I’ve spent 13 of the last 17 months outside the USA, and have no plan or wish to return.
I wouldn’t mind an honest cheeseburger now and then, however, but each version I’ve had here has been awful, with the worst something that came in a plastic bag, with the “burger” a brownish orange paste to be squeezed from a packet. Vietnamese pizzas, too, have been gross, with the crust too sweet and rubbery, the toppings scanty and scammy, and the no tomato, no cheese taste desperately jazzed up by squirts of mayonnaise and hot sauce. In downtown Saigon or Hanoi, there are first rate burger and pizza joints, I hear, but I rarely go there. In Osaka, Japan, I did have an excellent burger at a MOS.
My Americanness also surfaces in flash fantasies about baked macaroni and cheese, mashed potato with mushroom gravy and chicken fried steak, which I actually ordered at a Phnom Penh bar, only to have my spirit and dignity spat on, for everything about it was wrong. The best versions I’ve had were in San Antonio and Wolf Point. Richmond wasn’t bad. McCook was disappointing.
I also check on my Mariners and Seahawks, my writing audience remains primarily American and I get emails from American friends.
This morning, I got a distressing missive from “Beth,” not her real name, to say that her marriage with a Pakistani doctor is over, since he’s gotten his green card and doesn’t have to be nice to her anymore. “I suppose he only thought of me as an American woman to use up and throw away and then bring his Muslim family over here.”
There were many red flags. Younger, Farooq was better looking than Beth. Plus, he sounded quite gay bantering with his many Pakistani FaceBook buddies. “It’s a huge subculture,” Beth informed me. “They’re all married, they all fuck each other and they don’t think it’s cheating.” She pulled up page after page of guys striking cutesy poses. Every so often, a box of condoms would be delivered, but almost none was sheathed on their cold bed.
A white woman from semi-rural Pennsylvania, Beth always dated nonwhites, and I first met her 30 years ago through her Vietnamese boyfriend. She then married an older Japanese divorcee. After five years in Philly, they returned to Japan so he could see his two daughters before dying of cancer.
In an email, Beth describes his final moments, “In the hospital where he died (in Yoshida, a state hospital his sister-in-law put him in so as not to spend money on him), various ghosts visited his bedside. Some he wasn’t too impressed with, but one older couple that died at different times in the same hospital, were together and would visit dying people to comfort them. They often visited him. There are brown eagles that travel in pairs over the plains of Yoshida and they would fly slowly and gracefully from a long distance all the way to the hospital window. I never once thought of taking photos but now I wish I could look at them again. They were always a bit of magic in our day when they showed up.”
Beth’s second husband was a Venezuelan, and together, they composed songs in imitation of Cat Stevens. He also beat her up.
At 57, Beth’s looks have faded, her health’s shot and her spirit’s shredded. Still, she has had an interesting life, and she’s been loved, too, I believe, if only briefly or sporadically.
Most of my American friends are divorced or never married. When I was still in Philly, my friend Judith told me about her divorce, “I didn’t need to be around an angry man all the time. If I want to be angry, I can be angry by myself!” I never saw Judith enraged. Drunk, she would turn sweetly maudlin.
My buddy Felix Giordano claimed no woman had ever said she loved him, not even his wife of nearly a decade. Now 72, Felix lives alone and doesn’t even frequent our old haunt, the Friendly Lounge.
Felix, “i’m getting old and cranky too. and getting arthritis too. decided to go in to get an operation to get some metel out of my left foot that still is bothering me.. been avoiding the friendly crowd when dom’s not there.. they’re so leftist i can’t bare to be around them.. vern’s the worst, he frothed at the mouth with his hate shit.. so for old times sake i avoid him or leave when he starts his shit.. want to move away now… and my daughter is on a hate dad kick again. so she’s threatened that i’ll never see my grandkids again stuff.. i’m gonna look for some cheap place 30 or 40 miles out of philly, in the country.. and people are still real.. or maybe something cheap in bridesburg.. i have more friends up that way anyway.. and those great dive bars.. haven’t been to the pennsport lately… been to o’jung’s, nickles and the black cat… been meaning to go to fatso’s again.. but in truth without you around i’m afraid i’ll drink too much.. been mushrooming near billy boys, but didn’t go in for the same reason.. been trying to paint to not get depressed.. the hate climate in this neighborhood is so fucked up.. you are lucky you never had any kids.. the only reason mine ever bothered with me is she still thinks i’m rich… don’t know why i never became a junkie on kensington ave?”
When I last saw Kensington nine months ago, there were several tent cities there, filled with junkies, mostly white and under 35, and as the city cleared one after another, new encampments sprung up, for the hopelessness never went away. Some of these Kensington addicts wander onto Delaware Avenue to beg, and Felix would often say when he spotted one, “He’s sure enjoying his white privilege!”
Alas, Jack’s Famous Bar is no more. I took a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter to this Kensington institution and introduced her to Mel, its literate owner. On Christmas Eve of 2014, evangelists marched into Jack’s to give each cheap beer nurser a care package, and I opened mine to find bits of calories, Planters salted peanuts, TOP RAMEN instant noodles, Twizzlers “strawberry” licorice, Starburst “fruit” chews and Nerds gotta-have-grape candy pellets. Of course, there were also several Christian booklets, Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled, The Poor Revolutionist, Smile Jesus Love You and The Gospel According to Saint Luke, much condensed. Before I left Philly last year, Jack’s had just been bought by some “Asian guy,” who promised to keep the place intact, including all of its decades-old liquor bottles on the shelves. He lied.
In 2016, I interviewed a bartender, B.B., and the featured photo had her with her ex boyfriend, Josh. After he died of an overdose a year later, B.B. texted me, “his absence and the void it’s left in my heart is reverberating through every task and moment of my life, even when i’m sleeping, and it’s only been a few days. i have the rest of my meaningless, pitiful and pointless fucking existence still.”
Though B.B. wanted to become a writer, she could never compose even a single page, only bits of anguished texting, “iam a beggar searching for salvation, nothing more. i wish to be baptized in my own blood, to be released from this life, my body a cage to hold an animal spirit that would rather return to carbon and live forever as a molecule of stardust. i want to be a planet pulled into a black hole, then torn to pieces and savaged by the very same gravity that sustains me in this realm.. i do not belong.. here or anywhere else.” Poetry?
The creative impulse is natural and widespread. In the US, this is most conspicuous with garage bands and rapping, and poetry workshops are popular, though poetry readings are more shunned than Ebola. In Vietnam, people express themselves through endless karaoke singing. Encouragement of creativity shouldn’t be unequivocal, however, since we already have so many undiscovered stars. Billions of them. After getting fired from Friendly for her pill-induced confusion, Lisa texted me, “Let’s meet soon. I want to pick your brains about writing a book.” Though nice and pleasant enough, Lisa never said anything in conversations to suggest she could command a wider audience than, say, one, and only for half an hour at a time, tops. My own half brother wrote screen plays, and I have a stepsister who moved to Hollywood to become an actress.
Felix painted my ugly mug with the Friendly Lounge in the background, and that canvas is the only American memento I brought back to Vietnam. Everything else, as in all my books, are gone. I said goodbye to Felix outside Nickels. With all the logistics of moving and getting rid of my belongings, it had been a very stressful and hectic two weeks, so I was too dazed to fend off the motherfucker as he planted a pucker on my forehead.
Delivering grim news, Chuck Orloski stays cheerful in slag heaped Scranton, “Day-to-day, I check obituaries to learn if Carol, Dan, and Joe are alive. Florence too, as you know, Linh. Uh, Jamal Kashoggi was perhaps fortunate he got the ultimate divorce in Turkey. The lucky fucker.” The first four names are Chuck’s wife, sons and mother-in-law, none of whom is talking to him.
Sixty-seven-years old, Chuck lives at the Lighthouse, a group home run by a blind nun. Making but baked beans, he drives a school bus, even on weekends. In his tiny room, he has a donated TV to watch Bryce Harper strike out. Chuck chows regularly at soup kitchens, mostly St. Francis, where he also volunteers. You get by, until man or God does you in.
For three years, I interviewed many ordinary people for my series, Obscured Americans, which I hoped to turn into a book, and it was under consideration at Seven Stories Press, but it’s safe to say it won’t come out there, or anywhere else, now that I’m tarred as a Fascist, all for speaking out against truly Fascistic Jewish power. One doesn’t need the sanction of a publisher or editor to reach readers, however, so I’ve made three PDFs available online, Obscured Americans, BLACKS and Blue Threads to the Soul: Collected Poems of Linh Dinh, the last canceled by Chax Press just as it was about to be sent to the printer.
No matter how voluble and candid people may talk, they’ll never tell you everything, of course, even if they want to. In 2003, I got an email from a friend I met in 1982, my freshman year in college, “A lot has changed in my life since I left Philly in 1989. I’ve been married for the last 12 years to a wonderful woman named Julie and we have a 10 year-old son, Jason. Linh, I couldn’t ask for a better wife; I guess I got very lucky with that. I actually saw a picture of your wife somewhere on the Web. You and her were sitting at a table with some other people. I think it was taken in Saigon. I found you by simply putting your name in a search engine—you’ve had a very successful writing career so you were easy to find. I do a bit of that as well, but I’ve never been published. Hopefully, one day I’ll be able to quit my job and write full time. That is my goal right now. I’m very passionate about it. I found out very late in my life that this is what I wanted to do and I was shocked when I discovered that I actually had some talent for it. It kind of came out of nowhere. I regret that I didn’t know this earlier about myself.
“I live in Maine and I work in a factory. I get out of work at 6:30 a.m., come home, see the wife and kid off to work and school then settle down at the computer to work on my novel. I’ve done about 1000 pages and out of that I kept maybe 300. I still don’t have an ending yet. It eludes me. I’m hoping to finish it this summer but I’m scared shitless about what happens afterwards. I’ll deal with it. If you have any advice, I’ll listen.”
Blair, not his real name, looked a bit like grandpa of the Munsters, I’m not kidding, and I remember him telling me about his fondness for Kurt Vonnegut as we sat on the floor in Furness Hall. There were plenty of weirdos in art school, but Blaine got us howling when someone caught him taking a shower with his clothes on. After college, Blair got an apartment in an old high-rise, and during my one visit, I found the place completely empty, save for a television.
When I asked for some of Blair’s writing, he sent me a chapter that had a female protagonist who’s dressed as a man to enter a gay porn shop:
I always wear white, just like Emily Dickinson. Did I already tell you I’m fascinated with lesbian poets?
The Stallion, as it was known to the people who went there, was a gay smut shop that specialized in peepshow booths showing short clips from 8mm films (they hadn’t moved up to video yet) and magazines with names like Inches, Torso and Uncut. I was on a sacred mission seeking my own personal equivalent the medieval knight’s holy grail and my long journey had wound it’s way across the North American continent to this unadorned place.
A tall, well dressed man wearing two pieces of a three piece suit walked through the swinging doors caring the suit’s jacket over his arm while the other arm gripped a battered briefcase of fake leather. As he walked past me, the man slowed his brisk walk, almost stopped then whispered in my direction, “I’ll pay for your mouth.”
After we exchanged a few more emails, Blair stopped replying because he apparently got upset over something I said, but since then, I would sometimes google his name just to see if Blair ever became a writer, but nothing turned up, until this week, so there he was, still the same face, more or less, but with gray hair, and I don’t remember his eyes being so crossed. Convicted for possession of child pornography, Blair served 33 months, and is now back in the same Maine town.
Not to make light of Blair’s offense, but when it comes to sex, most of us are far from tidy, and sanity is also very relative, with some form of madness, often multiple, afflicting everyone I’ve ever met. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to live out your days without arrest, disgrace or the permanent dissolution of your social armature. Nations, too, have plenty in their catacombs.