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Friday, August 14, 2015

Postcard from the End of America: Woodbury, NJ

As published at OpEd News, Smirking Chimp, Unz Review, Intrepid Report and CounterCurrents, 8/14/15:

The first recorded race riot in Camden occurred on September 12th, 1864. The Philadelphia Inquirer:

A riot, which threatened serious consequences, took place on Friday night in South Camden […] In an ale house on Spruce-street, a party of men were drinking in the early part of the evening, when some colored men came in and called for drinks. The white men raised objection against the negroes being allowed to drink at the same bar with them, and a fight followed.

The colored men were driven to their homes in the immediate neighborhood, where they were followed by the men from the bar-room. The blacks shut themselves in their houses and barricaded the doors. The white men following them up, attacked them in their intrenched position, and in some cases broke open the doors, maltreating the negroes inside. The negroes now took to the roofs of the houses, and, armed with shot guns and stones, fired upon the crowd below.

No one died that day, and of the nine people arrested, seven were black. In mid 19th century America, it was apparently a crime for a black man to be chased out of a bar, down the street, into his own house, up the stairs and onto the roof by a raging white mob frothy with evil intentions.

Two much larger race riots happened in 1969 and 1971, and their consequences can still be seen and felt today. The 1971 one was triggered by the beating death of an unarmed Puerto Rican motorist by two white cops, one an Army vet who had volunteered for Vietnam combat after being assigned to South Korea.

Nearly all the whites have fled Camden. Today, blacks and Hispanics make up 95% of its population. Camden is surrounded by towns that are mostly white, however, and the contrast between decaying Camden and charming Collingswood, for example, borders on the bizarre. Cross a single wide street and you enter an entirely different world. Instead of tattooed strutters, wrecked homes, graffiti, police sirens, unending menace, death shrines and hysterical ambulances carrying the overdosed, shot or stabbed, you’re greeted by clothing boutiques, trattorie, bistros, rosy kids in an art class and a cutesy cupcake shop.

In a Camden tent city, an affable black man in his early 50’s told me that years earlier, he had been pulled over while driving into Collingswood, “It was purely racial profiling, man. I didn’t do anything wrong.” Though living in a tent, James Boggs had about 20 books by Koonitz, Grisham, Zukav and Terry McMillan, etc. James had been in various jobs and the Army, but it took me a while to tease out that he had also been a pimp. “I was in the escort business,” James finally admitted with an impish grin.

In 2011, I took a random bus going south from Camden and, after about eight miles, got off in Woodbury. There, I saw a curiously named Kiss Club. Is this where all of these mild-looking, white suburbanites go to pile on top of each other while breathing heavily? It’s actually a support center for recovering addicts. Nearby, there was a red, white and blue American Legion with its gray artillery piece and a large “WE SUPPORT OUR TROOPS” sign. As I photographed it, a couple greeted me. They were laughing and goofing around. The woman was particularly giddy. I said I had come over from Philly and didn’t even know where I was. The man offered, “Hey, why don’t you come in and drink with us? I’ll sign you in.”

“Hey, why not!”

Inside was a lively bar with about 30 people, all white. The beer was cheap. I got a Rolling Rock. We became acquainted. The wife said I had a very interesting face, but she found my name preposterous, “You’re kidding me!”

“Hey, no jokes, OK?” I warned her. “I've gotten over it.”

She admitted that their last name was Ball, so they weren’t entirely free of ridicule. One of her relatives had made the mistake of naming her child Crystal, so now the kid’s called Crystal Ball.

“You’re not joking?”

“I’m not.”

She said she had always wanted to have a daughter named Lucy, but then she met a man named Ball.

The husband, I found out, was 49 and had been in the merchant marine. His father was in WWII, and his brother, nicknamed Groove, as in Groovy, served two tours in Vietnam as a Ranger. Groove returned from battle high strung and guilt racked. His wife left him. Later in life, his skin peeled off, then his liver malfunctioned, all because of Agent Orange. After a 1 1/2 year illness, Groove died at 57.

“Groove told me he once shot a small Vietnamese boy with explosives strapped to his body by the Viet Cong. That’s how crazy it was.”

His wife added, “I saw this Vietnam movie where there was a little girl sitting by the side of the road. She had clean clothes and nice hair and everything. She was watching tanks go by. That’s not right! It’s not fair that a child should grow up with that, while I grew up with Wawa!”

Wawa is a chain of convenience stores. In suburban or small town New Jersey, it is an institution. At Wawa, all of your earthly needs, nutritional, hygienic, recreational, light literary and sloppily sexual (in the parking lot) can be met.

She wished she didn’t live so close to a Wawa, since it was always so tempting to run to it three or four times a day. Their hoagies were excellent, she thought, and so was their coffee.

“You’d rather be in a more remote place?” I asked.

“No, I want to be in the 18th century, so I can start all over!” Then, “You know what’s my favorite part of the country?”


“Anything south of the Mason-Dixon line! The people down there are the nicest. If they see that you’re a decent sort, they’ll do anything for you.”

“Are you from the South originally?”

“No, I’ve spent my entire life in Woodbury, but I do have a brother in North Carolina. We go down there pretty regularly.”

It’s remarkable how pervasive anti-South attitudes have become, but this bias is essentially a clash of urban and cosmopolitan values against agrarian and rural ones. People who are contemptuous of the South tend to hate all “hicks” and “rednecks.” I know of a white self-proclaimed “revolutionary” whose every political, literary and musical hero is non-white. Once he laughingly sneered, “All Southerners should be killed!” Often violent in words and sometimes physically, he doesn’t get along with his black neighbors either. Rootless, this angry misanthrope lives on National Public Radio, Rolling Stone and CounterPunch. He’d love to see everything but himself burn down.

Though only ten miles from Philadelphia, Woodbury already leans towards the rural, with nearby farms growing asparagus, tomatoes, potatoes and corn. Half an hour away, Cowtown Rodeo is held weekly during the summer. Before that night was over, Mrs. Ball got quite trashed and mistakenly drank someone’s liquor twice. After the second time, she plopped her head down on the bar as if mortally wounded. When a nearby man asked what had happened, Mr. Ball shrugged, “She fucked up,” and I added, “Twice.” Suddenly, she lifted her head and sobbed at her husband, “You never give me any support!”

“What did you drink?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

Dipping a finger into the shot glass, she then pointed it at my lips. Normally, I don’t lick any man’s wife in front of him, but if this is how they do it in Woodbury, New Jersey, who am I to object? I stuck my tongue out.



It’s always good to agree. Mrs. Ball then laid her suffering head down again. You see, this is what I love most about belonging to a community. You can show people your most ridiculous self and it doesn’t really matter, because you’ve seen theirs too. We’re here to forgive each other.

After this sweet, gentle night, I hadn’t thought about this tiny burg until last Friday, when I was driven there by my new friend, poet Jason Mitchell. Like George Washington, Jason works as a land surveyor, and he explained to me that in the 19th century, many rich Philadelphians liked to keep a second home in Woodbury because it had several lakes. Though some of these sumptuous mansions remain, Woodbury has endured a long decline. Walking half a dozen blocks down Broadway, its main drag, I could see that Dollar Sea, Silver’s thrift store, Soft Pretzel Bakery, Sweet Pea’s Soul Food, Marlene Mangia Bene, Polsky’s Army and Navy and Bob’s Fireside fireplace store have all entered the realm of the dead, and I sure didn’t catch all the commercial carcasses. What are still in business? Well, the Armed Forces Career Center, for one, and I’m glad I got there before the recruiters, as they would certainly have given me hell as a potential terrorist. In Ewing Township, NJ, three uniformed soldiers stormed out when they spotted me with my camera. One had enough common sense to ignore me and walk back inside, but I was forced to butt heads with the other two.

Outside McArt à la carte, there was an easel with a small painting of an umbrella-garnished cocktail with a palm tree and beach in the background. “PAINT THIS TONIGHT!” Cost was $35 per head. Wandering inside, I found out from the owners that, in addition to their business, a tattoo parlor, hair salon and computer game shop had all opened on Broadway within the last twelve months. I entered the Woodbury Antique Center. Inside, 30 dealers displayed ornate china cabinets, chifforobes, armoires, canopied beds, grandfather clocks, handsome cribs and a cheval mirror or two. These evoke an opulent Woodbury that’s mostly gone. With electronics the most treasured household items, everything else, including people and their clothes, have degraded in beauty and significance. Away from downtown, there are several strip malls, but even there, I saw dead stores.

At an under-construction Aldi supermarket, there was a huge inflatable rat and a sign, “SHAME ON ALDI FOR LOWERING SHEET METAL WORKERS’ WAGES AND STANDARDS.” Across the country, unionized workers are being replaced by cheap, unorganized labor, and mom and pop stores are being wiped out by national or international corporations. Just counting restaurant chains, there are Wendy’s, Arby’s, McDonald’s, Subway, Popeyes, Pizza Hut, Domino's and Dunkin Donuts in Woodbury and adjacent Woodbury Heights. Total population, just over 13,000.

Woodbury does have an excellent working class bar, however, a genuine dive, and it soothed my besotted soul to discover it. Before I got there, however, I ran into some curious signs, “CHANGE IS GOOD,” “CH…CH…CH…CHANGES,” “EMBRACE CHANGE,” then, finally, “CHANGE TO CAPITAL BANK.”

After I took a photo of them, however, the manager appeared to ask what I was doing. I explained that I simply found his signs interesting. I even volunteered that I had come over from Philly. Tall and stern, he declared that seeing someone taking photos of a bank would arouse suspicion. These signs, though, were separated from the money lending den by landscaping and a parking lot, and even if I’d snapped the bank itself, that would certainly not be illegal. I told him these were like election signs. Though I was smiling the whole time, he never relaxed and kept staring at me with deep suspicion. Since 9/11, we’ve had this idiotic paranoia over photography.

A sign on Southwood’s door warned, “NO COLORS HARD OR SOFT.” Across the Delaware River, the Pagans once terrorized. Maybe there’s a bunch of beefy bikers inside? It was only early afternoon, though. I walked in to find half a dozen middle-aged patrons and a bartender in her mid 60’s. The pool table and jukebox were ignored, and on two televisions, fresh crimes were detailed. After asking for a pint of Yuengling, I was pleased to see the copious change. I could sit there a while.

In Overbrook, a Philly neighborhood made famous by Wilt Chamberlain, a 56-year-old owner of a kosher bakery was shot during a robbery. The bullet entered her chin, punctured her windpipe then lodged in her spine. News of Philadelphia and Camden shootings, stabbings, rapes and other bloody assaults are beamed nearly daily to these suburbanites and small-towners. In the last three years, Woodbury itself has had three murders, however.

In December of 2012, a Puerto Rican man from Camden stabbed a white woman to death. She had been a witness to a murder committed a decade earlier by the same man, at the same apartment complex. Released from prison, he exacted his revenge.

In December of 2012, a white ex-convict strangled a black woman with a computer cord. In court, he blamed his live-in girlfriend and mother of his son. Both murderer and victim were locals.

In August of 2013, three black men robbed an Indian gas station owner. One shot him in the chest. Two of the criminals lived in Camden.

Do you see any pattern? Jason Mitchell told me that, recently, a proposed bus stop in nearby Swedesboro caused an uproar because folks there didn’t want their neighborhood to be more accessible to anyone arriving from Camden. Of course, race is also a factor. Whether black, white, brown or yellow, a person who hears of a crime, especially one that’s in his vicinity, will want to know the race or ethnicity of the perpetrator. Hypocrites, though, will deny that they see race at all. Some claim that race itself is a bogus concept, but then again, we’re living in a world where even gender can be viewed as a mere “construct.” Not content to social engineer, many of us want to celebrate genital slicing and sculpting.

Those who dismiss race are also the first to scream racism. It is treated as a disease only other people have. Those who are outraged by police brutality but ignore barbaric crimes live in the safest neighborhoods.

That day, I made the acquaintance of Howard and Dan, heard them talk about drag racing. Fifty-six-years old, Dan has been racing since he was 17. He owns four race cars. His son, 32, is also a racer. Before his hip went bad, Dan drove car carriers for a living. Howard told me about the thrills of seeing a car with a jet engine, “Oh, man, they placed a junk car behind it for the engine to blow up, then the jet car just went zoom! I could feel it in my guts!”

Five days later, I returned and ordered Southwood’s breakfast special. Though it came with either a bloody mary or daiquiri, I sensibly decided against rum or vodka at 8:30 in the morning. I settled for beer. Sitting two stools over, bar regular Kyle couldn’t get over why I would pass up the best part of the deal. We talked.

Kyle’s maternal grandparents arrived from Germany in 1896. In Woodbury, they farmed. In the early 1920’s, his grandfather became the top man, or Grand Giant, of the local KKK.

“My granddad wasn’t a racist, though. He only joined the KKK because they had a whiskey till.”

“Oh, come on, man! He couldn’t have just risen to the top like that.”

“That’s what my family said. I didn’t really know him. I was only six when he died.” Then, “In high school, one of my best friends was black, but he wasn’t your typical nigger. He wasn’t coordinated, he couldn’t play basketball and he was smart! His ma and my ma were also close. They’d give each other cupcakes.”

“How many black kids were there in your class?”


“Only two!”

“Yeah, and the other one, we voted her class president. We did it as a spoof to show that we weren’t racist.”

Overhearing our conversation, Bob, sitting at the end of the bar, jumped in, “When my brother was 15, he said ‘nigger’ at the dinner table once, and bam! My father just knocked him backward. He said, ‘Don’t you ever use that word again in my house. That man is just as good as you.’”

Kyle on Philadelphia, “When we were kids, we would take the bus to Philly for the Christmas show at Wanamaker’s.” It was a lush department store, now converted into a Macy’s. “The big city was very intimidating. Later, I got a job for the phone company at 9th and Race.”


“Yeah, but I never got outside. I want to do pole work, but they kept me in an office, answering phones. I hated it. I only lasted 13 months and three weeks. It was affirmative action that kept me from going outside. I don’t know if you remember? If a neighborhood was 51% black, then they had to send over so many black guys.”

“What did you do after that?”

“All kinds of construction work. I’ve been in four different unions. I can fix or build just about anything.”

“Did you do plumbing?”


“House painting?”



“I was in the roofer’s union. We drank like mad. The hardest thing to find on a roofing crew is a driver’s license. Everybody had a DUI.”

Fifty-eight-years-old, Kyle is divorced and, until very recently, didn’t even know he had a daughter, “I half suspected it, but she didn’t call me until six months ago.”

“She has been in town all this time?”

“Yeah, and so has her mother. She wasn’t my girlfriend or anything. It was just a bag of coke and some Quaaludes. You can get a lot of sex that way. I was twenty-years-old."

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, Kyle, we’ve heard it all before,” Kelly, the bartender, interjected.

“So was it pretty emotional?”

“No, I don’t get emotional. We had breakfast. When she said she didn’t drink or smoke, I said, ‘You can’t be my daughter!’” Kyle chuckled. “But we did the swab test and everything, and she is my daughter. Two weeks ago, I took her to a family reunion and introduced her to everybody. A bunch of them already knew her.”

“They hadn’t known she was a blood relative, though,” I laughed.

“Yeah. My daughter is a hair dresser, and her cousin works right across the street at a funeral home. They have known each other forever. When I die, my daughter can have the house. My life is three fourths over.”

“But you might live to be a hundred!”

“I will probably die at 70 or so. My ma died at 72. If I can’t wipe my own butts, I won’t be happy. I’m already giving my daughter stuff, but she doesn’t want the piano. She has no sons, so I can’t give my guns away.”

When the news came on, Kyle declared, “We shouldn’t be in the Middle East! Did you know that it costs us four million an hour to be in Afghanistan? Just think of what that could do for our senior citizens. If we would feed people instead of killing them, we’d be fine.” Then, “The planet is way overpopulated. Soon enough, we’ll have eight billion people.”

Kyle on women, “If she can beat me in arm wrestling, I don’t want her.”

“What about Ronda Rousey?”

Kyle grinned. This asskicking woman has become America’s biggest sweetheart and emblem. People are arguing that she can beat Floyd Mayweather, the undefeated boxing champion. Imagine the cathartic tension of pitting a sexy white woman against a muscular black man in a cage. It would shatter all pay-per-view records. Nothing brings race to the fore like two individuals who are trying to clobber and humiliate each other. Instead of the colors of team sports, you simply have skin color, phenotype and physiognomy.

In between my last two visits to Woodbury, I scanned for news on the town and discovered an incident from just three weeks ago. David C. Thomas, 38, was born in Woodbury but now lives in Broussard, Louisiana. In late July, he returned to South Jersey for a wedding. On July 23rd, he knocked on the door of an 83-year-old woman in Glassboro, a 20-minute drive from Woodbury. When she opened the door, he barged in, tore off her clothes and raped the old lady for nearly two hours, breaking several ribs and left bruises all over her body. Arrested, Thomas claimed that it was merely consensual sex. His mug shot shows a black man with very thick neck, like that of a football player’s. This story is buried at and never even reported in The Philadelphia Inquirer, much less the national media. What does it say about our society that an incident this outrageous is treated as no big deal, or have we been conditioned to see this as the new normal, just a peril of living in contemporary America?

Since it never made it onto the evening news, the folks at Southwood were left to discuss another rape, this one allegedly committed by Patrick Kane, the hockey star. Hearing that Kane is paid roughly $10 million a year, Fran, the elderly bartender, blurted, “Hell, he can rape me! Just give me one million!”

Howard seconded, “He can rape me too!”

Our worst celebrity rapist is Bill Cosby, for decades propped up by our media as not just a model black man, but America’s Dad. Most of his 45+ alleged victims are white. If we are to believe the race-doesn’t-matter crowd, this has no significance. I wonder how many are seeing Cosby's crime spree as payback? The culture made him do it. Maybe an academic will go on CNN to explain that it’s just Quaaludes Enhanced Free Love Concatenation Unchained. You go, Bill!

“For me there is a time when we have to turn the mirror around,” Cosby once advised.


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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.