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Postcard from the End of America: Center City, Philadelphia

Message Linh Dinh
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Angel in Philadelphia, 2015
Angel in Philadelphia, 2015
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Ah, to be in perfect health, good looking, with all the possibilities in the world spread out like an extravagant buffet, begging for your attention! Should I become a recording star, the next Obama (or Hillary) or precocious billionaire? Maybe I'll marry a rich yet good looking one and see the world before I turn 22? These days, though, a young person's daydream must meet the sick reality of an economy sinking into quicksand as weighted down by a bloated and criminal government. War is constant though distant, for now, and the media, dominated by a fistful of puppeteers, purvey nothing but lies and idiocy. "No Bra, No Problem: Beyonce Wears a Completely Unbuttoned Shirt to Lunch." A government that ignores not just international laws but its own legal foundation is a rogue regime, but as long as its abject subjects can't peel their pupils from FaceBook, boxscores and pixelated genitals, all is good.

Though the most visible homeless are still the old and middle-aged, they are becoming younger and younger, and the other day, I met 30-year-old Stephanie sitting behind a plastic cup with a sign, "HOMELESS AND HUNGRY / ANYTHING HELPS / THANK YOU." Born in New Jersey, she was a waitress in Delran, Palmyra and Cinnaminson, mostly white, working class towns just across the river from Philadelphia. Losing her apartment six months ago, Stephanie had to come to Philly to beg, so there she was in two pairs of ugly pants and a scruffy, oversized men's jacket, her teeth chattering. It was 27 degrees. Behind Stephanie was a recycling receptacle, but she herself, like so many redundant workers, risks becoming unrecyclable in our increasingly ruthless society. How many Americans are thinking, Maybe I'll never get another job?

A block away, I ran into Angel, aged 21 and homeless for three weeks. Also from New Jersey, Angel came to Philly two years ago and found work as a bartender at Beau Monde, an upscale French restaurant that's particularly popular among the gay crowd. Above Beau Monde is L'etage, a dance club with the same owner. With business rather slow at Beau Monde, there weren't much tips, so Angel moved to Cantina Los Caballitos. Starting as a hostess, she eventually became one of four managers. Her peak salary was $1,600 a month, but that's before tax. With rents so high in Philly, Angel opted to pay $350 for a room in a house she shared with six people, "All of my co-workers were paying around $500 a month, but none of them had their own space. They were all sharing."

I told Angel that twenty years ago, I had my own apartment in Center City for just $350 a month. Her eyes widened, "That's unbelievable!" The bank-inflated housing bubble made housing unaffordable for many poor people.

At Cantina Los Caballitos, workplace politics was very complicated, Angel said, because managers, bartenders and servers slept with each other, "If a bartender was sleeping with a server, a female manager would get pissed off and try to get even."

"Because she wanted to sleep with him?"

"Yeah, because she wanted to sleep with him. There was a lot of corruption there," meaning sexual harassment or retaliation.

The most insidious abuse of power, however, was how employees were discarded, "In the bar and restaurant business, they will overhire, then get rid of whoever they don't like, but without firing them. If they find someone that they like more than you, they'll keep it hush hush and find ways to push you out, and they will do this with any position. It's not just with a server or kitchen worker, they will also do this with a manager.

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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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