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 50′s 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.

Like central libraries, bus stations are daytime havens for America’s homeless, but the man described above is a throw back of sort, for his number has dwindled considerably ever since Giuliani decided to hose most of them away. Los Angeles has its Skid Row, San Francisco the Tenderloin, and you can find hundreds of roofless Americans sprawling all over Northwest DC, the showcase quarter, but much of Manhattan has become quite sanitized, purged of not just the homeless but any other kind of poorer Americans, as well as the artsy, Bohemian types, who have mostly migrated to Brooklyn. Pumped up by Wall Street, much of Manhattan has become off limits to all but the super affluent. You can work there, sure, after taking two trains and a bus, but don’t think of moving in, not even into a closet, or curtained off corner of a roach motel-sized, shared apartment. As the rest of the country sinks, this island is buoyed by bailouts and quantitative easing directly deposited into its too-big-to-fail swindling houses, but hey, the Bangladeshi cab drivers and CUNY-graduated waiters and bellhops also get their short stacks of nickels and dimes, so don’t bitch, OK? Dwelling in this Green Zone, it would be easy to think that this country’s near collapse is but a ridiculous rumor.

Speaking of Gotham cabbies, only 8% are native-born these days, and pointing to this fact, Pat Buchanan blames the liberal welfare state for the decline of the American work ethics. What he ignores is that the terms for driving a cab in New York are so bad, even many Pakistani immigrants have stopped driving. Instead of pocketing a share of each fare, most drivers must rent their vehicle at a fixed rate, so that they may even lose money at the end of a 12-hour shift. Thanks to an increasingly superfluous supply of labor, however, you can always get someone to do anything, and this is the direct result of having a porous border in a sinking economy. Globalism is not just about exporting decent jobs, but also importing cheap labor until everyone everywhere makes just about nothing. That’s the master plan, dude, so although ningún ser humano es ilegal is self-evidently true, it’s also a smoke screen to make slaves out of us all.

In Taxi Driver, Travis complained, “All the animals come out at night–whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” Well, 42nd Street is certainly spic and span now, with Travis’ beloved Lyric Theater, where he took Betsy to see some starkly instructive coupling, long gone, as is the pen with half a dozen naked women. Standing in an individual booth, you deposited quarters to lift up a window, then after tucking dollars into the G-string of your chosen date, you’re allowed to knead her for a bit. Many greasy spoons and mom and pops have also been shooed from Manhattan, to be replaced by chain stores and restaurants. In Manhattan alone, there are now 200 Subways, 74 McDonald’s, many of them open 24/7, and 194 Starbucks. Dunkin’ Donuts has 500 locations citywide. The biggest corporations shall roll over all!

The lamer Manhattan becomes, the more popular it is with the tourists who come to ride a double decker bus and gorge at a Midtown’s Applebee’s, TGI Friday, Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse or Red Lobster. They travel to Babylon to experience all the comforts of Annandale, Virginia. Not long ago on 42nd Street, however, I did find another throwback, a guy who French kissed a mouse for tips, but before I could deconstruct his amorous technique, stratagem, fudged aims and secret meanings, six cops, no less, appeared to tell our ratty Casanova to beat it. Hey, there are still enough weirdos here. When Occupy was still happening in Zuccoti Park, I ran into a guy who was trying to enlist people into his “Fart Smeller Movement.” To show what he was talking about, this dough-faced gent displayed a photo of himself squatting down, with his nose wedged into a woman’s ass as she was, presumably, liberally exhaling. Listen, man, I don’t want to come off as nostalgic for the New York of gutter punks and a nightly, Boschian bacchanal in Tomkins Square, with its in-house cannibal, but the Lawrence Welk version of the city just ain’t cutting it.

Leaving Port Authority, I trekked north, and just past Lincoln Center, I encountered a young male beggar in a New Jersey Devils cap and dirty jeans. With his small, beat up backpack and nearly empty cup, he sat in front of the cheery window of a clothing boutique. Head down, his face was obscured by this sign, “HOMELESS. Too honest to steal… Humble enough to Beg. JUST Trying to SURVIVE. ANYTHING HELPS! GOD BLESS.” Two blocks from him, I then spotted a young, blonde woman in a bouffant pony tail, also begging. It was brisk, so her legs were wrapped in a thin, gray blanket, of the austere kind not found in any normal home, but to be handed out after an earthquake, hurricane, false flag terrorist attack or Second Coming of Jesus. At least it’s not the packing stuff I’ve seen wrapped around the street pariahs of our nation’s capital. On her bulky, hooded jacket, there was a small patch of the American flag. Reading a large book, she was also looking down, and so I couldn’t immediately tell that I had met her before, in Philadelphia.

Born in Russia, Liza is 22-years-old. When she was seven, Liza was adopted, along with a younger sister, and brought to Cambridge, MA, but she never got along with her new mom, and so was put on lithium at 11, then sent to a boarding school at 14. Liza’s drinking problem began around this time, and she was stuck in 9th grade for three years. Liza quit school, drifted around the country and drained half a gallon of whiskey a day, to the point of passing out, but she has pretty much cut out this suicidal habit. With her, um, All-American good looks, Liza can always count on making more than enough to survive, just by sitting behind a sign that says, “A LITTLE KINDNESS GOES A LONG WAY. GOD BLESS.” For Liza’s 21st birthday, her adoptive mother, a very rich woman, sent her $20.

In 2011, Liza met her boyfriend, Harvey, at a Rainbow camp in Washington State. The Rainbow Family holds one large gathering each year in a national forest. While there, they shun money and alcohol while saying yes to universal love, world peace, hallucinatory drugs, food sharing, bartering, cotton, skin, mud, strumming, drumming and singing, as well as shitting in the woods in a green, hygienic and inoffensive manner. Assholes, though, do show up and sometimes ruin the good vibes, but that’s just life on this sick and unmoored planet. To the Rainbow Family, the world at large is considered Babylon. Done with ummmming while standing in a circle, Liza and Harvey went down to San Francisco and chilled at the Occupy Camp for a while, and for cash, they begged in nearby Daly City, making over $200 a day. It was mostly her bringing in the dough, for Harvey is no retinal lollipop.

Born in small town South Carolina, Harvey inherited a dilapidated house and crappy car when his parents suddenly died in an accident. A year later, he sold this house to a friend for $70,000, or $500 a month, then hit the road. There is an army of young, jobless Americans drifting from city to city. To survive, they beg, dumpster dive and use soup kitchens. Many sing or play music for change. In Berkeley, they swarm all over the university area, their scruffy presence contrasting sharply with the yuppyish or Gap-fashioned students, though I have been told that some of the homeless neo-primitives are actually alumnus of UC Berkeley. In this economy, it’s all too easy to move from an overpriced dormitory to totally free off-campus accommodations that include sidewalks, church verandas, condemned homes, store entrances and landscaped knolls off freeway exit ramps. In Berkeley, you can also sleep unmolested at People’s Park, where you will have plenty of company.

Universities have colluded with banks and government to fleece students and shackle them to a lifetime of debt servitude, but as long as you’re still enrolled, and your payments deferred, life will seem good and promising, for the university’s primary job is no longer to teach, but to maintain this rosy illusion. In these United States of universal debt bondage, universities have become a marketing branch of the criminal banks. It’s all good, children, so just sign here to get your very own academic(ish) casket!

So Liza and Harvey are basically professional beggars, but before you scream, “Get a job, losers,” consider that less than 59% of working age Americans are actually employed, and 47% of the population are on some forms of government assistance, a record high, so nearly half of us are already de facto beggars, although most are not sitting on concrete in heat or cold, looking sorry, at least not yet. Simply put, many Americans have become redundant in an economy rigged to serve the biggest banks and corporations. With no one hiring us and our small businesses bankrupted by the behemoths, many of us are forced to beg, peddle, push or steal, though on a scale that’s miniscule compared to what’s practiced by our ruling thugs. As we shove dented cans of irradiated sardine into our Dollar Store underwear, they rob us of our past, present and future.

In this sick order, even the best among us are reduced to being outcasts, if not criminals to be locked up, tortured or killed. In this sinister arrangement, you’re lucky if you’re merely ignored, like the fiercely astute Paul Craig Roberts. Although countless Americans depend on him to understand more clearly the dangers and rot afflicting their unraveling society, he’s not paid for his articles, but must depend on readers’ contributions to keep writing. In this evil mad house, even Paul Craig Roberts is a beggar. Meanwhile, morons are paid handsomely to waterboard the masses with septic sludge.

Past Columbia University, I crossed into Harlem, then Washington Heights. In the upper reaches of Manhattan, there are signs of the black market everywhere, for people must do what they can to get by, and since the residents here are mostly non-white, City Hall has pretty much left them alone. Like Jews a century ago, Latinos and blacks are selling just about everything on sidewalks. One guy was offering four old pairs of sneakers, which he left in a heap. Another had four pressure cookers displayed on a cloth-covered ironing board. At 168th and Broadway, a man was selling tamales from a shopping cart. It was only $1.25 per, and you could choose from chicken, pork, cheese, beans, Oaxaca styled or sweet. Like most conversations on the street, his sign was strictly in Spanish. Within sight of this, however, there was a huge McDonald’s that was packed with locals, including a grimy man with his head on a table, soundly sleeping. A guy in his mid 20s asked one customer after another if he could have some change “for something to eat.” He even approached people at the counter as they were paying. With his palm out and eyes like a basset hound’s, he leaned towards a pretty young lady and muttered at her platinum-plated hoop earring. She gave him nothing.

To be fair, the panhandlers hounding this Mickey D’s are a direct result of having two homeless shelters half a block away, and they don’t usually come inside. In any case, step outside this corporate fortress and Washington Heights is still a wonderful mess of small stores and eateries. Isn’t it telling that the most lively streets and neighborhoods in America are filled with recent immigrants? They haven’t been here long enough to become zombies, and don’t think I’m talking racially now for European cities are also much more exuberant and life-affirming than their American sisters, many of which have become desolate and menacing. Strapped to automobiles and conditioned to stare at one screen after another, bona fide Americans dread eye contact and the human breath. Alienated from all those nearest to us, we expect to be saved and led by our distant brainwashers and slave masters.

For any community to be healthy, local initiatives must be encouraged, nurtured and protected, so let’s reclaim our home turf, reestablish the common and, in the process, regain our collective sanity and dignity. With this in mind, let’s check out Word Up, a volunteer-run bookstore and mini art center in Washington Heights. Just over a year old, it is filled with people by day and hopping at night with either a concert, literary reading, play, film showing or lecture. Kids can even show up in the afternoon to get help with their homework. Sounds too good to be true, and in this culture of Lil’ Wayne and Justin Bieber flanking a wife-beating boxer named “Money,” this nourishing oasis is barely hanging on, sustained only by donations from a recent crowd-funding campaign. Already working for free, the 50-plus people who keep Word Up going are also beggars, but that’s just how it is now, and if not for the tireless efforts of its head beggar, Veronica Liu, Word Up would never have come into being in the first place.

Born in Toronto to Hakka and Filipino parents, Liu came to NYC 16 years ago. Before Word Up, she started Washington Heights Free Radio, which is operated out of her apartment. Liu is also a co-founder of Fractious Press and helps to organize the yearly book fair at the Ding Dong Lounge in Morningside Heights. Liu has a day job, and makes no money from her various community building efforts, which she does because, I don’t know, maybe Liu’s insane? According to the norms of Babylon, she is certainly batshit, but to gain, no matter how fleetingly, a bit of light and grace with one’s words or actions is a reward in itself. Some may even claim it is a necessity. Since every evil act is accompanied by a lie, a disguise or suppression of meaning, a society that traffics in practically nothing but lies or distracting nonsense is also one that’s drowning in serial and habitual evilness. Meaning is not just calling everything by its proper name, but grasping their relationship and having a sense of proportion, but these have all been banished from our public discourses. Bushed and Baracked, we seethe, scream, take our medication then joyfully jerk, with pomposity and authority, the voting lever.

Two thousand and five hundred words already and still no lager? So how is this a damn Postcard?! I hear you, I hear you, but at six to eight bucks a pop further South, I had to walk seven miles before I even dared to mumble in my humblest voice, and with my eyes filled with shame and mortification, “A bottle of your cheapest, please.”

Yah, yah! I feel so much better already! Don’t you? I’m so hopped up, I can run a marathon! OK, OK, I must calm down before I get flagged. We’re in Reynold’s, a musty Irish grotto in the middle of Nuevo Santo Domingo. There was a stuffed animal over the bar, but no one could tell me what it was, not even the Wisconsin-born bartender, Brian. Although there were less than a dozen souls there, I couldn’t imagine too many rooms in Washington Heights that contained more white people. I asked Brian, “Do Dominicans drink here?”

“Yeah, sometimes. Not really.”

“So where do they drink?”

“On the streets. If you come here in the Summer, you’ll see them all over the sidewalks with their bottles of Presidente! They like to drink outside, play dominoes outside. It’s a different culture. Besides, it’s too expensive inside a bar, and most of them don’t have that much money.”

In his mid 40’s, Brian wore his beard long and bushy in a style that’s now associated with Duck Dynasty. It evokes a down-home America that hunts, fishes and salutes the flag. Brian’s thoroughly at home in Washington Heights, however, and is, in fact, married to a Dominican woman. In NYC for 25 years, he can’t imagine returning to DePere, Madison or Milwaukee, where he has all lived, “It was very boring in Wisconsin. There was nothing to do.” This Summer, he’ll take his wife to his home state for the first time.

“Hey, maybe she’ll love it there!” I said.

“I doubt it.” Then, “There is a Latino guy who comes in here every now and then, and each time he does, he’d buy beer for the whole bar.”

“That’s pretty generous! How can he afford it?”

“No kids!” Brian smiled, “and I don’t think he’s married either. He’s an older gentleman, retired. He used to work as a police detective.”

“The last time he was here, he gave me $10 for cab fare,” Peggy interjected, “and I was just going to take the bus. What a nice man!” Sitting in a corner, she had been playing one crossword puzzle after another. She was bundled in a sweat shirt, hoodie and a padded, nylon jacket. Like the rest of us, she was certainly not dressed to kill, as is common further down the island. She did wear blue eye shadow, however, and her squarely trimmed fingernails were perked up by white nail polish.

Born in Brooklyn Heights in 1941, Peggy moved to Washington Heights as a child and has remained there ever since. The only other place she’s been is Wildwood, New Jersey, where her family used to go during the Summer, for its beach. “I’ve never been anywhere, and I’m proud of it!”

Peggy worked 40 years as a school crossing guard, and now comes to Reynold’s every day at 8AM, as it opens, “I get up at 5:30 or 6, then I come here. I come here to watch television because I don’t have one at home.” She runs errands for the bar, does its laundry at a laundromat down the street, and they pay her with bottles of Coors Light, “People also buy me drinks. I never go without.” Peggy entered Reynold’s for the first time 44 years ago, six years after it opened “They built this bar around Peggy,” Brian joked.

Peggy’s husband died in 2003. Nearly daily, she orders a pastrami submarine from the same deli, and though she only pays them once a week, she does remember to tip the bicycle delivery man two bucks each time. Presently, two Dominican couples walked in, but only for the women to use the bathroom, it turned out, and soon after they left, a shouting match erupted over a clogged toilet.

“It’s your fuckin’ fault, you asshole!” A patron in his early 50’s hollered at an older man.

“Hey, calm down! I’m not allowed to show someone where the bathroom is?”

“Fuck no! Not when you know they’re not going to order anything!”

“How was I supposed to know? Unbelievable. You’re just a crank, man, and a racist!”

“I’m no fuckin’ racist! You saw some Dominican pussy and lost your fuckin’ mind.”

“Listen, I’m 62 years old. I don’t need to take your bullshit.”

“God bless you, but why don’t you shove your fuckin’ head down the toilet. Maybe that’ll fix it!”

The seething crank turned out to be Pat, a unionized building manager. Born in Ireland, he returns there often with his wife. When I told Pat I had been to England and Scotland, but never Ireland, he replied, “There’s nothing there. You’re not missing anything.”

The people who live in Harlem are “animals,” Pat also informed me, and he spoke of how dirty it is compared to Washington Heights. During my three hours in Reynold’s, Pat never relaxed or smiled. Just about anything anyone said, he contested, and even when he agreed with you about something, he sounded argumentative. Maybe he’ll burst a blood vessel soon. Maybe someone will kill him. Pat did play Hendrix’ “All Along the Watch Tower,” then Tony Bennett’s “Rags to Riches,” however.

“Now, it’s the other way around,” a woman said in a throat cancery voice.

“You got that right!” Pat sneeringly concurred.

It was late afternoon by now. Swiveling on my stool, I turned to survey the glary, sun splashed scenery through the open door. A guy on a cheap scooter rolled by, then two smartly dressed kids with their mom appeared. It couldn’t have been a babysitter, I don’t think, for she was also fashionably attired. Her boots were certainly not remaindered bin quality. Across the street, a store was for rent, and there was a jeweler with “WE BUY OLD GOLD” in the window. The ubiquity of these signs is yet another indication of our destitution. Have you sold your heirloom, keepsake or wedding ring? I too have learnt how to Ebay.

I was very much at peace in that fine low life establishment, but like the Buddha, Jesus and George Harrison said, “All things must pass,” and so I had to extricate myself from Reynold’s. In any case, I don’t want to go from lower class to rags. My clothes are already torn and tattered. With the Fed right there, I’ll stay a beggar. So don’t blow or kiss me, blow up Goldman Sachs!

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He's tracking our deteriorating social scape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America. Read other articles by Linh.