As published by Information Clearing House, CounterCurrents and Intrepid Report, 1/6/14:
On a drowsy, sputtering bus into Vineland, I glimpsed a 9/11 Memorial by the side of the road. Next to a flag pole, there was the Twin Towers at the height of a middling crotch. Fleetingly I thought of getting off at the next stop to scrutinize, but decided no, for it was clear I was only on the outskirts of town, and Vineland is vast, despite its modest population of only 60,000 souls.
Vineland was founded by Charles Landis in 1862 as a Utopia. He banned alcohol and stipulated that all inhabitants must farm. To prevent the spread of diseases, houses were kept apart from each other. Flowers and shade trees were planted on each road. Concluding that the local soil was suitable for growing grapes, Landis lured Italian immigrants and named his new town, Vineland. A tireless developer, Landis also tried to recreate Venice in America, but the result is merely Sea Isles, New Jersey. With his ambitions, Landis was mocked as King Landis, but his surest place in history is as the first man to successfully plead temporary insanity at a murder trial. A journalist had questioned Landis’ wife’s mental equilibrium, so Landis promptly shot the insolent hack. It doesn’t take too much gray matter, though, to suspect that Landis’ deep pocket had something to do with his acquittal. Now as then, the powerful can openly exercise their insanity while the rest of us will be beaten down for the slightest tick.
From habitually frivolous Yahoo! News, this yahoo, yours truly, did manage to glean recently that dolphins munch on blow fish to get high, and moose booze on fermented apples. It’s good that no dolphin or moose was to be found in Vineland, for these tipsy critters would have had to pay gouging fines or spend many a lonesome weekend in the lockup. All Utopias start with the best intentions, but to be told to do anything against one’s will is a sure, incremental step towards hell, no? Now, multiply that by ten thousand times and you get, well, fill in your zip code here! You must not paint your house a wrong color, collect rain water or hand out sandwiches to the homeless, but a uniformed pervert is free to diddle your pudenda before you board that jet plane, ma’am. Just be glad you ain’t on that no-fly list. Though we can’t afford real cheese or butter, we must donate half of our shriveling paychecks to the health extortionist company. An army of goons are also overhearing our phone conversations and reading our emails, and the top thug of all can even have any of us snagged, medievally tortured or shot, without charge and in secret, and if we rebel, we’re only doing it in the prescribed manners, by abusing or mutilating ourselves, lashing out at other hapless sinkers or, best yet, waving cute signs for an hour or two. Meanwhile, those who have herded us all into this quicksand are glorified and worshipped. Too often, our hatred of suffering is transformed into a contempt for sufferers and, as programmed, we marvel at the undeservingly or criminally powerful. Over and over again, we vote for our own doom, and the more serious our predicament, the more trivial the news that’s jammed down our throats. Today’s urgent headline, “Lebron leaves skid marks on court. Watch how it happened!”
Rolling past a few strip malls, we were still nowhere near downtown, as I could detect no taller buildings in the distance. Two rows in front of me, an older lady moaned to the driver, “Are we almost there yet? I have to use the bathroom real bad!” As we kept going and going, I had visions of a natural disaster erupting at any moment, complete with mop and bucket. Even without individualized defects, the body is a drag that takes constant upkeep just to make halfway presentable. Still, it is an awe-inspiring presence, each one of us, as I certainly learnt from the nude drawing classes I took during my brief stay in college.
Attentive looking and listening are the prerequisite to reverence, but in a speed culture, these approaches have been conditioned out of existence. Here and now, even standing still is suspect, is loitering. In a speed culture, meaning itself becomes instantaneously obsolete, moment by moment, to make room for the next bang or flash, signifying whatever. But who want it this way? The same people who are raping you blind!
Lost in the uproar over the bogus sign language interpreter for Obama was the fact that what was said was also nonsense, although so pious, sonorous and stately, and if that gesturing clown has a rap sheet, it’s nothing compared to the staggering historical crimes of the lying psychopath he was mistranslating.
Finally, we were allowed to get off, and without knowing where I was heading exactly, I started walking. Across the street from the Transportation Center, I spotted a large sign at a gas station, with “UNITED WE STAND” beneath the stars and stripes. Attached to it was a mini-mart offering bottled corn syrups, chemical snacks and lottery tickets. Continuing, I ran into US Petroleum, a shuttered gas station with six flags painted onto the sides of its flat roof over the gassed pumps.
I passed a storefront with “JOHN 3:16” in its window. No Bible worm, I had to ask the nodding angel perched on my right shoulder, which made him shout with indignation, “You dumb shit! Here goes, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ Got that?!” More interesting was a faded poster with “PRAY HARD For the Nation” coupled with a photo of a man’s lower limbs in holey jeans and beat up sneakers. Here, the nation was presented as materially destitute, not spiritually eroded, although it is that, too.
Soon the buildings got older, so I knew I had reached Vineland’s historical core. I passed Agape Ministry, which aimed at “Producing Communities of no Need,” as announced on its blue sign. Taming or sating desire is one thing, but this sounds like a proposal for cemeteries… In quick succession, I ran into a torpedo, a 40mm naval gun and a Civil War Memorial, with its eagle-topped column flanked by a Union soldier and a sailor. I saw a flag sticker on a car window, “September 11, 2001. We Will Remember,” but what do we recall, exactly? You’re liable to get into a fistfight if you merely point out the absurdity of a skyscraper collapsing at free fall speed without being hit by anything, or the intact passport of an accused terrorist conveniently located among the dust of a pulverized building, or the five-story Pentagon being hit on the side by an airliner shaving the ground, and when the purported architect of this disaster is finally shot, his never seen corpse is immediately dumped into the ocean without leaving any trace behind, not even a hair or a pixel, all in the name of being sensitive to Muslims, a people our government has demonized for decades?! These questions are not the feverish hallucinations of any tinfoil-hatted brigade, but sane skepticism towards the endless preposterous lies from a government that routinely dishes up bullshit.
Like many others, I have raised these questions over the years, and for this, I have been branded a freak by one of the left’s most disdainful gatekeepers. After CounterPunch canceled my Postcard series on its site, which is its prerogative, of course, its editor, Jeffrey St Clair, responded to readers’ complaints by questioning my sanity, “perhaps Linh has simply joined the conspiratorialists and Dissident Voice is a more comfortable venue for him. We’ve chased most of the people who question the moon landing, whether JKF is really dead and the circularity of the earth off of CounterPunch.” So to point out the obvious lies of a criminal government is to believe that this earth is flat? Good Lord, with such a rebel, who needs sheep?
The lies of 9/11 have replaced the Constitution to become the foundation and compass of this country. Everything that’s done now is pivoted around this central deceit, this fiction, so if we refuse to see through these outrageous lies, we won’t quite understand that we’re being lorded over by psychopathic criminals. Again, we’re not being ruled by bumbling and bickering fools, but evil-to-the-bone, habitually lying criminals.
Continuing, I chanced upon the world’s tiniest park, perhaps, for it was only the grassy base of one street lamp. Among the mostly brown leaves was this plaque: “City of Vineland Operation Desert Storm Victory Mini-Park. Honoring the bravery & skill of the U.S. Armed Forces during the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91, which helped to free the Middle East country of Kuwait from its hostile invaders.” Below, the names of local politicians took up nearly half of the bronze surface. Irish, Italian, Welsh, Polish, Puerto Rican and Jewish, they also give you a good clue on who dwell in Vineland.
In spite of whatever progress that’s been made in racial relations, Americans still tend to vote by races or ethnic groups, and there’s no telling if this narrow tribal instinct will abate or become more vehement as we become more desperate. Fighting over scraps, will we fragment into roving bands to rob, rape and kill each other? Should that happen, it would only cheer up our ruling class, locked in their gated enclaves and guarded by our cousins, the selected few who still have jobs. In a recent email, my good friend, Chuck Orloski, wrote, “The elite learned plenty from trying to occupy divided-Baghdad, and knowing how millions of Americans are DIVIDED but armed-to-teeth, their CONTROL-method will take the shape of instituting mass-deprivation. Citizens will be more prone to shoot one another, and consequently, they will not have to absolutely rely on American soldiers shooting Americans. They study history and have solid population-demoralization plans in effect, and to date, it’s working on schedule & according to their psychotic-favor.”
Though Vineland’s Landis Avenue is not nearly as depressing as many small towns’ Main Street nowadays, it has its share of shut down businesses, including a food market with a window broken and taped up, and an employment agency, “JOBS NOW / TRABAJO AHORA,” with its plate glass frontage struck twice by some blunt instrument. The military undercurrent also resurfaces in the form of Armageddon, a store selling paintball equipments. Before we splatter each other for real, we must practice with red, green and blue paints. I gotcha, sucka, right in da head! How fun. Oh shoot, I’m hit! Nothing was scheduled at the forlorn Landis Theater, and on its marquee was this sad appeal, “PLEASE SHOP DOWNTOWN.”
Having walked nearly a mile without seeing a single bar or liquor store, it dawned on me that Vineland might still be a dry town, like many in Jersey, but then I spotted, “MOTEL / PUB / WINES & SPIRITS TO GO.” The same sign also informed me that a night here would cost but $30, plus tax, and a week stay would set me back only $122. There was also a curious announcement for Judo classes in the evening. Fingering the change in my pocket, I briefly entertained the lovely notion of getting shit faced on, say, Pabst Blue Ribbon for hours, then crawling upstairs to my very own room, to be feasted on by mutant bed bugs and other devilish Jersey creatures, with what’s left of me tossed into the dumpster the next morning. Opening the door, I didn’t hesitate before stepping into this gloomy, subterranean tavern.
Settling down, I noticed there was only one other customer, not counting a huge stuffed animal with a beer can and shot slug in front of him. Two televisions were on, beaming ESPN Sports and a History Channel’s show on torture devices. As expected, the emphasis was on distant regimes, and not our own fearsome DC Gang, with its many black sites, School for the Americas, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo gulag. Though torture was disavowed as an effective means for extracting intelligence, Bin Laden was shown shooting a machine gun, as well as the Twin Towers being hit, so revenge as justification for torture was deftly tucked into this program. There was nothing on tap, just canned beer, so I ordered a Bud. Behind the bar sat a fake hand grenade with “COMPLAINT DEPARTMENT. TAKE A NUMBER” attached to its pull ring. A sign read, “WE DON’T CALL 911. WE’LL BEAT YOU UP GOOD, THEN CALL 911.” A dive bar beneath a shady hotel must attract more than a few dealers, whores, deadbeat dads and others who have skipped bail or are fleeing from a warrant, so I was not surprised to see graffiti in the bathroom threatening undercover cops.
“Hey, where’s everybody?” I asked the burly bartender.
“Is it always like this?”
“But there’s, like, no other bar around here!”
“I dunno. No one has money around here.”
The place did have customers, but they only came in to buy, say, a $1 can of Colt 45 or a pack of Cheyenne cigarillos. Very unusual for a bar, there was a clear price tag before each item on the shelves, but since its clientele counted each penny, this was a sensible arrangement. On the floor, there was a $4 fan for sale. In a loose-fitting sweat ensemble, a groggy woman would appear occasionally, but it wasn’t clear if she was a customer or employee. Though she had access behind the bar, she did nothing that I could decipher. In her haze, she would look at this and that, then lurch out. Her eyes were so unseeing, I wouldn’t be surprised if she navigated by sonar. Mindful of the bar’s leeriness of undercover cops, I didn’t want to ask too many questions.
After learning all about the various techniques to shred, pierce, penetrate, burn, break, stretch, crush, cook or electrocute a person in the most painful, drawn-out and humiliating ways possible, the other sitting patron split, and so I was left with the rather taciturn bartender. After some prodding, however, he did reveal to me quite a bit of his life story. Born in North Carolina, he has a brother who used to rake in the bucks supplying night crawlers to stores in three states, “I’d help him out, and we’d deliver all over North Carolina, into Tennessee, a bit of Georgia and even Alabama. My brother used to make $300,000 a year, and it wasn’t even a year-round business!”
“$300,000 a year for selling worms?!”
“You betcha! He’d buy them for next to nothing and sell them for a bundle.”
“If it was such easy money, why didn’t everyone get into it?”
“Everyone did, finally, and that’s why my brother is no longer doing it.”
“If you all made that much, you must have saved some.”
“No, we didn’t. We blew it all.”
“You know, just living, drinking. When you work so hard and drive all night, you treat yourselves well, and I didn’t make that much, really, since I was only working for my brother.”
“Why did you come up here?”
“I came with my parents. They had jobs at the glass factory.”
“Is that still around?”
“No, it shut down. Look at these bottles,” and the bartender pointed to the rows of hard liquor behind him. “Do you see much glass here?”
“Well, it’s hard to tell from this distance.”
“Most of these are plastic. There are hardly any glass bottles here!”
It was now past 4 O’clock, and I hadn’t eaten anything since 7 in the morning, so I asked the bartender for a 35-cent bag of Wise potato chips, a 15-cent pretzel stick and a 30-cent Slim Jim, with its geriatric beef, mechanically separated chicken, corn syrup, sodium nitrite and dextrose, etc. Matched with a $2.15 can of Bud, my lunch came to $2.95, before tax. I didn’t order the most deluxe item available, Crackers ‘n Cheez, with its tiny plastic scraper, for I needed to stretch my travel budget, you know what I mean? In any case, I surely got my five food groups in, starch, sodium, lactic acid, fructose and yeast.
“You can’t beat that!” The bartender smiled.
I dug in. As I ate, a second man appeared behind bar. Smiling, he appeared awfully amused, not just at me but at everything. His assured manners tipped me off that this was perhaps the boss, but it wasn’t until I talked to him that I realized he owned not just this bar, but the hotel above and, what’s more, he was the sensei of the judo dojo advertised on the sign outside.
I should have recognized this confident and relaxed older man from an ensemble of photographs on the wall. Surrounding a woman who was tagged as “BOSS,” he appeared four times, as “DAY MANAGER” (wearing shades), “NIGHT MANAGER” (in a white fool’s cap, complete with bells), “FINANCIER” (sporting a leprechaun hat while raising a glass) and “ADVISOR” (brandishing a brass-knuckled fist). Among these was also a black and white photo of a shack, with this caption, “Ray’s home 1945. Eminent Domain Abuse [crossed out]. Blighted. Underperforming. Illegal.”
“This is a very strange town,” I said to Ray. “Yours is the only bar around, and yet I’m the only one sitting here.”
“Ha, ha! They’ve all closed down!”
I extended my left arm towards his empty bar. “So how do you survive like this?”
“You see all these people walking in and out!”
“And that’s enough?”
“Sure! Many of these people come in five or six times a day. One lady, she’d show up maybe a dozen times every day, and you know something else? It’d be much cheaper for them to buy one six pack instead of six cans, but they don’t think like that!”
“Maybe they don’t start out thinking they’d drink six or seven cans, then they just keep going and going.”
Ray tried not to laugh. “That’s a charitable way to look at it. They know, because that’s what they do every day!” He briefly showed his teeth.
A man in his late 50’s walked in, saw Ray and shouted, “Hey, Ray! How long have I been coming here?”
“I don’t know. Thirty, thirty-five years?” Ray smiled.
“No, no. Forty years! I came in the day you opened!” Laughing, the man walked out with his tall can of Colt 45.
Changing the subject, I asked, “So, Ray, how come you only charge $30 a night for a hotel room?”
“Because I’m a nice guy! What can I say? And you only have to pay $25 a month to join my judo club.”
“Is your room OK, though? Is it clean?”
“Of course it’s clean. Have you seen the men’s room here? How often you see a bar bathroom like that? It’s perfectly clean!”
“Yeah, it’s pretty clean.”
“No, it’s not pretty clean. It’s perfectly clean! I don’t put up with any nonsense whatsoever. I don’t even allow cursing in my bar. Do you see all of these ‘NO PROFANITY” signs? I enforce it!”
“But when people talk, they talk, and they will say shit when they’re drunk.” I wasn’t trying to test Ray. It just came out. He let it go.
“My rooms are clean and safe,” Ray continued. “I don’t allow unregistered guests to come in, so you won’t get a knock on your door after dark. I’m not like those guys across the street. All kinds of problems happen over there.”
“How much do they charge, by the way?”
“They don’t have a fixed price. They charge whatever they want, depending on what you look like. They’re Indians, I think. They may charge you 60, or 65 bucks.”
“If they charge so much more than you, why aren’t you getting all their business?”
“If you want to come in and out all night, and have five people partying in your room, then you go over there. I don’t allow any of that. I also don’t allow children.”
“Do people stay with you long term?”
“Yeah, we have about six people like that.”
“How much do you charge a month?”
“You’re interested?” Ray smiled. “I only charge $550. You can’t beat that!”
“And what do you get for that?”
“You get your own bathroom, and you get a little TV.”
“Can you cook in there?”
“No, I don’t allow anything that will generate heat. I can’t risk having this entire place burn down.”
“But a microwave is OK?”
“Yeah, a microwave is fine. Just no heat!”
“But it must get expensive if people can’t cook in their own rooms.”
“Hey, I can’t solve every problem! And besides, many of these people don’t buy much food anyway. Many of them eat for free, at these different churches.”
“Yeah, every night, if you know where to go, and these people do know, believe me! So they don’t have to worry about food, really.”
“They can save their money to buy beer!”
“Yeah, because everybody drinks! Even during the Great Depression, people drank. That’s why I’m in business. Even if they have no money, they’ll find money to buy drinks.”
“But if they really go broke, won’t they cut back?”
“Listen, the people I sell to are already broke. I cater to losers and bottom feeders! That’s just how it is. Only 5% of the population are supposed to make it. The rest just survive from day to day, if that.”
“Hey, Ray, what’s up with that shack in the photo?”
“That’s my childhood home! Seven people lived in it, my parents and us kids. Do you see any electrical wire running from it? No! That’s because we had no electricity.”
“Did you have running water? A bathroom?”
“Yeah, the woods!”
“So you went from that to this!”
“I worked my tail off! I raised six kids, and they all went to college. Two of them are now lawyers, and one’s a doctor. I didn’t even finish the tenth grade. My wife doesn’t have to do anything but count money. The other day, she told me she needed one of those money counting machines, but those things are expensive! I told her, ‘Just keep using your fingers,’ so she said, ‘But I’m getting older. What if I have arthritis?’ And you know what I said?” Ray laughed. “I said, ‘If you get arthritis, I’ll get me a new wife who doesn’t have arthritis,’ so that was that.”
“How old are you, Ray?”
“Wow, man, you look about twenty years younger!”
Ray grinned, “I was a judo champion, I watch what I eat and I don’t drink.”
“That’s funny as shit. You sell all this beer and you don’t drink at all?”
“When did you stop?”
“I never started. I’ve never cared for alcohol.”
“But you’ve tried it.”
“Yeah, I’ve tried it, but I didn’t like it at all.”
“You must do something else! Pot?”
“No, I’m just a clean guy. I don’t even like my vegetables cooked. If you look in my refrigerator, you’ll see sticks of carrot and celery.”
“What does your wife make for you each night?”
“Anything I ask her to,” Ray smiled. “Anyway, when I first moved here, the cops were suspicious. They thought I was a front for the Mafia, but I run three legitimate businesses. I have a judo team. We compete. I cause no trouble whatsoever.”
“The cops have never been called to your hotel?”
“Not for anything serious. Just late payments for child support and stuff like that.”
“No shootings, stabbings, drug dealings?”
“Never! That’s because I strictly control who’s allowed in. I have cameras all over. If there’s a fight outside my bar, I’ll know immediately, and I’ll tell them, ‘Keep that up and I’ll never sell to you again,’ and they scatter. They need to come back the next day for beer, you see.”
Having risen from nothing, Ray is understandably self-satisfied. In fact, I’ve met many men of his generation who are exactly like that. In Marcus Hook, a 67-year-old told me he was planning on kicking his youngest son out on the kid’s 21st birthday, job or no job, “Hey, I worked myself up. Why can’t he?” Seeing the kids as spoiled, these tough, leathery old farts don’t want to hear about diminished opportunities, or that most prospects now point downward. On the way to Vineland, I had seen several tents as the bus passed through Camden. In fact, hundreds of folks live in makeshift dwellings or abandoned homes in Camden. For these destitutes, Ray’s childhood shack would be a huge improvement. In Tom’s River, an hour away from Vineland, there’s also a large tent city. Increasingly pessimistic, most of us don’t dream of any bright future, but are planning for the worst. How many of us are squatting in foreclosed homes? How many are scraping by on just a fraction of what we used to earn just a few years ago? How many are quickly exhausting their scant savings? How many will be fired next week? Meanwhile, this criminal government continues its systematic impoverishment and suppression of us all. Fragmented and confused, we have no plan to combat any of this, but are looking to be saved by the very architects of our ruination.
Monday, January 6, 2014
As published by Information Clearing House, CounterCurrents and Intrepid Report, 1/6/14:
- Linh Dinh
- Born in Vietnam in 1963, I came to the US in 1975, and have also lived in Italy and England. I'm the author of two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), five of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007) and Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009), 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 Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, among other places. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013), and translator of Night, Fish and Charlie Parker, the poetry of Phan Nhien Hao (2006). Blood and Soap was chosen by Village Voice as one of the best books of 2004. 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, Reykjavik, Toronto and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.