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Are you rolling forward and upward? Will your offspring use you as a red-carpeted stepping stone towards an asskicking future? Are you still beaucoup loaded and inured from any testy unpleasantness waffing up from below? Do you believe that bums are bums because they don’t know how to be competitive in this global economy? (Meanwhile, you employ an army of illegals to take away all of their jobs, or grant special visas to those who can’t simply hop across the border. To entice emigration, you may even shower foreigners with bombs.) If yes to all of the above, then good for you, I suppose, though may all of your BP, GE, Boeing and Kellogg, Brown and Root stocks nosedive soon enough.
Me, I’m barely vertical, and a few days ago, I heard from my oldest friend, Giang, whom I’ve known since 1978, when we were both high school freshmen in San Jose. Like me, Giang was born in Vietnam and came here as a kid, but unlike my sorry ass, he managed to adjust, get along and move up in life. Giang acquired two college degrees, to my zero. Before he was thirty, he bought his first house, then two more, before selling one. He married a woman who was a registered nurse, and they have two well-behaved sons. It’s been a smooth ride until three years ago, when Giang was suddenly laid off. No problems, he thought, I’ll find another job soon enough, but after sending out hundreds of applications, he’s only gotten a handful of interviews, all unsuccessful. It’s an all-too-familiar story these days, played out across America, and like many unemployed Americans of all ages, much less one pushing fifty, Giang’s prospects for recovery are dismal.
With nowhere to go each morning, Giang stewed at home and became a little too cranky, apparently. He’d yell at his kids, and sometimes argue with his wife. She’d made too many innuendos, he thought, about his fat ass lying on the couch. Always a nosy motormouth, his sister-in-law also rachetted up her poisonous babble behind his back, and his sanctimonious father-in-law started to show an attitude. The old man’s smiles tightened into smirks. In-laws are generally a nuisance, absolutely, best kept at least a dozen time zones away, but Vietnamese-in-laws should be corralled into a deep, core-of-the-earth cave steaming with sulfur. It’s their most congenial environment. When marrying a Vietnamese, it’s best to choose an orphan. Trust me.
In any case, Giang’s wife finally left him ten months ago after a rather generic argument, and they haven’t talked face-to-face since. His in-laws and oldest son are also shunning him. “When you’re married for over twenty years, there are so many memories. You sleep with the same person each night. My family is everything to me, so I can’t believe it’s over. And it is essentially about the economy, like you’ve been saying all these years, you prick. You told me to buy gold when it was only $500 and I didn’t listen. Anyway, if I’ve been working, and bringing in a six-figure salary like I used to, none of this would have happened, and it’s not like we’re running out of money even, because we still have savings! But a guy is supposed to leave the house each morning and catch, you know, a deer, a pig or a raccoon, at least. Anything! That’s how it’s always been throughout history, so when you’re lying around the house all day, it gets old quick.”
As we were talking on Skype, I could see my friend’s stocky form, and his receding hairline, lurking in an empty room. “Here I am still talking about we, we, we, but it’s just me now,” and he showed me a mattress on the floor, with a handful of magazines next to it.
Hard working and without any fondness for gambling, narcotics or extracurricular nookies, just a Bud-Lite or two after work while sprawled in front of the TV as the Giants come on, Giang had no weird or outsized needs and he has always played by the rules, so he’s flabbergasted that his world is collapsing. Trying to move on, he dated a woman, broke up with her, then dated another. Neither felt right. So far, he’s paid the divorce lawyer $24,000. At court, he pleaded with his wife, “Let’s talk, we can work this out,” but she refused to even look at him. Despondent, he went to Home Depot and bought a sturdy rope, researched online about the proper knot, and the pitfalls of a botched attempt. Instead of being greeted by Uncle Ho, as us Vietnamese like to say, you may just end up with a snapped vertebrae, and bedridden for several decades.
Giang told me about a former co-worker, also highly educated, with an already hard-to-recall top salary, who’s now reduced to volunteering at a food bank, just so he could take home free food to feed his family. So it’s bad all around, not that most of us need to be reminded. For the last three years, I’ve taken several train trips across America, and at each stop, and even on the trains themselves, I’ve encountered many people who have been wrecked by this economy.
In a nearly empty tavern in New Harmony, the bartender told me that business was down, and the tips poor, and even with her second job as a hairdresser, she could barely make ends meet. Soon as her kid finished college, she was moving back to Nashville.
In Chicago, a woman begged for grocery money to feed her children, while another whispered that she had a job working in a factory. No eccentric bag ladies, these, just ordinary women fallen on hard times. In nearby Gary, once busy downtown is now a mess of shuttered stores, with an empty, high rise hotel next to City Hall. Steel City it’s still wistfully called, with its baseball team, the RailCats, playing at the US Steel Yard stadium. With few eating options, I tried a Rally’s chicken shack, only to discover that it was shutting down due to a lack of electricity.
In Wilmington, a black man about ten years younger than me suddenly gave me a hug and shouted, “I’m your son! I’m your son!” He wanted 50 cents. Later, a guy around 25 mumbled that he just got out of jail and was hungry, so could I give him some money? Downtown was a collection of half-skyscrapers housing banks and credit card companies. With no usury laws, Delaware makes a perfect home for these blood suckers.
On a train near Clifton Forge, a man in his 50’s told me he’d been working as a cook in Tikrit, Iraq, “You can’t leave the base, because there’s nothing to do in town. Plus, it’s not quite safe, you know what I mean? So you work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, but I do get paid $10,000 a month. Every six weeks, I also get a two week vacation. I just went to Thailand. That was nice.”
The hefty figure perked up a nineteen-year-old sitting nearby. “Hey, man, that’s your next job!” I kidded. The beefy teen had been struggling to get his high school degree, he told me, “I can’t concentrate. I simply forget everything.” He didn’t seem all that bright, to tell you the truth, not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s like some people are simply not tall. So what? When a man with a NC cap walked by, the kid suddenly asked, “Sir, do you know Chuck Hernandez?” Chuck happened to be the one guy he knew in North Carolina, so he’s that kind of stupid. So what?
With a functioning economy, even dumb people should have jobs, if they’re willing to work, that is, but in ours, the geniuses, morons and everyone in between are similarly stuck on a tardy train to nowhere. You can have PhDs and still pay for your baked beans with food stamps. Hey, just be glad you’re still on this train! Mine was three-hour-late leaving Charleston, SC, two days ago, and I had no idea what had gone wrong until I overheard an old woman talking on her cellphone, “We won’t be in until noon, dear, because there was a woman who stood in front of the train. This happened just outside Orlando. It took them three hours to clean it up. What a shame. So many people are hurting these days. You know how it is.”
Unless we do something about our collective plight, and soon, only the criminally well-connected, and some of their lackeys, will survive this ongoing crash.
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.