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With 77,000 people, Camden has one public library left, and in a city where Walt Whitman spent 19 years and is buried, there are exactly two bookstores, a Barnes and Noble serving Rutgers Camden students, and, not too far away, La Unique African American Books and Cultural Center, with The Master Game, The New World Order, The Unseen Hand and Say It Like Obama in its window. Camden has no hotel, and only one downtown bar, The Sixth Street Lounge. Hank’s closed in 2010 after half a century in business. Now, if you can barely drink in the heart of any American city, no matter how tiny, you know it’s seriously messed up.
Just off downtown, there’s also Off Broadway, however. The first time I entered, four years ago, I noticed “NO PROFANITIES” on the wall, yet the very stern barkeep had this T-shirt on, “PRACTICE SAFE SEX. GO FUCK YOURSELF.” You’re finally home, I thought. On that occasion, I was able to make the acquaintance of Jamaal, a 65-year-old former math teacher. A jazz lover, he told me his favorite concert ever was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers at NYC’s Blue Note. We talked about Mickey Roker, who used to be the house drummer at Philly’s Ortlieb’s. I once had a cassette of Roker keeping time behind Dizzy and Ray Brown, but it was erased by an embittered, life-hating middle-aged Korean art student I had lent the tape to. I should be awarded a peace prize, or some chintzy ribbon at least, for not strangling this motherfucker. A bottle of Rolling Rock in Off Broadway was, and still is, only $1.50. Jamaal informed me, “This place is all right. It has an older crowd. You can go home at the end of the night.”
“What’s the alternative?” I asked.
“Someone beats you up or shoots you.”
“I’d rather just go home.”
In Camden, I had seen Wynton Marsalis at a free concert by the river. Like Baltimore, Camden has a safe tourist section, with a much smaller, grayer fish version of the celebrated aquarium. People who come to this protected enclave don’t need to see the real Camden, not that they want to. They can even arrive and leave via a ferry from Philly.
Lying outside Camden’s tiny bullet-free zone, the Walt Whitman House, on Martin Luther King Blvd, gets almost no visitors, not that Americans are flocking to pay homage to their writers. Even during its days, this “coop” or “shanty,” in Whitman’s own words, was called “the worst house and the worst situated,” and Camden was thriving back then, with its best decades still ahead. By the 1940’s, Camden would become an industrial powerhouse, with many factories employing blacks and whites, and the largest shipyard in the world.
“Yo, Chris Rock, I’m at the Walt Whitman House.”
In 2011, Ken Rose wanted to interview me by phone on July 4th, so I decided to do it in front of the Whitman House. On the day this country was born, I would not be in Philly, its birthplace, but Camden, its prototypical morgue. A habitually lawless government has no business celebrating the Constitution, and with this country being deliberately tortured and drown by its rulers, accompanied by flag-waving acquiescence of deranged voters, each 4th of July has turned into a sick and sad spectacle. Across the street was the Camden County Jail, and on the next block, ABC Bails Bond. Before Ken called, some guy shuffled up and said he was the caretaker of the Whitman home, but as we chattered, I soon realized he didn’t even know who Walt Whitman was. He referred to Whitman in the present tense, as in, “He owns this entire row, including the parking lot right here.” Predictably, he wanted me to give him some change.
Yes, some Camden folks will ask you for cash, but many will also offer you cigarettes, dope or sex. Here, illicit dealing is king. Also in 2011, I met Abdul, who was selling body oils, perfumes, knit hats and boxer’s shorts from a table set up in front of a fried chicken joint. After peddling stuff for 7 years, business was getting worse and worse, so Abdul was planning on moving to Senegal, where he had a wife. Years ago, he had been busted for drugs, a wrong conviction, he claimed, and locked up for 3 1/2 years. In prison, he converted to Islam. Released, he visited Senegal. As he walked into a Western Union, the lady behind the counter exclaimed, “You’re my husband! I saw you in a dream.”
His wife was 40-years old, and “doesn’t have a bad thought,” Abdul said. “She can’t be any better!” Since she didn’t want to come to the States, he would go to her. He was having a house built over there for $20,000. He sent her boxes of old clothes to sell. “American clothes are popular in Senegal,” he explained. “Even used clothes.”
“Where do you get old clothes? Where do you buy them?”
“I don’t buy them. I get them from my relatives!”
In 2012, I met another Black Muslim man, 38-ish, who also sold on the sidewalk, in his case socks from a wheeled cart. Across the street was the ruins of the Carnegie Library, so I said, “That was a beautiful building once!”
“I hear they’re gonna fix it up.”
“Really?! But the city is broke. Camden is broke.”
“Camden is broke?”
“Yeah, man, Camden is broke. Philly is broke. The whole country is broke! Didn’t you hear about all the cops they laid off?”
“They got money.” He then read from the inscription on the building. “Nineteen-O-four. Man, that building is old. How old is that? Thirty, forty years?”
“It was built in nineteen-O-four, so it’s over a hundred-years-old.”
He told me about a cop who had given him a ticket for selling on the street, “The judge will throw it out, though, because I was sitting in a restaurant when he busted me.”
“Yeah, but you’ll still have to waste your time in court. What an asshole! Doesn’t he have better things to do than to bust people trying to make a living? This city is so fucked up and he’s busting you, and you’re not hurting anybody.”
“There is a lot of complaints about this guy.”
“Is he an older guy?”
“No, a young cop, a young, white cop.”
Whoever this cop was, he’s gone, because Camden has laid off its entire police force. That’s right, all 270 cops who survived previous layoffs were let go in April of 2013, though 50 were immediately hired by the County Police that’s now in charge of keeping Camden, um, safe. Announcing this restructuring, the mayor said, “We cannot sit back and allow our children and families to experience another 2012.” Or another 2011, 2010 or 2009, etc., for year in, year out, this post-industrial city ranks as one of the deadliest in America. With its cops trimmed and shuffled, little has changed on Camden’s streets, though there’s a mobile observation tower across from the bus terminal. Inside that box is an anxious man with his head rotating nonstop, or a dozing schmuck, or no one at all, but you wouldn’t know, would you? An instant panopticon, it is sprouting up everywhere, from theme park parking lots to your next mass protest. The Guardian Angels also made a cameo appearance in Camden, but have wisely disappeared. Unarmed, they’d stand an excellent chance of being peeled off the sidewalk, then rolled, posthaste, into Cooper Hospital, Camden’s one world class institution. Come to Camden, where you can be cut up or expire with distinction! World class hands will stitch you up!
“Work here. Play here. Live here,” shout the LIVE CAMDEN billboards, but until recently Baltimore also declared itself, “The Greatest City in America,” and Milpitas, whom most people have never heard of, drapes banners all over its blink-and-miss downtown, trumpeting, “MILPITAS A Great American City.” Whatever. What is Juarez’ slogan, I wonder? Or Kabul’s? Speaking of Cooper, I must tell you about Paul Matthews Young, whom I met in 2012 at the Broadway train stop. On a plate glass window, this 50-ish man had taped his New Jersey ID, social security card and about eight sheets of paper showing his “Moneterial Earning Assessment.” It wasn’t clear what he was trying to convey, to whom, or if it was some kind of protest. When he told me had 18 children, I asked, “With how many women?”
“What do you mean none?!”
“I had them by myself.”
He said his 18 kids were born microscopic from the tip of his penis. The doctors at Cooper had something to do with this, but I couldn’t get him to explain fully the procedure beyond the fact that Paul had to pleasure himself quite energetically.
Hearing Paul’s story gave you that old, most generic notion? Now that you’ve got your cheap, discount sox made in China, you want some flesh also? Are you, by chance, versed in gonorrhea? You speak syphilis? Can you spell AIDS? It’s not so much a carnal need, you say, but simply an ethereal desire to assist, or rather, nudge up, the local economy? See her, that’s Angela. She looks about 14, but she might be as old as 17. Walking unsteadily, her eyes are practically closed, but she can see enough to tell that you’re not serious. She’ll keep walking because she has no time to lose. Each day, she can easily go through five or six bags of dope, plus some powder for variety, plus she has to eat, too, and maybe down a few cans of Steel Reserve to flush that lousy Chinese food, bought from Yuk’s, yes, that’s really the name, at 827 S. Broadway. I’m not making anything up. Why would I? No one knows anything about Angela, not even her best friend. Thirty-three-year-old Michelle regularly gives Angela food and dope, but Angela still won’t say nothing about herself, and don’t you give me that shit about her being too drugged to remember, because on one level or another, none of us ever forgets anything.
I won’t forget walking with Michelle when she said, “That’s my baby’s daddy,” and she pointed to some guy across the street. Squinting, the dude was probably thinking, “What’s my side piece doing with that Chink (or fuckhead, or asshole)?” You know, anything but “gentleman” or “Asian American,” per the New York Times stylistic guidelines. To think is already to compose, and thus to dissimulate and cover up, and to write is to further distort, nearly always, what we pretend to think, but writing, paradoxically, can be used to hint at the rawness beneath all this culture, this domestication, this farce, this composition. This half-assed expose almost never happens, however. Maybe it has never happened. Looking hazy, dude kept squinting as if he had a hard time recognizing his lay even.
“It’s Rashid’s birthday!” Michelle shouted.
“Rashid! It’s Rashid’s birthday today!”
Showing no emotion, no smile, no grimace, dude gave Michelle one final squint, then kept walking.
“He doesn’t remember his son’s name?” I chuckled.
“No, he remembers. Lamon’s just a little out of it today.”
“How old is Rashid?”
“Eight! He’s eight-years-old!”
“And he stays with you?”
“No, with my mom.”
“So your mom is not so bad after all.”
“She might as well do something for him, since she didn’t do shit for me!”
Though Michelle is one-quarter Okinawan, it’s hard to see any Asianness on her white face. She was mostly raised by her Japanese grandma, but at 16, she moved to Camden. Already a coke head, she got hooked on heroin at 19, thanks to her junkie uncle. Unable to pay for her daily treat, she started to trick, “I’ve been raped and beaten. Look,” she opened her mouth, “these are dentures. I don’t like to go with young black guys. They’re fucked up! There are, like, nine guys who go around beating up girls.”
“Just for the hell of it?”
“Yeah, just for the hell of it. This is Camden!”
“So what are you going to do? What’s your next move?”
“I’d like to get into rehab, maybe go to Florida.”
“What’s in Florida?”
“I dunno. There’s a good rehab place in Florida. My sister told me about it. I need to get out of Camden, that’s for sure.”
Her pale arms showed purple needle marks, and so did the tops of her hands. Her veins have collapsed. A blue headed pin pierced her upper lip, a large hoop dangled from one ear, and her hair had been dyed a burnt siena or, more likely, was just a red wig. It was a very hot day, yet she was draped in a charcoal colored hoodie, and her faded blue tank top had been rendered lumpy by cheap, ill fitting bra. For someone living rough for so long, Michelle still appeared fresh, so I said, “You know, you don’t even look 33-years-old. You actually look younger!”
“You think so? I used to be beautiful.” She pulled two ID’s from her cloth sack, showed them to me.
Holding one up against her face, I pronounced, “No, I think you actually look better now, but you better get the fuck out of Camden soon.”
She smiled. Her dentures were newish, for they weren’t too yellow. Maybe she had just gotten punched? Michelle then volunteered that Lamon may be pissed because she had been seen with another guy.
“Some guy you like? Some guy you love?”
“It does get lonely out here… Hey, you want to hear something weird? Just last night, this one girl got so fucked up, she took her clothes off and ran down the street.”
The same night, 20-year-old De’quan Rodgers was shot dead, and another young man, 19-years-old, was found with multiple bullet wounds. About three hours before I chatted with Michelle, three more men were perforated. Shootings are nearly daily occurrences here, but a young naked woman running down the street is goofy enough to be remarked upon, if only for the next 24 hours or so.
All over town, there are RIP messages spray-painted onto walls, near where a loved one has died, whether targeted or hit by stray slugs. Sunrise, sunset. Sunrise, sunset. You live and talk much shit until Jesus, Allah, Bruce Lee or Liberace text you, “Kum home, losr.” You strut about and blather beaucoup merde until Glock, SKS or Bersa Thunger tap you on the shoulder and whisper, “Hiya!” Even as you crawl on all fours, sightless and toothless, with your liver, spleen and entrails hanging out, it’s still too early to call it a night. Is it last call already? On a memorial for Izzy and Cunt, someone has scrawled, “Heaven is where we go but hell is where we live.” On shop windows and doors are flyers begging for information on Camden’s disappeared. Some have come to buy drugs, never to be seen again. Some were just strolling to the bodega or the Chinese joint’s bulletproof window. Yuk’s, it’s so yummy!
Sorry, man, all you wanted was a beer and here I am dragging you down with talks of bullets, blood, gurneys, scalpels, needles and more blood, so much blood, blood geysers, showers of blood, so let’s head straight into Off Broadway, without further delay. As if to negate the chaos outside, this dump has so many rules, dude, as in:
NO T-SHIRTS OR VEST
NO HATS TURNED AROUND BACKWARDS
NO HOODS OR SKI CAPS
NO BAGGY PANTS
ALL TEE-SHIRTS OF ANY COLOR
MUST HAVE LOGO’S THAT ARE VISIBLE
MUST BE NAVEL HIGH
LOGO MUST BE ON YOUR
CHEST OR BACK
PLEASE DO NOT YELL OR SHOUT
ACROSS THE BAR
ATTENTION BAR PATRONS
PLEASE DO NOT STAND
ON CHAIR RAIL
PLEASE PLEASE ANYONE CAUGHT TOUCHING
TV WILL BAR YOURSELF PERMANENTLY
ANYONE TOUCHING APPLIANCES BARRED
YOURSELF NO EXCEPTIONS
EMPLOYESS HAVE THE RIGHT TO CHECK
BATHROOMS AT ALL TIME
And, of course:
THESE PREMISES ARE UNDER 24 HOUR VIDEO
SURVEILLANCE INSIDE & OUT
Well, I’m glad I have a dress shirt on, and no pantaloons, and I’ll do my best not to get touchy feely with that television. Watching a news story of five guys stealing 17 Rolexes after smashing its display case, the barflies whoop with astonishment and delight, but they are blasé about a school shooting simulation. As I eat a sad cheesesteak, with its dispirited meat, cheese and bread, bits of conversation drift to me.
“Yes, there was this girl born without a rectum, and she’s alive still. They haven’t fixed her yet, but they will.”
“You never had possum hash?”
“No, I’m a city boy. I don’t know nothing about that. My cousins in North Carolina might, though.”
“Possum is sweet. It’s an all right meat. And muskrat is OK too. You ought to know what’s edible, and what’s not, because it might come in handy one day.”
“No, ma’am, I’m happy with my chicken and my steak, thank you. I don’t need no squirrel, no rabbit, no raccoon, no possum. Why should I bother about any of that, when I can just go to the store?”
Surrounded by rules, we aren’t any safer, for a dickhead or two can just come in to make everyone lie on the ground, then relieve us of wallets and purses. Most patrons are bunched up at the far end, however, so they’ll have a better chance to see what’s what should shit happens. (Sign on a Camden wall, “If you believe shit happens, park here.”) Several of these lushes are probably packing.
Three Beyonce tunes in a row tell me it’s time to get the fuck home. Soon I’ll stagger into the dusk, into a half feral city of aimless men and women dwelling in rotting row houses, abandoned shells shrouded by vines and shrubs, or tents, like those clustering by the freeway, across from the long-shuttered Sears and beyond a billboard pitching $5,000 Yurman watches to passing motorists. Living apart in a squalid tent down a dirt path blocked by plywood, branches and lumber, ex factory worker Beasto can choose between bacon, hot dog or pork chop, all stored unrefrigerated in a sack of rice, and all reeking, of course. Fifty-seven, he’s been away from Puerto Rico 43 years. Meanwhile, junkie Tina has left her tent, cleaned herself up and reconciled with her mom, so of course, of course, a cheerful respite, or recovery, if you will, is temporarily possible, within the larger framework of tempered hope, outright disappointment and, naturally, unmitigated horror. Staggering on, I will pass by Cooper, where wizardly doctors can give each of us a cleaner, fresher asshole, to pump up our always suspect vanity and confidence, or I might run into lovely Michelle or Angela, for they will still be out there. All night long, she’ll sleepwalk from one john to another, just so she can score and score, until she finally disappears.
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.