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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 2/27/15

Postcard from the End of America: Center City, Philadelphia

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Unlike Angel, who spoke in a clear, emphatic voice, Seth was murmuring, and he mostly avoided eye contact. I don't know if this is just how Seth is, or being on the streets for just more than a month had subdued this tallish, trim man. He had a very oblique presence. Unlike Angel, who spent two semesters in college with an aim of studying psychology, Seth had only finished high school.

"With Seth, it happened in reverse," Angel explained. "He lost his housing, then his job, whereas I lost my job, then my apartment."

Hoboken, West New York and Jersey City used to be affordable if you wanted to be near NYC, but with the housing bubble, they became yuppified. Opening in 2004, the 42-story Goldman Sachs Tower lords over the Jersey City riverfront. The rise in housing price is used as an indicator of the economy's health, but like so many other things, what benefits the moneyed hurts the poor. I'd love to see housing price collapse completely so I can rent an apartment for less than $500! The poor live in terror of seeing their rents raised. A bump of just $50 or so can mean skipped meals. Angel spoke of the strangeness of seeing people with jobs and apartments eating at her soup kitchen, but that has become the new normal for many poor Americans.

What's meant by poor varies greatly from country to country, obviously. Each year, I get paid $200 to write an article in Vietnamese for a California journal's Tet issue. Even people inside Vietnam read Viet Bao. I translate a passage, "Poverty in the US is much different from destitution in Vietnam because in the US, even the poorest have something to stuff into their mouths. In Kensington, a neighborhood in North Philly, more than 350 people eat dinner each day at Saint Francis. After 5PM, you can see them lined up outside the gate. Slovenly and smelly or neatly dressed, they are the homeless, the old, the young and mothers pushing strollers. In the US, the biggest worry is the monthly rent or mortgage. Unable to pay, roughly 1.5 million people must sleep in their cars or outside at least a few days a year. Every American city has hundreds if not thousands of homeless. In some places, they take over an entire neighborhood, as with San Francisco's Tenderloin or Los Angeles' Skid Row."

Orwell wrote that an Indian or Japanese coolie "can live on rice and onions," and in Vietnam today, there are those whose normal meal is just the cheapest rice fried up with some MSG. In downtown Saigon, however, there is a buffet that charges $130 a head, and another that docks you a mere Ben Franklin. [And no, my inquisitor, I haven't crashed into either one, so don't get your boxers all bunched up!] At each, you can feast on tapas, prosciutto, lobsters and steaks, and guess who frequent such haunts? Foreigners, of course, but also the nouveau riche and high ranking Communist Party officials.

Most "Communists," from a police captain and certain college professors on up, can get fat on graft alone, but the most powerful Party members also own multiple villas, send their kids to study in London, Paris or Berkeley, and vacation in Dubai. The most opulent nightclubs in Saigon and Hanoi are also owned by Communists, and the ones that aren't must pay off a raft of cynical, cognac swilling Reds to stay in business. These are the pigs depicted in Orwell's Animal Farm, but they weren't born pigs, however, but became pigs through totalitarianism.

Which comes first, though, the power or the pig? First of, there's a latent pig inside each of us, no matter how meek our current station. This means anyone can morph into a pig at any time. A lifelong sheep, dove, butterfly or microbe can suddenly become a pig on his death bed. With power, though, a pig can balloon to any size and become even larger than the earth itself, so the trick is not to outlaw piggishness, since it is merely a state of mind and always lurking, but to limit the amount of power any individual or entity may have over anything, and that's true of a media company as much as a political party.

The point and attraction of having power is to collect blings and kick asses, so if you consolidate power in fewer hands, you will increase suffering for a greater number of people, but that's exactly the world we're living in. Nationally, Washington has more power over an American life than ever, and internationally, this earth is divided into a few major blocks dominated by a handful of power centers. The windfalls of cheap oil have cushioned and masked the true state of our global oppression and inequity, however, though millions have simply been blown to bits in that ruthless scramble for cheap oil.

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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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