As published at Dissident Voice, CounterCurrents, Information Clearing House and Intrepid Report, 3/10/14:
I’ve been coming to Chicago forever, but always just for a day or two. The first time was when I was only a teenager and visiting an aunt in St Louis. Another time, it was to take a physical exam for now-defunct Midway Airlines. I was trying to get a job as a baggage handler. The day before, though, I had been at a Philly party where someone handed me a joint. Never one to refuse heartfelt hospitality, I inhaled, but somehow this didn’t prevent me from being hired by Midway. Perhaps they used the same urinalyst, piss parser or golden shower technician as Major Leagues Baseball, you know, the one that kept clearing Sammy Sosa even as he hit, like, 600 home runs in one season. In any case, I never took that Midway job, for I had found another while waiting for their decision. Back in the late 80’s, it was that easy to find work, so even a no-skill, no-degreed, beer swilling and, occasionally, very occasionally, actually, pot smoking, coke inhaling or acid dropping bum like me could pick and choose. If you could lift stuff, no matter how awkwardly, you were hired.
In recent years, I had mostly come to Chicago to do poetry readings. Though my 15 minutes as a fringe poet is rapidly flaming out, there’s still a bit of kerosene left in the guttering lamp. Gone are the days when I could be paid nicely to squeak, squawk and bloviate to a full Santa Fe theater as a guest of the Lannan Foundation, or be flown to Paris, Berlin or Reykjavik to make people wish they had stayed at home instead, but invitations to read still trickle in. Shoot straight, though, and doors will slam in your face, buddy, if not worse, much worse. When I could hardly think and write, I was being published in the Guardian, New York Times and being interviewed on the BBC, but now, I can barely give my seasoned blathering away.
So an invitation to read at Roosevelt University brought me to Chicago this time, and since I wanted to linger a while, I wiggled my way into an additional reading at Wilbur Wright, a community college. Through an informal arrangement with a poet friend, Daniel Borzutzky, I ended up talking to his students after they had discussed Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, a play about political torture. To give this work more context, Borzutzky’s also showed us a YouTube video of an escrache demonstration in Buenos Aires.
Started in Argentina, escrache has spread to other Latin American countries as a popular movement to oust, shame and ostracize retired generals, politicians and other powerful figures who have committed unpunished crimes. After locating the criminal in question, the organizers would inform his neighbors that here lives a state-sanctioned mass murderer or torturer, or a looter of public funds. Later, thousands of people would converge on this man’s house to publicly indict the blood-drenched fat cat. Though this Latin American version of a Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bush or Obama is never physically attacked, the monster will be shunned by many of his neighbors, with local businesses even refusing to sell him a meal or a newspaper.
Critics of escrache have denounced it as a form of vigilante justice and, as the outburst of an angry mob, should be declared illegal, but the protesters are only reacting to acts that are themselves clearly illegal, not to mention outrageously immoral. The protester’s public harassment does not compare to their targets’ torturing and/or raping, then throwing their victims from airplanes into the ocean, or kidnapping their children and erasing their identities.
Too often, the state will use the legality argument to bind its opponents, while doing whatever it pleases, legal or not. Not satisfied with a monopoly on violence, the state also wants to be the sole interpreter of what’s right and wrong, as implied by the often bandied about legality question, and the more criminal this state is, the more illegal, the more it will shriek about the need for everyone else to walk the straight and narrow, according it its own power-drunk markings. Talking to Borzutsky’s class, I asked the students to consider escrache in the North American context. Who are our criminals in high places and what should we do about them? Unlike our southern neighbors, we have neither the clarity to identify our enemies from within, nor the courage or unity to confront them. To be fair, though, our top criminals don’t move among us, with many never even mentioned by our obfuscating media, as great a killer of brain cells as any, and worst than any glue. Even when not anonymous, however, the most malignant Americans are hidden behind guarded gates, bullet proof glass or acres of real estate, so that it would take considerable enterprise to target them.
When faced with an illegal and ultra violent enemy, we must resort to any and all tricks, be extra clever and strike hard, for real, but most of us are too tightly bound to our bifurcated harness to do more than jiggle, every once in a while, an electronic voting machine. Geez, I wonder who they’ll let us pretend to vote for the next time, if there’s a next time?
On one of my three days in Chicago, I wandered around West Town. I began in Wicker Park, a Polish neighborhood and Nelson Algren’s old haunt turned barrio Boricua turned hipster haven turned, finally, into the yuppy bastion it is today, but not before considerable acrimony and even vandalism from the retreating hep cats. Lawdy, I know it’s awfully silly to regurgitate black slang from nearly a century ago, but hep cats are no more hooey than the hipster tag. On snowy, icy or slushy sidewalks, I then trudged into Humboldt Park, Chicago’s current San Juan. There, I spotted New Life Covenant, with its large banners announcing that it is a “CHURCH FOR THE HURTING.” Aren’t we all, my fellow collateral damages or direct hits? Finally, I found myself in what’s left of the Ukrainian Village. At the corner of Western and Chicago, there was a man of about 40-years-old walking with a cardboard sign in the middle of the street, between cars. Increasingly common across America, this sight will be ubiquitous soon enough. I got close enough to read, “PLEASE SPARE SOME CHANGE?!? HOMELESS, HUNGRY, BROKE & COLD.”
Chris was his name, and he told me had been homeless for 14 months, and usually made about $20 a day, panhandling. Wanting to hear more, I offered to buy Chris lunch. Bacci was nearby, but Chris said, “I can’t eat pizza. I have no front teeth.” To prove it, Chris flashed his nude gums. Across from Bacci, there was Village Pizza, and since it also served submarines, we went there instead. Needing something hot, I ordered a modest heap of ravioli that turned out God-awful, while Chris went for Italian beef with French fries. They looked much tastier than my red slop, that’s for sure.
“So, man, what did you use to do?”
“I was a bike courier. That’s how I lost my front teeth. Someone rear-ended me!”
“Holy shit! So did you get, ah, compensation from your employer?”
“No way, man!”
“But you were at work. You were working!”
“No, no, that’s not how they saw it. This is how it works. If I had a package on me, then they would count it as me being on the job, but I was between deliveries, so I wasn’t technically working for them.”
“But you were only out on the streets to do deliveries. You weren’t just riding your bike around!”
“I know, but that’s not how they saw it.”
“OK, OK, so they hired you as a contractor, and not as a regular employee on the clock?”
“Yeah, that’s basically it.”
“Man, that’s ridiculous!”
“Yeah, so one second I’m on the bike, then suddenly I’m in an ambulance, and since I had no health insurance, I still owe the hospital all this money.”
“So what did you do when you got out?”
“I didn’t feel like being a bike courier any more, so I got a job with Allied, the moving company. That lasted for a few years. Then I got a job at another moving company, but business was so slow, they had to let me go eventually. That was my last job. The accident, though, wasn’t the only reason I quit being a bike courier. I really got out because the money wasn’t as good any more.”
“What do you mean?”
“I used to make about 750 a week, for only four days of work, but then it got down to only 225, and I had to work all five days. Everything changed after 9/11.”
“Hmmm, how did that affect your job?”
“The security, man! Before 9/11, I could go into an elevator and take my package directly to the office, so I would be out of there in two minutes, but after 9/11, I had to go through all these people, from the front desk to the mail room, just to deliver my stupid package, and I had to fill out all of these forms, too, so what used to take me two minutes to do now took me 15 or even 20, so at the end of the day, I couldn’t deliver as many packages, and I was being paid by the package.”
“And it’s not like terrorists are itching to send package bombs!”
“Yeah, but people were so scared then. Plus, you have the internet now, and that has hurt also. Before, companies had to hire bike couriers to deliver everything, but now, they can send all these images and documents through the internet.”
“So what’s the plan now? What are you going to do?”
“I’m on three waiting lists to get into these recovery houses. I’m hoping it won’t be more than another month.”
“Are you an addict?”
“I’m in AA, but I haven’t drank in a while.”
“So the recovery house is just a way to go inside.”
“Yeah, and to have an address, because you can’t even get a job without an address.”
“Are you from Chicago originally?”
“Yeah, born and raised here, in McHenry, and I have never left except for when I was a roadie for these bands.”
“Oh, yeah? Which bands?”
“You ever heard of Alkaline Trio? No? Well, that’s the most famous one, but I’ve also worked for Sidekick Kato and Apocalypse Hoboken.”
As this civilization goes into serious decline, even its band names get really uninspired and stupid. We can’t even do nihilism right. Around 1990, I was the road manager for indie-folk Baby Flameheads, but I only lasted for half a tour. Night after night, we’d hit another bar, and there was nothing for me to do but get juiced up, through two or three sets, but then I was expected to safely drive the van away after last call. Yes, curse me all of you who are blame-free! As a young man, I made many sapling mistakes, but now that I’m older, I’m blundering as a middle-aged fool.
“Chris, don’t you have family that can help you out? Where are your parents?”
“My mom’s still alive, but she’s remarried, and my stepfather hates my guts. He gets really pissed off if he thinks she’s giving me money, so I don’t want to bother her.”
“What does he do?”
“He was laying concrete until he was laid off about five years ago, but he’s about to retire anyway, so it doesn’t really matter. He’s saved a lot of money.”
“How much money did this guy make?”
“A lot, man! He was making $38 an hour at the end.”
“Yeah, and he’d put half of each paycheck into the bank, but with what’s left, he still bought whatever he wanted. He’s not hurting. He’s loaded!”
“$38 an hour! You’re lucky to make 10 these days.”
“And how about your mom? What does she do?”
“She works in a bar in McHenry.” Immediately cheered by this thought, Chris beamed his pink smile. “If I was still drinking, I could get drunk for free each time I go see my mom!”
“Hey, it’s very good you don’t miss drinking. How much did you drink?”
“Oh, man, I can’t even tell you. I’m half Slovak and half Bulgarian. Both sides of my family are drinkers. You ever heard of rakia? It’s a Bulgarian brandy. Try it sometime. It will knock you out!”
By this time, I had managed to ingest my ravioli, plus the equally bad accompanying salad. Chris, however, had only eaten half of his sandwich and fries. If I had less manners, I would have grabbed at least a few of his fries to chase away the bad taste in my mouth. Chris ended up throwing half of his lunch away.
Unlike what his sign said, Chris wasn’t that hungry after all, but this penchant for wasting food and everything else is very indicative of our culture. Coming from Vietnam to the States as an 11-year-old, I was immediately struck by how much food was wasted each day in the school cafeteria. Quite casually, my classmates would toss away even unopened cartons of orange juice or milk. Later, a girlfriend would laugh when she saw me struggling to finish my dinner, “You don’t have to eat it all, you know!” She thought it was cute. To this day, I won’t throw away anything that may have a milligram of nutrient on it, and that includes fast food ketchup packet. It’s not just that I will eat absolutely everything I’ve paid for, but that a bunch of people have gone through a tremendous amount of trouble and coordination to make and deliver, for example, this roll of bread, red onion, string bean or slice of (sorta) cheese to (sorta) nourish me, so I won’t insult them by throwing even a speck of it into the trash can, though those ravioli surely deserved to be flung from the top of the Sears Tower.
Among the minor quirks of an empire in decline is its gross celebration of gluttony, hence our huge restaurant portions and thousands of eating contests, with some of these revolting spectacles even shown on television. We also have celebrity chefs, just like the Romans in decadence, but before this American Century, however, before this epoch of oil-fueled prosperity and endless war, people were also fascinated by the spectacle of not eating. They would pay to see Starving Artists and Living Skeletons. Soon enough, though, these types will reappear in ballooning numbers among us, and we won’t even need tickets to gawk. Too feeble to mount even an escrache, we deserve nothing less.
All over Chicago, there are these posters that plead for donations to food banks, with “1 in 5 kids faces hunger,” and I’ve seen enough homeless Americans rummaging through dumpsters for bits of meat and limp French fries to know that hunger has become a serious issue in this greatest of nations, the indispensible one and global beacon, but too many of us will keep squandering all resources as if the worst is not coming, for even as we sink into Third World status, we can’t or won’t shake imperial habits.
Perhaps we’re only mirroring our obscene leaders, for they routinely issue pompous pronouncements and threats as the rest of the world laugh in incredulity or contempt. Even as we support Neo-Nazis in the Ukraine, for example, Hillary Clinton sees fit to compare Vladimir Putin to Hitler, and Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, huffs that “Europe is not where they need to be right now. I think they are willing to give Putin a much longer leash than we are.” Nice word choice, eh? I wonder how “leash” translates back in Moscow. Personally, I think we should apply the tightest of leashes to Obama, Kerry, Hagel, Holder, Pelosi, McCain and the rest of our psychotic leadership, for only after we’ve roped them all in, then away, very far away, can this increasingly sad country be rediscovered and rebuilt.
State of the Union
Monday, March 10, 2014
As published at Dissident Voice, CounterCurrents, Information Clearing House and Intrepid Report, 3/10/14:
Sunday, March 9, 2014
I was supposed to have a debate with Taras Kuzio, but Kuzio was so offended by the first question from our Iranian hostess that he terminated the studio feed right after his answer, and even before I had chance to respond. Among Kuzio's titles is Head of Mission of the NATO Information and Documentation Centre in Kiev, and Marzieh Hashemi had asked him if Russia had a right to enter the Crimea. Do watch if you want to see this odd exchange, and much more. Iran's Press TV, 3/8/14:
Press TV has interviewed Linh Dinh, an author and political analyst from Philadelphia, to discuss the situation in Ukraine.
What follows is a rough transcription of the interview.
Press TV: Your take on that same question; of course, our guest [Mr. Taras Kuzio] said that the Russians, those who speak the Russian language are never threatened, but of course we did see that one of the first acts that the new government in Kiev actually started to do was to make illegal the Russian language. But going back to the original question, let’s look at why do you think, first of all, that Russia is even in Crimea?
Dinh: Another question to ask is does the USA have a right to interfere with the Ukrainians? As Victoria Nuland admitted, the US has spent five billion dollars in this regime change in Kiev. The USA is also heavily involved in this chaos.
As for Crimea, Sevastopol has been a Russian naval base going back to the 18th century, so they do have a history there. And most of the people there happen to be Russian – you know, Russian speakers. So if they want to be reincorporated back into Russia, then that’s an expression of the popular vote.
The US is calling that illegal, and yet it is supporting the protesters in Kiev. Why do they support the illegal deposing of the Ukrainian president in Kiev, and yet call the popular vote in Crimea illegal? There’s a hypocrisy there; there’s an inconsistency there.
It’s not as simple as Putin going into Ukraine and taking Ukrainian territory.
Press TV: Let me expand on something you just mentioned because you asked why was the US dealing with the protesters and supporting them? I want to look at that. Why was the United States, as coming from the other side, obviously, of the world – why were they so intent on supporting the protesters in Kiev? What do they want to gain?
Dinh: Well, you have to look at the big picture. Since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the US has been relentlessly trying to incorporate the countries of the former Warsaw Pact into its domain, into its sphere of influence, into NATO. You’re talking about Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, on and on, and now it’s including Ukraine.
Georgia, a little while ago, the US also instigated a war to encircle and provoke Russia. This is part of the grander scheme of the United States to encircle, isolate Russia, and to place missiles right next to its border.
It’s not as simple as Ukraine’s internal issues are at stake here, but the US design on Russia.
Press TV: Do you think that if, for example, Moscow had not moved into Crimea, really do you think the United States would pose a threat to the Russians by actually having that sphere of influence expand?
Dinh: Certainly, also because of the Russian naval base in the Black Sea. That is a crucial Russian asset. There is no way Russia will allow that to be taken away.
This is very paradoxical because by moving into the Ukraine, the US has allowed Russia to take Crimea for free, so to speak, and to not pay the annual rent for using the naval base in Sevastopol.
So, this is already backfiring for the USA. Putin, by not firing a shot so far, by shedding no blood so far, is already gaining from this.
Press TV: You talked about backfiring; I want to look at that. We know that Moscow has already threatened Kiev with cutting off the gas. What would happen right now if that would actually take place, if Moscow would put the pressure on the Ukraine and demand all the back pay for the gas and basically cut off the supplies right now? Tell me the type of effect that that could have on Ukraine right now.
Dinh: Before I go on, I want to say that I’m not trying to make light of the Ukrainians’ genuine hatred of the Russians from the Soviet years. They have legitimate beef against the Russians.
But by joining NATO, they will not gain from this because they thought they were deposing a kleptocrat in their own president.
The Western bankers will come in and loot them, impoverish them much worse because the Western banks will loan them money but impose austerity plans which will hurt the ordinary Ukrainians.
So, the Western banks are not going to come in to save them. The Western countries are not going to come in to save them. Just look at what happened to Greece.
Ukraine will become a basket base, will become impoverished, and the regular people will suffer. That’s just from the Western side of the equation.
As for the Russians, they can retaliate also. They’ve been selling natural gas to the Ukraine at a 30 percent discount. They can take that back. That would hurt the Ukraine considerably.
They’ve also been lending the Ukraine a lot of money. They have a lot of economic leverage.
By siding with NATO, they’re hurting themselves.
Press TV: Your take, sir, is it all about Russia’s interests and also the United States’ interests, or are they genuinely concerned about the situation in Ukraine?
Dinh: The US is definitely not concerned about Ukraine because here you find it supporting neo-Nazis and fascists, just as in Syria they’re supporting terrorists. The US has no ideological foundation for this. It’s just using this situation to harass Russia and also for its own financial interests.
What the US really wants to do is to bring natural gas and oil from the Caspian Sea to Europe through the Ukraine, if possible - but that’s for the long term - and also to use its banks to loot yet another country. It has financial and military objectives in mind. It’s not about helping Ukrainians. It’s always talking about freedom and democracy, but the US is never about that because you find it supporting terrorists in certain situations, and now supporting neo-Nazis, which is highly farcical considering that Hillary Clinton actually called Putin “Hitler” when the US is actually supporting neo-Nazis.
Press TV: What do you think, in general – we have seen for example during the demonstrations in Kiev several protesters killed, and now we have heard this leaked conversation between EU Policy Chief Catherine Ashton and the Estonian foreign minister saying that the former President Viktor Yanukovich was not responsible for the killing of protesters.
I want to look at this modus operandi because it appears that if we look at countries around the world, where there are some local demonstrations, usually the turn of event comes when individuals start getting killed and then the Western media has its play on actually that particular government trying to kill its own people. Do you see this as an MO that seems to be repeated when we see it time and time again in different parts of the world?
Dinh: Yes, just like in Syria with the poison gas, here you have it again. They want to escalate the situation. Some protest leaders had snipers shooting at protesters and also the police to escalate the situation and to place blame on the incumbent government.
Who does this serve? This serves the US media, serves US interests; it gives them a pretext to come in to intervene here.
There’s no proof of the CIA involvement, but it certainly looks like there are CIA fingerprints all over this.
Press TV: I just want to say really quickly to our viewers that our previous guest, Mr. Taras Kuzio, who was in Kiev, actually left the program and refused to speak because he felt that it was biased. It was unfortunate that he didn’t stay so we could really have a debate about this subject.
Mr. Dinh, what happens now? We know that now in Crimea they’re calling for a referendum in eight days. What happens if that takes place and in eight days the people say they want to become a part of Russia? Tell me possible scenarios coming from the EU and the United States at that point.
Dinh: It looks like it’s going to go back into Russia. -But what about other Russian-speaking regions in Ukraine? Ukraine is definitely going to lose Crimea, it appears. It’s running the risk of losing other parts of its country as well.
Already it’s losing its territory and it will not benefit from an incorporation into the European Union...
Press TV: You don’t think Washington will prevent that from happening?
Dinh: What can it do? I mean, it’s threatening sanctions.
The Russians also have economic leverage against the USA. China and Russia are united in this. They can devalue the US dollar.
The US is indebted to these countries. By dumping US bonds, they can devalue the US dollar and really hurt the US economy.
Europe is also not on board Washington’s threat of sanctions because Europe is very dependent on Russian natural gas. The Germans are not speaking as belligerently as Washington, and even the English, even the UK is not speaking as -
Press TV: We know that President Francois Hollande, in talking to US president Obama, is saying it appears that he is on board with putting more pressure on Moscow. Your take on that and on Holland’s perspective in general; could it backfire on Paris?
Dinh: Of course it can backfire on Paris because Hollande is not even that popular in France. Your regular French citizens are not behind this.
Some of the European leaders are giving a bit of lip service to Washington.
But there is nothing to gain for regular citizens in the European Union because why do they want Ukraine in the European Union?
Ukraine is already a struggling country. There is nothing to gain by the European Union incorporating Ukraine. So, I think this is a lot of hot air.
Most of the hot air is coming from Washington DC itself. But, it has to be careful because Washington [a slip of the tongue here. I mean Russia] can retaliate, and China is behind Russia.
Even Japan, normally very much behind Washington, is being very cautious.
Instead of isolating Russia, Washington might find itself more isolated after this incident and during this incident.
It’s very funny because Putin is so composed during this whole episode, and Washington is talking so hysterically.
There are very few options it can resort to short of outright war, which would be suicidal for everybody. I don’t think that would happen but you never know because the leadership in Washington DC is so insane right now, so psychotic right now.
Press TV: This whole event, the situation now with Russia and, of course, we have seen over the last three years, up and down, with Washington dealing with Syria and saying they’re going to have war, and then not, and then again threatening, tell me about, as far as Washington’s global image right now, do you think that it has taken a beating, that perhaps the majority of people around the world no longer see Washington, as Washington likes to believe it is, in taking the lead in the world? Do you think that Washington has lost its credibility?
Dinh: Certainly. A lot of this posturing is played up for this domestic audience. You know, it’s to convince the people back here that the US has a lot of leverage.
But worldwide, every time it starts to bluster and talk like this, people simply laugh because it does not back up anything and it just shows how out of touch the Washington leadership is.
A lot of this posturing is done for the American audience.
Press TV: Just one minute left, I want to know your perspective, your take on the future of Moscow-Washington relations. We have seen not that long ago Hillary Clinton with Sergei Lavrov pushing the reset button. It seems that button is stuck now. Where do you see it going from here?
Dinh: Russia knows full well Washington’s bad intentions. I think more consolidation between China and Russia, and former US allies moving closer to China and Russia, because it realizes that by being Washington’s puppets there is very little to gain.
The US is a sinking empire. Moving forward, it would drag its allies down.
I think many of these countries are already hedging their bets. They’re trading with China, for example, in their own currencies.
I just mentioned Japan and Russia, Japan is also dependent on Russian natural gas and oil. These countries are rethinking their alliance with Washington.
Press TV: We are sorry that Ukraine’s expert, Mr. Taras Kuzio out of Kiev, decided not to participate in this program because we at Press TV pride ourselves in having a debate, and pride ourselves in actually having two very different perspectives on every subject. Perhaps another time Mr. Kuzio would like to join us here on Press TV.
Saturday, March 8, 2014
Friday, March 7, 2014
Bars near Greyhound stations are usually not this nice, but at Columbus' Dirty Frank's Hot Dog Palace, you can get a variety of excellent hot dogs and beer for very reasonable prices, and the service is excellent too. Here, I talked to two young men, under 25-years-old, who worked in New Albany, a very swank and rapidly developing suburb of Columbus. With fairly good jobs, for now, they see nothing wrong with the economy. One is employed by a graphic design firm, the other has a window washing business with two partners.
Thursday, March 6, 2014
Wednesday, March 5, 2014
Michigan is the arch rival of the Ohio State football team. These urinals are in The Patio, a bar in Franklinton, the oldest section of Columbus. Franklinton is also known as The Bottoms. Though this name is considered derogatory, it's proudly incorporated into the logo of The Patio, and displayed high on the wall behind the bar.
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
if you donate at least $12. It's 120 photos of transportation-related images as seen from the bottom up. Many thanks, as always, for supporting this project!
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Monday, March 3, 2014
As published at Dissident Voice, CounterCurrents, Information Clearing House and Intrepid Report, 3/3/14:
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 by 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.”
“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.”
“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 the innumerable linguistic trap, pot hole, sink hole or wrong turn that can, at any moment, sabotage my social carriage.
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.”
“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.”
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 clean 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 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.”
“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.
Sunday, March 2, 2014
- Linh Dinh
- Born in Vietnam in 1963, I came to the US in 1975, and have also lived in Italy and England. I'm the author of two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), five of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007) and Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009), and a novel, Love Like Hate (2010). I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, among other places. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013), and translator of Night, Fish and Charlie Parker, the poetry of Phan Nhien Hao (2006). Blood and Soap was chosen by Village Voice as one of the best books of 2004. My writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Reykjavik, Toronto and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.