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Postcard From the End of America

Of all the words uttered by a person, only a few remain unforgettable to any listener, for these can charm, haunt, humiliate, annoy or terrify even decades later. My friend Lan, for example, is reduced in my mind to a single joking sentence, “This time I’ll probably have to sell my body,” and I’ll never forgive X for sneering, “I ain’t got none!”

With a public figure, the lingering words can even be misquoted, or conjured up out of malice or adoration, as likely the case with the incipiently subterranean Margaret Thatcher (the Milk Snatcher). Though there’s no record of it, she’s repeatedly cited as having intoned, “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.” The public likes this faux quotation because it neatly sums up Thatcher’s disdain for the bottom half, for “losers,” so to speak, and also because it sounds pretty funny.

Well, I’ve seen many wars (based on lies) since my 26th flame out, and I’m still riding the losers’ express to the no-payout casino, as racketeered by Uncle Sam, or, rather, Ben, so I’m obviously not a member of the Union League. Carless, with my Virginia driver’s license long expired, I’ve ridden countless coaches across town, state and country. I’ve rolled with a vast army of losers, but, like I’ve insisted many times, losing is not easy, in this or any other culture. To lose day in and day out requires all of your physical, mental and spiritual energy, for who bear the weight of this nasty empire, amigo? It’s the bottom half that build, maintain, fight and die for this nation, that is, for its ruling class, the winners who never ride buses. Soon, perhaps we will come to our sense, unite and redirect our weapons.

Recently, I took a bus from Philly to Oakland, then back, with several stops each way, scheduled or not. I heard and saw much, on and off the bus. Repeatedly, I’d hear of people losing jobs or making less, much less, than just a few years ago. Yes, there were a few with a positive economic prospect, but they were by far in the minority. In St. Louis, I met a 52-year-old lady who hadn’t found work in several years, though she had spent decades as a live-in baby sitter or caretaker of the elderly. At the welfare office, she was told she’d have to wait until she was 55. “So what am I going to do for three years? I still have to eat!”

From St. Louis to Terre Haute, I sat next to a 41-year-old manager of an Outback Steakhouse. Yes, business is down, way down, from five years ago, but this year has started out slightly better than expected, so he’s keeping his fingers crossed. Joe did admit that they used to have three cooks come in the morning, each with a different set of responsibilities, but now they were down to just one. “So one guy is doing the work of three?!” I blurted.

“Well, yeah,” Joe laughed, “but he’s fast.”

“He’s not getting paid three times as much, though.”

“Of course not, but he’s gotten five raises.”

“You’re lucky you have this guy.”

“We know.”

Are you, too, doing twice or three times the work for roughly the same pay? With 101 million working-age Americans without jobs, or not interested in working, as the brainwashing media would have you believe, there are plenty who would gladly snatch your paychecks should you go slack for even a second. With outsourcing of jobs and deliberate importing of immigrants, legal and illegal, our ruling class is guaranteed a surplus of labor in just about every profession.

Jim grew up on Long Island, served 2 ½ years in the Airborne, studied at a culinary school in Allentown, PA, worked as a pastry chef in Burke, VA, then moved to Springfield, MO, to be with his second wife. He was going to Allentown to see his two daughters, 10 and 13. He had never been west of Springfield, and had only driven through Chicago, twice. As a grade school student, he interviewed Yankees pitcher Phil Niekro, “and that’s something I’ll never forget.” He regrets not being a cop. “If I had a chance to do it all again, that’s what I’d be.”

Entering Cheyenne, I saw an inquiring ad, “Missing a tooth?” Then a large billboard, “8 Million a Day for Israel. It just doesn’t make any sense.” I got off my coach and walked three miles into town. In summer, Cheyenne may appear more cheerful, but in early April, it was overwhelmingly gray and brown, with most of the larger buildings left over from the 70’s and box-like. On Lincoln Highway, there was a line of motels advertising “clean room” for under $30, so I had likely overpaid for mine, booked online for $70.  I had spent two nights on the bus, and would have to endure two more likewise before reaching home.

Cheyenne has long lost its inter-city rail service, but there’s a Depot Museum on its main square. It being winter and even colder than usual, few visitors were present, and as I photographed a John Wayne image through a store window, a uniformed soldier suggested that I should go inside for even better shots. Earlier, a man had pointed out Sanford’s as a cheap yet decent drinking hole. Cheyenne folks were remarkably friendly. Presently, however, a man with bad facial skin strode up, carrying a cheap six pack. I can’t recall who said what first, or second, but in no time, he had become my unofficial tour guide. Meth visage said I could get $1 beer at the Drunken Skunk if I ordered some food. If I liked to look at dancing girls, well, there’s the Green Door, just down the street. Meth boasted of once making $54 in a single day, just giving tips to tourists, mostly European, and taking photos for them. Meth had a single occupancy room at the Pioneer Hotel, and I was tempted to buy two six packs of tall boys, which would likely gain me entry into the sparse or messy world of Meth and his buddies, one of whom was already walking beside me to act as my second unofficial tour guide. To offer unsolicited service is common in all Third World countries, so with Meth and others like him across this increasingly desperate land, we’re getting a glimpse of what’s to come.

Having just gotten into town, and with my bus leaving the next afternoon, I decided to pass on the Pioneer.

Underdressed in a thin jacket and slacks, I was freezing as I wandered, but I toughed it out for another hour or so before ducking, finally, into the Eagle’s Nest. With its proximity to the Hitching Post, my hotel, I wouldn’t have to stumble too far to lie down at the end of my boozing. I planted myself on a stool, near a boisterous group rolling dices on the bar. There was two pool tables and two beers on tap, Bud and Bud Lite. Before long, I found out that the cheerful lady next to me was named Ginger. Her easygoing boyfriend was Terry. The lanky cowboy, Jim. The bartender, Leaf.

Up to three years ago, 45-year-old Ginger, born and raised in Amarillo, was a manager at a video rental store, making $18 an hour, but it went out of business. She then bartended, at this very joint, but it didn’t suit her, so now she works in an appliance store, making just $8 per, before tax. To add to her troubles, she and her husband of 23 years filed for divorce, “I never really loved him. I met him when I was just 21. He got me pregnant, so we got married.” She had only known two men before him, Ginger confided, and two men after, before she met Terry, “the love of my life. Now I finally know what’s it’s like to be loved, to be wanted. Now I finally have someone who is glad to see me at the end of each day.”

Ginger has three daughters, 23, 22 and 9-years-old, with the 22-year-old serving in “North Korea,” she said.

“You mean South Korea?”

“No, North Korea.”

“It’s South Korea,” at least two voices chimed in. “South Korea!”

Overhearing that Ginger had only been with six men, Leaf also interjected laughingly, “Six guys?! I’ve been with so many more. I loved fucking.”

Ginger got me a Tecate, so I bought her a Salty Dog, or maybe it was a Fuzzy Navel. In any case, things went south not long after, but we’ll get to that later. Meanwhile, let’s meet Jim, a lanky, Stetson-wearing 53-year-old with most of his front teeth punched out, or maybe in, and he had simply swallowed them, with a chaser.

Jim was born in Oakland, where his mom died of heroin. He has nine kids that he’s aware of. “I’m still in touch with each of them, and I’ve taken care of all of them.” Maybe he has. A seasoned crane operator, Jim was in town for a new job that paid $29 an hour, big bucks in these times and parts. The work would only last a few months, however, then it’s on to Casper, Wyoming. Using the internet to find gig after gig, he had bounced around the country. It’s good that he had no wife and kids at home, for it would not be possible to drag them along his gypsy route. Jim had no real home, in fact, only rooms at cheap motels, and tonight, like every other night, naturally, he didn’t want to sleep alone. Seeing two lovelies at a table, he grinned at me, “Are you with me? I’ll get them for us.”

There is no stability in the system. Hardly anyone knows if he will have the same job, live in the same place or own the same store a year from now, much less ten. The era of a father handing the family business to his son is a quaint and ridiculous notion, is already mythical. There is no continuity here, only anxiety, if not outright fear. How can a society move forward like this? Something will have to blow. Radical changes are in store, and it’s up to us to ensure that we don’t become permanent casualties of this arrangement.

Jim had been drinking since 10:30 in the morning, and it was creeping towards midnight, so dude was well lubricated, and running out money also. Jim was down to three bucks, so I gave him two for one more shot of whiskey. Earlier he had said to me, apropos of nothing, “You look like a dangerous guy.”

“Me?! Fuck! I’m the biggest pussy in the world!”

Jim turned out prescient, sort of, for when I heard him refer to me a “Chinese guy” who had just given him two bucks, I immediately hopped off my stool to strangle him, with my thumbs pressed deep into his jugular. The motherfucker froze. Now, if we have been chatting, then I’m no longer a Chinese, Vietnamese or any kind of ethnic guy. I’m Linh, or even Lee, if you can’t quite pronounce my name. You wouldn’t appreciate it either if I called you “this black dude” or “this white woman,” after we’ve had a conversation, or even before.

Though my logic was sound, my action was foolish, at best, if not suicidal, for I couldn’t knock down a Justin Bieber standee with a right cross if you gave me three tries, but Jim, as I’ve already noted, simply froze, which prompted Ginger to comment, “I’m impressed.” Letting go, I actually said, “Next time I won’t be so tender.”

Stoked by booze and Lynyrd Skynyrd on the juke box, we had all become fast friends, though before the night was over, Ginger would lose her cell phone, start to sob, “This is why I don’t drink,” and get into a fight with boyfriend Terry over a Doug Supernaw song, the one with mom being run over by a freight train just after being freed from prison. She thought it was hilarious. He didn’t think so.

“I don’t like country music. I just don’t get it.”

“You don’t have to like country music to have a sense of humor!”

So ended my first day in Cheyenne. I saw and heard enough to know that things were rough here, as they were throughout my recent travel. Downtown, there was a sign on a handsome high rise, “THIS BUILDING IS NOT EMPTY. IT IS FULL OF OPPORTUNITY,” and nearby, the art-deco theater advertised movies for only $3.50. Here and there, posters warned against meth addiction.

The next morning, I stepped over used syringes on my way to the bus station. There, the driver made us wait nearly half an hour in the cold, even though the bus was right there, with its door wide open. He treated us like losers, and we didn’t dare to upset him. Had we stirred, the bossman might deny us our only chance out of ruination, if only towards another dire strait. Like Jim, I’m missing several teeth, actually, for this is Uncle Ben’s America. Eight million a day for Israel. Are you with me? Words, words, words. I’ll get them for us.

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

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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.

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