Category Archives: Features

Obscured American: Eddie the house painter

When 46-year-old Eddie found out I’d been interviewing people, he wanted to talk. “You can write a book about me!” and that’s true enough, but then again, I’ve never met an uninteresting person. Continue reading

Obscured American: Hank the Christian constitutionalist

America has become an eviscerated country draped in a gigantic flag. Day by day, its culture becomes more grotesque and obscene, a luna park of lunacy. Leached of essence, it burps up slogans, but who’s convinced? Continue reading

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?” Continue reading

Obscured American: Amanda Zinoman the film editor

Yes, it is a bit odd to include Amanda in my series of obscured Americans. She is a very successful editor of films that have appeared on television and in theaters. Her credits include Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider (1994), Carmen Miranda: Bananas is my Business (1994), The Lost Children of Rockdale County (1999), Drinking Apart (2000), The Last Jews of Libya (2007) and Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness (2011). Continue reading

Obscured American: Amanda the ex-nurse

With huge tax breaks, Camden has lured several companies to this wrecked city, so a small chunk of downtown is getting spruced up. Shirtless or in wife beaters, tattooed junkies still lurk around the Walter Rand Transportation Center, but the Third-World clothing stands have been shooed from the shadow of City Hall. Crown Chicken has moved into a less squalid space, and Dunkin’ Donuts has gotten a facelift. A yuppyish-looking bar has opened on Martin Luther King. Continue reading

Obscured American: Eileen Walbank the ex-insurance company employee

In Philadelphia, I often see Chinese push their grandchildren around in strollers, so the three-generation households are evidently still common in that community. In China itself, citizens can be fined or even jailed for not visiting their aging parents enough. That there is such a law can only mean that familial bonds are weakening, however, as they are in every modern society. By assuming responsibilities for children and the elderly, the state supplants the family, and this is welcomed by most of us. We want to be free during our best years. Continue reading

Obscured American: Felix the artist, ex-grocer and ex-hospital worker

Felix lives on the 24th floor of Riverview, a subsidized complex for senior citizens. Once a dreaded housing project, it is now pleasant and safe. Most of Felix’ neighbors are black and Asian. Continue reading

Postcard from the end of America: Fort Indiantown Gap, PA

It’s remarkable that I’ve been friends with Giang for nearly four decades. We’ve spent but a year in the same state and, frankly, have little in common. Giang studied computer science, business administration and engineering technology. He makes more in a year than I do in ten. He drinks Bud Lite and recycles corny metaphors and analogies. A director of marketing, Giang actually told me, “I can sell a freezer to an Eskimo.” Continue reading

Obscured American: Rudy List the retired math professor

Though each life is rich, some are staggeringly so. Over four days in July, I had a series of conversations with Rudy List at his house in Dexter, Michigan. A 74-year-old retired math professor, Rudy introduced me to Hua Luogeng, Zitang Zhang and Terence Tao. In return, I told him about Otto Dix, Cindy Sherman, Honey Boo Boo and Jerry Springer. It was certainly not fair trade. Continue reading

Obscured American: Hank the small business financial advisor

I had spent four days in Ann Arbor, Dexter and Chelsea. This stay allowed me to experience a whiter and more Norman Rockwell Michigan. On two previous trips, I was confined to mostly black and car wrecked Detroit. Continue reading

Obscured American: J.J. the ex-pizza man and Young Lord

Responding to my recent articles about race, “Marx Karl” comments at Intrepid Report: “What is Asian racism? In Africa Indians brought by the British to Africa to fulfill middle management posts or run small enterprises treated the whites as superiors and the Africans as inferiors. So in Europe and the US some Asians play Uncle Tom and identify with whites against blacks other Asians who have been on the receiving end of white racism side with blacks [ . . . ] Continue reading

A view from Japan: An interview with Motoyuki Shibata

In Japan, even a serious writer may be seen on mass advertising, and a translator can become a star. One of Japan’s most famous intellectuals, Motoyuki Shibata is a specialist on American literature. He has translated books by Thomas Pynchon, Paul Auster, Steven Millhauser and Stuart Dybek, among others. Shibata is also the editor of two popular literary journals, the Japanese-language Monkey and the English-language Monkey Business. His book of essays, The American Narcissus, won the Suntory Prize for Social Sciences and Humanities in 2005. Among the pieces are “Wonder If I’m Dead,” “The Half-Baked Scholar” and “Cambridge Circus.” Continue reading

Obscured American: Patrick the ex-computer programmer

Last week, a 55-year-old tourist from Texas was killed when he fell onto the subway tracks at 13th Street Station. He and his wife had just visited the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. Going by the station the next day, I half expected to see some sort of memorial, but there were no flowers, cards or candles. I was heading to Kensington, a place I have written about repeatedly, the last time 10 months ago. Continue reading

Obscured American: Michael the Philly Jesus

Philly is blessed with a generous allotment of public space at its very center. On any day of the week, weather permitting, there are throngs of people at Love Park, Dillworth Park and near the Clothespin. Around this 45-foot-tall sculpture by Claes Oldenburg, I’ve seen an assortment of petty hustlers selling everything from loosies to oddball T-shirts, such as one that said, “IF YOU SMELL SOMETHING STINKING . . . IT’S ILL-ADELPHIA BECAUSE WE’RE THE SH!T. Black Israelites can often be found nearby. Wearing studded wrist bands, studded belts and studded vests over studded, knee-length, fringe tunics, they rail against white people and gays. I’ve seen these guys not just in Philly, but Washington D.C. and Minneapolis. Continue reading

Obscured American: Noam the straying Hasid

Last year in Leipzig, Germany, I met a young woman who had just returned from Chicago, where her family lived in tony Lincoln Park. She had also studied at Williams College in Massachusetts, where tuition alone was near $50,000. Germany was too white, she complained, and she was ashamed of the anti-immigrant attitude shown by many of her countrymen. For Christmas, she went to Palm Springs, California. Though only in her mid-twenties, she had traveled to dozens of countries. Continue reading

Postcard from the end of America: Brooklyn, New York

I spent a week in New York with a handful of Japanese writers and editors. They were in the States to promote Monkey Business, a Tokyo-based literary journal. That Friday, we had a reading in Brooklyn, so I decided to spend the entire day there. Continue reading

Obscured American: Anna the retired teacher, cab driver and computer programmer

Don, Friendly Lounge owner, told me this joke, “How is a South Philly guy like Jesus? One, he’s never left his neighborhood. Two, he hangs out with the same 12 guys. Three, his mother thinks he’s God.” Continue reading

Obscured American: Shane the fighter, heroin chipper and ghetto teacher

In the early ‘90s, I sometimes worked the door at McGlinchey’s. Lurching in, 6–9 Lloyd Lunz guffawed, “Yo, heavy duty bouncer action tonight!” I was only paid $30 for five hours of carding baby-faced carousers, and it was torture to be sober while everybody got trashed. One night, there was some commotion outside, so I ran out and saw Shane wailing on some suited dude on the asphalt, right in the middle of 15th Street. The dude’s girlfriend was hovering above them, screaming. Continue reading

Obscured American: Robert the chef

It’s not right. I came into the Friendly Lounge at 11:45AM, parked my bony ass there for three hours, and saw nobody. In the 90’s, I heard an exasperated crack whore kvetch, “Don’t nobody want a blow job no more!” It’s gotten much worse. In 2016, it’s, “Can’t nobody afford a beer no more?” Continue reading

Obscured American: Tony the Cook

When I lived closer to Center City, I’d take out-of-town friends to McGlinchey’s or Dirty Frank’s, but since moving to South Philly more than a decade ago, I’d drag people to the Friendly Lounge, because it really is friendly. In Philly, black bars tend to be called “lounge,” but Friendly is the haunt of middle-aged white guys, mostly, though there’s Chinese George and myself, and Vern, a black Vietnam vet, as well as a few others of various shades. A Dominican lady, Maria, advised me to abstain from eggs, cantaloupe and papaya after sundown. An admirer of Rafael Trujillo, she loved the fact that he had people’s fingers chopped off, or their nails yanked out. “I hate criminals. I like law and order.” Continue reading

Postcard from the end of America: Silicon Valley

Decades ago, I’d show up weekly to clean the Philadelphia apartment of a California transplant. Daughter of a Hollywood executive, Jacqueline confessed she had to escape California because “California women are too beautiful.” To save her self-esteem, she had to flee to Philadelphia. Continue reading

Postcard from the end of America: Champ Ali in Camden, New Jersey

Going from Philly to Camden, I take a train across the Ben Franklin Bridge, then get off at Broadway. In 1969 and 1971, fire bombs were thrown, shop windows smashed and businesses burnt and looted all around this area. Continue reading

Postcard from the end of America: Don Hensley in Huntingburg, Indiana

I’ve prowled around Gary, relaxed in New Harmony and explored downtown Indianapolis after midnight. There is a bronze statue of John Wooden. Kneeling and suited, the basketball coach is surrounded by five young pairs of male legs, their bodies disappearing above the pelvis. It is very creepy and gay. One of these days, I must barge into the dismal looking Whistle Stop, just across the street from Indianapolis’ Greyhound station. I need to see more of Indiana, that’s for sure. Continue reading

Postcard from the end of America: Woodbury, NJ

The first recorded race riot in Camden, NJ, occurred on September 12, 1864.—The Philadelphia Inquirer: “A riot, which threatened serious consequences, took place on Friday night in South Camden [ . . . ] In an ale house on Spruce-street, a party of men were drinking in the early part of the evening, when some colored men came in and called for drinks. The white men raised objection against the negroes being allowed to drink at the same bar with them, and a fight followed. Continue reading

Postcard from the end of America: Jack’s Famous Bar in Philadelphia

I’ve depicted Jack’s in a Kensington Postcard, two poems and even a Vietnamese article. In business since the end of Prohibition, Jack’s is the last bastion of a Kensington that existed before all the factories moved out and the heroin came in. Old timers on a shrunken budget can mosey in to get buzzed for under five bucks. Though a pitcher of Yuengling is only $3.75, I once saw a woman sit for at least an hour drinking nothing. She just lifted an empty mug to her lips every few minutes. Continue reading

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