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Postcard from the End of America: Lisa from Clayton, NJ

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Philadelphia, 2011
Philadelphia, 2011
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David Swanson, author of War is a Lie, declares, "Yes, I also want to say Free Mumia. In fact, I want to say Free all the prisoners. Turn the prison holding Mumia Abu-Jamal into a school and make him dean." Now, only a white man living outside the city can even think of, "I want to say Free all the prisoners." Most city dwellers, white, black, brown or yellow, would retch in disgust at such a statement.

The left tend to see all losers, even criminals, as merely victims of circumstance, but from the right perspective, just about any destitute person is a lazy bum who's made too many wrong decisions. To a pure leftist, one's birth traits override individual complexities, so if you were born into wealth, for example, then you're inherently guilty of, well, just about everything, but if you're black and living in a white society, then you cannot be guilty of anything, not even of racism, that most basic of human instincts. A black man doesn't have to overcome his racism, since he can't even be racist, according to many a leftist brain, but to deny such a moral agency to anyone is to see him as subhuman. One has to be a racist, or just plain stupid, to believe any man incapable of self love.

On just about every issue, immigration, race, religion or law and order, the American left has alienated itself from the lower class, one that it still pretends to represent, but the right is also out of touch, for too often, it downplays systemic reasons for individual failures. If you're relying on food stamps, for example, you must be a parasite, but the fact is, with job outsourcing and a deliberate policy by our ruling class to not just allow, but import, cheaper foreign labor, it's becoming harder by the day to put food on the table.

In April of 2000, the Civilian Labor Force Participation Rate stood at 67.3%. Now, it's 62.6%. Not only are far fewer Americans employed, the current batch of jobs also pay less yet inflation has only skyrocketed, if measured honestly. One of the funniest terms in our increasingly Orwellian epoch is "core inflation index," for it leaves out the costs of food and energy, the two core necessities of life. Heartless, our masters sure know how to laugh in our faces. In 2008, 18% of American children lived in poverty. Just seven years later, it's 22%. Housing prices are going up thanks to low interest rates, speculators and foreign buyers. Though this only shoves more destitute Americans into homeless shelters, garden sheds, garages and cars, if not under bridges and onto sidewalks, it's trumpeted by Wall Street and Washington as a heart warming sign of the recovery. The latest housing trend is tent rental in someone's backyard. For $65 a night, you can curl up in Chula Vista, CA, but it's only $20 in La Verne. What's next? Lean to? Air mattress under the stars?

Traveling to a poor country, Americans can be overwhelmed by the sights of beggars. Grimy children may pester you as you carve into your meat. Slumped on sidewalks, the deformed or maimed beg for their next meal. These impressions contrast sharply with the skyscrapers and gleaming boutiques that can be found now in even the most bankrupt and dysfunctional countries. Dysfunctional is not readily measurable, but debts sure are, so I'll give you just one guess. Which nation is the most bankrupt in this galaxy? The US has dug for itself such a deep, wide and ghastly hole, nearly all of its wealth, capabilities and initiative have been sucked straight down to China.

In any case, beggars are always an indictment of a society, and their number, nature and even techniques are reflective of its condition. The March 18th, 1882 issue of the British Medical Journal has this entry, "SELF-MUTILATION IN CHINA":

"Dr. R. A. Jamieson of Shanghai has recently presented to the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons a pair of feet, to which the following remarkable history is attached. Some months ago, a Chinese beggar excited much pity, and made a very profitable business in the streets of the foreign settlement, Shanghai, by showing the mutilated stumps of his legs, the feet belonging to them being tied together, and slung around his neck. Warned frequently by the police, he was knocked down by a carriage one day when scrambling out of the way of a constable. He was brought into hospital, under Dr. Jamieson's care, being slightly injured; and, on recovery from his bruises, he sold to his medical attendant his feet, which otherwise would have been confiscated by the police. He admitted that, for the purpose of making himself as attractive as possible to the charitably disposed, he had, about a year previously, fastened cords round his ankles, drawing them as tight as he could bear them, and increasing the pressure every two or three days. In about a fortnight, the bones were bare, and he had no more pain. At the end of a month and a half, the bones were quite dry; and, by this time, according to his account, he was able to remove the feet by partly cutting and partly snapping the bones. The feet were quite black and mummified; on the wounded surface of the right foot, the upper aspect of the astragalus was seen, no trace of the malleoli remaining; but the external malleolus lay in its normal position in the left foot, and it had evidently been removed by cutting and snapping, as the patient affirmed. The stumps were perfectly healed, and conical; the ends of the tibiae and fibulae were apparently fused, and both stumps were covered in with a good cicatrix, puckered at the centre, and admitting of a very considerable amount of pressure before pain was produced. Such instances of self-mutilation appear to be frequent in China; and, when performed for such a motive as in Dr. Jamieson's case, they throw a light on that singular mixture of courage, deceit, and sacrifice of almost anything to advance low enterprise, which characterise the lower orders in that country."

We can't know how "frequent" such self-mutilations for coins were, but it's interesting that from one "remarkable" and frankly freakish example, the writer could conclude that it "throw a light" on "the lower orders in that country." It almost sounds like, "the lower order of that country." Again, beggars are an indictment of a society.

In our land of fuzzy and often quite devious euphemisms, where a prisoner is a "detainee" and an illegal immigrant is just an "undocumented worker," it's only appropriate that we don't have beggars, really, but only panhandlers. Though we have enough strange bodies on the streets, most of our beggars are remarkably normal in appearance and demeanor. Just today, I talked to Marty, a 31-year-old from Winslow, NJ. Reasonably well-groomed, clean and without tattoos, Marty wore a long-sleeve T-shirt, basketball shorts and Polo sneakers. He sat on his bedding next to a platic cup of soda. Marty served four years in the Army. He loves his brief glimpse of Berlin and the "brotherhood" of the military. Afghanistan was "a mess" and Iraq "not what we had been told." Marty's been homeless for three weeks. To gain an advantage over other beggars, Marty had come up with a clever sign, "FREE TO A LOVING HOME. HOUSE TRAINED ALREADY!!" In a tiny scrawl beneath that, there's also, "Trying to Get a Buck to eat." Two blocks away, I then found an old lady of about 80 dozing in a wheelchair next to two tote bags. I've seen men this ancient dumped on our sidewalks, so why not this woman? Most of our homeless shelters kick people out during the daytime, and there are no storage facilities. Here was your average greatgrandma nodding off on a comfy armchair in a cozy living room, except that there was no armchair and no living room. For the many hours that she's out there, thousands of people, locals and tourists, walk by this exposed woman. This is the new normal.

An American who's at the bottom is no less representative than Steve Jobs, though only Jobs' biography is scrutinized. In fact, since the ratio of American "losers" to "winners" has become so askew, with the losing camp swelling to include just about everybody by now, one can understand nothing by ignoring the bottom. Let's meet, then, Lisa from Clayton, NJ (population 8,216). I found her sitting on Walnut Street near the Holiday Inn. At the time, Lisa had been homeless for 10 months. It was a gorgeous spring day, warm and sunny. Freezing temperatures would not return for at least four months.

"It doesn't make sense to be anywhere else, right? It doesn't make sense to be in Atlantic City?"

"No. Now that it's getting nice, it's OK to be in Atlantic City, but during the winter, no, and they really don't have much to offer there."

"Don't they have a pretty good shelter there?"

"No, not for women."

"Were you familiar with Philadelphia before you came here?"


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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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