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Friday, August 20, 2010

Dissing T-Shirts

As published on Common Dreams, Online Journal and Unz Review, 8/19/10:

Lumpens are parading in underwear. What a concept, We’ll charge them real money for a kind of tube sox for the torso. Male, female, one size fits all. (Actually three, Rotund, Super Rotund and Outta Here.) We don’t pay, but triple the price if they advertise for us. In every corporate shack serving deep fried whatever, reconstituted meat matter and colored whey, diners show individuality by their choice of chest advertisement. By donning a Blackwater muscle T, dad declares his allegiance to privatization and kick ass. Rebellious daughter flaunts Old Navy. Even infants can become sandwich boards during this era of too late late capitalism. There’s no truth to the rumor that Pro Lifers are fitting baby dolls on fetuses.

As you move up in class, this loudly desperate fashion fades away. The affluent aren’t so inclined to brand their chests, backs, butts and car bumpers with slogans and mass produced one liners. No WHERE’S MY BAILOUT? No MY SON CAN KICK YOUR HONOR STUDENT SON’S ASS. Ballasted by a healthy bank account, they don’t need to assert themselves so literally. It’s the voiceless who strut around with a message, often goofily anti social, on their boobs and pecs. I HAVE MULTIPLE PERSONALITIES AND NONE OF THEM LIKE YOU. I’ve noticed more screen printed skulls, daggers and guns on the streets these days, but also more LOVE and peace signs, and no, not on hippies.

The poor man wears gold outside his stupid T-shirt. He can’t afford POLO anything, so he wears “POLO,” like a talisman, on his stupid T-shirt. Of course, there are also many who walk around with nothing but dyed underwear on their person. The poor man does not see himself defined truthfully anywhere, so he defines himself with his stupid T-shirt. This, in turn, becomes another strike against him.

Turning on the TV, the poor man sees himself being chased through the streets and alleyways, then pinned to the ground, grass and dirt on his face. On another channel, he’s being kicked and clawed by his significant other, then lectured by the avuncular Maury, or vaguely professorial Jerry. His stoicism, physical and spiritual strengths, and the empathy he has for others who struggle, just like him, are never conveyed. The biggest tippers are bartenders, waiters and waitresses, since they know what it’s like to depend on tips.

The poor man is almost always depicted as a racist but, on the lowest rungs, you’ll find much more tolerance than commonly suspected. The reason is simple, the poorest are forced to mix, whether on buses, in their work places or apartment buildings, and familiarity can also lead to accommodation, friendship, even affection, not just contempt. Black male, white female couples are most often seen among the poorest, giving at least some credence to Joe Bageant’s assertion that “Every redneck I know has a daughter who’s married to a black guy!”

Visiting the Camden tent city, now shut down, I was struck by the number of interracial couples. The encampment itself was highly mixed, with blacks, whites and hispanics all living together. Up to a hundred and twenty people shared one bathroom, a honey bucket, and two shower stalls. They often ate communally. The self-appointed “mayor” was Lorenzo, a Jamaican immigrant, Vietnam vet, ex-con and near suicide. Jumping off the Ben Franklin Bridge years ago, Lorenzo was grabbed by a white cop. Together they plunged onto the water, 130 feet below. Lorenzo was saved, but the cop was paralyzed. This experience changed Lorenzo, transformed him eventually into a kind of pastor for his desperate flock. I don’t cite this tent city as any kind of Utopia. It was certainly a dire place, but it was also proof that the most abandoned could band together to help and protect each other. Camden is very menacing, frankly, but I never felt safer there than in this tent city.

Gangs are nearly always ethnic, and as the economy collapses, we will likely see a spike in ethnic gangs terrorizing each other and the innocent, but no, America doesn’t have to become a kind of San Quentin from sea to shining sea, with the only havens isolated homesteads and gated communities, where the wealthy are already safely ensconced. Wealth always means isolation, private this, exclusive that—the rich don’t even want to share a toilet seat with their spouse—but poverty is communal. No chairmen, these are bench people. Think bleacher seats. Think Greyhound, which, to the poorest, is hotel as much as mode of transportation. Desperation will bind folks together, force them to share, barter and employ new and neglected strategies for survival.

Petty commerce transcends racial barriers, creates social bonds and communities. Think of the thousands of Vietnamese manicurists servicing black, white and hispanic patrons. On El Paso’s Santa Fe Street, Korean shopkeepers converse with their customers in Spanish. In my own neighborhood, Philly’s Italian Market, third generation Italians sell stuff to blacks and immigrants from Asia, Africa and Latin America. To make a buck, people will get along, but they must have a chance to do business, unhindered by superfluous laws, codes and zoning regulations. In nearly all countries, you can just stroll down the street to get a bite or a drink, but most Americans must get in their car and drive for 20, 30 minutes, if not more, to buy anything. Small businesses are good, especially the smallest, even those conducted from stands and pushcarts. In poor neighborhoods across America—hell, in downtown Los Angeles—you already see these zero overhead operations. These should not be outlawed, but encouraged, because that’s how the poorest survive. If people could make some honest change, they’d be less likely to kill and rob each other.

The formal economy has looted, swindled and bankrupted us all. Now rises the informal. In our stupid T-shirts, we’re already dressed for the occasion.


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About Me

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.