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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Postcard from the End of America: Atlanta

As published at Unz Review and Intrepid Report, 3/20/17:





Knowing you can’t run from their jokes, bus drivers will crack a few, so on the endless leg from Washington to Atlanta, the driver intoned, “I don’t believe in Lost and Found, ladies and gentlemen, only eBay. If you forget something on this bus, you can find it on eBay.” Later, he chastised us all because someone had pissed on the toilet’s floor.

As the cheapest means of traveling long distance, MegaBus is bare-boned. Most stops have no shelter, so no bathrooms. Riders may have to wait for their bus, which may be quite late, in withering heat, snow, sleet or hurricane. In Atlanta, however, there’s the amenity of a MegaBus snack truck that also sells pregnancy tests ($3), tasers ($20) and pepper sprays ($7).

What perils could possibly befall these downtrodden or cheapskate travelers? Use your imagination. If Donald Trump sat next to you and grabbed your pussy, wouldn’t you be glad you had bought that pepper spray or taser? If these failed to dissuade our commander-in-chief, you could use your pregnancy test in the bus’ john. Of course, those in the middle class or above would likely shudder at the thought of riding Greyhound, much less MegaBus.

On the bus, there was an actual comedian, Chris Thomas. As “The Mayor,” Thomas had hosted Rap City, a show on Black Entertainment Television. His best loved joke, “I saw this little white girl the other day. She said, ‘You have such big lips! I wish I had lips like yours!’ I said, ‘Bitch, hold still,’” and Thomas bunches his fist. Soft spoken, The Mayor never aimed for humor before getting off in Charlotte.

The MegaBus stop in Atlanta is right outside the Civic Center subway station, and when it’s very cold, passengers go underground to escape the wind. I saw a ragged, middle-aged black man, likely homeless, dancing quite cheerfully. Laughing, a woman joined him. They jerked and twisted. “I’m dreaming of a black Christmas!” she growled.

There is much to love about the South, and not the least is its food. Soon after arriving in Atlanta, I had some excellent collard greens and mac and cheese with my meatloaf at Metro Deli Soul Food. About half of the merchants inside Sweet Auburn Curb Market were black, but there were also several Korean grocers.

The new South is more diverse than you think. In North Charleston in 2012, I chanced upon Lion’s Den, a bar in a black neighborhood that was owned by an Indian-American. Living there since 1982, the confident, affable man had even run for city council. He boasted of carrying four passports, American, English, Kiwi and Indian, and had visited 53 countries. His bar was decorated with a “WE SUPPORT OUR TROOPS” banner and statues of Shiva, Parvati and Buddha.

Of course, two Southern states, Louisiana and South Carolina, gave us our first two Indian-American governors.

In the hills of Tennessee, and old, befuddled lady told me, “My doctor, you know, he’s not black. He’s something.” She meant Indian.

Each time I travel through the South, I’m struck by the waning of its accent. Attending high school in Northern Virginia from 1978-81, I heard Southern accents much more often than I have in recent trips to Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee. True, I haven’t wandered into rural areas, but it’s sad that natives of Savannah, Raleigh or Charleston, for example, should sound more or less like Yankees.

While television and movies have homogenized American English, the disappearance of the Southern accent can also be attributed to the national media’s relentless shaming of the South. Tired of being depicted as racist morons, many Southerners have neutered and deformed their speech.

The South still knows that Washington is the enemy, but this cognitive advantage is canceled out if you hate yourself. In Durham, I saw a sticker, “GOOD NIGHT WHITE PRIDE,” with one man about to slam a bicycle on another man, sitting on the ground. I had seen the same sticker in Leipzig, Germany.

How bad can the South be if blacks from all parts of the country are moving there? Often referred to as the capital of Black America, Atlanta has many thriving black businesses, including a bank, Citizens Trust, and a car dealer, Wade Ford Inc, that rakes in half a billion bucks yearly.

In Sweet Auburn, I encountered a tiny yet remarkable business owned by one Big Mouth Ben. What attracted me to it was a bicycle that was mostly wrapped in bright yellow tape, with an orange sign above it, “DREAMS AHEAD / PROCEED WITH DETERMINATION.”

There was also a flyer, “I WENT FROM BEING HOMELESS ON AUBURN AVE TO BEING A BUSINESS OWNER ON AUBURN AVE! COME INSIDE TO HEAR THE STORY.”

At six-years-old, Big Mouth Ben saw, at a gas station, a man return a Coke bottle for ten cents, “My eyes got that big!” so he filled his red cart that day with empties and made two bucks.

Though scoring 98 on his ASVAB to join the Air Force, Big Mouth Ben was also accepted by the University of Georgia, so he attended and thrived, but dropped out after three years to become a rap star, for he had made a name for himself in Athens.

Back in Atlanta, Big Mouth Ben floundered as a rapper, so he secured a government office job, but quit to co-found a mail-order business. He wanted to be a millionaire by 30, and a billionaire by 40. After thriving for several years, his cash cow was poleaxed by online shopping.

Destitute, Big Mouth Ben sold drugs and got hooked himself. Still, he managed to find work as a garbage man, and actually “loved it,” until a reckless car crushed his pelvis. “It was excruciating pain. If you offered me billions of dollars to go do that again, I wouldn’t do it,” he told Wesley Shelby Jr., a television host.

After willing himself through rehabilitation, Big Mouth Ben could swagger again, so used his wheelchair as a cart to peddle soft drinks, water and snacks on the streets. Always a hustler, he also sold add spaces on his modest wheels. “If you want to sell it, let me tell it.”

Wheelchairs can’t fly, however, so Big Mouth Ben switched to a bicycle, and this he wrapped in bright yellow tape, for it represented sunshine. Now, Big Mouth Ben could push refreshment in The Bluff, West End, Kirkwood, College Park and Riverdale, etc. Our hero was everywhere. A recent rap explains:


Man, I love these streets,
But, man, these streets,
They f$$k wit me.
East Point, they f$$k wit me.
Decatur, they f$$k wit me.
[…]
Big Mouth Ben loves the streets.
The streets love Big Mouth Ben.
I show you nothing but love,
And most of them are my friends.
Man, I’m well connected.
Man, I’m well respected.
[…]
Robbing me, you might get jumped
By these bystanders.
[…]
Keep my foot on the pedal.
I hustle so hard,
I deserve a gold medal.
Keep money in my pocket.
I know that’s what you don’t like.
I ain’t worried about you, though.
I got it all on my bike.
[…]
I stayed down and I prayed.
I stayed down and I made.
My dream now a reality,
I got it made in the shade.
[…]
Atlanta is my city,
For all the love they show me.

Big Mouth Ben couldn’t quite shake his drug habit, however, so he ended up homeless and curled up, on cardboard, under an overpass. “What turned everything around was a spiritual awakening.”

God leveled with Big Mouth Ben, “I promised to love you, regardless. If you want to be under the bridge, I’ll love you under the bridge. If you want to go to prison, I’ll love you in prison. But it’s up to you, where you want to be loved.”

Big Mouth Ben got clean, applied himself and the result is a convenience store that also sells hoodies and T-shirts that say, “CAME FROM NOTHING.” Big Mouth Ben raps, “I really want success, so I act like it. I want to see a million, so I act like it […] Determination is my weapon, so I’m acting like it.”

What a pleasure it was to meet this gentle and gregarious man with a crooked mouth. I also caught a glimpse of Tanya, his college sweetheart and wife.

Continuing down the street, I entered Ebenezer Baptist Church. Smallish and plain, it has a grand place in American history thanks to its former pastor, Martin Luther King Jr.

There were less than a dozen visitors in the dimly lit church. Settling into a pew, I listened to a recorded sermon which spoke of being fiscally responsible.

King always preached personal responsibility. In a 1957 sermon about “loving your enemies,” King said, “We must face the fact that an individual might dislike us because of something that we’ve done deep down in the past, some personality attribute that we possess [...] and we’ve forgotten about it; but it was that something that aroused the hate response within the individual. That is why I say, begin with yourself. There might be something within you that arouses the tragic hate response in the other individual.” Examine yourself first, King advised. In contrast to our political correctness, King never absolved nor indicted an entire race.

King was a father-figure not just to his flock, but to millions of Americans as he rose in stature. To his critics, though, he was just a sex maniac and plagiarist, just a hypocrite and phony, in short, but what they really object to, I believe, is King’s vision of a colorblind, post-racial America. Not only that, they don’t think it’s possible.

King didn’t just focus on race but class, and he charged that the state robbed its citizens to wage war endlessly, so of course it killed him. Its nemesis silenced, the state then named streets after King, honored him with a national holiday, erected a huge Made-in-China statue of him in DC and, most ironically, deforms his legacy to ensure ongoing racial division and strife. Since identity politics enrages all of us all the time, it’s a most useful tool for the state. Fragment and strangle. Dead, King serves the state.

After eight years of our first black or, rather, biracial president, the country is riven by racial divisions, with the media looking everywhere for evidence of white racism only. Everybody else is a victim, for they’re all penned together, most racistly, as “people of color.”

That evening, I went to Little Five Points to check out its lively cluster of shops and bars. At Finley Plaza, I encountered half a dozen Black Israelites, preaching. I had seen their brethren in Philly, Washington and Minneapolis. Like Black Muslims, they also believe whites are devils, thus unredeemable. Between strident outbursts, a Black Israelite calmed down, chuckled and explained to another black man, “Of course, I’d like to kill most of them, and keep the rest as slaves, but until then, I can only spread the good words.”

At his feet was a sign, “We Are The True Chosen Nation Of The Bible / The Twelve Tribes of Israel,” with each of them black, Hispanic or Native American. Beware of any “chosen people,” for what could be more supremacist or racist? Such a concept, seriously embraced, allows any man, tribe or nation to enslave, loot or murder with righteousness.

In the mild weather, I strolled among the bar hoppers, heard their laughter and noticed stores named Fearless Weirdos, Criminal Records, Posse Riot and World Piece. At a wig shop, there was a flyer, “NO! In the Name of Humanity, We REFUSE to Accept a Fascist America.” Nearby, a young beggar sat in the semi-dark, his cup empty.

After two pints in Brewhouse Cafe, I exited to discover I was gravely underdressed, for the temperature had plummeted. Heading for the train, I passed two gutter punks lying on grass, with only one in a sleeping bag.






.

2 comments:

Ian Keenan said...

I did get The Mayor's excellent Obama impression out of him, and his Jesse Jackson and Mike Tyson can be found online. The pauses were perfect, and then the Southern minister pitch that arrives mid-sentence, no doubt contrived by a politician who lived in Hawaii and Indonesia before moving to the Northeast, never residing in the South.

Buck Swamp said...

You said: King was a father-figure not just to his flock, but to millions of Americans as he rose in stature. To his critics, though, he was just a sex maniac and plagiarist, just a hypocrite and phony, in short, but what they really object to, I believe, is King’s vision of a colorblind, post-racial America. Not only that, they don’t think it’s possible.

You obviously haven't been keeping up, Linh. Don't you know? Nowadays color-bind whites are racists. (See "Colorblind Ideology Is a Form of Racism" By Monnica T. Williams, PhD, "Psychology Today, December 27, 2011).

Please try to keep up.

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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.