Postcard from the End of America: Center City, Philadelphia

Ah, to be in perfect health, good looking, with all the possibilities in the world spread out like an extravagant buffet, begging for your attention!  Should I become a recording star, the next Obama (or Hillary) or precocious billionaire?  Maybe I’ll marry a rich yet good looking one and see the world before I turn 22?  These days, though, a young person’s daydream must meet the sick reality of an economy sinking into quicksand as weighted down by a bloated and criminal government.  War is constant though distant, for now, and the media, dominated by a fistful of puppeteers, purvey nothing but lies and idiocy.  “No Bra, No Problem: Beyonce Wears a Completely Unbuttoned Shirt to Lunch.”  A government that ignores not just international laws but its own legal foundation is a rogue regime, but as long as its abject subjects can’t peel their pupils from FaceBook, boxscores and pixelated genitals, all is good.

Though the most visible homeless are still the old and middle-aged, they are becoming younger and younger, and the other day, I met 30-year-old Stephanie sitting behind a plastic cup with a sign, “HOMELESS AND HUNGRY / ANYTHING HELPS / THANK YOU.”  Born in New Jersey, she was a waitress in Delran, Palmyra and Cinnaminson, mostly white, working class towns just across the river from Philadelphia.  Losing her apartment six months ago, Stephanie had to come to Philly to beg, so there she was in two pairs of ugly pants and a scruffy, oversized men’s jacket, her teeth chattering.  It was 27 degrees.  Behind Stephanie was a recycling receptacle, but she herself, like so many redundant workers, risks becoming unrecyclable in our increasingly ruthless society.  How many Americans are thinking, Maybe I’ll never get another job?

A block away, I ran into Angel, aged 21 and homeless for three weeks.  Also from New Jersey, Angel came to Philly two years ago and found work as a bartender at Beau Monde, an upscale French restaurant that’s particularly popular among the gay crowd.  Above Beau Monde is L’etage, a dance club with the same owner.  With business rather slow at Beau Monde, there weren’t much tips, so Angel moved to Cantina Los Caballitos.  Starting as a hostess, she eventually became one of four managers.  Her peak salary was $1,600 a month, but that’s before tax.  With rents so high in Philly, Angel opted to pay $350 for a room in a house she shared with six people, “All of my co-workers were paying around $500 a month, but none of them had their own space.  They were all sharing.”

I told Angel that twenty years ago, I had my own apartment in Center City for just $350 a month.  Her eyes widened, “That’s unbelievable!”  The bank-inflated housing bubble made housing unaffordable for many poor people.

At Cantina Los Caballitos, workplace politics was very complicated, Angel said, because managers, bartenders and servers slept with each other, “If a bartender was sleeping with a server, a female manager would get pissed off and try to get even.”

“Because she wanted to sleep with him?”

“Yeah, because she wanted to sleep with him.  There was a lot of corruption there,” meaning sexual harassment or retaliation.

The most insidious abuse of power, however, was how employees were discarded, “In the bar and restaurant business, they will overhire, then get rid of whoever they don’t like, but without firing them.  If they find someone that they like more than you, they’ll keep it hush hush and find ways to push you out, and they will do this with any position.  It’s not just with a server or kitchen worker, they will also do this with a manager.

They do not want to give fired employees unemployment.  They will find any way of going around paying people unemployment.  So if they want to do a mass firing, they’ll cut people’s schedules.  They’ll cut their hours.  For people they want to get rid of, they’ll just give them one or two shifts a week.  This usually forces people to quit, because they’re so broke.  This way, they don’t have to fire ten people and pay unemployment.”

Long time employees also expect periodic raises, so by forcing them out, owners save money.  It’s very passive aggressive, these tactics, “They will give you the shittiest shifts or they can cite you for every little mistake, every little thing that you do that they can make into an issue.  What they did to me was, they’d suddenly email me and say, ‘You’re not in charge of that anymore.  Why don’t you do this,’ then they’d give me these very childish tasks, these very boring tasks, and I was like, ‘Why am I doing this if I’m the manager?’  They’d email me and say, ‘Oh, you don’t have to come in today.’  They phrased it in such a way that you’re like, am I being rewarded with some time off?  They kind of fucked with your head a little bit, so you’d think, maybe I’m being rewarded here, but at the end of the month, you’re like, holy shit, I hardly worked at all.  So they push you off.  Holy shit, you know, they basically fired me, but they didn’t do it outright, but only in the most passive aggressive way.”

From talking to workers at other restaurants and bars, Angel found out these nasty practices are very common, “This is definitely going on, but no one talks about it.”

As long as there is a surfeit of workers, these abuses will continue, I’m afraid, and it will only get much worse, since the economy isn’t getting any better.  Among Angel’s coworkers were people who had been in law schools.

Next evening, I found Angel sitting across the street from her previous spot.  Since her face was hidden by a furry hood, I could only identify Angel by her large, heart shaped glasses and the “god bless” on her sign.  With much better eyesight than mine, she recognized me immediately and even remembered my name.  Across Broad Street was the Bellevue-Stratford, and half a block away, The Union League.  There, Philly’s blue bloods congregate to play arcane board games, kick the help down the stairs and worship Satan, most likely.

Behind Angel was Robinson Luggage, an upscale store that closed in 2013 after 29 years.  Though in a prime spot, this space is still unoccupied.  When I was a house cleaner, a woman I worked for took me there so I could carry her new suitcases from store to taxi, then from the taxi to her apartment, two flights up.  Never comfortable in a nice anything, I stood outside as she shopped.

“Angel, why do they kick you out of the shelter at 5AM?  Why can’t they let you stay until 8 or something?  It doesn’t make any sense.”

“No, it doesn’t,” she answered.  “There is no reason for it.  It’s still dark and very cold out, but that’s what they do, they wake us up at 5AM.”

“And you’re expected to be out by when?”


“What about people who have trouble getting up at that hour?  Like the really old and weak?”

“It doesn’t matter.  They come round and clap in your face really loud and shout, ‘It’s time to wake up!  It’s time to wake up!’  It’s the most annoying sound.  There are three counselors and they rush the shit out of you.  I swear, when I’m 80-years-old, if I ever hear someone say the words, ‘It’s time to wake up!’ I’m going to, like, have a seizure, because just the memory of hearing it over and over again, and being clapped at, like, in my ears, it’s going to haunt me forever.  It’s terrible.”

Angel’s shelter is Broad Street Ministry, “Many of these shelters are closed down churches.  Each night, they’ll only let up to 75 people in.  If it’s below freezing, if it’s 20 below, I think they let up to 80 or even 100 in.  They can easily fit 100 people in there.  We all sleep on the floor and there’s enough space.  They can even fit 300 people in there.  There are two floors, but the second floor, the bigger one, is only used for meal time.  At 7 O’clock, they serve dinner, and at 10PM, they let people in who want to stay for the night.”

“So that’s two separate shifts?”

“Yes. I feel that a lot of normal people who have jobs and places to stay, they go in there for free meals as well, which is really strange, so they reserve the second floor just for the meals, instead of filling it up with homeless people who just want some place warm to sleep for the night.

You line up outside, and at 10 O’clock, they open the door.  There is a priority list.  Apparently, you have to have been going there every night for at least six months to get on the priority list, so most people aren’t on this priority list.  It’s mostly elderly women that I see on the priority list, and they line up at the right door.  That means that if there are 75 on the priority list, the rest of the people standing outside the left door will be turned away.  It doesn’t matter how early they got there, or how many there are.”

“How often does this happen?”

“A lot!  Sometimes I go there at 9:30, to try get a good spot in line, and I still get turned away at times.  One lady who works there, her name is Shelly, she’s really nice.  If she’s working, she’ll let you come inside even if you’ve been turned away, and she’ll tell everyone, ‘I can call outreach to get you placed in another shelter,’ but if you don’t want this to happen, you can go back outside and figure it out, you know.

Other shelters around the city are dangerous, though. Broad Street Ministry is the only one that’s kind of clean, and kind of safe. Although I did get my phone stolen in there, there are no rapes.  Broad Street Ministry is also coed.  Most of them only allow just men, just women, or just women with children.  There are maybe two or three shelters in the city that are coed.  An issue that a lot of people have, and that I have, is that I’m out here with my boyfriend, my fiance.  A lot of people are out here with their husbands.  If outreach picks you up, they will separate you.  Normal people have this misconception about outreach as this great thing, but so many times, I’m just sitting out here with my boyfriend, trying to earn enough money to eat, but a police officer or a normal person will call outreach.  You can think of outreach as the homeless police.  That’s basically what they’re out here for.  They’ll come up to you and they’ll tell you, ‘You know, you can’t sit here.’ If it’s below 32 degrees, outreach will scour the city for every homeless person and harass them.  It’s called Code Blue.  Basically, you can be outside and freeze to death, as long as you’re not trying to make money.  They’ll tell you, ‘Get up, I can either take you to a shelter or you can move, but you can’t sit here.’”

Granted, if it’s zero degree or so, Code Blue can save lives, but 32 is nothing to most homeless people.  For the last two weeks, it’s been well below freezing nearly each day, so outreach had a pretext to sweep many people like Angel off the streets even if they’d rather be left alone, “If you go to these shelters, you lose control.  You don’t control whether you end up in Bumblefuck, North Philadelphia, where you don’t want to be, and then you’ll also have to figure out how to get back to Center City or wherever you want to be, wherever you feel safe.  It’s not like they drop you off in North Philly and give you five tokens [for public transit], so it’s like, OK, I can sleep inside and be warm in this shitty, dingy shelter for a night, but in the morning, how am I going to get back here?”

Shelters are often in the worst neighborhoods, obviously, since middle or upper class people, even super liberal ones, don’t want poor folks, much less the homeless, anywhere near them.  Though they may mouth fair wage, fair trade or even absolute egalitarianism, they keep themselves way clear of anyone with bad teeth and worse shoes.  Orwell wrote, “Sometimes I look at a Socialist—the intellectual, tract-writing type of Socialist, with his pullover, his fuzzy hair, and his Marxian quotation—and wonder what the devil his motive really is.  It is often difficult to believe that it is a love of anybody, especially of the working class, from whom he is of all people the furthest removed.  The underlying motive of many Socialists, I believe, is simply a hypertrophied sense of order.  The present state of affairs offends them not because it causes misery, still less because it makes freedom impossible, but because it is untidy; what they desire, basically, is to reduce the world to something resembling a chessboard.”  Harsh statements like that have made Orwell a perennial target for many mojito sipping, armchair revolutionaries.

For the last year or so, I’ve been hounded by a cyber heckler who’s determined to prove that I’m a slumming bourgeoisie who actually hate the people I talk to and write about.  Though I’ve tried to ignore this gentleman, I must admit that it wounds, tickles and saddens me to be so denounced.  I don’t consider myself above anyone and, short of the homeless, I’m as poor or even more pinched than most of the people I mingle with, and it’s not like I enjoy having my checks bounced or going to bed dressed like I’m hiking up a mountain.  Always scratching lottery tickets, the empty pocketed dream of becoming millionaires, and if I saw a few bucks lying on the gum-blotched sidewalk, I’d knock you out of the way, too.  Finders, keepers!  Though I don’t festishize poverty nor idealize brokeasses, I will continue to grind out these Postcards that no one has commissioned simply because I need to make sense out of what’s happening to people who resemble me in so many ways.  Crammed into this nauseating steerage, we exhale our cheap beer breath on each other.  Another commenter even suggested I should depict perfumy places like Nantucket, to balance out the picture.  Sure, buddy, I’ll book a room there for a week, but first, I need to get over my fidgeting over whether to order a $1.12 cup of coffee from McDonald’s, and that’s before tax.

OK, enough of that interruption.  Sorry.  I asked Angel, “Do they feed you at these shelters?”

“Not always, and if they do give you dinner, then they won’t give you breakfast.  It’s usually just one meal.”

By this time, a young man had come to sit down next to Angel.  He was her boyfriend, Seth, a 30-year-old from north Jersey.  Like Angel, Seth was a bartender, but in Jersey City.

“How did you two meet?” I asked Seth.

“At her bar.  I was a customer.”

“You could afford to drink at Cantina!”

“Yeah, man, I had money then.”

“Yeah, we had money,” Angel jumped in.  “We went out.”

“So did you lose your job in Jersey City?” I asked Seth.

“No, I lost my apartment.  I had my job, but I was jumping around all over the place, and it wasn’t working out.  That’s why I came down here.”

Unlike Angel, who spoke in a clear, emphatic voice, Seth was murmuring, and he mostly avoided eye contact.  I don’t know if this is just how Seth is, or being on the streets for just more than a month had subdued this tallish, trim man.  He had a very oblique presence.  Unlike Angel, who spent two semesters in college with an aim of studying psychology, Seth had only finished high school.

“With Seth, it happened in reverse,” Angel explained.  “He lost his housing, then his job, whereas I lost my job, then my apartment.”

Hoboken, West New York and Jersey City used to be affordable if you wanted to be near NYC, but with the housing bubble, they became yuppified.  Opening in 2004, the 42-story Goldman Sachs Tower lords over the Jersey City riverfront.  The rise in housing price is used as an indicator of the economy’s health, but like so many other things, what benefits the moneyed hurts the poor.  I’d love to see housing price collapse completely so I can rent an apartment for less than $500!  The poor live in terror of seeing their rents raised.  A bump of just $50 or so can mean skipped meals.  Angel spoke of the strangeness of seeing people with jobs and apartments eating at her soup kitchen, but that has become the new normal for many poor Americans.

What’s meant by poor varies greatly from country to country, obviously.  Each year, I get paid $200 to write an article in Vietnamese for a California journal’s Tet issue.  Even people inside Vietnam read Viet Bao.  I translate a passage, “Poverty in the US is much different from destitution in Vietnam because in the US, even the poorest have something to stuff into their mouths.  In Kensington, a neighborhood in North Philly, more than 350 people eat dinner each day at Saint Francis.  After 5PM, you can see them lined up outside the gate.  Slovenly and smelly or neatly dressed, they are the homeless, the old, the young and mothers pushing strollers.  In the US, the biggest worry is the monthly rent or mortgage.  Unable to pay, roughly 1.5 million people must sleep in their cars or outside at least a few days a year.  Every American city has hundreds if not thousands of homeless.  In some places, they take over an entire neighborhood, as with San Francisco’s Tenderloin or Los Angeles’ Skid Row.”

Orwell wrote that an Indian or Japanese coolie “can live on rice and onions,” and in Vietnam today, there are those whose normal meal is just the cheapest rice fried up with some MSG.  In downtown Saigon, however, there is a buffet that charges $130 a head, and another that docks you a mere Ben Franklin.  [And no, my inquisitor, I haven’t crashed into either one, so don’t get your boxers all bunched up!]  At each, you can feast on tapas, prosciutto, lobsters and steaks, and guess who frequent such haunts? Foreigners, of course, but also the nouveau riche and high ranking Communist Party officials.

Most “Communists,” from a police captain and certain college professors on up, can get fat on graft alone, but the most powerful Party members also own multiple villas, send their kids to study in London, Paris or Berkeley, and vacation in Dubai.  The most opulent nightclubs in Saigon and Hanoi are also owned by Communists, and the ones that aren’t must pay off a raft of cynical, cognac swilling Reds to stay in business.  These are the pigs depicted in Orwell’s Animal Farm, but they weren’t born pigs, however, but became pigs through totalitarianism.

Which comes first, though, the power or the pig?  First of, there’s a latent pig inside each of us, no matter how meek our current station.  This means anyone can morph into a pig at any time.  A lifelong sheep, dove, butterfly or microbe can suddenly become a pig on his death bed.  With power, though, a pig can balloon to any size and become even larger than the earth itself, so the trick is not to outlaw piggishness, since it is merely a state of mind and always lurking, but to limit the amount of power any individual or entity may have over anything, and that’s true of a media company as much as a political party.

The point and attraction of having power is to collect blings and kick asses, so if you consolidate power in fewer hands, you will increase suffering for a greater number of people, but that’s exactly the world we’re living in.  Nationally, Washington has more power over an American life than ever, and internationally, this earth is divided into a few major blocks dominated by a handful of power centers.  The windfalls of cheap oil have cushioned and masked the true state of our global oppression and inequity, however, though millions have simply been blown to bits in that ruthless scramble for cheap oil.

With resource depletion of all kinds across this blighted earth, war will likely rain on your head, specifically, but eventually, the power centers will lose their grip on the local, though each remaining oasis, if there’s any, will also be deprived of all the miraculous perks we’ve come to expect.  No more plastic and polyester for you, dude, and no more food that’s fertilized, farmed, refrigerated and shipped via petroleum.  No more 500 channels.  No more gadgets.  Instead of that nice, smooth ride down the endless highway of prosperity, we will travel back in time, if we’re very lucky.

I only believe in what’s fair and sane, and have never identified myself as a “progressive,” for in the name of progress, so much destruction has been unleashed, and so many innocents slaughtered.  Fascists and Communists declared themselves progressives, and before them, European Colonialists looted and killed in the name of progress.  During Mao’s Cultural Revolution, a staggering number of ancient temples, tombs, statues, books and other antiquities were destroyed, but China’s core beliefs and aesthetics could not be wiped out, and as soon as the boot was lifted from the people’s faces, they reverted to old customs.  Confucius was attacked as an advocate and symbol of the slave owning class, and yet, his tenets continued to guide and inspire, so now, the Party has rewritten history to claim that Communism is but an extension of Confucianism, and all over the world, it has set up Confucius Institutes to represent China.  In Russia, traditional beliefs and values have also made a fierce come back.  To cherish one’s heritage doesn’t mean that one must hate all changes, obviously.  As Putin said recently, “our priorities are healthy families and a healthy nation, the traditional values which we inherited from our forefathers, combined with a focus on the future, stability as a vital condition of development and progress.”  It’s a question of balance.

The foundation of the United States isn’t some guy caricatured in fortune cookies but the Constitution, and now that it’s used to wipe the asses of the president and all members of congress several times a day, each day, what’s left of this country, really?  Just about nothing is right, but with so much vehement hatred between liberals and conservatives, there is little hope of forming a coalition to challenge our common enemy.  As we spit venom at each other, the war profiteers and banking cartel will continue to destroy our lives through their unctuous lackeys inside the Beltway.  As rage builds up, however, there’s bound to be lone wolf attacks against symbols of power, and anticipating this, our rulers have repeatedly warned against domestic terrorism.  When it finally happens, for real and not as false flags, hundreds of innocents will also be rounded up as the population froth, bay and cheer.  Totalitarianism makes the stupid even more imbecilic, the wise cynical and the brave dead. The next chapter of our history has already been written by our masters.


Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on February 24, 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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