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Postcard from the End of America: Oakland

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(Article changed on April 25, 2013 at 12:25)

Other people's lives come fluttering to us in the tiniest fragments, and these we gather, when we bother to, into an incoherent jumble of impressions we pass off as knowledge. Further, our ears, eyes and mind are all seriously defective and worn-down, making intelligence a dodgy proposition, at best. Our memory also crashes daily, if not secondly, our verbal skills poor, and when we examine ourselves, there are the added distortions of endless exculpation and vainglory. In short, no one knows ish about ish, though some ish does get much closer to the real ish. One thing for sure, amigo, if you ain't aiming for ish, you ain't gonna get ish.

From behind my cranium, a reflective voice, "As you get older, more things happen, you know what I mean, and it's not much fun either." The speaker is a middle-aged white male, talking to another suspect of a similar description. They have both committed a list of crimes, small, large and unspeakable, too long and various to summarize here, or anywhere. Eager to please, speaker has a sweet tendency to laugh uproariously at the slightest joke or witticism hacked up from any vocal cord, no matter how stupidly inspired or ineptly delivered. Speaker is traveling from Denver to Elko, Nevada.

Four feet behind my brain stem, another voice, on another bus, "Dude, I lost my virginity in a sedan, and it was like the most gnarly experience ever. I don't know how people have sex in a car. Dude, you might as well get out and lay on the ground. I'd rather have sex on fuckin' mud!" Speaker is a young white male chatting up a young black female. It is unclear why he keeps addressing her as "dude."

Now, permit me to hand you a chunkier fragment of life. We have just passed Winter Park, Colorado, and sitting next to us is a white male in his late 30's. From Denver to Salt Lake City, he will not buy food or drink at any rest stop, but only smoke. If you look down, you will see a loaf of Bimbo in his duffel bag. White bread is all he has chewed on since Tulsa, and will eat until Boise, where he has a sister. Siblings will then drive to Vegas, where they can blow at least part of the sister's $4,000 tax return, "We won't gamble much, maybe just $30 or $40 at a time." Fun over, they'll head to Bakersfield, CA, to see relatives. He will be away from home three weeks. Now, any man who can be gone that long is likely unemployed, and broke too, obviously, unless he is a rabid fan of Bimbo, for whom nothing but Bimbo will do.

Now, excuse me for a sec, for I must reach inside my shirt and pants to scratch myself. When you sit on a bus for too long, whatever skin issues you have simply blossom! Tissues flake, scale, crack and even ooze something like Hawaiian Punch gone bad. Thus gross and itchy, I decided to get radical back in Kansas City, and, no, I didn't bomb its Federal Reserve Building. My solution was strictly personal, discreet, though en plein air. It had been snowing hard for hours, and the streets were mostly deserted. Having not washed in days, I decided to leave the bus station, filled as it was with blizzard and economic refugees, to crouch down by the side of a nearby building, take my pants off and rub snow on my inguinal regions. That's a fancy phrase to indicate my second, more candid head and adjacent backdoor, the one leading to the lugubrious dumpster. I froze my nuts off, but felt super clean afterwards, cleaner than I had ever been, in fact, on this phantasmagoric earth.

Constantly exposed, thus deprived of privacy, for just a few days, I was already getting weird, so it's hardly surprising that many who have to be outside all the time are borderline mad, if not ravingly so. Denied the silence and space to reflect, they often argue with themselves out loud, as if to shut up and shut out the unceasing white noise. In Oakland, I saw a young woman, draped with a thin comforter, who'd crouch down often to pick something from the ground. At first I thought she was scavenging cigarette butts, then I realized she was picking up anything that wasn't stuck to the sidewalk, a tiny scrap of paper, a dry leaf, a match stump, a candy wrapper... Not content to pick up the pieces, she'd kneel down on the concrete to arrange them, to give them order and meaning.

Grinning goofily, she danced jerkily for half a minute. She had on a hooded, plaid jacket, black pants, blue sneakers and a dangling, plastic earring. Her hair was sheared short. For nearly an hour, she loitered in front of an all-night convenience store, the one with Marilyn Monroe and the King of Pop on its walls, and Obama and lottery ads in its window. The proprietors, an Indian couple, had to keep their eyes out for shoplifters and those sneaking coffee refills. Thinking a passerby had addressed her, she answered him, but the dude coldly replied, "I wasn't talking to you." A man tossed a still longish butt on the ground, so I pointed it out to our dancing scrounger. She snatched it. Wanting to find out what's up, I decided to buy two tall boys of Tecate from a store half a mile away. None was closer. "Sweet," she said when I finally handed her a beer. We were sitting in a bus shelter. It was chilly enough that night.

"What's your name?"

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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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