Category Archives: Features

Vietnamese Globe—divided by war, united by poetry and compassion

When the plane was landing in Hanoi, I began to cry tears of joy to finally see my motherland and land of birth again. Later, I would realize that my tears were like the downpour of rain nearly every night that week of summer I was in Hanoi. To be in Hanoi was special to me because it was my grandmother and father’s birth city. During the first part of my journey, “Uncle” Quang (Trần Huy Quang), a Vietnamese writer who had served in the North Vietnamese Army during the U.S. war in Vietnam, took care of me and took me to Sapa, Ha Long Bay, around Hanoi and to Vung Tau. The first time I really saw large ponds of lotus flowers was in Vietnam and I was so happy to see those pink blossoms rising from the muddy waters, balancing on their thin, green stems surrounded by large, umbrella-like leaves. Continue reading

Postcard from the end of America: Ashley, Pennsylvania

It doesn’t get any better than this. Luxuriating in Dunkin’ Donuts, Chuck Orloski and I each have our own cup of coffee and, yes, our individual donut. Shrewd, I have ordered one without a hole since you get more donut for your bucks that way. Biting into a jelly filled, deep fried piece of dough, I, too, am fulfilled. Momentarily forgetting about his utility bills and the onrushing due date for next month’s rent, Chuck smiles goofily as he gazes into the half-filled parking lot. Across the street is a cemetery. Life is good. Continue reading

Postcard from the end of America: Carlisle, Pennsylvania

Invited to give a reading at Dickinson College, I came to Carlisle, a town of 19,000 people 30 miles from Harrisburg. Arriving by train, I passed Amish country and saw plows being pulled by horses. On extremely long clotheslines, single-colored clothes fluttered in the wintry wind. Rising high and lithographed against the pale sky, they resembled subdued prayer flags. A white bearded man under a straw hat waved. Lancaster, Elizabethtown, Middletown. Had I sat on the opposite side, I would have been browbeaten by the looming nuclear reactors of Three Miles Island. Continue reading

Postcard from the end of America: Washington, D.C.

For nearly four years, I lived just 20 miles from Washington, in Annandale, VA, and I worked in D.C. for 9 months. From my home in Philadelphia, I’ve also gone down to Washington at least a hundred times, so this metropolis should not be alien to me, and yet no American city is more off-putting, more unwelcoming, more impenetrable, and this, in spite of its obvious physical attractiveness, and here, I’m talking mostly about its Northwest quadrant, the only part visitors are familiar with, and where commuters from Virginia and Maryland arrive daily to work. Continue reading

Postcard from the end of America: Center City, Philadelphia

Ah, to be in perfect health, good looking, with all the possibilities in the world spread out like an extravagant buffet, begging for your attention! Should I become a recording star, the next Obama (or Hillary) or precocious billionaire? Maybe I’ll marry a rich yet good looking one and see the world before I turn 22? Continue reading

Postcard from the end of America: Bridesburg, Philadelphia

Wait till you hear this one. So an Italian, a Pole and an Irish woman were sitting in a bar when a Vietnamese walked in. Continue reading

Postcard from the end of America: Passyunk Square, Philadelphia

Writing this piece, I didn’t have to get on any bus or train, but only walk five minutes to see Beth, someone I first met 28 years ago. Most lives are improbable, I know, but when I listen to Beth talk, I often find myself thinking, That can’t possibly be true, but her facts have always checked out, and her stories consistent, even on a retelling many years later. Continue reading

Postcard from the end of America: Taylor, Pennsylvania

The sixteen-year-old’s consciousness was percussive with recorded music, as usual, when the train slammed into him, and it’s not clear, even now, if it was suicide or merely absentmindedness that killed this boy. (To have your inner life constantly stunted or suffocated is already a form of death, but had he lived, this incipient man may have eventually outgrown his three-chord addiction.) Continue reading

Postcard from the end of America: New Orleans

This time, I got to New Orleans on a bus named Mega, and it also dropped me off at Elysian Fields. In Nola, there’s a street called Arts, so of course there has to be one named Desire, and Tennessee Williams clearly saw the two as intertwined, thrusting and plunging their bodies against each other. Of course, death will interrupt this coupling not just finally but every step of the way. Continue reading

Postcard from the end of America: Osceola, Iowa

The American presidential election is a drawn out, byzantine process that involves precinct meetings, regional caucuses, state primaries and national conventions, all to give citizens the impression that their participation matters, for in the end, the lying buffoon who gets to stride into the White House has long been vetted and preselected by the banks, death merchants and brainwashing media that run our infernally corrupt and murderous country. Continue reading

Postcard from the end of America: Jackson, Mississippi

Riding the train from Chicago to New Orleans, I impulsively got off in Jackson, Mississippi. I had never thought about visiting Jackson, never even saw a photo of it, so I had no idea what I’d encounter. In the train’s lounge car, however, a boisterous game of dominoes, with much laughter and trash talking, already told me I was in the Deep South, and the towns glimpsed along the way, Tchula, Eden, Bentonia, spoke of a quietly dignified world that’s also besieged and crumbling. Continue reading

Postcard from the end of America: Wisconsin

Before we start, I must admit that I didn’t set foot in Wisconsin this time, but only saw it from the train as I crossed it going West, then East. (I had been to Madison and Milwaukee before.) This, then, is really a train postcard, but the long distance train is a community in itself. In fact, Americans seldom have such thorough conversations as when they’re trapped on a long distance train. If only more of us could be confined that way, we would relate to each other a whole lot better, but such a wish also conjures up citizens being packed into boxcars as they’re sent to hard labor, or much worse. How many Americans will cross this country without seeing any of it? Continue reading

Postcard from the end of America: Portland, Oregon

Our train was hugging the Columbia River. Sitting in the lounge car, a father looked at that huge, snaking ribbon of silvery water and said to his young son, “I’m just jonesing to go fishing. That’s the first thing we’re going to do when we get home!” Then, “That Colts shirt really looks great on you, Jack!” Continue reading

Postcard from the end of America: Tri-Cities, Washington

Though this may sound like a joke, it’s certainly no joke, for I’m not a joking type: When I came to the US in 1975, the very first American song I learnt was “Old McDonald Had a Farm.” Though I could not properly pronounce any of the words, and understood only half of them, at most, I sang along with all the other kids in Miss Dogen’s class at McKinley Elementary in Tacoma, Washington. Continue reading

Walking is life, part II

In the first part of Walking is life, I disassembled myself psychologically to a shrink named Jerry Sabath. He worked with his positive ways of explaining how to keep your health by walking, stimulating your neuro and vascular system providing life, not to mention sound thinking. Continue reading

The Good Humor Bar

At five-thirty on a summer Sunday afternoon, I take a walk down Riverside Drive, past the children’s pocket parks, the time-worn benches, the golden sun shining through the giant elm trees, the couples, families, loners sitting on the green (the sign says don’t sit on it,)—nah and I invariably walk over to the Muslim ice-cream man who automatically hands me my favorite, the giant ice-cream sandwich wrapped in silver foil, which I unwrap to give me a lift. I know I have a limited time before the sun begins to melt it—and the three dinky napkins the ice-cream man has gave me is barely good for daintily dabbing my shirt, shorts and Merrills. Continue reading

Postcard from the end of America: Wolf Point, Montana

It always amazes me how many people get on a train just to play cards, for outside their windows, a most amazing world is constantly unfurling. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Southwest Desert, Northern Plains, Cascades or Rocky Mountains, they don’t look up from their miserably dealt hands to notice that Eden is just a glass barrier away, but that’s how it is with the uber domesticated. They prefer a shrunken, airless civilization, as contained in 52 puny pieces of laminated cardboard, to the unscripted richness they’re entitled to at all times. Although it’s free, they don’t take it. Continue reading

Postcard from the end of America: Williston, North Dakota

Oil made this America-dominated, futuristic world and with its increasing scarcity, will unravel it. Most pampered yet most disappointed, we’re living in the age of peak oil, water, gold, copper, wheat, rice, cabbage, porn, greed and banking shenanigans, etc., for with more mouths than ever going after a shrinking donut hole, the ugliness is just getting started, and let us not forget, this age of oil has also been an era of mass carnage, a century of resource wars that have wiped out hundreds of millions, but for the survivors, us grubby schmucks, what a cool ride, eh? Continue reading

Am I here?

Do you ever get the feeling that you’re not here, you’re walking in a dream? But what is here, now, and tangible you think. Is it an unmanageable world of violent yahoos that you see on Russia Today TV tearing themselves apart, here, there and everywhere? What is here but your inner voice that turns your head like a tank top and fires into a crowd? The jolt wakes you up. You recognize you’re in your bedroom. You think this is only your own personal narrative. Perhaps it is. You’ve become a zombie with a passport to cross into all states of mind and, dare I say, being like Jerzy Kosiński. Continue reading

I found my thrill on Wave Hill

First, forgive me Fats Domino for parodying your great tune’s title, but I found my thrill on Wave Hill in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, New York, during a period of extended unemployment. I returned to it over and over again to escape from my Upper West Side residence. My initial impression was that I had found heaven on earth—sweeping acres of impeccably landscaped grass and flowers, that rolled down to, believe it or not, a train rail. Discovered the mansion on it had been provided for people like Arturo Toscanini. Continue reading

Little League on a sunny day in Prospect Park

There he came, my five-and-a-half-year-old grandson Joseph, number eight, crossing home plate on the condensed diamond of one of Prospect Park’s giant meadows. The first iPhone snapshot of the day. This takes place under robin’s egg blue skies that turn to gray clouds, then showers and blue skies again. This as the cheers of my son-in-law, Jonathan, my daughter, Stephanie, my wife and I spur Joseph on. The kid is a natural. Swings a fast bat into the ball, drops the bat and runs to first, rounds it to second, third then home. Continue reading

Homage to the old soldier

If scenes of Normandy at war and peace can be called beautiful in any way, it’s in the contrast of the locales from today to 70 years ago. Continue reading

A day in the park

The day was Memorial Day and we were meeting my cousin and his wife in in Brooklyn’s Botanic Gardens. The price was right at $5 per senior. And in we walked checked by a polite guard. Continue reading

Walking is life

I once had a shrink whose basic axiom was ”Walking is life.” Obviously, if you walk a lot, you exercise your arms, legs, and torso, you also exercise that inner voice, your brain, spirit, call it what you will, that part that reflects what you see in the world around you. Continue reading

Postcard from the end of America: Levittown, Pennsylvania

In 1947, the first Levittown was built in New York State, then in 1952, an even bigger one was erected in Pennsylvania. Marketed as “THE MOST PERFECTLY PLANNED COMMUNITY IN AMERICA,” Levittown was the prototypical American suburb. For only $10,990, or $100 down then $67 a month, you could own three bedrooms, two bathrooms, front lawn, back yard and garage, plus access to five Olympic-sized pools, with free swimming and diving lessons thrown in. Most soothingly, you no longer had to deal with strangers above, below or abutting you, or dark skinned neighbors who may alarm or irk you as you went about your white routines. Continue reading

Postcard from the end of America: Manhattan

Getting off the Greyhound bus at the Port Authority Terminal, I immediately saw a man in his mid-50s digging through a garbage can. With his right hand, he held a plastic tray on which were placed whatever edible scraps he could find. Lickable flecks clung to his ample brown beard. Chewing while scavenging, he was quite leisurely with his task and no one among the many people sitting or standing nearby paid him any attention. Done with one trash can, he moved to the next, and since there were so many in this huge building, I imagined his daily buffet to be quite ample and varied. Continue reading

Spring has sprung again in New York

The sun is pouring down on The Upper West Side, Broadway. The Market is glistening with fresh produce. And life suddenly seems more livable and invigorating. I’m watching the trees blossom, some white, some pink, and it all seems a miracle happening all over again. Life, precious life, is here again. Yet over the rest of the world the same can’t be said. Life in the Ukraine is like a bad dream. Kiev is leaning against Eastern and Western Crimea and outbreaks of hostility are taking place and taking lives. Continue reading

Postcard from the end of America: Bensalem, Pennsylvania

When I told my friend, Anwar, of my plan to traverse Bensalem by foot, he laughed, “You can’t even walk there. There are no sidewalks!” Though this is not quite true, I did find myself mostly schlepping on edges of roads or people’s lawns. To not get splattered by SUVs, sometimes I had to hop puddles or even step in mud. Continue reading

Postcard from the end of America: Columbus, Ohio

I was in Columbus all of ten hours. Even downtown, some of the sidewalks were clogged by snow, and as I crossed the Sciotto into Franklinton, my trudging became even more laborious. Mostly I walked on the side of the street, and on side streets, right in the middle. Continue reading

Siren City—is it so bad?

I don’t need an alarm clock, even when we have to get up to catch a plane. The sounds of my Upper West Side neighborhood are filled with catastrophic siren sounds. We don’t need birds before the dawn has cleared away the night; we have ambulance sounds whose decibels scorch your ear drums. We also have police cars that make thumping sounds that are other worldly. And to top it off, we have screaming fire engines with honking horns that can wake the dead. For all this, New York City remains one of the most expensive cities to live in. Ah wilderness, Sleepy Hollow. Continue reading

Perazzo’s, the family funeral parlor

I’ve been going to Perazzo’s all my life, from the time when it was family-owned and catered to Italian families, until a few years ago when it was privatized by a corporation. Continue reading

Postcard from the end of America: Chicago

I’ve been coming to Chicago forever, but always just for a day or two. Continue reading