Traveling by train to Philadelphia, going North, you will pass by Chester, PA, a city that has been in decline for more than half a century. Founded in 1682, the same year as Philadelphia, Chester was a major manufacturer of US Navy ships from the Civil War until World War II. It also made ammunitions and automobile parts. Despite its relative small size, with a peak population of 66,039 in 1950, Chester was an industrial powerhouse.
In 1926, Mrs. Marin Garvey won a $160 washing machine for coming up with an enduring slogan for her city, “What Chester Makes Makes Chester.” This was fashioned into a huge electric sign that impressed countless rail passengers until 1973, when it was dismantled. Who can forget the sight of Mr. D’ancona taking down the S, T, E and R? Many have sobbed to this day. Though Chester no longer produces anything, save babies and premature corpses, the same slogan adorns bright blue banners in its mostly derelict downtown. Entire buildings are abandoned and falling apart, its windows boarded up with graying plywood or left hollow. Others have first floors occupied by gasping businesses offering cheap clothes, wigs, way too expensive sneakers or Obama posters and T-shirts. “WE WON!” “HOPE WON!” “YES WE DID!” On sidewalks, black marketeers offer incense, body oils, bead necklaces, underwear and sox. The Cambridge Restaurant has been put out of its misery, thank you, Lord, for I sure won’t miss their home fries, but Italian Brothers is still hanging on. They do make decent hoagies. It is claimed that Chester’s Catherine DiCostanza made the world’s very first in 1925, to feed a starving gambler ambling over from Palermo’s Bar down Third Street.
Lots of Italians back in the day, as well as Irish, Poles, Jews and Ukrainians. With Chester’s industries gone, they have mostly scattered. Recently, though, I walked by a downtown store front and saw all white people inside, a truly rare sight in contemporary Chester. It turned out to be an art opening, with tentative or frustrated watercolors and oils of a snowy pine tree, a pensive cat, a covered bridge or Cubistic jazz musicians… On pedestals, lumpy ceramics. A shy, charcoal nude lounged on a smudgy, charcoal sofa. A man waved at me to come in, so I did, “Hey, what a surprise to see an art opening! Is everybody here from Chester?”
“Not all of us, but we live nearby.”
A woman appeared, “Did you sign our guess book? Come, come, sign our guess book.”
As I printed my first name, though, she said, “We do have a suggested five dollar donation.”
I have attended many art openings, from Soho to art school, to suburban old ladies’ watercolor society, but I have never encountered an admission fee, and five bucks also mean two Rolling Rocks at the Gold Room, one block over. Seeing me cringing, the lady added, “It’s for the wine and cheese.”
“Forget it, forget it,” I crossed my name out, and walked out to her “No! No!” At many art openings, you do see hungry art students, an odd bag lady or a clearly homeless guy stuffing their faces with cheddar and crackers while draining Yellow Tail Shiraz or Duck Pond Chardonnay, so the five buck fee may be a measure to prevent undesirables from crashing this schlock fest.
What made that art bad wasn’t so much execution but orientation. Rootless, it was indifferent to its surroundings, that is, it didn’t pay attention to Chester, didn’t care at all for it. No art is worthless if it reflects in any way its place of origin, so no painting, photo, poem or short story about Chester can be bad if it reveals any aspect of this place, but to do this, one must first pay close attention. Folk art is never without charm and interest, but much of cosmopolitan art is mediocre since it is removed, in time and distance, from its original moment of inspiration. This cosmopolitan art may be partly salvaged by its backwoods dilution, distortion or bastardization, however, but the pleasure is likely mild, the humor unintentional. Seeing a show of Canadian Impressionist paintings in Ottawa, I remember thinking, Why? And would you care for Thai Suprematism, Ugandan Constructivism or Fijian Neo Geo? With globalism unraveling, we can return to the local in each sphere of our lives, and that means a revival of regionalism in all the arts. We’ve been jerked about by the distant media long enough, teased and dictated by distant cultural centers. It’s time we observe and listen to what’s right in front of us.
It was a Saturday evening, but Chester’s main drag, Avenue of the States, was mostly empty. Even fifteen years ago, there would have been many shoppers, or loiterers, at least. Now, there was hardly a parked car to break in. On both sides of the street for an entire block, there was only one business open, Huddle Barbershop. On this scorching night, two box fans were kept on high. The owner/barber would work until 10:00PM, at least. In his window, a flyer with “Get To Know Your Candidates. ‘Let’s Get Back To Progress,’” with the faces of two smiling, suited yet unnamed individuals, one man, one woman, with the man much taller.
Wanting to meet, or at least see some people, I decided to go to the Gold Room. On the way, I walked past the old Excelsior Saving Fund, with its sign reduced to “UND.” The Gold Room is large and cool, with three pool tables and five televisions. Once settled at the bar, one will notice two shelf altars featuring incense, the Vajaradhara and a beer-bellied Chinese God of Wealth, so is the owner Asian? No, just a black Buddhist. I came in as the daytime bartender was finishing her shift. Walking out, a middle-aged white guy hollered, “Your husband must be a wonderful man, because you are a wonderful lady!” She smiled, naturally. Minutes later, she said to some young guy, “Ah, you look wonderliscious today! That’s a new word. I’m gonna patent it!” Then she complimented some giggling and boobiliscious apparition, hovering at the far end of the bar, backlit by a Southern Comfort light from heaven or hell, “You’re so sexy. I can just hug you!” A man in his late twenties then chimed in with a false note, I think, “I’d love to spend money on both of y’all.”
This verbal orgy finally stopped with the new bartender, but she also gushed in her own way, with a low cut dress that flaunted a glittering, burning skull on her buttocks, and “MISFIT” in bold black on her back. What a pun, eh, with a skull as pelvic girdle, or dead head as live bottom, with the anus where mouth should be? “From my booty, death will rise,” she emitted wordlessly. “You may think you’re staring at my ass, but you’re just seeing your own cracked skull, sucka. I mean, sugar.”
Thirty-years-old, Misfit was born in Chester, but left at 17 to work in a home for retarded people in Williamsport, in the idyllic Poconos. It didn’t pay very much, but it got her out of Chester. After nine years doing that, however, she took a $950 course to become an emergency medical technician, that is, an ambulance attendant, for which she was paid less than $2,000 a month, take home, then she was let go. She tried hard, but couldn’t land a similar job anywhere else, so she settled for this bartending gig. Misfit admitted that business was also down at the Gold Room, and no one she knew was doing well, “But we're in a recovery nationally, right?”
“No,” I said, “and it's only going to get worse.”
“You think so?”
“Yes, I travel all over the country, and it’s the same shit all over, and everyone I talk to says they’re not doing well. Well, eight or nine out of ten, anyway. Almost no one is doing well.”
“So what should we do?”
“You just have to cover your own ass, that’s all.” I should have said, “You just have to cover your own skull, that’s all,” or better yet, “We just have to cover each other’s flaming skull, that’s all.” As the only bar in downtown Chester, the Gold Room should survive for a while, so Misfit’s job is probably safe, but like many people these days, she must be willing to switch jobs at a moment’s notice, do something entirely different to survive. The word career has become nearly meaningless. We have all become career improvisers.
At someone else’s mercy, we can fit in momentarily, but from their careful, cost-cutting calculation or sudden, inexplicable whim, we become misfits again, for that is what we are. We’re not misfits as fashion statement, but essentially. Try as we might, we cannot adjust ourselves dexterously enough to our rapidly shifting surroundings, of which we have no role in shaping. In Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” there’s a misfit who says, “I was a gospel singer for a while […] I been most everything. Been in the arm service, both land and sea, at home and abroad, been twict married, been an undertaker, been with the railroads, plowed Mother Earth, been in a tornado, seen a man burnt alive oncet.” He has also killed, robbed and been jailed, and though everything has happened to him, nothing matters, because nothing makes sense. Sounds familiar?
You think you’re a housepainter? Wrong! A secretary? Wrong! A nurse? Wrong! A professor? Wrong! A pipe fitter? Wrong! A dock worker? Wrong! Though nothing adds up, one still has to eat daily, so one solution is to become a mass murderer, if only in an auxiliary capacity. At Concord and 7th, I saw a flyer in a torn plastic sleeve, stapled to a light pole:
• WE HAVE EDUCATION OPPORTUNITIES
• NON COMBAT JOBS AVAILABLE
• FULL TIME (ACTIVE DUTY) OR PART TIME (RESERVE PROGRAM)
• FULL BENEFITS TO START/ FAMILY COVERAGE
• DO THINGS THAT OTHERS ONLY DREAM ABOUT DOING
BETTER YOUR FUTURE, CALL OR TEXT SERGEANT WILLIAMS
To kill or be killed is here presented as improving oneself and one’s family, as sheer survival, for in trading in one’s freedom, humanity and conscience, one will get adequate health care and nutrition, maybe even a home in a safe environment. To attain these basics, however, one must first become a berserker. Kill! Kill! Kill! In Harrisburg, I had encountered a National Guard poster:
There are all kinds of moments you’ll experience where you serve the people of your community in the National Guard. If you’ve got it inside you, this is your time to act.
The accompanying image showed soldiers standing outside a suburban home during some kind of rescue mission. This is very reassuring, for they are not threatened in any way, nor are they menacing anybody. They’re not kicking down some foreigner’s door and terrorizing his family, and most importantly, they’re not getting their nuts blown off seven or eight time zones away. As a National Guardsman, you’ll only be rescuing your neighbor’s siamese from some midget tree, this poster was implying, and you’ll be home in time to watch your dreadful Phillies.
I wanted to get away from downtown Chester, drink in a neighborhood dive and hear, or overhear, what those folks have to say, so I decided to go to the Love People Lounge on Highland Avenue. I had no idea what that neighborhood was like, but I had seen this bar from the train, many times, and had always wanted to walk in because of its irresistible name. When I got there, though, I found out that it had been closed, with even its sign removed. Oh well, I thought, let’s find another place to drink, so I started walking.
In many distressed cities, as in Detroit, Gary, East St. Louis or Camden, to walk into the unknown is to be a reconnaissance scout or a suicide, not so much a tourist, and Chester has a violent crime rate more than four times the national average, and it was sunny that day, meaning perfect for a mugging, but also ideal for a pleasant walk, and I was getting very thirsty for a Colt 45 or a Yuengling, so I kept walking. In truth, it wasn’t half bad. I passed Give Me Suga, an inviting Caribbean joint serving jerk chicken and oxtail. I saw people sitting on their porches or steps, and two pudgy, middle aged men, one black, one white, sprawled on folding lawn chairs beneath a bouffant tree. Every so often I’d see a desperate sign offering a home for less than $20,000, cash, and presently I came to another house that looked abandoned, with no glass in its windows and its door boarded up, but there was a newish Direct TV dish attached to its wall. Is it possible that someone was watching a movie on demand, say, Titanic or The 40 Year Old Virgin, while lying on a bare mattress, with a half finished bag of Cheetos next to him? In winter, snow drifts into the gaping windows as he cheers our hapless Flyers. Since it is dark, and nobody’s outside, no one who’s up to any good anyway, he can comfortably piss from the second floor, his dick en plein air, as they say. With tall grass and weeds besieging, and no air conditioning or heat, this home is a rough-and-tumble, back to nature dwelling, a cabin in the woods, except no bears will attack you here, only men down to their last quarter or fix.
There were no lit beer signs at the front, so Sporty’s West End Cocktail Lounge didn’t even appear open, but I could hear the hum of the air conditioning, so I opened the door and walked in. Sporty and his bartender seemed a bit startled to see me, but everything was cool as I sat down and ordered a bottle. It was just after 1:00PM, and I was the only customer. For the next two hours, the only other patrons only sneaked in to buy a six-pack or can to go. As she left, a woman in her late 40’s shouted to Sporty, “Make some money now!”
“I’m with you on that!” Sporty then returned to his video game, with its thin, whistle like gun shots constantly discharging. Video blood splattered as he charged through his enemy, shedding corpses by the wayside. There was a pool table and five televisions, all left on, with the biggest one showing an episode of “Have Gun—Will Travel.” A sneaky Chinaman was caught reading other people’s mail, then later, some mustachioed crank snarled, “Who cares what any woman wants.” During a firefight, a bullet merely grazed a man’s elbow, causing him to rub it.
In most working class bars at this hour, you’d find old men, at least, and perhaps contractors who have finished their work early, but here, like I said, I was the only drinker. Dangling from the drop ceiling were stars, astroids and a round cornered piece of cardboard urging me to “CELEBRATE.” I noticed the young bartender had on a snug tank top, and a pair of black and white shorts, showing some sort of African design. There were signs all over the walls:
FOUR THINGS YOU CAN NOT RECOVER
1- The stone after the throw….
2- The word after it’s said….
3- The occasion after it’s missed….
4- The Time after it’s passed….
A BIG LATINO NITE
Featuring A Ethnic Diversity
For A Rollicking Good Time
A ATLANTIC CITY BUS TRIP $25
NO LOITERING PERMITTED
In This Establishment
If You Don’t Have A Drink
Or If You’re Not In Line
To Play Pool.
CONVICTED FELONS & DRUG DEALERS BEWARE
1 GUN = 5, 10, 15 YEARS OR MORE
OPERATION CEASE FIRE
REPORT ILLEGAL GUNS 1-800-ATF-GUNS
On the last was an illustration of a prison cell, with the silhouette of a man sitting on a cot, his head down. Across from him, an open toilet and toilet paper. A large handgun hovered outside the prison bars.
There was also a group portrait of movie gangsters, with Al Pacino’s Scarface in the middle, hoisting his badass M-16A1, then, high up on the wall, an image of Martin Luther King and Obama, their heads merging into one another, with “I HAVE A DREAM” on top, and “I AM THE DREAM” on the bottom. In almost every black bar, you’ll find images of Obama. At Scotty’s, near my South Philly apartment, there’s an Obama shrine complete with red tinsel, foil flags and a string of tiny lights resembling condomed pricks or aerodynamic milk bottles, all surrounding a sacred likeness of our Chief War Lord and Patron Saint of All Banksters.
Hardly loquacious, Sporty finally grunted that the bar was empty because it was the end of the month, “Come back in a couple days, there’ll be people here.” Running out of beer money is hardly the poor’s biggest concern these days, for towards the 28th and 29th, the fridge may have long been empty, not to mention that pile of ignored bills, some still in their envelopes, unopened. Soon, the cable may be shut down, then gas, electricity and water, in that order. Chester is already half shut down.
Martin Luther King spent three years in Chester, and graduated from Crozer Theological Seminary in 1951, and outside the Crozer Library, there’s a large bronze bust of King. On another visit to the Gold Room, I met a woman who said she was born on King’s birthday, “And that’s very special to my family, because King was such a special man, you know.”
“I’d say he’s more important than any American in the last 50 years.”
“I’m very glad you think so,” she smiled.
I could feel myself getting a bit worked up, “Obama ain’t shit compared to King! King threatened them, and that’s why they had to kill him. King wanted to change this society. Obama doesn’t want to change shit!” I stared hard into her eyes. “If they’re propping up Obama now, that can only mean Obama is serving them! He serves them!”
“I agree with you,” she said, “I’ve always felt the same way. I’ve always known they had to kill him. Oh Lord, I think I’m going to cry. I’m going to cry!”
Editor's Note: This essay originally appeared on August 1, 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.