When I told my friend, Anwar, of my plan to traverse Bensalem by foot, he laughed, “You can’t even walk there. There are no sidewalks!” Though this is not quite true, I did find myself mostly schlepping on edges of roads or people’s lawns. To not get splattered by SUVs, sometimes I had to hop puddles or even step in mud.
Covering twenty miles over two days, the only other pedestrians I encountered was a Mexican immigrant, a few derelict types, perhaps homeless, and a well-tattooed teen couple with bad skin and wearing black T-shirts. Since I didn’t chatter with them, I can’t tell you if they were going to their meth dealer, the Wawa or a bible study group.
Half a century ago, there were still farms in Bensalem, then the strip malls and shopping centers took over. Now this township is mostly an asphalt quilt of parking lots, freeways and highways, with a golf course and three cemeteries to provide large green spaces. The biggest land hog, however, is the Parx Casino and Racetracks. In a TV commercial, some dork in an irregular dress shirt and remaindered jacket goes on a blind date with a mature Goth chick. Opening the door, she greets him with, “So, are you ready to get lucky?” “OK,” he meekly answers. They end up at Parx. After winning big, her crimson mouth tells him, “You were great.”
A huge bronze horse head, muzzle down, greets visitors to Parx, and this is rather perverse, since a decapitated, nosediving stallion head not only suggests horrible luck, but also evokes the Mafia, but since Parx is Bensalem’s biggest tax teat by far, and also gives quite a bit to charities, let’s not quibble on how that money is earned. Making next to nothing, we’re trapped in a stacked deck, cartoon and ringing bell economy that is dominated by shadowy crooks.
Living in a “bedroom community,” Bensalem’s inhabitants are expected to make their money elsewhere anyway. Most commute into Philly during the day. One person, though, who almost never leaves Bensalem is Anwar’s wife, Momna, but then she can hardly be said to ever be in Bensalem itself, for Momna spends her days locked inside her rented home, with the windows closed, curtains drawn and AC turned up. Plopped on her couch, she watches Indian dramas on television or chats with her mom on the phone. All Americans flee to the suburbs to escape other people and be left alone, but Momna has taken this to a whole other level. She won’t even go the supermarket, much less a restaurant. Arriving from Pakistan 15 years ago, Momna’s knowledge of the USA has hardly improved since she landed at Philadelphia International Airport in 1999.
After a long day of trying to sell knock off purses at a dying mall, Anwar spends nearly an hour on the train, then drives away from a parking lot so vast, it has its own shuttle service. Before arriving home, however, Anwar often has to stop at Walmart, Sam’s Club, Bottom Dollars, Acme or Patel Brothers, the Indian supermarket, to pick up something on Momna’s order, for, as I’ve already said, she won’t leave the house, much less drive. Momna lies around so much, bleeding cracks have appeared on her skin and her weight is scaling up to dangerous levels, but whatever health problems there are will remain undetermined, for she won’t go to the doctor.
Anwar and Momna have two children, 14-year-old Farah and 12-year-old Saaed. Not allowed by their mom to participate in extracurricular activities or even go to parties, not that they’re often invited, the kids have few friends. One white boy, however, did try his damnest to get into Farah’s ridiculously frumpy pants, and for about three months, called her at least once a day, sometimes as late as 10 PM. The social stigma of being with the often-mocked Muslim girl would be worth it if only, if only, but then he gave up. At home, the kids watch Indian shows with their mom, and thus know next to nothing about the Phillies, Eagles, Flyers, Beyonce, Lady Gaga or Miley, though Farah did get Anwar to buy her a Justin Bieber watch, and each kid also has an iPhone 5, to be in sync, sort of, with their classmates. Anwar indulge his children since he feels guilty about losing the family’s life savings and home during the stock market crash of 2008. Farah orders ugly shoes online that she barely wears.
Anwar works seven days a week and spends almost nothing on himself, but this does not mean he has sworn off all fun. Two or three times a week he meets his mistress who’s also a married immigrant from Pakistan. To save money on motel rooms, Anwar has rented a storage compartment at just over a hundred bucks a month. Roll up the steel door, you’ll see a queen size mattress and nothing else.
Eminently practical and focused, Anwar just wants to provide for his and his family’s needs. Oblivious to world events and politics, he does not care that the US demonizes and routinely attacks people very much like him. In the most literal sense, Anwar believes in America, for even as his daily intakes shrivel down to nothing, he insists that the economic recovery is on track, simply because all the major news outlets say so. In Anwar’s mind, America does not lie. If you ask him about his business, Anwar will say, “So far, so good,” as if that means anything, as if he has not sold his good car and is not driving a piece of junk whose heater doesn’t even work in winter. Pinching pennies, Anwar never buys from the mall food court any more, not even when he’s desperate for a break from his wife’s sloppily-made and monotonous wrap sandwiches. A Mexican worker at a pizzeria sometimes gives Anwar unsold food, so that these unpopular slices, of, say, chicken and broccoli, can be nuked the next day for lunch. With whatever money he can scrape together, Anwar is investing again, however, for he wants to regain that $146,000 he lost during the last stock market unraveling, and it’s no good to warn him against the upcoming crash, when he and millions of others will be fleeced and laughed at by the big boy insiders.
Marrying Anwar, Momna got to move to the United States, although she’s hardly in it. In fact, she does not even associate with the Pakistanis or Indians who are her immediate neighbors. In a small park near her home, they can be seen each evening, but she doesn’t join them. Though Momna’s alienation is extreme, there is an anti-social and anti-community component to any immigrant, I will insist, for to head to another country is to repudiate your own home and personal history. It is always a selfish escape, though many times a necessary one, as in getting away from bombs, drones or car bombs, or from the lack of beans, rice or potatoes to fill your stomach in the place you were born. Many are political refugees, a rank that already includes many Americans who have the means, mettle and/or luck to resettle in another country.
Living in Belize, Joe Bageant escaped from an America of “self-referential illusions. Like a holographic simulation, each part refers exclusively back to the whole, and the whole refers exclusively back to the parts. All else is excluded by this simulated reality [ . . . ] The corporate simulacrum of life has penetrated us so deeply it now dominates the mind’s interior landscape with its celebrities and commercial images.” Sprung from the hologram, Bageant achieved amazing clarity about his native land, for his mind and heart remained here, mostly, even as he dreaded each return.
Ensconced in Mexico, Fred Reed muses endlessly about a self-destructive, cornered and belligerent America that’s no longer capable of logic. Hearing little and understanding less, it constantly snarls, threatens and shoots.
Also dwelling in Mexico, Morris Berman does not hide his contempt for the “stupid and nasty” population he left behind.
Though still living in the States, Dmitry Orlov has concluded that “getting the hell out” is the only solution, for a coordinated resistance is not possible when you have a drugged up, incoherent, deranged and fragmented populace pitted against a Big Brother government that can’t win any war outright but is entirely uninhibited about killing civilians, for it has many decades of practice.
That there is no consequence to massacring foreigners, our criminal rulers have long known, but they also know that when Pentagon guns are turned on Americans, a good portion of the world will break out in cheers, just as we’ve whooped and hollered as our tax-paid munitions splattered their loved ones. When blood darkens our streets, our victims will dance in theirs, no doubt, so why are our transfat asses still parked at this sad cul-de-sac as that day of reckoning looms? When you’re broke, though, it’s hard to move a mile, much less out of the country, so many of us will simply escape into our private universe, inside our various screens, and ignore, as best we can, increasingly ugly reality. Moreover, some still believe there is no serious decline, while others that a unified fight is possible.
For the most hopeless, there is always suicide. This month, a 30-year-old Bensalem man and his 59-year-old mother attempted, it appears, a suicide pact by breathing toxic fumes from a borrowed generator. Only she died, however, so now he’s charged with her murder. Neighbors said they had fallen on hard times and “had nothing left.” Not that long ago, it was highly unusual to have young adults living with their parents, but not anymore. As this trend continues, many Americans will know exactly one house their whole lives, but at least they’ll still have a home.
Should you be homeless in greater Philadelphia, there is one place you can have a private bed and bathroom for a few hours, at minimal cost. Keep this information in mind, for you might need it. At Bensalem’s Neshaminy Inn, you’ll only have to cough up $34, including tax, if you check in after 7AM and leave by 4PM. This will give you plenty of time to refresh yourself or even have sex, with or without a (paid) partner, many of whom routinely patrol the hallways. Dozing before dark will also spare you from the worst of the bedbugs, and don’t even think of complaining about heroin addicts’ blood stains on the walls, no sheet on your bed or used condoms beneath it. You didn’t pay much, OK?
In 2010, Jamil “Smooth” Murray was arrested for running a prostitution and drug ring from this motel. In 2012, an eight-month-old boy died in a Neshaminy Inn room after ingesting his mom and dad’s heroin. In 2013, Enoch “Drees” Smith was convicted of being a pimp, drug dealer and rapist. He operated from several Bensalem motels, including, of course, the Neshaminy. An emotional, at times tearful Drees explained to the jury that his heroin and crack addicted women were certainly victimized by “sick” people, but he wasn’t one of them. He was a protector, not a monster, and the hundreds of condoms found in one of his blingy pimp mobiles were for his personal use alone, “I’m a man, I have sex and I strap up.” Cops routinely come here to sniff for fugitives and, two weeks ago, they snagged an accused murderer.
A genuine social asset of the Neshaminy Inn, however, is its Bottle Caps Bar, located to the right of the reception area, with its bulletproof plexiglass. I had been told that a mug of Yuengling was only a buck during Happy Hour, but I couldn’t quite believe such excellent tidings, not until I was relieved of but a single bill by Rob, the bartender.
“Good Lord! This must be the cheapest bar anywhere!” I exclaimed at this liver tickling and heartwarming development.
“And it’s not even five! I gave you a break.”
“Hey, thanks! If this place is so cheap, where’s everybody?” Unbelievably, I was the only customer.
“Don’t worry, they’ll show up soon,” and sure enough, people started to stream in right after five. A couple immediately started a game of pool. Everyone seemed to know everyone else, and the buzz that day was about some asshole who had cracked his head the night before. Much blood was spilled. Derrick had been a regular at Bottle Caps, but then he disappeared, leading to rumors that he had died, for Derrick had always been a prime candidate to get killed, thanks to his endless series of arguments and altercations. It turned out he had merely gone away to prison. Released, Dereck promptly showed up at the Bottle Caps, but then his foot got caught in a bar stool rung, and he was taken away in an ambulance.
Rob, “One time he put some date rape drug into this woman’s drink. I couldn’t prove it, but it sure looked like it, because she had never acted like that before.”
“And he was hitting on me before he cracked his head,” the woman next to me added. “He wouldn’t take no for an answer. He got all pissed off because I wouldn’t give him my phone number. ‘Can’t we just talk?’ He kept saying. ‘No,’ I said. ‘What do we have to talk about?’ Plus, it’d be irresponsible for me to take someone into my life at this point. I’m sick! I was married for 28 years. I don’t need to be with another immature man!”
“You say you’re sick,” I responded, “but you don’t look sick to me. You look fine.”
“Why, thank you!” Pattie smiled. “But I’m in pain. I have cancer, four kinds of cancer.”
“Yes, I was diagnosed with breast cancer 16 years ago. It’s my left breast. Now I also have brain, spinal and lung cancer.”
“That is ridiculous! I didn’t even know you could get four different kinds of cancer. How did you become so unlucky?”
“I don’t know, and it’s not like I abuse myself, you know. I don’t smoke, don’t take drugs and I only have two drinks when I come out. This is my regular seat. I always sit here.”
“How often do you come out?”
“Ah, maybe four times a week. I live with my parents now, so I need to step out every once in a while. Otherwise I’ll go crazy! My parents are in their mid 70s, and old people have different habits. We eat dinner at 3:30 or four, and they’re in bed by nine.”
“You moved back in after your divorce?”
“Yes, I had no choice. My husband left me.”
“Your marriage, what happened?”
“I don’t know what happened. I thought we had a great marriage. We got along perfectly and never argued. We had grown up together. In fact, we played with each other while still in diapers! He did leave me right after the death of our daughter, so I thought maybe he had a nervous breakdown. I was so embarrassed, I couldn’t tell anybody. I thought my husband would return, but he never did.”
“So he had shown no sign there was a problem?”
“None! He was always telling everybody how great I was, and how much he loved me, then he was gone!”
“That is incredible! But how did he break the news to you. What did he say?”
“Each Saturday, he would hang out with his buddies. It was the boys’ night out, and I was already in bed when he called from the bar. It must have been 2:15, 2:30. He said, ‘Pattie, I thought it over. I’ve been thinking about this. I’m not coming home,’ and it was so ridiculous, I just said, ‘We’ll talk about it in the morning.’ I thought he was just drunk, but he never came home again.”
“Wow, what an asshole!”
“Yes, he is an asshole, but I still love him. I just don’t understand it. He left everything behind, including all photos of his children. We have two. Besides my daughter, who’s gone, I also have a son.”
“So he’s not talking to his son at all?”
“No, and Ryan doesn’t want to talk to him either.”
“I can understand why, but this whole situation is incredible!”
“Isn’t it? Like I said, I was too embarrassed to tell anybody, but my mother caught on, so she called me and said, ‘Jack is gone, isn’t he?’ That’s when I came home. I’m back in the same room I grew up in, and you want to know something else? My husband didn’t even pay for our daughter’s funeral!”
I just shook my head, then, “You said your husband may have freaked out because of your daughter’s death. How did she die?”
“Her kidney failed her.”
“Good Lord! You have four kinds of cancer, and your daughter died of kidney failure!”
“And she was only 21-years-old! She had a future, too. Jill was studying to be a medical assistant at Lincoln Tech Institute. She left me two grandsons, though, and her fiance treats me like his own mom. He calls me all the time.”
“Every other day?”
“No, four or five times a day!”
“Isn’t that too much? I think that’s too much.”
“No, it makes me very happy. My grandson, who’s only five, also calls me all the time.”
“What about your other grandson?”
“Oh, that’s by a different man. It was a date rape. Her boyfriend thought if he could get my daughter pregnant, we would make her marry him, since we’re Catholics, you know. Jill was only 5–2 and weighted 90 lbs, so she couldn’t fight him off. After Jill died, the judge gave this boy to his father, but he never wanted his kid, really. Still, my grandson is very upset because he thinks I abandoned him. In any case, I’m in no condition to take care of anyone anymore. The doctor said I only have one or 1-½ year to live.”
“I bet you’ll be around a lot longer than that!”
Pattie smiled wanly, “If God wants me to go home, I’ll go home, that’s all. I’m at peace. Hey, I want to show you something.” She took out her smart phone, got online and, with the help of a magnifying glass, was trying to find something on FaceBook. “I’m legally blind, you know. It’s the chemotherapy.”
“Can you see me at all?” I grinned.
“All I can tell is that you’re darker than me, and that you’re a very happy person.”
“I’m usually pretty cheerful . . .” Maybe I looked like Lebron James to her, I thought, but I’m glad I didn’t attempt such a dumb joke. It’s the Yuengling.
Finding what she was looking for, Pattie pointed to a woman on Facebook. “Who’s that?” She asked.
I leaned closer, “Ah, I don’t know. Is that you?”
“No, it’s my husband’s new girlfriend!”
“Well, she looks kind of like you.”
“Exactly! That’s what my mom said also.”
“So he left you to be with someone who looks sort of like you.”
“They have a history, though. I think they have a son together, but this happened before we got married, even.”
“So they’ve stayed in touch all this time.”
“I don’t really know. I don’t know anything anymore.”
“It’s funny that you have to go on Facebook to find out who he’s with. Did you have to friend him?”
“No, I didn’t friend him. The jackass! In Facebook, there’s a public area that anyone can have access to.”
Pattie also showed me photos of her son, who’s living in Phoenixville, 40 miles away. Working between 80 and 90 hours a week, he’s employed as a manager at Wawa, the convenience store, and as a medical assistant at a hospital, “Ryan is a workaholic, and a miser too. He saves every penny and hasn’t even bought his first car yet.”
“He sounds like a great kid!”
“Yes, he is. Ryan’s very responsible, doesn’t get in trouble, calls me all the time and never asks for help, although I give him a little bit here and there. I also buy him clothes.”
“You actually know his taste?!”
“Yes, I know exactly what he wants.”
“Is that his girlfriend?” I asked when shown a photo of Ryan with a gorgeous young lady.
“No, I don’t think so; my son is gay. He was born that way. I’m sorry, but no one chooses to be gay. It’s not worth it. My son has gone through so much as a gay person. When he was in school, kids beat him up and stepped on his privates. A boy even urinated on him. Ryan was born gay, that’s all. Even when he was tiny, I knew Ryan was gay.”
“Oh, I could tell. From the time he was four-years-old, I knew. Ryan was always talking with his hands, and we’re not Italians!”
A man who leaves his wife is also a kind of immigrant. He rejects the home he’s always known for another. Is it a surprise that Americans have the highest divorce rate in the world? If ditched lovers are also counted, then our rate of betrayal becomes truly stratospheric. To start over and advance or save ourselves, if only in our minds, we’re willing to destroy everything. Soaked in a depthless, sampling culture, we’re also expert at forgetting. Not only do we have no historical memory, but our personal past can be willfully and instantly erased, with hardly a ripple in its wake, and there’s no one around, no community, to remind us of our shame. Extreme narcissists, we cling to bizarre narratives that allow us to make the most preposterous statements without flinching, or indulge in the most perverse and damaging behaviors.
Oh, shut the frack up! What are you, a preacherman?! Enough with the shale oil! OK, OK, I’ll end my Bensalem travelogue by recounting Joseph Galloway, for he’s a very interesting dude whose quandary is certainly instructive. (But then all predicaments are lessons. I know.) Born in 1731, Galloway married into the extremely wealthy family that founded Bensalem. From 1766 to 1775, he was the Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, but when talk of independence from Britain broke out, he argued against it, and advocated, instead, only parliamentary representation under the Crown. The colonies needed military assistance from their mother country, he argued, and they were also too divided to form a separate nation. Galloway was a reformer, in short, not a radical, so during the Revolutionary War, he sided with Britain, a decision that cost him his vast estates and even his wife, for she stayed behind when he fled to England.
As tiny men of a vast yet dying empire, we’re no historical actors like a Joseph Galloway, yet our reading of events will also determine whether we, too, will lose everything, and like him, we might also have to hightail it out of here.
After Pattie left, I watched the news at the Bottle Caps Bar, and the huge, capsized ferry on the wide screen reminded me of the very last American movie I saw before coming to the States. There was no way I could have known that, some day, I would be cast, like you, you and you, as a collateral damage extra in a new, drawn out Poseidon Adventure.
Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America.