Postcard from the End of America: Carlisle, Pennsylvania

Invited to give a reading at Dickinson College, I came to Carlisle, a town of 19,000 people 30 miles from Harrisburg.  Arriving by train, I passed Amish country and saw plows being pulled by horses.  On extremely long clotheslines, single-colored clothes fluttered in the wintry wind.  Rising high and lithographed against the pale sky, they resembled subdued prayer flags.  A white bearded man under a straw hat waved.  Lancaster, Elizabethtown, Middletown.  Had I sat on the opposite side, I would have been browbeaten by the looming nuclear reactors of Three Miles Island.

I have always been struck by how calm and sane Amish children look.  On another occasion in Harrisburg, I marveled at the serene, nearly beatific way an Amish teenaged girl prepared my sandwich.  Each movement was economic yet unharried, and she even smiled, ever so subtly, at the tomato, lettuce, onion and roast beef.  She was at one with the fragrant white bread.  If you travel by train often, you will have many opportunities to observe Amish families, for they don’t fly.  With their emphases on God, family and community, they’re traditional in every way, and you can even call them reactionary for their resistance to progress.  Indifferent to this fleeting mania that’s exhausted the earth and brought humanity to the brink of extinction, the Amish are content to come, till the field and lie beneath, and though they have their dogmas, they don’t seek to impose their ways on you.

No subscribers to any global system, the Amish believe that each community should create its own mores and regulate itself.  It’s fair to say, though, that they have only survived thanks to the forbearance and mercy of the state, for this state can suddenly decide to press gang them into a preemptive war, outlaw their horse and buggies or even ban them from selling unpasteurized milk, the last of which has happened several times recently.  If the French can criminalize the burqa, then perhaps Amish suspenders are an intolerable threat to public order?  Never underestimate the perversity of the state.  Communist governments hounded feminine clothes, shoes, cosmetics and even hairstyles out of existence.

The Amish, then, can be deformed or even snuffed out at any moment, as has happened already to many similar communities worldwide.  Should the Amish way of life become contagious, the state will certainly see them as a cancer.  Immune to all propaganda, they are also the worst consumers.  As the state unravels, however, the independence, resilience, simplicity and sanity of the Amish should serve as a model for the rest of us deranged Americans.  There are those who point to the failings of individual Amish as evidence that their wholesome image is a fraud, but domestic violence, incest, drug use and cruelty to animals can be found within any community.  The Amish’s biggest flaw, I think, is their principled abstention from the use of force in all situations, for that can only lead to their doom and martyrdom.

Dickinson had sent a car to pick me up, and during the 30-minute drive to Carlisle, I had a most enjoyable chat with its driver, Melanie.  In her early 50’s, Melanie had gotten a bachelor’s in American Studies from Dickinson and a master’s from the University of Maryland.  She then worked at Planned Parenthood and another nonprofit that helped battered women, “I thought I would be among feminists, but they weren’t really feminists, and that’s why I became a massage therapist.  I did that for 19 years.”

“Why did you quit?”

“Oh, the stress of it became too much, and I also had some health issues.  I like this job driving for the college because it’s very flexible.  My partner teaches Judaism and Hebrew at the school.  She’s also a writer.”

“What does she write?”

“Novels and poems.  She’s only had a few poems translated into English.  She writes in Hebrew.”

Melanie and her partner go to Israel twice a year, “My dad loves my partner and loves Israel.  When I first got involved with my partner, my dad said, ‘Any time you want to go to Israel, I’ll pay for your ticket,’ but after my fifth trip within three years, my dad told me, ‘I didn’t know you were going to commute to Israel!’”

Melanie’s dad is also a writer.  “One of his books is called Stalking the Antichrists.”

“Wow, that sounds cool.  Who are the antichrists?”

“American Presidents.”

“I’m not going to argue with that!”  We both laughed.  “But which presidents?”

“Mostly recent ones.”

“What about the early ones?  What about George Washington?”

“I don’t know.  The book is over 600 pages and it’s kind of a mess.  My dad can use an editor.”

“What about his other books?”

“Another is called It Can Happen Here: A Fascist Christian America, and that’s 500 pages.  He’s also written a book called Birding and Mysticism: Enlightenment Through Bird Watching.”

“Wow, your dad sounds like a fascinating guy.  I’d love to hang out with him.  Is he in Carlisle?”

“No, Florida.”

Later, I’d try to find the man’s writing online, and the only piece that turned up was a Daily Kos article, “Ukraine: Why All Options Are Not On The Table.”  That’s the clearest part, I’m afraid, for the rest is an impenetrable thicket of diaristic jottings and stray thoughts, much of it typed in caps.  Never stingy with hostile comments, readers are nearly unanimous in their ridicule of this former naval intelligence officer.

Entering Carlisle, we drove past helicopters, artillery pieces, tanks and a bunker.  Constituting the Army Heritage Trail, it’s on the grounds of the United States Army War College.  Alongside Dickinson College, it dominates this quiet town.  Here converge not just American senior officers, lieutenant colonels and up, but those from dozens of other countries.  They come to learn the American ways of war.

For its size, Carlisle has a large and active downtown.  There are nice bars, coffee shops and a Thai, a Belgian and a Japanese restaurant, though the last, Issei, is half Vietnamese.  After coming to the United States as a refugee, Long joined the US Army and went to Okinawa, where he met his future wife, Naomi.  Just outside downtown, there’s also Proud to Serve Mini-Mart and Deli, and here it’s the wife, Barb, who’s the army veteran, and she had to go to Morocco to meet the love of her life, Rachid.  On an oblong sign, there’s an American flag surrounded by these words, “Proudly Served Our Country.  Now Proudly Serving Our Community.  A VETERAN-OWNED BUSINESS.”  Inside the store, there are photos of local veterans and a six-foot-two Statue of Liberty.  Unlike provincials in other countries, many small town Americans have traveled across the globe, though usually only after being drilled in firing automatic weapons, throwing hand grenades and in hand-to-hand combat.  They come back with tales, blood splattered conscience, a more sophisticated palate, dogged nightmares, trinkets, half a body, spouse or an unspeakable face.  Thousands return as absolutely nothing.

Outside downtown, the fast food joints and strip malls show up and the houses gradually become less quaint.  Nondescript apartment blocks edge in.  Like other small towns, Carlisle used to have its factories but the only manufacturing that remains is Frog Switch, a maker of manganese steel castings.  Carlisle Tire and Rubber Company, founded in 1917, drew down its operation then finally moved to Jackson, Mississippi in 2010 for cheaper labor cost.  Masland Carpets, founded in 1866, went to Alabama.

The war and liberal art colleges, then, are Carlisle’s chief economic engines.  Colonels and generals do have wads in their deep pockets, and Dickinson College students aren’t too broke either, for the tuition there for 2015-16 is $49,014, with room and board $12,812, books $1,090 and health insurance $1,822 more.  Even without beer, liquor and weed expenses, prerequisites for a well-rounded college experience, it costs over $65,000 to spend nine months in Carlisle.  Though many students do get financial aids, many don’t, such as the 7% who arrive from 44 foreign countries.

Most college students are transients.  Wanting to meet more rooted locals, I asked my student hostesses, Mary and Laura, to point me to “an old man’s bar, where old guys go to drink away their social security checks.”

“There aren’t any, really,” Mary answered, “but Alibis might be the closest to that.”  A senior, Mary’s writing a thesis on Ezra Pound and J.R.R. Tolkien.  Also a senior, Laura is focusing on Edna St. Vincent Millay.

With two hours to kill before my reading, I slipped into Alibis and found it too nice to be a dive bar.  It had 14 draft beers, most of them microbrews or imported.  A pint of Yuengling, though, was only $2.50, so I ordered that.  Not yet happy hours, this spacious pub was practically deserted.  The only other patrons were three people who sat to my left, so let’s meet them, eh?

Thirty-years-old, Heather’s a single mom with a daughter entering puberty.  (Before Heather ordered her rum and Coke, the bartender actually carded her, which made her gush, “Thank you!”)  Born in Carlisle, she has also lived in Gettysburg and Hanover, the latter nearly two hours away, a big move.  A lifelong waitress, Heather’s unemployed but is trying to find work as a medical assistant.  For the last seven months, she’s applied at every doctor’s office, clinic and hospital in the area.

“They all want a year plus experience, but how am I going to get experience if you don’t give it to me?”

“So how many applications altogether?  Fifty?”

“At least!”

Heather’s mom is 57 and has been waitressing since she was 16.  “She’s the best waitress I’ve ever met, my mom.  She’s amazing.”

“Where does she work?”

“Denny’s, but she has also worked at Bob’s Big Boy for like 15 years, and she was at Eat’n Park.  She was the shift manager there.  She was the head waitress.”

Heather recounted being fired from her last waitressing job, “I was working at Denny’s, and there was this party of 17 people.  I worked my ass off and they left me a one dollar and one penny tip.”

“I thought you were going to say a dollar per person, which is bad enough.”

“I can deal with that.  That’s like 10%.  Some people give you 20, some 10, but these people just left me a dollar and a penny!”

“That’s unbelievable!  Was there any problem?”

“No, I thought I did a great job.  I thought I was going to get a great tip.  I was so pissed off, I took that money, ran outside to the parking lot, gave it to the lady and said, ‘I think you need this more than I do!’”

“And what did she say?”

“I don’t know, because I turned right around and went back inside.  They fired me on the spot.”

“I don’t know if I could have controlled my temper either.  That’s really fucked up what they did.”


“I mean, that extra penny is like an extra fuck you!”

Next to Heather was Steve.  Twenty-seven-years-old, he had on a brown shirt and a deep green tie, not his usual togs, because he had just been to court.  Nearly three years ago, a second floor window pane landed on Steve’s leg as he was walking by.  He showed me a long scar on his calf.  Though Judge Guido fell asleep at the bench that morning, the jury seemed sympathetic to Steve’s plight, he said, and the case was scheduled to be wrapped up the next day.  Steve’s lawyer had tried to settle out of court with the building’s owner but the man refused.

“I should get at least $10,000, I hope.  Knock on wood.”

“That’s not a whole lot for all the shit you went through.”

“No, sir, but I’ll be glad to have it.”

“I mean, the medical bills, the pain, the aggravation.  I don’t see how you won’t get it.”

“Thank you.”  Steve smiled and shook my hand, as if for luck.  “If I do get it, and you come by tomorrow, I’ll buy you lunch!”

“You don’t have to do that, but I’ll come by just to see how it turns out.”

Steve has toiled and sweated in kitchens, which he didn’t like at all, and at the Amazon warehouse.  Since it paid $12 an hour, Steve thought it was a pretty good job, and he only quit because he could earn more as a construction worker, so that’s what he’s doing now, swinging his hammer.  Being an Amazon grunt can be so grueling, and it can get so hot inside that warehouse, workers sometimes pass out.  When I brought this up, they both said yeah, that’s just how it is.

Unlike Heather, Steve has never strayed from Carlisle, “I have a high school diploma, no children, but I can’t even move anywhere.”

“It’s hard, man.  You can’t just pick up and leave.  Usually, you have to know someone somewhere.”

“Yes, sir, and I’ll be honest with you, it also comes down to your piss.  If you smoke marijuana, you’re an evil person in this world.  If you smoke marijuana once in your life, you’re screwed.”

We all laughed.  I said, “I know a guy who sells piss, though.  That’s a business, man.  You should just drive around construction sites and sell piss!”

Heather, “I don’t smoke pot.  I should sell my piss!”

Sitting with Heather and Steve was Austin, and though he seemed comfortable enough, he hardly spoke.  Unlike the others, Austin was black, but it was clear he was Steve’s close friend.  Blacks make up only 7% of Carlisle’s population, and the eastern part of town is even dubbed Carlem, as in Carlyle and Harlem.  This odd tidbit I only found out the next day, when I returned to congratulate Steve on his windfall.  Steve never showed up, however, so I talked to Brandon, the bartender.

Brandon came to Carlisle from Shippensburg, twenty miles South.  Although this town of 5,500 also has a college, it’s only a state school and much cheaper.  The economy really sucks there, Brandon said, and its alcohol and drug problems, heroin and meth, are much more serious. Shippensburg’s furniture, engine and pump factories are all gone. “We do have six bars,” Brandon advertised.  “I think you’d like them!”

In his late 20’s, Brandon considers himself supremely lucky to sling beer five nights a week.  Sharing a house with two roommates, Brandon only pays $400 a month, plus utilities, and he lives close enough to amble to work.  Though business seemed awfully sluggish during my two visits to Alibis, Brandon said Dickinson students do surge in late at night, especially on weekends, and, get this, the War College sometimes conduct classes inside the bar, “They show up early in the morning and use that space there. We even have a screen so they can project their lectures.”

“Do they drink during class?”

“No, but many will drink right afterwards.”

I’d imagine the colonels and generals to be decent tippers, at least more so than a white haired man who shows up in Alibis each day to order a double shot of DL Franklin for $5.  Knocking it down, he shambles out without leaving a penny.  It’s unclear why he doesn’t just buy a liter for $15 or so and drink it at home.  He obviously has very little money.  When I was there, he was paying for his vodka fix with quarters, dimes and nickels. It took him longer to count out his change than to swill his liquor.

In small towns across America, you have this basic scenario of little or no manufacturing left, so the locals must scramble for service jobs that often don’t even pay the bills.  In Carlisle, I saw help wanted signs at Wendy’s, Papa John’s and a hoagie shack.  At High and Hanover, a rather haggard, long haired man was dressed as the Statue of Liberty to advertise Liberty Income Tax Service.  Paid $8 an hour, he had to constantly switch directions to wave a sign at onrushing traffic.  With earphones plugged to heavy metal, he would sometimes strum this sign as if it was a guitar.  Outside a Sunoco gas station, an old white man sat on the curb, begging.  He was balding, stooped and had white paper napkins tucked into the back of his pants.  A black man gave him some change.

So we’ve become a nation of burger flippers, burrito rollers, taco stuffers, cocktail mixers, surly cashiers, personal care assistants, dog walkers, sign-waving statues of liberties and, whether on sidewalks or more discretely, beggars.  It sure doesn’t sound like a superpower to me but, ah, when you still have the most bellicose military on earth, you can extort plenty of merchandises from your vassal states.  Here, just take this shipload of Federal Reserve notes that are freshly excreted, ever so liberally, by Janet Yellen.  You want more?  There’s plenty more where that came from!

To postpone that fearful plunge into that vicious battle royal of the job market, you can also matriculate, check into a coed dormitory and buy yourself a bong.  Borrowing from banksters, however, you will be mortgaging just about the rest of your life, and at Dickinson, I met a student, let’s call him Tim, who was glad to only be $50,000 in debt by the time he graduates.  A friend of his already owes $240,000.

“He should have just bought a house,” I said, “and rent out rooms!”

“I know.” Tim does have a plan, though, to not only be debt free but loaded within a few years. “I’m twenty-two now, but I want to have a $80,000 BMW by the time I’m twenty-five.”

A native of Yonkers, Tim grew up with his mom, a cafeteria worker, and his grandma, a nurse for 60 years.  Tim’s dad abandoned the family, so he has never seen him.  He does have a rich uncle.  Tim’s plan is to create an app that would facilitate academic cheating.  Bumbling students can use Tim’s service to find ghost writers for their term papers.  Since Tim will dock 10% from each transaction, this will net him at least half a million bucks during his first year, he calculates.  He has invested $8,000 into this venture, hired a South Asian fellow student to write the codes and talked to a lawyer to make sure he won’t end up in the slammer.  Tim won’t be cheating himself, he explained, but only creating the means for others to succeed academically.  If you’re going to be suffocated with debts, you might as well get an A.  With his new wealth, Tim will see the rest of this vast country, at last, for he’s never been West of Pittsburgh.  He kept asking me about California and the Pacific Northwest.  Since the BMW X6 M can go from zero to 60mph in 3.9 seconds, Tim can see himself flying into nirvana in no time flat.

“I’ve tried a lot of things.  I’m always trying something new.  I wanted to be a musician.  Now I want to be a professional, you know, weightlifter.  There’s always something I want to do.  I’m always jumping from one thing to another.  It’s a bit scary.  What if I never settle down? I started a clothing brand.”

“What happened with that?”

“It went really well.  I made $7,000 in a month.  People were really into my hats, and they’re still asking me about them, but I stopped to concentrate on my app.”

At Dickinson, Tim is majoring in studio art, but it isn’t clear if he’s a painter, sculptor or printmaker.  Tim couldn’t tell me.  He also said he’s interested in writing.  If you were really cynical or realistic, you could say that it doesn’t matter one bit what are Tim’s artistic goals, for he won’t come anywhere close to reaching them, but that’s the eternal sadness and futility of the arts, for one can spend one’s entire life, and not just a few years, to produce less than nothing.  For all of one’s hopes and sacrifices, one may not even end up as a minor pest.  The difference these days, though, is that one must pay grandly just to dabble.

Unlike the Amish, who frown upon personal exaltation, the rest of us are conditioned to bare our teeth, claw and kick ass, for we must destroy all competition, we’re convinced, to prevent ourselves from being chewed up then spat out.  Fairly or by cheating, we must win at all costs.  This mindset has become so engrained, we hardly notice it, but in the annals of human history, no culture has exalted individual achievement as much as the Greco, Roman lineage we’ve inherited.  Yes, others record their great thinkers and artists, but the West remembers even its fastest runners, longest jumpers and best boxers.  There is no Indian or Chinese equivalence of Chionis of Sparta, Diagoras of Rhodes, Milo of Croton or Theagenes of Thasos.  Sima Qian paid no attention to any muscleman.

This introduction of ruthless competition into all realms of life has allowed the West or, more specifically, the white man to dominate the world for many centuries, and his very disunity in Europe ratcheted up his competitiveness.  Competing against other white men, he innovated, conquered, slaughtered and came to believe, almost too inevitably, that he was the perfect man, perhaps even the only true man.

After so much blood and laughter, however, the white man’s hegemony is finally waning, and just as we can discuss peak oil, peak water or peak sand, it’s not inappropriate to speak of peak white man.  The white man’s paling, though, has less to do with his constitutional decline but with the fact that others have learnt how to play the same nasty games he himself has set up.

An early omen of the white man’s less than superman status happened right in Carlisle, for it was here that Jim Thorpe first established his legend.  As a student at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Thorpe excelled at just about every sport, and in football, he led the Indians to victories over powerhouses Harvard and Army.  A contemporary newspaper headline, “Indians Scalp Army 27–6.”  After Thorpe won gold medals in the Decathlon and Pentathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, he was universally recognized as the world’s greatest athlete.

Around this time, white America was also tormented by Jack Johnson.  Not only was Johnson beating up white men, he was having sex with plenty of white women.  (Thorpe himself married three white women.)  White rage hounded and ultimately ruined Johnson, but it mostly spared Thorpe because, after all, Thorpe wasn’t coldcocking one white man after another, and he didn’t have a reputation as a serial bedder of white women.  His transgressions weren’t as viscerally offensive.  Plus, the contrast between Thorpe and a white man wasn’t as great.  He was half white, one must remember.

Black, white, brown or yellow, anyone who’s dwelling within these Disunited States will be thoroughly nicked up, if not buried alive, from the coming collapse and turmoil, and it’s telling that our final chapter started with a double castrations that was broadcast, live, to the entire world, and that one of our bravest dissidents, Bradley Manning, also wishes to have nothing between his legs, and that our present day Jim Thorpe, one Bruce Jenner, also dreams of the day he will finally be emasculated.   Don’t worry, it’s coming.

Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on March 29, 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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