Postcard from the End of America: Chicago

I’ve been coming to Chicago forever, but always just for a day or two. The first time was when I was only a teenager and visiting an aunt in St Louis. Another time, it was to take a physical exam for now-defunct Midway Airlines. I was trying to get a job as a baggage handler. The day before, though, I had been at a Philly party where someone handed me a joint. Never one to refuse heartfelt hospitality, I inhaled, but somehow this didn’t prevent me from being hired by Midway. Perhaps they used the same urinalyst, piss parser or golden shower technician as Major Leagues Baseball, you know, the one that kept clearing Sammy Sosa even as he hit, like, 600 home runs in one season. In any case, I never took that Midway job, for I had found another while waiting for their decision. Back in the late 80s, it was that easy to find work, so even a no-skill, no-degreed, beer swilling and, occasionally, very occasionally, actually, pot smoking, coke inhaling or acid dropping bum like me could pick and choose. If you could lift stuff, no matter how awkwardly, you were hired.

In recent years, I had mostly come to Chicago to do poetry readings. Though my 15 minutes as a fringe poet is rapidly flaming out, there’s still a bit of kerosene left in the guttering lamp. Gone are the days when I could be paid nicely to squeak, squawk and bloviate to a full Santa Fe theater as a guest of the Lannan Foundation, or be flown to Paris, Berlin or Reykjavik to make people wish they had stayed at home instead, but invitations to read still trickle in. Shoot straight, though, and doors will slam in your face, buddy, if not worse, much worse. When I could hardly think and write, I was being published in the Guardian, New York Times and being interviewed on the BBC, but now, I can barely give my seasoned blathering away.

So an invitation to read at Roosevelt University brought me to Chicago this time, and since I wanted to linger a while, I wiggled my way into an additional reading at Wilbur Wright, a community college. Since there was no budget at Wright for poetry readings, however, a co-chair of its English Department decided to buy a few of my photos, and in exchange, I would come to talk to two of his classes. This informal arrangement worked out perfectly, and I was more than happy to sit with Daniel Borzutzky’s students as they discussed Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, a play about political torture. To give this work more context, Borzutzky’s also showed us a YouTube video of an escrache demonstration in Buenos Aires.

Started in Argentina, escrache has spread to other Latin American countries as a popular movement to oust, shame and ostracize retired generals, politicians and other powerful figures who have committed unpunished crimes. After locating the criminal in question, the organizers would inform his neighbors that here lives a state-sanctioned mass murderer or torturer, or a looter of public funds. Later, thousands of people would converge on this man’s house to publicly indict the blood-drenched fat cat. Though this Latin American version of a Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bush or Obama is never physically attacked, the monster will be shunned by many of his neighbors, with local businesses even refusing to sell him a meal or a newspaper.

Critics of escrache have denounced it as a form of vigilante justice and, as the outburst of an angry mob, should be declared illegal, but the protesters are only reacting to acts that are themselves clearly illegal, not to mention outrageously immoral. The protester’s public harassment does not compare to their targets’ torturing and/or raping, then throwing their victims from airplanes into the ocean, or kidnapping their children and erasing their identities.

Too often, the state will use the legality argument to bind its opponents, while doing whatever it pleases, legal or not. Not satisfied with a monopoly on violence, the state also wants to be the sole interpreter of what’s right and wrong, as implied by the often bandied about legality question, and the more criminal this state is, the more illegal, the more it will shriek about the need for everyone else to walk the straight and narrow, according it its own power-drunk markings. Talking to Borzutsky’s class, I asked the students to consider escrache in the North American context. Who are our criminals in high places and what should we do about them? Unlike our southern neighbors, we have neither the clarity to identify our enemies from within, nor the courage or unity to confront them. To be fair, though, our top criminals don’t move among us, with many never even mentioned by our obfuscating media, as great a killer of brain cells as any, and worst than any glue. Even when not anonymous, however, the most malignant Americans are hidden behind guarded gates, bullet proof glass or acres of real estate, so that it would take considerable enterprise to target them.

When faced with an illegal and ultra violent enemy, we must resort to any and all tricks, be extra clever and strike hard, for real, but most of us are too tightly bound to our bifurcated harness to do more than jiggle, every once in a while, an electronic voting machine. Geez, I wonder who they’ll let us pretend to vote for the next time, if there’s a next time?

On one of my three days in Chicago, I wandered around West Town. I began in Wicker Park, a Polish neighborhood and Nelson Algren’s old haunt turned barrio Boricua turned hipster haven turned, finally, into the yuppy bastion it is today, but not before considerable acrimony and even vandalism from the retreating hep cats. Lawdy, I know it’s awfully silly to regurgitate black slang from nearly a century ago, but hep cats are no more hooey than the hipster tag. On snowy, icy or slushy sidewalks, I then trudged into Humboldt Park, Chicago’s current San Juan. There, I spotted New Life Covenant, with its large banners announcing that it is a “CHURCH FOR THE HURTING.” Aren’t we all, my fellow collateral damages or direct hits? Finally, I found myself in what’s left of the Ukrainian Village. At the corner of Western and Chicago, there was a man of about 40-years-old walking with a cardboard sign in the middle of the street, between cars. Increasingly common across America, this sight will be ubiquitous soon enough. I got close enough to read, “PLEASE SPARE SOME CHANGE?!? HOMELESS, HUNGRY, BROKE & COLD.”

Chris was his name, and he told me he had been homeless for 14 months, and usually made about $20 a day, panhandling. Wanting to hear more, I offered to buy Chris lunch. Bacci was nearby, but Chris said, “I can’t eat pizza. I have no front teeth.” To prove it, Chris flashed his nude gums. Across from Bacci, there was Village Pizza, and since it also served submarines, we went there instead. Needing something hot, I ordered a modest heap of ravioli that turned out God-awful, while Chris went for Italian beef with French fries. They looked much tastier than my red slop, that’s for sure.

“So, man, what did you use to do?”

“I was a bike courier. That’s how I lost my front teeth. Someone rear-ended me!”

“Holy shit! So did you get, ah, compensation from your employer?”

“No way, man!”

“But you were at work. You were working!”

“No, no, that’s not how they saw it. This is how it works. If I had a package on me, then they would count it as me being on the job, but I was between deliveries, so I wasn’t technically working for them.”

“But you were only out on the streets to do deliveries. You weren’t just riding your bike around!”

“I know, but that’s not how they saw it.”

“OK, OK, so they hired you as a contractor, and not as a regular employee on the clock?”

“Yeah, that’s basically it.”

“Man, that’s ridiculous!”

“Yeah, so one second I’m on the bike, then suddenly I’m in an ambulance, and since I had no health insurance, I still owe the hospital all this money.”

“So what did you do when you got out?”

“I didn’t feel like being a bike courier any more, so I got a job with Allied, the moving company. That lasted for a few years. Then I got a job at another moving company, but business was so slow, they had to let me go eventually. That was my last job. The accident, though, wasn’t the only reason I quit being a bike courier. I really got out because the money wasn’t as good any more.”

“What do you mean?”

“I used to make about 750 a week, for only four days of work, but then it got down to only 225, and I had to work all five days. Everything changed after 9/11.”

“Hmmm, how did that affect your job?”

“The security, man! Before 9/11, I could go into an elevator and take my package directly to the office, so I would be out of there in two minutes, but after 9/11, I had to go through all these people, from the front desk to the mail room, just to deliver my stupid package, and I had to fill out all of these forms, too, so what used to take me two minutes to do now took me 15 or even 20, so at the end of the day, I couldn’t deliver as many packages, and I was being paid by the package.”

“And it’s not like terrorists are itching to send package bombs!”

“Yeah, but people were so scared then. Plus, you have the internet now, and that has hurt also. Before, companies had to hire bike couriers to deliver everything, but now, they can send all these images and documents through the internet.”

“So what’s the plan now? What are you going to do?”

“I’m on three waiting lists to get into these recovery houses. I’m hoping it won’t be more than another month.”

“Are you an addict?”

“I’m in AA, but I haven’t drank in a while.”

“So the recovery house is just a way to go inside.”

“Yeah, and to have an address, because you can’t even get a job without an address.”

“Are you from Chicago originally?”

“Yeah, born and raised here, in McHenry, and I have never left except for when I was a roadie for these bands.”

“Oh, yeah? Which bands?”

“You ever heard of Alkaline Trio? No? Well, that’s the most famous one, but I’ve also worked for Sidekick Kato and Apocalypse Hoboken.”

As this civilization goes into serious decline, even its band names get really uninspired and stupid. We can’t even do nihilism right. Around 1990, I was the road manager for indie-folk Baby Flameheads, but I only lasted for half a tour. Night after night, we’d hit another bar, and there was nothing for me to do but get juiced up, through two or three sets, but then I was expected to safely drive the van away after last call. Yes, curse me all of you who are blame-free! As a young man, I made many sapling mistakes, but now that I’m older, I’m blundering as a middle-aged fool.

“Chris, don’t you have family that can help you out? Where are your parents?”

“My mom’s still alive, but she’s remarried, and my stepfather hates my guts. He gets really pissed off if he thinks she’s giving me money, so I don’t want to bother her.”

“What does he do?”

“He was laying concrete until he was laid off about five years ago, but he’s about to retire anyway, so it doesn’t really matter. He’s saved a lot of money.”

“How much money did this guy make?”

“A lot, man! He was making $38 an hour at the end.”


“Yeah, and he’d put half of each paycheck into the bank, but with what’s left, he still bought whatever he wanted. He’s not hurting. He’s loaded!”

“$38 an hour! You’re lucky to make 10 these days.”

“I know.”

“And how about your mom? What does she do?”

“She works in a bar in McHenry.” Immediately cheered by this thought, Chris beamed his pink smile. “If I was still drinking, I could get drunk for free each time I go see my mom!”

“Hey, it’s very good you don’t miss drinking. How much did you drink?”

“Oh, man, I can’t even tell you. I’m half Slovak and half Bulgarian. Both sides of my family are drinkers. You ever heard of rakia? It’s a Bulgarian brandy. Try it sometime. It will knock you out!”

By this time, I had managed to ingest my ravioli, plus the equally bad accompanying salad. Chris, however, had only eaten half of his sandwich and fries. If I had less manners, I would have grabbed at least a few of his fries to chase away the bad taste in my mouth. Chris ended up throwing half of his lunch away.

Unlike what his sign said, Chris wasn’t that hungry after all, but this penchant for wasting food and everything else is very indicative of our culture. Coming from Vietnam to the States as an 11-year-old, I was immediately struck by how much food was wasted each day in the school cafeteria. Quite casually, my classmates would toss away even unopened cartons of orange juice or milk. Later, a girlfriend would laugh when she saw me struggling to finish my dinner, “You don’t have to eat it all, you know!” She thought it was cute. To this day, I won’t throw away anything that may have a milligram of nutrient on it, and that includes fast food ketchup packet. It’s not just that I will eat absolutely everything I’ve paid for, but that a bunch of people have gone through a tremendous amount of trouble and coordination to make and deliver, for example, this roll of bread, red onion, string bean or slice of (sorta) cheese to (sorta) nourish me, so I won’t insult them by throwing even a speck of it into the trash can, though those ravioli surely deserved to be flung from the top of the Sears Tower.

Among the minor quirks of an empire in decline is its gross celebration of gluttony, hence our huge restaurant portions and thousands of eating contests, with some of these revolting spectacles even shown on television. We also have celebrity chefs, just like the Romans in decadence, but before this American Century, however, before this epoch of oil-fueled prosperity and endless war, people were also fascinated by the spectacle of not eating. They would pay to see Starving Artists and Living Skeletons. Soon enough, though, these types will reappear in ballooning numbers among us, and we won’t even need tickets to gawk. Too feeble to mount even an escrache, we deserve nothing less.

All over Chicago, there are these posters that plead for donations to food banks, with “1 in 5 kids faces hunger,” and I’ve seen enough homeless Americans rummaging through dumpsters for bits of meat and limp French fries to know that hunger has become a serious issue in this greatest of nations, the indispensible one and global beacon, but too many of us will keep squandering all resources as if the worst is not coming, for even as we sink into Third World status, we can’t or won’t shake imperial habits.

Perhaps we’re only mirroring our obscene leaders, for they routinely issue pompous pronouncements and threats as the rest of the world laughed in incredulity or contempt. Even as we support Neo-Nazis in the Ukraine, for example, Hillary Clinton sees fit to compare Vladimir Putin to Hitler, and Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, huffs that “Europe is not where they need to be right now. I think they are willing to give Putin a much longer leash than we are.” Nice word choice, eh? I wonder how “leash” translates back in Moscow. Personally, I think we should apply the tightest of leashes to Obama, Kerry, Hagel, Holder, Pelosi, McCain and the rest of our psychotic leadership, for only after we’ve roped them all in, then away, very far away, can this increasingly sad country be rediscovered and rebuilt.

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.