Postcard from the End of America: Cherry Hill

If the American Dream can be reduced to a single object, it is the suburban home, with its front yard, back yard and two car garage.  This residence must not share a wall, ceiling or floor with any neighbor, a living arrangement highly unusual worldwide, but that’s why it’s called the American Dream, dummy, not the Cambodian or Italian Fantasy.  If you want to dwell in a hive, go back to your country!  Any country.  The American Dream cannot perch over a coffee house, boulangerie or taqueria.  To live apart is a core wish of the American Dream, with having everything private, including a separate wash basin and toilet from your children, or even spouse, and neighbors are nuisances, of course.  Though you may occasionally invite them into your fenced off American Dream, it’s best that you hardly see them, with an occasional wave or quick banter a sufficient acknowledgement of their annoying presence.  The American Dream, then, is basically an escape from other people, be they blacks, immigrants or other whites, the wrong types, or even the right kinds.  Whoever.  Just stay away from me, OK?

Nearly all Americans have immigrant roots, but what is an immigrant, really, but one who has escaped from his gazillion-year-old community and history, so that he can remake himself anew in a place with few enduring landmarks and scant memory?  Granted, many of these newcomers were bombed or free traded into arriving here, and many were even shackled en route, but the end result is a nation of uprooted beings, with most quite giddy to be liberated from themselves.  They can’t wait to put on any outlandish costume and keep it on forever, or change it often, as desired, for America will be a never ending Halloween or cosplay party, but soon enough, many will be pigeonholed or caricatured into something quite ridiculous, if not appalling, like a terrorist, say, or a Speedy Gonzalez.  You may end up but a mocked, or even locked up, shadow of yourself.

Much of America looks and feels like it was built just yesterday, with anything half a century old deemed ancient and a drive-by occasion for dewy-eyed nostalgia.  Here is our borough’s historic Dairy Queen, and here a plaque commemorating that such and such once lived somewhere around here, though the original building has long been demolished to make room for a 7-Eleven.  History is a drag, dude, since it bogs you down with standards and responsibilities, so it’s better, as Americans, that we forget everything, including yesterday’s political outrage, be it of the NSA, CIA, FBI or Homeland Security variety.  What scandal?  I’ve already forgotten it, see, just as I’ve forgotten who I slept with last night.  It’s deleted from my memory folder.  See how liberating that is?

With its detached homes and no central square, park or even downtown, Cherry Hill is your quintessential American Dreamscape.  Its Main Street is barely 500 yard-long, with no stores.  To shop, one drives to the Cherry Hill Mall, which is the slick, gleaming and sanitized heart of this community, even its raison d’etre.  Opened in 1961, it was the first fully-enclosed, air-conditioned mall in the Eastern US, and the largest shopping center in the world.  After several renovations, it’s still kickin’ 52 years later, though with a smattering of Potemkin store fronts to disguise its empties.

With its sporadic sidewalks, Cherry Hill is barely jay walkable.  During a couple of multi-mile hikes, I was often on grass, dirt and asphalt.  No foot traffic means no real neighborhoods, hence no neighborhood bars, save the Red Eagle, the last place where, after work, a Cherry Hill doofus can still shoot drunken shit with his goofball neighbors.  Local taverns are essential for the mental health of a community.  Like a traditional square, it’s where you can see, at last, who you live among, as in Joe, Jose, Hung or Shermaine.  Instead of ogling endless come-ons on TV, why not get groggy at your local dive?  Though there, you’ll also be bombarded by television, not just one but perhaps a dozen, but at least you’ll be among flesh, blood and body aroma.  (Yes, it is pitiful we can’t be sociable without getting trashed on Pabst Blue Ribbon or another, equally deflating brew, unless you’re still solvent enough, somehow, to afford better.)

Two blocks from the Red Eagle, I passed a sign, “Cash Buyer ONLY. 5BD / 2BTH ON 3 ACRES. 105K CASH,” then noticed another just before I hit its empty parking lot, “Must Sell House.  3 Bed / $25K Cash.  Move In Condition.”  I walked in to find myself the only customer.  It was late afternoon and Derrick, the bartender was watching Predator, a sci-fi war flick featuring Schwarzenegger.  Biceps tumescent, Arnold clutched his bromantic subject, “What's the matter?  The CIA got you pushing too many pencils?”  I’ll let Freud diddle with that.  Settling in, I ordered a Yuengling as some televised clown announced, “Bunch of slack-jawed faggots around here.  This stuff will make you a god damned sexual Tyrannosaurus, just like me.”  Crowding the screen, helicopters hunted someone not unlike me, but in the here and now, there wasn’t much to look at, so I inspected a poster, “IRISH BOXING.  Harrowgate Boxing Club, Philadelphia vs. Holy Family Boxing Club, Belfast, Northern Ireland.”  There was also this sign, “IF THE BARTENDER TELLS YOU TO LEAVE YOU HAVE 60 SECONDS OR 60 DAYS.”

Just 21, Derrick hails from nearby Glassboro, where “You don’t see anybody, and the people you do see don’t have anything to say, so I do like Cherry Hill better.  I haven’t been too many places, though.”  He smiled, shrugged.  Glassboro has a High Street, nice English touch, of mostly dying businesses.  The entrance to its long shuttered theater is draped with a photo montage showing classical musicians, folk dancers and a giddy shopper.  The houses there are mostly well kept, which may lull one into thinking everything is fine, until one sees: “KITCHEN OF HOPE.  FREE FOOD GIVEAWAY. SAT. 10AM-1PM IN THE PARISH HALL.”  And, “THE BETTYE BELL SAMARITAN CENTER.  COMMUNITY FOOD PANTRY AND CLOTHES CLOSET.”  Seeing a photo of Glassboro on my blog, a reader also writes, “What is extremely sad is that in the reflection on the right of this window is my broken dream of my own salon…all my savings, sweat, tears…the town which I grew up in loved believed in…lied…and they do not care.. I now have to leave and start over…They really don't care either…I'm not the first nor will I be the last…Let down..Turning Heads Salon….”

With Rowan University in Glassboro, one’d expect a perked up drinking scene, but the only tavern I found near campus was a chain, Landmark Americana, which was predictably lame, like an airport pub.  In Cherry Hill, locals also prefer to get stupid at impersonal joints like T.G.I. Friday’s, Houlihan’s or Bobby Burger’s Palace, etc.  Compared to these, Red Eagle is a real landmark, though it would be nothing special anywhere else.  Open since 1950, it had been watched over each day by Kay Labricciosa, until she died 1½ year ago at age 96.  Kay could have sold her liquor license for a million bucks, easy, but this former line worker at Campbell Soup, in nearby Camden, simply loved her bar too much.  Atlantic City and Snooki’s Jersey Shore may give outsiders the impression that New Jersey is a wildly partying state, but it actually has 35 dry towns.  Quakers and Methodists settled here.

Chatting with Derrick further, I found out he was thinking of becoming a registered nurse or union electrician, “They make pretty good money, their benefits are good and they have a good retirement plan.”  Everywhere, union labor is being squeezed by free lancers, and this situation will only get worse as the economy deteriorates further, as more folks are willing to work for broken, unsalted and rancid peanuts, or even bits of acorns.  You wouldn’t know it from the daily propaganda, however.  Today’s headline, “America Leads the Way as Emerging Nations Like China Fade.”  Judging by the many contemptuous or howling comments, this brainwashing is becoming less convincing, “1.5% growth is ‘leading’?  Wow, I was feeling okay before I read this.  Now I want to throw up,” “America's propaganda machine would make even Hitler jealous!” “America leads the way in national debt in dollars.  Also probably leads the nation in the amount of people in jail and homicides too,” “I hate this economy.  Quite frankly things really suck for me right now” and on and on, and on.

Just starting out in life, though, Derrick has to stay positive, but he knows full well how messed up everything is, “I know the economy is bad.”

“And you know it’s not going to get better, right?” I asked.

“Yeah, I know that too.”

“There are still people who don’t know that!”

“I know it, and my dad knows it.”

By this time, several people had come in, including three roofer types who joked about a huge black man on Cops, the reality show.  Though not visibly injured, he was sitting on the curb and sobbing like baby.  To great laughter, they then incorporated “penis penetration” into various sentences, but I was too far away to figure out the context.  It was also hard to hear because Cake was singing “I Will Survive.”  After Devo flatlined the Stones’ “Satisfaction,” bands have gotten lots of mileage out of this joke strategy, with the Butthole Surfer’s “American Woman” perhaps the most sublime.  Before the roofers left, one said, “By the time the Phillies come on, I’ll be at home, on my couch, eating my girlfriend.”

Derrick’s squeeze had also appeared.  She was in charge of the Red Eagle’s kitchen.  I never got a chance to meet her, but Derrick told me she was planning on becoming a farrier.  With grants, her training would only cost around $2,000, he said, then she could earn up to 90,000 bucks a year, which sounded awfully high to me, but since I knew zilch about horse matters, I said nothing.  Later, another of my blog readers, Richard, informed me, “Regarding the cook wanting to be a farrier.  That is one of the most physically demanding jobs to be had.  Period.  I applaud wanting to work with animals and I’ve owned horses for years…but I’ve never seen a farrier like her.  Shoeing a horse is tough work and not even remotely close to the physicality of cooking in a bar.  Not saying she can’t cut it, but it takes strength.  A lot of it.  Never, ever met a female farrier.”  Also, “$90k is way optimistic.  More like 30k—maybe—if you get a decent customer base going.  My current farrier is 6’ 3” and weighs a rock solid 250.  Big guy.  Very strong and even he has bad days with horses.  Plus the injuries to the farrier that will happen, and they WILL happen.  If you talk to her again, mention the travel required.  My guy does three states: Idaho, Montana and Washington.  Expenses add up.”

So it looks like she’s being duped by whoever is offering the course.  Feeding her horse manure, they’ll pocket her life saving and grant, then kick her out the fragrant stable door.  In this, they’re behaving just like, well, any American university, for it’s less concerned about teaching than luring as many students in as possible, no matter how unqualified or redundant to their profession.  Its main goal is to reassure and flatter these hopeful naifs so it can enrich itself with the suicidal loans they’re taking out.  Like much else in our society, higher education has become mostly a ponzi scheme, with countless aging failures covering their losses by teaching, i.e. hustling, the next generation, but the main benefactors are not these sad professors but university administrators and, no surprise here, banks with their life wrecking loans.

So much ado over horse shoes!  Relieving Derrick, Kay’s great grandson got behind the bar.  It was now 7 o’clock, but there were still only six customers.  I talked to a man with a stiff, two-foot pony tail growing downward from his beard.  Born here, 54-year-old Barry now lives in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, and for the last year, he’s been trying to sell his Cherry Hill home, at $250,000, without success.  He has only gotten one offer, of 200K, from some developer.  At the peak of the housing bubble, this spacious home, with a lovely, kidney shaped pool, was valued at $500,000.  Built in the 70's, it was originally owned by his grandma.  “Man, I don’t even want to come back here, it’s so depressing.”  He then showed me photos of a spider, a crab and a sunset, to show how idyllic his new home was.  He also showed me his fourteen-year-old daughter, who looked about 18.  “She looks a lot more mature,” I said.  “That’s how they are these days,” Barry replied.

Young people may look older these days, but we’ve made it extremely tough for them to grow up.  With the economy tanking, thirty-six percent of Americans between 18 and 31 are still living with their parents, and Americans are also getting married later than ever.  Part of this is a shift in cultural attitudes, but many of us are simply too broke to start a family.

Leaving the Red Eagle, I walked nearly a mile to the Cherry Hill Mall to catch a bus back to Philly.  The 404 took me past Pennsauken, site of the world’s very first drive-in movie theater.  It is yet another instance of a communal activity becoming private, with the audience here confined to steel boxes as they silently watch projected fantasies.  Its first movie was Two White Arms. Numb with married life, a schmuck faked amnesia so he could screw around.  Here was also the Pennsauken Mart, a proto-mall housing a hodgepodge of tiny businesses peddling cheap clothing, framed kitsch and fatty chow.  With its pell-mell and tacky clientele, it unashamedly evoked the Third World.  Both drive-in and Mart have since been razed, the latter after 50 years in business.  Unlike sterile Cherry Hill Mall, Pennsauken Mart was a charming destination because it was less regulated and more confusing.  It was surprising, in short.  Unlike corporate shopping centers filled with chain outlets, a traditional market place allows merchants to reveal their personalities or idiosyncrasies, and it doesn’t mind some chaos, for too much order, like a perfectly straight street, is boring and even stifling.  In Edinburgh, there’s Cockburn Street that curves left, then right, all within five hundred feet.  This is terribly exciting, I tell you, almost too much so, for I’m getting all hot and bothered just writing about it.  Though you may know all of its buildings and shops by heart, you can’t see each until you’re practically on top of it, and this suspense is good for the mind, heart and soul, I tell you.  Maybe Mama Said has a new paint job, or there’s a donnybrook outside the Malt Shovel Inn, but you wouldn’t know it, would you, until you’re there.  Though ideal for surveillance and business, an overly rational street becomes an imperative that forces you, on your own volition, no less, to lunge straight ahead, but a more organic, maze like lane merely seduces and entices.  By not allowing you to see your goal immediately, it becomes an agreeable flirtation or striptease, unlike the brutally straight boulevard that announces, from miles away, your inevitable end.

After Pennsauken, the 404 entered Camden along Westfield Avenue.  This stretch has been revived by an influx of immigrants, mostly Mexicans and other Hispanics, but also some Vietnamese.  They move to this blighted city because it’s all they can afford, but soon enough, some will trickle into Cherry Hill, Collingswood or Westmont.  One immigrant family, however, is no doubt cursing its decision to come to the US, period, much less Cherry Hill, for three of their sons are in maximum security prisons.  In 2007, as the US occupied or bombed several Islamic countries, and as Israel slaughtered thousands of Muslims in Gaza, the US convicted five Muslim men of plotting to kill US soldiers at Fort Dix.  If you need to massacre Muslims indefinitely, you have to demonize them continually, obviously.  Three of the convicted, the Duka brothers, lived in Cherry Hill.  As usual, this terror plot was concocted entirely by the FBI, who used two secret agents to befriend, lure and coach their scapegoats each step of the way, until they could be entrapped with bogus evidence.  The framed Muslims came on the FBI’s radar after they had filmed themselves shooting rifles at public range while shouting, “Allah Akbar!”  One of them then took this video to Circuit City so it could be converted to a DVD.  Notice that everything so far had been done publicly, and legally, but then the FBI agents, with their tortured plot, entered the picture.  Halfway through this entrapment, one of the targeted men even contacted the Philly Police to report the unfolding terror scheme, as in “See Something, Say Something,” but he never suspected the authorities themselves had set up this trap, so that he and his buddies could be snagged in a hysterically amplified publicity stunt, so that his adopted country could go on mass murdering Muslims for the love of oil, natural gas and Zion.  Dritan Duka, Shain Duka, Eljvir Duka and Mohamad Shnewer were but 28, 26, 23 and 22-years-old, respectively, when they were locked up for life.  Shnewer’s dad still runs his pizza joint in Cookstown, New Jersey, just outside the McGuire Air Force Base and Fort Dix.

Those who don’t live in the US may be surprised to find out that Americans are regularly treated to a TV show called, “Inside Israeli Basketball.”  Now, there are basketball leagues all over the world, with the ones in Spain, Italy, France, Greece, Turkey, Argentina, Lithuania and China all good or excellent, so why is Israeli basketball singled out for scrutiny?  But it’s just a pretext to feature Israel in a normalized light, as this is more of a state-sponsored travelogue than a sport show.  The camera regularly wanders out of the gym or arena to inspect a lively street scene, a pleasant beach or a comfortable apartment.  See, see, everything is very normal here, and peaceful.  By showing such, its producers want you to forget the images of tanks, fighter planes and bombed Palestinians.  TV is also used to maintain the appearance that things are fine in the US, for even as we kill and imprison countless innocents, and as we unravel economically, politically and socially, everything is still reassuringly frivolous and stupid on American television.  How can we be sinking if we’re still fixated on Justin, Taylor and Honey Boo Boo?  We’re so chilled, yo, we’re brain dead.


Editor's Note: This essay originally appeared on August 13, 2013, on State of the Union, a website featuring commentary and photography by Linh Dinh.  It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Dinh.

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