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Monday, February 23, 2015



21-years-old and homeless for three weeks, Angel was born and raised in New Jersey. Two years ago, she came to Philadelphia and found work as a bartender at Beau Monde, an upscale French restaurant that's particularly popular among the gay crowd. Above Beau Monde is L'etage, a dance club with the same owner. With business rather slow at Beau Monde, there weren’t much tips, so Angel moved to Cantina Los Caballitos. Starting as a hostess, she eventually became one of four managers. Her peak salary was $1,600 a month, but that's before tax. With rents so high in Philly, Angel opted to pay $350 for a room in a house she shared with six people, "All of my co-workers were paying around $500 a month, but none of them had their own space. They were all sharing."

I told Angel that twenty years ago, I had my own apartment in Center City for just $350 a month. Her eyes widened, “That’s unbelievable!” The bank-inflated housing bubble made housing unaffordable for many poor people.

At Cantina Los Caballitos, workplace politics was very complicated, Angel said, because managers, bartenders and servers slept with each other, “If a bartender was sleeping with a server, a female manager would get pissed off and try to get even.”

“Because she wanted to sleep with him?”

“Yeah, because she wanted to sleep with him. There was a lot of corruption there,” meaning sexual harrasment or retaliation.

The most insidious abuse of power, however, was how employees were discarded, “In the bar and restaurant business, they will overhire, then get rid of whoever they don’t like, but without firing them. If they find someone that they like more than you, they’ll keep it hush hush and find ways to push you out, and they will do this with any position. It’s not just with a server or kitchen worker, they will also do this with a manager.

They do not want to give fired employees unemployment. They will find any way of going around paying people unemployment. So if they want to do a mass firing, they’ll cut people’s schedules. They’ll cut their hours. For people they want to get rid of, they’ll just give them one or two shifts a week. This usually forces people to quit, because they’re so broke. This way, they don’t have to fire ten people and pay unemployment.”

Long time employees also expect periodic raises, so by forcing them out, owners save money. It’s very passive aggressive, these tactics, “They will give you the shittiest shifts or they can cite you for every little mistake, every little thing that you do that they can make into an issue. What they did to me was, they’d suddenly email me and say, ‘You’re not in charge of that anymore. Why don’t you do this,’ then they’d give me these very childish tasks, these very boring tasks, and I was like, ‘Why am I doing this if I’m the manager?’ They’d email me and say, ‘Oh, you don’t have to come in today.’ They phrased it in such a way that you’re like, am I being rewarded with some time off? They kind of fucked with your head a little bit, so you’d think, maybe I’m being rewarded here, but at the end of the month, you’re like, holy shit, I hardly worked at all. So they push you off. Holy shit, you know, they basically fired me, but they didn’t do it outright, but only in the most passive aggressive way.”

From talking to workers at other restaurants and bars, Angel found out these nasty practices are very common, “This is definitely going on, but no one talks about it.”

As long as there is a surfeit of workers, these abuses will continue, I’m afraid, and it will only get much worse, since the economy isn’t getting any better. Among Angel’s coworkers were people who had been in law schools.



X said...

So Linh, where does this woman sleep? Where does the previous woman, the 30 year old sleep? Is there any shelter for them or are they just going to sleep on the streets?

Linh Dinh said...

Hi X,

Angel sleeps in a shelter, and I think Stephanie does too. The shelter only opens at 10PM, however, and kicks them out at 5AM.

I've seen young women sleep on the sidewalks, usually with a boyfriend but some were completely alone. Obviously, all women on the streets, including old ones, have to deal with men trying to rape them.


X said...

Any reason why a shelter would kick them out at 5? Why would it not let them stay till 8am or 9am, when there is more light out?

Linh Dinh said...

Hi X,

These shelters are all privately run, so each has its own rules. Many men shun shelters because their stuff get stolen in them and fights break out. They have more peace sleeping on the streets.

Next time I see Angel I'll ask her about the name of her shelter. I meant to do that today but forgot, as I was already taking up a lot of her time asking about her work experience. She got quite animated talking about Cantina Los Caballitos. She wanted to expose how badly restaurant and bar workers are treated, and I should clarify that Angel was talking about the larger or chain establishments, not your neighborhood, corner bar. The owners of Cantina Los Caballitos own three other establishments.

Googling, I found this account by a third-grade teacher in California:

"Homelessness and poverty up close is hard. It smells, actually in my room this year, it takes from the very fiber of a being, it is destructive to those that stand in uselessness looking as well as those suffering it. I’m dealing with a woman and her child suffering terribly now — she should never be alone in this, her faculties are not good enough to deal. She can’t go grow food on some family place, she’s like a forgotten being. And so are the supports that should exist, dysfunctional. But my concern is a child, one not washing, that can’t get into a shelter til after 9 at night that’s out by 5AM, that hasn’t had a real bath in a month. No costume for him. And I need to go buy him a pair of pants or two really, couple shirts and get his clothes and wash them. Among the realities in my teaching work I think I’m beginning to understand what I really need to articulate is what poverty is like to a learner. A child that didn’t pick, nor make any of this. And who is so sweet."


Chuck Olroski said...

Linh: Thanks for another true & brutal view -- this time about American jobs, which thanks to incredible political sell-out to 1% and Corporations, U.S. employees are placed on an endangered specie/ extinction list. As you know, Paul Craig Roberts blew the whistle on such treason better than anyone.

Back in 1989, I started work as a lowly "Hazardous Waste Transportation & Disposal manager." At the time, naive, I was filled with ideals about working in a growing U.S. industry dedicated to protecting the environment; soil, air & water. How fucking deluded was I? By the mid-1990s, I witnessed how environmental service companies had to battle competitors for clean-up projects & bucks, they were forced to lower "Standard Time & Material Rates," consequently dropping "profit margins."

And then the Darwinian inevitable -- in order to cover expenses and increase their revenue "take," owners started WAR of attrition upon their employees. I can not count how many "salary & benefit reductions" I had endured between 1995-1999.

Come March 4, 2014, my environmental service company (EPS of Vermont,Inc.)added me to their Clean-up & Purification" list." I was CANNED -- and in words of Rolling Stones, my "owners" actually "Gimme Shelter;" they did not fight my claim, and I collected 26-beautiful weeks of U.C., and an old feeling of PEACE returned for a spell!

CC said...

Hard to believe that Cantina Los Caballitos has "long time" employees.

By the way, what's the news I've been reading about the "economic recovery" in the U.S.?

Linh Dinh said...

Hi CC,

Here's Paul Craig Robert's latest on the economy.


Ian Keenan said...

I thought I was driving someone to a homeless shelter in Philly but she had to go to PennDOT first to get a $26 non-vehicular license just to stay in the homeless shelter. She had the money for this but that was it.. I think her boyfriend who kicked her out for having anemia in the winter under the pretense of a fight fronted this, but didn't give her any way to get from South Jersey to Philly which is where I came in.. the closest bus stop (which I was unaware of at the time) was several miles walk on a cold winter night (last winter). I was unable to persuade her to breakfast at Banh Mi Cali with me in Chinatown near PennDOT.. she would only eat the steak and egg sandwich at McDs, at which time I found out she was anemic because she had to be dropped off right by a door at 9am so avoid chills so I couldn't park. I mentioned the whole thing to a restaurant owner the next day and he said 'it's worth it if she's hot.' I can confirm Angel's reportage about retaliation by certain mngrs in night jobs as you are expected to interact with those of like rank but I don't write about my day/night jobs as a personal rule (but like it when others do) and find my way around these things.

Linh Dinh said...

Yo Ian,

You also mean "interact with those of higher rank," because that's the leverage, eh?


Ian Keenan said...

Well there's two different things related.. what I meant was in multiple McJobs you immediately get the sense that people have constructed a McPersona around their station and know whom to talk to, which is what I meant by that phrase With mngrs and personal stuff that Angel references there can be persistent passive aggression, often not strategized well when used against amateur shrinks but good enough in circumstances visible to her..

Emilio Santoro said...

Dear Linh,
please carry on with these... how to call them... wonderful? It may not seem appropriate, but then they are wonderful. Yes, these wonderful descriptions of life in the USA. There once was a palestinian caricaturist, whose works used to make me cry.
Your works sometimes have the same effect on me, Linh.
Sometime ago I had to work in a Pizza Service here in Frankfurt - when I went home I usually gave the tips or parts of it to some beggars nobody seemed to notice. I always felt awkward doing that, but then also humble, because I used to think: This could also be me. Your post just reminded me about this.
So thanks a lot Linh.
Best regards

Linh Dinh said...

Many thanks, Emilio. I really appreciate your comment. I'm working on a Postcard that has more about Angel. It should be up in a few hours.



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.