Last Philly glimpses

Céline half joked, “If you stay anywhere long enough, everyone and everything will stink up, just for your special benefit.” Without this pungency, however, there is no real understanding of anything, and Céline knew this as well as anyone. With tremendous physical and mental courage, the man endured. He survived being wounded in WWI, a year in Africa, a month in America, being a slum doctor for decades, WWII and the consequences of being an anti-Semite, everything but his first marriage.

I first encountered Céline as a 22-year-old, living in a crappy shell-of-a-house in grim Grays Ferry, and paying all of $25 a month for rent. Filled with illusions and vanity, I had no idea Philadelphia would be my life, would define me, but it’s perfect, this fate, for everyone must stay somewhere long enough for everything to become richly three dimensional, with a complex and nuanced history.

Thirty of my 54 years have been spent in Philly, and walking or crawling, I’ve measured this city with my body, for I don’t drive. As a housepainter, house cleaner and window washer for over a decade, I worked in dozens of neighborhoods, and I’ve roamed around many more, so just about every Philly tree or trash can addresses me by name. Behind this bush at 34th and Walnut, I once slept. At 11th and South, I was nearly mugged by a guy wielding a hammer. The last three months, then, have been one drawn-out goodbye, filled with last glimpses of places and faces.

Goodbye, then, to Point Breeze, with the lovely Rose in Sit On It. Months after I’d written about the 54-year-old, she told me more about herself. She was born of a Dominican mother and African father, of which country, she’s not quite sure, for she never really knew him. Rose’s mom was a bartender. “When I was 14, my mom came home at around 3 in the morning, woke me up and forced me to iron her dress. Being sleepy, I burnt it, you know, and this pissed her off so much, she made me take my clothes off and get in the shower, then she burned me all over with the red-hot iron! I ran downstairs and hid in the utility closet, but I couldn’t deal with the pain, you know, so I knocked on a neighbor’s door. I can still remember the man’s face as he called out to his wife, ‘Martha, there’s a naked woman at our door.’ When his wife came out, she said, ‘That’s not a woman, Robert. That’s a child!’”

Rose never lived with her mom again. She worked her tail off, married early, had two kids, but was so depressed, she ballooned to 275 pounds, all on a 4-foot-10 frame. Now free from her abusive husband and amazingly down to 130 pounds, Rose’s as cheerful and sweet as can be.

“You know what I’d like to do someday? Take a cruise!”

“Which country would you like to go to, Rose?”

“Oh, I don’t know, maybe Hawaii?”

Goodbye to Dirty Frank’s, which I’ve also written about, including in a poem that mentions Skinny Dave and Sheila Modglin. The first is dead of an overdose, and Sheila is still in the hospital, after being hit by a car four days after the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory, as the entire city was partying away. Though merely a bartender, Sheila started a non-profit, Sunshine Arts, that provided all sorts of classes, and an occasional field trip, for the kids in her Upper Darby neighborhood. Buzzed, I’d shout out, “You’re a saint, Sheila! A saint!” Everyone agreed. Now, Sheila’s a bedridden, speechless angel.

When I was in Frank’s in the 80s and 90s, I would see Uncle Moe, a silent, stooping man, nursing his Yuengling in the corner. Twenty years later, I would find out that Uncle Moe was actually a pill pusher. He’d start out his day with a lox and bagel at 4th Street Deli, drop into Friendly Lounge for his morning beer, then drift across town until he ended up at Dirty Frank’s, two miles away, his leisurely lifestyle supported by drug dealing.

On Delaware Avenue, there are more beggars than ever, and nearly all of them white, dirty and wasting away. Seeing these likely junkies, my friend Felix would bitterly joke, “They’re sure enjoying their white privilege.”

Goodbye to 9th and Market, where the electronic news ticker dismally announces, “In the opioid epidemic, breastfeeding emerges as a possible crime.”

Goodbye, too, to Suburban Station. With its tacky shops, seedy eateries, confusing passageways and underlit, tucked away corners, it’s a magnet for the homeless, drifters, assorted weirdos and busking musicians. In 2013, I wrote a poem about a competent through diffident guitarist who strummed outside the Dollar Store. Once, Tony had made OK money as a pizza deliveryman in Cape May, then came the drugs and rehab, so now, he was reduced to living in a house with a bunch of pigs, including one who consistently splattered and smeared the toilet seat.

In 2015, I ran into another Tony. A serious 23-years-old, Anthony Coleman had a large sign around his neck, “When you first look at me, do you see . . . / A black man? / OR / A human being?” Next to him was another sign, “Will you stand for LOVE and TRUTH? / Join the Movement!” Armed with a high school education and almost no work experience, Anthony was not just interested in becoming a life coach, but a revolutionary thinker and global leader of love and peace, “In ten years, I see . . . the Human Race Movement established. I have a team go across the country, to be featured in schools. They go into different businesses and talk to different people. I even see them go overseas.”

Goodbye to 12th and Chesnut, where in 2015 I met a homeless man with an IQ of 165. John’s SAT score was 1560, just 40 short of the maximum. When I confessed that mine was only 1110, John laughed, “I hear McDonald’s is hiring.”

After earning his PhD in applied mathematics from UPenn at 20-years-old, John worked for 18 years in a bunch of countries for the Defense Intelligence Agency and US Army, then he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

With his monthly pension of $2,700, John should have been OK, except that he’s contributing $2,000 to his mom’s nursing home cost, “At first we had her in a cheaper nursing home, but we visited her on Tuesday, and she’s wearing a sunflower dress with a mustard stain, and when we visited her on Saturday, she’s wearing the same sunflower dress with the mustard stain, plus ketchup and chili stains. When you have Alzheimer’s, you really need one-on-one care at meal time, and she wasn’t getting that. If no one is paying attention to you, you may not eat at all. It is a sacrifice, but I don’t see it as a sacrifice. I’m happy to take care of mother.”

To not panic constantly over nothing, John had to take seven psychotropic drugs daily, “I’m usually not this social. I have a hard time talking to people,” because they’re just too insufferably stupid, basically. “When you have an IQ of 165, regular people are like special need kids. They’re retarded. Once you go below a hundred, you’re talking about a chimpanzee, dude, or a severely retarded human being. If I meet someone with an IQ of 120, which is considered pretty smart, it’s like I’m talking to a bonobo. Bonobos are almost humans.”

Seeing two freaks on the ground, a young, attractive and bright-faced woman smiled at us, so I blurted, “She smiled at us, did you see? I don’t fuckin’ care how smart she is. She has a great spirit. She smiled at us, for no reason!”

“But how can you have a conversation with her afterwards?”

“You can ask her, I don’t know, how she feels?”

“I don’t care what she feels! I don’t care if she feels.”

In case you don’t already know, Philadelphia is filled with geniuses. Just yesterday, I met one more, 65-ish Jim, in the Friendly Lounge, “I’m a genius. I’m a combination of Albert Einstein, H.G. Well and Thomas Edison. I’m trying to give you an education here. I’m an astronomer. The nearest galaxy is the Andromedy Galaxy. It’s two million light years away from us. In other word, it would take us two million light years back in time. There’s a billion galaxies out there, so we’re not going to argue the fact that the universe is vast. I know it, everyone is gleaning on my knowledge. I’m very humble. The universe is vast, and the earth is small, but, ah, we can’t get there.

“I live in Upper Darby, since you asked. I don’t want to know where you live. I’d rather live in Maine, yeah, or Canada, anywhere but here, or Iceland! I’d like to go where people leave you alone. I don’t like to be bothered. I don’t like people.

“This is Washington Avenue. What would George Washington think if he saw this city right now, this disgusting street, with all these ugly things? Except for the Friendly Bar. Except, fuck yeah, for the Friendly Bar!”

There’s nothing more common than a man who grossly overestimates his own intelligence, and since everything beyond his grasp is invisible to him, he may even fancy that he’s the sum of all knowledge, more or less, minus a few trivia not worth noticing.

In 1896, Chekhov wrote, “Look at life. There is the insolence and idleness of the strong, the ignorance and brutishness of the weak, horrible poverty everywhere, overcrowding, degeneration, drunkenness, hypocrisy, lying. Yet in all the houses and on the streets there is peace and quiet. We see the people who go to the market, eat by day, sleep by night, who babble nonsense, marry, grow old, good naturedly drag their dead to the cemetery, but we do not see or hear who suffer. What is terrible in life goes on somewhere behind the scenes. Everything is peace and quiet and only mute statistics protest.”

Soon enough, though, there would be more than mute statistics protesting, and Russia would never be the same. A cataclysm awaits this country also, but in the meantime, the good-hearted camaraderie and banter still reign in the Philly dives I love so much.

In Nickels, a woman in her mid-40s shouted to a man across the bar, “You’re so good looking, you should thank your mother!” She then turned to the rest of us, “You’re good looking too, and so are you, you and you!”

Bill the carpenter then said to Felix and me, “You guys are artists. You are so rich.” He’s right. Philly has enriched me immeasurably. One can’t live on stories alone, however, and that’s why I must pack my bags.

In an unflinching recent essay, Ron Unz pointed out that “a substantial fraction of our population has been reduced to a 21st century version of the drunken, ignorant, exploited, indebted, impoverished, and immiserated Slavic peasantry of the Jewish-dominated Pale of Settlement,” and though the peons are becoming increasingly enraged, they’re only aiming their ire at at trumped up, media hyped targets and scapegoats, but what do you expect from a population that’s ever more relentlessly brainwashed?

No meaningful resistance against our criminal overlords can begin unless we probe, purge and overhaul our banking, media and educational system, for there dwell the main traitors and perverters of this country.

It’s getting late. Goodnight, then, to this purposely imploding nation.

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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