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Obscured American: Benny the Landlord, Casanova and Covert Operator

By       Message Linh Dinh       (Page 1 of 4 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   No comments

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Donna's Bar regulars, 2018
(Image by Linh Dinh)
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Last Saturday, five eternally misunderstood and oppressed gentlemen fired 41 shots at a crowd at 20th and Susquehanna, killing one and injuring four others, including a 5-year-old boy. The TV news reported that the deceased was a "standout basketball player."

North Philly is generally not good for your health and happiness. Though neighborhoods have cute, idyllic names like Nicetown, Hunting Park and Fairhill, they're mostly postindustrial, trash strewn, drugged up ghettos with plenty of dead businesses, dilapidated churches, boarded up homes, caged porches and corner bodegas with signs forbidding hoodies, guns and knives. Chinese takeouts dish up beef lo mein, moo shoo pork and fried chicken from behind bullet-proof plexiglass. Graffiti mar just about every flat surface, including, sometimes, beautiful murals celebrating prominent black figures in art, science, politics and civil rights.

The northeast corner of North Philly, though, is generally spared from this mayhem and squalor. Composed primarily of Poles, Irish, Ukrainians and Italians, Port Richmond and Bridesburg retain their dignity and orderliness through half a century of economic decline.

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On Allegheny, there's the magnificent St. Aldabert Church, with perhaps the most beautiful altarpiece in the entire city. Founded in 1903, it has masses in both English and Polish. Popular eateries The Dinner House and Syrenka are just down the street, as well as cozy Donna's Bar, where I've had cheap bottles of Okocim, Zywiec and Lech, plus tasty bigos and perogies. Their golabki is also wonderful, I've been told. I must get that the next time.

Half of one wall is taken up by a wallpaper Manhattan, at night, as seen from Brooklyn. The Twin Towers have not been imploded.

A guy in his mid-50's said, "I had no problems paying child support. In fact, I gave my kids twice as much, because they're my kids. This one guy told me, a black guy, he said, 'After they arrest you six times for nonpayment, they'll stop bothering you.'"

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"That's ridiculous," I laughed. "Why would anyone want to be arrested six times for anything?!"

"Even if there was no law, I would still pay, because they're my kids! Their mom tried to turn them against me, you know, but I've never said a bad word about her, because she's my kids' mom. As they get older, they can judge me for themselves, see if I was an a**hole or not."

Sunday at Donna's, I met two intriguing characters, Rick and Benny. Bar regulars, they're good friends.

An American-born Colombian in his mid-30's, Rick said he had just been chased from another neighborhood tavern, after his very first beer there, "At first, I didn't even know what he was talking about, so he said it again, 'I think it's time for you get out of here, buddy. Beat it!' I was so shocked, man, I felt like crying. I had never been treated like that."

"That is outrageous."

"And I don't even look that Hispanic. It was unreal."

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"So what did you do?"

"I just left, man. I couldn't process it. I just got off work. I just wanted a beer, that's all."

This night, Rick had another unpleasant encounter. Talking to me, he reached for what he thought was Benny's pack of cigarettes, but it belonged to the woman next to him. After she snatched it away, Rick explained his misunderstanding and apologized repeatedly, but the middle-aged lady never lightened up. Stern, she pointed to her pack and blurted several times, "This! You go! Wawa!"

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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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