Obscured American: Anna the retired teacher, cab driver and computer programmer

Don, Friendly Lounge owner, told me this joke, “How is a South Philly guy like Jesus? One, he’s never left his neighborhood. Two, he hangs out with the same 12 guys. Three, his mother thinks he’s God.”

Angelo comes in Friendly each morning to read Don’s newspaper. After half an hour, he’d say, “Don, you need something?”

“Sure, get me a hot chocolate, will you?”

Since Don would give Angelo a five, it’s a $3 tip for just walking two blocks. Angelo is on Social Security. Years ago, he got paid after an accident, but blew it on the horses and too many trips to Atlantic City. Now, he can’t afford gas for a truck he shouldn’t have bought. At least Angelo has a house inherited from a woman who thought he was God. With property prices so obscenely inflated, Angelo is having troubles paying taxes. Of course, he can always sell, but where will Angelo go? He’s never left the neighborhood.

These days, South Philly is as much Asian, Mexican, yuppie and hipster as old school Italian. A 20-minute walk from my door, there’s an Indonesian neighborhood, and 15 minutes in another direction, there’s a Cambodian one. There, you can get a pork or chicken kebab on the sidewalk for just a buck. At 6th and Rittner, there’s the Preah Buddha Temple. It’s quite magnificent, actually, even from the outside.

A week ago, I talked to someone who taught public school in Little Cambodia, but Anna got there in a very roundabout way. Let’s hear, then, her story:

My mother married three times. We’re very different. I’m not a gold digger or interested in climbing any social ladders. Moving to the suburbs, we changed our dinner hour from 5 to 6PM because that’s when people there ate dinner. It was our way of keeping up with the Joneses.

I went to Catholic school for 12 years. In third grade, the nuns told us every day the world was going to end in May of 1960. They claimed this was the third and yet-to-be-revealed message “Lady of Fatima” left to the three children. I felt so much anxiety, I started to sleep walk. I would wake up my parents in the middle of the night and say, “We have to go to church right now.” I imagine the other students were also suffering from anxiety.

When I was ten, we moved from the city to the suburbs. It was an entirely different reality. We even had a horse stable in the back. It was spring and I found myself sitting on the grass for the first time in my life. I always wanted to be in nature to get away from my parents. They were so strict. I was surrounded by all these large, old trees, and the sun was shining. What happened next may have lasted a millisecond, but for me, it felt like ten minutes. All of a sudden, I saw five figures, all in a line, in the southeastern sky. Let’s just call them a family, because there was a tall figure in the front, followed by a shorter one, then the “children.” Communicating psychically with the tall figure, I said, “Why?” I don’t know why I thought of that, because I was only ten-years-old, but I said, “Why?”

I realized I was on planet earth and had been here before, but I had also lived other places besides earth. This thought came to me in a flash. After asking why, I got this message, telepathically of course, from the figure in the front, “You’ve agreed to this, and it will only be for a time. You’ll see us again.” Then they vanished. I never saw them again.

Our neighborhood was half Jewish, half Catholic. Everyone was white. My mother really got involved in Democratic politics. We had meetings at our house every week, and I really got the idea that politics, excuse my language, is a bunch of bullshit. They really didn’t give a damn. It was all about promoting themselves and their agenda. I was only a kid when I got this idea. As a teenager, I began to rebel. By 8th grade, I knew that the Catholic Church was lying to me.

I went to Temple University to study elementary education. I had no desire whatsoever to teach. None. My mother chose my major for me. I did everything I was told. I was well-trained.

At 19, I got pregnant without having intercourse. Yes, it can happen. Use your imagination. It happened. The next day, my boyfriend told me he had come the previous night and I should be aware I may be pregnant. I thought he was crazy because we didn’t have intercourse, but as it turned out, I was pregnant. I ended up married to a man with whom I had broken off an engagement with three months earlier.

I didn’t want to marry him. I didn’t want to marry anyone at that time. I was only 19. He needed a wife and kid to avoid the Vietnam War. There was a lottery and he was near the top of the list. After I told my parents I was pregnant, I found myself getting married a week later.

This “virgin birth” changed the course of my life. I had wanted to go to law school and work for Legal Aid. I had so many plans for my life. I would not want my oldest son, Robert, to know of how he was conceived. I never told him. In a sense, I felt victimized because of this “immaculate conception.”

We were married for four years. I don’t know why I married him. I suppose it was because my parents made me, but he was also handsome, which at the time meant something. I haven’t dated a handsome type since.

He was four years older than me and going to La Salle University. I did all of his term papers so he could graduate. He was a good provider and a mild mannered man. He was not abusive. He was in love.

Yes, he wasn’t completely using me, but he passed over the fact that I was only 19-years-old. I was very immature because I had been very sheltered by very strict parents. I didn’t know I was being used just so he didn’t have to go to Vietnam. Two years later, we had one more child.

We had joint custody when we divorced, but my ex-husband abducted our kids and took them 800 miles away when they were just 8 and 6 years old. I never saw my children again. Many years later, my son, Robert told me his step-mom badmouthed me all the time, and my ex-husband allowed it. Robert was wise enough to see through it, but my daughter bought into it and became very close to her stepmother.

I could have called the FBI because it was an abduction across state lines, but they were living in a farm house in a very nice environment, and what did I have? I was just a single mother in the city. I didn’t want to drag them through the legal hassle again.

Robert was the valedictorian at his college. A week after graduation, Robert rode a motorcycle to California and has never returned to the east coast. When Robert was in his 20s, he and his friends vacationed in Hawaii. They were on the hotel’s balcony when Robert fell off and landed on his face onto concrete. He had to get facial reconstructive surgery. Now, Robert looks Puerto Rican, although he’s German and Hungarian.

Robert’s a poet and only works part time. He publishes his poetry on Facebook. He cares about his poetry, and the shelter dogs he takes to the desert for exercise. He speaks of monkeys a lot in his poetry. Apparently, it is a theme which torments him. All I can determine is that he’s in some kind of emotional pain. Robert lost his mom, me, at 8 years old, and he wasn’t very close to his stepmom.

Robert was the office manager in his former fiancé’s law firm, but her business has gone down, so she can’t afford him full time. Robert had quit another job just to be with her. Although lucrative, it required so much traveling. Their engagement was ended shortly after Robert’s accident.

Robert is aware of the methane gas, unstable nuclear plant and Fukushima radiation in California, but he doesn’t want to leave San Diego. He doesn’t want to be near his family. Robert is a child of two divorces. His father and stepmother divorced when he was still in high school.

I haven’t visited Robert because I’ve stopped flying, thanks to the TSA. Robert doesn’t fly for the same reason. I don’t want to go through their radiation machine, and I don’t want to be frisked by the TSA. I don’t like strangers touching me all over my body. Why are Americans so passive about this intrusion? These machines are not monitored as they are in dental and medical offices. We don’t know how much radiation is being inflicted on us when we pass through them.

After I became a teacher, I got very anxious and started to have panic attacks at night. Having just gotten out of classrooms after 17 years, I found myself facing another 25 years of being in a classroom.

I wasn’t necessarily a talented teacher, as it wasn’t my calling. At my first job in North Philadelphia, the students were mostly black. Across the street from our school, there was a mosque whose members would spend hours washing and shining their Cadillacs. One of my students, Calvin, would throw eggs at these cars from a classroom window after they were done.

I wasn’t totally unfamiliar with the city. I had a good friend who was a black, single parent, and I spent time at her apartment in this all black neighborhood. All I had ever known was my white culture in the suburb. People there bored me because they all thought the same way. When I went to Temple, I discovered there was another world out there.

When I began teaching, I loved my students. I listened to them and respected them. I became their confidante. They could sense that my heart was with them. Even as a new teacher, I had discipline because they liked me. This was the early 70s. Although it was hard for me being a new teacher, it was a much gentler environment then. Now it’s an entirely different story.

I found a majority of teachers didn’t really care about a student’s psychological or emotional development. Even the “gifted” teachers seemed to care more about securing a good job with good benefits. I’d say 95% of inner city teachers are on tranquilizers. Either Valium or Xanax. Thankfully, I didn’t have to resort to that.

When No Child Left Behind was implemented, students began suffering from stomach pains and anxiety. Bush started NCLB, but Obama made it worse. I never strictly followed the curriculum because it did not take into consideration the needs of the students. I didn’t trust these decisions made by people in the ivory towers. They had never been inside a classroom. Teachers who knew what their students needed were never included in the decision making process concerning the curriculum.

When No Child Left Behind was implemented, I had my first exposure to fascism. It was most frightening to see teachers passively accept this change in education based on standardized tests. Not one teacher spoke up about how harmful this was to the students.

When I taught in North Philadelphia, the kids would look out the windows and see the buildings downtown. They would ask me what these buildings were for. They had never been downtown although they only lived a short subway ride away. In my computer lab, I was determined to expand their world and show them how other people lived. An administrator came into my classroom during one of these lessons. She was very upset. She said, “You have to follow the curriculum.” The curriculum was boring and meaningless to these students.

I taught computers in a South Philly elementary school for 10 years. Before this, I thought all Asian cultures were the same. I learned about the gangs in Cambodian culture. One of my Cambodian students died, and he didn’t even want to be in a gang. He got shot. On an individual level, we got along fine, but if the Cambodian kids were in a group, they would not acknowledge me. A visiting police officer informed us that an area near the school, between 5th and 7th north of Snyder, had the highest rate of gun crime in the entire city.

The Cambodian gangs also had African-American kids. They mixed it up. Of the Asian students, the Vietnamese kids were the most adjusted and happy.

I will never forget this one student. He was Cambodian and autistic. His name was Siddhartha, but he preferred to be called Fire Engine. His mom was a bit negligent, but I imagine she was doing the best she could. From the time Fire Engine was 8 to 11 years old, I got to know him pretty well. He didn’t like computers, so I would find myself talking to him three times a week. I was the only one who could get him to talk. I knew how to tap into his mind and get him to laugh. We had so many wonderful conversations.

After I left that school, I never saw Fire Engine again. Years later, I found out he had been forced to join a gang. I wonder to this day if he is still alive. I’m sorry, I’m getting all emotional. This gang used Fire Engine to do a lot of their dirty work. This tore me up when I heard this. All I can remember is how happy he was, and how happy he made me. The parents of these students left Cambodia to escape Pol Pot’s reign. In Cambodia, the kids had to form gangs just to survive, even when they were very young.

I could see that the Chinese kids were damaged as they got older. I surmised it was because their parents were very strict. There was one 7-year-old boy, Huang, who was in my summer school class. I ate lunch with him every day. Huang had only been in the US a year. He told me that when he was in China, he would be doing a math problem at the chalkboard, and if he made a mistake, the teacher would whip him on the back of his legs. When he got home, his parents would ask about the marks on his legs, and they’d beat him again!

During my last year of teaching, I got very sick and needed two surgeries. I was teaching a thousand kids a week. I felt claustrophobic in the classroom, and I ate terribly. Each day, I wolfed down a hoagie because we only had half an hour for lunch. Lunch meat has a lot of toxins as well as viruses. I changed my diet once I retired. Acupuncture also helped me heal.

In the late 70s, I stopped teaching for the first time to drive a cab in New York City. I wanted to meet people with different world views. Driving a cab also got my mind off of my children, whom I missed so much. I lived in NYC for 13 years. I paid $500 for a one bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side.

Leasing a taxi cost $90 a night, plus we paid for our own gas. I drove at night time because it was much easier to get around Manhattan. I worked 12 hours a day. During my first week of driving, I picked up four people on Wall Street. The three women sat in the back, and the man sat in the front with me. You’re not supposed to do that, but I trusted them because I picked them up on Wall Street. When we were in the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, the man pulled out a butcher knife, but luckily, he dropped it between the door and the seat, so he couldn’t get to it without opening the door. It was a big knife, the kind that can go through your organs. I was a newbie so my reaction was to speed up. When we emerged from the tunnel, I was fortunate enough to see a couple of Port Authority officers. I reported what happened, the officers retrieved the knife, then I completely blacked out, out of fear. I was 28.

Another time, I took two young men from Wall Street to an outer borough. Instead of paying the $25 fare, they just ran out of the cab. These were the only two negative incidents in six years. Needless to say, I never picked up passengers from Wall Street again.

I never had problems with black people. They were so appreciative and tipped me well. Other drivers would not pick them up. In the middle of the night, they got off their restaurant shifts downtown and just wanted to go home. They were hard working people, they just happened to be black. A man who lived in Harlem ran inside his house and came out with a radio to give to me. He felt badly because I had no radio in my cab.

I became addicted to cab driving the way other people become addicted to drugs. I loved driving a cab. I met so many people from all over the world who would tell me so many personal stories because they knew they would never see me again. I felt as if it were a higher calling, driving a cab. A lot of people couldn’t believe why I would leave the classroom to drive a cab. I had gone to college after all!

I would take a break from driving a cab because it was physically hard work. I was also a clerk on Wall Street. Abbie Hoffman knew my boss, so he would come to our office a couple of times a week to have lunch. Hoffman himself worked on Wall Street. He was one of them.

My mother has a few million but she won’t help me. I get $900 of social security plus $1060 from my pension. It’s the equivalent of a job that pays $15 an hour after taxes. I was paying 700 for a one bedroom, very small, but my landlord just jacked it up to $770! My neighborhood is being gentrified. If I had any money, I’d buy a small, two bedroom row home.

My third child, Joseph, is from another marriage. I brought him home from New York City. Back in Philly, I studied to be a computer programmer and got a great job. They allowed us the luxury to think. We could sit in the park all day as long as we were thinking and had the project in on time.

Our neighborhood was where the country was founded. We lived half a block away from two cemeteries, with some graves going back to the 1600s. It was a paranormally active neighborhood. I had sightings in various apartments. Sometimes, my bed would be shaken while I was sleeping. My son and I saw a milk crate ascending into the air. When Joseph was 6-years-old, he came to me while I was on the computer. I got the chills. Joseph had the demeanor of an older man. He said, “I just want to thank you for the inscription on my tombstone. I really appreciate what you did for me.” Joseph was using a couple of words 6-year-old kids just don’t know. They weren’t in his vocabulary. I said, “You’re welcome.” I didn’t know what else to say.

In 2000, I was watching the news on the election. This is the first time in our country’s history when the Supreme Court elected the president instead of the people. After I turned off the TV, it came back on by itself, and I could see three figures hovering in the air, but not their feet. It’s common for people to see apparitions without feet. They were all dressed like in the 18th century. Only two of the figures were clear. I could sense their anger. Above the TV, there was a powerful current of light. When they left, this “electrical” current went right through me and out of the window behind me. It wasn’t heat but a jolt.

Living in Society Hill, Joseph would get hit in the head, hard, as he was lying in bed. I didn’t like that, not at all, so we moved in 2001. I found a two-bedroom in Bella Vista for just $650. I didn’t know that in the 30s, a Mafia guy was killed at 7th and Washington, and our new apartment had been his clubhouse. Once I had $80 in a secret pocket in one of my coats. I knew I had it, but then it was gone! I searched all over the closet but could not find it. Later, I opened the closet and saw $80 on top of my duffel bag, in plain sight. There was no way I could have missed that when I was searching for this cash. Money was always disappearing, then reappearing in odd places at that apartment.

Someone would go into my son’s room and speak in my voice, but he couldn’t see me, or Joseph would ask, “What, mom?” and I hadn’t say anything.

I used to love Chris Hedges, but I can’t take his moralizing any more. I don’t like his stance on prostitution. Hedges wants to make prostitution illegal all around the world. I used to see the women working on 8th Avenue. I also drove college women, Ivy Leaguers, uptown to meet their dates. There were a lot of rich Japanese men in NYC in the 80s. I’d take them to the ATM, and together they’d go to these beautiful hotel rooms. The women were living quite well. I could smell their money. I could make the comparison between their situation and my situation. If they cracked down on prostitution, these escort women would not be affected. The only women who would suffer would be the poor ones working the streets.

I have very good instincts. I have a very high BDQ. It’s called the bullshit detection quotient. There was a time when I believed John Stuart was 100% sincere, but he can’t be, because they’re propping him up.

My first stepfather left me some money. In three to six months, I’ll be out of the hole. I’ll have money to eat again. His will is not contested. I’m so glad jeans with holes are in style right now, ha ha, because I can’t afford a pair of jeans at this moment.

Before, I could put up with these down times, but when you’re older, it really works on your nerves. When you’re poor in a poor neighborhood, people understand, because everyone is in the same situation. They help each other. In a middle class neighborhood, no one wants to hear about it. If you don’t have money, it’s your fault.

I’m older. I don’t care anymore. I’m sick of it. I always voted Democratic, but I didn’t vote for Obama because I could sense there was something wrong with him. I liked the idea of a black president, but I did my research. He’s not who people think he is. I voted Libertarian and I’m not even a Libertarian. I was brainwashed enough then that I had to vote.

If we had paper ballots and there was someone to vote for, I’d vote again, but that candidate must be anti-war. The one person I’d vote for is Martin Luther King, but we can’t vote for him, obviously. I didn’t vote in 2012, and I can’t be bothered this time. Machines with their software manipulate the vote outcome anyway. Why do Americans also passively accept this “vote count” with no citizen oversight? It’s pointless to vote any more.

The biggest problem confronting our country is fascism, but it’s only soft fascism for now.

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.

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