Postcard from the End of America: Philadelphia
John is 46 but looks twenty years younger, with not a single white hair or whisker. His grungy style also suspends him in early adulthood. His mom was a registered nurse, then secretary at a garage. His dad sold car parts and drove a mail truck from Philly to Harrisburg in the evening. “I’m not doing as well as my parents, but I’m not trying as hard either,” John confided as he sat in McGlinchey’s, a pint of Rolling Rock in front of him. It was late afternoon, and the place was still quiet, with the jukebox interfering only intermittently. On four televisions, golf balls sailed or skated around cups.
I had come in after recording a segment for Press TV at a nearby studio. Seeing me in suit and tie, Shelley, the bar owner, grinned, “Coming from church?” On Iranian television, I had assumed a serious face to talk about China and the US, how China will try to muscle the US away from the Western Pacific, and how it is moving to supplant the US Dollars, first by trading with various countries (including American allies such as Japan, France and Australia) in their own currencies, then eventually having a gold-backed Yuan, at which point game’s over. I pointed out how China is intertwining itself with Europe through increasing trade and an extensive rail network completed or in progress. Already, freights can be moved by rail from Holland or Belgium to China. The US is still top (bull)dog thanks to its military and control of the world’s banking system, but China is gaining status and leverage through manufacturing, increasing trade ties and infrastructure improvement and linkages. Unlike the USA, it has a long term economic vision, and soon enough, may flash its claws and fangs and show itself no less of a bully, as is already evident by its belligerence in the South China Sea. With the decrease of cheap oil and gas, global economic growth is over, in any case, but certain countries may still chug along fine in the near future, but the US won’t be among them.
We’re so passive, we’re doomed! We watch our rights being systematically stripped away with barely an eye roll, and with each passing day, we are becoming poorer, with our wages steadily decreasing and more of us on food stamps than ever. While fixated on sports, singing contests and network news, we’re being lowered into our degradation. NSA, FBI, Homeland Security and CIA spooks shadow us for evidence of rebellion and espy nada. After inconsequential Occupy and Tea Party twitches, all is quiet. Those sign waving assemblies merely served a carthatic function, and even wore us out, without threatening the status quo at all. Too easily, they funneled our discontent into the Democratic vs. Republican sewage, with too many of us excited to line up, again, to rubber stamp our defeat.
Underemployed and malnourished even, John is ahead of the curve in our collective stumble towards destitution. A maverick screwup, he’s a pioneer of sort, a Neil Armstrong, so let’s examine this man a bit more closely. Three days a week, John scrubs and mops at this lowlife bar, and each day, he also goes to Shelley’s house to twice walk the dog. In between, he can relax on his boss’ couch and stare at the TV.
“Yo, John, how much do you make a week?”
“Ah, I don’t want to tell you, but most of what I make goes towards rent.”
“I can’t see how you make enough to eat!”
“I don’t eat that much. I drink beer, and I get my beer here for free. This is also food, you know.”
“How much do they give you?”
“Two pints! That’s not enough! How can you stop at two pints? Once I have had two pints, I must drink more. Why won’t they give you four pints, at least?”
“Maybe you can say something to Shelley about that. You can be my lawyer!”
“Yeah, I’ll say something to Shelley. Cheap motherfucker! But you haven’t explained how you manage to eat on almost no money? How do you eat?!”
“I already told you, man, I don’t eat that much. I haven’t eaten in days! Actually, yesterday, I had three ounces of spaghetti.”
“You count your ounces?!”
“I know because on the package, it said six ounces.”
“No, man, I don’t even have a fridge. It’s this moist, microwavable shit.”
“OK, OK, but how do you stop eating at three ounces? Why didn’t you eat the whole damn thing if you were that hungry?”
“I don’t need to eat that much. Look at your beer. Can you knock that down in one shot?”
“But I can’t do that. My stomach wouldn’t be able to handle it. I don’t need to eat or drink that much. Some weeks, I only spend five bucks on food.”
“That’s ridiculous! What do you buy for five bucks?”
“You can always buy rice. Rice is cheap.”
“You’re right, rice is cheap, especially when you buy a huge bag, but do you ever shoplift, you know, like shove a can of tuna down your pants?”
“No, I have never done that.”
When writing about someone, I must make sure I get everything right, down to the last detail, but with John, I don’t have to fret as much, because he doesn’t know how to use a computer. John won’t be able to read what I’m writing. A man who can barely eat is not someone who will pay for wifi. There, too, John’s ahead of the curve.
“How do you not know how to use a computer? What is there not to know?” And I made some typing motion on the bar.
“Ah, man, I just can’t figure it out, but I don’t miss it. Who cares. I don’t have any tattoos either,” and he showed me his untinted arms. Nodding towards a waitress sitting nearby, bent over her laptop, John continued, “ Once she spent twenty minutes trying to teach me the computer, but I couldn’t figure it out.”
“She can’t get off the computer, and you can’t get on!”
After his two pint allotment, John slunk out of the bar. From Shelley, I then found out that he lives at the Parker Spruce, a residential hellhole that charges $250 a week, plus an extra 10 bucks since John owns a microwave. His bathroom, he shares with another tenant. This is a bum deal, obviously, but John has no choice since he has never been able to cough up enough for the security deposit of a regular apartment. A certain lethargy is also in play here, but it’s hard to have initiative on three ounces of mushy spaghetti coated in some dodgy “meat” sauce.
Just to visit a Parker Spruce resident, you must pay six bucks at the desk, though condoms are free, thanks to the city’s health department. After riding up the musty elevator, you enter a moldy hallway redolent of urine and clorox. If taking the stairs, you might step over a dime bag or two. Whole families take refuge here, not just hurting singles, drug addicts and whores, and though pets are banned, you can hear a caged canary as you walk past this door, and inside this cell is a black cat. At the end of each hallway, bars are placed on windows to prevent jumpers from diving, permanently, into hell, the final one, but if you go straight to the roof of this 12-story building, where the view is indeed spectacular and the air fresh, nothing will stop you from flying for a second or two before splashing onto the adjacent row house’s tar roof, which must be fixed every few years, after yet another corpse is removed.
Before Shelley hired John to walk his dog, he employed Casey, and she also dwelled at the Parker Spruce. In her dresser were bread, peanut butter, jam and pop tarts, and in winter, cans of Bud Ice could be kept cool in a plastic bag hanging out her window.
“So you trust John, huh?” I asked Shelley. “He doesn’t steal like Casey?”
“You know about that too!” Shelley smiled. “Casey only stole small things from me. I went to her place once and saw all these little things that looked very familiar, like salt and pepper shakers that I used to own. Everywhere I looked, there were little things that I used to own.”
“Yeah, and she stole from me! I was talking to Casey at Frank’s one night, and it was her birthday, so I bought her a couple of beers, but when I went to the bathroom, she stole one of my camera lenses. It’s very expensive, you know, more than 500 bucks, but then Casey returned it, because she felt bad, I guess. When I called Frank’s the next day, Sheila said, ‘Hey, we found your camera lens!’ I knew it had to be Casey because I never took the lens out of my bag.”
“Yeah, it was Casey.”
Soon enough, everything that isn’t nailed down will walk. It’s telling that many of our homeless still leave relative valuables such as a newish jacket, belt or pair of shoes unattended as they sleep. This means we’re not quite Third World, hurrah!, for if we were, even a pair of unwatched prescription glasses would take wing within seconds. Of course, stuff here already disappear often enough. In Berkeley, I met a white haired man who had been robbed by another homeless man four times. His coat and shoes he managed to recover in nearby trash cans, “but the photos of my wife and children are gone.” As we talked, a young woman gave him some leftover from a restaurant meal. “But I can’t eat it,” he lamented, “I don’t have any teeth.”
“You can eat it,” she smiled. “It’s only rice.”
Without fork or spoon, he then scooped the brown rice with the carry out container’s plastic top.
The big guys will steal big, including your youth, mature years and old age, your entire lives, in short, sometimes even your sanity or parts of body, while small time crooks will try to relieve you of everything else, including your salt and pepper shakers. The biggest guys will steal the earth from right under you.
I never hinted to Casey that I knew she had stolen from me, but after that incidence, I kept my distance. I have known her for a long time. Adopted, Casey has never been able to find her Puerto Rican birth mother. On each of her sneaker is scrawled “ESPERANZA” [“HOPE”]. Casey has worked as a cook and as a waitress, including here at McGlinchey’s. The last time I saw her, she said she was getting married, so I waved at her bride, a laughing woman standing across Broad Street. They had found an apartment in Point Breeze. Idyllic sounding, it’s a neighborhood best known for flying bullets.
Once, a balding, middle-aged dude saw me talking to Casey, and so advised, “You know, you shouldn’t talk to her. She’s ugly. You make yourself look bad by talking to such an ugly woman.” This guy looked like crap himself, I must add, and so do I, even on my best days. Ugly and uglier, we will slog forward, for sure. The current waitress at McGlinchey’s is only 23, however, and so not ugly. She’s pretty, in fact. Let’s meet her.
“I never went to college, because I don’t like school, and I also can’t afford it.”
“But you said you’re into languages?”
“Yeah, I studied French for five years, and the other day, when I met some French students, I could speak to them, maybe because I was drunk,” she grinned, “and I can pronounce Russian words. I read Camus’ The Stranger five times in English, but when I finally read it in French, it was so much better.”
“You read it in French from beginning to end?”
She also knows scraps of Sanskrit and Japanese, which have proven useful at SugarHouse, Philly’s very first casino, opened less than three years ago. Playing roulette, she has won up to $100 while chanting “sa ta na ma,” thinking it meant, “all one none sum,” although it really means, “birth, life, death, rebirth,” as I would find out later, after googling. Sometimes she mumbled “nam myoho renge kyo.” On full moons, people win more at casinos, she informed me. Perhaps this Pisces should also use a Magic Marker to scrawl “HOPE” onto her sneakers.
Magic incantations are as good as any, for we have no other plans. Desperate people will plead to the unseen and unprovable. Give us this day our three ounces, at least, and lead us not onto the no-fly list. In 2010, I witnessed a religious procession at San Francisco’s Civic Center, with supplicants carrying this banner, “Praying the Rosary for America… As human efforts fail to solve America’s key problems, we turn to God, through His Holy Mother, asking for His urgent help.”
As we’re making no efforts to solve any of our problems, we’re muttering or shouting words that mean less and less. Amen.
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.