Postcard from the End of America: Passyunk Square, Philadephia

PHILADELPHIA

Writing this piece, I didn’t have to get on any bus or train, but only walk five minutes to see Beth, someone I first met 28 years ago.  Most lives are improbable, I know, but when I listen to Beth talk, I often find myself thinking, That can’t possibly be true, but her facts have always checked out, and her stories consistent, even on a retelling many years later.

Consider her three husbands.  The first, Hayato, was a “sort of a sex champion,” Beth told me, and since I found such a designation bizarre, I dismissed the idea that she had a Japanese spouse at all, but then Beth showed me photos of herself in Tokyo, next to Hayato on his death bed, praying at a temple or in a sauna with a bunch of Japanese women, etc.  Hayato had been divorced for nine years by the time he married Beth, but when she showed up in Japan, Hayato’s ex wife managed to corner the younger American to whack her several times on the back with a rod.  “This is how the women treat each other in Japan.  It’s true.  This is what they do when there are no witnesses.”  For aesthetic reason, Beth had decided to study Japanese, and it was her tutor that had introduced her to Hayato.  After living in Philly for five years, they only went to Japan so Hayato could see his two daughters before dying of cancer.

Her second husband, Eduardo, was from Venezuela, and they had found each other at a Cat Stevens fan club’s event.  He had to fly in from Caracas.  An international pow wow of Cat Stevens nuts?  Give me a freakin’ break, I thought, but then Beth pulled up a MySpace page that had all these Cat Stevenish tracks they had recorded together.  “That’s good.  Lay your heartache down.  After all, we’ve made it through.”  “There’s a train under my feet, where the bricks have all slit down.  All the factories are deserted, on the lonely side of town.”  Although they were both into soft rock, Eduardo turned out to be a violent brute, so after so many bruises, Beth had to cut loose.

With her third, and current, husband, Farooq, we’re entering the End of America territory proper, for the details of their life are very telling about the cracked state of our union.  A doctor in Pakistan, Farooq came to the US four years ago.  While working as a waiter in an Indian restaurant, Farooq met Beth, but after they married, he was hired by Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn, so he’s up there nearly all the time, while she stays in Philly to tend to her new café.  Beth also does office work for a start-up energy company.

Already, I’ve introduced you to three immigrants, Hayato, Eduardo and Farooq, and one refugee, Beth, but how is she a refugee?  What is Beth fleeing from?  Her Americanness, of course.  Further, immigrants and refugees are overlapping categories, with each immigrant also a refugee to some degree, and even a tourist is a temporary refugee.  In Cassavetes’ Husbands, three middle-aged Americans impulsively fly to London to escape their wives, kids, homes and mortality, but as weekend refugees in the UK, they’re also immigrants since they’re desperately searching for something better, which in their case is nothing less than sexual renewal.  What they get instead are painfully atrocious conversations that lift no spirit, feed no soul but, being so true to life, only confirm the director’s genius.

With two jobs and a business, you’d think Beth and Farooq are doing OK, but he’s only making $12 an hour, as a house doctor, no less, and she $11 an hour, and this 20-hour-a-week gig, Beth only got after beating out 97 other applicants.  As for the café, it has lost $16,000 during its first year.

“They say it takes three to five years to build up a restaurant, but in this economy, it will take five to seven years.”

“But you’re losing more than a thousand every month!”

“I want to be my own boss.”

“How much are you paying in rent?”

“$700.”

“That’s so cheap!”

“Yes, but we’re also renting two apartments.  Farooq was paying $1,450 a month in Bath Beach.  That was the cheapest we could find.  Now he’s in this shared space in Borough Park, the most Jewish part of Brooklyn.  It’s funny that this old Jewish lady is renting to a bunch of Muslims!”

“How many people are in there?”

“Five, Farooq and four taxi drivers.”

“So how much space does he get?”

“He’s in the living room, on an air mattress, next to a loud TV.  Another guy sleeps there too.”

“So if the others are watching TV, Farooq can’t sleep?”

“My husband can sleep through anything.  He’s exhausted by the end of his 24-hour shift.  It’s really horrible, people don’t know.”

In middle-age, Beth’s face has gotten a bit rounder, and her blonde hair is now always covered by a cheery headscarf, in casual observance of her new religion.  She still speaks in an excited voice, however, and laughs readily.  I’ve never met her husband, but in a photograph, the younger man appears very mellow.

Tiny, Beth’s café only has eight chairs at one table and two brief counters, though in the summer, another table is placed outside.  The walls are smartly decorated with paper plates featuring drawings and praises from customers, many of them foreign.  “Ngon Wá.”  “Même au Québec, il n’y a pas meilleur!”  Arabian Nights and three Krishnamurti books rest among a purple glass fish on the window ledge.  On this last day of December, it was warm enough for the door to be open.  Out of season, sunshine itself alarms, and this entire world seems to be melting.

“Beth, I find it hard to believe your husband is only making $12 an hour.  That’s less than what a nurse makes.”

“They can pay him that because he’s international.”

Foreign doctors and nurses are allowed into the US to knock wages down, but none of this saving is passed on to American patients, for our healthcare is by far the most extortionary in the world.  A night on an American hospital bed will cost you $2,000, and that’s without any treatment.  If you need stitches, be prepared to pay $500 per jab.  Once I saw a man slipped in a shopping mall.  As several onlookers came to his assistance, he waved them off and staggered out, holding his bleeding head.  He was apparently terrified someone would call an ambulance and bankrupt him.  Draining brains from poor foreign countries while sucking blood from this one, our healthcare racket dreams of a day when all doctors will be imported and paid next to nothing.  After a marathon shift, they can curl up on reed mats in flop houses, and anyone who bitches during his, say, ten-year probation will be promptly deported.  Farooq ain’t complaining, though, because fresh off the Boeing, he has a job, wife and hope while many natives have none of the above.

If only business at the café would pick up, though.  In spite of many rave reviews on Yelp, only two customers came in during the 1 ½ hour I sat chatting with Beth, and one bought just a token can of Coke after using the bathroom.  Yelp has been bugging Beth to advertise.  “How much do they want?” I asked.

“$299 a month.  I’m not going to pay that!  They manipulate the reviews.  They’re crooks!”

“What do you mean?”

“If you don’t advertise, they’ll bury your five-star reviews or even erase them, but if you pay, they’ll hide your negative reviews.”

“That’s criminal!”

“Yes, it is, and they’ve been sued too.  What’s worse is, they distort the relationship you have with your customer.  Before, if a customer needed something, they’d just talk to you, there is a relationship, but now, they publicly complain on Yelp, without talking to you.  Or, they’re totally unreasonable.  Like I explained to this one woman, my electricity was out, so I lost $500 of food, bulk items, and I actually didn’t have the money to buy ham and swiss cheese.  I explained to this one woman that I had everything else, chicken tikka masala, bacon, paneer, whatever, just not ham and swiss, but she kept saying, ‘I want ham!’”

“What a psycho!”

“No, I think she was a Yelper, an Elite Yelper.  They have a lot of power because they can just go online, slander you and destroy your business!  I can usually spot Elite Yelpers because they hardly say anything, they huddle, and they walk all over.  One woman got behind me behind the counter!”

“Is there coordination between Yelp and these Yelpers.”

“I don’t think so, but the ones who post a lot of reviews get perks.  They get discounts, meals, membership to things.  They get invited to parties.”

“So these Elite Yelpers are like enforcers.”

“Totally!  They can knock you down, so you’ll have to pay Yelp to salvage your reputation!”

Online, there are hundreds of posts branding Yelp an extortion racket, but the company made $233 million in 2013, nearly quadruple its take from 2009, so it can certainly absorb thousands of choleric yelps, unlike the small businesses it holds hostage.  An outfit that appears to give you access to the local is in fact distorting or even destroying what’s on the ground, all to make truckloads of cash without producing anything, but this is typical of our new economy, where giant, rootless parasites feast on the littlest people.

Those who flee from bosses are not just economic but political refugees, so of course they’d bristle at being shaken down by a faraway snake like Yelp’s Jeremy Stoppelman.  As for those who wander the sidewalks pushing loosies, socks, roses, T-bone steaks or merely a song, they must sometimes tussle with overzealous cops.

Within a few blocks of Beth’s café, there are still dozens of small businesses, mostly eateries, and except for a Dunkin’ Donuts, there are no chains here, for they can’t compete with the more carefully prepared food from the many cheesesteak joints, hoagie shops, pizzerie, taquerias or fancier ristoranti.  Recent decades have brought more Asians, Mexicans, hipsters and queers, but it’s still essentially old school Italian.  Across the street from me, unassuming Iannelli Bakery has been around since 1910, and strolling by on my way to Beth’s, I could hear Roberto Murolo crooning softly from its small outdoor speaker.  What a romantic voice, but it’s no love ballad, however, but a fuck you, post-divorce dart, “Femmena, si tu peggio ‘e na vipera.”  Woman, you’re worse than a viper.  Basically, it’s a Napolitano precursor to “American Woman,” and to balance the scale a bit, consider “Mal Hombre,” which is best in Lydia Mendoza’s version.

When not losing her mind over Elite Yelpers, Beth has to deal with her thieving upstairs neighbors.  Waiting until she’s busy, they’d rush in to grab a few cans of sodas while tossing her just a dollar.  They also toss trash bags from a second floor window into a neighbor’s back yard.  “The first time I met them, they told me they were Greeks, but I knew they were Romas,” Beth laughed.  “I actually said it, ‘You guys are Romas!’”

Always very resourceful and versatile, Beth will survive one way or another, I’m sure.  She’s made money from operating a rap recording studio, starting a line of ski gloves, made in China, and, get this, ghost writing papers, theses and even dissertations for Japanese and Korean students at UPenn, Drexel, St. Joseph and Temple.  For someone who’s never gone to college, Beth has racked up half a dozen PhDs or so, but only for other people.

“I wrote about Hegel, city planning, Frank Lloyd Wright.  I did the morphology of idea in Robert Venturi, the postmodern architect.  I did Stanislavsky in the Korean theater.  I did a master thesis about the airline industry.  Overnight, I wrote about food marketing.”

“Overnight?!”

“Yes, I can write very fast.  It just flows out.  I’ve observed a lot and know what’s cutting edge about many things.”

“But you can’t write a dissertation about Hegel without doing some serious studying!”

“I can, I’m totally serious, because I have this whole background of reading and philosophy.  In junior high, I was already reading John Stuart Mill and a lot of very advanced stuff for a kid.”

“So did you get paid well, at least?”

“No, I gave them a very reasonable price, 12 bucks an hour.  I wanted steady work.  I also enjoyed being paid to learn, and I loved the chance to get my ideas into these institutions, you know, without having anything to do with academics.  If I was doing it now, I’d charge ten times as much.”

“Did you lift stuff, plagiarize in any way?”

“No, never.”

I’ve written about American universities as unscrupulous purveyors of debts and jive, but here you have deception coming from the students’ side.  Still, there’s no way a hastily typed dissertation by someone who’s not deeply familiar with the subject should ever pass muster unless there’s negligence on the part of greedy universities.  Foreign students don’t just pay full tuition but are often docked additional fees, and since many are children of the elites, they spend extravagantly while here.  Unlike some actual kids I’ve known, they don’t have to work three jobs, shoplift or dance naked to get an education.  In 2011, international students pumped $21 billion into the supine American economy.

After a trip to the Yucatan, Beth also decided to compile a Mayan/English phrase book.  With a native speaker, she spent years on this project, and the result, unpublished as yet, runs to 141-pages.  “I’m not too well today” is “Ma’ jach uts yanilken be’ele,” and pronounced as “Mah hach oots yanilken be-elay.”  “My head hurts” is “Yaj in pool.”  As with so many other things Bethian, this book sounded so unlikely until I saw it.

Born in Vineland, New Jersey, Beth has persistently sought out the foreign and reinvented herself many times. Though escaping her Americanness, she’s also intensely American, however, for there is nothing more us than the stubborn notion that a new, improved self is always possible, and the catalyst might just be that new job, lover, wardrobe, cosmetic surgery, self help book or lottery ticket, etc.  On a national level, many believe a reversal of fortune will kick-start if only the right savior is elected, so as our despair becomes ever more acute, our delirium over any propped up messiah will only turn more obscene.  Already, “hope” has been thoroughly caked with bullshit.

With such an amnesiac past and chimeric present, an American has no ground under him, so he’s never at peace.  Eternally restless, he’s always itching to violate borders and limits, so it’s only appropriate that he’d park his Abrams tank in the middle of an alien neighborhood in a country he’s only heard about yesterday.  Most casually, he pops a Coors Lite as he points a 120mm gun at someone’s grandma.  There’s no time for scruples, however, for the entire world exists only to help him grow, though to mature, he might have to lose everything below his mon pubis, as well as the top half of his head.  Though mostly stuffed with dumb songs and dumber slogans, with a biblical verse wedged sideway, it’s still useful as a holder for his kickass baseball cap.

2015 has just begun, and each New Year, I hear less fireworks around midnight.  Each Christmas has also become more morose.  Philadelphia’s huge downtown shopping mall, The Gallery, will shut down by the end of January after 38 years.  To evade overdue back rents, many tenants have already bolted, however.  Interestingly, Philly’s newspapers haven’t leaked a word about this financial collapse, but then again, not a day goes by without a mess of upbeat economic ejaculations from the national media.  Constantly splattered with so much phony optimism, I might just think the gloom I perceive is strictly local, but since I’ve crisscrossed this country repeatedly over the last several years, and have talked to countless Americans, I know for certain the strident cheerfulness is nothing but a sick soundtrack that bears no relation to reality.

Among the merchants who will vacate The Gallery is my friend, Anwar.  Like Farooq, he’s also from Pakistan.  I’ve written about Anwar, but basically, he’s an insanely hardworking small businessman who lost both his house and $146,000, his life savings, during the 2008 stock market crash.  Traumatized, he swore to never touch Wall Street again, but as the Dow gradually resumed its levitation, Anwar ignored my warning that it’s all rigged and dove back in.  Determined to decipher the market, Anwar has jotted down, almost minute by minute, its cryptic fluctuations for at least half a year, and the result are reams of bizarre charts that don’t add up to anything and clearly haven’t helped him, for Anwar has lost at least another $10,000.  Do look at samples of Anwar’s charts and tell me my friend hasn’t cracked.

Meanwhile, Anwar’s business has continued to nosedive, and he’s lost money for seven straight Christmases, since his rent is tripled during the holiday months.  On his worst days, Anwar’s eyes are red as he babbles about suicide, “And I wouldn’t want my wife and children to suffer either.”

No refugee from drone strikes, Anwar is merely an economic immigrant, but the opportunities he found so ample even a decade ago have been turned into dust, and stripped of nearly everything, Anwar feels as naked as when he arrived.  Millions of natives, however, are just as shorn, or about to become so, and in this raw state, will have no choice but to escape en masse as American refugees.  Soon, even you will know what it’s like to flee with nothing but your asshole, and I also mean you, the insolent, niggling hypocrite with all the correct opinions!  Do you have a hypothetical destination?  Have you bought a phrase book?  Many of us, though, will merely go underground.

 

Image Credit: www.city-data.com

Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on January 1, 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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