I’m back in Philly to wrap things up, return my apartment, give a paid talk and say goodbye to my friends. With Felix Giordano, I’ve hit bars in the Italian Market, Point Breeze, Pennsport, Fishtown and Whitman. Soon, we’ll run over to Billy Boy’s in the Pine Barrens, where the owner/cook makes some of the best comfort food anywhere, and the hardy, friendly people soothe our souls. Mellowing in there, it’s hard to believe you’re only 30 miles from the mayhem of Camden. Even in the Piney, though, things have changed for the worse. “You can’t really smell pig shit anymore,” Felix pointed out. “It’s not like when I was a kid, coming here. There’s less pig farming now.”
At Nickels’, I had a $3.50 roast beef sandwich that came with pickle, peppers, horseradish and potato chips. Can’t beat that! There was a sign, “DRUG ACTIVITY WILL NOT BE TOLERATED HERE.” At a Fishtown dive, Teresa the bartender comped my second Guinness, “Welcome to the neighborhood!” There, I talked to a 56-year-old union electrician, Matt, about Poland, the economy, his fishing boat and heroin. We both know people who’ve died from it.
Matt showed me, on his cellphone, a young man nodding on a subway train. A couple years ago, Matt found a friend passed out on the street, so he lifted him onto a shopping cart, pushed him home. The man died soon after from an overdose. “This guy was a football player in high school, man, a super jock, and very popular.” As we chattered, the pleasant smell of marijuana wafted in from the sidewalk.
As Felix and I were leaving Sit On It, a middle-aged black lady stood up and shouted at us, “I love you all! Love you all!”
Wandering around Center City, I enjoyed the bustle and fine, cool weather, but also got reacquainted with the sights of sleeping or panhandling homeless. Near City Hall, I noticed a row of broken glass panes at a subway entrance. I’ve been to maybe 30 countries, and the only one that had the same level of vandalism and graffiti as the US was Germany.
With purple hair, eyebrows and lipstick to accentuate her cadaverous complexion, an out-of-shape, college-aged woman wore a jean vest that had a cupcake on each side. “EAT SHIT” “AND DIE,” they said.
At Thomas Paine Plaza, there’s a multi panel art project celebrating Dreamers, or underage illegal immigrants. One large image shows a Hispanic girl studying a book, Milk and Honey, with these words surrounding her, “Education THINKING Research Success FUTURE Expert SKILLS PROGRESS JOB KNOWLEDGE TRAINING DEVELOPMENT PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE ADVANTAGE FOCUS LEARN WORK SOCIAL LEADERSHIP EMPLOYMENT TEST HOPE HARD WORK,” and so on.
Everywhere, there are LOOK UP/SPEAK UP signs to condition citizens to be suspicious of each other. Since the 9/11 false flag, enforced paranoia has become the norm.
Sticker on a steel pole, “THE LEFTIST AGENDA: DIVIDE AND OPPRESS.”
At a bus shelter, a fat man with a vapid expression sat next to a poster advertising the TV show, Arrested Development.
Near City Hall, there’s a white sign with a black arrow, pointing to the ground, “HUB OF HOPE.” I have no idea if it’s a joke.
Three days after I got back, I checked the Inquirer to find out nine Philadelphians had been shot within 18 hours, with five dead. Among the survivors was a 61-year-old man who had been hit in the groin, and a 28-year-old who had been blasted in the face. I was certainly not in East Asia anymore.
Six Temple students have been killed or committed suicide this academic year, with two business majors overdosing from drugs within one week. A 24-year-old was found dead in the library. In 2017, 1,217 Philadelphians died from drug overdoses, up from 907 in 2016. Per capita, Pittsburgh tops the country in drug deaths.
Discussing the opioid crisis last year, I was hissed at by a gaggle of pissy ostriches. One sneered, “What are these places he’s talking about? And the commenters, too? Who are these degenerates? I don’t know a single person or place that fits ANY of this. And I’m no spring chicken.” It is hopeless.
One evening, I ran into a 41-year-old bartender who had been fired, months before, for being so fogged up, she couldn’t give the correct change or even hear a drink order. It didn’t help that Becky also downed shots of Jameson while working.
“You look great, Becky! You really do. The last time I saw you, you were pretty out of it.”
“That guy Jack who gave you pills, he fucked you up!” Handing out pills, Jack got whiskey back.
“The pills did help me, Linh.” Becky’s foot was in extreme pain.
“Jack got you fired.”
“Yes, he did.”
In retrospect, Becky is not all that sorry to be canned, for her boss was an asshole, “Elio kept telling me to not let the Mexicans sit at the bar. ‘They have to sit at the tables,’ he kept saying, but how do you tell people they can’t sit at the bar?! That’s why I came home crying all the time. One time, Elio came in and yelled at me, ‘Why is that guy sitting at the bar?!’”
“I know Elio’s an asshole, but I didn’t know he was that much of an asshole!”
“That’s why he won’t stock Corona or Tecate. Elio doesn’t want Mexicans in his bar.”
“With all the old white guys gone, he should welcome these Mexicans as customers.”
“And they’re good customers, too. He keeps saying they don’t tip, but they do tip. They’re very sweet and never cause any trouble.”
With no work since, Becky’s been supported by her 48-year-old boyfriend. They’ve been together eight years. Volatile, he sometimes beats her.
Two years ago in Brooklyn, I interviewed Noam, a straying Hasid, and we’ve been in touch since. I encouraged Noam to get out of smug, close-minded New York whenever possible, so he could be more exposed to life’s infinite variety. Last Yom Kippur, Noam came to Philly for the first time, and he liked it so much, he returned this Shavuot. Noam emailed me, “I’m actually in Philly again for the weekend, avoiding another Jewish three-day holiday.” Huge family gatherings had become insufferable to the 25-year-old apostate.
From his Airbnb room in Fishtown, Noam walked four miles to the Friendly Lounge to meet me. Along the way, he stopped in Old Philadelphia for a Yuengling or two. “It’s a great old-school bar,” I texted him. One by one, they’re being destroyed. To many people’s dismay, Jack’s Famous Bar, with its 400 brown, dusty bottles of liquor from the 1930s, has been shuttered by the building’s new Asian owner. It was owned by a bookish Jew who would sit at the back, leaning over a novel. Mel charged but $4 for a cheesesteak. I had planned on stopping by to say hello.
In two years, Noam has made great progress in shedding his Hasidism. He has a job as a driver for a car leasing company and is enrolled in college. “My psychology teacher is this pretty hot Asian woman who dresses like a porn star.” He has read Kafka, Singer, Erik Erikson and Kerouac, among others. His wardrobe of thrift store clothes has become increasingly casual and colorful. He keeps his beard trimmed and has even shaved his head.
Noam sees me as a sympathetic, advice-dispensing uncle, so I try my best to fulfill this role. Noticing plenty of crusty, pustulant, maroon and chalky scales on his arms and scalp, I cringed, “What the fuck, man! You’ve got to do something about this.”
“It’s the stress. I’ve had it since I was twelve.”
“You’re not going to get laid, looking like this.”
We had been talking a lot about women, just like the last time. Noam informed me that a love interest, Rachel, had gotten married, so he’s now focused on a Taiwanese-Australian with a “temporary boyfriend.”
“I feel so behind,” Noam said in the darkened Friendly. “Growing up, I was told to stay away from all women, as if they were a great source of danger, and even at home, I was not supposed to touch my sister. Ever!”
“That’s pretty extreme!”
“When I was 12, I had my first spermache.”
“A spermache. I had my first ejaculation. I was in sitting in class and feeling extremely claustrophobic. I had never felt so trapped, I just wanted to get out of there, but I couldn’t, then suddenly, it happened, and I felt so relieved, but also fearful and confused. I had no idea what had just happened.”
On television, Jorge Alfaro had just reached on an infield single, plating somebody. Led Zeppelin blared from the juked box.
“All through my teens,” Noam continued, “I felt so much guilt because I was attracted to my male classmates. I just wanted to touch them.”
“You thought you were gay?”
“No, it wasn’t that. Just the sexuality. I didn’t understand why I felt such a strong need to touch.”
“And you didn’t feel this towards girls?”
“There were no girls! I was never around any girl!” Noam leaned back, lit another cigarette then huffed out a disgusted smile. “Recently, I was on a commuter train, and surrounded by all these gorgeous women. They were showing legs and cleavages, so I had an erection, you know. It was so obvious, I thought I might get arrested. Suddenly, this huge black guy came in and sat down. He was manspreading. For some reason, I came right then. I was practically convulsing. I thought surely, everyone knew, but nothing happened.” Noam laughed.
“Man, you must solve this soon, get it out of the way, so you can think straight!” I did add, “But sex, though, isn’t just the act. It’s the totality of being with someone. One step at a time, man. You can be with a girl, and get used to each other, then if it happens, it happens.”
“It almost happened.”
“What did you do?”
“I went to a massage parlor on the Lower East Side.”
“A Chinese place?”
“Yeah, and she touched my penis, gave me a hand job. She was about 32, and good looking too. That was the very first time anyone touched my penis, and I’m not counting myself, of course. That was my very first sexual experience! It cost me $80.”
“You overpaid, but so what! At least you got that out of the way. So did you go back?”
“Yes, I did, three times, but they never let me back in.”
“That’s fucked up. They must have thought you were a cop, man.”
“I think so. I tried another place, but they gave me a guy!”
“That’s funny as shit!”
“I wasn’t going to pay good money to have some guy knead my back, so I insisted on a woman.”
“So did they give you one?”
“Yeah, a 65-year-old!”
“Some of them can look OK,” I smiled.
“This one was super ugly. She shoved a hand in between my butt cheeks, but I felt nothing.”
“What a nightmare.”
“It was. Another time, I had a date with a black girl, and she let me touch her thigh. She was very aggressive. Finally, she said, ‘I want you to come home with me,’ but I couldn’t.”
“I was filled with fear.”
“That’s understandable. Hey, are you familiar with the shower scene from the movie, Carrie? It’s very famous.”
“Not at all.”
“It’s this girl with a very religious mother, and she’s in the school shower, after gym class, and she has her first period ever, so she freaks out, because she doesn’t know what’s happening. Screaming, she runs to her classmates for help, but they just laugh at her and humiliate her. Why don’t you pull it up on YouTube.”
As we watched all these supposedly teens with 70s haircuts pelt a cowering and naked Sissy Spacek with tampons, Noam sighed, “That’s me, man.”
Through Noam, I found out about incel, an internet community of involuntary celibates. Unable to get laid, they rage against women, as well as the men who can bed them. In today’s sexual economy, the beefcakes, “chads,” don’t just snag all the babes, “stacys,” but shag all the plain ones, “beckys,” as well, leaving no nookies for the weak-chinned, pencil-necked, stoop-shouldered, muscle-free or just plain socially-awkward dudes.
Before allegedly killing 10 people with a rented van in Toronto this year, 25-year-old Alek Minassian declared on FaceBook, “The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!” In 2014, a similarly sexually-frustrated Rodger murdered six people, before killing himself.
Much has already been written about the incels, but most commenters have only focused on their worst, most hateful aspects, without much sympathy for their sexual starvation. While no man can demand access to a woman’s body, it’s also true that access to sex, love and acceptance is becoming increasingly hard to come by for more Americans. A recent NBC headline, “Americans are lonelier than ever—but ‘Gen Z’ may be the loneliest,” so the trend is towards more social isolation. Confirming this withdrawal and defeat are spreading addictions to porn, video games and opioids.
In this winners take all culture, there’s a widening sex gap between the haves and have nots. While some are sexual Walmarts, many more must lick whatever scraps flutter their ways. Those who can’t get any are still titillated nonstop, for this is the land of the endless come-ons. Masturbating, they can consume sex as spectacles.
On June 1 in Las Vegas, at least a thousand people are expected to participate in the world’s biggest orgy ever. Couples must pay $200, and it’s $25 for single women. Since no single men are allowed, the incels can stay home and seethe. The current record is 500 people, established in Tokyo in 2006. Japan, too, has a mushrooming population of sexless miserables.
Pushing cockteases as much as bombs, we must expect eruptions.