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Obscured American: Don the Retired Building Contractor
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Don in Friendly Lounge, Philadelphia, 2015

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Showing up in Friendly Lounge, beaming Maria said to bartender Manon, “How’s my baby? Come here and give me a hug! How are your job applications?”

“Nothing yet, but I have a couple of interviews coming up.” For the last six months, Manon has been trying to get hired as a school counselor. She only gets one shift a week at Friendly.

Stockmans Bar in Wolf Point, Montana, 2014

Stockmans Bar in Wolf Point, Montana, 2014

Manon wouldn’t mind disappearing from sight, so I’ve suggested Montana. She’s been there and liked it. Prowling around the remote and destitute Fort Peck Indian Reservation in 2014, I was told it was constantly losing teachers, counselors and doctors.

If an occasional bar stool or cue stick swinging fight doesn’t faze you, there are many pleasant places to get groggy on the rez, and the chicken fried steak at Old Town Grill in Wolf Point is down South good. My buddy, Mervin Garfield, just got arrested for stabbing somebody at Arlo’s.

I also gave Manon the phone number of an Uber driving friend of mine. An immigrant from Pakistan, Anwar is a bit hard to understand over the phone. With business at his purse and watch store declining steadily, Anwar would be dead without Uber. When it rains hard, he gets paid triple. Though Manon’s car is too old, Uber will sell her another if they hire her.

Who says there are jobs? I know a guy in Fishtown who can do roofing, plumbing, carpentry, house painting, flooring and electrical wiring. Though O’Neal will work for just a hundred a day, he’s often idle. Even O’Neal’s cousin won’t hire him. “Standing outside Best Buy are Mexican guys who will work for as little as 40 bucks a day, and they’ll bring their own tools too! I can’t compete against that.” O’Neal has six kids, with five still living with him. His wife has no job.

Though a klutz from inside the womb, even I got a hundred a day in the early 90’s as a housepainter. Everything has gone up but wages.

O’Neal is voting Trump. In an old school Kensington bar, I saw a white, well-tattooed and crew cut pool player with a “FUCK HITLER” T-shirt. O’Neal interpreted this as anti-Trump.

A contractor in my neighborhood, the most ethnically mixed in Philly, has “TRUMP” spray painted in gold on his beat up, white pickup truck. On the driver’s door is a shamrock.

A Friendly regular, Mike, wouldn’t admit he’s backing Trump. He only growled, “I ain’t gonna vote for no woman.” Born in Puerto Rico, Mike used to work in a tinsel factory.

One man who no longer has to worry about finding work is 64-year-old Don. For three decades, my friend and neighbor was a building contractor, with a crew of six employees, usually. When Don was 58, he fell during work and cracked his neck, broke several bones in his right arm and damaged his back. Don retired two years later.

His hammering days over, Don imbibes Bud, fishes and still thinks of himself as a hunter. Even with the yews and hearse in sight, lots of people don’t know they’re old. He has a T-shirt, “DON IS MY NAME / HUNTING IS MY GAME.”

A “Don’s Hunting Excuses Shirt” has, “Trees were in the way. Scope was foggy. I didn’t miss… those were warning shots. I was reloading. Too dark. Someone distracted me. Safety lock was on. Gun barrel must’ve been bent. Waiting for the big one. The gun jammed. My finger slipped.”

It is assumed that Don is suffering from alcoholic anorexia. Sated by beer and Stoli, Don forgets to eat. Deprived of nutrients, his skeleton is starting to skew. Trudging, Don leans on an aluminum cane with foam grip. When times are bad, though, the old don’t envy but pity the young. Soon enough, perhaps the dead will feel sorry for us all.

In Friendly, I’ve caught Don dazed, but never cranky. What’s quoted here has been gathered through half a dozen encounters, the latest just a few hours ago. If Don didn’t have to stumble home to fix something in his basement, we’d still be talking.

I got married at 18. It only lasted two years. I have a 42-year-old son. He lives on the JerseyShore.

I got a tattoo of my name when I was 18. It’s my only tattoo. I don’t really regret it.

My dad was a beef deboner at Cross Brothers. You know how heavy a side of beef is? It threw out his back. Joe Frazier worked at Cross Brothers.

My dad was a bartender at Villa di Roma. You know where it is. He was real popular.

You can learn more things in a bar than anywhere else. A lawyer might come in and sit next to you. You buy him a beer, he’ll tell you stuff.

I live with my mom and take care of her. She’s 91-years-old. No, she’s not doing too well.

We have a five-bedroom house. It’s too big for us. That’s why we’re selling it, finally. We’ll find a smaller house, maybe down by Oregon Avenue.

I learnt Italian from my grandma. That’s all she ever spoke. Our dog only listened to her. If I said “get out” in English, the dog would just look at me. He only spoke Italian.

I worked at Claudio’s. You had to know Italian to work on 9th Street back in the day.


We’re from Sicily. I haven’t been to Italy. None of us have but my cousins. They didn’t like it. They said the food was bad, but maybe you’re right, maybe they only ate at the touristy places. They said the wine was good, though. Soon as you walked into a place, they’d have a bottle waiting for you, and if you wanted another, they’d only charge you $2. You can’t beat that!

You’ve been all over Italy! I like my pasta simple too. I like it white. I like it with just olive oil and lots of grated cheese.

We never went back to Italy because we didn’t have any money.

I’ll think about it. Maybe I’ll visit Italy. My mom is too sick to go anywhere. She’s lived in South Philly her whole life. She wants to die in South Philly. I’ve lived in South Philly my whole life.

I’ve always been a saver. I’d take out my money and count it. I’ve bought gold coins. Yes, gold is definitely going back up.

I stopped gambling a long time ago. I lost $27,000 altogether.
Last night, my mom wanted ice cream, so I went out to get it for her, and some bread. Sometimes, she falls down and I can’t even pick her up to put her back on the wheelchair. I have to run outside to find somebody to help me.

Today, the nurse will come to check on my mom. She comes once a week. After leaving this bar, I’ll go home and brush my teeth. I don’t want the nurse to smell beer on my breath.

Oh man, I have a really nice fishing rod. It cost me 200 bucks. Every so often, I go on these fishing trips out on the open sea. It only costs $65 for eight hours. If we don’t catch nothing, the boat captain will make it ten hours. Usually, we just go for flounders. You want to come?

I have 22 guns.

On a hunting trip to Idaho, I shot mule deer. We rode horses. They can’t really climb, they’re not like goats. I want to go to North Carolina to shoot birds. Pheasants! The ones in Jersey don’t even bother to fly.

About ten years ago, I took a trip to Mongolia with a doctor and a dentist. I figured if I get sick, there’s a doctor right there, and if I need a tooth pulled, I’ll be OK too. I want to go to Africa next.

The trip over there took forever. I thought we were never going to land. I read an entire book on the plane, and I never read!

In Mongolia, my joints were hurting because of the high altitude. I could hardly walk. I just wanted to go home. I told them, “I need a helicopter! Just get me out of here! I don’t care how much it costs. You can have my gun. I just want to go home!”

I ended up killing the first argali of the day, which meant I had to eat a piece of its raw testicle. I got sick that day and all of the next day. Oh man, it was terrible.

That was the trip of a lifetime. I have all these photos in an album. I’ll always have it.

The Mongolians were the friendliest people, but the food wasn’t too good. When we gave our guides their tips at the end of the trip, they were all sitting on top of the SUV playing cards!

On the way back, we stayed for a couple nights in Seoul, South Korea. That was wonderful.

Though I’m retired, I still take a job every now and then. People know me. I have a couple of Mexican guys working for me. I pay each guy a hundred bucks a day. They’re good. They earn it.

I’ve always voted Republican, but I don’t know this time. It doesn’t really make a difference. I mean, one person won’t make a difference, it takes the whole country. I may not even vote this time. I’m not really political.


Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America.

• Category: Culture/Society • Tags: Obscured American, Poverty 
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  1. Hibernian says:

    I’m 61, and the idea that the hearse is in sight at 64 doesn’t sit well with me. Yea, Don’s a 64 year old alcoholic with alcohol related health problems, I get it.

    • Replies: @gruff
  2. gruff says:

    The hearse is in sight at every age, at every moment.

    • Replies: @StAugustine
  3. @gruff

    Each man’s death diminishes me,
    For I am involved in mankind.
    Therefore, send not to know
    For whom the bell tolls,
    It tolls for thee.

  4. Fun read and now I know what an “argali” is.

  5. DWright says:

    You really carved out a niche for yourself reporting on America’s underbelly.

    • Replies: @Mr bob
  6. JackOH says:

    Made me think of the Americans of Italian and Sicilian heritage in my area. For a look at relations between Blacks and Italian-Americans (and other folks) in a Midwestern industrial city, see, e. g., Mel Watkins’s underrated “Dancing with Strangers”.

    “Everything has gone up but wages.” Somebody ought to do a careful study of what happens to people (psyches? behaviors?) as their incomes are lowered or raised. This may sound trite, but is the guy earning $30 thousand a year different from the same guy whose income is lofted into the $100+ thousand a year bracket?

    In the early 1960s, my Dad, a steel mill electrician and occasional electrical contractor, had one year in which he earned $12 thousand. School teachers used to grumble their starting pay was around $5 thousand. Still, a new car could be had for less than $2 thousand, a decent-enough house in a livable neighborhood for $10 thousand. That “proportionality” between incomes and the highest-end consumer goods seems to me to no longer exist. Nowadays, I read stuff that $100 thousand a year will net you a moderate standard of living in our most expensive cities. Thanks, Linh.

    • Replies: @Outwest
  7. Psmith says:

    Shame about his health problems and so on, but this guy seems to have done pretty well for himself on a blue-collar salary. Good for him.

  8. ” Somebody ought to do a careful study of what happens to people (psyches? behaviors?) as their incomes are lowered or raised.”

    No study needed.

    In my experience, people whose incomes get squeezed tend to get pissed and despondent. Not a huge surprise.

    People with high incomes (and it seems not to take much) tend toward narcissism, entitlement,self righteousness and insouciance, none of which correlate positively with the morality of their means of acquiring wealth.

    There seems to be a high correlation with sociopathy on both ends.

    • Replies: @JackOH
  9. Outwest says:

    The gobermint has a neat tax where everything you own goes down in actual value but is worth 2% or 3% more in their dollars each year. So they tax you based on the decreasing value of their paper.

    Things go down in value but not as much as the dollar goes up.

  10. Mr bob says:

    Fred Reed brought me here, but now I look forward to Lihn’s work just as much, maybe more. This website as a whole made me stop reading Thomas Sowell, who I used to regard as a minor saint. Thanks, Ron. I would still be in the dark without this place.

    • Replies: @Bill
  11. Globy says:

    In a collection written during WWI, J.B. Priestley wrote a short story about the sudden appearance of The Great God Bacchus who deigned to visit a pub in a small English village. Bacchus, in his supreme glory, capered about the place sharing his love of intoxication and wound up in the drunk tank collared by the local constabulary. The next day, on appearance in the dock, the Great God Bacchus appeared in the form of an old, shabby drunkard with ill fitting clothes and poor hygiene whose status as a god was curiously unrecognized by the judge.

    Thanks to Linh Dinh’s story, it looks like Bacchus visits the “Friendly Lounge” on occasion as well, properly disguised. Everyone has a story, but putting the story into a human context and giving it substance and life takes real journalistic skill and empathy.

  12. JackOH says:
    @Jacques Sheete

    Yeah, you’re probably right, and, besides, I’d think studies like that have already been done.

    I’m still flailing around trying to think how the genuine grievances expressed here and elsewhere could be packaged into a popular form. Real political pros calculate how much they have to cede to their opponents right out of the starting gate, and how much daylight they have to actually “work” their ideas. I’m thinking out loud a bit that a compare ‘n’ contrast of incomes from the 1960s with the 2010s might be useful. Don’t know, though.

    • Replies: @Jacques Sheete
  13. @StAugustine

    Dear StAugustine:
    I did not find anything appropriate to the topic of death at age 64.

    As I pass through my incarnations in every age and race,
    I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
    Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
    And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

    I looked at Unz’s archive of your comments, and got fascinated by your erudition.
    Is it not too intrusive to ask, if your “handle” is in reference to actual StAugustine,
    or to a small historical city at the East shore of Florida,,_Florida ?

    Most respectfully, your I.f.f.U

    • Replies: @StAugustine
  14. Bill says:
    @Mr bob

    This website as a whole made me stop reading Thomas Sowell, who I used to regard as a minor saint.

    How did it do that, I’m curious.

    Once upon a time, I liked Sowell, too. Gradually, I realized that he was dishonest about race. Then, gradually, I realized that he talks about race a lot. Only much later did I realize that, when he’s not talking about race, he’s enthusiastically promoting globalist neo-liberalism, enemy of all humanity. Now, I dislike him.

    • Replies: @Intelligent Dasein
  15. @JackOH

    “I’m still flailing around trying to think how the genuine grievances expressed here and elsewhere could be packaged into a popular form. ”

    Feel neither bad nor alone. I think it’s one of those eternal questions. I believe the answer is that there is no final answer; only a continuous struggle. Heck, even God Himself, we’re told, sent his only begotten Son to rectify things and you can see where that got Him and how much good it accomplished!

    Some of my favorites who’ve dealt with this sort of thing are Lucian of Samosata (Dialogues of the Dead) and Aristophanes. The latter’s “The Knights” is a real hoot and hits most political nails squarely on the head.

    • Replies: @edNels
    , @JackOH
  16. Priss Factor [AKA "Anonymny"] says: • Website

    Just when you think Dinh’s reports from US is filled with depressing stuff…


    “As the Olympics Near, Brazil and Rio Let the Bad Times Roll”

    This is worse than New Orleans where the blacks let the good times roll.

  17. edNels [AKA "geoshmoe"] says:
    @Jacques Sheete

    This is good stuff for thought that you bring up.

    […”no final answer; only a continuous struggle. Heck, even God Himself, we’re told, sent his only begotten Son to rectify things and you can see where that got Him and how much good it accomplished!
    Now it just so happens to be one of my pet peeves, that with all the religiosity, and all the various stuff, I never once heard anybody address the obvious! Which is: The Spectacle of the Crucifixion Christ as… Object Lesson for the Folks/______ .

    OBJECT LESSON!… You tell the truth and you do the righteous thing… to the max… and you will be cruelly killed on a stake….mocked, speared… killed… and God put up with that for what reason?

    My theory is, that god was, mainly like the religions say too, God was giving the mortals a chance to show… who they are… show their proclivities… !

    I believe that God.. and the creative forces of the U… will be able to figure out who was a bad boy”, and figure out who needs additional punitive measures!

    • Agree: Jacques Sheete
  18. JackOH says:
    @Jacques Sheete

    Thanks, and it looks like both “Dialogues” and “Knights” are on-line, too.

  19. Menippus is my boy. his specialty is mocking the pretentious rich. It’s a lot of fun and apparently has been for some time.

    Well, you scum of your respective nations, let there be no misunderstanding; I am going on just the same. Wherever you are, there shall I be also; worrying, jeering, singing you down.

  20. grapesoda says:

    Purse and watch store, tinsel factory, beef deboner… man am I glad I am not these people. That all sounds horribly boring and depressing.

  21. @Bill

    Niggers are gonna nig, even if they have alphabets after their names. In fact, the complete inability of education to alter the deepest essence of the black mindset is proof of those intangible truths that White Nationalists struggle to articulate. I’ve never subscribed to the sycophantic Sowell worship one finds on the Establishment Right.

  22. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    “Standing outside Best Buy are Mexican guys who will work for as little as 40 bucks a day, and they’ll bring their own tools too! I can’t compete against that.”

    Just one of many reasons why Trump needs to be the next President.

  23. @Immigrant from former USSR

    My apologies – I don’t often go back to peruse my comments! Yes, my handle is of personal significance to me and refers to Augustine of Hippo and not Augustine of Canterbury nor the city in Florida…

    Many thanks for the compliments! на здровье! or is it за здровье? The internet tells me that за здровье comes from a mixup with Polish… at any rate, to your good health, sir!

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