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Postcard from the End of America

A View from South Philly

by LINH DINH

South Philly’s Friendly Lounge is close enough to my door, I can crawl out of there in a brown out state of mind and still end up on my steps, curled up, if not in bed. The other day I went there to show the bartender, Don, what I had written about Camden, since Don was born in Camden, and his son, Dominic, works for ABC Bonds in Camden. Bail bonding is, without a doubt, Camden’s most steady commerce and one of its largest employers. If you want to open a small business in Camden, don’t think food or retail, no fashion boutique or sushi boat lounge, think bail bonding or, perhaps, a funeral home, though be forewarned that many corpses go unclaimed there, meaning they won’t get dressed up in your sparklingly new memorial chapel, but are simply burnt.

Before I could even say “Yuengling” to Don, however, I heard “Yo” from George. This was George Chan, 64, retired insurance executive living in a Blue Bell country club. (I’ve modified George’s last name, to protect his privacy, and also that of his famous son.) So what was this globe-trotting, four-rounds-of-golf-a-week multi-millionaire doing in this bums’ hangout? The Friendly Lounge was once even a skanky strip joint, but the down-an-outers here didn’t tip enough, and there wasn’t even a brass pole, so the G-strings were quickly tossed into the trash can, and we haven’t seen any perfunctory or inspirational flashing since. Well, not really. I can’t really remember. Felix Giordano, whose family has lived in this neighborhood for three generations, sums up the Friendly Lounge this way in his one Yelp review, “as a reguler, i would appreciate it if all the pbr drinking hipsters would stay the fuck out of this bar.as they have ruined all the other dive bars in this area of south philly for me.thank you for understanding.now fuck off.”

I live in the Italian Market. My landlord is from Calabria. Two doors from me is probably a Mexican whorehouse, for I see too many anxious young men ducking in there after dark, and occasionally also women who dress like, well, prostitutes, though it’s getting harder to tell these days, for the street walker look has gone mainstream. Ditto, the gangsta aura. It’s no longer surprising to see even a third grader march down the street decked out like a hooker or a gang banger, with drive by shooting and prison stories to relate.

A block from me, there’s this tiny barber shop that has two haircutters, its Chinese owner plus a Mexican lady who handles Spanish speaking patrons. They split the proceed 60/40, with less for the house. This sort of flexibility typifies the Third World, where petty regulations and rigid norms, whether commercial or social, are much less common. That’s why poorer countries can appear so chaotic to a more domesticated, more programmed and more properly dressed (according to Gap or Benetton, etc.) visitor. In Saigon, I saw a male pedicab driver wear a female hat, not because he was a cross-dresser or wanted to make a fashion statement, but, most likely, simply because it was handy. His wife probably didn’t need her flowery headwear that day. A while ago, a Vietnamese-born Philly street vendor even made it onto the news for selling panty hoses at his fruit salad stand. Nearly all of his customers were already women, he figured. Hence, panty hoses.

Soon enough, your neighborhood will resemble mine, for the United States is becoming ever more Third World economically and socially, but this, the Italian Market, is hardly a benchmark. We’ll go further, much further. Outside its richest, gated enclaves protected by armed guards and, surely, combat robots and drones, the US will devolve into a society of rooming houses, day laborers and peddlers, not to mention street urchins and part-time prostitutes. You too will live down the street from a jumpin’ whorehouse. To buy a mess of pig’s knuckles, you too will elbow somebody out of the way. Already, I’ve overheard a neighborhood Italian fart grumble, “Shit, this place is becoming like Chihuahua,” but one can retort that it’s not all that different than Naples, really, minus the much better pizza and architecture. The first time I showed up in Napoli, I thought, “Good grief! Was I born here? This place is almost as crazy, dirty and exciting as Saigon!”

In my neighborhood, you can buy a ten pound bag of chicken wings, a live duck, goat meat, not bad chorizo or a decent hunk of pecorino. Jojo, from Ghana and owner of a variety store, sighs, “I don’t know, I don’t know, it’s getting bad. Where is the money?!” But native-born Molly still chirped, “It’s OK, I don’t see any difference,” even as she switched from selling used books to health food, then back to yellowing books. People march right by her boxes out front offering free record albums and junk paperbacks. Running past a newly open taqueria, a bunch of junior high kids scream, “USA! USA!” The Presbyterian church offers services in English, Indonesian and Vietnamese.

OK, OK, let’s get back to the Friendly Lounge, for I need a beer and a shot. Felix probably composed the above review drunk, lying on the floor, since the Friendly Lounge really is friendly, though perhaps a bit cornered at the moment. Another regular writes, “Please, God, keep all the hipsters and assorted trendy douche bags away. Let them stay above Carpenter and be happy over there. In your mercy, let the Friendly remain just as it is.” In any case, what was millionaire George doing in there?

Let’s meet George, then. Though loaded now, George had a modest beginning. Born in China, he was raised in Hong Kong, and came to the US at 19 to attend the University of Iowa, majoring in math and business. Graduating in 1972, he was hired by an insurance company in Des Moines, with a starting salary of $9,000 a year, before taxes. Here’s where George’s story becomes curious, and instructive. Instead of leaving work at 5PM, like all the other new hires, and head to the bar to relax and socialize with them, George routinely stayed until 8PM, to learn more about the business while doing extra work, unpaid. This quickly earned George a reputation as a nerd, dork or even a brown nose, but when the first promotion came six months later, guess who had separated himself from the rest of the pack?

“They were all white, you see, so as the only minority of any kind, I had to cover my ass. I couldn’t take any chances.”

So what we have here is a kind of initiative stoked by anxiety, if not outright fear. This anxiety also led George to become bizarrely frugal, to the point of living outside instead of a $100 a month apartment. He bought a sturdy yet cheap tent and pitched it in the camping area of a public park. He had a hibachi grill to cook hot dogs and an occasional steak. The public bathroom was right there, and as for bathing or doing his bits of laundry, George used the recreational pond late at night or very early in the morning. Three months later, however, George was caught in flagrante by a park ranger, “What are you doing with that soap, son?! You’re going to kill my fish!”

Now, our homeless are also camping on public land and bathing in our creeks, but this was 1972, and George wasn’t homeless, but a fully employed white collar guy, on his way up, yet George wasn’t sure, for he saw himself at the bottom of the totem pole, in the corporate world and society, so he needed to stash away every extra buck. By the time George was 30, however, he had become a general manager, and the only non-white executive in that entire company, and at 35-years-old, he was made vice president.

George traces his success to being aggressive, though he often says “aggression,” as in, “You need aggression to be successful. No one is going to give you anything. Whatever you’re selling, you need to knock on every door, because no one’s going to knock your door.” Obviously, George doesn’t buy into the better mouse trap proposition.

George married an Iowa school teacher, later divorced her, but their son, 24-year-old Sam, is now a YouTube singing sensation, with a worldwide audience. This, after graduating Magna Cum Laude from Yale, majoring in classical Greek. Money is also rolling in for Sam. Besides selling songs on iTunes, Sam gets $1,600 per tweet when he mentions certain brands. Finding all social media to be a huge waste of time, I’m not on FaceBook or twitter, but of course no one is paying me a nickel to endorse anything. I don’t even like the concept of advertising, don’t care for networking, so of course my bills are ignored as I sit here tinkering with my stupid mouse trap. I can barely give my words away, which is fine, actually, for these are my own foolish words, not slogans, jingles, jingoism or sales pitches dumped into my (uninsured) mouth by the bossman. I don’t need to shoehorn what I think into any mold, for a “progressive” cookie cutter, a la Common Dreams or Guardian, is just as deadly as a conservative strait jacket, for they keep you ballin’ on the same weed infested court with its broken backboard and bent hoop. Supporting my verbiage, readers do PayPal me 5, 20, 50 or 100 bucks, and for that I thank them. George would laugh at my small time racket, for in his world view, “Most people are Indians, while some are chiefs. Not everyone can or even want to be a chief.”

I’ve found that chief types often talk in clichés. Take the President of the United States, for example. All of his statements are catch phrases and slogans glued together by clichés, and since he is also a politician (not to be confused with a statesman, mind you), every breath of his is also a spin, fudge or shameless, transparent lie. Chiefs don’t get ahead through subtle yet well-anchored language, but through relentless aggression and a fierce fixation on their goals.

George clearly wanted to be a chief, and he has managed to retire at 55, with a swank home in a gated community, plus a spacious Upper East Side condo. His new girlfriend is a Hong Kong executive for Hitachi, “She’s very smart, maybe even as smart as me, but still very traditional. I told her right from the beginning, I don’t want you to show me up when we’re together. We’re not equal. I don’t want an equal woman.”

George must be on top, you see, for he’s a chief, though once a week, he’ll hobnob with us Indians at the Friendly Lounge, for this dive bar happens to be near his favorite Oriental supermarket, where he goes to buy not just noodles and bok choy, but pig intestines, chicken feet and all the funkier stuff you won’t find in blue blood Blue Bell. In person, George is genuinely personable and down to earth. It also doesn’t hurt that he buys drinks for just about everyone. “Nine out of ten silver spooners are assholes,” he shared. Then, “My son is not letting his success goes to his head. He still drives the car I bought him, a regular Toyota, and he dresses like a regular kid. He was raised right.” The monomania that has allowed George to succeed does rear itself as self absorption, however. I’m not even sure he remembers my name.

Now, I’m not telling George’s story as a Horatio Algers allegory, but mostly to point out the weird and even illegal resourcefulness anxious, uncertain or desperate people will resort to, as in driving a gypsy cab, converting a kitchen into a restaurant, a garage into a hair salon, or peddling T-shirts or sodas without a vending license outside a baseball stadium. It can also means bizarre living arrangements. George got weird on this way up, but many of us will get freaky on our way down. In this worsening economy, how many of us are dwelling in storage units, I wonder? Recently, a New Jersey mother was discovered living with her two sons in a 5’ x 10’ unlit unit, and last year in Utah, five 10’ x 10’ units were found to be inhabited, with a three-year-old child in one. Entire families dwelled in these tiny sheds, with some even furnished with a television and microwave oven. They pissed into bottles.

Most of these stories never make it to the news, but from a self-storage forum, I also found these:

5/1/12—“When I first started in storage 4 years ago, I found 1 woman living in her unit. She was immediately given 48 hours to vacate the premises. I spoke with her that day. She had been living in the space for over a year. The nights that she didn’t sleep in the unit, she was sleeping in a porta-potty near her job! She would use the restroom outside our office to wash up as soon as we opened in the mornings. She didn’t have a car to sleep in. She rode around on a bike.”

5/3/12—“We have had several instances in the past 4 years of people trying to live out of their units […] We have a rule at our complex that states no tenant can be inside of their unit with their door fully down. Outside doors can be half way down if the weather is bad to prevent wind or rain entering the unit, but by having this rule we can tell people we suspect of sleeping in their unit that they MUST have their door open at all times.”

10/7/12—“My new assistant told me they thought this guy was living there, but werent sure/old manager didn’t care […] I would check the security system and find him walking around the building. I also had an issue with him being in the bathroom for 2-3 hours straight. Finally I confronted him. I brought him a copy of his lease and informed him of the rules he was violating. I was planning on this being a warning, but he threatened to shoot me, so the police were involved and he was promptly evicted.”

10/15/12—“My wife and I both have had this happen over the 5 years of running self storage facility. It was worse in the Dallas area where they offered electricity lights inside the units. […] They will always come in after you close and leave before you open. It is necessary not to let them stay on the property. We lock our rest room after hours to discourage this. Also if a unit had a smell of urine around it then someone close by is probably living in a unit there. They seem to not go far from their unit.”

Think about that for a second, a woman with a job sleeping all night in a porta-potty! First of, it’s safer than lying outside, since she had a door she could lock, and it’s also warmer, but of course, the smell, but stench and squalor are no strangers to those at the very bottom, for the dirtiest works are often their lots. The poor already handle everyone else’s shit. They clean rich people’s unclean areas and sometimes must kiss them. In Savannah, an ex prostitute told me about a judge who liked to have his balls meticulously washed by his hired lady. Drunk, we then sang, “I like to have my balls washed, y’all. I like to have my balls washed, y’all.” OK, OK, it’s not that funny, but it was hilarious then.

To escape the cold, many Americans also sleep in dumpsters. It sounds like an urban legend, but in the last three years, news stories have recorded dumpster sleeping Americans being crushed or run over by garbage trucks in Allentown, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Terre Haute. In New York, Americans dwell in subway tunnels, and in Las Vegas, in the drainage system.

We have an unprecedented number of empty houses and apartments, yet more of us are sprawled outside than ever, but this is inevitable since home prices are deliberately pumped up, again, with wages deliberately tamped down. Still, you have to stash all of these old or broken bodies somewhere. In their wisdom and mercy, our ruling classes will soon relax their laws to allow for storage unit apartments and dumpster condos, all made available with an adjustable rate mortgage from your nearest mega bank.

A future ad: Foreclosed dumpster. Great location behind busy Burger King. Lots of free, half eaten food. Ragged and grizzled neighbors, though not unfriendly. Move in now with only 3% down!

Another: Slot on time-share bed. Choose from Midnight-8AM, 8AM-4PM or 4PM to midnight. Undiseased applicants only. Bathroom not included.

George was young and hopeful when he roughed it, but many of our urban campers and squatters have long seen their best days, just like our unmoored nation, destroyed not by foreign terrorists, saboteurs or spies, but methodically imploded from within. It is the 4th of July again. With each birthday, we become sadder, with less vigor or clearsightedness, only an unfocused or misdirected anger. Dread lurks behind each or our grin or drunken laugh. Racked by anxiety, we reassure ourselves that everything on television still looks more or less the same. As our flag turns sinister and becomes a worldwide symbol of violence and hypocrisy, we slap it on our heads, chests, crotches, buttocks and bumpers. Celebrating its permanent coupling with the never silent gun, we drape it on ourselves as if we’re already dead. As the flag gets gigantic, the country itself shrinks to nothing. Lift up that flag, lift it!, and see for yourself what’s left.

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.