Postcard from the End of America: Scranton

In most European cities and towns, the church is at the center, with a square in front of it. In Texas towns, it’s the courthouse. In New York, it’s Times Square, where you can be dazzled by bombastic signs from the world’s largest corporations. In Washington, the Mall affords long vistas of the Capitol, Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. You are meant to be awed and feel elated, so proud you might send the President or Pentagon a bounced check. In many American downtowns, banks occupy the tallest buildings, and downtown stadiums are also named after banks. Perpetual debt has become our civic and personal identities, and even in our down time, we can chillax by basking in the glow emanating from Citi Field, Bank of America Stadium, Barclay’s Center, PNC Park, Wells Fargo Center, Citizens Bank Park, Lincoln Financial Field, Chase Field, BankAtlantic Center, Comerica Park or M&T Bank Stadium, etc. Thank God for the banksters, for they have brought within reach, for each of us, an overpriced college education, an upside down house, a mesmerizing, brainwashing machine in each room and a messed up country. Federal Reserve notes dribble from their asses, which we can scoop up, with interest, of course, if our credit score hasn’t been scorched. I mean, what else does a citizen need?

The Lackawanna County Courthouse commands the center of Scranton, PA. From the monuments on its large, handsome square, a visitor can make some reasonable guesses about the makeup and character of this city. There are prominent statues of Christopher Columbus and Thaddeus Kosciuszko, and a monument to Casimir Pulaski, so it’s clear that there are many people of Italian and Polish blood here, but what’s most striking about this square is a series of huge granite slabs with inscriptions on them. Free of all images and decorative embellishments, these quotations are presented, quite severely, as civic lessons, and they take a while to decipher, for the slabs occupy a large area. On the “DISCIPLINE” slabs, we read: “Being a soldier means I embody the will to serve. If called up, I will salute, pack my rucksack and not look back. For better or worse, no matter where I go, no matter what I do, I will always have the heart of a soldier—Kate Blaise 2005.”

In the “PATRIOTISM” section, we’re told, “I felt that I needed to take my place in line. I didn’t want to avoid the war of my generation… you want to be part of American history—Max Cleland ca. 2001.”

Then under “DUTY,” we’re taught: “We grew up with… a sense of responsibility to this country. You didn’t even think about it. If the country was at war and had a need, you served—Charles T. Hagel ca. 2001.”

The message is clear: One must be willing to kill and die in any war, without questions. These slabs were approved by a three-member Lackawanna County Commission, but two of these politicians, A.J. Munchak and Robert C. Cordero, are now serving lengthy sentences for bribery, extortion and tax-related charges. As they preached sacrifice and duty, they robbed and looted to enrich themselves, and let us not kid ourselves by thinking this is some weird, coal country aberration or Pennsylvania joke. As a sign at Occupy DC summed up, “OUR GOVERNMENT IS FAR MORE CORRUPT THAN YOU REALIZE.”

Too many Americans consider themselves untouched by government corruption. It’s no skin off my skinny ass, they still think, as corruption sinks this entire ship. United by insane greed, our corrupt banks, corporations and government have gutted this land. Just look around you. They have shipped away our industries, deprived us of a dignified working life and sent our sons and daughters to one war after another, all to feed their insatiable greed. There is no war on terror, much less one for democracy. All of our wars are wars of greed. You kill or die so your laughing rulers can make another killing, and by butchering or being slaughtered, you also endanger or wreck the lives of those closest to you.

Before you can become a badass crook in majestic DC, you must start small, in places like Little Rock, Austin or Chicago, etc., and many of our elected thieves have learnt how to steal while in the private sector. Compared to the billions that routinely disappear inside the Beltway, the shenanigans in Single A Scranton are laughable, really, unless it happens to you. Before Munchak got elected as a county commissioner, on a platform promising reform and transparency, no less, he was just a nickel and dime accountant, but it was in this capacity that he managed to dick over, big time, one Carol Orloski.

A lifelong waitress, Carol loved her work and was excellent at it, “I met so many interesting people,” but then she felt an intensifying chest pain that couldn’t be ignored, and which turned out to be rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. “I was in so much pain, I couldn’t lie down, so they had to put some morphine in me. Now I know how people can get hooked to morphine. You could have sawed my legs off and I wouldn’t have cared.” Forced to quit her job, Carol applied for disabilities, only to find out that the social securities she thought she had paid all these years had been withheld, and pocketed, by Munchak, who handled the restaurant’s payroll.

Carol’s disability benefits would have amounted to $300 a month, chump change to some, but coupled with her lost income, the shortfall has proved crippling. Carol’s husband, Chuck, hasn’t had a raise in four years, and the family’s health insurance, covering them plus two sons, is an exorbitant $14,400 a year. Compounding this crisis, they have also lost their family home.

Chuck’s father, a truck driver right after serving in World War II, had paid off this house decades ago, but when the old man became sick, troubles began. With Carol also sick, they couldn’t take care of pop at home, so they tried to have him admitted to a veterans’ hospital. “My dad fought and got shot in the Philippines,” Chuck filled me in. Chuck himself  joined the army and was almost sent to Vietnam. “I wanna be an Airborne Ranger! Live the life of sex and danger! I wanna kill some Charlie Cong!” Once, when Chuck was too exhausted to chant that, the drill sergeant made him carry his rifle across his shoulders, squat, then hop up and down while shouting, “I’m a fuckin’ frog! I’m a fuckin’ frog!”

Chuck and Carol waited and waited, but heard nothing from the Veterans Administration, a very familiar scenario, so after months, they finally placed pop into a nursing home, thinking the insurance company would pay. Not so fast. After seeing the old man shaving in bed one morning, a nurse informed the insurance company that their client was not “actively dying,” and so the cost, $185 a day, was shifted to Chuck and Carol, who of course could not pay. Money is so tight, they have to resort to a church pantry once or twice a month, like countless families across America. Food stamp use is at an all-time high. Not far from my Philly apartment, a truck comes by periodically to give away free fruits and vegetables. They disappear immediately. To save on gas money, Chuck has recently purchased a used motorbike, and his 21-year-old son works at a CVS pharmacy, though they only give Dan about 15 hours a week. One has two choices now, to be grossly underpaid and underworked, or grossly underpaid and overworked. Meanwhile, inflation spirals.

“The nursing home already got paid, so why did that nurse have to say anything?” I asked Chuck.

“I don’t know, but the end result is we lost our house.” During my three-day stay in Scranton, Chuck drove me by this two-bedroom, one-basement home several times, “That’s our old house!”

You can bleed in this country’s army, and sweat honestly all your life, but everything can disappear nearly instantly, because in this debt-based system, missed payments are only one lost job or one serious illness away. Remember that we have, by far, the most expensive health care system in the world, though one of the sickest populations among industrialized or advanced nations, and please, no snickers at “advanced” or “industrialized,” for our body scanners and drones are undoubtedly state of the art. In any case, it’s a rare citizen who owns his dwelling out right, and even then, there are rent-like taxes to be paid into perpetuity.

In our media, working class people are endlessly caricatured as ignorant and racist buffoons, so they only have themselves to blame if they’re struggling. Too stupid, lazy, drunk, drugged up, spoiled and fat, they deserve to have their jobs taken by illegal immigrants, though of course even American engineers, computer technicians and doctors are deliberately being displaced by foreign imports. Our ruling class has employed this strategy for a very long time.

Carol’s grandparents were from Bialystok, Poland. Every so often, Russian soldiers would cross the border to rape Polish women. “This is no place to raise a family,” her granddad said, so they came to Pennsylvania as part of a huge influx of Eastern Europeans. Most of the men found work in the hellish coal mines. Like naked mole rats or Viet Congs, they tunneled in the dark. Horses and donkeys worked underground, then were kept in pitch dark, underground stables. Many men and boys were crushed, drowned or blown up, with 58 miners killed in a single incident in 1896, yet when these men fought for better working conditions, they were dismissed as anarchists and foreign troublemakers. Goons, many of whom were also immigrants or sons of such, were brought in to beat or even kill protesters, as during the Lattimer Massacre of 1897, where 19 unarmed marchers, carrying a large American flag, lost their lives. But workers also fought back, for you can’t change much without spilling blood, that’s for sure. The Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902 lasted six months, which is incredible considering the miners barely had enough to eat even when they were paid regularly, but their sacrifice and resourcefulness finally yielded a 10% pay increase, half of what they demanded, and the eight-hour workday. Coal price doubled during this time, forcing the federal government to step in as mediator between workers and management. Mid-term election was coming up, and Teddy Roosevelt couldn’t risk having voters angry at his Republican Party. You have to hit them where it hurt, obviously, and threaten them, before they will even begin to take you seriously. I told Chuck about a sign I had seen at the demand-less Occupy Wall Street, “REVOLUTION IS FUN,” which gave us both a hearty laugh. Progress is difficult because idiocy is renewed with each generation, and evil often deepens with age.

Divide and conquer. Bosses and their bought media stoked up xenophobic sentiments against complaining workers, though these back breaking toilers had been brought in precisely because they were foreign, and easier to abuse. Then as now, an excess of labor is needed to flatten wages and tamp down workers’ demands. What a simple tactic, yet I’ve had the hardest time pointing this out to many a PhD in our various La La Land universities. A seasoned prof at a prestigious U intoned, “Rights for undocumented workers are the civil rights struggle of our time. It’s also not cost-effective to deport them.” First of, one must do what’s right, whatever the cost, and if we follow her logic, there would be no border checks, and anyone who shows up must be granted citizenship immediately, hence their entitlement to all “civil rights.” We can’t have dreams deferred, can’t we? Borders aren’t merely physical obstacles that reward those who can somehow make it to the other side, and that’s why visas and immigration laws exist for all nations, to sort out who have entered legally, but in her mind, to brand people illegal is to discriminate against them already. So, professor, will a hundred million new comers lower our unemployment rate? How about seven billion? The world’s worst illegal immigrant is Uncle Sam, however, for he has bombed, shot and drug smuggled his way into innumerable countries.

As an American citizen, I have lived as an adult in three other countries, England, Italy and Vietnam, where I was born. In each, I had to deal with the local immigration laws, which I often found annoying if not exasperating, but at no time did I feel I was entitled to live there just because “no human being is illegal,” which is true, of course, but also irrelevant to the immigration debate. Speaking of borders, I met a curious man in El Paso last year. Seeing the back of my head outside the famously haunted De Soto Hotel, he addressed me first in Spanish, before I turned around. “You don’t speak Spanish?” In his 60’s, he had on a blue felt cowboy hat, and a bucking cowboy bolo tie. He lived in the spooky, low rent building, with his son and a shared bathroom, he said, and not only that, he was Pancho Villa reincarnated. The general had returned to straighten out a few things. Villa will take all the money from the US government and give it to people who actually deserve it. To make up for them being destroyed during World War II, he will bring all Japanese to the US. America paid 37 countries to bully Japan, Villa informed me. He will also relocate the entire Vietnamese population to America and Chihuahua, and ship all Americans to Africa. He will do all this as soon as he can get rid of a foot tumor planted by an evil loan shark, witch doctor. It shouldn’t be a problem.

Perhaps Villa was a college professor in disguise, with a graduate seminar in foreign relations? In any case, his hallucination is scarcely more absurd than the recovery, as pimped, with feelings, by many of our pundits. For a no-nonsense take on our steep decline, let’s meet Carol’s mom, Mrs. Florence Laschinski. A white haired widow living alone in a neat, fairly spacious house, she had seen the rise then fall of our labor movement. Born in 1928, she quit school at 13-years-old to scrub kitchen and bathroom floors, then entered a factory for the first time at 15. A member of the Ladies Garment Worker’s Union, she toiled inside various factories for 47 years. There were 168 of these clothing manufacturers in the Scranton area, from Forest City to Pittston, but when Mrs. Laschinski retired in 1990, there were only two. Now there are none.

“Look at what just happened in Bangladesh,” Mrs. Laschinski said. “We can’t compete against that.” Working in unsafe conditions to make clothes for Western retailers, more than 1,100 people died when a building collapsed. Five months earlier, 117 more perished in a factory fire. In the US, it took similar disasters, and many bitter struggles by American workers, to improve labor conditions. In 1911, a Manhattan factory fire killed 146 garment workers, and injured 71.

It pains Mrs. Laschinski to see opportunities denied to her children and grandchildren. With economic collapse comes social decay. In her very neighborhood, Mrs. Laschinski has seen too many young people messed up with alcohol or heroin, with no goal in life but scratching lottery tickets. In her days, nearly everyone was self-reliant and busy. At 85, she still remembers vividly an incident when she was seven-years-old. A neighbor had been given free galoshes, but one pair didn’t fit, so it was handed to Mrs. Laschinski. Walking home from school, her classmates suddenly shouted, “Hey, you’re wearing free shoes!” “No, I’m not!” But the evidence was right there, with WPA from her soles imprinted in the snow.

“The girl who laughed hardest at me later bought a house just behind me, and every now and then, she would bring her two sons over for me to watch, as she picked up her husband, you know, and I always gave her kids something to eat. It’s funny, but she said, ‘my kids don’t eat much,’ but each time I gave them a plate of spaghetti, they’d ask for a second helping!”

It’s true one can’t walk through Mrs. Laschinski’s door without being fed. Within five minutes of entering her home, I was presented with an excellent plate of roast beef, candied yam, coleslaw and mashed potatoes.

“Does that woman remember laughing at you?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

Scranton’s official unemployment rate is 9.3%, compared to 7.5% nationally, so the real figures are at least twice as high. Mrs. Laschinski never got past the eighth grade or read anything but Reader’s Digest, but you only need common sense to know that if you don’t make anything, you’re way up an exhausted coal vein without even a dollar-store candle, made in China. Within a generation, Scranton has lost hundreds of factories of all kinds, with the only manufacturer left the General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems plant. This jibes perfectly with our national policy, for we have stopped making anything that anyone can use or wear, only mega weapons that will blow up the entire planet.

OK, we still make nails. I found some nails the other day that were actually made in the USA. Hurrah! Maybe Springsteen can dash off a new tune. “Nails in the USA!” The logics of neoliberalism demand that workers everywhere must strive to endure the lowest possible wages and the most inhumane, unsafe and environmentally damaging conditions possible, for only then will they be competitive. Free trade really means nearly free slavery.

With their municipals bankrupt, the cops of Scranton, Taylor and Old Forge are becoming extra aggressive in snagging tipsy drivers, so the bars, already hurting, are quickly going out of business. The first floor of Chuck and Carol’s apartment was a bar, but that has shut down, as have several other taverns on the street. If there’s one thing worse than a depressed neighborhood, it’s a depressed neighborhood without places for people to gather. The houses still look very well kept and dignified, however, which is a tribute to the people living here, but one only has to talk to them for the frustration and pain to come out.

Perched on a honeycomb of pooped out coal mines, Scranton might just sink into the ground if someone coughs or farts too loudly, so why won’t my buddy, Chuck Orloski, move his family somewhere else? But it takes beaucoup cash to relocate, obviously, and in Bethlehem, Trenton, Philly or, hell, faraway Lubbock or Denver, there still aren’t enough jobs, only endless headaches. Unlike our ruling class, we can’t just wreck this dear ship, then step off it laughing.

As I finish this piece, Chuck sends me an update, “Today’s Scranton Times-Tribune front page covers a large fire engulfing a Taylor home. Article has a full-color photo of burning home. In smaller print, it states, ‘police say man fled with heroin, suffered burns.’” So yes, Sir, we’re certainly in the midst of an economic recovery, with more pharmaceutical outfits sprouting up by the day.

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.