The American presidential election is a drawn out, byzantine process that involves precinct meetings, regional caucuses, state primaries and national conventions, all to give citizens the impression that their participation matters, for in the end, the lying buffoon who gets to stride into the White House has long been vetted and preselected by the banks, death merchants and brainwashing media that run our infernally corrupt and murderous country.
It’s foolish to expect a system to allow anyone who threatens it to the least degree to rise to the very top, for all those who benefit from this system will do all they can to snuff out such a pest each step of the way. He’d be lucky to get a job teaching freshman English at the community college, and is as out of place in this bloody scheme as an Iowa beaver trapper at a Hampton pool party. As for dissidents who get print space or air time, they are but harmless, distracting foils or court jesters. Since voting cannot change the system but legitimizes it, voters become collaborators to all of the system’s crimes, as well as their own destruction, for the system works against nearly all of them.
Don’t tell this to Iowans, though, for they take the election farce very seriously, with intense and subtle debates among themselves and close listening to bullshitty speeches from the corporation-jerked marionettes. Earnestly playing along with this sick charade, Iowans do get to claim the national spotlight every four years, though, for it’s here that the election “season” begins. Like a whistle pig, Iowa crawls out of its hole to tweet the worst possible omen to the rest of the country, “We have a new war criminal!”
Standing on its hind legs, the woodchuck screamed at me, “Oh, man, why be so negative?! And you ain’t never even seen our flat, featureless landscape, our splendid collection of parking garages and parking lots known as downtown Des Moines, not to mention our poetry factory farm, the Iowa Writers Workshop!”
All right, dude, I’ve atoned. I had been to 47 states, but Iowa wasn’t one of them, so it was with a clearly prurient excitement that I crossed the Mississippi into Burlington, Iowa. From my train seat, I could marvel at its one-span suspension bridge, but the midget statue of liberty was nowhere to be seen, which just means I must detrain the next time. OK!
Encased by steel, I crossed Iowa entirely and didn’t get off until my return trip, in tiny Osceola. With several first-rate colleges and consistently high SAT scores, Iowa once toyed with the nickname, “A State of Mind,” but decided to stay with the mysterious “Hawkeye State,” a nonsensical allusion to a forgotten Sauk Chief. Interestingly, the red man only makes up half a percent of the state’s population, compared to 1.3% and 8.9% in neighboring Nebraska and South Dakota, respectively. Osceola is named after a Seminole chief, and though only six American Indians now live in Osceola, its high school athletes are nicknamed, what else, the Indians. The civic banners hanging all over the center of town reads, “OSCEOLA / HOME OF THE INDIANS.” Of course, the professional football team of Washington, DC, that bastion of some the most ruthless white men for 200-odd years now, is called the Redskins. Perhaps Beitar Jerusalem F.C. will change its name to the Jerusalem Arabs once the last Palestinian has been blasted from Israel. The keffiyeh can be incorporated into their uniform.
Hissing, the groundhog just delivered a flying reverse kick upside my head, “What’s up with this Iowa-bashing bullshit, man?! Didn’t we just invite you to do your silly and, I strongly suspect, drunken song and dance at Grinnell and Coe?!”
Alrighty, alrighty, land beaver! I’ll introduce everybody to a super friendly quintet I met in Osceola: Kurt, a vending machine business owner; Monk, a retired sausage plant worker; Bubby, a woodpecker watcher; and Bill, an ex-air force sergeant, mailman and playboy. We’ll get to them. Leaving the station, I walked down a dull stretch of Main Street, past Leslie’s Dance Emporium, with its tumbling, clogging, jazz and hip hop dancing classes; Casey’s General Store, a chain gas station with convenience mart; La Pequena Mexican grocery; a bowling alley; a bank. Finally, a large, leafy square opened up in front of me.
Most of Osceola’s businesses were clumped around it, and on all the stores’ plate glass windows, rah rah slogans have been painted to cheer on the high school football team. Each was tailored to the business, for at the flower shop, it was “BLOOM UP A VICTORY.” At the bank, “CASH IN A WIN.” At the Chinese buffet, “STIR UP A VICTORY.” Though the local boys had lost all four of their games, such civic enthusiasm did slather a festive coat over this tranquilizing village.
Hey, haven’t you noticed that “village” is almost never used to describe any American settlement? Just about any fly speck across this land is solemnly declared a “city,” on government buildings, official stationery and cop cars, etc. Similarly, an American peasant is spiffed up as a “farmer” or “agricultural worker,” and an American coolie who keeps rolling over his payday loan, dwells in a shared squat, has four broken teeth left and must take two subways and a bus to each of his three jobs is merely a “low wage worker.”
After futilely trying to find a diner, I settled for the Chinese belly stuffer, housed as it was in the Masonic Temple. The illuminated array was certainly cheap enough. At the next table, two women discussed difficult, familial relationships and health hiccups. Compared to the egg drop, the hot and sour soup was perhaps the lesser of two evils, and after much deliberation, I elected the fried chicken over the clearly impeachable beef with broccoli. Looking for glasses to refill, the stoic waitress marched back and forth when not bitching about something over her cell phone. “Thanks a lot!” I waved at this suffering woman before dashing out the door for the West Side Tavern across the square. Over its entrance, there was a 3-D facsimile of a pool rack with crossed cues. I walked in.
To enter any unknown bar is to dive into an alien society, for here might be a meeting place for the local KKK, Hells Angels, Black Republicans, Born to Kill Vietnamese gang or, since we’re in Iowa, Most Ancient and Hermetic Order of the Eternally Windswept if not Snowed-In Cable Subscribers. Luckily for me, though, West Side turned out to be a most welcoming joint, for it took but a few seconds for the long-haired dude to my left to say, “How are you doing?”
“It’s my first time here. I just got off the train. This looks like a great place to sit for awhile.”
“It’s the only place to sit,” he laughed and extended his hand. “I’m Kurt.”
I told Kurt I was on my way to Des Moines, and had just been to McCook, Nebraska.
“You got any more of that?”
“No, I said McCook, Nebraska.”
“Yeah, I just went to McCook, Nebraska.”
“Just to see it.”
“Dude,” he said, and just shook his head. To flush Nebraska from his mind, Kurt then told me about his nine-year-old autistic daughter, “Just this morning, my daughter said, ‘Dad, if you don’t get me a pepperoni pizza right away, I’m going to call 911!’ Isn’t that hilarious?! She’s smart, smarter than me, but her mind works differently. She has a different outlook.”
“How does she get along with other kids?”
“Not very well. They tease her all the time, she gets into fights, but I don’t blame them, because she’s the one that’s different.”
“So she has no friends?”
“She has an invisible friend called Tails.”
“It’s from the Sonic video game. My daughter solved that in three days. It took me twenty years! My daughter’s smart, but she just has a different outlook, that’s all. She can read and understand all the words, but she can’t make sense out of them.”
It turned out that Kurt’s not a native Iowan, “I’m originally from Austin, Texas. I got my girlfriend pregnant, or somebody did, but we moved up here to be close to her family.”
“So now you’re stuck here!”
“Oh no, man, a man ain’t never stuck . . .”
“I don’t mean that in a negative way. I mean, you like it here OK?”
“No, it’s horrible.”
“Yes, it’s too windy, too cold and you have all the politicians coming through, and they never stop coming. They’re always coming through.”
I paused to think about that for a moment. “Do you ever come out to hear the speeches, just to see what they’re like?”
“No. Why, do you have someone you want to kill?”
When his phone rang, Kurt said to me, “It’s my brother-in-law,” then he answered, “What’s up, big weed? Hey, fuckie! What’s going on, man? I’m glad somebody is talking about me. Thanks for calling me and for saying all that. Yeah, you’re the only who’s wished me a happy birthday today. Hey, do you want to have sex later? Damn! I have the pill and the blanket, and a blow up doll, too, if we get tired of each other.”
After hanging up, Kurt explained, “My sister died in February. Me and my brother-in-law are real close. He’s in Los Angeles.”
“It’s your birthday today?”
“Yeah, I’m fifty.”
“I’m also fifty! Hey, what do you do, man? How do you make a living?”
“I own vending machines. Forty of them.”
“Sounds like a pretty good business.”
“It’s enough to pay the bills, that’s all. My machines are in four different counties, so I must drive all over. I leave the house at four each day, and am done by ten.”
“Which means you’re here by 10:15!”
“Yeah, that’s about right.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad. I wouldn’t mind it. Hey, can you, like, expand your business? Put in a condom machine at this bar?”
Kurt shouted to the bartender, “What do you think, Dave? Should I put a condom machine in this bar?”
Rearranging a half drained bottle, the 60-ish man drily pronounced, “You must have sex to use a condom, and none of us has sex.”
“None of these guys can even get it up anymore,” Kurt informed me unsmilingly. “Iowa is just a bunch of old white farmers.”
When Kurt went out the back door to smoke, I followed him outside and there, I met Monk. Lounging on a ratty armchair, he was chomping on some spare ribs. Since the sun had dipped, the light had softened, and on the gravel, a bar patron had parked his John Deere mower, which Kurt found highly amusing. There were no commercial signs, hence no distracting language, and there were no sounds save for our talking. Across the street, the houses appeared well-maintained and peaceful.
I noticed that Monk had on two pairs of shorts, a stars and stripes one on the inside, and over that, one with the “Iraqi Freedom” military camouflage. Though Kurt had insisted to me that the economy was fine, and there would be no recession unless the Republicans returned to power, Monk had a different take, “In 1992, I already made $13 an hour at Jimmy Dean, the sausage plant. I was there for 20 years, but Jimmy Dean moved to Tennessee because they wanted to pay people $8 an hour.”
“How old are you, Monk?”
“Holy! You look about my age, man, and I’m fifty!” And it’s true that the people I met in Osceola were remarkably youthful looking. Perhaps the sodium acetates, natamycin, pimamycin, nisin, nitrites, potassium nitrite, sodium nitrite, itrates, sodium nitrate, potassium nitrate, sorbates, sorbic acid, sodium sorbate, potassium sorbate, calcium sorbate, sulphites, sulphur dioxide, sodium sulphite, sodium bisulphite, sodium metabisulphite, potassium metabisulphite, potassium sulphite and potassium bisulphite that are commonly used in meat processing have had a holistically curative effects in curing their still chattering carcasses.
Jimmy Dean abandoned Osceola in 1992, after its owner, the country singer, had sold his company to Sara Lee. Dean is most famous for Big Bad John, a ballad about a mythic miner. “Like a giant oak tree,” Big Bad John held up a groaning, sagging piece of timber so his fellow headlamped moles could escape from a collapsing pit, but no Big Bad John showed up in 1992 when the sky fell on 380 Osceolian workers. This story has become all too familiar, all over, for such is the wondrous mobility of capital!
In 1995, however, Hormel bought the shuttered plant, expanded it and now employs 677 Osceolians. A single company can make or break such a village, and Hormel is now Osceola’s savior, but it’s not all corn syrup, honey, for the average hourly wage at Hormel’s Osceola plant is, guess what, roughly $13 an hour, about what Monk made 22 years ago, even as the cost of everything has gone way, way up, especially housing and gas. In 1992, I could easily get a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Philadelphia for $500, but now, you must be prepared to fork over nearly three times as much.
“So you’re retired now?” I asked Monk.
“Yeah, I get $1,500 a month in Social Security.”
“That’s not too bad!”
“No, it’s not, and I inherited my house, so I don’t have to worry about a mortgage. My heating bill, though, is very high. I’m thinking about using my fireplace more, but the problem with that is you just can’t burn wood and step outside or go to sleep, since it might burn your entire house down!”
An indication of Osceola’s relative economic health is the slow but steady increase in population over the last several decades. As for the newcomers, many of them are Mexicans. They make up roughly 20% of the population. Back in the bar, I talked to 73-year-old Bubby. He said, “Osceola is sometimes referred to as Mexiola!”
“But I saw no Mexicans on the streets. Where are they? Do they ever come in here?”
“So where do they drink?”
“I have no idea.”
From several stools away, someone shouted, “There was a Mexican bar, but it closed down.”
Of course, people can just get buzzed at home, as Bubby often does while watching his bird feeder, “There’s one who acts like he owns the damn thing! He’d chase all of the other birds away!”
“Yeah, he’d chase the other males away.”
“What about the females?”
“The ones he’d mate with, you know, he’d let eat, but even then, he’d chase her away if he thought she had enough.”
“What a bird!”
“The others, though, would work together to get their food. One would distract this dominant bird, get him to chase him, while his buddies would swoop in and eat. You look at them and wonder, how big can their brains be, and yet they’re really smart. They know how to coordinate their actions so they can eat.”
“Yes, it is, and it’s really relaxing to sit there and watch them. Of course, most of the time, I’m drinking a beer!”
It’s exhilarating to know that these birds don’t just wave cute signs while being penned in a free speech zone, and I seriously doubt if they vote every four years to have yet another shamelessly pompous, unctuous and speechifying bird crap on their heads while committing the most evil crimes in their name.
In my early twenties, I looked at the old men who sat nearly all day in the same bar every day with a mixture of amusement and pity, for it seemed so dull and defeated, but as I got older, I realized that these were the luckier ones, for at least they had enough money and health to hobble out of the house each morning, and after a lifetime of seeing, doing and having things done to you, it was enough to just be left in peace to stew, or to swap stories, jokes and innocuous observations. In Osceola, it was, “Yes, I saw Mary yesterday and I gave her a big, old hug,” which I found terribly moving, and I laughed uproariously at this, “The St. Louis Condoms might just go all the way. Condoms! Condoms! All the way!” Of course, having about two kegs in me didn’t hurt.
Now, it is with a kind of terror that I introduce you to the most spectacular dude I met in Osceola, Bill the ex-mailman, Air Force sergeant and playboy. Arriving in an old, white car with amber strobe light on top, Bill parked his trim form to my right, and though he turned 80 that day, the man looked 20 years younger, I swear, and his mind was revving (loudly) as he recounted to me highlights from his improbable life. Several times, I had to ask the other barflies, “Is Bill bullshitting me?” We began, though, very mildly.
“There used to be a bunch of bars around here, but now there are only four.”
“There were twelve, Bill,” someone chimed in.
“Why do you think that is?” I asked Bill.
“First of, you can’t smoke in a bar anymore, and then there’s the Internet. These days, people just like to sit home and watch movies on Netflix. I live in Woodburn, ten minutes away, and out there, there’s not one bar left.”
Besides Netflix, an early 21st century American is also kept in quarantine by Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and, of course, online porn. Kurt’s daughter is hardly the only one with an imaginary friend. How many Tails do you have? Outside, there may be war, riot, financial collapse, pestilence, record drought or fracking earthquake, but I can’t even lift my head since my consciousness has been sucked into a screen, and my earbuds are rockin.’ I don’t even know what’s going on in my room, much less outside.
“So how many people are in Woodburn, Bill?”
“Two hundred and fifty. There’s a fellow who wants to reopen a bar that’s closed down, but I think that’s a stupid idea. It’s mostly just old people out there, and most of them don’t drink beer. The young people have moved away. There’s nothing out there. I have all the beer at home, and I have a couple of friends with lots of beer at home, and they have garages, so we just have parties and drink beer. This fellow can have Willie Nelson at his new bar twice a week, and no one will come out. Of course, I first went to the bars to, you know, pick up chicks, but I’m eighty now, so it ain’t so easy anymore.”
“You can still try!”
“Oh, I have had more than my share, believe me.”
“Happy birthday, Bill!” Bubby yelled out. “We’re in the same category, buddy, but I’m not sure I’m going to last that long.”
Standing by the front door, Kurt cheerfully added, “I’m definitely not going to make it to 80. My wife keeps asking me where I want to be buried.”
“Today is my birthday,” Bill continued, “Tomorrow is the day I got married to my first wife, and also when my second wife died, of cancer.”
“So is that a happy or sad day?”
“Neither. I first got married when I was 27. She and I got along fine, mostly. She had two brothers. One offered to give me a blow job, he died of AIDS, and the other shot at me as I was driving down the Interstate. He was a real piece of shit.”
“Did he have a reason to shoot you?”
“I was getting a divorce from his sister. He hanged himself before I could get even. The other guy was, you know, a queer. I turned him down.”
“That sounds just terrible!”
“I’ve had an interesting life.” Then, “Have you heard of Orson Welles?”
“Orson Welles was living in Paris, and he tried to hook up with the Queen of Montparnasse, but she didn’t care for him. Astrid was her name, as in asteroid. A gorgeous blonde, she’s a legend and friend of François Sagan. I went with her for about three months. This is what she said about Welles, ‘Il est un gros couchon.’ She called him a big fat pig, but she liked me because I was good looking.”
“Yes, I was a stud! I’ve never had my eyes wide open. The girls here said I had bedroom eyes. They thought it was very romantic. Once, while I was on leave, I had three girlfriends named Lois.”
“So, ah, was Lois a very popular name around here?”
“No, they were in three different towns.”
“Maybe you were just attracted to women named Lois?”
“I don’t think so. It just happened. One Lois was to keep, one was to screw and one was to, I can’t even remember now. The first Lois was the prom queen and a good girl, so we just dated.”
“So who do you sleep with now?”
“My dog!” Bill laughed. “Ah, he’s a great toy terrier! If I stay in bed for 24 hours, he stays right there with me.” The evocation of this pooch cheered him up, and Bill smiled to himself for a moment. Then, “He’s a funny dog. When I sing Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, he sings along. Ooh, ooh! He enjoys it.”
Collecting Social Security and a pension from the Postal Service, Bill’s budget is definitely not pinched, for he talked of owning two houses, although the second, he bought for only $18,400 two years ago, this being Woodburn, Iowa. Also, “I like to collect things. I have 30 guns, including three AK-47’s, but I haven’t fired any of them.”
“Just don’t feel like it. I was the best shot in the Air Force. I also own 70 guitars, and when I get drunk, I play all of them at once!”
Walking by, Kurt said, “Bill was a mailman for 50 years. No one dared to cross him.”
“If you pissed him off,” I laughed, “would he throw your mail away?”
“I don’t know. You ask him!”
“So how long were you in the service, Bill?” I asked.
“Four years. I was in Korea, then France. I really wanted to go to Rio de Janeiro or Bavaria.”
“That would have been fun! So did you fight in Korea?”
“No. By the time I got there, the war was over. Something happened, though, that bothers me to this day. Me and another GI were in this jeep when we saw a tree lying across the road. It was an ambush, you see, so we jumped out, and I must have shot the guy because he stopped. Or maybe I didn’t kill him. maybe I didn’t kill anybody. For eighteen years, I didn’t think about this, but then I started having nightmares.”
“You feel bad about killing the guy who tried to kill you?”
“Yes, I feel very bad. I was having these nightmares and couldn’t sleep, so I started to think about going back to that spot to say a prayer for this guy and apologize. It’s probably just a big parking lot.”
“And for 18 years, you never thought about this at all?”
“No. I must have had PTS, whatever the hell they call it, and there’s something else that came back. There was a nurse on the airbase, and he was cleaning his pistol, a 45, and I was right there. As I went out the door, I saw him, and he was cheerful because he was cleaning his gun, but after I closed the door, I heard a bang! I looked in and saw the blood. Thump, thump, thump, these three guys came running down the hallway, and I said, ‘Hey, I didn’t do it!’ The nurse had shot himself, by accident, and I feel terrible about that too.”
“But you had nothing to do with it!”
“It doesn’t matter. He was just this kid, and he had no need for a weapon anyhow. There was no reason for him to have a gun, much less cleaning it. He was on a base and well-protected.”
Bill’s dad died at nearly 99, so he feels like he has a few more miles to ride yet on his golf cart, which he does with noisy glee. “When I shout ‘Whoaaa, whoaaa,’ people think I’m saying, ‘Whore! Whore!’ Of course, in Korea, you could get one for about ten cents.” Nutty as ever, Bill spoke of some recent pseudo-sexual experiences which I won’t recount here, for I want to be welcome the next time I step inside the Westside Tavern. There’s no guarantee, though, that the old man will be there. “When I’m done, I want my ashes to be scattered at the exact spot where I was born.”
After leaving the bar, I passed a tiny boxing gym and saw a scrawny Mexican kid working the speed bag. On the wall were the flags of Mexico and the USA. Four blocks away, I then crossed paths with two Mexican teens playing guitar and accordion as they walked along.
“You guys going to a party?”
“No, we’re coming from one!”
Unlike too many city kids, these boys didn’t try to look tougher or older, which is excellent, really, for there’s plenty of time left to be older, if they’re lucky enough, that is, to be allowed to mature without being blasted from this earth, either domestically or at some far-flung “theater.” As for Osceola, its fortunes are contingent on the rest of the country’s increasingly strained ability to bring home the bacon.
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.