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Quotidian Sweat

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We actually occupied an unheated loft, over a printing shop that steadily exhaled noxious fume through our floorboards. Like us, Jay's two cats often froze. When Betty became gravely ill, Jay had to deliver her from this earth with a soiled pillow. We were trying to become artists.

It's apt for American bars to pitch afterwork boozing "happy hour," for it is the happiest, though many drink sullenly, alone, like Johnny the Hat at my old neighborhood haunt, Friendly Lounge. Enough Jamesons downed, the 55-ish car mechanic would cordially say goodbye to each before weaving home, but sometimes, he'd turn nasty, as when he growled at Aurelia, "When did they let you out of the zoo?"

At 19, I heard some old guy wheeze, "I like to work because it makes my food taste better, and I sleep better," and I do agree that physical exhaustion makes just about anything delicious, and sleep become heavenly, but what I had for lunch today may challenge this thesis.

I wiped the dirt off my hair, face and neck, then sat down in my grimy tank top to enjoy Cung Dinh [Royal Palace] brand's Kool Spaghetti, and on the label, there's a convincing image of some firm and long pasta covered with a crimson meat sauce, with even fresh basil on top. Opening the plastic lid, your kingship discovered that it's just ordinary instant noodles, with two seasoning packets. Combined, they yielded a measly, greasy paste that's slightly sweet and almost tomato free. Paying only 60 cents for this mess, I had no right to kvetch, and I did in fact wolf it down, like a poofed, famished dog.

The poetry quoted above was published in Harper's, my one appearance in that magazine, and I was surprised they had wanted such a naked depiction of working class life. I've never been a Harper's reader and didn't submit. In my early 20's, I did subscribe to the New Yorker and New York Times, but the social milieus they depicted, especially in the ads, seemed super exotic to me. What fanciful travels, restaurants and nightclubs, and what preposterous prices, even those touted as bargains! It's a different world.

Occupying the top half, many will vehemently defend the bottom, in theory, without any intimacy with it, with some openly despising it, but these ignorant trash must be spoken for, so exclaim the righteous snobs.

Illegal immigration is a classic example of this. Although this stream of cheap labor benefits the ownership class while hurting the poorest, it is presented, often earnestly, as an act of solidarity with the downtrodden. Blacks, brown citizens and legal immigrants are among illegal immigration's worst victims, and of course, poor whites, but if these dare to demand their lowly jobs back, they must be racists! No wonder so many are killing themselves.

I'm across the globe from all that. Here, 9/11 came and went without anyone remembering anything. It's someone else's fairy tale.

It's past five, so I'm done. I can't wait to eat, then lie down.

Tomorrow, I'll get up before four to read some, then be at Mrs. Ha's cafe as dawn pales over our negligible village. Each morning, a hen leads her chicks across our empty gas station, with each bird perusing the ground, when not pecking. Penned cocks crow. Since it's rice harvesting time, tractor trucks bring Rade farmhands to paddies. Black peppers wait their turn. Durians drop. So much land and work to fill just one scrawny belly.

Slumped in a corner where my head can rest, I'll have two cups of slow drip Perfect coffee with condensed milk, plus unlimited green tea, free of charge. The tin tea pot is labeled Phoenix. I am indeed royalty. Once, I showed up with my shirt inside out and my fly unzipped, but no one said sh*t. I've discovered my true calling as the village idiot. When not serving customers, Mrs. Ha lies on a hammock or laughs as she watches dating shows on television.

Her cafe is also a tiny store and parking garage, and she charges just 22 cents a day for commuters to park a motorbike.

"This is just the country, uncle."

"And they can keep it here until what time?"

"Seven or eight."

"And if they don't pick it up by then?"

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Linh Dinh's Postcards from the End of America has just been published by Seven Stories Press. Tracking our deteriorating socialscape, he maintains a photo blog.


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