It doesn’t get any better than this. Luxuriating in Dunkin’ Donuts, Chuck Orloski and I each have our own cup of coffee and, yes, our individual donut. Shrewd, I have ordered one without a hole since you get more donut for your bucks that way. Biting into a jelly filled, deep fried piece of dough, I too am fulfilled. Momentarily forgetting about his utility bills and the onrushing due date for next month’s rent, Chuck smiles goofily as he gazes into the half-filled parking lot. Across the street is a cemetery. Life is good.
Chuck’s younger son, 19-year-old Joe, has a new job at the Home Depot warehouse. Joe unloads merchandises, builds crates. Each working moment is pure exertion and the day is as long as several full-length marathons. Joe can deal with it. Soon, he will buy his first car, and it won’t be any used piece of crap either. Vrooming on sporty wheels, Joe will add a few inches to his six foot frame and feel all of his muscles, including those behind his eyeballs, harden.
I am staying at the Orloskis for three nights. This morning, Carol, Chuck’s wife, is making scrambled eggs with American cheese and canned potatoes. Chuck’s older son, Dan, likes to squirt ketchup on it. We also have English muffins. After my third cup of joe, I bark, “Isn’t it weird, Chuck, that this guy picked the oldest black church in the South to kill a bunch of people? I mean, it’s not just any old black chuch, it has to be the oldest motherfuckin’ black church in the South!”
“Yes, it is weird.”
From the kitchen window, I can see four Taylor Borough cops standing across the street. Their preys are hapless truck drivers who are steered onto this road by a bright sign, only to discover, via a smaller sign, that there’s a weight limit. Since it’s too late to turn around, those who are snared by this devious scheme must pay a $750 penalty, more than a week’s wage.
Carol cooks but doesn’t eat. I’ve never seen Carol eaten anything. She is 61 and gravely ill. Several times, Chuck has found her unconscious on the floor. The day before Carol’s birthday, she cheerfully said to me over the phone, “If I get up tomorrow, I’ll be 61!”
As a bus driver, Chuck meets many interesting people: violent kids who unleash their anger and sadism on those who can’t fight back, foreign students working for no pay at a Pocono resort just to glancingly experience America, bible thumpers who are bracing for the Great Whore of Revelation…If the pay wasn’t piss poor, Chuck would enjoy bus driving. At his previous job, Chuck had to clean up horrible messes of all kinds. When a man weighing well over 300 pounds died on a nursing home toilet, it was Chuck’s task to remove what the coroner couldn’t cart away. Undiscovered for three days, he had started to liquify. We don’t just turn into dirt, bones and a heaven or hellward notion after death, we also transfigured into unpotable water. Holding a bag of fecal matters and fleshy slush, Chuck was startled in the hallway by a cancer patient with no skin on his face. The zombie-like man wasn’t supposed to be there.
According to the Revival Baptist Church, the triumph and celebration of gay marriage is another sure sign the end is near, and Hillary Clinton might just be the Great Whore. Elizabeth Warren has no chance. (After probing and sniffing chicken entrails, however, I can cockily predict that Chris Christie will win the Presidency, do a Caitlyn Jenner and become the Mother of all Whores.) Driving for this fundamentalist church, Chuck met Jesus-fixated Jose, and he thinks I should too. We drive twenty minutes to Duryea, Pennsylvania.
Jose has a spacious, detached home on a rural looking street. Custom built for only $135,000, it even has a nice basement. Along the Lackawana River just north of Wilkes-Barre, there is a string of little towns that have seen much better days. With the exception of Pittston’s, their tiny downtowns are quite dead. Then, coal miners and silk makers brought home the ham hocks to be transmogrified into golonka, studinetz or stinco di maiale arrosto. Now, folks twirl pizza dough, sling beer or sell each other made-in-China stuff in strip or mega malls. In 1910, Duryea had 7,487 inhabitants. Now, not even 5,000.
In Jose’s vestibule, there’s a large clock and a rustic, wooden sign, “This House BELIEVES.” Chuck and I follow our host into the kitchen. On the central counter, there’s a blender, and on a wall by the sliding doors leading to a beautiful deck, there’s a small radio tuned to a Christian sermon. “I like this preacher,” Jose quietly says.
In a crew cut, Jose is a smallish yet very solidly built man, an alert welterweight with good punching power. His voice and demeanor are gentle yet insistent, for he has one message to deliver at all times. On his left hand, there’s a tiny, inky “X” at the apex of the web between thumb and index finger. Perhaps more tattoos have been removed?
Working as a hospital security guard, Jose injured his spine while trying to hold down a psychiatric patient, so he’s in constant pain. Hoping to feel better, Jose makes his own juice mix and drinks many glasses a day. “At first, I didn’t think anything of it. Honestly, I had had bruised ribs and broken, you know, multiple surgeries. There were fights, lots of fights in there. It was a really physical job. I’m in a lot of pain, but I just have to deal with it. It’s a part of life. God has a purpose for everything.”
Jose on moving to Duryea, “I love it, man, it’s peaceful, and it’s affordable, you know. I could never afford a house like this in New York City. I’d always wanted to get my wife a house, and now I’ve done it.”
Astronomical rents in NYC has pushed many Hispanics into Eastern Pennsylvania, so there are many Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in places like Allentown and Bethlehem. A century ago, Mexicans were recruited from Texas to work in Pennsylvania steel mills. “Yo me voy pa’ Pensilvania / Por no andar en la vagancia,” goes a corrido. “Yo, I’m going to the Keystone State / To be a freakin’ bum no more.” Most of the Mexicans you see in the region are recent arrivals, however. They join other Hispanics in South Scranton and South Wilkes-Barre, etc. In 2006, Hazelton enacted laws that penalized landlords for renting to illegal immigrants, and business owners for hiring them, but a year later, a federal court struck these laws down.
On July 14th, 2008, a 25-year-old illegal immigrant from Mexico, Luis Ramirez, was killed by four white teens in Shenandoah. Acquitted of murder in Schuykill County, two of the defendants were convicted of hate crimes in federal court, with each sentenced to nine years. They could have received life. Derrick Donchak had been the starting quarterback of the town’s high school football team. Three local cops were also charged with obstruction of justice, but only two were convicted of lesser crimes. Living in the area for six years, Ramirez left behind his fiance, Crystal Dillman, and their two young children.
Fifty-six-years-old, Jose was born in Brooklyn. When he was seven, his mom deserted the family, and a few months later, his father tried to commit suicide by drinking, in front of him, Coke mixed with rat poison. Growing up in 18 foster homes, Jose got started on alcohol at nine-years-old, then drugs at eleven. He got to know several jails. At 18, Jose married a woman he had known since he was eight and she was nine. They’re still together. In his early 30’s, Jose became a born again Christian. After his daughter married a man in Duryea, Jose followed her and now lives within sight of her house. With his church the center of his life, Jose knocks on doors and visits homes. As an adult, Jose found and visited his mom in Florida. He doesn’t hate her.
Jose’s account of his harrowing life is fascinating, but his theology is not much more than, “You must accept Jesus as your personal savior,” and to do this, it’s best that you join his church and contribute money, for God will reimburse you manifold. After making a large pledge, Jose unexpectedly received a huge check in the mail for his back pay. “God works in mysterious ways!”
Being an Orthodox Catholic, Chuck is certainly damned, and I’m even more so, since I have attended masses only thrice in 35 years. Once, it was for my father’s funeral, and the other two times, I was with family and couldn’t wiggle my way out. Though Jose has offered to make us cheeseburgers and hotdogs, it is time to leave. Before we drive off, Jose suggests that we pray, so here we all are, all of us, all clumped together, all standing, you too, on this appallingly murderous and goofy planet. Amen.
The most Catholic region in all of Vietnam is Bui Chu, my father’s home, and you’d be surprised at the number of beautiful churches that were built there roughly a century ago. At my father’s funeral in San Jose, California, the priest was his cousin, and the passage read was from Ecclesiastes, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted.” I’d have preferred, “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”
I go where Chuck takes me, and our next visit is with Father Vincent Dang, a Vietnamese priest in Ashley, a town of 2,751 people just South of Wilkes-Barre. I am tired. I’ve heard so many stories of misery in the last two days, two weeks, two decades, all my life, but so have most of you. I’m not complaining or bragging. I’m just exhausted, man. Whenever I reach my mental or psychological limits, my body heats up, especially my head and stomach, and I can feel it coming on right about now.
I don’t know anything about this priest, and neither does Chuck. Chuck left a phone message, Father Dang called back, so here we are in Ashley, an obviously poor but somewhat lively town, with folks walking on sidewalks. The clapboard houses are mostly modest but well-kept, with their tiny porches and yards neat. Though a few businesses appear long dead, I haven’t spotted any graffiti or litter. The largest store here is Family Dollar. Ashley’s population peaked in 1930 at 7,093. Now, it’s roughly 2,750. Ashley’s most famous native son is Russell Johnson, best known as “the professor” in Gilligan’s Island. He also acted in the TV series The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits, and the movies It Came from Outer Space, This Island Earth, Attack of the Crab Monsters and The Space Children. There it is! The spire of St. Leo’s Holy Rosary Church. We hone in.
We walk towards the back, ring the doorbell and a man of about 45 opens the door. (He’s actually 53.) Grinning, I say in Vietnamese, “I’m sorry to bug you, Father, but my crazy friend, Chuck, insisted that we come to see you. I hope we’re not bugging you?”
“No, no, come in.”
In Vietnamese, you can’t just use neutral “I” and “you,” but pronouns expressing familial relationships. Since I address the priest as “father,” I have to call myself “son,” but him, being polite, actually calls me “older brother.” So I’m both his older brother and son, while he’s my younger brother and father. It’s like that scene in Chinatown where Jack Nicholson slaps Faye Dunaway like 600 times while she sobs, “She’s my sister! She’s my daughter! She’s my sister and my daughter!” Vietnamese is like that.
The priest gives Chuck and me small bottles of water, instead of Yuengling, unfortunately, then he and I make small talk in Vietnamese. We’re sitting in a high ceilinged and uncluttered receiving room. Suddenly, Chuck blurts, “Father, I need to make a confession. I haven’t gone to confession in two years. If you don’t mind, Father, I’d like to make a confession to you a little later.”
“Yes, we can do that.”
“Why don’t you do it right now, Chuck?” I jump in. “Don’t wait.”
“If Father Dang doesn’t mind?” Chuck eyes the priest.
“No, we can go into my office right there.”
Alone, I wander into the next room where there’s a statue of the Virgin Mary. Standing there staring at her, my head and stomach heat up and my eyes fill. Go ahead and laugh at me, but every so often I simply crack from the overwhelming sadness of it all, from how much has been taken away from all of us, from how we have been alienated from everything, our earth, our towns, ourselves.
Coming out, Chuck looks a bit shaken himself. My face obviously damp, I wrap my arms around my older brother, my father, my son, my long lost twin, “Get back in there, man! You have so many more sins!”
“I can’t remember the Act of Contrition, Linh. I’m sorry, Father Dang. I’ll say it later.”
Chuck goes to sit outside, and I soon take my leave of the priest, for an obviously distressed woman has just walked in. Stooped, she waits in his office for guidance and comfort.
Born in 1962, Father Dang escaped from Vietnam by boat in 1986 and, after a year in a Malaysian refugee camp, arrived in Scranton at age 25. Ordained in 1995, he was the parish priest for five years at Sugar Notch, two miles from Ashley. In 2000, both towns were 99% non-Hispanic white. Now, it’s 97% for Sugar Notch and 94% for Ashley. The decision to transfer Father Dang caused an uproar. The Citizens Voice of July 14th, 2009 has a story, “Sugar Notch parishioners plead to keep ‘Father Vinny.’” “Some can’t eat. Some can’t sleep. Many have cried. One woman is praying the rosary over and over until her prayer, and the plea of the parishioners, is answered—let Father Vinny stay.” They wrote to the Diocese, “Under Father Dang’s leadership, we have become a cohesive, vibrant, accepting, self-sacrificing community.”
Though no longer Catholic, my mind has been shaped by Catholic concepts and habits. From the confession, I’ve learnt to examine myself quite ruthlessly, though not nearly as neurotically as before. I know that evil is in every man, and can flare out at just about any moment. From Swedenborg, I’ve also learned that there are as many heavens and hells as individuals, and they are often misidentified, with hell confused for heaven. Heaven or hell, then, is more often a state of mind than a geography, and that’s why one can leap, quite instantly, from heaven into hell, though never the other way around. To climb out of hell is certainly a bitch, grasshopper.
Leaving Father Dang, Chuck remembers there’s a Lebanese bakery nearby, and so we spend a few minutes looking for it. Chuck wants to buy a special loaf of bread. Seeing a black man in a Yankees cap, Chuck leans out and asks for directions, then adds, “I’m an Orioles fan!”
“I feel sorry for you!” The guy laughs.
“They never win anything!” I pile on. Well, it’s been a while. It turns out the store is closed, so we move on. After a few blocks, I say, “Chuck, man, you’re broke. You shouldn’t have wanted to buy it in the first place. Carol would give you shit!”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
“When I’m broke, man, I hang on to every buck. I don’t waste anything.”
“Yeah, I know. I was the only child. I’m spoiled.”
“Remember yesterday when you showed me how Navajo Indians drink aftershave by pouring it on a piece of bread over a cup?”
“That’s a waste of a piece of bread! You might need it later!”
“At my house, I don’t throw anything away, man. I save the stupid packets of MSG from the instant noodles. I save ketchup packets from McDonald’s. With a little bit of water, you have a bowl of soup! I don’t throw shit away.”
“You know, I’ve never been careful with money, Linh. I was an only child. When I was a kid, I stole money from my parents to take girls out. I feel terrible now.”
“Well, don’t worry about that now. Worry about next month. You’re broke!”
To save money, Chuck would often ride a Suzuki motorbike instead of his KIA truck. Sometimes, he only has two bucks to put into any gas tank. For the last six years, Chuck has had to resort to his parish church’s pantry and, more recently, St. Francis Soup Kitchen, where he also volunteers. At St. Vincent de Paul in downtown Wilkes-Barre, around 300 people eat a free lunch each day, and most of them are not homeless. For many Americans, going to a soup kitchen is already a daily routine, but imagine how overwhelmed these places will be when this ponzi farce that’s held together by joky accounting and dopey lies really falls apart. A recent headline, “US Economy Nearing Full Employment.”
I go where Chuck takes me, and right now, it’s up some mountain in a fog, “Shit, Linh, I have no idea where we are.”
“You don’t recognize anything?”
“No, I don’t even know which direction we’re heading.”
With my head and stomach like blast furnaces, I might just internally combust in Chuck’s car, but it won’t be a big deal, really, since he’s well used to cleaning up bodily remains. The road twists and the fog thickens.
“We’re fucked, Chuck.”
“We are fucked.”
After several random turns, we finally descend into sunlight. We need to get home to take Dan, Chuck’s older son, out. Twenty-two-years-old, Dan has just graduated from college with $40,000 in debt and no serious job prospect. Majoring in psychology, he’s a cashier at CVS, the drug store. Dan is also down because his girlfriend dumped him, then quickly got married. Quiet and reflective, Dan is an admirer of the Tao Te Ching and Orwell’s Animal Farm. I’ve gotten him to read Notes from Underground, Orwell’s “How The Poor Die” and Hemingway’s trailblazing yet often ignored gem, “The Sea Change.” It’s about a woman who ditches her boyfriend to be with another woman.
On my last visit, Dan said to me quite matter-of-factly, “You know what girls are into now? Black guys and Hispanic guys.”
Dan and I are sitting in Julia’s. Chuck has gone outside. No boozer, Dan rarely goes to a bar, so Chuck is very happy to see his son socializing. A bright, airy place, Julia’s is a local institution, with a hotel above and restaurant out back. It’s the first in Taylor to serve Mexican food, and that was several decades ago.
This day began with news of the South Carolina church shooting, then we visited Jose and Father Dang. “It’s a Jesus day,” I told Chuck. Chuck graduated from the University of Scranton, a Jesuit school, and he even thought of becoming a priest. Contemplating fluttering skirts, Chuck wisely decided against the chasuble, however. I don’t blame him.
Returning, Chuck announces with a glint in his eyes, “I just won the lottery.”
With a flat voice, Dan asks, “How much, Dad?”
Turning to me, Dan states, “We would have been in deep trouble for this month.”
Nearly each day, Chuck buys a $1 lottery ticket. Sometimes, he buys more. The most he will spend each month is $60, and the number he picks is nearly always 614, after his mother’s birthday of June 14th, or Flag Day.
Across this sinking nation, how many are buoyed by lottery dreams, casino hopes, stock fantasies, increasingly desperate prayers or, as Chuck is convinced in this one instance, miraculous grace? With legal means diminished and magical odds unlikely, many are turning to shadier or bloodier tactics. This month taken care of, there is still the next.
Attacked by Goldman Sachs monsters, spaced out children on earth island have reached outer limits of twilight zone.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on July 10, 2015, on State of the Union, a website featuring commentary and photography by Linh Dinh. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Dinh.