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Thursday, January 1, 2015

Postcard from the End of America: Passyunk Square, Philadephia

As published at Intrepid Report, CounterCurrents, Information Clearing House and Unz Review, 1/2/15:

Writing this piece, I didn’t have to get on any bus or train, but only walk five minutes to see Beth, someone I first met 28 years ago. Most lives are improbable, I know, but when I listen to Beth talk, I often find myself thinking, That can’t possibly be true, but her facts have always checked out, and her stories consistent, even on a retelling many years later.

Consider her three husbands. The first, Hayato, was a “sort of a sex champion,” Beth told me, and since I found such a designation bizarre, I dismissed the idea that she had a Japanese spouse at all, but then Beth showed me photos of herself in Tokyo, next to Hayato on his death bed, praying at a temple or in a sauna with a bunch of Japanese women, etc. Hayato had been divorced for nine years by the time he married Beth, but when she showed up in Japan, Hayato’s ex wife managed to corner the younger American to whack her several times on the back with a rod. “This is how the women treat each other in Japan. It’s true. This is what they do when there are no witnesses.” For aesthetic reason, Beth had decided to study Japanese, and it was her tutor that had introduced her to Hayato. After living in Philly for five years, they only went to Japan so Hayato could see his two daughters before dying of cancer.

Her second husband, Eduardo, was from Venezuela, and they had found each other at a Cat Stevens fan club’s event. He had to fly in from Caracas. An international pow wow of Cat Stevens nuts? Give me a freakin’ break, I thought, but then Beth pulled up a MySpace page that had all these Cat Stevenish tracks they had recorded together. “That’s good. Lay your heartache down. After all, we’ve made it through.” “There’s a train under my feet, where the bricks have all slit down. All the factories are deserted, on the lonely side of town.” Although they were both into soft rock, Eduardo turned out to be a violent brute, so after so many bruises, Beth had to cut loose.

With her third, and current, husband, Farooq, we’re entering the End of America territory proper, for the details of their life are very telling about the cracked state of our union. A doctor in Pakistan, Farooq came to the US four years ago. While working as a waiter in an Indian restaurant, Farooq met Beth, but after they married, he was hired by a medical center in Brooklyn, so he’s up there nearly all the time, while she stays in Philly to tend to her new café. Beth also does office work for a start-up energy company.

Already, I’ve introduced you to three immigrants, Hayato, Eduardo and Farooq, and one refugee, Beth, but how is she a refugee? What is Beth fleeing from? Her Americanness, of course. Further, immigrants and refugees are overlapping categories, with each immigrant also a refugee to some degree, and even a tourist is a temporary refugee. In Cassavetes’ Husbands, three middle-aged Americans impulsively fly to London to escape their wives, kids, homes and mortality, but as weekend refugees in the UK, they’re also immigrants since they’re desperately searching for something better, which in their case is nothing less than sexual renewal. What they get instead are painfully atrocious conversations that lift no spirit, feed no soul but, being so true to life, only confirm the director’s genius.

With two jobs and a business, you’d think Beth and Farooq are doing OK, but he’s only making $12 an hour, as a house doctor, no less, and she $11 an hour, and this 20-hour-a-week gig, Beth only got after beating out 97 other applicants. As for the café, it has lost $16,000 during its first year.

“They say it takes three to five years to build up a restaurant, but in this economy, it will take five to seven years.”

“But you’re losing more than a thousand every month!”

“I want to be my own boss.”

“How much are you paying in rent?”


“That’s so cheap!”

“Yes, but we’re also renting two apartments. Farooq was paying $1,450 a month in Bath Beach. That was the cheapest we could find. Now he’s in this shared space in Borough Park, the most Jewish part of Brooklyn. It’s funny that this old Jewish lady is renting to a bunch of Muslims!”

“How many people are in there?”

“Five, Farooq and four taxi drivers.”

“So how much space does he get?”

“He’s in the living room, on an air mattress, next to a loud TV. Another guy sleeps there too.”

“So if the others are watching TV, Farooq can’t sleep?”

“My husband can sleep through anything. He’s exhausted by the end of his 24-hour shift. It’s really horrible, people don’t know.”

In middle-age, Beth’s face has gotten a bit rounder, and her blonde hair is now always covered by a cheery headscarf, in casual observance of her new religion. She still speaks in an excited voice, however, and laughs readily. I’ve never met her husband, but in a photograph, the younger man appears very mellow.

Tiny, Beth’s café only has eight chairs at one table and two brief counters, though in the summer, another table is placed outside. The walls are smartly decorated with paper plates featuring drawings and praises from customers, many of them foreign. “Ngon Wá.” “Même au Québec, il n’y a pas meilleur!” Arabian Nights and three Krishnamurti books rest among a purple glass fish on the window ledge. On this last day of December, it was warm enough for the door to be open. Out of season, sunshine itself alarms, and this entire world seems to be melting.

“Beth, I find it hard to believe your husband is only making $12 an hour. That’s less than what a nurse makes.”

“They can pay him that because he’s international.”

Foreign doctors and nurses are allowed into the US to knock wages down, but none of this saving is passed on to American patients, for our healthcare is by far the most extortionary in the world. A night on an American hospital bed will cost you $2,000, and that’s without any treatment. If you need stitches, be prepared to pay $500 per jab. Once I saw a man slipped in a shopping mall. As several onlookers came to his assistance, he waved them off and staggered out, holding his bleeding head. He was apparently terrified someone would call an ambulance and bankrupt him. Draining brains from poor foreign countries while sucking blood from this one, our healthcare racket dreams of a day when all doctors will be imported and paid next to nothing. After a marathon shift, they can curl up on reed mats in flop houses, and anyone who bitches during his, say, ten-year probation will be promptly deported. Farooq ain’t complaining, though, because fresh off the Boeing, he has a job, wife and hope while many natives have none of the above.

If only business at the café would pick up, though. In spite of many rave reviews on Yelp, only two customers came in during the 1 ½ hour I sat chatting with Beth, and one bought just a token can of Coke after using the bathroom. Yelp has been bugging Beth to advertise. “How much do they want?” I asked.

“$299 a month. I’m not going to pay that! They manipulate the reviews. They’re crooks!”

“What do you mean?”

“If you don’t advertise, they’ll bury your five-star reviews or even erase them, but if you pay, they’ll hide your negative reviews.”

“That’s criminal!”

“Yes, it is, and they’ve been sued too. What’s worse is, they distort the relationship you have with your customer. Before, if a customer needed something, they’d just talk to you, there is a relationship, but now, they publicly complain on Yelp, without talking to you. Or, they’re totally unreasonable. Like I explained to this one woman, my electricity was out, so I lost $500 of food, bulk items, and I actually didn’t have the money to buy ham and swiss cheese. I explained to this one woman that I had everything else, chicken tikka masala, bacon, paneer, whatever, just not ham and swiss, but she kept saying, ‘I want ham!’”

“What a psycho!”

“No, I think she was a Yelper, an Elite Yelper. They have a lot of power because they can just go online, slander you and destroy your business! I can usually spot Elite Yelpers because they hardly say anything, they huddle, and they walk all over. One woman got behind me behind the counter!”

“Is there coordination between Yelp and these Yelpers.”

“I don’t think so, but the ones who post a lot of reviews get perks. They get discounts, meals, membership to things. They get invited to parties.”

“So these Elite Yelpers are like enforcers.”

“Totally! They can knock you down, so you’ll have to pay Yelp to salvage your reputation!”

Online, there are hundreds of posts branding Yelp an extortion racket, but the company made $233 million in 2013, nearly quadruple its take from 2009, so it can certainly absorb thousands of choleric yelps, unlike the small businesses it holds hostage. An outfit that appears to give you access to the local is in fact distorting or even destroying what’s on the ground, all to make truckloads of cash without producing anything, but this is typical of our new economy, where giant, rootless parasites feast on the littlest people.

Those who flee from bosses are not just economic but political refugees, so of course they’d bristle at being shaken down by a faraway snake like Yelp’s Jeremy Stoppelman. As for those who wander the sidewalks pushing loosies, socks, roses, T-bone steaks or merely a song, they must sometimes tussle with overzealous cops.

Within a few blocks of Beth’s café, there are still dozens of small businesses, mostly eateries, and except for a Dunkin’ Donuts, there are no chains here, for they can’t compete with the more carefully prepared food from the many cheesesteak joints, hoagie shops, pizzerie, taquerias or fancier ristoranti. Recent decades have brought more Asians, Mexicans, hipsters and queers, but it’s still essentially old school Italian. Across the street from me, unassuming Iannelli Bakery has been around since 1910, and strolling by on my way to Beth’s, I could hear Roberto Murolo crooning softly from its small outdoor speaker. What a romantic voice, but it’s no love ballad, however, but a fuck you, post-divorce dart, “Femmena, si tu peggio ‘e na vipera.” Woman, you’re worse than a viper. Basically, it’s a Napolitano precursor to “American Woman,” and to balance the scale a bit, consider “Mal Hombre,” which is best in Lydia Mendoza’s version.

When not losing her mind over Elite Yelpers, Beth has to deal with her thieving upstairs neighbors. Waiting until she’s busy, they’d rush in to grab a few cans of sodas while tossing her just a dollar. They also toss trash bags from a second floor window into a neighbor’s back yard. “The first time I met them, they told me they were Greeks, but I knew they were Romas,” Beth laughed. “I actually said it, ‘You guys are Romas!’”

Always very resourceful and versatile, Beth will survive one way or another, I’m sure. She’s made money from operating a rap recording studio, starting a line of ski gloves, made in China, and, get this, ghost writing papers, theses and even dissertations for Japanese and Korean students at UPenn, Drexel, St. Joseph and Temple. For someone who’s never gone to college, Beth has racked up half a dozen PhDs or so, but only for other people.

“I wrote about Hegel, city planning, Frank Lloyd Wright. I did the morphology of idea in Robert Venturi, the postmodern architect. I did Stanislavsky in the Korean theater. I did a master thesis about the airline industry. Overnight, I wrote about food marketing.”


“Yes, I can write very fast. It just flows out. I’ve observed a lot and know what’s cutting edge about many things.”

“But you can’t write a dissertation about Hegel without doing some serious studying!”

“I can, I’m totally serious, because I have this whole background of reading and philosophy. In junior high, I was already reading John Stuart Mill and a lot of very advanced stuff for a kid.”

“So did you get paid well, at least?”

“No, I gave them a very reasonable price, 12 bucks an hour. I wanted steady work. I also enjoyed being paid to learn, and I loved the chance to get my ideas into these institutions, you know, without having anything to do with academics. If I was doing it now, I’d charge ten times as much.”

“Did you lift stuff, plagiarize in any way?”

“No, never.”

I’ve written about American universities as unscrupulous purveyors of debts and jive, but here you have deception coming from the students’ side. Still, there’s no way a hastily typed dissertation by someone who’s not deeply familiar with the subject should ever pass muster unless there’s negligence on the part of greedy universities. Foreign students don’t just pay full tuition but are often docked additional fees, and since many are children of the elites, they spend extravagantly while here. Unlike some actual kids I’ve known, they don’t have to work three jobs, shoplift or dance naked to get an education. In 2011, international students pumped $21 billion into the supine American economy.

After a trip to the Yucatan, Beth also decided to compile a Mayan/English phrase book. With a native speaker, she spent years on this project, and the result, unpublished as yet, runs to 141 pages. “I’m not too well today” is “Ma’ jach uts yanilken be’ele,” and pronounced as “Mah hach oots yanilken be-elay.” “My head hurts” is “Yaj in pool.” As with so many other things Bethian, this book sounded so unlikely until I saw it.

Born in Vineland, New Jersey, Beth has persistently sought out the foreign and reinvented herself many times. Though escaping her Americanness, she’s also intensely American, however, for there is nothing more us than the stubborn notion that a new, improved self is always possible, and the catalyst might just be that new job, lover, wardrobe, cosmetic surgery, self help book or lottery ticket, etc. On a national level, many believe a reversal of fortune will kick-start if only the right savior is elected, so as our despair becomes ever more acute, our delirium over any propped up messiah will only turn more obscene. Already, “hope” has been thoroughly caked with bullshit.

With such an amnesiac past and chimeric present, an American has no ground under him, so he’s never at peace. Eternally restless, he’s always itching to violate borders and limits, so it’s only appropriate that he’d park his Abrams tank in the middle of an alien neighborhood in a country he’s only heard about yesterday. Most casually, he pops a Coors Lite as he points a 120mm gun at someone’s grandma. There’s no time for scruples, however, for the entire world exists only to help him grow, though to mature, he might have to lose everything below his mon pubis, as well as the top half of his head. Though mostly stuffed with dumb songs and dumber slogans, with a biblical verse wedged sideway, it’s still useful as a holder for his kickass baseball cap.

2015 has just begun, and each New Year, I hear less fireworks around midnight. Each Christmas has also become more morose. Philadelphia’s huge downtown shopping mall, The Gallery, will shut down by the end of January after 38 years. To evade overdue back rents, many tenants have already bolted, however. Interestingly, Philly’s newspapers haven’t leaked a word about this financial collapse, but then again, not a day goes by without a mess of upbeat economic ejaculations from the national media. Constantly splattered with so much phony optimism, I might just think the gloom I perceive is strictly local, but since I’ve crisscrossed this country repeatedly over the last several years, and have talked to countless Americans, I know for certain the strident cheerfulness is nothing but a sick soundtrack that bears no relation to reality.

Among the merchants who will vacate The Gallery is my friend, Anwar. Like Farooq, he’s also from Pakistan. I’ve written about Anwar, but basically, he’s an insanely hardworking small businessman who lost both his house and $146,000, his life savings, during the 2008 stock market crash. Traumatized, he swore to never touch Wall Street again, but as the Dow gradually resumed its levitation, Anwar ignored my warning that it’s all rigged and dove back in. Determined to decipher the market, Anwar has jotted down, almost minute by minute, its cryptic fluctuations for at least half a year, and the result are reams of bizarre charts that don’t add up to anything and clearly haven’t helped him, for Anwar has lost at least another $10,000. Do look at samples of Anwar’s charts and tell me my friend hasn’t cracked.

Meanwhile, Anwar’s business has continued to nosedive, and he’s lost money for seven straight Christmases, since his rent is tripled during the holiday months. On his worst days, Anwar’s eyes are red as he babbles about suicide, “And I wouldn’t want my wife and children to suffer either.”

No refugee from drone strikes, Anwar is merely an economic immigrant, but the opportunities he found so ample even a decade ago have been turned into dust, and stripped of nearly everything, Anwar feels as naked as when he arrived. Millions of natives, however, are just as shorn, or about to become so, and in this raw state, will have no choice but to escape en masse as American refugees. Soon, even you will know what it’s like to flee with nothing but your asshole, and I also mean you, the insolent, niggling hypocrite with all the correct opinions! Do you have a hypothetical destination? Have you bought a phrase book? Many of us, though, will merely go underground.



Anonymous said...

I just looked at Anwar's charts. That is insane. Just how much time is he putting into recording all these numbers?

Anonymous said...

Seeing that I'm not in Passyunk, I can't do more at this time than just hope that Beth does well.

Linh Dinh said...

As long as the market is open, he's staring at his computer and jotting, and he's doing this sitting at his shopping mall kiosk. Of course, when there's a customer, he must stop to conduct business.

Anonymous said...

What will he do, now that the mall is closing?

Linh Dinh said...

He's in the process of moving into a new retail space, which he will share with two other merchants. It is on Chesnut Street, which has been in decline for the last 25 years or so. The positive to this is that the rent will be much less, so he won't have to sell nearly as much to survive. At times he talks about trying to get a job at a convenience store or driving a cab, but running his own business is still his best bet. He's supporting a wife and two kids. The wife is completely unassimilated, so doesn't leave the house. I wrote about her in my Bensalem Postcard. He's talked about sending his family back to Pakistan, but I think this would be a terrible move for his American-born kids.

Chuck Olroski said...

Passyunk Square brilliant, am sincerely grateful Postcards shall continue beyond book publication.

Beth's story is riveting how she "sought the foreign... tried to shed Americaness." Then you put microscope to fact "she's intensely ambitious... nothing more us than the stubborn creation of an improved self."

Great job, Linh, your goodwill to those like Beth is door to national redemption. Happy new year(S!) to you and Linky.

Linh Dinh said...

Yo Chuck,

I'd only qualify that Beth has always followed her heart, so that her "ambitions," so to speak, have often led her to making less money! Take her Mayan phrase book project, for example. It took her years, yet she made no money from it and soberly expected to make none. Her pursuit of the Japanese language was also very ambitious, and she did manage to learn how to speak, read and write, but this quest was never motivated by money. Though she knows how to be a business person, she's essentially an artist, I think.


Linh Dinh said...

At CounterCurrents, a reader asked, "Where will we refugees go? Down?" I answered:

"I suppose many will try to go North, though some South. Most will become merely internal refugees, I think, wandering around, by car or on foot, to beg or steal. The first wave to leave will be those who still have connections to another country. My landlord's children were born here but can speak Italian and have relatives in Italy, so it will be a lot easier for people like them to escape."

As for internal refugees, we already have them in our millions of homeless.

Chuck Olroski said...


Appreciate your comment on U.S. internal refugees and the future.
My concern is our country's > $14 trillion debt and blow-back from all the enemies government has created.

I hope it does not get to a CRISIS point that a Fearless Leader emerges and starts internal population displacement like Josef Stain did. Jeb Bush will be the perfect "Boomer" to save all those "walking around on foot, beggars, robbers."

Anonymous said...

Escape to Italy, that's the solution? I fear that there is no where to run really.

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Anonymous,

Yes, the economy in Italy is a mess, and the political situation has become very volatile. I have an Italian friend who's been working in Japan for 11 years. He wants to return to Tuscany to teach yoga, but can't because the Italian economy is so bad. In Tokyo, he makes good money as a sommelier. Meanwhile, his sister has gone to Switzerland to work.

The US is still relatively calm, but when the dollar and stock market collapse, you will see lots of people trying to get out, so many Italian Americans, for example, will naturally end up in Italy. Or take Vietnam. Though that country has serious problems, many Vietnamese-Americans are returning. Of course, most are not going there empty handed but with money they made here.

Vietnam's most successful film director and male actor are Vietnamese-Americans, and though it's odd to claim them as economic refugees, they are essentially that because living in the US, their talents were going to waste.


swindled said...

This insolent, niggling hypocrite whose opinions are always accurate is considering fleeing to the Philippines, of course--where my wife's family is, and where there are no shortage of gray-haired American expats who roughly resemble myself. And though I haven't bought a phrasebook I do enjoy watching replays of teleserye programs .. though probably not for the same reason my wife does.

Linh Dinh said...

Hi swindled,

You're very lucky to have that option, and your situation also points out another way to escape. Americans can also get off this sinking ship by marrying a first or second generation immigrant, or a foreigner in another country, so this is a reversal of foreigners marrying Americans in order to come or stay here.

Many years ago, my friend Jay married a Spanish woman who came to the US to be an au pair. They had a child here but returned to Spain, and though Jay eventually divorced his wife, he has stayed in Spain to this day and has no plan to come back.

To retire in another country is also to remake onself, and this option that's available to many Americans is not available to most people on earth.

Anyway, your departure, swindled, would still be orderly, for we haven't reached the panic stage of our collapse.


Elizabeth said...

In a talk by Richard Wolff (can't remember which one), he spoke of a man who broke his leg skiing, and the insurance provided by the resort stipulated that they would only cover the medical costs if he flew to Pakistan to have his bone set. Will this catch on? Actually, I think it would be rather fitting for the insurance companies to tank our medical system.


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 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 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). 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, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.