Obscured American: B.B. the bartender

The flame-like tree and yellow stars from Van Gogh’s Starry Night burn on B.B.’s right shoulder. Blonde, slim and 33, she bartends at Friendly Lounge twice a week. She calls everyone “darling,” as in, “Are you good, darling? You need another one?”

When B.B. told me she had lived in the Tenderloin, had drifted much, was fond of Jameson and yearned to write, I trumpeted, “I’ve got something for you!”

My apartment was but half a block away, so I went home and grabbed Yasunari Kawabata’s Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, William T. Vollmann’s Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs and Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son.

“Check these out! These will turn you on and get you going!”

B.B. wasn’t familiar with Kawabata and Vollmann, but Jesus’ Son was a favorite. From memory, she quoted from its first tale, “I knew every raindrop by its name. I sensed everything before it happened. I knew a certain Oldsmobile would stop for me even before it slowed, and by the sweet voices of the family inside it I knew we’d have an accident in the storm.”

“It doesn’t get any better than that!” Feeling inexplicably entitled, I then treated myself to a Maigue of Jameson as I heard B.B. confide:

We’re white trash. I’m third generation American Irish, you know. When we came to this country, we were trash. We’re still trash now.

My aunt’s husband would steal her car once a month. He would go, “Honey, I have to go run this errand,” and he would be gone for a week. He would be hacking on MLK or Mickle Boulevard. Generally, his passengers were people who were trying to procure drugs or a prostitute, you know. They’d get pulled over. People would shove their drugs in the car.

My aunt would report her car stolen, and the police would recover it in Camden, usually abandoned somewhere because he was off on a crack binge. When she got her car back, she’d call my mom’s house and I’d go over in the middle of the night to search it for drugs. When I found bags of crack, which I always did, she’d give them to me to go sell for her, then I’d split the money with her. That was normal for me when I was 13 years old.

I had a cousin who was a prostitute. Somebody threw her out of a second story window, with a trash bag full of her clothes after her. She rolled off the roof.

My stepfather was a Jehovah’s Witness, so we never celebrated birthdays and things like that. I don’t even know what my mother’s birthday is. When I was a little kid, I had to leave the classroom for all the other kids’ birthdays, and for my own birthday as well. It’s so absurd. I wasn’t allowed to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

So much of my life was determined by that religion. My stepfather, he honestly believed that these were the words of God. You’d be hard-pressed to ever convince him that it was just some moron. Just go to the Wikipedia page for Jehovah’s Witnesses, and read how that religion started. It’s absurd.

My stepfather, the first woman he ever dated was my aunt, my mother’s older sister, and she broke up with him because she thought he was a weirdo. My stepfather was 34 years old when he started to date my mother. She was his second girlfriend ever. He never had sex with a girl. He never had an intimate relationship with any woman. He never moved out of his parents’ house. He was a 34-year-old virgin who lived at home, and to him, that was the right way to live.

And this guy was the preeminent source of information on the world. This man who had zero life experience knew every goddamn thing.

My stepfather was abusive physically, emotionally and sexually. He was a pervert, a sicko. He would punish me for the smallest infraction. For breaking a glass, I would be made to stand naked in a corner, on one foot, with my nose touching the wall, which was impossible. I was only four. I should have been in bed. That’s not even the tip of the iceberg, you know, and he believed he was right. He had a profound, profound mental illness, but not according to him.

For all of his religious, self-righteous indignation at my choice to read books and pursue art, since he’s the preeminent source of knowledge for every situation, you know, this all-knowing, Godlike being he designated himself as, he lived in sin with my mother for years.

He slept in the same bed with her, having sex with her, and not reproducing children. According to them, sex is for reproducing children, not for the pleasure itself, but he lived in sin with my mother for years. They were together for 10 years before they got married. Even as a child, I called him out on it. Their justification was that we, my brother and I, were such a burden, our sheer existence was such a burden, that the only way to offset that was to live in sin, so they could receive welfare.

My mother worked occasionally. When I was little, she would just stay in bed all day. She would get up about half an hour before my stepfather got home from work and pretend she had done things, but she didn’t do anything. I would sit there by myself all day. She watched soap operas.

For a few years, she worked, then she would be out of work for a few years, then she would find another dead-end job, then she would lose that job. It was just a series of dead-end jobs that she couldn’t keep.

I’ve always worked. Even when I was a kid, I’ve always had a job. I worked two or three jobs at a time. When I was 18, I worked at a comic book store, and across the street, there was a Toys R Us. For years, I would do their stocks for Christmas, and I did Halloween Adventure. You know, I was a manager for them. I would travel up and down the East Coast to set them up for the retail season.

I was sleeping in my car a lot because I was working so much. I would get out of my job at the comic book store, sleep in my car for a few hours, then go to Toys R Us to work all night.

I got my mother a job at Toys R Us. I got her a job at a supermarket where I worked at. She could never hold a job, though, for long. It was always somebody’s fault, you know, she couldn’t work.

My dad had a job with his uncle who owned a sheet metal business in North Philly. My dad died on my 19th birthday, at the exact time that I was born, 8:35 PM. He died of a cancer in the fluid that lines your lungs. He had worked around asbestos for one week of his life, 20 years prior to becoming ill. One week.

My father was a functioning alcoholic. I didn’t see him a lot. He had visitation when we were little, but he would show up too wasted to take us anywhere, or he wouldn’t show up at all. We really started to see him when we were, like, 15, 14. He’d come around, and then we wouldn’t see him for huge gaps of time. My father, he came back when I was 17, when I was out of the system, when I was free again. I saw him then.

My father actually tried. He tried his hardest to stay sober, and he tried to keep me with him. We were sharing a two bedroom apartment with my father, my stepmother, my step brother Steven, my half brother Sean and myself. Me and my dad slept in the living room. I slept on the love seat. My dad slept on the sofa. The judge didn’t find that to be a suitable living arrangement. It was far better for me to live in a jail cell, among strangers. My father tried to hard, too. He tried to stay sober to keep me. I know that it hurt him deeply that I got taken out that time. I know that he felt like it was a personal failure of his.

I hadn’t broken any law, so they couldn’t put me in jail, but they couldn’t release me because I had nowhere to go, so every 28 days, they would just move me to another facility. Imagine moving every 28 days when you’re a teenager. Imagine changing schools every 28 days.

I was stuck in this quagmire for years. There were so many youths that were in a similar predicament. I wasn’t in foster care or in a group home. Group homes had a shortage of beds, and they were generally reserved for people who had broken the law.

I was locked up in Bordentown, which was a maximum security youth detention. It’s where they sent murderers and rapists if they were under 18, you know. I was locked up in Lakeland, which was also a maximum security detention center.

I shared a cell with a girl named Belinda. Belinda stabbed her boyfriend to death when she was 14 for a gold chain and a pager. She killed her boyfriend. That’s who I shared a cell with. I had a mat on the floor. Belinda, I’ll never forget her. She was 17. She was going to get released on her 21st birthday.

I was the last person in New Jersey to use the slave law to sue the state and my parents to get custody of myself. I became emancipated. I was recognized as an adult at 17.

I was in the system for five years, so I had five years to look into it. Immediately, they changed the law. You can’t do that anymore.

I had an extremely dedicated social worker. At the time, I was an asshole and didn’t appreciate her for what she did for me, but that woman genuinely cared. Most of them don’t, and it’s because they are underpaid and overburdened. They have massive caseloads and people just fall through the cracks. I could have been one of those. Thankfully, I did have one or two people who were in my corner. Otherwise, things would have turned out much differently.

I left home when I was 14, and I have never been back. The last time I saw my mother was at my father’s funeral, when I was 19.

My grandmother and I were very close. I lived with her off and on. I quit school my 11th grade year to take care of my grandmother. She passed away when I was 17. After she died, I left for California.

At 17, I moved to San Francisco. I had never been out there. The plane ticket was $233, one way. The plan was to just go there and get a job. I had $40 in my pocket and no place to stay. Before I left, I did a little bit of research on Wikipedia. I knew nobody out there.

A lucky thing happened to me. When I got to San Francisco International, I found a couple of cameras. To this day, I wonder about the origin of these cameras. On them were all these men of Middle Eastern descent. Obviously, I don’t know their national origin but they looked Middle Eastern. There were all these photographs of underpasses and bridges. It’s like I found some terrorist’s fuckin’ cameras!

I didn’t call the police because I needed the money. I hocked them. They were good, high end cameras. I had to feed myself, you know. I got a BART pass. Transportation out there is beautiful. It’s not like here where it’s poverty transportation, meant for poor people. Rich people have cars. Out there, it’s for everybody to use, and it’s very effective and efficient. I just used my BART pass and traveled all over for a week. I got to know the city. I went on every train and trolley line, you know.

When I first got there, I lived in the YMCA, in the Tenderloin. It was $35 a week. There was a shared bathroom but you had your own private room. It was fine. The Tenderloin is still nicer than any neighborhood I grew up in, and nicer than any neighborhood I lived in in Philly or New Orleans.

I found a job within a week, at Trader Joe’s. Eventually, I moved into a beautiful apartment on Polk Street, three blocks from the wharf. I stayed in San Francisco for just over a year.

When I was 30, I moved to New Orleans. I lived there for over two years. New Orleans is like a different world. It’s the last Banana Republic. It’s as free as you can be and still be in the United States.

I got a job immediately but it wasn’t a good job. Eventually, I lucked out and got a job at the Dungeon, a heavy metal bar. It’s been there since 1969.

When I first got there, I went out and bought an 8th of weed, you know, really nice weed. I was going around the city, drinking. I was on my bike, riding around. I ended up locking my bike up, because I got too drunk. Eventually, I wanted to take a cab. The driver agreed to take me back to Araby, which is as far south as you can get in New Orleans and not be in Chalmette, the next town over.

The guy drove the dead opposite direction, towards the ghetto. It makes the worst part of North Philly look like a beautiful suburb. The guy drove me to some seedy motel, then tried to jump into the back seat with me, so I ran out of the cab and into the motel. I was just banging on doors. I didn’t want to end up murdered or raped or, you know, left in the fuckin’ bayou.

The cab driver called the police and said that I refused to pay my fare. The cop then robbed me of all my cash, my whole paycheck, all my weed, then left me there with no way to get home, with no idea where I was.

I don’t trust people who don’t have a distrust for the police. I have never, ever met a good one. I have friends who have stories that are worse than that.

You know what the cop told me? I said, “How can you do this? You’re supposed to help me. This man drove me me here and I don’t know where I am.” He’s like, “Call the police!” That’s what he told me to do, and laughed, after he had robbed me. The police told me to call the police.

I think men’s experiences and women’s experiences are much, much different.

The cops in Camden would pick up the prostitutes. They would haul them in for solicitation, then take them to Morgan Boulevard and fuck them. If the girls didn’t fuck them, they knew they were going to jail, so the police basically raped people. It’s like, who cares about her, she’s just a whore anyway.

The police there was so bad, they had to fire them all. Everything had to be cleaned out, it was so fuckin’ corrupt. They have cameras in place of officers now. They can pinpoint a gunshot within feet of the bullet striking. It’s fuckin’ amazing. They can tell an automatic rifle vs. a shotgun. They have cameras throughout the city.

There is such a distrust of the police in Camden, people take care of shit themselves, like if they found a pedophile on the block, they would just beat him within an inch of his life. They would rather handle things themselves than call the police. When somebody robbed a house, they would just handle it themselves.

Things happen for a reason. People don’t have this distrust naturally. Most white Americans are raised to trust the police.

If you want to get a view of humanity, if you want to see how the other half live, go over to Camden and take a walk through the streets.

I like gritty cities. I liked New York before it got cleaned up. New Orleans, Detroit, Philadelphia. Detroit is great for exploring, if you like urban exploring. There are all these abandoned buildings. Last Christmas, I went out to Detroit and stayed for a while.

There’s a huge transient population in the United States, and places like San Francisco and Los Angeles attract that. Our system is specifically built that way. Capitalism is designed to create a population of disenfranchised people. Many people have heard of Skid Row, but they can’t wrap their minds around it. It’s larger than all of these little, tiny towns in Pennsylvania. It’s massive.

New Orleans is much the same way, but they have these squatting laws. You can squat in a building, you know, if you invest money into that building. If you get the plumbing, you can take control of that building and it can be yours legally.

I went down there to get serious about my writing, but I became serious about my drinking. I was interested in fiction. I still write, but I haven’t had anything published in ages. I always carry a notebook. I think my real life gets in the way of my intellectual or interior life.

You have to make money, and the past several years, I’ve had a lot of moving. Moving is good but also exhausting. I like to switch it up and I like to move around. I’ve been back to Philly for a year-and-a-half, maybe, not even, and I’ve moved, like, I can’t even tell you, 30 times maybe?

I spent the last two days in Doylestown, at my ex-fiance’s place. We’ve been broken up for about a month. I was in jail for a week about a month ago. It’s a long story. Charlie was wasted and accused me of stabbing him. He had a cut about this long. It’s a little, tiny cut. He produced the knife.

With domestic violence, they don’t play around. Having been a victim of domestic violence, I can give you an example. I lived with a man for a year or so. We both drank a lot, like, we drank a lot. He would get into these rages. He was sure that I was cheating on him and I was lying to him, and he would hit me out of nowhere. I never called the police on him but the neighbors did, and he got hauled off to jail. They don’t play with that. If they let you go one time, the next time they come out, it’s to pull somebody’s body. People get killed.

I have a good friend who’s a criminal defense attorney, one of the best in the state. He took my case for free. Charlie hasn’t shown up for any of the court hearings. The last one will be on the 7th of October and it’s going to get thrown out, hopefully.

I don’t want to sue him. I don’t want anything. I love him. I want to make things work with him. I adore him. We were engaged for about 6 months, and we’d been together for 2 years.

I met Charlie in New Orleans. He’s the only reason why I came back here. Charlie is from Philly. He was homesick and he missed his family. Down there, he couldn’t make the kind of money he was used to. Our relationship was going to end. He was going to leave and I was going to stay. He asked me to come three times. The third time, he promised that he was going to be good to me, someday.

Charlie works with his family. He works in construction, demolition, renovation, that type of things. He’s not hard up for money. He’s a fuckup in many ways, but not that way. Charlie’s a 35-year-old child. It’s a plague of our generation. I’ve met people who came from far less than him and have struggled far more, so no, I don’t see that as a viable excuse.

I was in the Round House for over a day. It doesn’t sound like a lot of time until you are incarcerated, when you’re in a 4 by 4 by 8, and you share that with two other people, and all you have is an iron bench and a toilet, you know, and a cheese sandwich every 12 hours, and a 6 ounce bottle of water. Twenty-four hours doesn’t seem like a long time but it feels like fuckin’ forever when you’re there.

I was in county jail for a week. It was a fairly awful experience. It was dehumanizing. It was meant to be dehumanizing. A week is nothing, but it was the last week of the month. I missed my Saturday shift at work. We were moving out of our house. We had to be out of the house before the 1st, so by the time I got out of jail, I had one day to find a place to live and pack all my belongings. If I hadn’t been bailed out of jail in time I would have lost everything I owned. I would have been on the street.

Bail was $4,000, so it’s 410. I got my job back, thankfully. I could have easily lost this job. I would have had no money and no place to stay. I had no phone in jail. When you’re arrested, they don’t just give you your things back. They hold it. I had to get a ride back up to State Road to get my things back. It had to be between 9AM and 11AM. They make it very difficult, too, especially if you’re poor. They released me at 9 o’clock at night, and I didn’t have my phone. They give you a dollar for a transfer and a subway token. That’s our system. If they release you from the Round House, they don’t give you anything. If I had made bail there before I got to county, I wouldn’t have had a dime to my name. It’s a terrible system we have in this country.

When I was arrested for this domestic violence incident, this aggravated assault, alleged stabbing, they didn’t even ask me anything. They didn’t take photos of my bruises and I had these bruises on my face and body.

This whole thing is biased. Anybody can make an allegation against you, and you don’t get an opportunity to defend yourself. You don’t get to speak to the judge. You speak to your public defender at court, five minutes before you get tried, so they don’t know you. They don’t care about your case, you know. It doesn’t matter.

This system is not designed to help or support people. It’s not with justice in mind. Most people have no idea.

The media portray the Black Lives Matter movement or just my entire generation as, like, this privileged, entitled, PC, spoiled generation, but they have no idea. We’re a generation of kids who grew up alone, with no fathers. When we’re 8 years old, we have keys to our houses, do our own laundry, make our own meals. We’ve been on our own our whole lives.

This is the first generation in American history that are less educated than the generation before us. We’re underpaid. We’ll never own houses. We’ll never pay off college debts. Those of us who did go to college can’t pay off student loans. We’re underpaid, and there’s nothing to do about it. There’s nowhere to go, you know.

In essence, we’re totally screwed. I know this sounds awful, but the best thing that could happen for this country is for the Baby Boomer generation to just die. Like, they ruined everything for everyone. They fucked us all.

They could be working class and have a good life. They got the middle class but then they destroyed it. They destroyed it. Greed destroyed this country. The middle class then and middle class now are not the same thing. There is no true middle class.

My mother’s generation and the generation before them, they could go to college for a reasonable amount of money. They could get a decent job. There was a salary. Imagine that! Nobody can imagine having a job with a salary, with benefits and health insurance. I have never had health insurance. Never!

I don’t have Obamacare. When I filed my taxes last year, I didn’t even get penalized for it because I didn’t make enough money. Technically, I qualify but I don’t want to deal with it. I don’t want anything from this government. I don’t want food stamps. I don’t want their money. I don’t want anything. Keep it! I don’t want to feel beholden. I don’t want to feel like I’m getting something for free, you know. My teeth are broken, I go to the dentist and get them fixed myself.

I don’t mind working for what I have, and I don’t mind going without. If you get really sick, you can go to the hospital and say you’re indigent. They can’t deny you service in an emergency room. You need to be very specific with the words. You need to say you’re indigent.

When they ask you your name, I usually never give them my real name. I have, like, $7,000 in medical debts. You can go bankrupt and it doesn’t clear you of medical debts. So many Americans go bankrupt because of medical debts, but they will still owe that money.

There is a huge wealth gap in this country between the haves and the have nots. I think a lot of people don’t realize it. I think a lot of white, southern, American people think that brown and black people, if you keep them down, if you cut those people out and keep them oppressed, that somehow they’ll be able to buy into a system that was never designed for them in the first place. That somehow brown and black people are the ones, they’re the cause of the problem. They’ve been fed that their whole lives.

They don’t realize that it’s not an issue of race in this country. It’s an issue of wealth. It’s an issue of class. It’s class warfare. By dividing us in that way and keeping us separate, by keeping us occupied with things that don’t matter, we don’t see the larger picture, which is the wealth inequity in this country.

When you’re mad at the guy who makes $8 an hour at the bank and the CEO is taking $200 million bonuses to rip you off, you’re mad at the wrong person. There’s a whole lot of that going on all the time here.

The poor white people, they are mad at the government because we have a black president. They’re mad at black people and brown people for being poor even though poor whites represent the largest proportion of people getting Medicaid and food stamps. White people receive more of that than any minority in this country, you know, but they think that if they can keep those people dispossessed, they’ll be able to buy into the system where they’ll make more money. They’ll be able to work or buy their way into being in a higher class, but that’s not the way it works.

I’ve known this one black kid since he was 14 or so. He’s like a little brother. I look out for him. I consider him family, but we don’t share any blood. I love him.

He’s got a good head on his shoulders. He’s 19 now. He was born in the hood. There’s no opportunity for him. His little brother is in jail. His older brother is in jail. He’s the only man in his family that’s not arrested. He takes care of his grandmother and his mother. His grandmother is 96-years-old. He supports his brothers. He puts money on their books, pays the lawyers. He works his ass off. When that phone rings, it means he’s got work. He’s got to hustle off and go sell drugs.

I make him come by once a week to say hi to me. He doesn’t get anything out of it. I want to make sure he’s OK. When I was in jail, the only person whose phone number I knew was his, so I called him. Through him, I could talk to other people. If it wasn’t for that kid, I’d be sitting in jail still.

I’ve been engaged three times. I’m loyal to a fault. I’ve never cheated. I’ve been cheated on so many times. I don’t understand people who need to do that, and it’s not like I’ve had no opportunities. As a young woman, people hit on you all the time. It seems so sad. You must have such low self-esteem to want to be validated in that way, to need that attention. I don’t want that attention. I don’t see the point. It’s just sad.

When I was younger, I wanted to be an architect or a writer. I wanted to save enough money so I could travel. People are fascinating. The world is beautiful. The country is huge. The world is massive. There’s so much to see.

I’ve never understood people who don’t travel. Most people live and die within 50 miles of where they’re born. That’s statistically a fact. I’ve always had a wanderlust. I’ve always liked traveling. Moving around so much as a kid probably has a big part to do with that.

I wanted to tend bar, because that’s a job skill you can take anywhere you go.

I never did anything I couldn’t walk away from. If you’re a bartender, drinking is a lifestyle, but I never became addicted. I don’t get drunk anymore.

People go, “Oh, I don’t know where I’ll work, and where I’ll live.” That doesn’t even occur to me. Like, I know I’ll figure it out. I’ll always land on my feet. I’ve slept outside, you know. Things happen. I’ve never gone through a large gap of homelessness, just a couple days here and there.

I know plenty of people who feel anger about their hardship and their lot in life, but it didn’t serve me any longer. Forgiveness is an amazing thing. I’m an adult now. I can’t be angry about something that happened 20 years ago. What’s the point? For so long, I was so consumed by anger, I didn’t feel anything else. I couldn’t love. I still don’t trust people. I’m not capable of it.

I love my fiance. I have faith that he can change. I want to give him an opportunity that was denied me. If you want a second chance, you must give it. If you want love or forgiveness, you must give it. Being angry made my heart sick, my head sick. I’ve been physically ill from stress, from sadness. I couldn’t get out of bed. You must put a tourniquet on your anger or it will eat you alive.

Some people have the hardest time admitting they were wrong in the first place. It’s out of the question, you know. My mother never acknowledged that she was wrong. She was never able to apologize to me because, in her mind, she didn’t do anything wrong. She can’t even see her part in it. She allowed my stepfather to do what he did to me. She was abusive by her inaction.

I’m not angry with her. I feel sorry for her. I wish I could help her. I wish she could step outside of herself and see, that they can both see what they’ve done. I just feel sorry for them. With that being said, I can’t let them be a part of my life.

I feel like the luckiest person who ever lived. Most of my friends are dead, or tied down with a bunch of kids they don’t want and can’t take care of. I’m in an occupation that I love, and I have my freedom.

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.

One Response to Obscured American: B.B. the bartender

  1. Another fine article from Mr. Linh illustrating everyday life in our dog-eat-dog society.