in Woodburn, Bill?”
“Two hundred and fifty. There’s a fellow who wants to reopen a bar that’s closed down, but I think that’s a stupid idea. It’s mostly just old people out there, and most of them don’t drink beer. The young people have moved away. There’s nothing out there. I have all the beer at home, and I have a couple of friends with lots of beer at home, and they have garages, so we just have parties and drink beer. This fellow can have Willie Nelson at his new bar twice a week, and no one will come out. Of course, I first went to the bars to, you know, pick up chicks, but I’m eighty now, so it ain’t so easy anymore.”
“You can still try!”
“Oh, I have had more than my share, believe me.”
“Happy birthday, Bill!” Bubby yelled out. “We’re in the same category, buddy, but I’m not sure I’m going to last that long.”
Standing by the front door, Kurt cheerfully added, “I’m definitely not going to make it to 80. My wife keeps asking me where I want to be buried.”
“Today is my birthday,” Bill continued, “Tomorrow is the day I got married to my first wife, and also when my second wife died, of cancer.”
“So is that a happy or sad day?”
“Neither. I first got married when I was 27. She and I got along fine, mostly. She had two brothers. One offered to give me a blow job, he died of AIDS, and the other shot at me as I was driving down the Interstate. He was a real piece of shit.”
“Did he have a reason to shoot you?”
“I was getting a divorce from his sister. He hanged himself before I could get even. The other guy was, you know, a queer. I turned him down.”
“That sounds just terrible!”
“I’ve had an interesting life.” Then, “Have you heard of Orson Welles?”
“Orson Welles was living in Paris, and he tried to hook up with the Queen of Montparnasse, but she didn’t care for him. Astrid was her name, as in asteroid. A gorgeous blonde, she’s a legend and friend of Francoise Sagan. I went with her for about three months. This is what she said about Welles, ‘Il est un gros couchon.’ She called him a big fat pig, but she liked me because I was good looking.”
“Yes, I was a stud! I’ve never had my eyes wide open. The girls here said I had bedroom eyes. They thought it was very romantic. Once, while I was on leave, I had three girlfriends named Lois.”
“So, ah, was Lois a very popular name around here?”
“No, they were in three different towns.”
“Maybe you were just attracted to women named Lois?”
“I don’t think so. It just happened. One Lois was to keep, one was to screw and one was to, I can’t even remember now. The first Lois was the prom queen and a good girl, so we just dated.”
“So who do you sleep with now?”
“My dog!” Bill laughed. “Ah, he’s a great toy terrier! If I stay in bed for 24 hours, he stays right there with me.” The evocation of this pooch cheered him up, and Bill smiled to himself for a moment. Then, “He’s a funny dog. When I sing Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, he sings along. Ooh, ooh! He enjoys it."
Collecting Social Security and a pension from the Postal Service, Bill’s budget is definitely not pinched, for he talked of owning two houses, although the second, he bought for only $18,400 two year ago, this being Woodburn, Iowa. Also, “I like to collect things. I have 30 guns, including three AK-47’s, but I haven’t fired any of them.”
“Just don’t feel like it. I was the best shot in the Air Force. I also own 70 guitars, and when I get drunk, I play all of them at once!”
Walking by, Kurt said, “Bill was a mailman for 50 years. No one dared to cross him.”
“If you pissed him off,” I laughed, “would he throw your mail away?”
“I don’t know. You ask him!”
“So how long were you in the service, Bill?” I asked.
“Four years. I was in Korea, then France. I really wanted to go to Rio de Janeiro or Bavaria.”
“That would have been fun! So did you fight in Korea?”
“No. By the time I got there, the war was over. Something happened, though, that bothers me to this day. Me and another GI were in this jeep when we saw a tree lying across the road. It was an ambush, you see, so we jumped out, and I must have shot the guy because he stopped. Or maybe I didn’t kill him, maybe I didn’t kill anybody. For eighteen years, I didn’t think about this, but then I started having nightmares.”
“You feel bad about killing the guy who tried to kill you?”
“Yes, I feel very bad. I was having these nightmares and couldn’t sleep, so I started to think about going back to that spot to say a prayer for this guy and apologize. It’s probably just a big parking lot.”
“And for 18 years, you never thought about this at all?”
“No. I must have had PTS, whatever the hell they call it, and there’s something else that came back. There was a nurse on the airbase, and he was cleaning his pistol, a 45, and I was right there. As I went out the door, I saw him, and he was cheerful because he was cleaning his gun, but after I closed the door, I heard a bang! I looked in and saw the blood. Thump, thump, thump, these three guys came running down the hallway, and I said, ‘Hey, I didn’t do it!’ The nurse had shot himself, by accident, and I feel terrible about that too.”
“But you had nothing to do with it!”
“It doesn’t matter. He was just this kid, and he had no need for a weapon anyhow. There was no reason for him to have a gun, much less cleaning it. He was on a base and well-protected.”
Bill’s dad died at nearly 99, so he feels like he has a few more miles to ride yet on his golf cart, which he does with noisy glee. “When I shout ‘Whoaaa, whoaaa,’ people think I’m saying, ‘Whore! Whore!’ Of course, in Korea, you could get one for about ten cents.” Nutty as ever, Bill spoke of some recent pseudo-sexual experiences which I won’t recount here, for I want to be welcome the next time I step inside the Westside Tavern. There’s no guarantee, though, that the old man will be there. “When I’m done, I want my ashes to be scattered at the exact spot where I was born.”
After leaving the bar, I passed a tiny boxing gym and saw a scrawny Mexican kid working the speed bag. On the wall were the flags of Mexico and the USA. Four blocks away, I then crossed paths with two Mexican teens playing guitar and accordion as they walked along.
“You guys going to a party?”
“No, we’re coming from one!”
Unlike too many city kids, these boys didn’t try to look tougher or older, which is excellent, really, for there’s plenty of time left to be older, if they’re lucky enough, that is, to be allowed to mature without being blasted from this earth, either domestically or at some far-flung “theater.” As for Osceola, its fortunes are contingent on the rest of the country’s increasingly strained ability to bring home the bacon.
Monday, October 6, 2014
As published at Information Clearing House, CounterCurrents and Intrepid Report, 10/7/14:
Riding the train from Chicago to New Orleans, I impulsively got off in Jackson, Mississippi. I had never thought about visiting Jackson, never even seen a photo of it, so I had no idea what I’d encounter. In the train’s lounge car, however, a boisterous game of dominoes, with much laughter and trash talking, already told me I was in the Deep South, and the towns glimpsed along the way, Tchula, Eden, Bentonia, spoke of a quietly dignified world that’s also besieged and crumbling.
Jackson is no town, however, but the state’s biggest city, and I couldn’t quite recall Johnny Cash’s smirking lyrics, “Well, go on down to Jackson, go ahead and wreck your health,” as I trudged around a sterile downtown of massive parking garages and stultifying office buildings, banks and hotels. Everything was grimly functional, at best, or else abandoned. There was no art or flirtation, no life. Perhaps this is a mistake, I thought, but quickly dismissed the lame conclusion, for wherever there are people, there’s beauty and instruction. Just keep walking! The disused Greyhound station had a meek sign announcing an architectural firm. Passing a forlorn men’s clothing store, I noticed a security guard imposingly perched on a stool right in the doorway. Maybe they should build him a pillbox.
Having not eaten in 16 hours or so, I was fantasizing deeply about any three-piece, dark meat special with a biscuit thrown in, but I spotted no eatery, take out or bar. Yes, there was a sushi palace, but it was closed on Saturday, not that I was inclined to drag in my rank carcass. Having showered just twice in a week, I was not fit for any chichi sushi bullshit, and there was no way I’d turn my slim wallet inside out for a lacquered plate of Fukushima-irradiated or Corexit-seasoned fish. For such a price, I better get a boatload.
Snooping around, I paused to admire the rusting and boarded-up remains of the Sun-n-Sand Motel. Open in 1960, it served liquor even before Mississippi finally repealed its alcohol ban in 1965. At the capitol, one block away, politicians would vote no to imbibing, then amble here to booze. With its googie sign and technicolored poolside lounge chairs, it was built for a groovy, spacey future that never arrived. The racial tension of the 60’s culminated in the police killing of two black Jackson State students in 1970. White flight then commenced, suburban malls were built, so now, the empty and wrecked buildings are scattered throughout downtown, only to multiply as you stray North, but this decay is all-too-common across much of Mississippi, for many of its cities and towns are like quainter versions of post-industrial Detroit. This is the poorest state, after all, and the fattest, too, for obese and broke go chubbily hand-in-hand in this upside down nation. Mississippi also just misses on being the least educated, so there goes the triple crown, Goddamn it! Under a lovely sun, though, things do rot more beautifully than with dirty snow.
On a billboard with 32 women and a man, “Tyronne Lewis / Sheriff,” who’s actually depicted twice, small then huge, there’s this message, “Mother’s Like You Shape Our Future.” Of course, that apostrophe is redundant, but millions of Americans, even those majoring in English, routinely make that mistake these days, so it’s no indictment of Mississippi. Across this sinking nation, we’re just too glaze-eyed to give a fryin’ okra! In any case, Sheriff Lewis has much more to worry about than bad English, for he’s being charged with losing control of the Jackon prison. According to a grand jury report, the guards are terrified of their charge, and “the inmates seemed to be in control of the jail.” Look closely, my friend, and you’ll see that all the wheels are loose or already bouncing off this much abused and neglected vehicle. On a wall a few blocks away, there was Richard Wright next to one of his haikus: “There is where I am / Summer sunset loneliness / Purple meeting red” The writer’s punctuation has been stripped away, but whatever, it’s only a poem. On another wall were lurid portraits of “Shawn Earl” and “Pretty Boy,” presumably victims of violence. In death, angel wings have sprouted from their painted persons. In black neighborhoods across this country, these memorials are ubiquitous, a funky form of folk art. Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset, and so the beat goes on. Bang! Bang! Bang!
In 2013, Jackson attracted some rare national attention when it elected Chokwe Lumumba as its mayor (with 87% of the votes). A steadfast Black Nationalist, Lumumba had been Vice President of the Republic of New Africa, a secessionist entity that would include Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina. Until this could be birthed, Lumumba wanted to solidify black political power in Mississippi, a state that already had the highest number of black elected officials nationwide. Though western Mississippi was overwhelmingly black, blacks only made up 40% of its population, so a way to remedy this, according to Lumumba, was to encourage massive black migration into the state. In practice, this would also mean a flood of whites fleeing it, for that’s how it has worked all across this country up until now, though on a smaller scale, as in a single street, neighborhood or city.
Clearly, Lumumba saw blacks not as Americans but yet another nation that had been terrorized and raped by America, so the only solution was to be liberated from it. In 1998, Lumumba spoke in Washington DC, “We’re here in the governmental center of the citadel of imperialism, here amongst these buildings which have been built off the blood of our people […] and as we come into the city, we see the outskirts where the people live in poverty, where the buildings are crumbling and the people’s lives are crumbling and we come and see these monstrous buildings fortified by our blood, fortified from the wealth that they have stolen not only from colonies all over the world but from the African colony, the Puerto Rican colony, and the Native American colonies that exist right here inside America […] As we look back historically at this empire, we see how it has stretched out its tentacles all over the world, it has dug them deep into the veins of suffering people…” After only eight months as Mayor of Jackson, Chokwe Lumumba died in February 25th, 2014, and since the cause of death, heart failure, wasn’t immediately given, it fueled rampant speculation that he may have been offed by Uncle Sam.
Now, cynics might dismiss Lumumba’s dream of a black homeland as a wish to create, say, another Liberia or Haiti, and they can also point to the tendency of successful blacks to move away from other blacks, a phenomenon that happens not just within national borders, but across them. A Republic of New Africa, then, will not only struggle to attract the best and brightest blacks, but may generate a steady stream of black refugees and immigrants of all levels.
Though what Lumumba advocated was voluntary segregation, it was the forced kind, ironically, that yielded the last era of black self-sufficiency and relative prosperity. When black expertise and money could not be leeched from the community, there were black-owned businesses of absolutely every kind, not just those selling incense sticks, body oils and wigs. Just as the “free market” is destroying the American working class, it eviscerated the black community. Unfettered capitalism kills from the bottom up, but so does every competitive, cut throat arrangement. If you’re outsprinted by a blink, you’re human garbage.
Lumumba’s plan for black empowerment wasn’t merely demographic, however, but included structural components such as more citizen involvement in bank, business and land stewardship. He also aimed to turn around a gravely sick culture, and in this, at least, he’s not far from a conservative. In an interview with Final Call, Lumumba explained, “Rather than going to church, and yelling and screaming about it, complaining about it, rather than bad-mouthing the youth, my plan is to engage the youth […] In the course of talking about what to do, you can always talk about some things that you shouldn’t do. We’re going to have summer youth programs here, and in those summer youth programs they’re going to have a chance to do some manual labor, help pick up paper on the streets, but another three hours of their day is going to be spent learning skills […] This is going to do a great deal to help change the culture.”
What’s most interesting to me about Lumumba’s aspiration, however, is that it’s mirrored by whites who long for white havens, although this wish might not be openly admitted to, especially if the wisher is a “liberal.” Mouthing racial (as well as class) platitudes, this self-absorbed master of self love recoils from all who differ from him to the slightest degree, although he’ll put on a jazz record, of course, and scarf Ethiopian once a year. To stroke his twitchy conscience, he’ll elect an Uncle Tom, twice even, and pretend that it ain’t so. Though the working poor of any color have daily, direct experience of the multiculturalism espoused by the liberal affluent, their opinions on its pros, cons and limits are peremptorily dismissed from “enlightened” conversations. In any case, when nations crumble, they often crack along racial or ethnic lines, and there’s no reason why it won’t happen here, but since racial hatred is as barbaric as they come, I don’t wish to live long enough to witness this catastrophe. From 1882 to 1968, white mobs lynched 539 blacks in Mississippi alone, the most in the entire nation, but now, there are white groups who keep tabs of the staggering number of black-on-white murders, maimings, rapes and recreational assaults. Seeing their share of the population decreasing relentlessly, they speak of a white genocide. As for the elites, though they don’t welcome social unrest, since it’s bad for business, they will benefit from increasing racial animosity since it distracts from the serial crimes they’re inflicting on us all.
Beat, I hiked past boarded-up or burnt-out houses that were overgrown with weeds or vines, or impaled by gnarly trees. These were interspersed by well-kept homes, however, and when I saw a man striding out of one, I asked him to point me to the nearest beer trough. Lugging my backpack around, I had sweated away all my fluids. “I can’t think of any that’s open right now, but I’ll sell you a Coors Lite for a buck, and it’s cold too!” Sounded fair to me, so I handed him a dollar.
So far, everyone I had seen was black, but presently, I came across a white-haired white man jabbing a long steel rod repeatedly into the ground of an empty, dirt plot. At 80%, Jackson has the second highest percentage of blacks of all American cities over 100,000 people. With 84%, Detroit is top.
“What are you looking for?” I shouted.
Lifting his bulbous-nosed, razor nicked visage, the gent in pale gray T-shirt and dirty khaki pants slowly spoke. To let his thoughts coalesce, he’d often take a breather in mid phrase. “Old bottles, usually. I’ve found clay marbles, and sometimes even coins from the Civil War.”
“Wow, they must be worth a lot!”
“Not really. I do it for fun, not for profit.”
When I told him I was from Philadelphia, and had just gotten off the train, he counseled, “You should be careful walking around this neighborhood. There are lots of crimes around here, and drug dealing. Farish Street is kind of a bad deal, because they let it go so bad. I think you should head back downtown.”
“But you’re here!”
“Well, I’m a cop,” he smiled and wiped his brows.
Before leaving the unarmed officer, I did extract from him directions to a nearby tavern, though with this warning, “It can get a little rough in there.” Satisfied with the information, I went on my way. Farish Street turned out to be worse than advertised, with formerly handsome buildings now roofless and empty, their window and door frames left hollow or covered by warped or kicked-in plywood. Colorful, crude murals covered some of the sheets. The brick sidewalks, trimmed trees and stylish lamp posts appeared to be recent, half-assed efforts at restoration, for they contrasted ludicrously with the unchecked vegetation gaining on the ruins. During segregation, Farish Street was actually one of the liveliest black business districts in the entire country, an equivalence of Memphis’ Beale Street, but staring at it now, a visitor might hallucinate that this mess is somehow related to General Sherman’s brief courtesy call to Jackson in 1863.
My hoppy oasis turned out to be a small, red building with no name, just a Pabst Blue Ribbon sign dangling. Across from it, concrete foundations were all that remained of three houses. Though downtown was within sight, it looked like the sticks in the other direction, with more unkempt trees and grass than pot holed and cracked asphalt. Outside the bar door, several people mulled around a charcoal grill redolent of smoked meat, yumm, yumm, and they all saw me march down the middle of the empty street. “This must be the place!” I shouted and grinned quite inanely before entering an empty bar. Inside, the walls were also painted red, with here and there, a mini skirted or bikinied beer babe on a torn edged poster. I spotted two small American flags, but no homage to Obama. A disco ball anchored the ceiling. Mirrors multiplied the room’s dimensions, made it feel a tad bigger. Soon, the owner followed me in. In his mid 60’s, the mild man sported a white and magenta floral shirt and panama hat. Rewarding myself a bit, I shunned Pabst and Bud and ordered a Heineken, this joint’s high end offering. In many places around the world, an obvious stranger can expect to be fleeced, but here I was treated not just equally, which is all a man can ask for, but even quite generously, as I would find out.
Settled, I said to the owner, “Sir, I’d like to order a plate of whatever you’re cooking outside.”
“It’s not ready,” he answered, “and it’s not for sale. You can go out and ask them, though.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, exactly, but I ordered a bag of potato chips just to have something in my maw. “I walked a few miles,” I continued, “but didn’t see any bar. I just got off the train.”
“We’re the only one around here.”
“So where’s everybody, if you’re the only one that’s open?”
“A lot of them went to the football game.”
“Jackson State is playing at home?”
“No, in Arkansas.”
“People drove all the way to Arkansas?!”
That’s a seven-hour round trip, but such is the devotion to the local team in many parts of America. In countless small towns, the streets are deserted if there’s a high school football game many miles away. If only such unity and singularity of purpose could be deployed for anything other than cheering for touchdowns, we wouldn’t be in such deep shit. Instead of columns of guerrillas, we have caravans of fans.
Every now and then, an old guy would mosey in, and he’d be dressed rather nattily in slacks, button shirt and a hat. According to several signs, even muscle shirts and backward caps were banned here, much less sagging pants. Starting a card game, the owner and a patron played mostly in silence, unperturbed by thumping music or television chattering, jingles and come-ons. Not just an old man’s bar, this was an old fashioned establishment, and all over its walls, aging itself was mockingly celebrated: “You’re living in the Metallic Age: Gold Teeth, Silver Hair and a Lead Bottom,” “LIFE is not passing you by, it’s trying to run you over!” “Your motor is still running, But your warranty has expired!” “IF YOU WERE A CAR, YOU’D BE AN ANTIQUE!” “TOO OLD TO ROCK ‘N ROLL, TOO YOUNG TO RANT ‘N RAVE,” “You’re stuck between the ‘Young and the Restless,’ and the Old and the Senseless!” “OLDER THAN DIRT!”
Like old men everywhere, these guys couldn’t avoid discussing their health and, by extension, diet. From where I sat, I could only catch an odd fragment here and there, something about eating only one meal a day, how catfish is preferable to shrimps, and how skinless hot dogs are best. After a lifetime of toil and near misses, a man is lucky to have all four limbs, a functioning brain and be outside earshot of Lil’ Wayne and such as he attempts to postpone his induction into the Greenwood Cemetery, not a long field goal away.
Older than bad luck, the men in the no-name bar remember only too well the day Medgar Evers was shot in Jackson, and how his fertilizer salesman killer wasn’t convicted until three decades later. They shudder at the memory of the bloody Woolworth sit-in downtown. Though they lived through Freedom Summer, and have helped to elect one black politician after another, they have come to realize the limitations, bordering on impotence, of the vote, for in Jackson, as in communities across America, incomes continue to dip, jobs disappear and young people are sent off to incomprehensible wars, while at home, robbing and killing have become a career choice for too many citizens.
Fed up with violent crimes, Jackson even elected one Frank Melton. In office from 2005 to 2009, this loose canon liked to illegally pack guns, illegally carry a police badge and illegally lead drug raids and sweeps with a personal band of body guards and teens, many of whom had criminal records. Innocently dubbed “The Lawn Crew,” Melton’s posse once destroyed a purported drug den with sledge hammers, all without even a search warrant. Swinging with such glee, Melton slashed his hands with broken glass and had to be patched up at a hospital. Viewed as a folk hero by many Jacksonians, Melton never saw the inside of a jail cell, while others were nauseated enough by the mayor’s antics to prevent his reelection.
Since another bag of potato chips wouldn’t do it, I wandered outside to find a woman tending the barbecue. Again, I pleaded, “When you’re done, ma’am, I’d like to buy a plate of whatever it is you’re making.”
“It’s not for sale,” she stared at me, “but I’ll give you some!”
I had never been given a free plate of food in a bar, but that’s exactly what happened about 15 minutes later as the lady placed a styrofoam container of sausage, pound cake and deviled egg in front of me, and this will remain one of my most memorable meals, I swear, since it was served up with such sweetness. This became the theme of the day, for on the way to catch my New Orleans bus, I was also given an excellent piece of fried chicken by a homeless man with tattoos all over his face.
“You eat it, brother. These church people just gave it to me. It’s still hot, too! I’ve had enough, and was just going to throw the rest away.”
I wish I had more to report about Jackson, but my time there was short, though considering what’s lurking beyond the horizon these days, having little time anywhere might not be a curse. Still, there are plenty who can’t wait for the fireworks to begin, for they think their daddy of daddies will emerge from the red, white and blue smoke. Just before I stepped on the bus, a balding white man with fresh scabs on his face, arms and legs begged money for his “seizure medicine.” I gave him that, plus an extra buck. Jackson State ended up beating Arkansas-Pine Bluff 33-30, by the way, so life was good in Jackson, sort of, until the next tribal clash.
Sunday, October 5, 2014
September 28, 2014 by Coe Review:
“Let’s keep this as informal as possible.”
An exuberant performer reads to a quiet lecture hall at Coe College. He shuffles constantly, pauses to emphasize his statements, lifting an expressive face for eye contact. This turns a four-line poem into an engaging spectacle. He brings the expansive world view of a restless explorer and observer to the modest room in a very interpersonal manner.
Linh Dinh, a Vietnamese writer and artist, brought for us select pieces from his collection and a slice of his curiosity.
When he began, he explained how he travels to heal from the omnipresent plague of screens and acquire more knowledge of the precious faces so often ignored. He claims you cannot know about the everyday person when your eyes are drawn somewhere “more glamorous” by the media. Thus, he depicted the importance of knowing oneself, body and mind, learning through personal experience. This philosophy touches all of his work.
He starts with shorter poems resulting from the “quick publishing” ideas online, to write fast and post even faster. Analysis of the body, metaphorically and in accurate description, holds its part in the majority of his selected poems (and quite a few edible metaphors, such as a woman comparing her body simultaneously to an egg, squid, and ice cream). The topics presented involve everything from untouched spots upon the body and their philosophical consideration, to a piece built by precise literal imagery. Humor meshed with provocative statements, such as an unpublished poem “United States of Underwear” which declares the problem of media dependency for our society to gather opinions and news. He also shared a short story which told of a man in jail becoming obsessed with a dictionary in a language he couldn’t read. It tells of two things that intrigue Dinh: language, and the human experience.
Dinh’s world view emerges more during the second Q and A portion of the reading. It was a display of optimism for individuals, an appreciation for how they have come to where they are now. As he states, everyone has a story, and it’s amazing that everyone has mustered the energy simply to go through each day to end up wherever they are. He wants to know that journey, just as he has walked and commuted so far to hear them. His experiences could convince an audience to purge themselves of their fear of the unfamiliar and welcome in the world. This seems to be of his goals. He titles himself a writer of the underprivileged, and he succeeds in speaking like he has acquired a fulfilling lifetime of tales.
“Everyone is creative…no one is boring.”
-Jenna Kelly, Poetry Editor
Monday, September 15, 2014
4:30PM, Wednesday, September 24th
Kesler Lecture Hall of Hickok Hall
1220 First Avenue NE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
THE ART OF TRANSLATION: LINH DINH IN GRINNELL
(A reading of my poetry translations from the Vietnamese, plus some of my works that focus on language.)
8PM, Thursday, September 25th
Bucksbaum 131 - Faulconer Gallery
1210 Park Street
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
As published at CounterCurrents, Intrepid Report, Information Clearing House, Diacritics and Daily Dissident, 8/14/14:
Before we start, I must admit that I didn’t set foot in Wisconsin this time, but only saw it from the train as I crossed it going West, then East. (I had been to Madison and Milwaukee before.) This, then, is really a train Postcard, but the long distance train is a community in itself. In fact, Americans seldom have such thorough conversations as when they’re trapped on a long distance train. If only more of us could be confined that way, we would relate to each other a whole lot better, but such a wish also conjures up citizens being packed into boxcars as they’re sent to hard labor, or much worse. How many Americans will cross this country without seeing any of it?
Ah, the ecology of the long distance train! If Lewis and Clark were alive, they would freak out over the outlandish fauna to be discovered on the Empire Builder! Where else will you find a woman trying to eat some very badly-made, meatless fried rice, only to give half of it to a stranger, “The plastic spoon is clean. I wiped it off real good with a paper napkin.” Since she couldn’t afford the $7.25 for chicken and rice at the Spokane station, she had asked for just rice, but then it tasted “like popcorn,” she discovered with a grimace. The other lady couldn’t afford anything at all, however. Hence, the leftover with a used spoon.
Or take a young man from Missoula who was trying to hit on a woman by giving her a cup of instant noodles, “Yes, you can have it! I just ate one myself. It’s pretty good! Really, you can have it.” Tall and lanky, he wore a gray baseball cap backward, a Marines jacket and charcoal colored, thrift store trousers. Like his face, everything he had on was worn and faded. After spending $4.50 on those two cups of MSG-flavored ramen, he was left with just $13.
Sitting in the lounge car, the woman of his fancy was with three friends, two of them male, and though they didn’t seem all that interested in his plight, the Missoula man kept sharing, “By the time I get to Fargo, hopefully it’ll be night, so I can sleep at the station. After that, I’ll find a shelter and stay there a week, maybe a month. It won’t be my first time in a shelter. A buddy was supposed to put me up, but after talking me into coming, he stopped answering the phone and even changed his friggin’ number, but I figure sooner or later I’ll run across him in Fargo. I’ll bitch slap him! I had a place in Missoula, but I gave that up, so he definitely has an asskicking coming for leaving me on the friggin’ street. I’ve spent all my money on this train ride, and I won’t go back to Missoula, because there’s nothing for me in Missoula. In Fargo, I’ll take any job I can get, dishwashing, janitorial… I can’t lift anything heavy because I had a car accident. In 2006, I had a seizure behind the wheel and cracked my skull, broke my back and a bunch of other bones.
“I have this bad habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, I guess. Funniest thing is, I got married in Lake Tahoe, California, then woke up the next morning on an Indian rez outside Minden, Nevada. How the hell did that happened?! My wife, this Indian woman, must have poisoned me. Twice, I’ve been on dialysis. I was down to 99 lbs., and I used to weight 200. I was 22, she was 46, and she died at 53. Suddenly, I was living on this Indian reservation. Yeah, I quit drinking when I woke up and married to that!
“You’re lucky to have someplace to go after getting off this train. I thought I had a place! I’m all right, though, I have 13 bucks. I’m not worried. That’s enough for a pack of smoke and a meal, then I’ll check myself into a shelter.”
Though train passengers are more affluent than bus riders, for sure, you’d be surprise by how many poor people you’ll find on Amtrak, for some towns have no air or bus services, while on some other routes, the fare differences between bus and rail are minor enough that one might as well take the much more comfortable and civil train.
On the train, the top 20% or so go to the dining car for every meal, while the rest of us settle for the café lounge. Some skip eating and drinking altogether for their entire journey. Between Chicago and New York, I sat next to a friendly yet glum man who ingested nothing, not even a drop of water, for 21 hours, and near Clifton Forge, West Virginia, I overheard this dude boast that he had been starving for two days. He couldn’t bring himself to cough up $6.25 for a damn cheeseburger, he said, so he was boycotting it out of principle. Who can blame him? Give me the Dollar Menu or give me death!
Going to your seat on a plane, you pass through the first class compartment, and there you can see, very starkly, the larger, couch-like seats with no shared armrests, more ample leg room and much better dressed people who have gotten on before you. They will also be the first ones to jump off. On a train, however, the dining car is like a mythical realm to the bad broth slurpers, with what’s happening there only wafting downstream as improbable rumors crackling over the intercom: “Today’s seafood catch of the day is a mahi-mahi filet, served with two sides, at $23.75. The Amtrak signature steak is $25.75…” Yes, yes, I hear you, there are always rich and poor in any society that comes after hunting and gathering, but do mind that gap, eh!
Since they know what it’s like to be ordered around, waitresses and bartenders tend to be the best tippers. Conversely, those who have only been waited on can be extremely demanding, if not rude, to the waitstaff. With their multiple requests, they will send a waitress scurrying back and forth to the kitchen, and they’ll nonchalantly ask that a menu item be tailored made. So fixated on getting their ways, some won’t relent even when they’re on a train. A woman from Sharon, Massachusetts complained to me about her dining car experience, “They only had one vegetarian dish, pasta with vegetables, so I ordered that, but I didn’t want the pasta, only the vegetables, but when I asked the waitress to withhold the pasta, she gave me all this attitude! She said they were already made, and I could pick out the vegetables myself, but I didn’t want to look at the pasta and be tempted to eat it! I’ve lost a lot of weight, you see, and I didn’t want that pasta in front of me. Everything I said drove this psycho waitress nuts! When I asked for skim milk instead of whole milk for my coffee, she just glared at me, and after I had told her I didn’t want a bun with my salad, she brought it out anyway! In fact, she brought out two! She was trying to get at me, you see.”
When our train stopped in Milwaukee, I thought of Woodland Patterns, the best poetry bookstore in the entire country, and of Grace, who showed up there when I gave a reading in 2005. I had not held her since 1985. Giving me a tight hug, Grace said, “You haven’t changed,” then she stole one of the books I had brought for sale, I think. I can’t blame her. Like so many of us, Grace had wanted to be an artist. Erasing Grace and Milwaukee, the train chugged and whistled its way to Portage, and that’s where Kelly and his daughter got on.
With his body always tilting to the right, Kelly doesn’t walk, he staggers, and that’s how he entered the lounge car. Sitting across from me, Kelly had to strain to speak, and sometimes his eyes would shut, his head would droop forward and he’d nod off for ten seconds or more, “I was a sheet metal worker. My brother and I had a business. I didn’t have insurance for myself since I hardly ever climbed up that ladder. I was trying to save some money, you know…”
“Kelly!” I had to grab his arm to wake the man up.
“It’s my pain medicine. It puts me to sleep.”
“You were saying you didn’t have insurance?”
“Oh, yes, so I fell thirty feet! I’ve had operations on my right knee, upper right arm and back. I’m always in pain. On top of that, my wife is bipolar. I’m messed up in the body, she’s messed up in the head!”
“So where are you going on this train?”
“I’m taking my daughter on a trip. She’s 16. I want to clear her head…”
“Kelly! You want to clear her head.”
“Oh yes, I want to remove her from the bad influences. It’s impossible to raise a kid these days, because whatever you’re teaching them, it’s contradicted by the television and internet, so who do you think they’re going to listen to? My daughter was fine until she discovered boys a couple of years ago.”
“So where are you going?”
“We’re going to Portland, hang out for a couple of days, then rent a car and drive down to San Francisco.”
Though I could clearly see Kelly dozing off on Interstate 5, I only said, “Your daughter will love San Francisco! She hasn’t been there, right?”
“She hasn’t been anywhere. My daughter has only visited Chicago and Milwaukee. I thought she would enjoy this trip more, but she’s been pretty blasé so far. She’s at her seat, texting. I thought I was sitting next to a ghost, and that’s why I came up to this lounge car.”
“Maybe she’ll get into it more after a day or two.”
“I can only hope. My daughter needs to see how large this world is. We live in a tiny town where everybody’s in everybody’s business. People know exactly how much money you have, and so the rich kids hang out with the rich kids. If you’re poor and you hang out with the rich kids, people would think you’re just sucking up to them.”
Hit the road and you’re likely to learn a whole lot, but this can’t happen if you keep your eyes welded to that tablet. From Clifton to La Crosse, the train passed several sand mines, and we also saw idle boxcars loaded with sand. The fracking boom in nearby North Dakota and elsewhere has ramped up considerably sand mining in Wisconsin. Along with jobs and revenues, this mining has also generated silica dust that causes lung cancer and silicosis, and the miles long trains that rumble through cities and towns day and night disrupt traffic and sleep. Mining’s economic benefits must also be revised downward, since automation has trimmed the workforce, and mining’s boom and bust nature attracts transient, out of state workers who take much of their earnings elsewhere. Finally, since mining is always a tremendous act of violence against the landscape, thousands of acres of verdant Wisconsin are being turned into waste land just so this American joyride can zoom along for a tad longer. Like North Dakota, Wisconsin is also a casualty of fracking, but don’t tell this to Governor Scott Walker, for he’s so gung-ho about sand mining, he’s publicly thanked “God and the glaciers.”
Just to stay chubby, we’re eating the country itself, not to mention a good chunk of this earth, but this self-devouring orgy is clearly winding down, and as our world is tapped out, man will slide down the oily pole of modernity. With bombs and drones, then sticks and stones, everyone will fight everyone else for the remaining scraps.
On the train, I met a man from Racine who gave me a preview of what’s coming. A Vietnam vet, George discussed what he had learnt about basic survival, but he only arrived at it via a preamble about a TV documentary, “If a story is passed from generation to generation, sometimes people put yeast in it, inflate it, sometimes it becomes astronomical, but PBS did such an excellent, extraordinary documentation, and that’s why I love PBS. I think every American should give them something, because they’d go from nature to biology, oceanography, photography… You name it and PBS covers it.”
Before I engaged George, he had been sitting there for maybe an hour, just staring out the window. A thin, black man, he wore a sparse moustache and had on a “WISCONSIN” baseball cap. George started out speaking very softly, but gradually became more animated, “This show was about a Japanese who was living in a cave, and everybody thought, Oh man, this can’t be, but the Vietnamese did it! This one gentleman. Cookie… I can’t pronounce his name. Kekanazi? Cookienazi? It’s so tremendous, his great desire to survive, I could feel it!
“So this man ate raw fish, he ate snails, anything that an American or average person would turn their stomach to or hold their nose and say, ‘I can’t eat that,’ but I’ve learnt in Vietnam, Don’t say what you can’t or won’t eat, because if you get hungry enough, and if you’re cut off from your supply, and your only means of survival is what God has put here on this earth, and you learn from the tribesmen and villagers of Southeast Asia or wherever… Man, you’ll find some of the best eating in the world!
“I’ve eaten squirrel and water buffalo. I’ve eaten orangutan. We didn’t have to find them, they found us. We’d go into a sector that was really theirs, and they’d be hanging out in the trees and looking at us. They weren’t scared. The baby orangutans would be inquisitive, curious, like children, and as we set up our base camp, they’d wait until we had our backs turned to snatch something and run off! They’d steal our food and weapons. They might take an M-16, and as large as their fingers are, if you have the safety off, their finger would get caught in the M-16, and it would go off while they’re up in the trees!
“We were invading their territory, so they had to be wondering, What are these strangers doing in my home? I’m not the invader, you are! You’re destroying my lifestyle, my habitat, my food supply, and I just want to know what’s going on down there? You have to look at it from an animalistic point of view.”
To endure Vietnam, George had to adapt to its environment, and to survive in the jungle, he became a neo-primitive, but his quest for assimilation was so fierce, he even learnt to speak Vietnamese and Loatian, “People think the only dimension that exists is what we can see, but I’ve learnt from the Asians, from the Laotians, that’s not true. I speak Vietnamese and Laotian. Something comes natural. Vietnamese is part Chinese, French and Japanese combined. You may be Oriental, but if you go to Spain, you might recognize a word here and there, and you’d be like, How do I know that word? So I listened to the Vietnamese talk, and soon enough, I could also say la le, di di ma, di di ma wa, you know what I’m saying?”
Actually, I had no idea what he had said, but not wanting to interrupt this man’s train of thought, I betrayed neither mirth nor bafflement.
George, “If people keep telling you that you’re going to die, that we’re going to kill you, and if you give up your weapon, we’ll treat you nice. If they repeat that over and over, you’ll pick up the language too.
“I went to Cambodia and Laos. Being there, what I found as the greatest experience, more than the war itself, is talking to the people, and instead of spending my time going to the village to get, you know, I decided I want to get an education, and who’s better to tell you about a situation than the average American, the average Laotian? They told me stories that were absolutely unbelievable.”
Finding an eager listener, George expounded at length on numerous topics, including sagging pants, “Every time I see them I always get into an argument or a fight, even at my age, because I can’t stand these ignoramuses. I’d say to them, ‘Remember you’re a man, and a black man, so pull your goddamn pants up! That’s right, I’m talking to you! We didn’t struggle all those years, didn’t go to demonstrations and marches so you can humiliate all of us like that!’ They’re acting like fools and animals, man, like penguins, because that’s not walking. They’re wobbling! If you’re black and you say anything bad about the black community, they’ll call you an Uncle Tom, but you have to get through to these knuckleheads. Take the knock out game. There ain’t nothing funny about that! Hitting old people from behind… You know that 62-year-old man they hit in Philadelphia? They’re lucky it was him and not me, because I’d have chased them down and pumped lead into their heads, then I’d call the police!”
George on the sad shape of the American Indian, “They’re on everything but a horse.” He spoke of a Cherokee co-worker, “She escaped the rez at 15, ran off with a biker, a nut, and they’re still aren’t married 16 or 17 years later. ‘We’re still getting acquainted,’ she said. Acquainted! She can’t be older than 31 or 32, but she goes to the doctor more often than I do, She’s having another back surgery this summer. I said to her, ‘You have more pain, you go to more appointments than I do, and I’m 62. I’ve been hit with shrapnel, had a concussion, had my legs messed up from jumping out of airplanes, had my rib broken, but you’re in worse shape than me, and what have you done but ride around in a truck with your boyfriend? It just hurts me to see another suffering American, like you, not knowing what you’re entitled to, so you should reconnect with your tribe to get your share of whatever compensation the tribe is getting from the US government.’ She didn’t appreciate me telling her all this, and even got mad at me, so she said, ‘Mr. Shepherd, I’ve got work to do.’ I explained to her, ‘Not once have I made a pass at you. Not once have I physically or verbally assaulted you, so why are you angry at me?’ And she is a beautiful woman, but as good as she looks now, she must have been a superstar as a teenager!”
George knows something about getting his just compensation, for he had to fight the Department of Veterans Affairs for 10 years to be classified as a victim of Agent Orange. Before this, he was only getting “kibbles and bits” in disability payments. America’s neglect of her veterans is a disgrace, he said, “Why do we continue to spend money on murder and mayhem while our veterans sleep on the streets?” In spite of all this, George’s patriotism is unalloyed, “This is the greatest country on earth, and there’s nothing more beautiful than the sight of that flag flying. Each time I look at it, I just want to choke up. I knew in my heart I was born to be a soldier. I knew in my soul, I was born to be a warrior. I also knew that God did not put me here to be dormant or a fool. When I was a kid, I didn’t like cowboys and indians, I played with a Sherman tank. ”
George signed up for an extra year of fighting in Vietnam, “I did it to save my brother, because I knew he wouldn’t be able to take it. There’s a law that said only one son from each family could be in Vietnam at a time. I had another reason, but it’s something civilians will never understand. It’s a burning desire called esprit de corps in the military, and in civilian life, it’s called compassion. It’s a love for those who have made the greatest of sacrifices so you, yourself, can go home.
So you’re home and you’re walking around and you see the corner store, and you think of a restaurant you’d like to eat at, and everything is so nice, the trees, the vegetation, and you’re thankful that God has granted you another day on this earth, and somebody you know waves at you, ‘How you doing?’ and you go, ‘Hey man, what’s up!’ and everything should be just fine, but it isn’t, really, a pretty sight, because no one knows what you’ve gone through, and no one cares. How many beers can you have before you feel like killing yourself?”
George spoke of a Marine who served five tours, “On this fifth tour, he didn’t come back. I went to his funeral, and it was a closed coffin ceremony. You see, people think there must always be a body inside that coffin, but sometimes a coffin is just for show. Lots of time, there’s nothing to send back but some bone fragments, half a boot, bit of clothing, a bible or dog tag, so whatever you have, you put inside that coffin. If you have nothing, then it’s just an empty coffin that goes into the ground.
“The captain was married to an Eskimo, and each time we came over, she always treated us like she had known us forever. He had such a beautiful, happy, peaceful family, and his kids had so much manners and were so humble. I’m their adopted godfather. I’d kill a brick for one of them kids.”
George spoke lovingly of his late wife, whom he was married to for 33 years, and of a grandson who was shot for trying to help a stranger, “He saw this man step on a woman’s face, and he just had to do something, because that’s the kind of man he was. That’s how he was raised.”
George’s son graduated from Clemson, and he himself went to three colleges and a vocational school. He’s also been jailed four times, however, “I didn’t hurt anybody. One of my convictions was for writing bad checks.” With his emphasis on family, education, discipline and personal improvement, George is typical of many working class Americans, especially of his generation, but his enthusiasm for the military is also all-too-common. Firmly believing in the dignity and honor of serving his country, he ignores its contradictions and abuses, many of which he has seen firsthand. After shooting the shit with and shooting Southeast Asian villagers, tribesmen and orangutans, George came home as a good American soldier, and the same Communists he risked his life fighting are about to buy weapons from American manufacturers, and why not, since America is an equal opportunity death merchant that has armed just about every country, militia or drug gang. Just call this toll-free number!
Though America’s ideology will gyrate, twerk or U-turn from moment to moment, her allegiance to war profiteering is unshakable, and as she destroys humanity, she speaks of civilization so constantly that the word itself has become suspect. “Democracy” and “freedom” she has long crapped on beyond recognition. From Portland to Williston, I sat behind a young man who spent all of his waking hours being mesmerized by a computer game. Candy, a gregarious woman with Sioux blood, asked him, “What are you playing?”
Without looking up, he growled, “Civilization Builder.”
“So what’s the point? Are you building up civilization from scratch?”
“Are you defending what you already have?”
“Oh, I get it, you want to get a lot more!”
Now, before you laugh at this young man’s naked and childish admission to wanting more, remember that greed and lust for power are fairly universal traits that spread across the political spectrum, though only on the conservative end are they openly admitted to and even touted as virtues. The war instinct is also found in all surviving cultures, with tiny pockets of pacifism remaining thanks to the mercy or tolerance of their larger societies. Again, it is mostly those who self-indentify as conservatives or traditionalists who openly embrace war as not only necessary for the survival of society, but as a crucible for the development of each individual’s character. To them, a rejection of war is not just cowardly and unrealistic, but a refusal to, literally, become a man.
Exploiting these convictions, American war profiteers have few problems selling any war to the American public, and that’s why you see the generic “Support our Troops” stickers and signs everywhere, but what these unquestioning war supporters don’t realize is that, in this endless war that’s being waged by their masters, they’re also collateral damage and enemy. Fighting against themselves, they’ll wave the flag until they’re bombed back to the stone age, and perhaps by friendly fire even.
Hola, It's Io
- An essay by Susan M. Schultz
- Interviewed by Matthew Sharpe
- Interviewed by Phạm Thị Hoài (in Vietnamese)
- Audio file of an interview by Leonard Schwartz
- Audio files on Pennsound
- YouTube videos
- Posts at the Harriet Blog
- Free Love Pix
- Two poems at Green Integer
- Two poems on Mipoesia
- Two prose poems in Jacket
- Poems translated into Arabic by Tahseen al Khateeb
- A short story in Jacket
- Eight Vietnamese poets translated into English
- Seven Contemporary Italian Poets
- A translation of Roberto Castillo Udiarte's "Vita Canis"
Bouncer, Janus, Bellhop
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