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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Obscured American: Dan the Cheese Counter Man

As published at Unz Review, 11/24/16:







Jokers are bad news. You don’t want to sit next to one in a bar.

This day, I heard, again, about a man who ordered ten shots of whiskey after getting a blow job, and a man who got a bullet in his ass while humping someone’s wife. “Had he shown up a minute earlier, I’d have gotten shot in the head!” I learnt of a guy who went to the movies with a rooster in his pants.

“I know hundreds of them!” Dan threatened.

Flagged months ago, Dan drifted back that morning because he just couldn’t deal with work. When I walked in around 2PM, the 56-year-old was pestering 33-year-old B.B. to go out with him.

“I don’t want to go on a date with you.”

“I didn’t ask you to go on a date. I just asked if you wanted dinner, that’s all. When are we going out to dinner?”

“We’re not.”

“We can just talk about things, as friends. It won’t be a date. We can just talk as friends.”

“I’m not your friend. You’re just some guy I know from the streets. Can you just leave me alone so I can do my work?”

“I just asked if you wanted to go out to dinner, that’s all. I didn’t ask you for nothing else.”

“I have nothing against you, but we’re not going to dinner, OK?”

“If you want dinner, I can even bring it to you. Do you respect me for that?”

“I don’t want anything from you. It’s not personal.”

“I didn’t say anything inappropriate. I didn’t say anything bad. Respect don’t cost nothing.”

When B.B. had to go to the bathroom, Dan asked, “You need a hand?”

Now, you can see why he had been kicked out, and B.B. didn’t endure all this crap for tips, either. Dan doesn’t tip. After his last cent is gone, he’ll ask for credit.

B.B. is just tolerant. To deny anyone of boozy fellowship isn’t cool, she knows.

“Oh my God, you’re showing too much leg! Cover that shoulder up! You’re too sexy to work in this bar!”

Perched next to Dan was his sister, Renee. She lives in deep South Philly with her husband, Dan and two other tenants. Recently, one of them got shit faced and mouthed off, so she punched him. That’s why her right hand was in a cast. “Only my husband can call me names,” Renee explained. “My tenant’s got a hard head and didn’t even feel it. He’s Italian. I’ve known him since we were kids.”

The punched man pays Renee $300 a month, plus $100 in food stamps. It’s a sweet deal. When Renee cooks, she cooks for everybody. I know an old man in her neighborhood who pays nothing to sleeps on a couch. The homeowner just feels sorry for him. During the daytime, though, he must disappear.

On Renee’s tiny front lawn, there’s a large American flag, plus a tribal flag. Way before the housing boom, Renee bought her three-story for only $70,000. Back then, there were many more shootings in Point Breeze.

Dan pays utilities and buys Renee cigarettes, plus some food and beer. That’s all.

Hearing of Renee’s right cross, recently-jailed B.B. said, “You could have been put in handcuffs.”

Dan pounced, “I’d love to put some handcuffs on you!”

An hour into my conversation with Dan, B.B. texted me, “Jesus Christ, he just goes on and on, and you can barely understand a word!” When Dan said he was related to Wayne Newton, B.B. shouted from the end of the bar, “Figs Newton!”

Just about every syllable was slurred or half swallowed. With his brain sloshed in Budweiser, the white-haired, moustachioed man could barely move his jaw or tongue. Dan also has no front teeth. Don’t tell me, though, that he doesn’t make sense.

In my crowd, dental care is an exotic concept. I myself haven’t seen a dentist since 2000, when I was last in Vietnam. In Friendly, I overheard a woman say, “How do you expect me to get a job with no teeth?! How will I eat?” Another, “Say goodbye to your teeth, honey. I hope you liked them when you had them.” I saw a woman in her mid 40’s spit out her false teeth, laughing at a joke, and no, it wasn’t by Dan. His jokes are never funny.

Suddenly liberated, those teeth seemed so alive on the floor, I fully expected them to declare something profound or witty, before skipping away from their flustered owner, out the door.

When Dan went to the bathroom, Renee leaned over and laughingly recounted the time her brother tried to commit suicide with a garden hose, “But don’t ask him about it. He’ll kill me!”

It was unseasonably warm, so the bar door was open. Across the street was the lottery stand with a small counter for customers to scratch their losing tickets. The couple running it are Indians from India. Dan buys $5 from them each day.

I’m three quarters Indian. I have a little bit of Irish, Dutch and German in me.

I’m descended from Pocahontas, 16th generation. You know, Pocahontas, John Smith and all that. I’m a Tsenacommacah.

The reservation is in Prince Williams County in Virginia. I go there every once in a while, when I get a chance.

I’m related to Wayne Newton.

Down there, you get everything for free. They don’t pay no taxes. They pay for nothing.

It’s not boring. They have a homecoming. They have a pow-wow.

It’s not my style of life. I mean, you’ve got to have a car. I ain’t got no car.

I’m not down there because I’m from Philly. I was born in Philadelphia.

My cousin has a store on the reservation. He sells souvenirs to tourists, but they’re Cherokee shit. The tourists don’t know no better.

This blonde gets on an airplane, right? Beautiful fuckin’ blonde! She goes up and sits in first class.

The stewardess comes up. She says, “Ma’am, can I see your ticket?”

“Yeah, you can see my ticket. Here’s the ticket.”

“Ma’am, this is first class customers only. You’ve got to sit in coach.”

“I’m blonde. I’m beautiful. I’m sitting right here. I’m going to California!”

So the stewardess says, “OK, I’ll be right back,” and she goes to get the pilot.

The pilot comes out. He says, “Ma’am, what seems to be the problem here? Let me see your ticket.” The pilot looks at it. “Ma’am, you’ve got to sit in coach.”

“I’m blonde. I’m beautiful. I’m sitting right here. I’m going to California!”

The co-pilot comes out. He whispers into her ear. She gets up and goes to sit in coach!

The pilot says, “What the hell did you tell her?!”

“I told her this part of the plane don’t go to California.”

I started working in the Italian Market in 1969, when I was nine-years-old. I worked there until I was a teenager.

Then I moved to Norfolk, VA. My brother was in the navy. I lived with his wife. I had a job at a supermarket, Farmfresh, for over two years, then I worked in a warehouse.

I was a driver for RC Cola for nine years.

Then I moved back to Philadelphia and worked at Maglio’s Sausage Company, then I worked at a body shop, then I moved to Maryland.

I worked at the United States Naval Academy for over three years.

Now I run a cheese counter in the Italian Market. I work from 7:30 to 5, and I get $65 a day, under the table. I get a half hour lunch break. I also get tips, so I make about $75 a day. I carry bags of potatoes to people’s cars. You know, wholesale.

I drink three or four beers a day because I have to deal with these fuckin’ people, black people. I hate everybody. Everybody is different. People are so fuckin’ stupid.

It’s like, they would ask for a quarter pound of American cheese. Why don’t you get half a pound?! It’s only $2! But they only want a quarter pound, so you have to cut it for them. A quarter pound! You can’t make a sandwich with a quarter pound!

“Give me $2’s worth of turkey bacon.” Turkey bacon is $3.99 a pound. “Give me $2’s worth of turkey bacon.” Why don’t you get a whole fuckin’ pound?! You’ll be back in two days!

You can’t say shit because the customers are always right.

My boss tells me, “Motherfucker, go get me a fuckin’ case of lettuce!” Who are you talking to? I’m 56-years-old, and I ain’t fuckin’ dumb. Motherfuckin’ this, motherfuckin’ that, he’s like that. “There’s a customer. Get behind the fuckin’ counter!”

After work, sometimes I go to the parking lot by the Mexican restaurant. I get me two cans of Colt-45 for three bucks, and a $1.25 container of Carolina rice for the pigeons. It’s very relaxing, just sitting there in that parking lot.

I have hemochromatosis. My iron level is 766. I have Obamacare. I also get food stamps.

I’m trying to get disability. I got shot in my leg.

He shot me with a .45. Look at this side. See that right there? That’s my artery. They took a razor and did a little slit. There are still fragments inside.

Ten dollars! A black man shot me for $10!

This happened in Annapolis, MD.

Bluegrass festival. I brought some girl to her house. It was 3:30 in the morning.

I was out partying. It was a bluegrass festival. Horseshoes, fish fry and all that.

I got her home. I said, “Look, we’re here!” She was sleeping. It was 3:30 in the morning, 4 O’clock. It was summertime, 2001.

I said, “We’re here! We’re here!” Then I felt a gun next to my head.

I was in the car. He came to the side window. I was thinking, What is this? Then bam! He shot me in the leg, then he said, “This ain’t no game! Give me your money!”

Ten dollars! I gave him $10. I said to him, “I swear to God, I only have $10. Don’t kill me.”

He took off.

They flew me in a helicopter. They took everything off, my shoes, my clothes, everything. They flew me to Baltimore, Baltimore General Hospital.

This girl I used to live with, she stabbed me in the hand. Blood was coming out like a water fountain.

Why? Because I threw a handful of change at her. I had a whole bunch of fuckin’ change. She was smoking crack. I hit her right in the fuckin’ face. I was in the bar. Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar.

She walked back to the kitchen, grabbed a knife and stabbed me.

This guy’s wife passed away. I let him live with me for $50 a week, in my apartment. My girlfriend then had a baby by him. They were both smoking crack.

I had to hide my fuckin’ money. I kept it in my pants, right under my nuts, and she still got it.

I have two daughters, from two women. My older one is 26. She’s getting ready to get married. She’s in Georgia. My other daughter is in North Carolina.

I have two grandkids, with one on the way.

I also have a son, Daniel.

You know what’s a gentleman? A guy who can look at a pussy and not get a hard-on. Maybe a gynecologist. If you can count every hair on her cunt and not get a hard-on, you’re a gentleman.

Wish me luck. I’m going to win a thousand a week for life. I guess I ain’t going to work again!

Shit.

With all the things I did in my life, I’m happy to be here.

I’m a good-hearted guy, man. I’ll give you the shirt off my back.

I gave the shirt off my back, and the socks off my feet, to this person last year. He had nothing. He was homeless.

This guy wanted to give me $900 for my van, but I told him, “Just take it.” It didn’t cost me nothing. Someone had given me the van.

I’m a giver, not a taker. I’m an Indian.

I don’t let them get to me. One day at a time, man.

Isn’t life wonderful?





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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 a non-fiction book, Postcards from the End of America (2017), 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). 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.