Postcard from the End of America: West Scranton, PA

On Thanksgiving, I came to Scranton to stay with a 65-year-old friend who’s going through a cage fight kind of divorce, though only one side is dishing out the sharp elbows and knees. Just hearing Christmas music at the Dollar Store was driving him mad, Chuck confessed. The four-hour bus ride from Philly stopped in Doylestown, Easton, Stroudsburg and Mount Pocono.

Getting off the bus, I thanked the friendly bus driver, a middle-aged black man. He, too, would have a late Thanksgiving dinner. From the terminal, Chuck came into the cold to meet me, and together, we walked half a mile to The Lighthouse, his group home. Paying $400 a month, Chuck gets a 10X10, plus use of the communal kitchen and dining room. Paying $100, I got five nights.

Sister Lindy Morelli, the blind Carmelite nun who runs Lighthouse, was supposed to have dinner with me, but since she suddenly had a migraine headache, I ended up eating solo. Though a vegetarian, Lindy had made a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for the entire house. My heart-warming plate had turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mash potatoes with gravy, string beans, cauliflower and carrots. For Lindy, I brought a bottle of Chianti Classico, complete with the black rooster seal, but she drinks no alcohol, I found out.

“Can I cook with this?” Lindy asked me the next morning.

“No, no, it’s too good for that!”

“Oh yeah?!” She laughed. “I’ll give it to my sister then.”

Founded in 1994, The Lighthouse has hosted nearly a hundred people. As could be expected among the destitute, there have been criminals, freaks and life-long bunglers, but the vast majority were just ordinary folks, down on their luck. One morning, I chatted with 55-ish Lee Ann, who had been at The Lighthouse for over a year.

“When you told Chuck you had to go to work at 8, he said, ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’ That’s pretty funny. Why sorry?”

“Ah, you don’t know! The dayshift people don’t do nothing, so when I come in, I’ll have to clean up after them. They don’t count the leftover newspapers, or put them away. It’s not my job to train them. I don’t get paid enough!” We laughed.

Price Chopper is a supermarket chain. This week, you can get 10 cans of Chef Boyardee for just 10 bucks. Lee Ann has worked there for six years.

The short, slightly overweight lady was on the couch, while my rotund self was beached at the dining room table. On the walls were crosses, Jesuses and uplifting messages. Over the stairs was a watercolor of a kneeling woman with her hands together, “Prayer is the key to the morning and the lock of the evening.” The Lighthouse doesn’t proselytize, however.

Lee Ann sighed, “This week, I’ll have three funerals to go to go. Three!”

“Wow.”

“One is for a co-coworker. She’s in the bakery. We just took up a collection for her.”

“She has no family?”

“She lived with the mom. She had kids, I think, but no husband.”

“How old was she?”

“Around 35. She died of a blood clot.”

“Dying of a blood clot at 35!”

“She was a big girl.”

Lee Ann has had her own health issues. She had a brain tumor removed at age five, and was operated on for kidney cancer recently. Her recovery, she attributes to a miraculous icon at St. George, a Greek Orthodox church she attends every Monday and Wednesday, “I was waiting outside in my car by 4:30. The door opens at 5, and service begins at 6. It’s always packed.”

Online, there are several testimonies about the healing power of the myrrh exuding icon of Taylor, PA. One example:

A man had a massive heart attack while in the church. Two nurses who were present rushed over to him and began to do CPR, while others called 911. As the nurses tried to revive him, he showed no pulse, stopped breathing and actually died. While waiting the few minutes for the ambulance to arrive, Fr. Mark Leisure, the priest of St. George Orthodox Church in Taylor, PA took the Kardiotisa, “The Tender Heart” myrrh-flowing, miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary and held it over the man so that the fragrant myrrh would drip from the icon onto the chest of the man. Immediately, the dead man took a deep breath, opened his eyes, and began singing “Mary, Mother of God Save Me.” By the time the paramedics arrived, he was sitting up and didn’t think he needed to go to the hospital, even though they insisted that he get checked.

Another:

One stranger began to attend on Mondays, and at one point stood up and said, “These icons in the Church are against Allah. They are idolatry.” He argued that Allah was not pleased with these icons. After attending for a few weeks, this man from Iran finally approached the icon. Fr. Mark admitted that everyone was tense because he wasn’t sure what the man was going to do. Over the past three years, Fr. Mark has seen someone pull out a knife and try to stab the icon; others have tried to smash it; some have spit on it; and one person even vomited over the protective case. The man from Iran approached and stood motionless in front of the icon covered with fragrant myrrh. Fr. Mark said the man was like in a trance, and it seemed like a battle was going on in his mind. Slowly a tear formed in his eyes, and he began to cry. He kissed the icon. As he walked out of the church, he stopped by the candle stand and wrote something in the sand in Arabic. Since no one could read Arabic, the priest took a picture of what he wrote and got someone to translate it. The man wrote, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Several months later this man was baptized and is now a pious Orthodox Christian.

“I’m a walking miracle,” Lee Ann declared. The icon gives her energy and hope.

Going back upstairs, she said, “I don’t know about this Meghan with Prince Harry. Everybody’s talking about it! Ellen was discussing it, and that’s what they’re going to talk about, too, on The Talk. The Queen is not too happy about Meghan being divorced, you know, but I say, ‘Look at your own son, Charles! Just shut up already!’”

Their coal seams exhausted, their factories gone, Scrantonians get by on dead-end jobs, cheap alcohol, pills and unaffordable heroin. In September of 2017, Lackawanna County sued pharmaceutical companies over the ever-deepening opioid crisis. “The line has been drawn,” the county commissioner declared.

Scrantonians down opioids at nearly twice the national rate. Last year, an overdosing 21-year-old was strangled to death with jumper cables by three of his close friends, including his girlfriend. The police, “Bottom line, they drove right past a hospital and continued north on I-81. At this time, we are not sure why they did that.” Stopping for gas, they put sunglasses and hat on the corpse.

As the CIA and big pharma get away with pushing drugs, it’s the minnows that get busted. For transporting marijuana, Jack Reese got locked up for 20 years. OK, so it was a ton, enough to fill a U-Haul, but weed has never hurt the least of God’s creatures. Jack now works for the St. Francis soup kitchen in downtown Scranton.

Barrel-chested, nail-tough yet mellow, Jack is a guy you’d want on your side in any fist or firefight. Before he was snagged, Jack spent two years in Kensington, Philly’s heroin bazaar, “I wasn’t dealing drugs then. I painted churches.”

“Really?!”

“Yeah, but I wasn’t, like, Michelangelo or nothing. I painted the outside.”

Many early mornings, Jack would give shelter to a freezing whore, “By 3 or 4, their prices would go down.”

“Were they good looking?”

“The tops of their heads looked fine to me!”

This time, Jack ducked into Waldo’s Tavern just to say a quick hello to me. In this old man bar with a shuffleboard, I was surrounded by near fossils who reminisced about incidents from half a century ago. A tallish fellow, Herb, recounted, “I could outrun even the black guys, so the coach had me returning kicks and punts. The one time I scored a touchdown, however, one of our guys pushed one of theirs in the back, so the touchdown didn’t fuckin’ count.” Herb shook his head. Commiserating, I did the same.

Several of the old heads had worked for Roadway, the trucking company, and so I heard tales from the endless war between workers and management. A black worker pulled out his schlong in front of a new manager, as the man was talking on the phone. A manager’s car was slammed in the parking lot. Grease was smeared onto office phones.

“They were all cocksuckers, I tell you. They got kicked out of every bar in Scranton. One manager took a dump on a pool table, can you believe it? They went to a Red Barons game and punched the fuckin’ mascot. It turned out she was an 18-year-old girl! A manager’s wife had just delivered a baby, so on the way from the hospital, he picked up a prostitute. He thought it was hilarious!”

The man on the next stool, Earl, survived Roadway for 38 years. Retired, he can devote more time to his passion for antique bottles. He showed me one, on his phone, that’s shaped like the head of George Washington, “I bought it for $25. It’s worth several hundred.” Earl’s five kids are all productive, drug-free citizens. I met one who’s a manager at Dunkin Donuts. The cheerful young lady is getting married this Saturday. Earl and his late wife also raised his two nieces, after their dad had died.

During my four hours in Waldo’s, the three televisions showed ESPN nonstop, and on the wall, there was a Pittsburgh Steelers’ Terrible Towel. Though a Steelers fan, Earl hadn’t watched an NFL game all year, he said, in protest against black players kneeling during the national anthem.

Like any other blue-collar town or neighborhood, Scranton is aflutter with the Star-Spangled Banner. There’s a guy who drives around in a white pickup truck, with two large flags in the back, plus two small ones up front. On many city buses, there is an ad for the Pennsylvania National Guard, “SECURE YOUR FUTURE / DEFEND YOUR COUNTRY.” Among the perks is “Low-Cost Health Insurance.”

Without it, you may end up like a middle-aged man whose smiling face is on posters around town, “BENEFIT FOR PAUL ‘OLLIE’ MORGAN, TO HELP DEFRAY MEDICAL EXPENSES RELATED TO HIS ON GOING BATTLE WITH CANCER.” A Ticket costs $20. Food and refreshment will be served.

One afternoon, Earl took me to meet Thinh, a Vietnamese-American garage owner, “I’ve known this guy for over 20 years. He’s a great guy. Oh, you’ll love him!”

“Should I speak Vietnamese to him?”

“Yeah, that would be great!”

We entered the man’s office to find him on the phone. One of his employees, a white guy, was also there. In his mid-60s, Thinh spoke English fluently, but with a heavy accent, “Oh, I’m old! I don’t want to work no more. Some morning, I just want to stay home and relac!”

Then, “My daughter, she always give me a shit, but I can’t sell my businet yet.”

Phone conversation done, he turned to me, so I smiled and extended my hand, “Chào anh, tôi là người Việt Nam. Tôi là bạn của thằng này.”

Face blank, Thinh said nothing, so I continued, “Anh nói tiếng Việt được chứ?” Still nothing.

Laughing, I turned to Earl, “Yo man, this guy can’t speak Vietnamese. He’s probably not even Vietnamese!”

“Yeah, he’s probably Chinese or something!”

I said to Thinh, “Wow, man, you really can’t speak Vietnamese. Don’t you speak Vietnamese at home?”

“No, my wife is American.”

Though we exchanged pleasantries, I could tell Thinh wasn’t all that comfortable with me around. It’s as if I was threatening to expose a hidden side of him. He couldn’t afford to become another dude in front of his Scranton buddies. Leaving, I said to Earl in his car, “Man, that was weird. He’s older than me. He should know Vietnamese.”

“Yeah, he was in the war. He’s shown me his bullet wounds. He also goes back to see him mom every two years. I don’t know. He’s a great guy, though. You want to hear something funny? One time, an insurance agent called to sell coverage for his workers, so he was polite and listened to her, but she went on and on. Finally, he said, ‘Listen, lady, I only hire Mexicans, and they’re all poor and on welfare, so they can’t afford your insurance,’ then he hung up!”

“That’s pretty funny!”

“And Thinh doesn’t even hire any Mexicans. Here’s another one. He went back to Vietnam and bought his mom a propane tank, so she wouldn’t have to burn wood for fuel. Two weeks later, he found out his mom wasn’t using it, so he called her and said, ‘Ma, I saw dad last night in a dream, and he was crying and crying. It’s all that smoke from the wood you’re burning!’ So he got the old lady to use the propane tank at last. Isn’t that clever?!”

With so many Poles, Irish, Italians, Ukrainians and, now, Mexicans, Scranton is filled with active churches. Across the street from the Lighthouse is St. Joseph Melkite Greek Catholic Church. Founded by Lebanese immigrants in the late 1890s, it still features Arabic hymns in its service. Last Sunday, I went to mass there with Chuck, and it was wonderful to see the joyful congregation, especially the well-dressed and angelic children.

The priest read a letter from the bishop. One sobering passage stood out, “Only six out of twelve Melkite churches in Aleppo, Syria, are even open. Our Melkite bishops must provide food, rent, medicine, and even home rebuilding for these poor people. Because of your generous response to last year’s Bishops Appeal, I was able to send $60,000 to five Melkite bishops in Syria to assist families devastated by the on-going conflict.”

Later, the priest appealed to God to guide our president, senators and congressmen, that entire cabal of genocidal Satanists. Good Lord, I thought. As long as Americans, church-going or otherwise, keep voting for mass murderers, nothing will change.

That night, Sister Lindy Morelli made stuffed peppers for dinner, and of the five at the table, only I had a spouse. Middle-aged Lou and Scott had never married. Done with eating, Lindy sang “Ave Maria,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and, her favorite, Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.”

“Ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend / When people can be so cold / They’ll hurt you, desert you / And take your soul if you let them, don’t you let them.”

Amen.

Linh Dinh’s latest books are Postcards from the End of America (non-fiction) and A Mere Rica (poetry). He maintains a regularly updated photo blog.

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2 Responses to Postcard from the End of America: West Scranton, PA

  1. As John Steinbeck and Sinclair Lewis did in their time, Linh Dinh gives a voice to working folks who are largely ignored or disparaged by the corporate media.

  2. As always, it is heartening to read your stories of the neglected corners of the country called Amerika; it is changing fast to oblivion, thanks in part to “that entire cabal of genocidal Satanists”.
    Keep it up Linh, and consider, even after all that bloodletting in Nam, Amerika is now mocking the natives of that country with the “urge for cheap labor goods”.
    Yes, the Cabal achieved their goal, they are making slaves all over.
    Love your pics

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