Postcard from the End of America: Bridesburg, Philadelphia

Wait till you hear this one.  So an Italian, a Pole and an Irish woman were sitting in a bar when a Vietnamese walked in.

“There he is!” the bartender, also Irish, yelled.

Ignoring the strange greeting, the Vietnamese guy sat down two stools from the cheerful Italian, “We knew he’d come!”

Grinning somewhat uneasily, the Vietnamese merely said, “Uh, I’d like a pint of Rolling Rock.”

Acting surprised, the bartender blurted, “He’d like a beer too!”

With the entire bar looking at him, the Vietnamese finally asked, “Who did you think I was?”

“The guy who sells DVDs,” the Irish woman jumped in.  “We’ve been sitting here talking about American Sniper, you know, the new movie, so when we saw you walk in with that bag, we thought you had DVDs to sell.”

“No, no.”

All over Philadelphia, there are itinerant peddlers who enter bars to sell pirated movies.  In Frankford, one neighborhood over, I’d seen a Chinese woman do this.  That day, I was in Bridesburg for the first time.  Triangular, it’s hemmed in by a river, a creek and a freeway, so Bridesburg’s rather cut off from the rest of the city.  You can easily live in Philadelphia for decades without ever straying into this poor yet very neatly kept, graffiti-free and nearly all-white neighborhood.  Neither the elevated train nor the subway stops there.

From afar, a metropolis is always reduced to its iconic skyline downtown, but close-up, every city is a city of neighborhoods.  There is nothing distinctive about this claim.  If Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods, so is Boston, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco and even Atlanta.  A city dweller, then, is one who merely inhabits a village or town within a city.  It is on this much more intimate scale that humans can truly feel a sense of belonging, if at all.

In Bridesburg, all the houses have two stories and few are detached.  Most have no lawns, only a concrete porch, if that.  Aluminum awnings shade doorways and windows.  Flags droop here and there, including from utility poles.  On Richmond Street is the second Veterans of Foreign War post in the entire country.  Here, the bars are called What’s Its Name, Post Office, Ozzie’s, O’Rourke’s, Bridesburg Pub and Blue Moon, which was the one I stumbled into, and weaved out of.  It doesn’t even have a sign.  Bridesburg’s motto, “A Family First Community.”  On a door, “FREE SNOW.  HELP YOURSELF.”  The Real Life Café has gone out of business.

The bartender turned out to be 42-year-old Matt, “I hadn’t seen a movie in a theater in 15 years, but I couldn’t wait to see this one.  I was outside at 8:30AM on the first day!”

“What time was the show?”

“9:30.”

“So how was it?”

“Excellent!”

Chris Hedges writes of this record-breaking box office hit by Clint Eastwood, American Sniper lionizes the most despicable aspects of U.S. society—the gun culture, the blind adoration of the military, the belief that we have an innate right as a ‘Christian’ nation to exterminate the ‘lesser breeds’ of the earth, a grotesque hypermasculinity that banishes compassion and pity, a denial of inconvenient facts and historical truth, and a belittling of critical thinking and artistic expression.”  Ah, if only Hedges could be at the Blue Moon to watch this American classic with the locals!  I’ll bring the DVD.

One of the oldest white settlements in the Philadelphia area, this bend in the river was populated by Swedes, Germans then Poles, who came in the early 20th century to work in the tannery.  It was shit work, literally, for dog shit was used to cure hides.  Rohm and Hass and AlliedSignal, two chemical companies, then moved in to add cancers and birth defects to the stomach turning aroma.  In fact, for several years Bridesburg was ranked as the most toxic zip code in all of Pennsylvania.  Locals could also make bullets or forge steel for a living.  Mike, a 57-year-old Pole, recounted the good old days, “With the Arsenal, Rohm and Hass and the Foundry, you didn’t have to leave the neighborhood to work.  You could walk to work!”

With all of its factories gone, the people of Bridesburg now toss pizza dough, sling beer, become cops or join the military.  Law and order is big here.

At the Recreational Center, there’s a large mural of Gary Skerski, a 16-year police veteran who was shot and killed at age 46 by a robber.

Not feeling adequately safe with the regular police and Neighborhood Watch, Bridesburg even hired a private security firm, with each house chipping in $20 per year.  These keystone cops didn’t even last a month, however.  Bridesburg’s siege mentality is understandable if you consider that it’s squeezed by two high crime neighborhoods, Frankford and Port Richmond, with Kensington, Philly’s heroin bazaar, just two miles away.

Mike, “We’re friendly to everybody, as long as you’re a low life!”

“But you have to be the right kind of low life!” I suggested.

“Yeah, if you take care of your kids and your house and don’t cause trouble, you’re welcome.  Basically, we don’t like niggas,” and he did say “a” and not “er,” a distinction Raychel Jeantel once took pain to explain to Piers Morgan.

It’s clearly no endearment for Mike, however, “In Germantown and Upper Darby, you have decent black people.  Notice I’m not calling them no niggas.  It’s the niggas we don’t like, and anybody can be a nigga.  You can have black niggas, white niggas, chink niggas and pollock niggas.  It’s the niggas we don’t like.  Before we had Section 8 Housing in Bridesburg, kids could leave their bikes out, but as soon as the niggas moved in, they all got stolen!”

After a black woman moved into a Bridesburg apartment in 1995, someone broke her windows.  Whites taunted her on the streets with racial slurs and her teenaged sister was even roughed up by a white.  Though she appealed to the cops for help, for law and order, her sister’s assailant was never found.  As for the slurs and hostile looks, there was nothing they could do, frankly, for social attitudes cannot be regulated.  A mugger or rapist can be arrested, indicted and found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but not someone who mutters a slur or spits on the ground as he walks by you.  After six months of Bridesburg hell, the woman moved out.

In the early 90’s, I’d occasionally stop by this breakfast joint because it had great scrapple, but the white waitress always gave me the coldest service, tight lipped and brusque.  The first time this happened, I simply thought, maybe I’m catching this woman on her worst day, for as a minority, you can’t assume racism each time or you will lose your mind.  Finally, I stopped going to that stupid place, though, twenty plus years later, I still remember exactly where it is, for a person is wired to register, very deeply, all acts of irrational hostility against him.  Self preservation demands this.  Believe me, I’ve experienced much, much worse.  I’m bringing this up merely to show that it doesn’t take a whole lot to convey to someone that he’s not welcome.

To bypass racial aggravation, many people simply retreat into their own ethnic orbit whenever possible, with whites hanging with whites, blacks with blacks and Asians with Asians, etc.  Beyond these divisions, there’s also an infinity of sub groupings, moreover, because many people can only love themselves, that’s all.  Any sort of intolerance, then, is just an expression of narcissism.

In 1996, another black woman, 32-year-old Bridget Ward, rented a rowhouse in Bridesburg for $650.  On her first morning there, the registered nurse woke up to find “nigger” spray painted on her door.  Ketchup and some brown liquid, resembling blood, were also splattered onto her front and back walls.  After news got out, some white residents did send her welcome cards and Easter candies, but a letter also arrived that threatened to kill her two daughters, aged 3 and 9.  That was the last straw.  Needing to spare her kids from such a miasma of hatred, Ward moved out after only five weeks, “I don’t want them to grow up mean and hateful. I don’t want them to feel that it has to be like this. I don’t want them to hate anyone.”

News reports from that time mention a Bridesburg man who unfurled a confederate flag at his house to greet Ward’s arrival, and snooping around the neighborhood 18 years later, I discovered this flag was still there.  Although the Southern banner can’t be reduced to a single idea, here it’s clearly meant as an anti-black talisman.  Ignoring the bad publicity, this man and others like him are determined to keep Bridesburg as white as possible, and though a handful of blacks have managed to move in eventually, it’s still the whitest working class neighborhood in the entire region.

Seen as a village, Bridesburg harks back to a time when nearly everyone within the community was of the same race, if not related by blood, and as a foundation and model for what a community is, the village was always exclusive.  Normally, you weren’t allowed to move in, but even when you could, it took forever for your surly neighbors to warm up to your annoyingly alien presence.  In a traditional Vietnamese village, an outside family had to live there for three generations before the locals granted it partial citizenship.  In southern Europe, innumerable villages and towns were built like fortresses on top of hills to defend themselves against people from nearby settlements.  Assisi and Perugia, for example, attacked each other constantly.  It was like Bloods vs. Crips, only more vicious.

One village vs. another, town vs. town, these local allegiances and conflicts find modern expression in organized sports.  At the high school level, the athletes are really local, but it is much less so with college teams and not at all with the professional squads that somehow provide civic pride and sense of community to the socially adrift city dwellers.  The growth of professional sports coincided with rapid urbanization worldwide.  Uprooted from villages and towns, those who have lost their organic and enduring ties to other people and this very earth must find consolation in purchasing over-priced cap, jersey, pennant, pajamas and blanket of the right colors and logo.  On selected days, they can scream, curse or even weep, in joy or despair, at a television.  Whereas the professional athletes are merely grafted onto a city, its gang members are truly grass roots, however, for they arise from its various communities.

When civilization declines, warbands proliferate as economic and security solutions.  They also appear wherever central authority is weak or lacks legitimacy.  In slums across America, warbands already operate, though we merely call them gangs.  As the economy sinks, our social fabric will turn to shreds and crimes will explode because hungry, desperate and angry people won’t equivocate too much before they blow your brains out, especially if you’re alien to them, or seen as the enemy, for whatever reason.  Even with foodstamps, violent muggings are daily occurrences in each American city, so imagine what will happen when our bankrupt government can no longer maintain its already inadequate Access Card soup kitchen?

War breaks out when there’s scarcity, and this is true not just between rival nations but gangs or warbands in your city, and remember, nearly all gangs are racially or ethnically homogeneous.  There are no pan-Asian gangs but Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian or Hmong ones, and even when people speak the same language, the gangs are either Mexican, El Salvadorian or Columbian, etc.  Yes, the Latin Kings includes a number of Hispanic groups, but it’s essentially Puerto Rican or Mexican, depending on the factions.  As for whites and Jews, they share leadership in a most sadistic gang called the United States of America.  Their foot soldiers are of every color, however, so that’s a heart warming triumph of integration and multiculturalism.  Absolutely anyone can die for them, even you.  Their current spokesman is also half black.  If you think about it, the job of White House Press Secretary is totally redundant, since our so-called President is already a White House Press Secretary.

When all is well, racial differences can be somewhat ignored, though many people struggle to do just that, but with tension or disagreement, much less life-and-death competition, the tribal angle comes out.  Notice how often insults are prefixed by a racial or ethnic signifier.  It’s not enough to call someone a “piece of shit,” you must brand him a Polish, Italian, Jewish, black or Korean piece of shit.  Responding to one of my articles, a commenter writes, “Long Duck Dong or whatever his name is, can go suck a bag of hot dicks.”  The truth is, all differences are registered, stored away and used as bullets if needed, for we define ourselves oppositionally.

During the Occupy protests, the “99%” became a rallying cry for the supposedly unified masses, but there is no such 99%, not when Americans are rabidly divided between North and South, urban and rural, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, etc.  As Paul Craig Roberts points out, “The great mass of people cannot evaluate what is said or written without first classifying it into a prevailing ideological box.  If what is said fits their box, it is correct.  If not, it is wrong.”

Though many Americans fancy themselves independent thinkers, most are merely slavish adherents of some cartoon version of a political philosophy they haven’t bothered to research, for why read history when a slogan or two is good enough?  Recently, when I voiced my objection to “Communism, of the dictatorship of the proletariat variety,” a reader responded, “Ah maybe Linh Dinh is revealing some of his middle class baggage here […]  Why did u leave Vietnam Linh?  Did you’re family not want to pull its weight and help with the revolution?”  Ignoring my objection to “dictatorship,” this person is framing me as somehow a bourgeoisie who’s antagonistic to the proletariat!  Judging from his millennial orthography, my accuser has many decades ahead of him, so perhaps he can take a few days to slowly read 1984.  Studying Orwell’s frightful expose of any totalitarian system, whether left or right, perhaps he can reflect on how often a revolution betrays its most selfless, ardent or idealistic supporters, not to mention the lowly proles.  Though fiction, the ruthless strategies depicted have been repeatedly confirmed by history, and since many millions have suffered, one shouldn’t so blithely endorse what killed or shackled them.

In many parts of the world, people still have fresh memories of traumatic societal upheavals, but Americans have never been subjected to nonstop terror from an alien control apparatus, sent to hard labor or reeducation camps, or made so desperate, they head for the open sea in flimsy crafts, knowing they might drown, starve to death or be raped or killed by pirates.  Having no experience of totalitarianism, not quite yet, Americans can glibly wear it as a conceit.  Also, there is a Western tradition of militant evangelism that stems from an arrogant conviction that whatever you supremely believe in, or just kinda like, sort of, must be the guiding light for the rest of the world, so if it’s not Communism, then it’s Catholicism, Capitalism, Neo-Liberalism and so on, all Western belief systems.  If a nominally Communist country like China has been able to revive itself, it’s due to its people’ deeply ingrained qualities of tremendous industry, single mindedness, stoicism, eagerness to learn and shrewdness in business.  From Singapore to San Francisco, Chinese everywhere have these traits.

Any global solution requires global policing and enforcement, so enough, already, with universal diktats, for in their names, villages everywhere have been devastated.  To globalize you, they’ll make you unrecognizable to yourself if not turn you into a slave.  It’s fine if you disagree, for that only proves that humans tend to differ, just as groups of people will always remain distinctive.  Born different, we also live differently.

In The Chronicles of Bustos Domecq, co-authored by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy-Casares, there’s an account of the “Brotherhood Movements.”  Mankind, it is explained, is made up of an infinity of secret brotherhoods, and here I quote from Norman Thomas di Giovanni’s translation, “Some of these societies are more enduring than others–for example, the society of individuals sporting Catalan surnames, or surnames that begin with the letter G.  Others, inversely, quickly fade–the society of those who, at this very moment, in Brazil or Africa, are inhaling the odor of jasmine or, more culture-minded and studious, reading a bus ticket.”  These brotherhoods are constantly in flux, since “the most trifling act–striking a match or blowing it out–expels us from one group and lodges us in another.”  With so many commingling cliques, conflicts are inevitable, thus “the person wielding a spoon is the adversary of he who brandishes a fork, but very soon both are at one over the use of the napkin, only to split again over their Postum or Sanka.”  Just as in real life, small differences can turn deadly, “the man getting off a train will pull a switchblade on the man who boards; the incognizant buyer of gumdrops will try to strangle the master hand who dispenses them.”

Telescoping both distance and time, oil has shrunk the world and created a crude illusion of a global hamlet.  As the age of petroleum winds down, however, the local will make a fierce come back, and it may take a warband just to reach the next village.

Since we’re not yet there, I had managed to breach, all by my lonesome self, the considerable defense of Bridesburg, and sitting in Blue Moon, I could hear Matt recount his recent troubles, “After I lost 110 lbs, my wife became paranoid.  She thought I was having an affair!  She called up Verizon for my phone record and picked fights with me all the time.  We’re getting a divorce.”

Matt married at 18 and, after graduating from Drexel with a business degree, managed to find a job with a medical supplies company.  He bought a spacious home in suburban Montgomery County, had three daughters and everything was fine until he decided to shed a few stones.  As his marriage imploded, Matt also lost his $125,000 a year job through downsizing, so now the local boy is back in the hood to tend bar six nights a week at Blue Moon and Ozzie’s.

“I remember exactly the day of our last fight, because the Bears were playing on Thursday Night Football.  As I was just getting ready to watch the game, the bitch gave me shit again, and I was like, ‘Can’t I just watch the damn game?!’  Since she wouldn’t stop, I went to the bar to watch it with my buddies.  When I came home around 2:30, she was already asleep, so I got into bed, thinking everything was OK, but as soon as my wife got up in the morning, she started again, and out of the blue, she called 911 and said I had a gun to her head!”

“She could have gotten you killed!”

“She sure could have.  I walked outside in my swimming trunks, because that’s how I sleep, and when all the cop cars came, sirens blaring, I just stood in my driveway and raised my hands.  There were about six cops pointing guns at me!”

“Why was your wife so paranoid? Did you ever cheat on her?”

“No.”

“Seriously?” I grinned.

“Absolutely!”

“Not once?”

“Never!”  Then, “Since we separated, I’ve had about fifty women, though, and I have a girlfriend now.”

Let’s see, the Bears played the Giants on Thursday, October 10th, 2013, and I talked to Matt on January 28th, 2015, so what’s that, a woman every five seconds?  In any case, with his American dream blown to smithereens, Matt had to crawl back to his native village because that’s his most enduring support system.  It’s archetypical, this trajectory.  Perched to my left, 56-year-old Tommy, the Italian guy, had heard all this before, so paid no attention.  Deciding he wanted no more Coors Lite, Tommy roared, “I’m going to go home now and beat up my wife!”

“No, you’re not!”  The Irish woman protested.

“Yes, I am. I’ve had enough!”

Talking to Matt, I found out we actually had one mutual acquaintance.  Also a bartender, Melissa works in Kensington five days a week, though business can be so dead, she often has to close early.  Thirty-years-old, she’s divorced, lives with her mom and has 12-year-old twin sons.  Melissa’s sister is an officer in the Marines, and both of her kids plan on joining the military.  Last Christmas, Melissa spent $700 on presents for Mike and Doug, which I thought astronomical, but she scowled, “No, it’s not! I love my kids!”  Melissa’s own father, a Japanese junkie, was never around when she grew up.  Her mom’s Irish.  Soon after Melissa turned 21, her dad called to beg for money.  She’s not pissed off at him.  “I’ve gotten over it.  It’s not worth it.”  To prove that she was really half Japanese, Melissa pulled up a photo of herself at seven-years-old wearing a kimono.  In Bridesburg, people go into a bar bathroom to do coke, she said, whereas in Kensington, they shoot up, so that’s another point in Bridesburg’s favor.  To protect herself, Melissa carries a large folding knife, keeps a baseball bat behind the bar and, thanks to frequent trips to the gun range when she was dating a cop, can surely zap anything moving from half a block away.  Seeing many photos of her kids always looking so happy and calm, I said to Melissa, “You must be a great mom.”

In every family, there are sweet, loving individuals as well as nosy, domineering, judgmental or backstabbing assholes, and so it is with each village or neighborhood, though in an urban setting, you can more easily avoid just about any meaningful human contact even as you’re swarmed by bodies and voices.  Though Americans evoke community fairly often, their actions betray them.  Regularly moving away and breaking up, many prefer, clearly, to be left alone.  Politically, this means that there’s not even a unified 1% in opposition to the status quo, much less 99%.  (During our last Presidential Election, the Green Party got 0.36% of the votes, and the Libertarian 0.99%.)  Alone we eat, sleep and have sex, and alone we will confront the machine.  Some of us, though, will save ourselves by organizing or joining a warband.  We few, we dismal few, we band of brothers!

 

Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on February 12, 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.

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