Postcard from the End of America: Joliet, Illinois

The story of Joliet is familiar enough.  With its industries gone, a city turns to the casino as a last ditch salvation, but cannot reverse its decline.  The details of this disintegration, though, can be interesting.  Take two recent crimes.  In one, four people, two men and two women, invited two male friends over for some partying, which in America nearly always involves alcohol and/or drugs and the promise of sex, but the two guests ended up being strangled to death, with their corpses serving as an uneven mattress for some macabre screwing.  Yes, you read that right, two of their killers ended up fornicating on top of the cadavers, though, to be fair, the revelers were sensitive enough to place a dirty sheet between the live and dead bodies.  Done, they tried to saw up their victims, but without the right tools, the process turned tiresome and messy, so one of the women went out to get a chainsaw or two, and that’s how the story leaked, oozed and splattered.  When cops came, they discovered the dead dudes in one room, while in the adjacent one, three ensouled and sentient beings, fastidiously and exactly made in the image of God, no less, were playing video games.

The perpetrators are all white, and the victims black, but they had also been friends before the incident.  One of the white women had a child with a black man, and a black victim had a white fiancé.  It’s not clear, then, to what degree race was a factor.  Another question to ask is why didn’t this bizarre double murder and abuse of corpse case make more of a splash nationally?  Granted, we live in a culture where the media can suppress (or inflate) anything, where a Honey Boo Boo’s fart resonates much more loudly than the bomb that killed Michael Hastings, and information flow rests in the hands of a remarkably homogeneous group that also dominates our feeble protest zone, but one would think more people would know about such an iconic crime that illustrates all too perfectly our remarkable degeneracy and blood splattered ennui.  Mentally and spiritually voided, let’s kill even our buddies, not to rob them, but just for the hell of it, then why not, let’s fuck for a while on top of Eric and Terrance, then dismember them, and when that doesn’t quite work, let’s play some cool video games for an eternity.  Also, when a crime is committed by a group, be it four, ten or an army, it is even more of an indictment of the culture.

Extremely violent, always farcical but draped in a thin coat of kitsch, that’s who we have become in 2014.  The other day, John Kerry, liberal darling and anti-war activist, delivered this straight faced howler, “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text,” and Kerry wasn’t talking about the vicious American attacks on Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya, but Russia’s bloodless entry into the Crimea.

The second recent Joliet crime of note also involves a corpse, but no murder.  A homeless couple checked into a Joliet motel to stay warm and to, well, party.  They gulped so much vodka, she died, but that didn’t stop the boyfriend from continuing.  Why stop, he reasoned, when there was still money left on her debit card, so he whooped it up for two more days lying next to his serene and, finally, easygoing girlfriend, and only called an ambulance when there was no more cash left to withdraw.  To avoid any penalty or unpleasantness from management, he did beat the noon checkout time by over an hour, and though the putrefaction had admittedly befouled the sheet a bit, it wasn’t like it had been that clean anyway.  Hell, he wouldn’t be surprised if they kept it as is for the next guest.  Now, the theme of living next to a deceased loved one is as old as the earth, and turns up in folklore, literature and the movies.  Just think of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” or Hitchcock’s Psycho, for example.  The judge was not impressed by Derek Tanke’s cultural awareness or performance art skills, however, and so slapped him with a 1 ½ year prison sentence.

Already in Chicago for two college readings, I decided to visit Joliet also. I had thought about staying at the Bel-Aire, since it was likely super cheap, but there was no information about it online.  Further, the logistics for my week-long trip were already complicated and taxing enough, what with four nights of sleeping on a Greyhound bus, so I decided to play it safe and book a room at the Harrah’s Casino Hotel.  At check in, I wouldn’t yield my debit card since I knew it had less money on it than a corpse’s, so the unsmiling clerk said a cash deposit would do, but I firmly refused this also, “Don’t worry, I won’t order any room service or porn!”  Stiffly, he gave me my key.  All other Harrah’s employees were as chirpy as could be, however, for each had apparently been well instructed to shout out greetings to every guest.  At only $53, my room turned out to be quite palatial, at least by my gutter standards.  There was even an upholstered couch.  Smiling, I peeled the layers of clothes from my filthy carcass.  Such a deal, but Joliet in the dead of winter is hardly a vacation destination.

I’ve written a story about haunted hotel rooms, and before I fell asleep that night, I also thought about the corpse in the Bel-Aire, across the Des Plaines River.  Composed primarily of a bed and bathroom, each hotel room is so intimate yet so public, and in each, so many tragedies and farces have occurred.  Opening an eye, I half expected to see a drunken ghost standing by the bed.  Come, you can lie down next to me, and though I have nothing for you to drink tonight, I’ll buy you a beer first thing in the morning.

In any small American city or town, the most beautiful and dignified buildings are invariably the oldest, built before World War II, at least, before car culture and the growth of the suburbs gutted every small downtown.  The ugliest buildings are from the 70’s, when Modernism’s worst concepts have been disseminated to even the most provincial of outposts.  Postmodernism is a jokey attempt to reverse this blunder, but its very mixed success doesn’t reach small and depressed, post-industrial places like Joliet, for which the Rialto Theater, built in 1926, remains the undisputed architectural gem.  It’s appalling to think that it was almost torn down in the 70’s.

Done with ogling the ornate façade of the Rialto, I ducked into the Route 66 Diner, nearby. Inside I saw a black cop sitting at a table, and two other people who appeared to be office workers.  Settling down at the counter, I noticed a large poster of badass Johnny Cash, with “I walk the line” beneath his name.  Built in 1926, Route 66 was one of this country’s very first highways, and the song “Get Your Kicks on Route 66,” first recorded by Nat King Cole in 1946, is another romance of the open road, that most American of traditions.  Like Cash’s hit, “I’ve Been Everywhere,” it ticks off places along the way, not so much to be seen as to be counted.

I’ve been everywhere, man.  Crossed the deserts bare, man.  I’ve breathed the mountain air, man.  Of travel I’ve had my share, man.  I’ve been everywhere.  I’ve been to Dull Knife, Big Hole, Milk Creek, Tampico, Matamoros, Manila, Okinawa, Mogadishu, Baghdad, Kandahar, Tripoli and Kiev.  I’m a killer!

The Joliet sex on corpses crew are Juggalos, by the way.  That is, they’re fans of the Insane Clown Posse, a group whose music veers from revenge fantasies to kitsch, and whose stage tactics employ elements of the carnival.  Your average Juggalo is white and of the lowest class.  Working for minimum wage at, say, Jack in the Box, he must grin and sweat for more than four hours to pay for a single ICP baseball cap, and a full day’s work won’t even bag him an ICP hoodie, and yet he is impassioned about this music, and will spend his scarce cash to declare his allegiance to it, to show that he is indeed a Juggalo, for the ICP expresses not just his anger and frustration, but also his softer side, that is, his sodium citrate, whey and annato-infused American cheesiness.

Dark tendencies have long existed in American music, with Mamie Smith already belting in 1920, “I’m gonna do like a Chinaman, go and get some hop / Get myself a gun, and shoot myself a cop,” and Cash himself kicked open a mental door with his “But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”  Now, though, with the Insane Clown Posse, M.O.P., Gravediggaz, Natural Born Killaz and so many more, we’re entering a new psychotic territory, and gleefully too, even as the corpses pile up.

My breakfast consisted of two eggs, over easy, plus two link sausages, home fries and wheat toasts.  The waitress, a Mexican lady, kept my coffee cup full with frequent refills.  “More, hon?” she would ask.  Soon, a man sat next to me, so I struck up a conversation.  After I told him I was visiting from Philly, he filled me in on Joliet, “Yes, the steel mills are long gone, and Caterpillar has cut back too.  It’s all these free trade agreements, you see, starting with NAFTA.  We do have a new trucking hub that keeps some people employed, but over all, it’s not looking too good.”

“So there’s no recovery?”

“Of course, there’s no recovery,” he laughed.

“Everywhere I go, I hear the same story, and yet the media keep telling us we’re well into a recovery.”

“It’s their job to lie.  There’s no recovery.  I used to have five employees working for me. I had to let them all go.”

“What kind of business are you in?”

“I make these rip saw machines.  They cut up lumber real fast,” and he took out his cell phone to show me a photo of a large, box-like contraption.

“So now it’s just you working?”

“Yes, I’m a one-man factory.  I’m trying to build my business back up.  Hopefully, I can sell it in three years to a young person.”

“Then retire?”

“No, I’ll just go work for my brother.  He has a machine shop.”

“You haven’t thought about moving away?”

“No, I’m too much of a Joliet person.  I was born here. Even in college, I stayed at home.  And my wife’s also from Joliet.  She’s not doing too well. She’s in a nursing home.”

“Hmmm. Do you have kids?”

“I have no kids, and you know something, that’s a good thing, too, because I wouldn’t want to be a young person in this economy.”

“I agree.”

“Isn’t that right, Anna?”  He shouted to the waitress.  “It’s not easy to be young nowadays, right?”

“What are you talking about?” She smiled.  “I’m not young.”

Returning to me, he continued, “Anna is a great person.  She has a good kid.  He likes to box.”

“There’s a boxing gym here?”

“Yes, we have a really good boxing gym.  It’s run by this fellow from Ghana.”

“This town must have changed so much from when you were a kid.”

“Yes, it used to be mostly farmland around here.  Most of my relatives were farmers.  Some of them still are.”

“How are they doing?”

“They’re doing OK, I guess.  It’s not easy, though.”

“What do you mean?”

“OK, how do I explain this.  In the past, farming required a lot of labor, but with the improved mechanized processes, you don’t need as much manpower.  With these new machines, you don’t have to go over a piece of land as many times,” and here he paused to give me time to digest, and I did appreciate his effort at making his explanation as simple as possible.  “With these new machines and techniques, they only need a fraction of the people they used to, and they also save on fuel.”

“Maybe soon,” I exclaimed.  “They’ll have all of these machines run by themselves. Then they can fire all the workers!”

“I’m sure they’re working on it.”

All this time, my new friend had managed to talk and chew at the same time, unlike my monomaniac and uncoordinated self.  Seeing that my food had barely been touched, he said, “I should let you eat.  That food is going cold!”

We each turned to our portion.  Every now and then, though, he would say something to the cashier or the waitress, who both knew him well.  When he recounted that he had recently gotten a speeding ticket, only the second in his lifetime, with the first going back to 1974, Anna blurted, “1974!  I don’t born yet!”  Interesting, I thought, since up to this point, her English had been very convincing, but nearly all her phrases had been lifted directly from the common diner catechism.

Catechism?!  WTF!  Did I just make a mistake there?  You decide.  In any case, as also a foreign-born mofo, I know all too well that a linguistic trap, pot hole, sink hole or wrong turn can sabotage my social carriage at any moment.

Before I left the diner, something curious happened.  A rather shabbily dressed old man said to the cashier as he was paying for his coffee, “Can I have an application.”


“An application.”

“For what?”

“For a job, just in case you’re hiring.”

“No, no, we’re not hiring.”

“I just figured I’d ask,” and he meekly walked out.

Turning to me, the still baffled cashier said, “He lives in the Plaza Hotel right next door.  He comes in here all the time.”

Leaving the diner, I decided to get away from downtown, so I crossed the river, but my progress was slow, thanks to the abundant snow on the sidewalks.  After trudging for nearly a mile, I found O’Charley’s and marched right in for an open-ended pit stop.  It was still morning, so I half expected to find a few old men nursing cheap beers, but instead encountered a handful of neatly dressed customers, including a businessman on an early lunch break.  There was a clock with the map of Ireland, but the time was neither local nor Irish.  I pointed this out to the bartender, Marianne.

“Yeah, I know.  There’s something wrong with the battery.”

After stating that I was only visiting, I asked Marianne if there is a large Irish community in Joliet.  “No, not really,” she answered.  “We’re, like, the only Irish bar here, and I’m not even Irish.  I just work here.”

“It seems like a very pleasant place,” and from what I had seen, it was.

“Yeah, but we’re getting more crimes, though.  We have gangs here.  There are black and Mexican gangs.  They mostly just shoot their own kinds, but sometimes we get hit in the cross fire, and sometimes they also rob us.”

“In this neighborhood, too?”

“Yeah, in this neighborhood!  It’s not safe to walk around here after dark.”

O’Charley’s was pleasant enough, but a little later, I would really get comfortable in a place called Vela’s.  A cheap bar and Mexican restaurant, it’s run by a native son, Dan Gutierrez.  Rotund, bespectacled, with a salt and pepper mustache and in a gray, long sleeved sweat shirt, Dan appeared as a Santa Claus chillaxing at home, during the offseason.  Also born in Joliet, Dan’s dad opened a market there in 1953, “We used to go to the Haymarket in Chicago to pick up stuff to sell. Some of the farmers would bring their produce to the market in horse and buggies!”

From his dad, Dan learnt how to run a business, but his work experience has extended way beyond that.  He’s been employed as an electrical inspector of natural gas pipelines, and in factories making shingles, caustic soda, sucrose and aspartame.  “Hey, isn’t that that evil shit that will give you cancer?”

“Not unless you drink a million gallons of it!”

“But many people do!”

“I wouldn’t worry about it.  When I was working, that aspartame dust was always in the air, and we all breathed it in.”

Currently, Dan’s day job is as a Senior Pipe Designer and Project Manager for AMS Mechanical Systems.

“Isn’t it enough just to run this bar?” I asked.

“No way,” Dan laughed.  “It’s almost four, right, and you see how empty it is.”

“But it will fill up soon with the after work crowd?”

“Yes, people will trickle in, but it’s not enough.  Plus, I need my day job for the health insurance.  They like me there.  I keep my own hours.”

“I walked all over town today and didn’t see too many bars.  I would think a cheap neighborhood joint like this would pack them in.”

“Yes, but people are drinking less. I’ve noticed it.  And you know what else? More of them are paying with credit cards instead of cash.”

“So they’re out drinking even when they can’t afford to drink?”

“Yes, I think so.  Like my ma said, ‘People will always find a way to drink.’  Some of them come in here and try to sell me their Link cards.”

“That’s the food stamps?”

“Yes, that’s the food stamps.  They would try to sell me their Link cards for half price, but I won’t buy it, since I don’t want them to drink away the money they should spend on their kids for food!”

“You know, Dan, I’ve talked to many bartenders and they all tell me that people are drinking less, and even putting less money into the jukebox,” and Vela’s had been silent for a while, with the last song being “Pistoleros Famosos,” Los Cadetes de Linares’ celebration of Mexican outlaws, “En los pueblitos de norte / Siempre ha corrido la sangre…”  Yes, Mexicans also often sing of blood and shootings, but these ballads are so sweetly sung, they don’t quite incite.

OK, OK, back to Joliet.  Dan also refuses to sell lottery tickets, but there are two gambling machines in Vela’s, Mega Winner and Hot New Game.  When a woman of at least 50 marched in, Dan greeted her, “Good evening, young lady!”

“You know what I want.”


“That’s right!”

After he gave her the tall yellow can, she asked, “How much is it?”


“Thank you, darling!”

“Thank you, baby.”

She then went over to one of the gambling machines and grimly got down to business.  I said to Dan, “It’s funny that she expects you to remember what she wants, but then pretends to not know how much it costs.”

“She always does that.”

“How often does she come in here?”

“Not that often, maybe only twice a month.  She always comes around this time, and she always sits at the machine.  She’ll spend about a hundred bucks before she leaves.”

“Wow, that’s ridiculous!  And she doesn’t look like she can afford it.  What does she do, do you know?”

“She cleans houses.”

I laughed, shook my head, “If she doesn’t waste that money, she can drink and eat better.”

“Or buy clothes for her kids, take them out to dinner, but if she wants to throw her money away, that’s her choice!  You can’t win with those machines,” Dan smiled.  “It involves no skill whatsoever.  It takes your money, but once in a while, it will give you back a little, but when someone does win, it makes these loud noises.  At night, I have to turn up the volume on these machines so everyone can hear the winning sounds!”

“These gamblers are like kids, man.  They like cartoon figures and happy noises!”

“But they’re very serious about it.” Dan smiled.  “If you go to the casino and see one of these old people at a slot machine, you better not sit next to him, because he might be playing three machines at the same time.  Grandpa will get pissed off if you sit next to him!”

Dan is likely a grandpa himself, I thought, but one never sees oneself as old, or at least nowhere nearly as old as how one is seen by everyone else.  “I stayed in the casino hotel last night,” I said.  “I don’t think it’s doing too well.”

“No, it’s not, and it’s not doing much for the city either.  Before it opened, they said that it would bring business to the city, but the people who go there, stay there.  They don’t come out to the bars and restaurants in the rest of Joliet.”

“There was nothing in my room about Joliet, no guide book, no restaurant guide.  Nothing!”

“Yes, of course, they want you to keep your money inside Harrah’s.”

“So this casino hires a few people, but it also rips off a bunch of locals who lose their money gambling!”

“Yeah, well, the city also gets tax revenues, but I know of people here who’ve lost their houses gambling.”

“That’s incredible!”

“You know, they’ll give you credit if you run out of cash, so you may have to sell your house to pay off your debts.”

By this time, more people have arrived, mostly for the pool tournament that night.  As should be clear by now, Dan is very resourceful, and though he certainly knows how to make money, he also cares enough to give back some.  Once a year, Dan stages an eating contest.  For 35 bucks, each contestant gets a five-pound burrito, and from the photo he showed me, it looks like a murdered homunculus wrapped in an old sheet.  The first pig who can stuff all this into his maw wins $100, and once, a young man managed to do so in an astounding 16 minutes.  Dan sells around 40 of these a year, with $15 from each going to a charity.  Of course, Dan also makes a bundle from all those who crowd in to gawk at this messy spectacle.

Leaving Vela’s, I walked to the train station and on the way, passed a mural of Bill Sudakis.  Playing eight years in the Majors, Sudakis managed to bat just .234, but did hit 14, 14 and 15 home runs in three separate seasons.  If he’s remembered at all these days by anybody, it’s for a hotel brawl with a Yankee teammate.  Early in his career, Sudakis was switched from third base to catcher, a decision which may have wrecked his knees, so he was probably misused and ruined, but that’s just life, kid.  Suck it!

Not every town can produce a hall-of-famer, so Joliet’s baseball hero is merely Bill Sudakis, but even there he’s barely seen, for his likeness is shoved under an overpass, behind some columns and, to make matters worse, someone has drawn a huge phallus jutting from his crotch, so there Bill stands, erect yet forgotten, showing cracks and peeling, like Joliet itself, like so many other wrecked and neglected places in this insane clown posse nation.


Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on March 3, 2014, 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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