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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Those Laboring Days

As published at OpEd News, Dissident Voice, CounterPunch, Information Clearing House, Intrepid Report and Diacritics, 12/26/12:

In the 1980's and 90's, even a klutz like me could find work as a manual laborer. I painted houses, washed windows and cleaned apartments and offices. At my first house painting job, I propped a ladder upside down against the wall, don't laugh, and was not let go. Once I was so hungover, I had to climb down from the ladder five or six times to throw up, and still wasn't fired. My boss, Joe LeBlanc, just laughed it off. In fact, he even paid me a full day's wage, and told me to go home. When times were good, everyone made out OK, and was more generous towards each other. They drank more, and tipped more at the bar. After work, we often ducked into The Office, a rather skanky strip joint, and certainly no “gentlemen’s club,” before heading to McGlinchey's for Rolling Rock and Jameson. At The Office, a black chick grinned, "I've heard you Chinese guys can have sex, like, a hundred times in a row?" I didn't have the heart to disabuse her of that invigorating and lovely notion.

Joe was a Canadian who had gone South to join the US Army. He fought in Vietnam, was dishonorably discharged, then just ended up living here, illegally. Days removed from the war zone, Joe shot at an Oakland street light. "Why?" I asked. "I don't know. I was just fucked up." A gun freak, Joe was erecting a dome dwelling in an all-white Kentucky county. He gave me an open invitation to come down and try his large assortment of assault rifles, but shit, man, I didn't want Joe to have some nasty flashback. Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! He might finish me off if he saw me with an AK-47 in the middle of them woods, you know what I mean?

Like us all, Joe had his rough spots, but he was a very good man, I'm convinced, because he treated his workers well, and was willing to hire goofs or even fuckups. When work was scarce during winter, Joe lent me money, in envelopes stuffed through my mail slot, and twice he even said, “Forget about it,” when I tried to pay him back. Joe hired an old guy, because he knew grandpa was hurting. Laura was rather large, so he had her paint first floor windows, to spare her from climbing up ladders. Joe employed a guy who was so slow, he was nicknamed "Smooth." It was like seeing Marcel Marceau with a piece of sand paper. A chemist of sort, maybe even an alchemist, Smooth was hooked to a special cocktail of pharmaceuticals, and actually died at the sink, standing up, before he reached 30. Tony had served 13 months for drug dealing. He and his brother had taken Amtrak for their monthly Philly to Miami run, but business got so good, they decided to buy an asskicking muscle car. They were busted after a stupid traffic stop. Tony died at 35. Tony said that some of the prettier dudes in prison had their assholes slit with a razor, not voluntarily, of course, to make them more penetrable. I incorporated this detail into a short story in my collection, Fake House.

Any man who’s willing to be boss to such a lame roster is OK in my book, but like I said, times were good then, and everyone could find work. I also knew Tumi, a German drifter who traveled strictly by Greyhound, and could be on the bus for three days at a time. When not in Philly or rain dancing in North Dakota, he was often in Santa Monica, where he slept on the beach. Out of cash, all Tumi had to do was stand in front of a paint store, and a contractor would hire him before too long. Tumi needed just enough for his daily all-you-can-eat buffet meal, then lager in the evening. His real name was Ludwig, by the way, with Tumi adopted because he was somehow Muslim. No genius, Tumi educated me, "An olive, my friend, has as much protein as a steak." Also, "A bone must take so long to make. So long!" Joe also hired Tumi.

Now, Joe wasn't running a charity, but a regular business, and we didn't loaf and do drugs on the job. We actually worked our tails off, when we weren't throwing up, that is. Joe hired us because there was actually a shortage of labor, at least for the kind of grunt work we were doing, but now, you'll need a college degree just to serve latte or park cars. With legions diving after so few jobs, soon we'll have PhD's chirping, "Original recipe or spicy, Sir?" Or, "Would you like a Holiday Mint McFlurry with that?" Recent majors in Postmodern Linked Verse Deconstruction will be pole dancing, then asking, "I've heard you Chinese guys can have sex, like, a hundred times in a row?" You must flatter the clientele if you want a decent tip, capisce?

Last week, I popped into McGlinchey's just before noon, and found it nearly empty. If lowlifes can't even drink a cheap beer for lunch, you know the economy is nosediving. "Where's everybody, Ronnie?" I asked the owner.

"Well, you're here!"

"But this ain't right, Ronnie. Where's everybody?!"

"I think people's drinking habits have changed, that's all."

"You sure it ain't the economy?"

"No, no. People just don't drink as much as they used to. Before, you never had people come into a bar and not drink, but now you do."

"What do you mean not drink? You can't come in here and not drink!"

"Well, you might have a table of four people, and one or maybe even two might not drink at all."

"That's ridiculous!"

"Or people will just buy beer from a store, then drink at their apartments. That way, they can also smoke."

"Oh, come on, Ronnie, people have always smoked weed!"

"I guess you're right. Maybe it does have something to do with the economy."

Of course, it is the imploding economy. One of Ronnie's bartenders, Alia, told me that business was down by about a third. Many regulars who had come in daily, she now saw maybe once a month. Alia herself was cutting back, by eating out less. There was nothing positive about this economic mess.

For some business owners, it may be too painful to admit the obvious. They will latch onto "recovery" even as they sink and their neighbors go belly up. As a downtown dive bar, however, McGlinchey's may be resilient. When swankier pubs go bust, their ex clientele, now not so flushed either, yet still parched, throatwise, will drift over to settle into these cushionless booths, and onto these ratty and leaning stools. "What's the beer special today? What's the cheapest you have on tap?"



Cindy Shirar said...

It's Cindy again, Mr. Dinh. :-)

I love the way you relate stories! Amazing. I didn't want your article to end.

Found myself chuckling, picturing you climbing down the work ladder in search of bushes...LOL! Heh! Had a few days like that myself...Lord!!

It's so true, and so scary, the unemployment situation. I find myself feeling grateful for the low-level staff position at a community college health center where I've worked now almost seven years. Ha. When I took the job, it was just some "throw-away," "support-me-through-a-divorce," bridge job. Not anymore! A new spouse and two kids later? I pray, especially here in the unmitigated (political) hell that is Texas, that my state "gubmint" job isn't eliminated.

If you don't mind my asking, what keeps you motivated, Mr. Dinh? Your chronicling, in photos and writing, of the painful deterioration of the country is do you handle everything you do, see and experience?
I love the humor (dark or light) that comes through your work (poetry, articles, photos, interviews, etc.) Speaking of motivation, your blog is riveting...and, as you have probably noticed, I'm a regular fan!

Just rambling more here...(sorry *wincing a little*)...

Just in a state of constant low-grade depression here, observing all the increasing misery and struggle going on seemingly everywhere these days. (Thank the stars for an understanding doc that keeps the Xanax on tap!) Mom of three (total) here and often wonder...ohmygodwhatdidido!!??

Like any parent, I want the kids to be more than survivors (goes for all kids/folks, really). Fantasize often about fleeing with the family to, say, Italy--or somewhere in Europe--having lived in various European countries for, all told, about 20 years. I know no place is perfect, though...and a lot of what's going on is global.

More and more I find myself wondering what future generations around the world will think of the "Grand American 'Experiment?'" To trot out the old, tired "Nazi thing," will the collective insanity of this country be viewed as some
horrific permutation, similar to the Third Reich variety...only maybe worse? *Sighing*

Thank you again, Mr. Dinh, for yor work. And thank you for allowing me a couple minutes to ramble. Let me know if I can help you with anything. I like writing (not very good at it, though, really)! Eh, if I can do anything for you, please give me a holler. One of these days (I hope I can contribute more than a half-baked, random ramble)!

Stealing Bageant's salute again...

In Art and Labor,


Linh Dinh said...

Hi Cindy,

Thanks for this. It's very good to hear your account. I write because lives like mine and yours are rarely told with any degree of accuracy or sympathy, especially right now, with the propraganda machinery in high gear. In the media, struggling people are routinely depicted as stupid and/or violent trash.

When I taught my one fiction writing course at Muhlenberg, there was an extremely gifted student from South Jersey. Only 20 years-old-old or so, she had had several jobs, including at a jewelry, pawn shop and check cashing joint. She was remarkably sharp with her takes on working class life, and most amazingly, on older people, even those near death. Now, if we had a sane and attentive society, a young woman like that would be encouraged to tell stories about South Jersey, or Allentown or wherever, and I hope she'll indeed blossom into a bonafide author, but the hard truth is, Hardly anyone is paying attention to anything worth anything. Instead of meditating on our own lives and sharing our stories, we're fed stereotypes and kitsch manufactured by cynical and sinister manipulators hundreds of miles away.

Anyway, Italy would not be a bad plan, although, like you said, it is also falling apart, mostly because of the criminal New York and London banks. In a recent email, an Italian friend, Cristiana, laments:

Purtroppo, come tu dici, la crisi è reale. Non per tutta l'europa perché i paesi scandinavi come la Svezia, Norvegia, Finlandia, Danimarca ed anche altre nazioni: Francia, Germania, Austria, Olanda ecc. se la passano molto meglio di noi.

E' vero che la finanza americana detta legge anche in europa, ma una buona parte di colpa è dovuta ai nostri governanti, soprattutto al periodo che è stato capo del consiglio Berlusconi. Dalle leggi che ha fatto alle sue vicende personali è stata una cosa vergognosa che ci ha trascinato in un baratro a livello economico e ridicolizzato, in tutto il mondo, a livello morale.

E' triste pensare che una nazione come l'Italia, piena di bellezze artistiche, culturali e paesaggisteche, che ha avuto persone importanti come Dante, Galileo, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci e tantissimi altri da poter fare una lista lunga Kilometri, debba essere ricordata per gli scandali di chi ci dovrebbe rappresentare.

Noi potremmo vivere di turismo, di artigianato, di industrie legate alla pesca, all'agricoltura, all'allevamento, considerando che i nostri prodotti sono apprezzati e copiati in tutto il mondo, dal vino ai formaggi, all'olio extravergine di oliva, al latte ed al burro prodotti dai pascoli delle montagne, dagli agrumi ed i pomodori del nostro sud e molte altre cose esclusive come il parmigiano reggiano, che sono apprezzate anche dai ricchi sceicchi arabi. Un buon governo deve considerare e valorizzare ciò che da' il proprio paese e con queste risorse garantire la sanità, l'istruzione ed il lavoro per i propri cittadini e non portarli alla fame, all'ignoranza, alla malattia con false promesse e sfruttarli solo per un rendiconto ed un arricchimento personale.

Scusami se mi sono prolungata con questo sfogo.


About Me

Born in Vietnam in 1963, I lived mostly in the US from 1975 until 2018, and have returned to my native Saigon. I've also lived in Italy, England and Germany. I'm the author of a non-fiction book, Postcards from the End of America (2017), a novel, Love Like Hate (2010), two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), six collections of poems, with a Collected Poems soon to be released from Chax Press. 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 Japanese, Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in Tokyo, London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.