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Sunday, June 28, 2015

Postcard from the End of America: Centralia, PA

As published at Smirking Chimp, OpEd News, CounterCurrents and Unz Review, 6/28/15:






Just as there are so many ways for a man to die, there are countless methods for a place to be destroyed. Unlike a dead man, however, a wrecked city or country most often doesn’t disappear entirely, but lingers on as a shadow or zombie, or it becomes an entirely different place. Most American cities have become zombies, while the country itself is a swearing, staggering, fist-waving zombie with a gazillion cruise missiles strapped to its bloated and festering carcass.

Come up to Northeast Pennsylvania, my friend Chuck Orloski urged, and he’ll show me Centralia. Fifty three years into its famous coal mine fire, this dead town only has three houses left from over five hundred, and out of its seven churches, only one is standing. Its current population is six, and its last unpaid and unofficial mayor died in May of 2014 at age 90. Centralia does have a fire station, however, and inside its municipal building, there’s a bar that opens twice a month for old timers to drop by and reminisce. Also, Centralia’s four cemeteries still honor reservations. Forced to flee, many come back to lie down. Dead, they can reclaim their community.

Chris Perkel and Georgie Roland made a searing documentary on Centralia, The Town That Was, and in this 2007 film, one meets fascinating John Lokitis. With its population down to a dozen, Lokitis tried to maintain normalcy by mowing acres of grass, painting benches and, most absurdly and heartbreakingly, hanging candle, tree and lantern decorations at utility poles each Christmas. By refusing to let comatose Centralia die, Lokitis was hoping against hope that it could be revived but, alas, Lokitis himself was evicted in 2009 and his memory laden house torn down. Following Lokitis around, the camera often lingered uncomfortably on his face after he had stopped talking, as if expecting this sad yet defiant man to break down. Every now and then, Lokitis would chuckle nervously. Combating nature, fate, the damned government and time itself, Lokitis couldn’t will the Centralia story to a different outcome.

Taking a bus from Philadelphia, I met Chuck in downtown Scranton, but before he arrived, I had time to grab a very sad fish sandwich at Curry Donuts. The other patrons did cheer me up, however. Copiously inked and in daft or menacing T-shirts, they guzzled Mountain Dew, greeted each other and jived. Sitting alone, a squinting black man wore cheap, plastic glasses sans nose pads and a once-orange T-shirt that declared, “YOUR MOM WAS HERE.” Pushing a stroller, possibly the shortest woman I’ve ever seen came marching in and grandly announced to the frazzled cashier, “We’re having lunch!” Visibly and audibly ecstatic that the fish sandwich with fries special was just $4.99, she ordered the dismal meal I just had. Standing outside the plate glass window, a young man in a white muscle T spat extravagantly between puffs of American Spirit. I never knew a seemingly healthy body could generate so much phlegm.

Joining Chuck and me on the trip to Centralia was Jack. Sixty-five-years-old, Jack has had a turbulent life and was locked up for 22 years altogether for dealing drugs. He has at least 11 children by eight women. When not chasing pink sweat pants, Jack works at a soup kitchen. A man who has never been in battle or jail can feel inadequate in the presence of one who has. It is as if true manhood consists of a capacity to endure endless humiliation and pain. It is this psychology that is exploited by the softest of men to convert millions of other men into draft animals and soldiers.

Running from the Scranton police, Jack settled in Fishtown in Philadelphia. Living within sight of a police station, in fact, Jack did honest construction work, but on cold nights, he would let a young prostitute in. In exchange for warmth and crack, she would give Jack some attention. By four in the morning, she wasn’t likely to hook up with another john anyway.

“Isn’t it funny, Jack?” I said. “These girls come in from all over, small town New Jersey, Kansas, and they end up in Kensington, which is like the worst fuckin’ neighborhood in the world--well, the country--so they have to act all tough and shit, but they’re not.”

“They’re not.”

“They’re just kids.”

“Yeah, they’re just kids, and I knew what they wanted, you know. I’d get them a bundle of crack, two bundles. I didn’t give a shit. I was making 16, 17 an hour under the table, and my rent was only 300 a month. I didn’t care too much what they looked like. The backs of their heads looked good to me.”

Always looking, Jack was constantly pointing out notable sights to Chuck and I as we were driving. No square inch of soft flesh escaped his attention. A thickly built man, Jack has a Jesus tattoo on his barrel chest. In any fight, you’d want him on your side.

In this region, the landscape has no dramatic markers. There are no snowcapped peaks or wide rivers spanned by spectacular bridges. Everything is tranquil. For a century and half, however, there was much drama below. To keep America heated and lighted, an army of men and boys toiled in virtual hells, with many of them blown up or crushed. From 1877 to 1940, 18,000 died in Pennsylvania coal mines.

Three miles from Centralia is Ashland, and we stopped here to examine an unusual statue. Like nearly every town in coal country, Ashland is almost entirely white. God, family and country are their holy trinity. Each man is expected to go to the war(s) of his generation. If returning in one piece, no matter how truncated, he has earned himself a stool at the VFW Legion. In such a town, flags and patriotic declarations are everywhere, and war memorials, often with a piece of artillery, torpedo or even tank, are conspicuous. Ashland’s most prominent monument does not feature soldiers, however, but a symbolic mother. A bronze rendition of the famous Whistler painting, it rests on a stone pedestal that reads, “MOTHER. A MOTHER IS THE MOST SACRED THING ALIVE.”

After his mom died in 1992, Chuck went to this statue to recite a Hail Mary. There, he thought of her last, troubling decade when she often clawed herself bloody or yanked her hair out, so much so that she had to wear a wig in public. Climbing down the monument’s steps, Chuck was suddenly accosted by an old, limping woman. “They should call that Our Lady of Memory,” she barked. To honor the mother, then, is to acknowledge our roots and history. It is to define, as best we can, who we really are.

On the edge of Ashland, we met up with Remo. An old Teamster friend of Chuck, he would show us Centralia, his hometown. White haired and mustached, Remo had a dog tag and pair of glasses dangling from his neck. A second pair perched on his hunting cap. Six eyes, this man had. In two cars, we drove into the “outskirts of hell,” as it’s described in a 1981 newscast. Are you ready for toxic steam to crawl up your legs and into your nose? Perhaps you will be sucked into inferno, as happened to 12-year-old Todd Domboski, though, unlike him, no miraculous hands will pluck you out at the last second. Into hell you will go.

Photos of Centralia posted online are often taken in Winter, to emphasize its desolation, but the town I saw was mostly green trees and shrubs, and lording over this verdant expanse was a beautiful white church on a hill. Outside the fire zone, The Assumption Of The Blessed Virgin Mary has not been razed. Completed in 1912, it was one of the first Ukrainian churches in the US. For its construction, each family in the congregation contributed $50, or $1,290 in today’s dollars. Remo was married here, and his dad and maternal grandparents are nestled in the soil out back. When he and his ma die, they will join them. Thanks to lung cancer, Remo only has one bronchi left. The church’s steep steps pose a unique challenge for pall bearers. Remo joked of hearing many a dead man’s head bouncing against the coffin as it’s tilted upward. Though there are no more Sunday services, weddings and funerals are still performed here. Mostly funerals.

Under a red granite, slant headstone, Nicholas and Mary Bazan rest. Outliving her husband by 38 years, Mary died only in April of 2015. Having moved to Highlands, NC, Mary knew she would come back to a plot she and her husband had paid for decades earlier. Such fidelity to man, memory and land has become much rarer, no doubt, though we blithely call it freedom. When not blown hither and thither like husks, many of us still disown everything.

Remo showed us another cemetery, Odd Fellows. The fatal fire started right next to it in 1962. As a teenager, Remo and his buddies would get it on with their girlfriends among the tomb stones. The hellish heat from below kept those young, entangled limbs on the surface balmy even in Winter. A mile away, snow may be falling, but here they could disrobe under the stars.

“You could walk around with no shoes on. It was like the beach.”

“Remo, didn’t you feel guilty having sex next to a bunch of crucifixes?” I asked.

“It’s only a sacrilege if you’re sober. It’s not a sacrilege if you’re drunk.”

We all laughed. “You didn’t feel funny having sex on top of grandmas and grandpas?”

“I crossed myself before I did it.”

I, too, have a teenaged cemetery (sorta) sex story. Perhaps it is an archetypical scenario. Above an astronomical mound of bones, we make love. Bones against bones, on top of bones.

Chuck and Remo worked together as dockworkers for Roadway Express for a decade, so they have plenty of shared memories. As we walked around, they brought up many frightful characters. They spoke of an intimidating ex Marine who had the disconcerting habit of suddenly grabbing another man’s genitals or kissing him. Suspected of stealing guns from the dock, the nut squeezer even smooched an FBI agent. He finally killed himself with a .357.

A company executive would ask odd sexual questions during job interviews. “Do you like to wear your wife’s panties?” He claimed it revealed personality traits.

Irked at a newly hired supervisor from Boston, a black worker showed his sullen mamba to this annoying gent as he was talking on the phone. Traumatized, the man quit. This reminds me of a white friend’s take on a famous Robert Mapplethorpe photo, “That’s every white man’s biggest fear. To see a huge black penis from some guy in a suit.”

“Isn’t it weird, Chuck,” I said, “the guy’s reaction? I think it’s incredible he would let go of his job over that.”

“I used to see black penises all the time,” Jack added. “They were all lined up in a row. In the shower.”

Once, Remo grabbed the neck of a foreman but was not fired. Unionized and in skilled jobs, workers obviously had more leverage then. Now, you can be fired with no pretext, for there’s plenty of fresh meat waiting just outside the door.

Done with what’s left of Centralia, we all went to Dorko’s in Mount Carmel, four miles down Route 61. Remo’s wife bartends here, and this is where he goes regularly to chat and sometimes to play shuffleboard or shoot darts. Remo’s health prevents him from downing the cheap Yuengling. A while back, a reader complained that I was talking to too many folks in bars, but lady, people the world over talk to each other while drinking. It’s called socializing. At its peak, Centralia had a population of 2,761 but 27 bars, so go back to your chatroom, lady, and leave me to my fermented hop and Remo to his spring water. We’re talking.

Wine in, words out, goes a Vietnamese saying. In Dorko’s, I talked to a man who had lived in half a dozen countries during his Army stint. He spent three years in Italy, loved it, and almost married a woman there. He still thinks the USA is best, however, “We have the most freedom.”

“Ah, man, don’t you love the Italian food, people and pace of life? Italians taught me how to live, I’m not joking.” I spent two years in Certaldo, the birthplace of Boccaccio. “The healthcare, too, it’s a lot cheaper there. If I had the money, I’d live in Italy.”

“I still prefer it here, because we have the most freedom.”

“They have all the freedom that we have!”

“No, they don’t.”

“What are you talking about?”

“They can’t own guns like we do.”

“That’s it?!”

“Yup.”

In the American West, you have thousands of towns quickly settled, then quickly abandoned. In China, there are grandiose urban projects that can’t find enough commercial or residential tenants. Founding Israel, Jews evicted Palestinians and razed their villages. When borders shift or political systems change, entire towns evacuate. People have always had to flee for their lives, but in modern times, the scale and range of refugee flows have become unprecedented and truly staggering. A refugee at age 11, I slept in a tent in Guam, an Army barrack in Arkansas, then lived in Washington, Texas, Oregon, California and Virginia before graduating from high school. Such rootlessness is hardly unusual. When in Hanoi, however, I feel strangely at home, though I have never spent more than two weeks at a time there. It’s not just the accent, my mother’s, but a deeper resonance that comes from millennia of settlement by my kind. The entire Red River Delta has more gravity to me, but less so Saigon, my birthplace. Vietnamese haven’t been there as long. That said, I’m best adjusted to Philadelphia and can negotiate its maze better than any other place’s. My primary language is still English. I’m a Philadelphian.

With ghost towns all over, why should Centralia fascinate? First of, it’s extremely rare to see Americans fleeing en masse from a place, and here they’re even doing it permanently. An American refugee is still a very rare breed. Secondly, there are layers of symbolism to this catastrophe. Nourished by coal, this town has been destroyed by it. It’s a man-made ecological disaster that destroys a man’s home and all that he cherishes. Beneath a thin crust of it’s-a-wonderful-life normalcy, there’s a bubbling hell threatening to swallow everyone up, and you have to be an extremely smug American to be oblivious to this plot. Centralians also resent having their history and identity being reduced to a final disaster, and this happens, by the way, to all of history’s losers. Just think of the American South or South Vietnam. Soon, you too will know the feeling. All Americans are Centralians.

Stories make a place. Without stories, there is no place, but without place, there can still be stories. If your stories are not organically grown, but imposed on you by those who hate everything about you, then you’re virtually dead.

After the last Centralian has come home to be buried, the town will be just its cemeteries and a section of lost road. Buckled and cracked, it’s filled with graffiti, much of it erotically inspired. Above bones, we screw, until we too become lost words. Oh mother of memory, forgive us for what we’ve already forgotten.




.

14 comments:

Linh Dinh said...

At Smirking Chimp, Rosemarie Jackowski has an interesting comment:

I enjoyed reading this article.

I was born in Luzerne county. Lived there all my growing up years - except during WW2. Then I lived in Philadelphia.

My grandfathers came over from Poland to work in the mines... some of the hardest, meanest, most dangerous work on the planet. Most of the miners were dead before their 50th birthdays. Many died much younger from mining accidents and black lung.

There are still cave-ins happening in Wyoming Valley.

Have you ever seen the movie "The Miracle of the Bells". It is about Glen Lyon, a mining town in the area. My cousin was pastor of the church where the 'miracle' happened. (During a funeral all the statues turned.) The alternative explanation is that there was no miracle... just the earth settling because of the mines.

Elizabeth said...

Linh, did you know I have the greatest affection for Rosemarie J, who I wrote to a zillion times on CD and elsewhere? She is so cool, a lifelong teacher and activist. I will write her right now and try to get her old ass over here.

Elizabeth said...

And by the way, I don't even know what to point out in this Postcard. The guy who thinks we have the most freedom because we can have guns? I don't think so. That would make him seem like a fool, which he isn't. I'll get back to you.

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Elizabeth,

Hey, that's great you know Rosemarie! Chuck sent article to Dorko's, so hopefully they'll dig it. We didn't spend enough time in Mount Carmel so would like to get back there one of these days, but that's how I feel about so many places.

Linh

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the essay on Centralia. It was very enlightening and moving when coupled with the video about the guy determined not to let Centralia disappear under his watch.

Linh Dinh said...

Thanks, Anonymous!

Here's the link to The Town That Was.

Linh Dinh said...

Oh, and John Lokitis now lives 36 miles away in Milton, PA, with his girlfriend and son.

Linh Dinh said...

Cindy Shirar just sent me this kind note:

Considering the tough slog you endured while putting together your Centralia postcard, it came out beautifully. You paint a picture of the locales and people you encounter with such vivid and ecclectic descriptions--it's as if one is actually there with you.

One reason I enjoy your writing, poetry and photos so much is the unique and moving way you contast the brutality of American culture/existence with a sensitivity toward what is sublime, fragile and beautiful/graceful about humanity. Just fascinating work!

x larry said...

hey linh,
really loved this postcard, much of it really touched me.
i know what you mean about the military/prison type of guy, feeling inadequate (or at least they often try to make you feel that way). but it's a moronic way to live--who's the hardest? i, like dali, like lao tsu, admire the soft--at least on paper. granted, they were both probably fascists, certainly dali was. a digression.
on to black cock. very interesting, your friend's take on mapplethorpe. penises cause so much trouble in a man's life, unless of course his cock is huge.
finally, your feeling for place in hanoi really touched me. i was reminded of reading two german philosophers, nietzsche and i think heidegger, and feeling this longing for place, for home. it's perhaps the deepest feeling, that and a longing to love and be loved.
anyway, thank you again for such a lovely piece.
d

Linh Dinh said...

Hi all,

Here's link to Mapplethorpe photo mentioned in Postcard.


Linh

Linh Dinh said...

Hi x larry,

Thanks! Once, I was at the Hanoi airport when a young shopkeeper was entertaining her friends by pretending to be a Hanoi radio hostess, and she had the most melodious Hanoi accent, it was enrapturing. Such is the power of language. Of course, if you hated Hanoi, then she simply sounded annoying if not infuriating. Accents create communities, which means that they also separate us.

In 1995, I had an experience at the Hanoi rail station which I've recounted in my story, "Two Who Forgot," in my collection, Fake House:

When it was time for me to buy a rail ticket for my trip from Hanoi to Saigon, I was willing to pay the foreign price. Any thought I had of presenting myself as a local and saving 100 bucks was further discouraged by a story I'd heard of an overseas Vietnamese who'd managed to buy a cheaper ticket, only to be docked the difference while on the train, as he had sprinkled his Vietnamese conversation with one too many "OK's," thus revealing himself to be an outsider.

"Sister, give me a first-class ticket to Saigon," I said to the lady behind the booth.

"490,000 dong," she told me.

I hesitated, knowing the quoted price was too low: "Sister, give me the foreign price."

She looked at my face more carefully: "1,490,000 dong."

I gave her the money. She continued: "You speak like a local."

"My mother is from Hanoi."

"Travelling alone, Brother?"

"Yes."

"Fancy luggage?"

"No."

"Why don't you pay the cheaper price?"

I will have to pay this sly broad ten bucks for the transaction, I thought. Not a bad deal. I said: "If you think I can get away with it, Sister, then give the cheaper ticket."

She gave me back my change, with the ten bucks already deleted.

I was half-suspecting the ticket agent to have pulled a quick one on me, for even if I'm penalized on the train, she'd still get to keep her $10. Whatever the case may have been, the next task for me was to disguise myself accordingly: In conformity with local taste, I shaved off my goatee, bought a 60 cent hat, with "Noontime Lover" (in English) stencilled on it, and a $2.50 yellow shirt (bargained down from $4.00) off the street, waited for departure date, and hoped I won't be detected on the train. I decided against buying a pith helmet--worn by Communist troops during the war but common among civilians throughout the North--not because of politics but because I thought such an attempt at a makeover to overshoot the mark; truth is, many Hanoians, taking their fashion cues from imported videos produced in Orange County, California, were going the other way, trying to look like Vietnamese-Americans.

Maryann Remash said...

Great job Linh. From your new friend in the hottest town in Pa. REMO

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Remo,

Many thanks! I'm very glad you like it. I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to meet your wife, Maryann, in Dorko's, or if I did, I can't remember! I got up at 5 that morning to take the bus to Scranton, then Jack and I were drinking Yuengling nonstop until we ended up at the Dorko's. Chuck and I've been saying how much we'd like to return there soon.

If you and Chuck come down for the Pope's visit in October, I can show you a couple of Philly bars. We'll certainly have a good time.

Cheers!


Linh

Chuck Olroski said...

Yo Remo: Very funny & true, "Centralia is hottest town in America." I feel remorse for having charged you $50.00 for the boxing gloves, I must have been quite a businessman in the late-1970s. 'Til we meet again my friend..., hopefully not another 37-years though.

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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.