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Postcard from the End of America: Missouri

Hell Has Come Home

by LINH DINH

In Sartre’s “No Exit,” hell is depicted as a room with two women and a man, which is fair enough, for a threesome is never what you envisioned it would be, in the privacy of your own hell. Hell is also “other people,” “les autres,” for in the company of another, one’s vanity, smugness, extreme prejudices and fantasies, whether philosophical, political, charitable or pornographic, are rudely disrupted. One must readjust and realign one’s flesh and ideas, must calibrate if not refute them, in toto and in shame, when faced with another, which in most cases is no hell at all, but a kind of heaven so awesome and humbling that we, as media-abetted cowards, must evade constantly. OK, cheese overture over, now get the hell away from me!

How about some choice fromage, my dear? Laughing Cow? Sit next to me, be my hell until Topeka do us part. Of all the lovely bodies in the world, why are we suddenly together? It must be destiny, for we are a perfectly-matched couple, whether hetero, homo, transexual or even transpecies, and thankfully race, skin tone and birthplace no longer serve as barriers, for we are together, see? Tight, tight, tight. We are a couple.

Let’s see how others do it. Across the aisle is Samantha. She appears no older than 22. Heading to Georgia, she got on in Denver yesterday, where the temperature never rose above 40, yet she had no coat on, only a thin blanket over a strap blouse. The reason, one must assume, was to show off the tattoo on her chest, a large skull with bat wings. Let’s us now listen to her speech. It is genteel all right. “May I ask you another question, Sir?” This, on a bus where “motherfucker,” “fuck off” and every other kind of “fuck” fly about freely. Her seatmate is a sixty-year-old man whose diction is nearly as formal, as in, “These candies are very good, in my opinion.” A Serbian, he’s teaching her basic words, at her request, “zdravo,” “dobro” and “bombona,” etc. A lovely dancing couple, they are careful not to step on each other’s tongue, with the pattern they’re making lurking forever in their minds, as well as mine, a mere observer, but soon, too soon, she will abruptly leave him, for this is how it usually ends, in Topeka, Kansas.

OK, OK, so traveling from Kansas City to St. Louis, I had the luck to be abutted to a curious lady. In her mid 40’s, she had hard features accentuated by severe, even aggressive, makeup. She looked mean, all right, but had a calm, often soothing voice, even as she was spewing some nasty stuff. Overhearing her cell phone conversations, I gathered that she had just abandoned her apartment in St. Paul, and was heading to Kentucky, where she had family.

Her boyfriend had gotten rough on her, so she was dumping his ass, “You lay your hand on me, I’m going to waste you stupid ass, you lame ass nigga, and I won’t need a man to do it. I’ll kill you myself. No, you shut the fuck up! It’s over. I called 911 on you, and I’m calling the landlord, right about now. You’re always acting like you’re in charge, but you ain’t in charge of shit! You have three days to get the fuck out of there, you hear me? You’re occupying that place il-le-gal-ly. They’re going to change the lock on your stupid ass.”

Then she called her daughter, “What’s up? I can’t even hear you. Speak up! Why are you getting all sneaky on me?! Listen, listen, just listen to me. I’ve moved, I’m out of there, I made up my mind, so you have three days to get your ass out, you hear me? Oh, shut the fuck up! You don’t know nothing about nothing. You can’t do shit! You can’t even fuck! All you know how to do is to eat pussies. I’m going to come back from Kentucky just to kick you the fuck out, bitch!”

Then she called her ex-landlord, “Yes, Sir, I’m out of there. I know, I’ve been behind on the rent, but I’ve decided to vacate your property. There’s a man in there, but he shouldn’t be there, he’s in there il-le-gal-ly, so you should change the lock on him. No, Sir, you have a good day.”

Note that all of the above was said in the most composed voice, and not just because the driver had warned, repeatedly, that loud noises of any kind, as well as drugs or alcohol, were not to be tolerated. Ignoring these prohibitions, a young man slipped into the tiny bathroom, and soon the entire coach was uplifted by a sweetly titillating fragrance. “A skunk,” a wise man informed us, but my seasoned seatmate immediately corrected the dumbass, “No, that’s some great weed.”

Independently coming to the same conclusion, the driver then shouted, “You, in the far back, please come forward!” And as the young man in a DieMonsterDie T-shirt wended his way up front, the driver added, “Son, I knew grass before you knew green grass!” The toker was made to dump his stash, undoubtably for the driver to smoke later, with his wife and kids while watching Dancing with the Stars or some shit. Toker then had to turn around to apologize to all the other passengers. “Kick him off,” my seatmate hollered, but seeing his distressed face, I decided to pipe up, “Let him go! He’s only a kid!” Apparently changing her verdict, my seatmate concurred, “He don’t know nothing.” “Yeah, let him go,” a few other voices chimed in, and the horror punk fan was spared from being stranded in the middle of heaven or hell, depending on what you’re smoking.

Seriously, dude, you don’t want to mess with an interstate bus driver, for as long as you’re in that tight, barely reclining seat, you’re subjected to their full spectrum domination. Most are cool, no doubt, but some are certifiably world-class a-holes. In El Paso, I saw a driver berate a rider like a mother her child, and in Cleveland, two passengers were prevented from boarding for having alcohol on their breath, and I likewise for refusing to have my camera stored in the hold. When I loudly protested, this driver simply mouthed “fuck you” twice, and that was that, for he had the final say, for a driver’s words are papal to those without wheels or the means to fly or ride the rails. Easing into Indianapolis, an elderly driver blessed us, “If this is your final destination, then may you be eternally protected by the benevolence, forgiveness and wisdom of our Lord, Jesus Christ.”

Winding through snowy Colorado, a driver offered us a rare prospect for employment, “Greyhound is hiring. I repeat, Greyhound is hiring. If you were a friend or a family member, I’d not recommend this job, but since you are perfect strangers, I’ll say that it is not such a bad job.” Later, he’d spoon us more comedy, “If you are somehow unhappy with this ride, there is a form you can fill out to complain about me. For your information, my name is Sammy Taggart. Again, I am Sammy Taggart. If you are satisfied with this trip, however, and want to compliment me, my name is Chuck Hernandez.”

OK, let’s hop back on the bus rolling through Missouri, with a hard yet sweet woman sitting next to me, but how is she sweet, you may be asking? First of, she was sharing her cigarettes and food to all those around her, and even offered me a taco. Bought yesterday in another time zone, it was still some kind of meat wrapped in a tired shell, with hot sauce galore and a sprig of cilantro even. She was also being motherly to a young man just released from prison. He was in for “eight and a half,” he confided, and I had to assume he meant months and not years, since he didn’t look older than 25. He hadn’t eaten in three days, he added, but didn’t elaborate. Though tough featured and well built, he appeared very subdued, even meek.

Seeing this kid, I was reminded of a garbage man turned crack dealer I knew back in Philly. He went from making $1,200 a month to $600 a day, so what did he do but slosh around in lots of pussies and booze for a couple of months, before he was caught and sent to jail for 5 ½ years. His demeanor changed whenever he recalled being locked up. I mean, on the face of it, it didn’t sound half bad, with not much to do and cable TV, besides, at only $14 per month, way better than the outside, for sure, an excellent deal that included all of the Phillies, Flyers, Eagles and Sixers game, and certainly worth committing a felony or two for, with or without collateral damages, but the constant violence he saw in there scared the living coitus out of him. Like my late buddy Tony, he talked of guys having their assholes slit with a razor, so that tradition is still going strong, apparently, at least in Pennsylvania.

The hard woman sheltered a daughter and her man, and simply slogged along, rent unpaid and all, until he raised his hand to her, provoking this latest drama, which she handled with considerable equanimity and aplomb, I must say. For many of the lower class, life lurches from crisis to crisis, with frequent slides into disaster. If this was an airplane, such an overheard tale would draw irritated looks, if not indignant complaints, but here no one gave a flying Twinkie, for each had his own harrowing sequence to hash over or, more likely, forget.

Let’s meet another survivor, a man I encountered in Kansas City a month earlier, on my way West. A blizzard had stranded over a hundred people at this modest bus terminal. Minus the handful who were willing or able to pay for a taxi cab and hotel room, we just slept wherever we could, or not at all. I lay on a steel bench, with my lower legs draped over its end, and the thickness of my hoodie serving as the thinnest pillow. It did keep my ears warm. Though my eyes were closed, I never lost the consciousness that I was stuck in Kansas City, with no clear timeline for escape. Unable to drift into dreams, I’d get up repeatedly to wander around the brightly lit station, with its TV tuned to CNN nonstop, and its benches and floor sprawling with bodies, including kids and the very old, as in nearly morgue ready. Hell is the American mainstream media earnestly beaming charades, mirages and spins 24/7, though thankfully the volume was kept low.

Seeing a squatting man, I immediately knew he was foreign, but only after we started talking, did I realize he was Vietnamese. We then switched from English to our native tongue. Of mixed race, Tung likely had American blood in him from the Vietnam War, though there were Aussie and New Zealander troops there too, as well as contractors and reporters from dozens of other countries. A mild man, Tung sported a moustache and donned a cheap-looking, dun baseball cap featuring an eagle perched on the stars and stripes. Forty-three-years-old, he had been in the US 11 years, and was working as a boner at a pork processing plant in Greenbush, MN, making $16 an hour, for $400 net a week. Previously, he had been at a beef plant in Sioux City, Iowa, but that place only paid $300 per week.

Greenbush is near the Canadian border, and the region is almost entirely white, but from Tung I learnt that 80% of the workers at this pork plant are non-white, with many Africans, Mexicans and Asians, with the Burmese so adept at this grueling work, they’re allowed to chew betel leaves on the job, with trash cans nearby to catch their spittle. Saving what he could from his modest pay, Tung had returned to Vietnam eight times, with six months his longest stay. Back in tropical Can Tho in the Mekong Delta, he would eat and drink well, and idle his time away, but that too would get tiresome, and his dollars would evaporate, so back to frozen Minnesota he would fly. Recently he passed out at the slaughter house and woke up in an emergency room, but since it happened just before he clocked in, even before he had a chance to put on his gloves, it wasn’t considered a work place incident. Tung spoke wistfully of a fellow Vietnamese who had gotten clipped by a forklift. The lucky man broke his chin, so thereafter was assigned the easiest tasks, on top of his medical compensation.

In the morning, with my bus still unscheduled, I trudged through the snow into town. There, I saw several fine examples of empty buildings being jazzed up to entice elusive tenants. All over America, this has become an art, and a booming business for graphic designers. In the past, this cosmetic would be a waste of money, for any prime piece of real estate would soon be rented, but now, even a well appointed edifice in an excellent location might stay empty for years, if not permanently. Behind plate glass windows, handsomely suited men and women are shown surveying and marching towards a bright future, “RETAIL SPACE FOR LEASE,” and on the sign board of yet another empty store, “YOUR NAME HERE.” In St. Louis, white letters are painted onto a window, BEAUTIFUL HISTORIC BUILDING. $6 BASE RENT. Will Design / Build Interior Space. Let’s Talk!”

With so many Americans unemployed, shouldn’t people like Tung be kept out of the country? With a smaller labor pool, wages would go up, and the tougher jobs would become more attractive, or at least more worthwhile, though consumer prices would spike. The problem in Tung’s case, however, is that America’s foreign policies have resulted in him being here at all, and I don’t mean just the country, but the earth itself. Further, since our military and banking tentacles have such a wide reach, many other immigrants can rightly claim to be a bastard of Uncle Sam, although he may not have been, literally, their motherfucker.

Let’s meet, then, such a person. Traveling from Salt Lake City to Reno, I sat across the aisle from a darker skinned, middle-aged man in a Bulls knit cap. We had just passed the Lovelock Correctional Center, which the driver pointed out was the residence of one OJ Simpson. Hitchhiking was prohibited in this area, announced a billboard. Presently, Bulls knit walked forward to ask another passenger something. This second man had on an Army Airborne cap. He said, “Man, you’ve got to learn how to speak English better if you’re going to do business in this country. Not everybody is going to be as nice as me.”

Airborne then dialed a number to ask why Bulls knit’s phone card didn’t work. Done, he spoke very slowly to accommodate the foreigner, “They said you spent the minutes already. They said you spent your minutes calling Afghanistan. Hey, are you from Afghanistan?”

“Yes,” the war refugee blurted in a tiny voice.

“Afghanistan! Man, I love that country!”

So there you have it. If only we would stop loving so many countries, the Bulls knits of the world won’t have to come here in ragged droves to ride our hellish buses and snag our worst jobs, and our goofy young men won’t have to assist the very people they had just bombed or droned. Our young ladies also won’t have as many chances to learn how to mispronounce “hello,” “good” and “candy” in Serbian, Arabic, Urdu or Somali, etc., but that’s a loss I think we can handle.

With killing and looting making up the DNA of any empire, however, we won’t veer from our bloody ways, at least not of our own volition, though with the US of A rapidly winding down and entering its autophagous phase, state-sponsored butchering and mugging will be increasingly performed in your face and on your body. Hell has come home.

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.