Postcard from Trenton
I had been in Trenton, I dunno, maybe two hundred times before I decided to know it a little. For years, I would stop there on the way to NYC from Philly, or vice versa, but I was never compelled to wander from the Trenton Transit Center. This lack of curiosity is inexcusable, for “there is no place that isn’t worth visiting at least once,” as Evelyn Waugh wrote somewhere, and which I’d amend to “a bunch of times,” for each subsequent encounter can only deepen one’s understanding, for people are always infinitely fascinating, no matter where they may dwell, and how they cope with their environment cannot be but instructive. Shoot, man, even Northern Virginia is worth visiting more than once, I’d concede, though that would severely test any sensate being’s taste, hope, faith in humanity, tolerance, self-respect and sense of humor.
Having owned a car for less than two years in my life, and I’m two month-shy of 50, I’ve always been a walker, but I never really developed a passion for aimless walking until I lived in Italy in 2003-2004. Europe is a compact continent with an extensive rail system, so any of its city, town or village can be reached by train, and from the station, you’re free to wander as much as you want, without fear of missing your last train back, for there’s always one coming, it seems. The towns there are also much more accommodating towards walkers, and even the countryside is walkable, with public paths through fields and orchards.
Then in 2005, I had the luck to be in East Anglia for nearly a year, thanks to a T.K. Wong Fellowship, so I was able to meander through many of the villages mentioned in W.G. Sebald’s dirge like masterpiece, The Rings of Saturn, which begins, “In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.” All the places described by Sebald had seen much better days, with some, Great Yarmouth, for example, considered laughable, when noticed at all. Sebald’s home city, Norwich, had also become the butt of jokes although it had been England’s second greatest city, but such is life, for everything will become (bad) jokes in due time, if not obliterated completely from this unfunny earth. Everything will become New Jersey, in short, if not, horror of horrors, Trenton, friggin’ New Jersey.
OK, OK, so listen up, y’all, I was on State Street, just minding my own business, you know, slow sipping a Colt-45 on the steps of the Trenton Saving Funds Society, founded in 1901 and deader than your sex life, when this dude hollered, “You’re from Southeast Asia?”
“Ever heard of Angkor Wat?”
“Yeah, that’s in Southeast Asia.”
“Ever heard of Nagasaki?”
“Yeah,” I grinned, “but that’s not in Southeast Asia. That’s in Japan, man. That’s where they dropped the second atomic bomb!”
Ignoring my irrelevant information, this man, about 30, continued to quiz and educate me, “Do you know where the word nigger comes from?”
“Negro? As in a mispronunciation of negro?”
“No, man. Negro comes from naga, and naga is a sacred snake. If you’re a Southeast Asian, you must know how sacred the snake is, for you guys have turned the snake into a dragon, like Bruce Lee, enter the dragon! So the black race is sacred. We are the original and most powerful race, but the white man can’t stand this, so they have corrupted our name from na-ga to nig-ger. Are you following me?”
“The white man would have you believe black people are only from Africa, but that’s nonsense! We were everywhere. We built Angkor Wat and the Egyptian pyramids. To keep us down, the white man has rewritten our history. He wants the world to think we’re just savages but we’re the original man, the true man and the greatest man. The Buddha was a black man. You ever noticed his full lips and kinky hair? King Solomon was black, and Jesus, of course, was black. From us, everything has come. We’re not just black, we’re all colors! See those people right there? What do you see?”
“I don’t know. Three people?”
“What kind of people?”
“No, no, no! One is blue black, one is reddish, and one is kind of yellow, like you. You see, black people can be all colors, because all colors come from black, but black itself is not a color. You got that?”
By this time, I had taken out pen and paper to jot down this copious lecture. Across the street was the handsome First Presbyterian Church. Built in the Greek Revival style, it hides what’s left of Colonel Johann Rall, commander of German mercenaries during the pivotal Battle of Trenton in 1776. George Washington, his conqueror, now stands atop a fluted column lording over this city. When the monument was unveiled in 1893, the New York Times deemed it “the greatest day in the history of New Jersey.”
Satisfied at having an eager student, the dude presented me with his profile, to appear more melodramatic against the slanting sunlight, then continued, “The pyramids are also a lot older than what the white man says. They’re more than 150,000 years old, and so is Angkor Wat! Do you know that light bulbs were found inside the pyramids? And batteries too, but all these facts have to be suppressed by the white man, because the white man can never admit that the Naga race, the so-called nigger race, reached a higher level of civilization thousands of years ago, when the white man was still living in caves!”
As he was talking, a passerby saluted him, “Peace! God!” So he asked me, “Did you hear that?”
“What he said.”
“Yes. Peace! God! He called me a God, because I am a God. Every black man is a God, and you, as a colored person is also a God, but the white man is a corruption. He is in fact the devil, you heard me, and his days are numbered. A black scientist created the white man 6,600 years ago, but it’s time for the black race to reassert his superiority. Look, look,” and he pointed to his arm, leg, leg, arm and head in turns, “what do you have?”
“What do you mean?”
“What does that spell? The first word of each!”
“But what does it mean? It’s just a linguistic accident, man! If we were talking another language, you wouldn’t have Allah at all!”
“But we are speaking English, and English is the universal language. This is no accident. The time for Allah has come, and it will happen here, in America.”
Many will have recognized by now that this man was spouting from the Nation of Islam’s teachings, and much has already been written about the Black Muslims’ problematic views on race, so I will only add that any man who thinks of an entire race as evil in origin and purpose is undoubtedly a racist, so this black man lecturing me was clearly a racist, and I cringe whenever anyone insists that black people cannot be racist since blacks are not structurally in power. To condemn, despise or demonize anyone for the color of their skin alone is the very definition of racism, and this is a moral, individual failing that can befall anyone, of any color, and at any time too, I should add, from moment to moment. To deny blacks of this moral agency, to posit that they cannot lapse or sink into racism, or rise above it, is to deny their very humanity, so what would that make you but the ultimate racist?
Done with my education, for now, my lecturer left me his name, Melchezidek, meaning “My Righteous King,” and his phone number, then he hopped on this beat up bike and rode away. One can’t help but wonder how can a man with such a world view function in the larger society, populated as it is with so many devils? In Trenton, though, as in most of our cities and towns, he may not have too, since blacks and whites are still mostly segregated in a society billed as post-racial when it elected a president who’s only half demonic in genetics, though entirely evil in actions, it has turned out, with yet another bloodbath coming with the incipient assault on Syria.
The government that harassed then murdered Martin Luther King now commemorates him, in the most superficial manner, each year. Flatulent speeches are given, but no sanctioned maven ever asks why he was gunned down, or points out that the syndicate that squashed King continues to kill, torture or lock up anyone who can seriously shine a light on its sinister working. Witness the recent murder of Michael Hastings, for example, or the humiliation and breaking down of Bradley Manning. In any case, Trenton never recovered from the rioting that followed King’s assassination, though it was already in decline, with the erosion of its industrial base, and white flight, occurring well before 1968. Note that nearby Levittown, a prototypical suburb built from scratch, was completed by 1958.
With its compact layout, Trenton is very walkable, though one must watch out for bullets, knives and cars careening out of control after their drivers had been shot dead. With four more months to go, Trenton has already tied its all-time record of 31 murders for an entire year, and the homicide figure only indicates a portion of the bloodshed, of course. On August 15th, for example, a 24-year-old ex convict kicked and punched his girlfriend, stabbed her dog to death, then shot two cops, sending both to the hospital, with one still in critical condition as of this writing, 14 days later. The shooter was himself killed by police bullets, and that is not counted as a homicide. So practice extra caution when wandering through North or East Trenton, and don’t you even think that the South or West Ward is entirely free of lacerating or puncturing surprises. Oh shoot, am I shot?! In short, it’s wisest not to trek through Trenton, but what the hell, let’s just go, and so I was putzing around Clinton Avenue when it started to rain hard, so soaking wet, I decided to duck into La Guira. Opening the door, I entered a tiny vestibule to espy an apparition behind bullet-proof plexiglass, so I asked, “Bar?” After my grim ghost nodded towards a second door, I entered a darkened purgatory, hitched myself onto a stool, then inquired, “What kind of beer do you have?”
I was the only customer. On TV, a swooning hostess asked some toothsome chica, “¿Como le gustan los hombres?” Grinning, she chirped, “Muy románticos! Buenos trabajadores! Altos!” She was about to choose between two well-inked beefcakes, half naked, with “Leo” and “Tauro” signs dangling on their toned chests, but suddenly, there was kicking, punching and hair pulling, for we had switched to the Steve Wilkos Show, as the bartender didn’t want me to be flummoxed by Spanish. I found out he was Dominican and had been in the US all of five months. Though his English comprehension was bare bones, we did try to converse, and all was friendly and pleasant until some middle-aged guy arrived and got all weirded out at my camera. He was the bar owner. To calm down this excitable crank, I explained that I was visiting Trenton from Philly, and only took photos to share the countless virtues of his lovely establishment with the rest of the world, and I was having a great time until I encountered his hectoring, irritated mug, but since he was being so rude now, I would never return, so he barked, “Don’t come back!” I didn’t appreciate this pissy mofo ruining my hopped up sense of well being and equilibrium, a glancing nirvana that had cost me a dear $8, including tips, so I called him an asshole before I left.
It turns out, though, that Mr. Martin Rodriguez has ample reasons to be touchy, for his dismal bar has become a ground zero for mayhem and police misconduct. A look at the recent history of La Guira, then, becomes a window into Trenton itself. In February of 2012, cops were called to deal with an unruly customer, Darrel Griffin, whom they roughly arrested, along with a second suspect, Michele Roberts, for reasons unclear, though a surveillance camera does show a police woman grabbing Roberts’ hair, screaming at her and slamming her head against the wall, all after Roberts has already been handcuffed and not resisting. Roberts claims she has only gone there to drop off a dish of lasagna for a private party, but the cops thought she was filming them with her cell phone, so they went berserk. In any case, no charges were ever filed against Roberts or Griffin, though both are suing the Trenton police for excessive force used in their (illegal) arrests.
Though not one of Jacob’s cursed creation, and hence not inherently and irreversibly evil, Griffin is hardly a placid Buddha, however, or a turn-the-other-cheek Jesus. Hell, he might not be any kind of God at all. In 2005, a 20-year-old Griffin was charged with shooting Omar Hightower in the head. With such a slug stuck in his brain, Hightower suffered seizures for years until he finally died in 2013. Charges against Griffin were dismissed, however, because the state could not gather enough evidence against him. Peace! God!
In April of 2013, La Guira again made the news when a surveillance camera caught officers of the New Jersey State Police strip searching a man down to his brief, as other patrons looked on. Caught twice now by La Guira’s annoying cameras, the cops have decided the remedy is to go after Martinez himself, by visiting his business often and citing him for petty or imaginary violations. They’re trying to shut La Guira down in retaliation, Martinez has protested to the press, for it is certainly no nuisance spot in this half-boarded up neighborhood. Well, it is a crappy bar, but within its concrete, asphalt, garbage and broken glass context, it is a heavenly oasis where Gods and Goddesses can drain Coor’s Lite, Bud, Ciroc and Grey Goose as they bump, grind, shake and twerk. (See, see, Mr. Martinez, I am talking up your blasé shit hole, so you should give me a shot of Jameson the next time I walk in!)
Guira is a Dominican percussive instrument, by the way, and a nice chunk of Clinton Avenue, where La Guira is located, could have gone kaboom! this last April, when scavengers removed a stove from an abandoned home, thus releasing gas from broken pipes. It’s not clear why gas was still kept on there, but not much works the way it’s supposed to in Trenton. Indicted for corruption, its mayor, Tony Mack, has refused to step down, though his continued presence has blocked state funds to this strapped city. “Napoleon” or “The Little Guy,” as Mack is known, claims he has been entrapped by the FBI.
As its mayor tries to avoid prison, Trenton goes on falling apart. Leaving La Guira, I walked for miles through desolation and neglect, but it wasn’t just that, for people still had to live here. Each day they had to walk past these empty, boarded up or overgrown homes. Some were trying to ward off the degradation and violence with positive messages. On Martin Luther King Boulevard, a home owner had hung up a pink banner with a white cross over a purple heart, “Love One Another. John 3:34.” Not far away, I saw another banner on the wire fence of a garage. With two painted daisies, and lettering in four colors, it pleaded, “Can’t we do something different for OUR FUTURE?”
Presently I came upon Olden Avenue, with its many Polish businesses, still thriving after many decades. Employing my standard salutation, I asked a man, “Hey, where can you get a drink around here?”
“Let me see. You can go to Stevie Teetz. It’s just down the street. It’s a strip bar!”
“Oh, man, I don’t need no extra! I just want a beer!” In fact, I didn’t even care for a beer, but one often talks just to talk, and in a strange neighborhood, sometimes one talks just to see how one is received. In any case, onward I marched, past Stevie Teetz, and finally out of Trenton altogether, into Ewing, where I saw an “ARMED FORCES CAREER CENTER” at a strip mall. A uniformed soldier was getting into his SUV, so I waited for him to drive away before taking out my camera. Post 9-11, soldiers are often found in public, so it’s no longer a surprise to find yourself in the International House of Pancakes, for example, next to a crowded table of soldiers, and they won’t be in dress uniforms but battle fatigues. On TV, soldiers are also often inserted into commercials, newscasts, political events or sporting contests. This is done to remind us that we’re in an endless war and, more importantly, to condition citizens into accepting the presence of soldiers in civilian settings. The relentless erosion of the Posse Comitatus Act is mostly done on a visual and psychological level, for now, but already one sees soldiers with live weapons where they have no rights to be, but then the Constitution is but a quaint myth in contemporary America. Hardly anyone cares about it, not the Obama apologists, and certainly not our mesmerized youths with their eyes glued to Miley Cyrus’ ass. Children reared on Hannah Montana can now follow their sexually deranged, hair-horned and tongue wagging idol into a psychotic adulthood. Peace! God!
I took my photos in full view of the recruiting office’s plate glass windows, with who knows how many eyes behind them, so within seconds, a uniformed soldier appeared to say that that was not allowed, so I smiled, apologized then walked away. He also smiled. After I had gone about twenty yards, however, and was already past the back of this building, two more soldiers came running out, with one asking me to stop, which I did. When he asked me my name, I readily gave it to him, though I really didn’t have to, as he had no jurisdiction over anyone in this civilian setting. I knew I had done nothing illegal, as taking photos in public is never against the law, though it may sometimes be rude. A second soldier then demanded I deleted my photos of the recruiting office, which I did, as he watched. (I knew I could still retrieve these images later, as long as I didn’t shoot over them.) By this time, a third, older soldier had appeared, so four well-trained, gung-ho combatants had so far been dispatched to handle one dumbass, middle-aged retard with his beat up, often repaired camera with a dusty lens and missing eye piece. If they could get so excited over a harmless American at some stupid Jersey strip mall, imagine their possibly lethal overreaction to anything remotely suspicious in, say, Afghanistan or Iraq? There, even a munchkin raising a lollipop to his mouth might make one of our brave heroes jump, holler and discharge.
Faced with this farcical situation, I laughed, shook my head and told the soldiers, “This is ridiculous. You will go to bed tonight thinking how absurd this is.” That’s when they gave me the predictable line about the heightened alert needed against the threat of terrorism, but I said a terrorist would not need to take a photo of their office, especially with a huge camera and standing in full view of their plate glass windows. As I’ve pointed out before, you can bomb a place just fine without snapping photos of it beforehand, but if you must scope out a public target, you can just stroll by and look at it, or you can go on Google Maps and get all the information you need about its exterior.
Back and forth we went, with a soldier telling me that “it is illegal to take photos of a federal building,” which is not correct, or all those thousands of tourists snapping photos daily of the Capitol, White House and countless other buildings should be arrested immediately. One of the grunts wanted to walk back in, but the other was becoming quite heated, maybe because I had said, “You guys are being brainwashed into becoming so paranoid. Don’t you see how ridiculous this is?” When the pissed one snapped, “I’m defending our country,” I responded, “You’re not defending anything! You’ve been standing out here harassing me!”
“Call the cops,” he said to his more composed partner.
“Call the cops for what?!” I smirked. “What am I doing that’s illegal?”
To intimidate me, the other guy did pretend to use his cell phone, but he ended up not calling anyone, and they finally walked back inside.
If this was Iraq, Afghanistan or, hell, Southeast Asia a generation ago, a smart mouth like me might be laid to rest in several chunks, then pissed on, but since this was only New Jersey in 2013, I have lived to relate this tiresome tale. Soon enough, though, these jumpy fellows will be well armed and blazing within your earshot, right here, in the Homeland.
The War on Terror has been incoherent and nonsensical from the beginning. On the pretext of going after Bin Laden, a known CIA asset, the US invaded Afghanistan, then it attacked Saddam Hussein, whom it had propped up for decades, and now Washington is openly supporting terrorists in its war against Syria. On the home front, every terror plot going back to 9-11 has either been abetted by Washington, at the very least, if not entirely schemed by it. In Portland and Cherry Hill, such plots were used to entrap innocents, while in Boston, it was to frame its own assets while terrorizing the entire country, all for propaganda purposes. In short, the US can’t be fighting terror when it is the world’s most prolific and relentless generator of terror. Without terror, America would be out of business, literally. As the US is about to rachet up considerably the terror it has been unleashing on Syria, all Americans should feel sick to their stomachs, but most of us will simply sit back and watch, in boredom or great excitement, and when tired of this extra bloody entertainment, we’ll yawn and switch back to our regular programming.
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.