Though this may sound like a joke, it’s certainly no joke, for I’m not a joking type: When I came to the US in 1975, the very first American song I learnt was “Old McDonald Had a Farm.” Though I could not properly pronounce any of the words, and understood only half of them, at most, I sang along with all the other kids in Miss Dogen’s class at McKinley Elementary in Tacoma, Washington.
To this day, I remember one kid cracking up at me, and if I should ever see his laughing face again, I’m sure I’ll recognize it even after many decades. I’ll confront my adversary, “Hey, man, it wasn’t very cool of you to laugh at me, like, a century ago!” Anyway, as I was swaying back and forth and mouthing along, “And on that farm he had a cow, E-I-E-I-O,” I was thinking in Vietnamese, “Cute, the natives here are peasants at heart, for they love to sing stupid songs about cows,” but I was wrong, wrong, wrong, of course. It’s remarkable, and risky too, that only 2% of this nation’s people produce food for the rest, and doing any sort of farm work is about the last thing most Americans want to do.
With more reliance on machines, fewer farm hands are needed, but the remaining ones are paid like raw fertilizer. According to the 2002 National Agricultural Workers Survey, the latest available, a farm worker makes just $6.84 an hour, if paid by the hour, or $8.27 an hour, if paid by the piece (and converted to hourly). Since most Americans won’t bend over and sweat bullets under a hellish sun for such chump change, 78% of our crop workers are foreign-born, with over half of them illegal immigrants. A solution seems obvious. We can stanch our influx of foreigners, since this will force wages to be raised high enough to attract fat-assed Americans, like me, you and our in-laws, into picking strawberries, apples and melons . . .”No way, Jose,” sayeth Old McDonald, “for this will jack up my prices and make me so uncompetitive, I won’t be able to export my crops or even sell domestically, for Americans will prefer to buy imported veggies and fruits, E-I-E-I-O!”
True blue Americans are also averse to farm work since it’s seen as a step backward. For destitute immigrants, however, just making it into this country is progress, and even if they can’t stand toiling in the fields, at least they can view it as a stepping stone to something better. In any case, the ideal trajectory is to move from the farm to suburb or city, not the other way around, and since this is a worldwide phenomenon, there’s a global disdain of rural people, for they’re called hicks and bumpkins in every language. We feel a twisted pride at being totally amputated from nature and, worshipping the city, we’re even conditioned to rank ourselves according to its size. “My city is way bigger than yours!” Ah, but which will last longer, city or country?
Ruminating over these thoughts, I arrived in Pasco, Washington, and it was comforting to return to this state, for though I only stayed there a year, it was my first American home. Before I got off the train, though, I was able to corner an actual farmer, a man in his late 40s. Sitting in the lounge car, I asked him some basic questions as we hurled past Ritzville, then Connell, “Is there a bias against white laborers? I mean, if a white guy and a Mexican guy shows up, who would you hire?”
“You can’t really put it like that, because I work with labor contractors. I don’t hire individual laborers.”
“What I mean is, Is there a general perception that Mexican guys just work harder?”
“It doesn’t matter because white guys don’t show up! You don’t have to turn down people who don’t show up!”
“Oh c’mon, man, there must be some white guys who show up. In your estimation, what is the percentage of whites among farm laborers.”
“Oh, no way! Only one percent?!”
“Well, maybe a little bit more, but not much more. I see Mexicans and other Latinos, but also some Asians. Japanese, Chinese, I really can’t tell the difference.”
“Yeah, some Filipinos.” Then, “Nowadays, a farmer’s profit margin is so slim, with fuel cost going up, plus fertilizers and pesticides, everything going up, so if I don’t plan very carefully, I may even lose money! It’s hard to find good workers, so the labor contractors have us by the balls. If he’s fast, a worker can easily make $100 a day.”
“Yes, very fast, but on the other hand, you have people who are paid by the hour who are very slow! Getting back to what you were saying about white workers, I think it would be a good idea to allow kids to work, like in the old days, so they can be introduced to this kind of labor.”
“When I was 13, I picked strawberries. This was in Salem, Oregon.” An old school bus picked us up. It was mostly a kid thing and entirely legal. Among the teens and even pre-teens were a few Asian adults.
“Did you like it?”
“I didn’t do it for long, but I actually did. I only made, like, seven bucks a day, but I was very proud of it. Back then, a bar of chocolate was only 20 cents, I think.”
“When I was eight, I already knew how to drive a tractor. My legs were so short that each time I had to shift gear, my entire body would slip down and I couldn’t even see above the steering wheel.” He laughed. “When you let kids work, they mature quicker, but the state has to get into everything. They like to stick their nose into everyone’s business!”
When I was 13, I also tried to sell made-to-order song compilations, as recorded off a cheap radio onto a cheapo cassette. If you gave me a list of, say, “Love Will Keep Us Together,” “Disco Duck” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends,” etc., I would wait until those exact songs came on the radio, at which point I would have to push PLAY and RECORD immediately, for if too much of a song is cut off, you wouldn’t pay me, would you? Though I only charged five cents per tune, I only managed to sell a single cassette, for the kid’s dad promptly told him to stop patronizing this copyrights violating criminal. I don’t think he would have, anyway, since my sound quality was clearly felonious. I’m recalling this episode primarily to show that poor immigrants and other destitute people often come up with the weirdest ideas to make money, from the ingenious to the farcical. In an overly regulated society, however, this natural drive is often stamped out, and at a very early age at that. We’re bred to be cogs.
I got off the train, entered the station and walked past a couple of Mexican cowboys. Sitting by their sparse luggage, they were waiting for the Nueva Estrella bus to Los Angeles. After a ten minute walk, I saw the first sign of downtown, the Templo Ejercito De Salvacion, with some guy sitting under a nearby tree. Hunched over, a large and slovenly woman was patiently picking up a bunch of something from the sidewalk. I doubt they were cigarette butts, for there couldn’t have been that many to harvest. Against a slatted chain link fence, a handful of ragged men rested on the sidewalk.
Things spruced up in downtown proper, and I walked past Manualidades Carlitos, Carniceria La Barata, La Princesa Family Clothing/Ropa Familiar, Las Estrellas Muebleria, Mi Casa Muebleria, Viera’s Bakery and Joyeria Esmeralda, etc. On many stores, about the only English was the “OPEN” sign. Since even the worst beer on Amtrak was $5.25, I had been a teetotaler for a day and a half, so I had no need for any carniceria or agencia de viaje, but in looking for a cheap beer oasis, I somehow managed to miss the charmingly named Library Tavern, which I’d only spot on my way out. I did stumble onto a very festive farmer’s market, with kids running around and folk music from a guitar strumming duo called Winters and Skalstad.
Needing a cheap hotel, I had booked an out-of-the-way one in Kennewick, across the Columbia River. I asked a Hispanic man to point me to a bridge, but he said he had just gotten into town the day before, so had no idea. A second Hispanic man gave me directions in Spanish. The handsome suspension bridge was bookended by three homeless people, with a couple sleeping on the grass next to a shopping cart on the Pasco side. In Kennewick, a white bearded man in a dirty denim jacket slumbered on a rustic lumber bench outside the Veterans Memorial. Next to him was a raw and irregular wooden cane.
Stepping onto the bridge, I encountered a frank warning, “NO JUMPING OFF BRIDGE / $250 FINE.” Since it’s only 48 feet above water, I’m not sure if you’d meet the Devil by leaping from it, but just to be on the safe side, I’d counsel that you securely attach to one of your big toes a Ziploc bagged money order for $250, exact, just so you can square your account with the government post mortem.
I’ve crossed from Juarez, Mexico into El Paso, Texas, but the shift from Pasco to Kennewick may be even more abrupt, for only in the second case does Spanish disappear almost entirely.
With its endless strip malls, much of Kennewick is rather nondescript, but it does have a dignified historical downtown. After an excellent lunch in Andy’s, a diner where older folks can cheerfully annoy the Mexican waitresses with long winded tales about their grandkids or great grandkids, I decided to walk into Parkade, and it was there that I met Jack.
Behind the bar, colorful gambling tickets were as prominently displayed as liquor bottles, and I noticed a couple with sexually suggestive names, Lick It and Booty Call. To pick your pocket, they must appeal to the playful infant inside you. Hence, the bright colors and cartoon figures. It’s all a game, you see. Sex also fits into this lure since it is, at bottom, nakedly infantile, especially in its fantasy form. Let’s play! Bare, even a senior citizen is just a child, and will even act like one. Will you be a good girl?
The “Game of the Day” was Ale House Rock, and Katie, the bartender, would shake the plexiglass box vigorously, and convulsing her own small frame, before pulling out a ticket. Though this couldn’t have improved the odds one whit, it showed that Katie was trying hard to land you a winning combination. Handing her a stiff Lincoln, a man in a cut-off plaid shirt got five bright tickets to scratch.
Ah, it’s great to be back in Washington State, for everywhere I looked, I could see the colors and logos of my favorite corporate-owned teams: Mariners, Seahawks and the carpetbagged Sonics! Before first pitch, soldiers marched onto the diamond and stood stiffly as the singer belted, “Rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air.” Then followed a well-staged reunion of a small boy with his soldier father, returning from his imperial posting in Afghanistan. “That’s just great,” the TV announcer gushed. The Mariners Moose did his little jig.
OK, let’s just meet Jack already! With his golf shirt, slacks, easy manner and gray, thinning hair, Jack came off as a well-situated man near retirement, “I’ve been in this area my whole life. I haven’t even traveled. My wife doesn’t like it. I went to a friend’s funeral this morning, though, and it got me thinking. This fellow, I knew him for over forty years. He was always in great shape, played golf, played tennis, didn’t even have a beer belly, then suddenly, he dropped dead! It got me thinking. Maybe I should enjoy myself a little.”
“What are you waiting for, then? You should take a little trip! Just go!”
“Maybe I should. I’ve worked my whole life. Five years ago, I retired, but that didn’t even last a year. I got so bored, I went right back to work!”
“What do you do?”
“I’m an inspector. I inspect construction sites.”
“Well, I’m a writer. This is my first time in Kennewick. I just got off the train this afternoon.”
“I can’t say there’s a whole lot to see around here. Pasco, where the train station is, has a lot of Mexicans, so that’s a bit different, but Kennewick and Richland are just houses, with a few bars like this.”
“Has Pasco always been Mexican?”
“Ever since I was a kid, there were Mexicans there, but now there are more. Way back then, there were many Asian farmers, you know.”
“Yeah, mostly Japanese, but also Filipinos. The Japanese were truck farmers. The Fujimotos had a lot of kids. I went to school with a couple of them.”
Truck farming is a single family cultivating a modest plot of land and selling what they produce locally. Though this practice has been pushed to nearly extinction by agribusiness, its idyllic image is often used by agribusiness itself to pimp everything from gooey, pseudo health food concoctions to reconstituted chicken. The decline of truck farming has resulted in the loss of financial autonomy for countless American families. It’s hard to imagine what a few acres used to mean. From the 1908 Yearbook of the Department of Agriculture, “Where markets are good, the income is so large that a family can make a living on a very small area of land. In fact, 10 acres would be a large truck farm, and 2 or 3 acres properly managed, with good markets, will bring a fair living to an ordinary family.” With his truck farm a dim memory, Old McDonald has become super efficient at cranking out preternatural chalupas for Taco Bell, E-I-E-I-O!
With a new interest in healthy eating, truck farming is staging a comeback, and though we have a long way to go, it is the wave of the future, as Globalism unravels thanks to higher fuel costs due to increasing scarcity and, most alarmingly, a rash of wars over remaining resources. Those who insist we’re going through an energy revival must be passing methane between their ears each time they fill up. Five years ago, gas was just $2.45 a gallon, more than buck less than today, and, ten years ago, $1.84.
On its last leg, Globalism will continue to seek out the cheapest labor. Jack revealed, “Around here, they’re now importing workers from Thailand.”
“I’ve never heard of that! How many are they bringing in?”
“So even the Mexican workers are not cheap enough!”
“How long do they stay?”
“That, I don’t know, but I know there’s a bunch in Yakima, picking apples.”
Later, I’d discovered news stories about 600 Thai workers being brought here in a human trafficking scheme concocted out of Beverly Hills by one Mordechai Orian, an Israeli citizen. In Thailand, peasants went into debt to pay recruiters up to $21,000, but once here, they weren’t making $2,000 a month as promised, but much less, and sometimes nothing. Instead of three years of regular work, they were often furloughed without pay. Some lived in a shipping container. Some were beaten. Workers spoke of eating just bananas and even hunting birds with rubber band slings because they were so hungry.
Though the Department of Justice was notified of this case in 2003, they didn’t prosecute until 2009, only to drop all criminal charges in 2012. Unbelievably, even guilty pleas were dismissed. (Though American justice is certainly not blind, Eric Holder should be dubbed Eric the Blind!) In the end, Orian, along with several guilty farms, were only slapped with fines, but let’s not lose sight of the core problem here, which is your government’s own human trafficking scheme, for why bring in foreign workers when so many Americans are out of work, underemployed or seriously underpaid? And please, don’t feed me the cow patty about ruddy unemployment statistics, for those figures are as bogus as, say, anything that’s barfed up daily by Washington, DC. If adequately paid, Americans will work on farms, so one solution is to supplement their wages, and this won’t just yield economic but social benefits as well, for a people should know how to grow their own food.
Besides agriculture, the other big employer in the Tri-Cities area is the Hanford Nuclear Plant. For decades, it was the main provider of plutonium for America’s nuclear bombs. Though mostly decommissioned, it still employs 11,000 people to monitor and somehow clean up the irradiated mess. I asked Jack if the locals were worried about living next to one of the most toxic sites ever.
“People don’t really want to talk about it much. Too many of them must go there every day. There is a higher incidence of anencephaly around here, though, and everyone’s aware of that.”
“What is that?’’
“That’s when a baby is born with only half a brain, or no brain at all!”
“So it’s just a risk of living here!”
“The odds are still pretty low!”
To put bacon on the table, you must play Russian Roulette with your newborn’s brain, so to speak. Moving from such grimness, Jack and I talked about Lewis and Clark, Jack’s love of buying old books, Armstrong Custer’s virtue as a writer and, finally, The Kennewick Man, which is a 9,300-plus-year-old skeleton found in the shallows of the Columbia. Though local Indian tribes want him back for burial, some scientists are contending that this man was possibly Caucasian, and thus not one of their ancestors, and it is imperative that his remains be made available for further studies. If he’s indeed Caucasian, then his people did not walk across the Bering Strait from Asia.
When talking about any spot on earth, the word “native” is always relative, for no one has sprung from the ground anywhere. Innumerable tribes have washed over this grassy carpet, and most have disappeared without a trace. We’ve fought and slaughtered each other unendingly to claim this or that knoll, if only for a moment. Though only a fool would think of any place name as final, it’s positively goofy to place quotation marks around, say, “Canada” or “British Columbia,” for, using that logic, you’d need to do that with each place on earth, and even for the earth itself, for who’s to say that the realm we inhabit, in its totality, shouldn’t be called “heaven,” “mother of mothers,” “eternal battle ground,” “sometimes shaking,” “convenient foot rest” or “great big ball of shit”? Even a concept like “country” can be interpreted differently, for the Vietnamese, for example, don’t say “I come from this country,” but “I come from this water.” Water is country in Vietnamese. Though born in Vietnam water, I now live in a water called America. Oh my, how rapidly has this water gone downhill! The water has gone berserk. Seriously, though, is our water up the septic creek without an Aqua-Bound paddle? Like you, I fear where this water is going.
Chatting in a bar, my most enjoyable conversation with Jack was continuously tinted, mocked, challenged or perverted by an unending stream of background music. As we discussed the mysterious Kennewick Man, Rage Against the Machine screamed in our ears, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me! Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me! Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me! Motherfucker! Uggh!” In moments like this, I sincerely wish I had lived 9,000 years ago. It was about time to go, in any case, for neither one of us was too sharp by this point. Out of the blue, Jack asked, “What do you think of lesbians?”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, but I answered, “I don’t know. I like them.”
“That’s good because there’s one standing right next to you!” Jack gave me a conspiratorial smile. “And she’s pretty too!” Jack then jumped off his stool to go to the bathroom. It really was time to go.
Walking two miles to my hotel, I spotted a garage and driveway turned into an old timey gas station. It was most lovingly erected, this nostalgic shrine to gasoline! Then at a print shop, there were two cartoon soldiers with “Bring Them Home Safe” painted onto its plate glass window. Stripped of weapons, they were presented as chubby toddlers with button noses, huge eyes and smiling, lipless mouths. In the eyes of the home folks, our expensively trained killers are just helpless babes. Downtown, there’s also a small ceramic elf with a sign, “SUPPORT OUR TROOPS.”
The next day, I returned to Parkade hoping to see Jack again, but there was no one there but an aloof barkeep, so after an uncomfortable pint, I crossed the street and entered Players, which from a distant I had misread as Prayers. What is this, a born again bar? It was Sunday. Inside, I quickly made the acquaintance of Pablo, a natural ham, “I have the smallest dick in the world, but women love me, because I know how to listen.”
And to prove it, he showed me three beat up cell phones, “Each phone is for a different girlfriend.” I still don’t get it. He also had two lollipops in his pant pocket, so the man must suck.
Born in Mexico, Pablo has been in the Tri-Cities area since he was three, so he’s basically a native. In 1966, Pablo was sent to Vietnam, and though he signed up for an extra tour, he insisted to me he never shot anybody, “Everyone has a mother. I love human life! I don’t want anyone’s mother to cry. I’d rather be shot at than to shoot anyone! I didn’t kill nobody.”
“Where were you stationed in Vietnam?”
“I don’t remember. I don’t want to remember! When I came home, my father asked me about Vietnam, and I said, ‘It has become a part of me!’ Every place you go becomes a part of you, so Vietnam has become a part of me. It’s inside me!”
A Kennewick man, Pablo avoids the Mexican taverns in Pasco, “My own people don’t like me! I’m comfortable here, in this bar and across the street. Players used to be off-limits to non-whites, though. If you came in here ten years ago, they’d have killed you!”
Sitting one stool over, a white patron corrected him, “Fifteen years ago.”
“OK, so fifteen years ago, they would have killed you!”
Ah, the crudities of ethnic affiliations! Kennewick and Richland were historically sundown towns, which means that all blacks and browns had to get out by dusk, and even in Pasco, blacks were mostly confined to East Pasco, across the railroad tracks. Pasco’s status as the Tri-Cities’ enclave for all lower-tiered residents continues to this day, for the area’s two homeless shelters are in Pasco.
Pablo also told me he was an oil painter, and that he could conjure up, from memory alone, the perfect likeness of my unstable mug. Beat it, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and all the rest! Lest you think Pablo is all arts and humanities, he also showed me his crude side when he went after the bartender, “Hey Lisa, when are you going to take me home?”
“You’ll never get me drunk enough.”
“She’s thinking about it,” he winked at me. “It will happen sooner or later.’
“You better stop thinking about it,” Lisa said, “because it will never happen.”
“Hey, I’m not into red-headed women!”
“My hair is not red.”
I thought it was odd, Pablo’s sudden nastiness, but he went even further, “I’m not into bowlegged women!”
“Hey, I ride horses,” Lisa said matter-of-factly.
“I don’t care! I’m not into bowlegged women!”
Trying to shift the mood, I interjected, “Pablo’s infatuated!”
“He’ll get over it,” Lisa calmly said.
Before Pablo left, he ticked off for me a list that’s all too common among men, “I’ve been with a German , a Bosnian, a Russian, many white women, one Mexican but never an Oriental woman, a Vietnamese woman.”
At 62, Pablo’s trophy hunting expedition can’t last much longer, for it doesn’t matter if his mind will age or not, his carcass will be stricken down before he knows it. Already, every other front tooth is missing, with the remaining barely anchored in his eroding gums. No orange juice guzzler, this pirate look-alike, although with a black cowboy hat instead of a tricorn. Scurvy or no, Pablo will continue to forge ahead for there’s no time to lose!
Though I spent two nights in the Tri-Cities area, I only booked a hotel room for a single night. As my train was scheduled to leave very early in the morning, I decided to save a hundred bucks and sleep at the station, and if this wasn’t possible, I could easily curl up outside somewhere. I had scoped out a few likely spots and it was warm. I’ve slept behind a bush, outside a school gym, under a truck and, in El Cerrito, California, on someone’s porch swing. Yes, the last one is very bad, and I sincerely apologize, but it was irresistible, that super comfortable porch swing, with a cute canopy, even, so thank you, sir or ma’am, for your involuntary hospitality! Again, I apologize. Once I slept under the veranda of a San Antonio restaurant. Thanks to an hours-long thunderstorm, the temperature plummeted, and so I had to wrap several undershirts around my head to keep it warm. That obviously sucked.
This time, though, there would be no discomfort whatsoever, for the Amtrak employee was kind enough to let me stay inside as he locked up for the night. He even warned me against locking myself out should I decide to step outside. Also, sleeping at the station allowed me to hit downtown Pasco at the crack of dawn, and so I was in Viera’s Bakery before 5 AM, to find the place already hopping with farm laborers coming in to grab donuts the size of a baby’s head, and other enormous pastries. Since everyone’s in a hurry, there was no need for any tong etiquette. People loaded up their sugary kickstarters on plastic trays, paid, then marched out.
Since my train was way late, I had extra time to wander, and thus I ran into a 65-year-old man, waiting alone at a bus stop. With his deeply wrinkled face and missing teeth, he looked at least a decade older than 63-year-old Jack. He had on a blue hoodie and his denim jacket looked hard, it was so new. Born in Pasco, he went into the Army “to see the world” and got as far as New York, “I passed through Philadelphia, but I didn’t see much of it. I’ve also been to Denver and I worked in Phoenix for ten years. Five years ago, I moved to Boise, Idaho. I’m in town to see my nieces and nephews. My wife died three years ago. Like many people in my family, she died of diabetes. All of my brothers and sisters are also dead. I’m the only one left. I have a brother who died of diabetes when he was only 35.”
As he was talking, I could see a chubby fellow waddling by with a gallon bottle of orange soda. He was headed for the Thunderbird, a motel with a cheap weekly rate. As Pasco’s most troublesome spot, it’s visited daily by the cops. Grinning, I actually blurted, “It looks like that guy is going to die of diabetes too!”
Turning around to look, the old fellow chuckled ever so briefly, “You’re probably right.”
When I asked about jobs in Pasco, he said, “It’s potato packing season, so you shouldn’t have a problem getting a job here. You can sort potatoes or cut them into french fries. They’ll pay you nine or ten bucks an hour. That’s more than Boise, where they only pay about seven an hour. The cost of living is much cheaper there, though.”
Rudely terminating our chat, the 65 bus came, so there went another person I’d never see again, though his visage will stay with me forever thanks to photography. In fact, he’s closer to me now than much of my family. Promiscuous, the photograph is cheap, but these fading, badly shot, often kitschy and disposable images are all that will remain of us when our bones are tucked into the ground, to be dug up by whomever, whenever. No matter how dastardly or noble, words and deeds won’t hold in flitting minds that are often addled with bullshit, but calcium approaches immortality. Sort of. When the Kennewick man closed his eyes nearly 10,000 years ago, he couldn’t have known his frame would one day fascinate, inspire and disrupt. For many whites, the idea that whites have thrived on this continent millennia before Columbus establishes that whites are also “Natives” here, which means that American Indians have no intrinsic claim to this vast territory, and later arriving whites were just coming over to join their long-lost relatives, so to speak, and not genocidal invaders.
Again, this native argument is inherently flawed, since no one is intrinsic to any place. This entire earth, mother of mothers, provisional heaven or absolute hell has been irrigated with blood from continual dispute, and if you’ve been granted a reprieve from such stark violence, don’t forget that it’s all too pedestrian to be bombed or burnt from your cozy hovel, and to witness the map of your nation go up in flames. Just ask the Libyans, Iraqis or Ukrainians, or the so-called Americans not too long from now, if events continue on their current trajectory. A tireless sower of mayhem and always looking for a fight, the butcher will be butchered, and to save our own skin, each of us will have to settle on a cleaner identity.
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.