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Postcards from the End of [the] America[n Empire]
Sunday, June 17, 2018
Friday, June 15, 2018
As published at OpEd News, Smirking Chimp and Unz Review, 6/15/18:
I was just interviewed by two Temple journalist students, Amelia Burns and Erin Moran, and though they appeared very bright and enterprising, with Erin already landing a job that pays all her bills, I feel for these young ladies, for this is a horrible time to make and sell words, of any kind, and the situation will only get worse. We’re well into postliteracy.
With widespread screen addiction, hardly anyone buys books or newspapers anymore. My local newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer (Inky), no longer has a book review section. Its retired editor, Frank Wilson, was never replaced. Frank had three of my books reviewed, Night, Again, Fake House and Blood and Soap, but the last was in 2004.
Frank lives near me, so I see him around. A lifelong Philadelphian, he takes pride in knowing the city well. Speaking of Steve Lopez, an Inky reporter who made his name with a novel about North Philly, Badlands, Frank sneered that Lopez didn’t actually try heroin, so he didn’t really know what he was talking about. Frank did.
If you mess with Frank, the bearded, snarling Irishman will maul you with his cane. Frank’s not just ancient, but old school.
After moving to Philly in 1982, I’d read Clark DeLeon’s daily column in the Inky. Covering the city with knowledge, heart and humor, DeLeon helped me to feel grounded, and challenged me to explore my new home. After 23 years at the “same sloppy-topped gun-metal gray desk,” DeLeon was fired, however, a casualty of postliteracy.
Clark, “For 16 years I wrote six columns a week for the paper’s metro section. In later years I was cut back to five columns a week. In the final year, I was down to 1 column a week in the feature section.”
No longer a professional journalist, Clark earns his keep by working as a costumed tour guide outside Independence Hall. Done with work, he’d often down a few at Dirty Frank’s. A tall, square-jawed and rugby playing dude, Clark would sit there in his black tricorne hat, brown waistcoat and white shirt with billowing sleeves, like a hulking Paul Revere, here to announce the worst of possible news. The death of the word, and thus thinking, is coming!
One recent evening, there was karaoke at Frank’s, so Clark got up to sing Springsteen’s My Hometown. With his strong, sonorous voice, Clark handled its lyrics expertly, but then he unexpectedly choked up, and had to stop. It’s understandable, because the song’s depiction of economic collapse describes the country and city he loves, as well as his own plight:
Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant storesOur physical degradation is nothing compared to our mental derangement. Take our song lyrics, which are no longer required to make sense, as long as the beat is righteous. Postliterate, we fumble and befoul English. As we are forced to shout at each other above the constant din, there is no subtlety left to language.
Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more
They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back
Before the internet, I would buy the Inky first thing in the morning, often before dawn, as the newspaper box across my apartment had just been stocked, then I would get the Daily News. Many days, I would also pick up the New York Times and New York Post, and during the week, I would read the Philadelphia City Paper and Philadelphia Weekly. Just about everybody I knew also bought at least the Inky or Daily News each day, so what we had, then, was a shared body of topics to discuss. We belonged to the same mental community.
Of course, you can rightly claim that we were all uniformly brainwashed, especially since the Inky and Daily News were owned by the same damn company, but the free weeklies did provide alternative viewpoints, and many neighborhoods also had their own rag. The Philadelphia Tribune catered to blacks.
As a young writer and artist in the 90’s, I was written up in all the local outlets, Inky, Daily News, City Paper and Philadelphia Weekly, and this coverage grounded me, tied me to my city. When I had my mug in the Daily News in 1991, for example, the cashier at a cheesesteak joint congratulated me, and the owner of some corner store urged me to go home and be creative!
Although my writing about Philly has become much more in depth, my local audience is mostly gone, thanks to the internet, which has fragmented each place on earth, for no matter where you live, you’re hardly there any more. Thanks to the internet, everything around you has become much less concrete, as in your city, desk, lamp, spouse, with the computer screen now turned into your most needy and indispensable companion, for it has become your mirror, soul and shrine.
Traveling to a new town, I always looked forward to browsing its newspaper, for here was its self-portrait, exotic and absolutely inaccessible to me previously. I remember being delighted by the social tidbits in a rural Maine newspaper, as in Mr. and Mrs. Smith had a three-day visit from their grandson, Jack, an accountant in Boston, or the Tremblays have finally left for their long-planned trip to Las Vegas. They will be back on Monday, with many interesting tales to regale us all. In the style section, there might be a meatloaf recipe from, say, Mrs. LeBlanc. With its colloquialism or even clumsiness, the English, too, is reflective of a place.
Whatever its flaws, the local newspaper gave each community a social forum and common culture, and though newspapers haven’t died off completely, the remaining ones are eviscerated, and hardly read, for nearly everyone is on social media, all day long, where they can broadcast themselves. From reading about their town, people now upload endless selfies and self-important proclamations. Everyone is his own news, superstar and universe. Self-publishing, each man is an insanely prolific author, of gibberish, mostly, delivered to almost nobody, but it’s all good, for he can endlessly worship his preening self, on a screen, an intoxicating experience. With FaceBook, Twitter and Instagram, everybody is famous all the time, to himself.
There is a silver lining to all this, for the internet has allowed deeply heretical views to surface, so that we can be swayed by writers who would otherwise be entirely silenced, and I’m thankful that I can crank out thousands of words monthly to thousands of people, if only for PayPal donations, and it’s a miracle I haven’t ended up homeless myself, like some of the people I portray. The net effect of the internet is negative for both literacy and community.
Drowning in bilge, we excrete our own and happily guzzle it all. There are no coherent stories left, and no reflection, and if something makes sense, it can only do so for a flash, before it’s washed away by a deluge of lies and trivia. Nearly as soon as something is read, or rather, skimmed, it’s permanently forgotten.
Serious art forms such as painting, sculpture and poetry have become occult pursuits, for they require contemplation, solitude and silence, which are all but banished from this manic society. Nothing matters, man, least of all the word. Across the river, Whitman’s grave sits desolate.
In each Edward Hopper painting, everyone is profoundly and pathetically alone, even when he or she is with others, but that’s the American essence, as captured by America’s greatest painter, but so did Johns, Warhol, Guston, Salle and Basquiat. Trapped in this self-congratulatory, narcissistic, house of mirrors nation, how can we be anything but solipsists? Blind to everything, we just want to hear our own voice.
In this accelerating speed culture, there is no time to think, or even feel much beyond an insatiable anxiety. Driven half insane by a surfeit of nothingness, many Americans can only calm down with plenty of alcohol and/or opioids.
Admiring our screen persona, we blunder into the mindless void.
Thursday, June 14, 2018
Wednesday, June 13, 2018
Tuesday, June 12, 2018
As published at Unz Review, Smirking Chimp, OpEd News, TruthSeeker and LewRockwell, 6/13/18:
Last Saturday, five eternally misunderstood and oppressed gentlemen fired 41 shots at a crowd at 20th and Susquehanna, killing one and injuring four others, including a 5-year-old boy. The TV news reported that the deceased was a “standout basketball player.”
North Philly is generally not good for your health and happiness. Though neighborhoods have cute, idyllic names like Nicetown, Hunting Park and Fairhill, they’re mostly postindustrial, trash strewn, drugged up ghettos with plenty of dead businesses, dilapidated churches, boarded up homes, caged porches and corner bodegas with signs forbidding hoodies, guns and knives. Chinese takeouts dish up beef lo mein, moo shoo pork and fried chicken from behind bullet-proof plexiglass. Graffiti mar just about every flat surface, including, sometimes, beautiful murals celebrating prominent black figures in art, science, politics and civil rights.
The northeast corner of North Philly, though, is generally spared from this mayhem and squalor. Composed primarily of Poles, Irish, Ukrainians and Italians, Port Richmond and Bridesburg retain their dignity and orderliness through half a century of economic decline.
On Allegheny, there’s the magnificent St. Aldabert Church, with perhaps the most beautiful altarpiece in the entire city. Founded in 1903, it has masses in both English and Polish. Popular eateries The Dinner House and Syrenka are just down the street, as well as cozy Donna’s Bar, where I’ve had cheap bottles of Okocim, Zywiec and Lech, plus tasty bigos and perogies. Their golabki is also wonderful, I’ve been told. I must get that the next time.
Half of one wall is taken up by a wallpaper Manhattan, at night, as seen from Brooklyn. The Twin Towers have not been imploded.
A guy in his mid-50’s said, “I had no problems paying child support. In fact, I gave my kids twice as much, because they’re my kids. This one guy told me, a black guy, he said, ‘After they arrest you six times for nonpayment, they’ll stop bothering you.’”
“That’s ridiculous,” I laughed. “Why would anyone want to be arrested six times for anything?!”
“Even if there was no law, I would still pay, because they’re my kids! Their mom tried to turn them against me, you know, but I’ve never said a bad word about her, because she’s my kids’ mom. As they get older, they can judge me for themselves, see if I was an asshole or not.”
Sunday at Donna’s, I met two intriguing characters, Rick and Benny. Bar regulars, they’re good friends.
An American-born Colombian in his mid-30’s, Rick said he had just been chased from another neighborhood tavern, after his very first beer there, “At first, I didn’t even know what he was talking about, so he said it again, ‘I think it’s time for you get out of here, buddy. Beat it!’ I was so shocked, man, I felt like crying. I had never been treated like that.”
“That is outrageous.”
“And I don’t even look that Hispanic. It was unreal.”
“So what did you do?”
“I just left, man. I couldn’t process it. I just got off work. I just wanted a beer, that’s all.”
This night, Rick had another unpleasant encounter. Talking to me, he reached for what he thought was Benny’s pack of cigarettes, but it belonged to the woman next to him. After she snatched it away, Rick explained his misunderstanding and apologized repeatedly, but the middle-aged lady never lightened up. Stern, she pointed to her pack and blurted several times, “This! You go! Wawa!”
Looking hurt, Rick turned to me, “See how quickly that shit comes out?”
“I wouldn’t worry about it, man. It doesn’t look like she speaks much English. She can’t understand you, dude!”
“And I’ve eaten at her restaurant too. Once. I will never go back there.” Shaking his head, Rick went outside to calm down.
Later, Rick told me about his sister. American born, she went to Colombia, ended up working as an escort, then was raped and murdered by two Polish tourists, “But don’t you believe all this shit about Colombia. They make it out like it’s the most dangerous place on earth, but it’s perfectly safe for foreigners. The people are so nice and friendly, and Colombian women are the most beautiful. You’re constantly looking at this one, and this one. It’s like, you’re constantly walking around with a hard-on, man. Ain’t that right, Benny?”
“He’s right,” Benny turned to me, “they are the most beautiful.”
“You’ve been there?”
“I’ve been everywhere,” Benny smiled.
In his mid-60’s, Benny has done just about everything and wants you to know about it. Familiar with this proclivity, the bartender kept asking me, “Is he bothering you?” as Benny went on about himself.
Outside, the intermitten downpour had paused, and we were only interrupted once by some vapid disco, blaring from the jukebox.
I’m a Tartar, from the Crimea. I’m a part of the Yellow Horde, like you. We’re brothers!
My father was ugly, like you, with slanted eyes. Ha, ha!
My mother is Polish.
The Crimea was its own country, then the Russians came. I hate Russians. They should all be castrated!
Look what they did to your country. The Russians and Americans used Vietnam as an experiment. They caused so many people so much pain. They don’t give a shit.
Communism is so evil because it destroys your entire culture. It destroys your mind.
Ninety percent of the Jews in the world were in Poland, because no one else wanted them. They destroy everything. I hate Jews.
The first time I was in Auschwitz, I saw a plaque that said three million Jews were killed there. Ten years later, I came back and it said 1.8 million Jews were killed in Auschwitz. The last time I was there, the plaque said 800,000, so what the fuck is it? It’s greatly exaggerated. There was no Final Solution.
I had a good Jewish friend, Jacob. One morning, he called and asked if he could borrow 4,000 bucks. I was still in bed. This guy had millions, and here he was asking to borrow 4,000 bucks, but he was a good friend, so I went to the bank to get him the money. Two hours later, he paid me back! He was just testing me, you see.
Just before he died, he would sometimes give me a hundred bucks and say, “Go get yourself a whore, Benny. I can’t fuck anymore!”
His own son didn’t go to his funeral, because he had to close out a business deal that day. That’s the kind of asshole he was. Jacob said to me, “I’m a Jew, but my son, he’s an Israeli!”
I speak eight languages. I speak Tartar, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, some English. When I went to Bulgaria, I could make myself understood. All the Slavic languages are very similar. I speak Spanish.
By the time I was 19, I had been to 40 countries. I have been to 150 countries.
I sold and bought contracts. I did import, export. I own properties.
Have you heard of Radio Free Europe? I worked for it. During the Solidarity movement, I went to Poland with a Swiss passport. I brought them ink, paper, printing equipment. Once I was stopped by the police, so I yelled at them, “Do you know who the fuck I am?! I’m glad you stopped me, because now, you can hold my dick while I take a piss!” They backed off. I bluffed my way out of trouble.
I was in Afghanistan a couple of weeks before the Soviets invaded.
I was in Vietnam, but only for the pussy!
I was in the Special Force, in Grenada. I killed a guy. It’s something I think about every day. I feel so horrible, guilty and ashamed, but it was either me or him. He pointed, I pointed, so I shot him.
Nobody should have to kill anybody.
I was in this cheap hotel in El Paso, and there was a door between my room and the next. There were all these little holes in the door, you know, eaten away by bugs. I looked into one of these holes and could see, in the next room, a guy who was completely naked, except for his cowboy hat and boots, and there was a senorita, you know, sucking him. He smoked a cigarette while she was doing it. He didn’t say anything, didn’t make a noise. When it was over, he said to her, “Same time, next week.”
I’ve been with two thousand women, maybe three thousand. I don’t like to sleep with women. I just like the sex.
I haven’t slept with her [the bartender]. I knew her before she had genital hair.
Once in Turkey, I saw a guy fuck a chicken. It was in 1994, near Ankara. I haven’t had chicken since.
I just bought a house for $30,000 in Costa Rica. It’s a peaceful place. They're the only country on earth without an army. When my mother passes away, I will move down there. May she live forever.
Once I was in Vanuatu, in this tiny place that had no running water, no electricity, but everyone was so relaxed and happy. They cooked with firewood, on the beach. It’s so wonderful.
Life should be like that, everywhere.
- Linh Dinh
- Born in Vietnam in 1963, I came to the US in 1975, and have also lived in Italy, England and Germany. I'm the author of a non-fiction book, Postcards from the End of America (2017), two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), six of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007), Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009) and A Mere Rica (2017), and a novel, Love Like Hate (2010). I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around the World, etc. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013). My writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.