Soothed, fortified and frankly vindicated by the cheerful effluvium that the recession is indeed over, I set out for a walk on this Saturday morning. No doomsayer, I’ll refute, if not taser outright, all unpatriotic spoilsports who would point to crumbling factories, empty malls and capsized mortgages as evidences that we’re eternally shafted. Our elevators are still yoyoing, thank you, except for those in aforesaid factories. Speaking of shafts, is that a foot sticking out of the frozen puddle?
At the corner of 9th and Washington, there’s a quaint sign, “AVOID FORECLOSURE—215 543-4941.” At the corner of 7th and Washington, “WE BUY HOUSES FOR CASH—NO BANK NEEDED.” Strutting towards Philadelphia’s brand new casino, Sugar House, I pass a billboard promising me, personally, 23 million bucks if only I had the juju and stamina to outfox the Pennsylvania Lottery Board, Jesus and Satan. Luck favors the righteous, and that’s us, all right. Soon, every bum diddling settlement from sea to shining sea will have its own casinos. Do bet on it. There will be more certified dealers than playas.
Speaking of bums, there are more idlers than ever. What’s up with that? According to these gaseous experts, the recession has been over since last June, yet dazed loafers keep sprawling all over town, all over the country, actually. Just look around you. The newly homeless are easily identifiable by all the stuff they’re trying to hang on to. They pull wheeled luggage, push carts with way too much on them. They’re relatively clean, for now. Soon, they’ll let go of everything. On the median of Delaware Avenue, a man walks back and forth with the classic sign, “HOMELESS AND HUNGRY. PLEASE HELP. GOD BLESS YOU.” Poverty isn’t very original, is it? But I’ve also seen “FREE ADVICE. DONATIONS ACCEPTED,” “HELP SUPPORT MY MARIJUANA HABIT” and “NEED MONEY TO GET DRUNK SO 2 WOMEN CAN TAKE ME HOME AND MOLEST ME.” It’s not cool that jokers are mixing with genuine beggars, but we don’t have beggars anyway. That’s so Third World. We
only have panhandlers.
A couple months ago, a visibly messed up old man in Detroit said to me, “I need $9.50 for my prescription, Mister. I beg you,” but he wasn’t a beggar. That’s so Third World. Actually, he wasn’t even a panhandler. I started the conversation. On freeway ramps into downtown, people stood with signs, begging, like they do all over America. Just look around you. In Richmond, I talked to a Vincent who grew up in Syracuse, then studied at Penn State. Divorced, with children 22, 16 and 12 years old, he had worked as a registered nurse most of his life. His last job was as a waiter at Red Lobster. Business was bad, so they cut his hours, then let him go. Taking out a title loan, he lost his car, then apartment. Vincent had been on the streets six weeks. His oldest kid was in college, the younger ones had been living with him, until everything fell apart and they had to go to their mom. This last fact humiliated him more than anything else, he said.
I’ve been broke many times, but I’ve never been homeless. More than once, I’ve gone to the supermarket with 26 pennies, the exact price for a packet of instant noodles. I waited until there was no line, so I could brave the cashier alone. Once, getting uppity, I counted out 159 pennies for a can of SPAM. As I added up, a line formed behind me. Once, down to two bucks, I bought a loaf of bread and stick of butter and survived for several days. I’ve made ketchup soup. Thankfully, those days are long gone. I’ve moved to the upper reaches of poverty. Never say never, however, which is, incidentally, the slogan of a new GMC ad. Bumper sticker in Detroit, “OUT OF A JOB YET? KEEP BUYING FOREIGN.” On license plate of the same car, “I WORK FOR FORD. I DRIVE A FORD.”
After a three-mile-hike, here we are, finally, inside Sugar House. Serving up drinks and cleavages, slim waitresses weave through the lardy crowd, made jiggly by decades of transfat and fizzy corn syrup. Baby boomers, most of them. Judging by weight per rear end, we’re not yet a poor country. In the semi dark, gamers are fixated, like dumb infants, by the cartoon characters, blinking lights and bright colors of the slot machines. GOLD RUSH. AFRICAN DIAMOND. FORTUNE COOKIES. CASH FEVER. CASH FOR LIFE. CASH INFERNO. Tired of being mugged, folks can take a breather by glancing up at a football game on TV. From an unseen corner, a live band plays classic rock, evoking nostalgia for less desperate times.
Ads for casinos are always filled with perfect, straight teeth smiles. White, black or beige, they are all tickled stupid by serial windfalls. For mere pocket change, they get to climax over and over, it seems, until Kingdom Come, at least. By contrast, real life chumps are uniformly grim. Suckers only laugh as they walk in, if that. Bored with this spectacle, I head back downtown. On the way home, I would pass a group of “Israelites” railing that the white man is the devil, and that God hates faggots. Next to them, a white guy holds a sign, “FUCK THESE ASSHOLES.” I would chance upon a man evacuating himself on Market Street, one of city’s two main arteries. By City Hall, I would see a woman coughing so violently that she may not make it through this winter, should she remain on the streets.
This is your America, America, but don’t worry, the recession is over.
LINH DINH is the author of two books of stories and five of poems, and the recently published novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.