The sixteen-year-old’s consciousness was percussive with recorded music, as usual, when the train slammed into him, and it’s not clear, even now, if it was suicide or merely absentmindedness that killed this boy. (To have your inner life constantly stunted or suffocated is already a form of death, but had he lived, this incipient man may have eventually outgrown his three-chord addiction.)
Home in Taylor, PA, Chuck Orloski was already in bed when he received the call to drive four hours to that ghastly site where it was his job to clean up the unholy mess. Like a mortifying penitent in an impossibly long church, Chuck knelt on lumpy or jagged track ballast and inched along for half a mile to pick up five perfectly aligned teeth still embedded in gums, a spleen and so many other bloody bits as his supervisor stood over him with a flash light. It took eight hours to scrounge all that could be salvaged from this exploded human form. Ah, but the pay was half-decent! Or $23.75 an hour, to be exact.
On another occasion, Chuck and his co-workers removed blood-splattered boxes of frozen, crinkle cut French fries that had tumbled out of a tractor trailer lying on its side, mangled, at the bottom of a leafy embankment. There is so much fluid inside each of us. It was football season and Penn State won that weekend, if memory serves. The dead driver was a 70-year-old man who had lived in his cab. Wifeless, he covered his personal space with naked crotch shots of various ladies. What others hazily consign to mental albums, he made concrete and permanent, or at least much more so than his flesh. Staring nostalgically at a Kodak labial flare, did the pay-by-the-half-hour Don Juan even recall the smoky, drunken or drugged smile that came with it? Nodding off at the wheel, perhaps he was dreaming of a truck stop angel.
A constant phrase among Chuck and his co-workers was, “Eat some shit!” This rallying cry steeled them as they dealt with yet another toxic or bloody horror. “Eat some shit!” they’d grumble at each other as they tried to remove a chemical spill from the freeway or the lovely suicide’s splattered brains from a motel bed, floor and wall. Heading to a hellish scene, Chuck often clutched his rosary. Knowing it wasn’t easy to find another job that paid $23.75 an hour, Chuck toughed it out and tried his best to ignore the abusive and, at times, psychotically menacing behavior from two of his bosses, but what else could he do? Like employees everywhere, Chuck just ate shit and grinned. In March, however, they fired him anyway.
Chuck emailed me, “The termination is actually a ‘mercy killing’ of sort. Two decades of 24/7 emergency responses have gotten the best of my mental health, and the ruthless branch manager took every shot he could at me. At age 62, in life’s 9th inning, I can start collecting Social Security and maybe unemployment money for a while—must learn how the freaking system works.”
A month later, Chuck reported, “I am looking at PA Employment office training to become a ‘Certified Nursing Aide.’ The State will pay the full-cost for this, capped @ $5,000. Colleges charge on average $30,000 to become a Licensed Practical Nurse, and at age 62, it makes little sense to take a college loan for this endeavor. I’d really like to do something to help people; make some money, and IDEALLY of course, avoid management tyrants. If this nursing deal does not pan out, I plan to get a bus driver endorsement on my Class B Commercial Driver License. Anything but re-entering life as a 24/7 emergency spill responder. F#@uck that.”
Alas, Chuck became a school bus driver, but this happy ending is blighted by the fact that his pay is just over a quarter of what it used to be, and when there’s a snow day, Chuck doesn’t get paid at all. Such jobs used to be unionized and well-compensated, but in today’s economy, a man must leap at any bone that’s flung his way. Meanwhile, Chuck’s wife, Carol, is still stricken by rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and carpal tunnel syndrome. For four decades, Carol was a waitress.
With jobs so scarce, workers have even less leverage against asshole bosses or managers, and starting one’s own business is hardly a solution, considering how many of them have been wiped out by huge corporations. On Main Streets across America, countless mom and pops are left vacant or replaced by chain stores.
A year and a half ago, I went to see the Orloskis, stayed at their house and wrote about it. Chuck told me much about Scranton and Taylor, recounted his father’s life as a coal miner and even took me to see his mother-in-law, Florence, who had spent half a century as a seamstress. I talked to Chuck’s older son, Daniel, who wished CVS, the chain drug store on Main Street, would give him more hours. Chuck’s other child, Joseph, was lost to the television.
Last week, I visited the Orloskis again, and since I got in before Chuck was finished with his driving, I left downtown Scranton and headed South. The Scranton area is populated mostly by Irish, Polish and Italians, with an influx in recent years of Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. It is still overwhelmingly white, and though very poor, much safer than others of similar size. In 2012, there was no murder in Scranton proper, population 76,000, and just one each for 2013 and 2014, respectively.
With so much barbarity in the nightly news, our capacity to be outraged has been diminished to an alarming degree, and one has to wonder at what point, exactly, will we cease to be civilized or even socialized? Two recent crimes shook the Scranton area. In June of 2013, a Taylor woman and her two daughters were charged with starving her retarded son to death. Though 31-years-old, he weighted only 69 pounds and had open sores all over his body, with bones showing in places. Interviewed by the police, the 59-year-old seemed unaware of her likely jail stint, for she asked if she’d still receive her dead son’s Social Security checks of $1,042 a month. To those closest to him, Robert Gensiask was little more than a fetid cash machine. Locals were also astonished by the huge size of the three women.
In May of 2014, a 16-year-old, Aazis Richardson, called for a cab at 3 AM, then shot the driver, Vincent Darbenzio, twice in the back of the head “because he didn’t listen” to Richardson’s driving instruction.
“Is that a reason to kill someone?” a reporter asked.
“To me it is,” the soulless-eyed, sullen young man coolly blurted.
“Do you have anything to say to the victim’s family?”
“Our metal in your hands?
“Their metal around your wrists
“PPL Electric Utilities is offering a reward of up to $1,000 for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of anyone responsible for stealing copper wire, or other materials, from any of its facilities.
“Stealing wire from electrical facilities and equipment is dangerous!
“Severe injuries or death could result.”
Needing quick cash, Americans are stripping the greatest nation on earth’s infrastructure. A 2013 headline from CNBC: “Copper theft ‘like an epidemic’ sweeping US.”
Most of the houses in Scranton are still well-kept, however, and there is no trash or graffiti to speak of. It was extremely cold that day and with the topography somewhat hilly, I soon got tired of traipsing around, so I asked a man sitting in a parked car to point me to the nearest bar. He suggested Bacwals, which I misheard as Back Wall, and this evoked, somehow, the famous Goya execution scene . . .
I opened the door, saw only old men, heard no music, yeah, then discovered that each pint of Yuengling would only set me back two bucks. Thank you, Lord! Though Ben Franklin never declared, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” it’s still an insight worthy of Poor Richard. Settled, I dialed Chuck to tell him where I was, but Carol answered, so I talked to her for a bit. Since my last visit, the Orloskis had given up their cell phones.
Old timers who had known each other forever, they talked about how much things used to cost, how you could get a beer and hotdog for only 25 cents at a long dead bar, and how at another joint, three beers were also a quarter, as were two boiled eggs, “Though I only bought one at a time for 15 cents. I still don’t know why. Maybe I’m stupid.”
A gent with a lingering Irish brogue came in, “How come it’s so hot in here?”
“It ain’t hot,” the short, white-haired bartender responded. “The heat’s not even on.”
“It’s your testosterone,” said a man in a baritone drawl. “It’s your hormone.”
“Testosterone?! I lost that a long time ago!”
“How about your brain?”
“That too. I ain’t got nothing left.”
“You’ve gained a lot of weight, that’s for sure.”
“You know what it is? It’s my hernia.”
“I have a hernia too, but I don’t look like you.”
“I have five hernias!”
“Five! You go to the hospital all the time. Why don’t you have them removed?”
“They can’t be taken out. I just take these pills for the pain, that’s all.”
“Drink more of that!”
“I’m seventy-years-old. I don’t give a shit what I eat.”
“Go to a good doctor. Go to Doctor Frankenstein!”
“Hey, I wouldn’t want him to turn me into you!”
A man came in wearing an ushanka, which prompted Baritone Drawl to exclaim, “Holy Jesus!”
“No, it’s only me!”
Brogue, “That’s just his hair.”
Eventually, I talked to Brogue and found out that he was in the Navy during the Vietnam War and has two grandchildren who’re half-Chinese. When our conversation strayed into politics, he declared, “We shouldn’t have two parties in this country, because they cancel each other out and nothing gets done! I think we should only have one party.”
When Brogue complained about Obama’s immigration diktat, I pointed out that the executive office shouldn’t be able to start wars either, but he disagreed, “The president is the Commander-in-Chief, so he can start wars.” Then, “What really gets me are the freeloaders. There is a segment of the population who think they’re still living on the plantation. They want the government to do everything for them!”
Like a cruise vacation or the gulag, slavery is also an all-inclusive package, I suppose, but though crudely put, Brogue’s assessment of black dependency doesn’t differ essentially from the analysis of Thomas Sowell, a black conservative. Seeking to explain the much higher level of achievements among West Indians as compared to American-born blacks, Sowell pointed out a key difference in their histories, “Unlike slaves in the United States, who were issued food rations and were often fed from the common kitchen, West Indian slaves were assigned land and time to raise their own food. They sold surplus food in the market to buy amenities for themselves. In short, West Indian Negroes had centuries of experience in taking care of themselves, even under slavery, as well as experience with buying and selling [ . . . ] They had the kind of incentives and experience common in a market economy but denied American slaves for two centuries.”
With this in mind, what does that say about the state of all Americans as more become dependent on government and private charities just to eat from day to day? Even many of those with jobs can’t get by without food stamps, church pantries or soup kitchens, and with self-employment harder to achieve than ever, we’re also being corralled into a new kind of plantation. A system that prevents you from fishing will throw you a fish bone. Economically castrated, we’re also losing our basic rights. Down into slavery!
Speaking of free food, the owner of Bacwals came in and gave everyone a peanut-sprinkled and chocolate-dipped ice cream cone, and a patron also brought a large box of bagels, “My brother works in a bakery. They’d have just thrown them away. They’re still excellent, though. Take as many as you want!” He even had paper bags to put them in.
The man to my right, Larry, filled me in on his life, “I’ve always had two jobs, but I lost them both five years ago.”
“What did you do?”
“I fixed dentist equipments and was a delivery man. My wife also had two jobs. She worked in a cafeteria and a nursing home.”
“Did she lose her jobs too?”
“She quit one. After working in the cafeteria for 25 years, she was only paid $9.25 an hour, and her boss was an asshole. Now, I’m a school crossing guard. I only work an hour a day. My wife does the same. Together, we make $40 a day.”
“Wow, man, that’s nothing!”
“It’s enough to pay for the groceries and taxes. They’ve gone way up!”
“You don’t pay rent?”
“No, I own my own home. I got a good deal, though. It’s my grandma’s, and we were already living in it when she died. In her will, she left it to my dad, me and my brothers, so I paid them $25,000. Even before that, though, I paid rent. I had to get married at 18 because I got my girlfriend pregnant. She was a year older than me.”
“She was the older woman!”
“Yeah, she took advantage of me! But it’s worked out. We’re still together, and I’m 59.”
“You look good!”
“I’m going to the doctor tomorrow. I haven’t seen one in eight years.”
“I haven’t seen one in a lot longer than that. Is anything wrong with you?”
“I don’t know. I’ll find out tomorrow.”
“You come here everyday?”
“How about your wife?”
“No, she doesn’t drink at all.”
“She’s never been to this place?”
“Never, and I wouldn’t want her to see it. I mean, just look at it!”
“It’s not so bad. One thing, though, I’ve been here for about three hours and haven’t seen a single woman. At least your wife doesn’t have to worry about you hitting on women!”
“And the women who do come in here, you wouldn’t want to hit on anyway, believe me!”
Finally, Chuck came in, “You know, I’ve been a hermit and haven’t been out in weeks!” After a beer and a quick game of pool with one Dana, whom Chuck met at the juke box, we left for Taylor. In her “HOOPS FOR TROOPS” T-shirt, Dana appeared as schlocky as the rest of us, but she was in fact a lawyer. She also volunteered, quite unprompted, that she had been the live-in lover of Jason Miller, the Pulitzer-winning playwright of “That Championship Season,” by far the most famous literary work about Scranton.
“It’s weird, ain’t it, Chuck, that she just told us that?”
“And he was a lot older too.”
Trim, youthfully dressed, with his Eagles cap, round glasses, salt and pepper soul patch and often smiling, Chuck exuded a serenity that belied the considerable amount of stress he’d gone through the last several years, what with losing his job and Carol’s deteriorating health, among many other worries. Three weeks earlier, he had written to me, “I try to be a gentleman but fail. My mind, body and spirit have gone though dramatic changes since 1952, and I still do not understand what brought me to be a school bus driver and maker-of-response to your email.” Like many others, like me, Chuck’s surface equanimity and good humor rest on a quivering bedrock of bewilderment, frustration, sadness, dread and not a small bit of anger.
Fifty of his 62 years, Chuck Orloski has spent in the Scranton area, where he was born, so he has seen a vast cast of characters evolve. As we drove or walked around over two days, Chuck kept running into old faces. In a bank parking lot, Chuck waved at a funeral director, then said to me, “I should ask him for driving work over Christmas. I must have an income for those two weeks I have off.” Then, “You know, when my dad died, we didn’t have enough money for the funeral, so we had to pay him back a little at a time.”
Chuck stopped his car to say hello to a confused looking man, “Hey, Sal!”
After I was introduced, the unsmiling man asked, “Taking pictures?”
“Yeah, just for fun!”
“Nothing wrong with that.”
Chuck jumped in, “Hey Sal, can I buy you a coffee?”
“Sure,” and so Chuck handed him a buck.
Driving away, Chuck explained, “Sal is a little slow. People help him out. He used to hang out all day at this diner, Sluckie’s, but it has shut down.”
“It was weird to see him just standing there like that,” and it was bitterly cold that afternoon, in the low 20s.
“He has nowhere to go!”
There is almost no foot traffic on Taylor’s Main Street and no tavern left in this entire borough of 6,200 souls. One evening, we popped into an Italian restaurant and bar in neighboring Old Forge and found ourselves the only customers. “It’s the day before payday,” the bartender explained. “This place used to be jumping,” Chuck told me. “I could have become its manager had I married the owner’s daughter. He liked me a lot. I was dating her.”
Ever since Carol got too sick to work five years ago, the Orloskis have had to resort to the food pantry at Saint Ann’s, their parish church. In an email, Chuck elaborated, “My company’s family health insurance also skyrocketed to $14,000 a year. Ever the stoic, Carol used to make light, insisted, ‘We’d be O.K. financially were it not for the need to EAT.’ The cost of food also skyrocketed.”
For the last five months, Chuck has also been a volunteer, at least two days a week, at St. Francis of Assisi Soup Kitchen. It’s a bright, cheery place that serves over 200 people each day at lunch, plus dinner three nights a week. Most of the folks who eat there aren’t homeless, just poor, and, during my visit, I saw people of all ages, including small kids. Entire families would come in, as well the odd street walker in her skimpy outfit. No one is turned away. Many would show up half an hour beforehand and wait just inside the door. That day, lunch was pierogies, cheese pizza, fruit salad and bread, with everything freshly made.
When Chuck greeted an old lady he had given a jacket to, she told him its texture chafed her skin, and on top of that, it had to be dry cleaned, so he promised to find her another one. Chuck is always giving stuff away, and this time, as the last, I had to restrain him from stuffing my backpack with all sorts of gifts, but since he was so relentlessly giving, I went home with a Phillies baseball cap, Phillies knit cap and a book.
I was hoping to see Jack, whom I had talked to during my last visit, but he wasn’t around. Busted with two thousand kilograms of pot, yes, two tons of ganja!, Jack was locked up for 22 years, but now he had a paid job at St. Francis of Assisi. Both Chuck and I marvel at Jack’s absence of bitterness. When I howled at “two tons,” Jack cracked up too.
On the day I left, there was the Santa Parade in downtown Scranton. I’m very fond of homespun, small time parades where crude floats roll by, kids perform basic dance steps that even I can pull off, sort of, and one civic group or another in casual clothes simply march and wave. I also like the goofiness that’s also often on display, and in Scranton, it was three ducks in a cage being pushed by a waddling woman, sombrero-wearing donkeys, humans transformed into walking Christmas presents, an inflated Statue of Liberty that struggled to stay upright, teen girls in “I LOVE MY JOB” sweat shirts and a puffy and glowering Ronald McDonald who was clearly in the last stage of a psychotic breakdown.
Chuck’s younger son, Joseph, was one of four young people carrying a banner for the Pennsylvania State Police. Since I saw him in 2013, Joseph has matured into a solid young man with two part-time jobs, at a supermarket and video game store, and he has a plan for the future. Dating the daughter of a state trooper, Joseph also wants to be one, although it will take five years of studying. Meanwhile, his brother Dan is majoring in psychology at Keystone College, where he lives on campus, though each weekend he comes home to work at CVS, a job he has had for over two years. Dan wants to eventually get a master’s in head shrinking, which worries Chuck, naturally, but if that’s the young man’s passion, who’s to stop him? With this economy being strangled and disemboweled, just about every profession is endangered, so there’s no surefire career choice. The bottom line is we have too many people going to college, and doing so will also weigh down your future if it entails crippling loans. Still, there are many social benefits to attempting a higher education, for it’s good for any young person to be liberated from parents and home. Removed from one’s upbringing and its stifling thought patterns, one can sample new ideas, hair colors, spiked cocktails, what’s left of free love and personalized or unprecedented sexual orientations, for example, and with the right instructors, one can also learn how to write in loopy, looping and ungrammatical sentences.
Although Dan has received financial aids, including a grant from the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation due to his cerebral palsy, he will still owe $40,000 by the time he graduates in May of 2015. Dan’s among the millions of poor Americans who are led to believe a college education at a second or third tier school, at whatever cost, will still lead, inexorably, to a brighter future. Although they are merely businesses that must compete with each other for customers, colleges pose as life mentors and nurturers to their students, and in this disguise, steer millions of wide-eyed marks towards the rapaciously criminal banks. Marketing has become an American college’s first order of business, not education.
This year, Keystone charges $21,750 in tuition and fees. In comparison, UPenn docked $9,600 for the same in 1984, so for the current cost of a Keystone education, one could attend an Ivy League school for two years, with enough bouncing coins left over for many cases of beer and bong hits. UPenn’s tuition and fees are now $47,668. Of course, wages haven’t increased five-fold in 30 years. The obscene overpricing of a diluted education is yet another sign that we’re failing future generations. To stuff the pockets of a few smirking old farts and their precious scions, countless young people are maimed.
The Orloski household now has three working adults, but only one car, and the buses barely run in Taylor, so on many days, it’s a Chinese fire drill just to get everyone to where they need to be on time. Chuck also has an old motorcycle, but it’s not practical to use in winter.
Behind Joseph at the Santa Parade was an old military truck carrying Tiffany Dickson, widow of Bryon K. Dickson II, a state trooper recently killed by Eric Frein. During the 48 days when hundreds of cops searched for the murderer, they managed to accost a man who somewhat resembles Eric Frein dozens of times. “I lost count after 20,” James Tully told ABC News. Frein is 6’3” with a pudgy face, and Tully 5’9” with a narrow face, but they’re both very pale, and that’s close enough for the law enforcement confusion.
One day, Tully was stopped seven times altogether. Exasperated, he took to wearing a reflective vest plus lanyard with his driver’s license and work ID. One has to wonder, though, what kind of police intelligence and coordination can fail to figure out that the same poor schmuck they stop, day after day, on the same road, is not the cop killer, survivalist they were looking for? During Tully’s most harrowing encounter, a screaming, camouflage dressed man pointed a rifle at him as he ordered Tully to lie on the ground, face down, with his arms spread out. Kneeling on Tully’s back, the presumed cop yanked Tully’s IDs from his neck. “Good thing it had a break away clasp or he would have choked me,” Tully said to the Pocono Record, “From the minute I saw him with that gun I thought, let me survive this.”
His ordeal far from over, Tully added, “I’m worried about what is going to happen with the next one. Is he going to shoot first and ask questions later?” With our cops known to pump a dozen bullets into a suspect within seconds of spotting him, then, with guns still trained, handcuff the bloody corpse, it’s not too paranoid a fear. With such police tactics at home, it’s no wonder why we’re so popular as liberators worldwide! To show even more unequivocably that he was not the fugitive, Tully should have decked himself in feathers and sequins, like a mummer, then strutted down the side of the road strumming a banjo. Actually, that’s a terrible idea, for the authorities could cite said instrument as the rationale for splattering him. “Dressed in colorful camouflage to blend with the autumnal foliage, suspect pointed an object with barrel and stock, just like any assault rifle, at our peace officers. Ignoring our telepathic instructions, suspect then charged forward while screaming, ‘O, dem golden slippers!’”
The reason why Tully was always walking around and ready to be pounced on by cops was because he had no car. Each day, he spent four hours trekking to and from work. Living in a badly laid out country that’s unraveling economically, many Americans are already familiar with Tully’s one-manpower, sweating and huffing, uphill or through the rain, sleet, hurricane or snow, leg it out commute, and this rank will only balloon. Tully’s story does have a happy ending, however, for a neighbor organized an online fundraising that netted him $23,025.15. A local church also raised $985. With contributions from well over a thousand people, Tully is now driving, with money left over for insurance and gas.
Walking for many blocks along the parade route, Chuck would ask the cotton candy, hotdog or toy vendors how business was going, and they all said it was terrible, no one was buying anything, and it’s true we only saw one kid getting his face sticky with cotton candy and another blowing into a plastic horn. Nobody was buying nada!
For two decades now, it’s traditional to head into the Steamtown Mall after the parade, so that’s what we did. Just outside, we saw a shabbily dressed old guy fish a cigarette butt from a standing ashtray. “How are you doing today?” Chuck said, for he greets everybody, but the dude didn’t respond. Walking inside, we found the mall to be nearly empty, with over two-thirds of its retail spaces vacant. In the remaining stores, still brightly lit, employees stood staring out at nothing.
“This was the centerpiece of Scranton’s urban renewal,” Chuck explained. “This place used to be packed. Let’s go find Santee Claus.” (Yes, that’s how Chuck pronounces “Santa.”)
If this was the downtown mall after a big parade, just outside, I can only imagine what it looks like at midday during the week. A naked Miley Cyrus could twerk her ass off and no one would notice. Just five years ago, hundreds of teenaged girls swarmed into Steamtown to scream lovingly at a baby-faced Justin Bieber.
Hey, here comes Santee Claus! With no kids lining up to see him, the rotund fellow in the rather mangy outfit was wandering around this still sparkling, well maintained yet comatose temple of shopping. Cerulean banners with graphic snow flakes streamed from the cathedral-high ceiling. In the abandoned stores’ windows, cheerful tableaux had been set up to shoo away the gloom. In one, disco-dancing John Travolta, Mr. Spock, Kermit the Frog and a cruise ship pin-up tried to perk us up. In another, there were Captain America, Indiana Jones and Ecto-1, the ghosbusting car. Meandering through the American ruins, we shall be comforted by shards and peeling evocations of American pop icons. Classic rock songs will be our dirges. “Ooh baby, it’s a wild world!” Across this Potemkin nation, faux frontage has become a thriving business, for we’re still the world leader in illusions, after all, though our top hat, red cape and white gloves have become seriously threadbare. Soon enough, we’ll be booed off the stage, if not arrested, put on trial then lined up in front of a firing squad.
Looking bored, Santee only grinned when bumping into a rare window shopper. I greeted him, “How are you doing, Sir?”
“Call me Santa,” he whispered, winked, smiled.
Santee has worked at this mall every Christmas, ever since it opened in 1993. Business started to dip in 2000, but things didn’t get awful until five years ago, “It’s bankrupt. The banks own it now. In the past, the rent was so high here, it was unbelievable. For a kiosk like this,” he pointed, “you had to pay eight to ten grand for the Christmas season, for three months, and you had to pay it up front.”
“When was this, Santee?” Chuck asked.
“Nineteen-ninety-six, seven . . . This place is so boring, teenagers don’t even come. Sometimes they throw coins at me from the second level!”
“Because they’re teenagers. The last three weeks before Christmas, it will get a little busy, mostly because of me.”
“But how come the kids aren’t here now?” I asked. “We thought you’d be mobbed!”
“People are afraid to come inside. There used to be a lot of homeless, you know, and crimes.”
“Yes, and down in the basement. There was a rape down there.”
“Rape?!” Chuck blurted. “How come we didn’t hear about it?”
“They had to keep it quiet.”
The dying mall has attracted some odd tenants, such as a satellite branch of the public library and an office of the State Attorney General’s Child Predator Unit. As malls die across the country, we’ll see many creative repurposing. Already, there are churches and casinos inside half-dead malls, so why not massage parlors, detox centers, transient hotels, haunted houses, prisons, petting zoos or putt-putt golf courses (covering the entire mall)?
Leaving Santee, Chuck and I wandered into the food court, where only 3 of 12 restaurant slots were still occupied. On the back wall of this forlorn and silent space was a mural put up by Boscov, the mall’s main tenant. Titled “B part of your community,” it reads:
“KINDNESS COUNTS / PLANT A TREE / MAKE A DONATION / HELP A NEIGHBOR / VISIT THE ELDERLY / HOPE / ADOPT A PET / DRIVE A HYBRID / PICK UP TRASH / VOLUNTEER / CONSERVE ENERGY / RECYCLE / JOIN SOMETHING / PAINT A MURAL / HUG SOMEONE / SMILE / DRINK FILTERED WATER / GIVE YOUR TIME / USE SOLAR ENERGY / FEED THE HUNGRY / ORGANIZE A FUNDRAISER / CREATE AWARENESS / FIX A PLAYGROUND / START A CLUB / BABYSIT”
These empty recommendations are about as effective as “Just Say No,” I’m afraid. As the CIA pushed drugs, the First Lady chirped, “Just say no!” And since everything in the culture, car, iPad, iPhone, television, internet, FaceBook, Twitter and shopping mall, etc., is designed to remove you from your immediate surroundings, it will take more than cutesy suggestions on walls to rebuild communities. Also, the worse the neighborhoods or contexts, the more hopeful and positive the slogans. Starved of solutions, we shall eat slogans.
Chuck and I approached a man sitting by himself. Fifty-years-old, Bob looked nearly a decade older. A Scranton native, he had gone to Las Vegas to work as a cook at the MGM Hotel. Making $20 an hour, Bob was doing fine until disaster struck, “I had a stroke and a heart attack. I lost my memory for a while. It’s coming back . . .”
“Did you have health insurance?” I asked.
“No, I turned it down.”
“How long did you work for MGM?”
“Two years. I was working in the Rainforest Café. Huge place, lots of people.”
“Did you save money while you were there?”
“No! I gambled and I partied.”
“God bless you,” Chuck added.
All this time, Bob was listening to the Penn State-Illinois game on a tiny transistor radio. As Illinois prepared to kick the winning field goal, we stopped to listen. Game lost, I continued, “Do you have an income, Bob?”
“No, I’m applying for Social Security but it will take a while though. I will probably have to get a lawyer.”
Though Bob has family in the area, he’s sleeping in a shelter and takes his meals at St. Francis and the Rescue Mission, “You stay for the service then they feed you.”
“What if you don’t stay for the service?” I asked.
“Then they don’t feed you,” Bob laughed. “They have good food there, too, they feed you good.”
“What if you fall asleep during the service? Will they notice?”
“I don’t think they care about that, but they do give you coffee as soon as you come in.”
Attached by a footbridge to the Steamtown Mall is an impressive railroad museum that’s just as moribund, unfortunately, thanks to poor management. The locomotives on display are relics from a time when Scranton was a major mining and industrial center. The magnificent wealth of the US, at its peak, came largely from its ability to extract hydrocarbons from its own (and many other people’s) soil. As these finite resources are depleted, the country’s fortunes must decline, and it doesn’t help that much of our manufacturing base has been exported, leaving cities like Scranton husks of what they used to be. If you don’t make shit, you ain’t gonna have shit to buy nothing, excuse my Scrantonese. Driving through a particularly desolate part of town, Chuck summed it up, “There is nothing but shit jobs! College graduates are fighting each other over shit jobs!”
I’ll end with an account from Carol. Before I came up, Chuck said Carol’s condition had deteriorated, so I feared seeing her emaciated or even bedridden, but Carol was her usual feisty self. One afternoon, as Chuck was out on his bus run, I sat at the Orloskis’ kitchen table as Carol cooked. “Carol,” I began, “you told me a story last year about a stomach wound the size of a grapefruit. Who was that?”
“Ah, Chuck’s father! He was in a car accident, and he had a wound in his stomach the size of a grapefruit.”
“I remember you telling me about how miraculously it healed?”
“Yes, it was this large wound that you could look into. I could see the inside of his stomach.”
“And it was your job to take care of it?”
“Yes, they gave me a solution to apply each day, and as I cleaned the wound, I could see it healing itself from the inside out. The skin grew back from the inside out!”
“Yes, it was, and the skin and everything grew back out, little by little, until he was almost normal again. His stomach smoothed itself out. Now, how did it know to do that?!”
No serious wound can heal, however, if you don’t tend to it, but according to our rulers and their media magicians, there is not even a nick on these Disunited States of Dying Malls. Daily, we’re told that unemployment is down, inflation is actually too low, the recovery is picking speed and, soon enough, we’ll be energy-independent. With life so good, it’s unclear why food stamp usage is at a record high and more and more adults are forced to live with their parents. As we stagger into 2015, however, watch for this rosy pornography to freeze, then black out finally, for our supernaturally levitating stock market will certainly rediscover gravity, and our relentless provocation and demonization of Russia will climax in either a suicidal war or end, more mercifully, with us a humbled and shunned nation. Already, many of our peripheral allies are decoupling from our “leadership.” If only Americans themselves could do the same.
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, State of the Union.