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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Postcard from the End of America: Center City, Philadelphia

As published at OpEd News, Information Clearing House, CounterCurrents, Burning Platform and Intrepid Report, 2/26/15:

Ah, to be in perfect health, good looking, with all the possibilities in the world spread out like an extravagant buffet, begging for your attention! Should I become a recording star, the next Obama (or Hillary) or precocious billionaire? Maybe I’ll marry a rich yet good looking one and see the world before I turn 22? These days, though, a young person’s daydream must meet the sick reality of an economy sinking into quicksand as weighted down by a bloated and criminal government. War is constant though distant, for now, and the media, dominated by a fistful of puppeteers, purvey nothing but lies and idiocy. “No Bra, No Problem: Beyonce Wears a Completely Unbuttoned Shirt to Lunch.” A government that ignores not just international laws but its own legal foundation is a rogue regime, but as long as its abject subjects can’t peel their pupils from FaceBook, boxscores and pixelated genitals, all is good.

Though the most visible homeless are still the old and middle-aged, they are becoming younger and younger, and the other day, I met 30-year-old Stephanie sitting behind a plastic cup with a sign, “HOMELESS AND HUNGRY / ANYTHING HELPS / THANK YOU.” Born in New Jersey, she was a waitress in Delran, Palmyra and Cinnaminson, mostly white, working class towns just across the river from Philadelphia. Losing her apartment six months ago, Stephanie had to come to Philly to beg, so there she was in two pairs of ugly pants and a scruffy, oversized men’s jacket, her teeth chattering. It was 27 degrees. Behind Stephanie was a recycling receptacle, but she herself, like so many redundant workers, risks becoming unrecyclable in our increasingly ruthless society. How many Americans are thinking, Maybe I’ll never get another job?

A block away, I ran into Angel, aged 21 and homeless for three weeks. Also from New Jersey, Angel came to Philly two years ago 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 harassment 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.

Next evening, I found Angel sitting across the street from her previous spot. Since her face was hidden by a furry hood, I could only identify Angel by her large, heart shaped glasses and the “god bless” on her sign. With much better eyesight than mine, she recognized me immediately and even remembered my name. Across Broad Street was the Bellevue-Stratford, and half a block away, The Union League. There, Philly’s blue bloods congregate to play arcane board games, kick the help down the stairs and worship Satan, most likely.

Behind Angel was Robinson Luggage, an upscale store that closed in 2013 after 29 years. Though in a prime spot, this space is still unoccupied. When I was a housecleaner, a woman I worked for took me there so I could carry her new suitcases from store to taxi, then from the taxi to her apartment, two flights up. Never comfortable in a nice anything, I stood outside as she shopped.

“Angel, why do they kick you out of the shelter at 5AM? Why can’t they let you stay until 8 or something? It doesn't make any sense.”

“No, it doesn't,” she answered. “There is no reason for it. It's still dark and very cold out, but that's what they do, they wake us up at 5AM.”

“And you're expected to be out by when?”


“What about people who have trouble getting up at that hour? Like the really old and weak?”

“It doesn't matter. They come round and clap in your face really loud and shout, 'It's time to wake up! It's time to wake up!' It’s the most annoying sound. There are three counselors and they rush the shit out of you. I swear, when I'm 80-years-old, if I ever hear someone say the words, ‘It’s time to wake up!’ I'm going to, like, have a seizure, because just the memory of hearing it over and over again, and being clapped at, like, in my ears, it’s going to haunt me forever. It’s terrible.”

Angel's shelter is Broad Street Ministry, “Many of these shelters are closed down churches. Each night, they’ll only let up to 75 people in. If it’s below freezing, if it’s 20 below, I think they let up to 80 or even 100 in. They can easily fit 100 people in there. We all sleep on the floor and there’s enough space. They can even fit 300 people in there. There are two floors, but the second floor, the bigger one, is only used for meal time. At 7 O’clock, they serve dinner, and at 10PM, they let people in who want to stay for the night.”

“So that’s two separate shifts?”

“Yes. I feel that a lot of normal people who have jobs and places to stay, they go in there for free meals as well, which is really strange, so they reserve the second floor just for the meals, instead of filling it up with homeless people who just want some place warm to sleep for the night.

You line up outside, and at 10 O’clock, they open the door. There is a priority list. Apparently, you have to have been going there every night for at least six months to get on the priority list, so most people aren’t on this priority list. It’s mostly elderly women that I see on the priority list, and they line up at the right door. That means that if there are 75 on the priority list, the rest of the people standing outside the left door will be turned away. It doesn’t matter how early they got there, or how many there are.”

“How often does this happen?”

“A lot! Sometimes I go there at 9:30, to try get a good spot in line, and I still get turned away at times. One lady who works there, her name is Shelly, she’s really nice. If she’s working, she’ll let you come inside even if you’ve been turned away, and she’ll tell everyone, ‘I can call outreach to get you placed in another shelter,’ but if you don’t want this to happen, you can go back outside and figure it out, you know.

Other shelters around the city are dangerous, though. Broad Street Ministry is the only one that’s kind of clean, and kind of safe. Although I did get my phone stolen in there, there are no rapes. Broad Street Ministry is also coed. Most of them only allow just men, just women, or just women with children. There are maybe two or three shelters in the city that are coed. An issue that a lot of people have, and that I have, is that I’m out here with my boyfriend, my fiance. A lot of people are out here with their husbands. If outreach picks you up, they will separate you. Normal people have this misconception about outreach as this great thing, but so many times, I’m just sitting out here with my boyfriend, trying to earn enough money to eat, but a police officer or a normal person will call outreach. You can think of outreach as the homeless police. That’s basically what they’re out here for. They’ll come up to you and they’ll tell you, ‘You know, you can’t sit here.’ If it’s below 32 degrees, outreach will scour the city for every homeless person and harass them. It’s called Code Blue. Basically, you can be outside and freeze to death, as long as you’re not trying to make money. They’ll tell you, ‘Get up, I can either take you to a shelter or you can move, but you can’t sit here.’”

Granted, if it’s zero degree or so, Code Blue can save lives, but 32 is nothing to most homeless people. For the last two weeks, it’s been well below freezing nearly each day, so outreach had a pretext to sweep many people like Angel off the streets even if they’d rather be left alone, “If you go to these shelters, you lose control. You don’t control whether you end up in Bumblefuck, North Philadelphia, where you don’t want to be, and then you’ll also have to figure out how to get back to Center City or wherever you want to be, wherever you feel safe. It’s not like they drop you off in North Philly and give you five tokens [for public transit], so it’s like, OK, I can sleep inside and be warm in this shitty, dingy shelter for a night, but in the morning, how am I going to get back here?”

Shelters are often in the worst neighborhoods, obviously, since middle or upper class people, even super liberal ones, don’t want poor folks, much less the homeless, anywhere near them. Though they may mouth fair wage, fair trade or even absolute egalitarianism, they keep themselves way clear of anyone with bad teeth and worse shoes. Orwell wrote, “Sometimes I look at a Socialist—the intellectual, tract-writing type of Socialist, with his pullover, his fuzzy hair, and his Marxian quotation—and wonder what the devil his motive really is. It is often difficult to believe that it is a love of anybody, especially of the working class, from whom he is of all people the furthest removed. The underlying motive of many Socialists, I believe, is simply a hypertrophied sense of order. The present state of affairs offends them not because it causes misery, still less because it makes freedom impossible, but because it is untidy; what they desire, basically, is to reduce the world to something resembling a chessboard.” Harsh statements like that have made Orwell a perennial target for many mojito sipping, armchair revolutionaries.

For the last year or so, I’ve been hounded by a cyber heckler who’s determined to prove that I’m a slumming bourgeoisie who actually hate the people I talk to and write about. Though I’ve tried to ignore this gentleman, I must admit that it wounds, tickles and saddens me to be so denounced. I don’t consider myself above anyone and, short of the homeless, I’m as poor or even more pinched than most of the people I mingle with, and it’s not like I enjoy having my checks bounced or going to bed dressed like I’m hiking up a mountain. Always scratching lottery tickets, the empty pocketed dream of becoming millionaires, and if I saw a few bucks lying on the gum-blotched sidewalk, I’d knock you out of the way, too. Finders, keepers! Though I don’t festishize poverty nor idealize brokeasses, I will continue to grind out these Postcards that no one has commissioned simply because I need to make sense out of what’s happening to people who resemble me in so many ways. Crammed into this nauseating steerage, we exhale our cheap beer breath on each other. Another commenter even suggested I should depict perfumy places like Nantucket, to balance out the picture. Sure, buddy, I’ll book a room there for a week, but first, I need to get over my fidgeting over whether to order a $1.12 cup of coffee from McDonald’s, and that’s before tax.

OK, enough of that interruption. Sorry. I asked Angel, “Do they feed you at these shelters?”

“Not always, and if they do give you dinner, then they won’t give you breakfast. It’s usually just one meal.”

By this time, a young man had come to sit down next to Angel. He was her boyfriend, Seth, a 30-year-old from north Jersey. Like Angel, Seth was a bartender, but in Jersey City.

“How did you two meet?” I asked Seth.

“At her bar. I was a customer.”

“You could afford to drink at Cantina!”

“Yeah, man, I had money then.”

“Yeah, we had money,” Angel jumped in. “We went out.”

“So did you lose your job in Jersey City?” I asked Seth.

“No, I lost my apartment. I had my job, but I was jumping around all over the place, and it wasn’t working out. That’s why I came down here.”

Unlike Angel, who spoke in a clear, emphatic voice, Seth was murmuring, and he mostly avoided eye contact. I don’t know if this is just how Seth is, or being on the streets for just more than a month had subdued this tallish, trim man. He had a very oblique presence. Unlike Angel, who spent two semesters in college with an aim of studying psychology, Seth had only finished high school.

“With Seth, it happened in reverse,” Angel explained. “He lost his housing, then his job, whereas I lost my job, then my apartment.”

Hoboken, West New York and Jersey City used to be affordable if you wanted to be near NYC, but with the housing bubble, they became yuppified. Opening in 2004, the 42-story Goldman Sachs Tower lords over the Jersey City riverfront. The rise in housing price is used as an indicator of the economy’s health, but like so many other things, what benefits the moneyed hurts the poor. I’d love to see housing price collapse completely so I can rent an apartment for less than $500! The poor live in terror of seeing their rents raised. A bump of just $50 or so can mean skipped meals. Angel spoke of the strangeness of seeing people with jobs and apartments eating at her soup kitchen, but that has become the new normal for many poor Americans.

What’s meant by poor varies greatly from country to country, obviously. Each year, I get paid $200 to write an article in Vietnamese for a California journal’s Tet issue. Even people inside Vietnam read Viet Bao. I translate a passage, “Poverty in the US is much different from destitution in Vietnam because in the US, even the poorest have something to stuff into their mouths. In Kensington, a neighborhood in North Philly, more than 350 people eat dinner each day at Saint Francis. After 5PM, you can see them lined up outside the gate. Slovenly and smelly or neatly dressed, they are the homeless, the old, the young and mothers pushing strollers. In the US, the biggest worry is the monthly rent or mortgage. Unable to pay, roughly 1.5 million people must sleep in their cars or outside at least a few days a year. Every American city has hundreds if not thousands of homeless. In some places, they take over an entire neighborhood, as with San Francisco’s Tenderloin or Los Angeles’ Skid Row.”

Orwell wrote that an Indian or Japanese coolie “can live on rice and onions,” and in Vietnam today, there are those whose normal meal is just the cheapest rice fried up with some MSG. In downtown Saigon, however, there is a buffet that charges $130 a head, and another that docks you a mere Ben Franklin. [And no, my inquisitor, I haven’t crashed into either one, so don’t get your boxers all bunched up!] At each, you can feast on tapas, prosciutto, lobsters and steaks, and guess who frequent such haunts? Foreigners, of course, but also the nouveau riche and high ranking Communist Party officials.

Most “Communists,” from a police captain and certain college professors on up, can get fat on graft alone, but the most powerful Party members also own multiple villas, send their kids to study in London, Paris or Berkeley, and vacation in Dubai. The most opulent nightclubs in Saigon and Hanoi are also owned by Communists, and the ones that aren’t must pay off a raft of cynical, cognac swilling Reds to stay in business. These are the pigs depicted in Orwell’s Animal Farm, but they weren’t born pigs, however, but became pigs through totalitarianism.

Which comes first, though, the power or the pig? First of, there’s a latent pig inside each of us, no matter how meek our current station. This means anyone can morph into a pig at any time. A lifelong sheep, dove, butterfly or microbe can suddenly become a pig on his death bed. With power, though, a pig can balloon to any size and become even larger than the earth itself, so the trick is not to outlaw piggishness, since it is merely a state of mind and always lurking, but to limit the amount of power any individual or entity may have over anything, and that’s true of a media company as much as a political party.

The point and attraction of having power is to collect blings and kick asses, so if you consolidate power in fewer hands, you will increase suffering for a greater number of people, but that’s exactly the world we’re living in. Nationally, Washington has more power over an American life than ever, and internationally, this earth is divided into a few major blocks dominated by a handful of power centers. The windfalls of cheap oil have cushioned and masked the true state of our global oppression and inequity, however, though millions have simply been blown to bits in that ruthless scramble for cheap oil.

With resource depletion of all kinds across this blighted earth, war will likely rain on your head, specifically, but eventually, the power centers will lose their grip on the local, though each remaining oasis, if there’s any, will also be deprived of all the miraculous perks we’ve come to expect. No more plastic and polyester for you, dude, and no more food that’s fertilized, farmed, refrigerated and shipped via petroleum. No more 500 channels. No more gadgets. Instead of that nice, smooth ride down the endless highway of prosperity, we will travel back in time, if we’re very lucky.

I only believe in what’s fair and sane, and have never identified myself as a “progressive,” for in the name of progress, so much destruction has been unleashed, and so many innocents slaughtered. Fascists and Communists declared themselves progressives, and before them, European Colonialists looted and killed in the name of progress. During Mao’s Cultural Revolution, a staggering number of ancient temples, tombs, statues, books and other antiquities were destroyed, but China’s core beliefs and aesthetics could not be wiped out, and as soon as the boot was lifted from the people’s faces, they reverted to old customs. Confucius was attacked as an advocate and symbol of the slave owning class, and yet, his tenets continued to guide and inspire, so now, the Party has rewritten history to claim that Communism is but an extension of Confucianism, and all over the world, it has set up Confucius Institutes to represent China. In Russia, traditional beliefs and values have also made a fierce come back. To cherish one’s heritage doesn’t mean that one must hate all changes, obviously. As Putin said recently, “our priorities are healthy families and a healthy nation, the traditional values which we inherited from our forefathers, combined with a focus on the future, stability as a vital condition of development and progress.” It’s a question of balance.

The foundation of the United States isn’t some guy caricatured in fortune cookies but the Constitution, and now that it’s used to wipe the asses of the president and all members of congress several times a day, each day, what’s left of this country, really? Just about nothing is right, but with so much vehement hatred between liberals and conservatives, there is little hope of forming a coalition to challenge our common enemy. As we spit venom at each other, the war profiteers and banking cartel will continue to destroy our lives through their unctuous lackeys inside the Beltway. As rage builds up, however, there’s bound to be lone wolf attacks against symbols of power, and anticipating this, our rulers have repeatedly warned against domestic terrorism. When it finally happens, for real and not as false flags, hundreds of innocents will also be rounded up as the population froth, bay and cheer. Totalitarianism makes the stupid even more imbecilic, the wise cynical and the brave dead. The next chapter of our history has already been written by our masters.



X said...

Unfortunately, many of us have the tendency to focus on and be affected by an idiot, when there are others who respect us. I hope that stalker does not affect you too much, Linh. What you're doing is very moving and important. Even if all you did was talk to people like Angel but not write anything, it would still be important, for you would have given time and attention to the people ignored by far too many.

In which work did Orwell write about the socialists, and about the coolies? I've only read 1984 and his essay on the English language ("Politics and the English Language"). I need to familiarize myself with more of his writings.

In general, I am very affected by the destituteness you show in your photos. However, people like Angel, Stephanie, and Jill (from a previous postcard), affect me even more because I'm in the same age group. It's somehow massively unfair that they have to go through what they go through. Apparently, Bill Gates is reputed to have said "Life isn't fair. Get used to it." It's pretty easy to say that when one has all the riches in the world.

We had a similar discussion a while ago, about Tolstoyan groups, but besides that, is there no way for these homeless folks in general, and the young ones in particular, to have a brighter future? Is there no way that people with the heart and money can somehow start something to give these folks a career, or at least just a job? Or is there simply a fundamental incompatibility given that we're in a system that keeps concentrating wealth in the hands of a few?

The fact that the shelter folks annoy people like that to wake them up is so sadistic. I wonder if it's a case of "you homeless people make me feel bad and sad. Quit making me feel bad and sad. Get the fuck out!" Basically a case of blaming the victim because the victim is making the person feel bad.

Fuck this retarded system.

Linh Dinh said...

Hi X,

In chapter XI of The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell rails on the armchair socialists.

In Chaper VI, he talks about how little the English working class and unemployed have to eat, and thus mention in passing Asian coolies.

Though Orwell went to Eaton, his family could only afford it thanks to a scholarship, and Orwell was poor much of his life. Here's his account of being a poor ward in a Parisian hospital. It is a must read.

When I mentioned Orwell in my last Postcard, a reader responded with
"Believing that the Anglo Saxon sex fantasy '1984' is a serious political book and trying to base an analysis upon it, is the very definition of bourgeois!" I'm sorry, but that really pained me, for how can any person be so aggressively stupid? How can anyone possibly read 1984, one of the most important political novels ever, and reduce it to a masturbation aid?! Such gleeful malice and such bottomless idiocy! It is very sad.

Orwell had moral and physical courage, and so did Jack London, and his People of the Abyss is a neglected classic. In the passage below, London describes a bathing scene in a workhouse:

“two by two, we entered the bathroom. There were two ordinary tubs, and this I know: the two men preceding had washed in that water, we washed in the same water, and it was not changed for the two men that followed us. This I know; but I am also certain that the twenty-two of us washed in the same water.

I did no more than make a show of splashing some of this dubious liquid at myself, while I hastily brushed it off with a towel wet from the bodies of other men. My equanimity was not restored by seeing the back of one poor wretch a mass of blood from attacks of vermin and retaliatory scratching.”

Linh Dinh said...

One more thought about Orwell. Since the allegorical 1984 and Animal Farm are his most famous books, many readers may not realize how great of a descriptive writer he is. The man looked and listened very carefully. Down and Out in Paris and London is an example of this, and the first two chapters of The Road to Wigan Pier are masterpieces of descriptive writing.

Orwell's disdain for certain types of leftists rankles people to this day, and his flareups of misogyny are inexcusable. That said, he was deeply concerned about men and women of the working class. It's the prigs and poseurs that made him seethe.

Anonymous said...

hi linh,
i agree that orwell is very moving. 'homage to catalonia' you didn't mention, but it is a great book on a great subject. when i re read 1984 a few years ago (the first time was in high school in around the year 84), i was floored. it is a staggering book, absolutely terrifying. i could only wonder, why the hell didn't i see that when i read it as a high school student? probably the way it was presented to us, or the fact that by high school i and everyone pretty much hates reading--they do their job well!
i won't say i have an issue with your take on communism, but just feel despair, and any glimmers of hope i see seem to quickly vanish. i am thinking of various examples of the same thing: the ideal of socialism. i am now reading fidel castro's autobiography, for example. chavez gave me great hope for the world. there's a documentary on yugoslavia i saw a year or so ago which states that the usa bombing into oblivion of that country was due to the fact that it was the one shining example to the world of a place where socialism worked. i met in spain around new year's 1998 a couple from former east germany, who missed it so much, who hated west german pigs, who missed above all the comraderie and lack of selfishness. i think of putin, who said 'anyone who doesn't lament the fall of the soviet union has no heart'. i think of essays by andre vltchek on cuba and china, positive essays on the beauties of what they're doing there and in other axis of evil places. ok, etc, etc.
do you make anything of all this, linh? (i do i think get your general drift from reading many of your writings, but you seem to have no hope for systemic change in such a corrupt, horrific world)
and with x, i give you my heartfelt sympathy against the motherfucker that's trying to torment you--i'm guessing it's that guy you've already mentioned up on north broad. ah, the crazies! cheers,

Linh Dinh said...

Yo Joe,

There were good people who believed wholely in Communism, and were selfless and enjoyed working with each other, but unfortunately, they ended up being jerked around and abused by the pigs, if not locked up and shot. Orwell describes this well in Animal Farm.

Theres is a Vietnamese poet named Tran Vang Sao, and here's his bio, as found on Wikivietlit (something I'm technically in charge of, though I haven't had time to take care of it in years):

"Trần Vàng Sao (1942), real name Nguyễn Đính, is a poet, also a memoirist.

He was born in Hue. Soon after, his father was killed by the French during the First Indochina War. During the Vietnam War, he contributed to the underground newspaper Thanh Niên Chống Mỹ [Youth against America]. He joined the National Liberation Front in 1965, lived in areas under its control, broadcasting propaganda until 1969, when he was injured and removed to the north.

In spite of his allegiance to the Communist cause during the war--his pen name, "Vàng Sao," means "Yellow Star," a reference to the national flag--he has been blacklisted since 1972 for his candid depictions of social conditions inside Vietnam. He’s been harassed constantly, even imprisoned, his manuscripts confiscated.

His poetic voice is bemused, ironic, deliberately banal, a reaction against the dogmatic bombast of many of his contemporaries. His poems have been translated into English and published in the journals American Poetry Review (Vol.28/No.1, Jan/Feb 1999) and The Literary Review (Winter 1999)."

So there you have a great Communist who's been destroyed by the pigs. I was never able to meet Vang Sao, but I talked to him once the phone, and a mutual friend told me about his wretched living condition.

And here are four of his poems I've translated. Do read them.


Linh Dinh said...

Hi Joe,

And while Vang Sao nearly starved to death, the pampered poet of North Vietnam was Tố Hữu.
He spent decades writing bloodthirsty or obsequious poetry, among which is a bizarre ode to Stalin. My translation:

Stalin! Stalin!

A mother showed to her child
A picture of Stalin with a young child
His shirt is white against red clouds
His eyes are kind, his mouth smiling

On an immense green field
He stands with a little child
Wearing a red scarf round his neck
Towards the future they both look

Stalin! Stalin!
How I loved my child’s first word
When he said the word Stalin!
The milky fragance of a baby’s mouth
Is like the dove of peace and a limpid moon

Yesterday the field speaker blared
Tore my stomach to shreds
O how the village convulsed
O how can it be… He’s dead!
O Stalin! O Stalin!

Without you, are there still sky and earth?
The love for my father, mother, wife
The love for myself are but one tenth
Of my love for you
The love for my child, country, race
Can’t be greater than my love for you

Before there was only barren desolation
Thanks to you there’s brightness and joy
Before only torn clothes and hunger
Thanks to you our rice pots are full

Before only torment and shackles
Thanks to you we have days of freedom
When people have land to till
When independence comes tomorrow
Who will we remember with gratitude?

This gratitude I’ll bear on my shoulders
One side for Uncle Ho, one for you
My child, you’re still so clueless
But you’ll learn to thank Stalin for life

Loving you a mother vowed in silence
To love village, country, husband, child
Although you have disappeared, gone
Your crimson footsteps are forever

Today on the village road at dawn
Incense smoke curled up everywhere
A thousand in mourning white, joined
In wrenching eternal remembrance of you.

Linh Dinh said...

Tố Hữu was also a very high-ranking Party member. Near death in 2002, he circulated a farewell poem. I translate:

To my most beloved friend in life
A few lines of verse and a bit of ash
Poetry for life, ash for the soil
In life I give, in death I also give.

The Vietnamese word for “give” is “cho.” Add a rising diacritic, however, and “cho” becomes “chó,” meaning “dog.” In oral circulation, the last line of Tố Hữu’s poem has been converted to:

In life I was a dog, in death a dog.

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Joe,

The problem with Communism is that it's a one party system which tolerates no dissent, and it's economically a disaster. We cannot insist on adopting a system that's been rejected by all the societies that have tried them, and I include in this list the ones that still call themselves Communist.

I'm not even against the Communist Party as long as we don't have to live under its dictatorship. In many countries, there are active Communist Parties that manage to get their candidates elected, and that's fine. My only objection is to any kind of totalitarianism or dictatorship.

The man who pays me $200 a year for my one Vietnamese article is poet Trần Dạ Từ. He was jailed for 12 years by the evil Vietnamese Communist regime. His bio from Wikivietlit:

Trần Dạ Từ (1940), real name Lê Hạ Vĩnh, is a poet, editor and publisher of Việt Báo, a newspaper based in Southern California.

He was born in Hải Dương, northern Vietnam. In 1954, during the partition of the country, he went to Saigon, where he became a journalist and prominent poet. During 1963, he was jailed by the Ngô Đình Diệm government for his dissident views, then imprisoned for 12 years by the Communists from 1976-1988, after the collapse of South Vietnam. His wife, the famous novelist and poet Nhã Ca, the only South Vietnamese female writer among 10 black-listed as "cultural guerrillas" by the Communist regime, was also imprisoned from 1976-1977. In 1989, a year after Trần Dạ Từ was released from prison, the couple and their children received political asylum from the Swedish government, but later moved to the US and now live in Southern California.


Linh Dinh said...

Discussing Arthur Koestler, Orwell wrote, "there is almost no English writer to whom it has happened to see totalitarianism from the inside. In Europe, during the past decade and more, things have been happening to middle-class people which in England do not even happen to the working class [...] England is lacking, therefore, in what one might call concentration-camp literature. The special world created by secret-police forces, censorship of opinion, torture and frame-up trials is, of course, known about and to some extent disapproved of, but it has made very little emotional impact. One result of this is that there exists in England almost no literature of disillusionment about the Soviet Union. There is the attitude of ignorant disapproval, and there is the attitude of uncritical admiration, but very little in between. Opinion on the Moscow sabotage trials, for instance, was divided, but divided chiefly on the question of whether the accused were guilty. Few people were able to see that, whether justified or not, the trials were an unspeakable horror."

Linh Dinh said...

Yo Joe,

Lastly, if I show "little hope for systemic change," in your phrasing, it's because I see nothing but divisiveness everywhere, and many people who are disatisfied are stuck on just a single issue and don't see the bigger picture. Others are so committed to some ideology, they see enemies or heretics everywhere. There is little in the way of empathy or respectful attentiveness to even one’s potential allies.

x larry said...

hi linh,
sorry for the ugly phrase 'systemic change'. divisiveness, to be sure, is everywhere and all-pervasive. i have even wondered before whether orwell himself was divisive. for example, he made a comment in one of his essays about the laughability of the old christian ideal of equality--that is, the mindset of all of europe for maybe 1500 years, or more, where nation was not nearly so important as being christian (i think--or something like that). he seemed to imply right after that his race was rather superior--i'd have to look it up. i could perhaps say more on my impressions of orwell, but they're not fresh in my mind. overall, i think he's a very interesting writer at least. i can't say i totally trust him. he did of course work for the bbc, which is maybe why he knew what he knew. also, i wonder why, if it's so subversive, 1984 (or animal farm) would be allowed to exist. maybe they're just waiting for the nearby day when all is electronic and easily manipulated, edited and erased. but that won't be necessary, with the brain dead population now in existence worldwide. once proud peoples! do something quick--switch overnight or even over a generation from vacant tv watchers to sensitive poets en masse.
by communism or socialism--i'm obviously no expert, interested though i am (i've no direct experience living in these places)--i certainly don't mean totalitarianism, or control, or order. all i mean is this: we have, common sense tells me (and i thought this as a young boy, and have held onto it since), or should have anyway, an absolute birthright to a decent house and plenty of good food. this could be achieved tomorrow. for people who think a big house, an expensive car, a trophy wife is important--to them i have nothing to say. in a world not totally upside down, they would be laughed out of every room they entered. not in our present world, though. women are the key to this, in my mind. if they aren't impressed, then big shot goes away. unfortunately, women have proven in the past century anyway (this can be changed) to be fully as capable of fascism as men.
anyway, the social safety net in britain (which they're trying to dismantle rapidly) is the closest thing i've seen to what i have in mind. there are no starving here. though of course there are SO many of the miserable. but, to me, private property must not only be abolished, but seen for what it is--laughable, cruel, stupid, childish (well, only the worst, spoilt children). i said britain's benefit system and health care are along the right lines. but of course britain is almost the very home of private property. the only true models, perhaps, are american indians, australian aborigines, and all tribal people.
but what madness--people trying just to survive, people eating from dumpsters. bill gates and the queen and george soros and bono and blair and paul mccartney filthy fucking rich. and the rich get their money through inheritance. and those rags to riches stories--what ruthless, pig-headed asshole did what for his money (today it was a 15 year old girl in manhattan with a 400 thousand a year babysitting business). and people still admiring the rich.
on that note, bye for now,

x larry said...

p.s. thanks for the beautiful poetry and translations!

Linh Dinh said...

Yo Joe,

During my two years in Italy, my wife and I experienced universal healthcare and that was amazing. For a modest fee each year, we didn't have to worry about dropping dead or going bankrupt with one emergency room visit, and we were merely temporary residents, and not citizens of Italy.


Linh Dinh said...

Yo Joe,

As for 1984 and Animal Farm being in the curriculum in the West, it's because these books were treated only as indictments of Communism. Now that the US, UK and others have adopted, more openly, tactics described by Orwell, students are too glazed eyed to know what the hell they're reading

Moreover, the vast majority are no longer reading Orwell, at least not in the US. Elizabeth Hayes used to teach 1984 at her community college in Cleveland, but the administration told her it was no longer on the approved list. They didn't say it was for political reason, but simply because students couldn't penetrate such a strange book. As for highschools, I seriously doubt if 1984 is being taught at more than a handful of places across the US, if at all.


Ian Keenan said...

Linh, I want to quickly mention Raymond Williams' writings about Orwell, someone who sees the pros and cons of him like few others with a compatriot's perspeptive on common influences. Whatever cons there were with GO were sincere and not a result of opportunism. Though he is remembered for being a dystopian writer, when he was immersed in radical culture for an extended period he wrote his most hopeful book, Homage to Catalonia, in my view his most indipensible one.

re: your heckler: everyone who takes up these issues is going to get called all sorts of names, the germ of that provides the immunity.

Linh Dinh said...

I had it as the Union Club, but a reader pointed out that it's actually the Union League, so it's corrected. He added, "They don't worship Satan overtly but they worship Reagan. They raided the employee pension fund for an ill-advised renovation that drove them into extreme debt despite four figure membership fees, with some members suspecting them of cooking the books.* Not aware of any board games played - the kind of place where you don't want to beat the wrong person in a game, you'd know who'd you want to let win. It was the inspiration for Trading Places, with Eddie Murphy in the Angel role."


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.