Obscured American: Eileen Walbank the ex-insurance company employee

In Philadelphia, I often see Chinese push their grandchildren around in strollers, so the three-generation households are evidently still common in that community. In China itself, citizens can be fined or even jailed for not visiting their aging parents enough. That there is such a law can only mean that familial bonds are weakening, however, as they are in every modern society. By assuming responsibilities for children and the elderly, the state supplants the family, and this is welcomed by most of us. We want to be free during our best years.

Martin Armstrong observes, “Once upon a time, couples would have three to five children for that was their retirement. The family was everything. Then came Marx who effectively replaced the family with politicians. The family structure has declined steadily since the introduction of socialism. Children no longer save to take care of their parents for that is government’s job.”

Having kids is no guarantee that any of them will take care of you, however. There’s a Vietnamese proverb, “One mom can feed ten children, but ten children can’t feed one mom.”

Even with lots of money, old age is often a train wreck, so it’s even more ghastly if you’re broke. In Atlantic City, I photographed a 73-year-old white man, Tony. Dressed up like Michael Jackson, he was dancing to “Don’t Stop Till You Have Enough.” His cardboard sign said he had had a stroke and three bypass surgeries.

Last Sunday, I stumbled upon Eileen Walbank on the steps of St. John in Center City, Philadelphia. Though her tale was mostly grim, she laughed constantly.

My mother grew up on a farm near Pottstown. There was a one-room school, and she was the smartest person in the whole school, I bet you. She could have been running the school, she was so smart.

My mother was a sewing machine operator. When she was young, they had all kinds of clothing factories in Philadelphia.

When she met my dad, she liked him because he was so good-hearted. My father will give anything to anybody. If he saw a guy starving on the street, he’d go home, get some food from his own house, come back and give it to the guy. He was very generous and good, like Jesus.

He’d do anything to help anybody, a stranger, and he was very friendly.

He was good to everybody, but I’ve learnt that you should only be good to people who are good to you. The rest, you can tell, “Go to hell!” They don’t do nothing for you, they don’t help you, they just waste your time.

My father went for a walk every single day. This day, he didn’t take the dog for some reason, a wrong reason. They found his body. A criminal had taken his money and threw him in the creek.

He was 69. My mother lived to be 87.

Frankford wasn’t even dangerous back then. They never found the guy.

My father was a carpenter, like Jesus. He worked on schools and apartment houses.

I have one sister. She’s still living. I’m trying to find her.

She’s in this place where they put people who can’t take care of themselves. I went down to the place, but she wasn’t there. They told me they had moved a bunch of people to another shelter, so I’m still looking for her.

She’s older than me by four years, but she’s not as smart. I think when she was a baby, my parents hit her or drop her on the floor. She was never smart, and she should have been because my parents were very smart.

Yes, my dad hit me. He would hit you with his belt. If I thought I was going to get hit, I’d run away and I don’t come back for a few days.

You could sleep anywhere. You could sleep at the back of a store.

My mother was an asshole, a sweet asshole. She encouraged all the wrong behaviors. She wanted me to become a bookkeeper, and I was no good in math. If that wasn’t the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!

She wanted me to be a payroll clerk in a factory. I don’t want to deal with money. I like to listen to music. I’m a piano player, a good piano player.

I like show tunes by Rogers and Hammerstein. I have them all memorized. If you ever find a piano, I’ll play them for you.

I won the book contest at the library when I was 10 years old. I read 57 books. I thought I’d get a very fancy prize, but I was very disappointed. They gave me a book.

The books I read the most when I was growing up were about people who become stewardesses. The Vicki Barr series, I read every book. When they ran out, I started to read books about nurses.

I was a volunteer at the hospital to get points for my resume. I didn’t like being there at all. First of all, they gave you the worst food. I thought I’d die when I ate that food. They probably gave worse food to the patients.

Each time I got near a hospital, it stunk. They stink. They spray them, but they still stink. I knew I wouldn’t be a very good nurse because I’d sneeze, and all the equipment would fall to the floor. Ha, ha, ha!

There were also books about life as a veterinarian. I liked that a lot. My mother wouldn’t let me be a veterinarian. She said, “I’m not going to give you money to wipe the ass of some dog.”

I couldn’t be a stewardess because I was afraid of flying. I didn’t want to be a nurse. I never wanted to be a doctor, it took too long, and I didn’t have the money. I wanted to be a school teacher because I wanted to be like my Spanish teacher.

I wanted to look like her. Big busted. I wanted to look like Dolly Parton, and sing better than Dolly Parton. I wanted to sing like Dorothy Collins.

I was very beautiful, intensely, but nobody saw it that way. I had a boyfriend. He wanted to fuck me. I said, “Forget that, I’m leaving.”

You needed a boyfriend to go places. You couldn’t get to the movies if you didn’t have a boyfriend. If you showed up at the movies by yourself, the ones with boyfriends, they insulted you so bad, you started to cry.

If you showed up with a girlfriend, they’d call you queer! I didn’t want nobody to call me no queer!

If you want to marry me, you’ve got to pay for my meals. You’ve got to pay for my breakfast, lunch and supper if you are that serious, and if you say anything else, you can go fuck yourself.

If you want to marry me, give me a certificate that states you’re going to pay for my meals at least for the first year, and if you don’t follow through, the divorce is in the process. After that, you can pay for a car and all the other stuff.

One year’s worth of meals. I’m worth it.

I lived through the counterculture. I lived through all that sex orgy without having sex. I didn’t know how to have sex.

I was raised by a mother who said you’ll end up in hell, and she’ll beat you to death, if you sleep with a guy or take your clothes off in front of him.

I went for 20 years to church. The first year, I listened. The second year, I slept through it. The third year, I started to rewrite the sermons, as best I could, to what they were trying to say. The sermons stunk.

The Bible has been around 2,000 years. It’s got the Ten Commandments, which are good ideas to live by. Outside of that, I give it an F-.

I figured if I kept going, they’re going to bring out some guy who would say something different, but they kept saying the same fuckin’ things over and over!

I went to Temple University for free. I had my bachelor’s in secondary education. I was the valedictorian in my high school. I wasn’t the smartest, but the cleverest. It was a $3,200 scholarship. I wanted to go to Penn.

Temple was an inferior school, so I’d spend my time on the Penn campus, trying to meet people who studied at Penn. They had to be rich in order to go there. I met a lot of people who went to Penn, and it’s very good that I did, because one of them helped me to get a job. She was the vice president of an insurance company.

My favorite subject was Spanish. I wanted to learn French too, but I didn’t have time. I still want to learn French.

I won a scholarship to Uruguay which took me to South America. They paid my way for one year. I lived in Uruguay, across the river from Buenos Aires.

Argentina is bigger and much more beautiful than Uruguay, but they only had a scholarship for Uruguay.

I was very lucky. I could live there and learn to speak Spanish better than I could learn in the United States, although in some parts of Philadelphia, all they speak is Spanish.

Quiero ganar dinero para vivir bien en este país, así como otros países.

I was going crazy listening to the kids give excuses about why they didn’t do their homework.

I hated the kids because they were fresh. They would throw stuff at you when you turned your back. They would dirty up your desk, dirty the floor, dirty up the whole room so you would have to stay late to clean it up.

These dirty-mouthed slobs would do anything to hurt you, really hurt you. They threw pencils and erasers at you as soon as you turned your back. It was like hell on earth.

They were white assholes, with white asshole parents. They taught them to be rotten, just like themselves.

I only taught for about three years. I’m glad I left when I did, because I might have thrown the kids through the window. I got a job in insurance, which was much easier, calmer, quieter, easier.

I was in the underwriting department. I hated doing it, because I was always making mistakes in math, so they transferred me to claims. That was the best thing that could have happened. I really liked everybody who worked in claims, so I did good. I was there for seven years.

I married the first guy who asked me. I married a eunuch. I never had children.

The guy couldn’t make kids, so he had to be a eunuch, or he was physically impaired.

He had what it took to be a man, but it didn’t work. Maybe he was a eunuch impersonator! Ha, ha, ha!

He had two legs, and his resume said “male,” so I married the male, but he was a very unproductive male.

It could have been my fault, thanks to my good luck. I have the best luck in the world.

I met the asshole at a dance hall. He came to the dance because his boss said, “I’m only going to promote people who are married.” He had to get married to get an extra two cents in his salary!

He thought I liked him, but I didn’t know him very well. Once I got married and had sex with him, that was it. I was ready to head for Canada!

The first time was bad, bad, very bad. He kept jumping up and down on me. I started to bleed. I had to get out of there before I bled to death.

Inexperienced, that’s the word that’s often used in place of stupid. Ha, ha, ha!

I laughed so hard, the gas came out every way it could come out, through my nose, through my ears, through my posterior parts. Every where it could come out, it came out and knocked the good air away!

I got my sense of humor from my father. He was always telling jokes. The dirty ones, he saved for the men. By the time he told them to us at supper time, he changed them around so they wouldn’t be dirty.

I was married for nine years, and I still can’t figure out how it lasted that long. I hated the guy from even before I married him.

I wanted to get married to get away from home. I figured we’d move somewhere. We ended up living next to his mother.

He was a money counter, like in the Bible, the one who betrayed Jesus. He worked in insurance.

His name was Chadwick. He was also English, an English bastard.

I liked it when people called me Mrs. Chadwick. It was a step up. I was an eagle instead of a doo doo bird.

Doo doo was what the dodos do! That’s what the dodos do do. They do do that, when they’re bored!

I kept thinking it would get better, but it got worse. I should have divorced him right away, but it didn’t occur to me. It wasn’t an option. My mother was always saying, “You have to get married to be anything in life.”

I didn’t care what happened as long as I didn’t get killed. I spent my day in the library.

He came home at night. He watched his moron show on TV. I pretended I didn’t hear. By the time bedtime came, he was pretty tired. We had our one minute of sex, then he fell sound asleep and slept until morning, and the procedure was repeated for the next nine years.

I was running through the house to get away from him, up and down the stairs. I got very good legs from the exercise, running away from him. He was dangerous.

Finally, after nine years, I saw all these people got divorced, so I found out where they got their lawyers. I got my divorce.

He lost, big time. I could have been a good wife if he had some brains, but he had none. His brain was in his ass, and when they gave him an enema, they removed all of it. He had nothing left.

I didn’t get married again. I figured it would be the same shit. I didn’t want to meet someone like him. They say you marry the same kind of people. You always pick out the same kind that you like.

I was unlucky at cards and unlucky in love. I was unlucky, period. Get a new life.

Are you done, John? That’s a John Donne song. John Donne wrote a poem about a bell that chimes. I’m not a poet. I don’t know it. I have Longfellow’s feet. I’m very sweet. It’s rhyme time! John Donne wrote a poem about dying, so you’re finished when you’re done, John!

My sister and I used to joke around like this. My sister has a very good brain, but she never had a chance to use it. She was clever, but where it counts, like holding a job, where you need money to get food to eat, she couldn’t do it.

She couldn’t cook an egg. If she wanted to cook an egg, maybe it would be different, but she didn’t want to. She knew I’d do it for her, because I’d get fed up watching her try 16 times to cook an egg.

I have a hot temper. I’m like the Latins. I think I was adopted. I’m really a Cuban Arab. I don’t know what I am, but I tell you I’m not like my parents. I think they adopted me. I inherited nothing from them except their bad nature.

They were ugly. I’m glad I don’t look like them. If you’re ugly and stupid, that’s two reasons not to like you.

I didn’t want children, I thought they would be in the way, so it was good that I married a eunuch. It was very convenient. I didn’t want a child that resembled that asshole.

My mother always said the worst days of her life were when her children were born, so I figured, the hell with that! I don’t want to have kids. I don’t want to have a bad life. I grew up believing children would make your life lousy.

Sometimes, they do. Sometimes, they don’t.

I wanted to travel. That was my goal. I figured, it would be cheaper. You can’t take a kid on the road.

I’ve been all over the United States. I was out in California, Utah. I wanted to see different things, what people looked like, how they cooked, what they wanted.

I went to Los Angeles. It was very pretty. I wanted to see where all the movie stars were, but I found out they don’t want nobody near their houses. I wanted to see what their houses looked like. I wanted to see if they got ten bathrooms, you know, like what you read in the paper. What do you need ten bathrooms for? You only poop once.

I went to England. From London, my friend and I, we took a train to Yorkshire. We flew to France, then went to Portugal. We rented a car and crossed into Spain.

I wanted to go to Yorkshire because that’s where my father’s relatives were. I met my great-aunt. My relatives were wonderful, wonderful. I love them. They were real funny. They were telling jokes, like me. I love to tell jokes.

Ask me how old I am?

I’m so old, I was a waitress at the Last Supper!

My relatives never wanted to live in the city. They moved right out to the suburb, to a place called Holmes, near Morton.

I have a lot of cousins because my mother had five sisters and three brothers. They all got married and have big families. I’m not in touch with them. I have no reason to be.

They thought they were very smart, but they were very dumb assholes. In five minutes, they could tell you about all the awards they won in their lives. In five minutes, I could be a mile away from them, at a restaurant, begging for food outside and getting something good. I had no interest in what they had to say because they were ignorant. I never got along with them.

My mother said they were a bunch of pissant relatives with no brains, and she was right. “Pissant” was my father’s special word. He reserved that for people he didn’t like too much.

I have no friends out here. I am an original. I don’t mix with other people, because the ones I mix with, they only want to talk about their relatives, so the hell with that. Who wants to hear about someone’s relatives you’ve never met? I’d rather sit here and save my strength, or go to the library and read about what I like.

I sleep in the back of the church, on the steps. Not inside. You have to sleep somewhere, so on the steps I sleep at night, and it’s safe.

If I don’t like the looks of it here, I go over to 18th and Lombard. It’s all lit up, all night. Nobody in their right mind will rob you where it’s all lit up. They want to be where it’s dark, where nobody sees.

I sit there and watch what’s going on all night, and if I fall asleep, I’m safe because it’s all lit up. There are people coming and going.

It might be a drug area. I don’t do drugs, but I see cars coming and going all night, so I think they might be selling drugs from car to car. That’s at 18th and Lombard.

I’ve only been on the streets since January, of this year.

I’m on Social Security. I get $900 a month. Within three or four days, all the criminals in the city know that the Social security went out, so they go looking for people who are old. When these old people walk down anywhere, or sleep anywhere at night, they come and steal from them.

You have to keep your money under your dress, in your underwear.

If you’re in a supermarket, and there are people around, you don’t take it out. You have to keep shopping and shopping, take the same food out, then put it back on the shelf. You have to walk around 15 more times until it’s completely empty up front, when there’s nobody by the cashier, then you can go up and pay.

Someone stole my teeth in the shelter. That’s what goes on, so I said, “The hell with that!” I like it much better on the street.

And it’s not safe at all. They rob you there. If someone is nice and gives you 50 cents, you won’t have it for 5 minutes. They’ll find a way to take it from you.

The shelter is one of the most dangerous places you can be, and that’s why I’m on the street. As soon as the weather was OK, I got out.

If you’re in the shelter, you can’t take anything in with you. You can’t take a comb or a brush or anything.

They won’t let you have your belonging with you. They say they’ll have to put it aside, and you can get it when you leave, but when you go to get it, they say it was stolen.

They stole it.

They steal big time. It’s not amazing. It’s a fact of life.

You think they’re going to help poor people? Forget that! They help themselves to your belonging. If they see something they like, they’ll take it, as soon as your back is turned.

They put drug into the water and make you drink from these bottles.

They don’t want to help you. They want you to stay there. It looks better for them to have a lot of people on their books. They get paid more, the more people they’ve got in the shelter.

You’re their bread and butter, and Brussels sprouts, on their plate.

I had a house. My parents bought it in 1937. It’s a beautiful house. Two stories, gas heat, everything you would ever want. I owned the house. It’s still there at 1629 Lewis Street. Two people, they call them squatters, came and pushed me out of my house.

I went down to City Hall and told them. They said there’s nothing they can do. I went to the police. They said they can’t handle it. Get the sheriff. I went to the sheriff. He said, “Pay me 300 and I’ll get rid of them all.” I paid him all the money I had in the bank, 300 bucks, but he can’t evict them. He doesn’t want to evict them. He keeps the money.

I didn’t let them in. The house was locked. I had gone away for the weekend, and when I came back, they had broken the lock and gone in.

The priest gave me 20 bucks when I told him, so I bought food for one week. Now, that money is gone.

The city runs a place that feeds people with no homes, so I can get my lunch and my supper, then I come back here and ask people for money, and with that money, I save it so I can get more food and anything else I crave.

The church at 5th and Pine gave me these clothes, which are kind of ridiculous. This outfit makes me look like I’m from another country, but it’s warm, so I’m wearing it.

I used to dress like everybody else, but now I want to look different so people will notice me. If I wear jeans or nice slacks, people will say, “Look, she has nice clothes. What is she asking for money for?” But if I wear this kind of clothes, I look like an eccentric from a different religious group. I am not. I’m a Catholic.

If you look different, people will see you, notice you and figure that you have no brains and no money, then they’ll help you out.

I don’t like that free food. I get sick from that free food. They give you stuff that’s all fiber, it makes you shit all day, so I don’t want that food.

It’s got something in it that’s no good. It’s supposed to be healthy. It’s called fiber food, but it’s no good for you. You can eat it once, but after that, don’t eat it anymore, or you’ll spend your life shitting yourself to death. Ha, ha! It’s a shame, but that’s what happens when you eat that food.

They get it cheap. They want it to go around, so they put a lot of fiber and stuff to make it look like a lot, like you’re getting a big plate. The state wants to give you a big plate of food, but they ought to give you three rolls of toilet paper with it. It messes up your clothes.

What they call meat is not made out of meat. It’s a round patty and looks like what goes into a hamburger, but it’s not the same thing. It’s made out of bread crumbs, and they put some flavoring in it, then they burn it, to make it look like a hamburger.

Look at me, I’m strong. I’ve been living for 72 years. I know what to eat, what not to eat. If you eat something that don’t taste good, right away you know you’re eating something wrong. I have a very good idea of what food is supposed to taste like.

I know when I’m eating vegetable. I know when I’m eating meat. I know when I’m eating fruit. I can tell from tasting stuff all my life. I know what I’m getting when I bite into it.

My mother was the best cook in the whole world, and she could take any kind of food and make it taste good.

I go buy myself a sandwich or a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter. Peanut butter and bread, that’s what I like.

My father was a Democrat, because people in construction were Democrats.

I prefer Donald Trump. Hillary has a lot of experience, but he’s so much more intelligent. I’d rather be with the smarter person. I also like his looks.

Trump wants to get rid of everybody who doesn’t think like he thinks. He wants to kill people. Not everybody will come out and say it, but they all want to. I think that’s a very good idea. It solves one problem very easily. Ha, ha, ha, ha!

If you get rid of your opposition, you won’t have to worry about someone coming at night to send you off.

I buy the newspaper, and wherever I stay at night, they have 99 people watching the debates on TV, so I know who says what on these debates, then after the debate, they have 15 people explaining what the hell was said, which you were supposed to figure out the first time.

Half of the people are nodding off. The other half don’t know what to do with themselves because they’re hyper active. I like to watch people to see what they’re gonna do. Are they going to scratch their nose, or scratch their behind, or stand up and dance, or shout in a different voice, or open the window? You know, things that matter. It’s called noticing what people are like.

You look at who’s intelligent, and you ask how long they’ve been there, and what their plans are? When are they leaving?

My plan is to get out of this shithouse, if that’s possible. To leave the shelter and go to New York. I met several people from New York who are very smart. I want to go up and find out what made them so smart, and do the same thing, so I’ll be smart.


People who walk around with their clothes fuckin’ perfect, it’s not by accident. They know what looks good. Like him, he knows what looks good. He’s got clothing that looks good. It costs money. He must have a good job, or he couldn’t afford all that food that made him fat. He couldn’t afford the six meals a day. He couldn’t afford all those banana cream pies.

That guy wouldn’t give me money. Never! He wouldn’t give his wife money.

I looked at his face. He’s a skinflint. He has a selfish mouth. Yeah, if you look at someone’s mouth, you can tell right away. If it turns a certain way, like a dog when it’s angry, like this. He was mad when he looked at us.

We were in his way. We were on his property. He didn’t want to look at us, because he doesn’t want to look at anything he don’t like.

I want people who look at you and give you money, because they’re the people who know that money is the only way you can solve a problem by buying what you like, and do what you want to do.

Smart people give you money. Dumbasses give you clothing and food, especially food they made.

You don’t say at Christmas time, “What would you like for Christmas? And keep it down to 10 cents!”

Some do.

I want to go to New York and get the hell away from this place. Start over. I want to go where there are publishing houses, so I can get a job working in one.

I’m going to get my book published. I’m writing a journal on how you can survive on the streets with no money. There are tidbits on how to save money as well.

I have ten pages, hidden under a stone.

My book will teach you how to live with no money, anywhere. On the street. Off the street. Anywhere.

You can live without money, very well, when you find out that you have none.

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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