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Postcard from the End of America: Centralia, PA

By       Message Linh Dinh     Permalink
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Centralia in 2015
(Image by Linh Dinh)
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Just as there are so many ways for a man to die, there are countless methods for a place to be destroyed. Unlike a dead man, however, a wrecked city or country most often doesn't disappear entirely, but lingers on as a shadow or zombie, or it becomes an entirely different place. Most American cities have become zombies, while the country itself is a swearing, staggering, fist-waving zombie with a gazillion cruise missiles strapped to its bloated and festering carcass.

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Come up to Northeast Pennsylvania, my friend Chuck Orloski urged, and he'll show me Centralia. Fifty three years into its famous coal mine fire, this dead town only has three houses left from over five hundred, and out of its seven churches, only one is standing. Its current population is six, and its last unpaid and unofficial mayor died in May of 2014 at age 90. Centralia does have a fire station, however, and inside its municipal building, there's a bar that opens twice a month for old timers to drop by and reminisce. Also, Centralia's four cemeteries still honor reservations. Forced to flee, many come back to lie down. Dead, they can reclaim their community.

Chris Perkel and Georgie Roland made a searing documentary on Centralia, The Town That Was, and in this 2007 film, one meets fascinating John Lokitis. With its population down to a dozen, Lokitis tried to maintain normalcy by mowing acres of grass, painting benches and, most absurdly and heartbreakingly, hanging candle, tree and lantern decorations at utility poles each Christmas. By refusing to let comatose Centralia die, Lokitis was hoping against hope that it could be revived but, alas, Lokitis himself was evicted in 2009 and his memory laden house torn down. Following Lokitis around, the camera often lingered uncomfortably on his face after he had stopped talking, as if expecting this sad yet defiant man to break down. Every now and then, Lokitis would chuckle nervously. Combating nature, fate, the damned government and time itself, Lokitis couldn't will the Centralia story to a different outcome.

Taking a bus from Philadelphia, I met Chuck in downtown Scranton, but before he arrived, I had time to grab a very sad fish sandwich at Curry Donuts. The other patrons did cheer me up, however. Copiously inked and in daft or menacing T-shirts, they guzzled Mountain Dew, greeted each other and jived. Sitting alone, a squinting black man wore cheap, plastic glasses sans nose pads and a once-orange T-shirt that declared, "YOUR MOM WAS HERE." Pushing a stroller, possibly the shortest woman I've ever seen came marching in and grandly announced to the frazzled cashier, "We're having lunch!" Visibly and audibly ecstatic that the fish sandwich with fries special was just $4.99, she ordered the dismal meal I just had. Standing outside the plate glass window, a young man in a white muscle T spat extravagantly between puffs of American Spirit. I never knew a seemingly healthy body could generate so much phlegm.

Joining Chuck and me on the trip to Centralia was Jack. Sixty-five-years-old, Jack has had a turbulent life and was locked up for 22 years altogether for dealing drugs. He has at least 11 children by eight women. When not chasing pink sweat pants, Jack works at a soup kitchen. A man who has never been in battle or jail can feel inadequate in the presence of one who has. It is as if true manhood consists of a capacity to endure endless humiliation and pain. It is this psychology that is exploited by the softest of men to convert millions of other men into draft animals and soldiers.

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Running from the Scranton police, Jack settled in Fishtown in Philadelphia. Living within sight of a police station, in fact, Jack did honest construction work, but on cold nights, he would let a young prostitute in. In exchange for warmth and crack, she would give Jack some attention. By four in the morning, she wasn't likely to hook up with another john anyway.

"Isn't it funny, Jack?" I said. "These girls come in from all over, small town New Jersey, Kansas, and they end up in Kensington, which is like the worst fuckin' neighborhood in the world--well, the country--so they have to act all tough and sh*t, but they're not."

"They're not."

"They're just kids."

"Yeah, they're just kids, and I knew what they wanted, you know. I'd get them a bundle of crack, two bundles. I didn't give a sh*t. I was making 16, 17 an hour under the table, and my rent was only 300 a month. I didn't care too much what they looked like. The backs of their heads looked good to me."

Always looking, Jack was constantly pointing out notable sights to Chuck and I as we were driving. No square inch of soft flesh escaped his attention. A thickly built man, Jack has a Jesus tattoo on his barrel chest. In any fight, you'd want him on your side.

In this region, the landscape has no dramatic markers. There are no snowcapped peaks or wide rivers spanned by spectacular bridges. Everything is tranquil. For a century and half, however, there was much drama below. To keep America heated and lighted, an army of men and boys toiled in virtual hells, with many of them blown up or crushed. From 1877 to 1940, 18,000 died in Pennsylvania coal mines.

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Three miles from Centralia is Ashland, and we stopped here to examine an unusual statue. Like nearly every town in coal country, Ashland is almost entirely white. God, family and country are their holy trinity. Each man is expected to go to the war(s) of his generation. If returning in one piece, no matter how truncated, he has earned himself a stool at the VFW Legion. In such a town, flags and patriotic declarations are everywhere, and war memorials, often with a piece of artillery, torpedo or even tank, are conspicuous. Ashland's most prominent monument does not feature soldiers, however, but a symbolic mother. A bronze rendition of the famous Whistler painting, it rests on a stone pedestal that reads, "MOTHER. A MOTHER IS THE MOST SACRED THING ALIVE."

After his mom died in 1992, Chuck went to this statue to recite a Hail Mary. There, he thought of her last, troubling decade when she often clawed herself bloody or yanked her hair out, so much so that she had to wear a wig in public. Climbing down the monument's steps, Chuck was suddenly accosted by an old, limping woman. "They should call that Our Lady of Memory," she barked. To honor the mother, then, is to acknowledge our roots and history. It is to define, as best we can, who we really are.

On the edge of Ashland, we met up with Remo. An old Teamster friend of Chuck, he would show us Centralia, his hometown. White haired and mustached, Remo had a dog tag and pair of glasses dangling from his neck. A second pair perched on his hunting cap. Six eyes, this man had. In two cars, we drove into the "outskirts of hell," as it's described in a 1981 newscast. Are you ready for toxic steam to crawl up your legs and into your nose? Perhaps you will be sucked into inferno, as happened to 12-year-old Todd Domboski, though, unlike him, no miraculous hands will pluck you out at the last second. Into hell you will go.

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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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