I was sitting in the Friendly Lounge, one block from my Philly apartment. Next to me was a 59-year-old man, Robert. Seeing my wedding band, he confided, “You’re lucky to have somebody to go home to. I always had a lover, a boyfriend, but I haven’t had anybody in ten years. And it’s not the,” and he suddenly dipped his head down near my crotch, “but the support, you know. I can’t just go home and say to somebody, ‘Bitch, I love you!’”
I was getting buzzed in Dirty Frank’s, downtown Philly’s second cheapest bar, when an old friend proposed, “You should come over some time. I’ll make you dinner.” She knew I was married. On another occasion, this lovely woman moaned, “I just want somebody to love.” On a third, she called me after 2 A.M., “Motherfucker, where are you?!”
Sitting home, I received an email from a Vietnamese poet who lives in a sunshiny state. Though I’ve known this unhappily married 40-year-old for more than a decade, we’ve never met face-to-face. In Vietnamese, she wrote, “Crazy teacher, please help me to translate: I’m aroused. I’m horny. I’m a whore. I’m an aroused whore. I’m an extremely horny whore. Thank you very much.”
I cite these handy examples not to embarrass anybody or to, God forbid, present my splotchy carcass as somehow in demand, but simply to point out the loneliness that afflicts this society is so appallingly pervasive and, I suspect, unprecedented. Our infants are immediately removed from their moms, our toddlers are parked in front of blathering televisions when not institutionalized, our dating millennials stare at separate iPads, our married couples hide their sexting and porn habits from each other, our old people blunder down a dark hallway or endless sidewalk alone. Else, they lie unvisited, waiting for death, and when kaput, may not be discovered for a week, as happened to my friend Lee Goldston. Yo, Lee!
In 1970, only 17% American households had but a single person, but it’s up to 27.5% now. Moreover, many of those who live with others may be sharing a dwelling with annoying strangers, or curled up in their parents’ basement. Take Robert’s situation. In a house with four other people, he has a room “the size of a napkin.” Each time he uses the bathroom, he’s “afraid to step on the floor. The ceiling tiles are falling down. The wall tiles are falling out. It’s gross in there!” And Robert never uses the kitchen because that’s filthy too. No one ever washes the dishes. In short, it’s not a home, but then most Americans don’t really have one anyway.
For many, it’s merely a spot to lie down after the long commute. For others, it’s a nest that can be blown away after the next missed rent or mortgage check. Made of sheetrock, marathon loan payments and always rising taxes, an American home is about as permanent as a bad sitcom. To have no true home is to be constantly anxious, if not panic stricken, and since many of us are also isolated, physically and psychologically, what you have, then, is a society of frustrated, angry, ashamed and nervous wrecks. No wonder we take more drugs than anybody else!
One man who still has his family home is my acquaintance, Bill. For a decade, Bill made beaucoup bucks as a computer technician but, at age 44, had to switch career to become a transit policeman. (He even applied to Homeland Security, but wasn’t hired.) Assigned to a shopping mall, Bill had to occasionally arrest shoplifters or break up fights among unruly teens, but mostly he just strolled around to flirt with selected cashiers. Fresh from Lindenwold, New Jersey, 18-year-old Chelsea with her bleached blonde hair and rose and vine tattoo climbing up one pale arm was particularly enticing. For a few seconds, Bill fantasized about rescuing her from Starbucks. A playa, in short, he doesn’t mind living alone in his eight-bedroom, inherited house, though his winter heating bills are a real bitch. Though a teenager at heart, Bill has also just turned 50, so most nights find him eating turkey, his favorite, while watching Netflix next a huge Dalmatian, Myer. Unlike humans, dogs don’t experience drawn out illnesses that may last decades. Bill likes it that way.
Thanks to a large inheritance, Jim also has his own house and, unlike Bill, doesn’t even have to work. A typical day finds him listening to Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra and Abbey Lincoln while browsing Rolling Stone and CounterPunch. After a leisurely porn pause, he might check in on National Public Radio. At 53-years-old, Jim has never had to take care of anyone save a series of tabbies, and his biggest exertion in life, his greatest achievement ever, was his escape from a decade-long crack habit. Further, Jim considers himself a “revolutionary,” though the only people he’s ever fought were his neighbors. With a shovel, Jim shattered a bar window, then hit a homeless man with a rebar, but it wasn’t until he threatened someone with a grass trimmer that he ended up in a psychiatric ward for three days. Out, Jim’s back to his half-listening, half-reading and half-masturbating routine, and he’ll maintain this progressive regiment until social justice is tightly entwined in a 69, yin yang fashion, with equitable wealth distribution. Actually, forget the second part, for there’s no way Jim will share one square inch of his two-story house with anything larger than a slim cat. Jim likes it that way.
In downtown Camden, I heard a street preacher holler, “We are a relational people!” and he certainly got that right. Further, I ardently believe that human bodies are really one continuum that has been tragically yet mercifully broken up. If you’re cut, I should feel pain, and vice versa, and when we’re at our best, that’s exactly what happens. Too often, though, people derive an orgasmic pleasure from watching someone being blown up. Excited, they cheer.
Elias Canetti talks about how instinctively humans laugh at seeing a person falling, and he traces this to our days as flesh hunters. Since a fallen body represents meat, we laugh out of joy. Beside this atavistic impulse, however, we also rush to help the fallen because we recognize the body in distress as our own. Our entertainment industry, though, is relentless in pushing the fantasy of the super predator, somebody who’s capable of destroying countless bodies “of the bad guys.” With its mesmerizing war and “action” films, Hollywood has amplified, to an insane degree, all of our worst sadistic tendencies. Sex, too, has become a matter of body count, but this is perfectly in line with our obsession with numbers. Ain’t that right, Bill? How many have you scored?
The American porch shrank, then disappeared. Sidewalks emptied or became overgrown with weeds. Behind closed doors, an unending cacophony of disembodied voices hyperventilate over nothing or sing the same old songs. Making duck faces or pulling their pants down, a little lower, yeah, like that, Americans snap selfies compulsively to make sure nothing of their noisily desperate lives is lost to eternity. We’ve all become famous to ourselves, and that’s good enough, somehow.
Say, what are the political ramifications of having a nation of inattentive, narcissistic jerk offs? Well, me, myself and I think it’s way beyond divide and conquer, for what it is is rule by fragmentation into 320,159,176 pieces, and counting. Yes, we have this, that and that camp but each takes its cues from the right or left hand of our ruling apparatus. To know what to do, say or even dress, we look towards Midtown Manhattan, Hollywood and Northwest DC. Talk about a disastrous recipe! Unwilling or unable to deal with each other in the flesh, we must plug in to even squeak a dissident note, so it’s no surprise our feeble rebellion remains virtual.
While the Internet allows many fringe voices to find their miniscule audiences, its dominant aim is to tease, tickle and titillate the mind into numbness. With multiple windows and everything flickering by, nothing matters. Skimming over bullshit and insights alike, we forget a minute later what we’ve just glimpsed. Swarming with words, the Internet desensitizes us to language.
After that last paragraph, my phone rang, so I picked it up to hear Casey, someone I hadn’t heard from for over two years. After the briefest of chit chat, middle-aged Casey spilled that her wife had left her, “I was crazy, she was crazy, but she was even crazier than I was!” Later, her upstairs neighbor, a crackhead, punched Casey so hard, “my brain moved to the other side! After I maced the bitch, I was dragged to court, can you believe it?!” Concluding, Casey said I should come over soon to catch up. “I always have beer in the fridge.”
“How are you making money these days?” I asked.
“Oh, I do freelance art works,” Casey answered rather defensively, “and I get food stamps.”
For awhile, the smirking mainstream media celebrated social media as a tool for rebellions or even revolutions, but let’s get real here. If that shit’s effective, the people of Iraq, Libya and Ukraine, etc., wouldn’t have had their countries wrecked by this empire. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and the rest are no more than means for the masses to report themselves, minutely and in real time, to the authorities.
Faced with an ultra-violent enemy with its kill lists, bombs, missiles, bullets, black sites and torture, we bark abstractions or demand nothing as our demand, such is our feebleness and nihilism. Giving up on reality, we claim a speck sized corner of the Internet as our free speech zone. Impotent, we wave virtual fists in the direction of Wall Street or 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
To make more concrete statements, true rebels won’t be so vaguely semaphoric. Whether lone wolves or in roving bands, they’ll have to dodge the best technology ruthlessness can buy, however. No pixelated posers, they won’t telegraph their moves in advance but simply act, and though their successes will likely be merely symbolic, at least they won’t be surfing on fantasies.
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.