Postcards from the end of America by Linh Dinh

Linh Dinh is a Vietnamese-American poet, who has been traveling around the US for years, in order to take pictures, talk to ordinary people and write about their life. He writes short reports about what he’s seen and the people he met, which he’s been posting on his website for years, but some of them have recently been put collected in a book. We forget about it because we are used to hear about famous people, but the life of ordinary people is also very interesting. Dinh’s political commentary is mediocre at best, but the book is really worth it just for the stories he tells, about the people he met and their life. Of course, you could just read them on his website, but I think he deserves to be rewarded for his work so you should read a few postcards on the website and buy the book if you liked them.

There are so many great stories in the book that it’s hard to pick one, but here is a passage of the postcard he wrote about Riverside in New Jersey, which I chose because although the postcard was written a few years before the last presidential election, it says a lot about what led Trump to the White House:

Doubling back to downtown, I saw, in a window, a baseball trophy with an American flag stuck on it, so I took out my camera, tried to find the proper angle and adjusted the ISO, aperture and shutter speed. With its scratched sensor and erratic software, this beat up machine is just about ready for a Kabul junk dealer. Oh Lord, will you buy me a new Canon or Nikon?
“Taking photos, eh?”
I turned and saw some beefy guy with a beard, in his mid 50’s, so I said, “Yeah, I’m taking a picture of this flag.”
“Right on!”
Since he seemed a friendly sort, I asked, “Hey, I’ve walked a couple of miles and haven’t seen a single bar. Where can I get a drink around here?”
“See that flag down the street? There’s a bar right there. In fact, that’s where I’m going!”
So that’s how I met Steve. The RaceTrack 75 Sports Bar appeared newish, with all its barstools shiningly upholstered in checker flag pattern. There were seven televisions, but only four were beaming and babbling. The two up front showed American sports, while those at the rear had on Portuguese programs. Behind the bar, a sign touted, “RISSOIS. CAMARAO E CARNE. PASTEIS DE BACALHAU.” Another, “FRANCESINHAS A MODA DO PORTO.” Four dapper men at the back conversed in Portuguese. Ragged by comparison, I sat at the front near Steve and a white-bearded gent in a tan baseball cap, blue flannel shirt and gray sweat pants. He seemed cheerful enough, but worn out. A bottle of Bud was only $2.50, but I didn’t know this, so ordered Yuengling, which set me back four bucks. This space was too open and bright for my taste, but thankfully there was no music to disrupt conversation. I said to the tired man, “I was told Riverside is filled with bars, but I walked all over town today and couldn’t find any.”
“There used to be lots. There was one across the street.”
“Why are they gone?”
“I don’t know… Money.”
“How many bars are left now?”
“Let’s see, there’s the Beer Factory, the White Eagle, JD’s, McCrossen’s, this place and Towne Tavern, which is more upscale. I can’t afford to drink there. There’s also Casa Brazil. So that’s, what, seven bars? There used to be at least twenty.”
“How long have you lived here?
“I was born here, and never left until I joined the service. I was in Vietnam for two tours. When I got out, I moved to Florida and stayed for nearly forty years. 9/11 brought me back.”
“What do you mean?”
“I had a business doing laundry for these big hotels, but the tourists stopped coming after 9/11. I’m old anyway, so it was time to come back. I live off my social security now. Each day, I come here and take it easy.”
“They pick him up each day at noon,” Steve chimed in. “Each day! Then take him home in the evening.”
“Who do?”
“Her husband.” Steve nodded to the bartender.
“I come, drink my twenty bucks, then go home.” The tired but cheerful man chuckled.
“Wow, these people are really nice if they pick you up at your house each day.”
“They are, and I don’t even tip most of the time. I’d start out thinking I’d tip, but between having one more beer or tipping, I’d choose the beer. They don’t mind, though. Do you, Teresa?”
“Do what?” She was at the cash register, with her back turned.
“Do you mind that I’m so cheap?”
“No, I love you, Joe!”
“They’re the nicest people. Some of my friends say, ‘Why do you drink at that Portuguese bar? You should be at the White Eagle!’ But they treat me very well here.”
Leaning closer, Steve confided, “Many people here don’t like the Portuguese or the Brazilians. They come and take our jobs, you know. A few years ago, we passed a law to get rid of illegal immigrants.”
“Yes, I’ve heard about that.”
“There was this Brazilian café owner, he got mad, so he put a sign in his window, ‘No Americans allowed.’”
“That guy’s not Brazilian, he’s Portuguese,” Joe corrected Steve.
“Yeah, you’re right, but after he put this sign up, the sheriff came and told him to take it down.”
“Wow, that’s pretty weird, that sign,” I cringed.
“That guy owns a few apartments,” Joe added, “so he was also mad because these new law were chasing his tenants away. Hey, you’re not Portuguese, are you?”
I laughed out loud, “No, I’m Vietnamese.”
“If you turn your head this way, Joe, his eyes become rounder and he does look sorta Portuguese,” Steve joked.
We all just sat there for a moment. I then asked Joe, “When were you in Vietnam?”
“Sixty-seven and sixty-eight. I was just eighteen years old. Just got out of high school. I fought in the Tet Offensive,” and Joe just stared at me, his cloudy blue eyes clearly seeing what wasn’t in Riverside, New Jersey, that day or ever. After the weightiness of it all had settled again, Joe continued, “My father fought in World War I and World War II, and four of my brothers were in the service. I was a baseball prospect, you know. After high school, I had sixty scholarship offers.”
“Six?!” I interrupted him.
“No, sixty.”
“Sixty! You must have been great!”
“I was. I was a catcher, and I hit .400 in high school. I could probably make it as a professional, but my father said, ‘We have a war now,’ so I enlisted. I didn’t know what I was doing. I had a small life. We were into bebop and Elvis, and next thing I knew, I was killing people. Your people!” Joe started to tear up. I put a hand on his shoulder and moved it back and forth. The red-eyed vet continued, “The government put us into this terrible situation. All of a sudden, we were there. Our first day, we saw two American corpses, and they had their genitals cut off and stuffed into their mouths.”
“What?! I’ve never heard of anything like that.”
“But that’s what we saw. And now, I’m thinking I’m not sure who did this. I’m thinking maybe it’s our own government that did this, to get us riled up. They did it so we would hate the Vietnamese.”
Steve hadn’t really paid attention to what Joe was saying, for he had probably heard it before, but suddenly he interjected, “I spent twenty years in the Army, and I was in Desert Storm, but now I’m not sure what it was all about. The politicians don’t care about us, man! They’ve sold this country to China! Look at this,” and Steve took off his watch to show me its backside. “What does it say?”
“And you know where it was made?”
“Bingo! Of course, China, and I bought this watch from the VFW magazine!”
“This used to be an industrial town,” Joe jumped in. “Half the clothes in the world was made here. Now we don’t make nothing. What we need is a tariff on all this made in China stuff. That’s how we level the playing field.”
Higher tariffs mean higher prices here, plus a cut in profits for all the US firms who have moved their manufacturing to China, not to mention a hurting for America’s real first family, the Waltons of Walmart. Since our bought politicians lick these fat cats’ asses, it ain’t gonna happen, OK? So we sat there and shot the cow pies (to dust, until dusk). Joe asked my age, then kidded, “You know who your daddy is?
“Dad!” I shouted.
“You two look exactly alike,” Steve opined with a straight face. To prove this to all and sundry, I asked Steve to snap a photo of me with my head clumped against Joe’s. Steve then showed me his dent nose, a result of a punch in mean ass Tennessee, “And I wasn’t even screwing his wife!”
Speaking of wife, Steve’s own showed up, but within twenty minutes, they argued and she stormed out, only to return 45 minutes later to ask him, sweetly, to come home. They left with this weasel-like character with a cane. After they were gone, Joe explained that the weasel had been jailed for about 13 years for murder, and was now stealing pills from Steve’s wife to get high. “Four or five of them killed somebody, but this guy got the longest sentence.”
Joe had reached his brew allotment, so I bought him two more Buds, but then he paid one last round with a credit card. “You know, I’m supposed to be dead,” Joe grinned. “I have liver cancer. Seven years ago, a doctor said I had six months to live.”
“So that’s your last beer, Joe!” Per nurse Teresa. “After you finish that, my husband will take you home!”
Cheating on death, or maybe just one doctor’s erroneous betting line, Joe will chug and chatter until his own factory shuts down, for good. During the height of the housing bubble, there were plans to turn the Tabel Mill and the imposing Keystone Watch Case building into condominiums. Needless to say, these schemes have been scrapped.
Before I left the bar, I met one more gentleman who filled me in on Riverside. Born in Portugal in 1962, Harold was two-years-old when his parents brought him to the States. They first settled in Newark.
“Why are there so many Portuguese in Riverside?” I asked. “What’s the attraction?”
“I don’t know. It’s like somebody moved here first, then the rest followed. The river may have something to do with it, and the hills. It reminds them of home, maybe? Most Portuguese are fishermen.”
“You know, my sister-in-law is Portuguese, and her family is from Stockton, California. They’re farmers.”
“Hmmm, I don’t know any Portuguese farmers, but there must be farmers, I suppose. Most of us are fishermen. The codfish is huge in our culture. The codfish is ninety percent of our culture!”
Later in the conversation, Harold gave me his take on Riverside’s immigration quandary, “First, the Brazilian men came, and they were living ten or twelve to an apartment. Each morning, you’d see hundreds of Brazilians coming out of these buildings. Then some of them brought their wives and children over, so suddenly, there were all these Brazilian kids in the schools. The locals really didn’t like that. They were saying, ‘These people are here illegally, they don’t pay taxes, and now we have to educate their kids too?’ And since these kids didn’t speak English, they had to be put in ESL classes. Even as a Portuguese, I can see why people were upset.”
“But you also hire Brazilians for your business?”
“How can I not? How can I compete if I don’t hire Brazilians? Everybody everywhere is hiring illegals!”

Clearly, the problem of these people is that they don’t read the New York Times, otherwise they would know that immigration is great for them. Or perhaps it’s mostly great for people who work at the New York Times, I always forget. The book is full of passages such as this, which explain why so many people in flyover America voted for Trump, but again it’s worth it just for the stories Dinh, who is a great writer, tells about the colorful characters he met during his travels.

5 thoughts

  1. Its funny to me that your take home out of all that is about immigration. It seemed like a side point to me. What I hear is enormous war fatigue. The more time passes since the election, the more I think Trump’s biggest appeal was that he promised to close a kind of cognitive dissonance that these people have: they are both sick as hell of pointless wars, but they also want to hang on to the idea that military service is great and its what makes America great. Trump somehow managed, at least for a while, to bridge that gap.

    1. Some percentage of veterans and military-related persons likely suffer cognitive dissonance of a sort, and likely suffer it for reasons of military related beliefs. Why? Because just about any group of people will have some percentage of their members suffer dissonance for group-related reasons. We can accept this without accepting your false equivalency that wanting a reduction in intentional military conflicts is at odds with a general admiration for those who have served in the military and that such service is one of the more positive features of one’s country. The only way you can make a workable equivalency out of your claim is to have the relevant past military conflicts be genocidal in nature (or some such evil). Mere pointlessness won’t get you dissonance; so Vietnam, the Iraq war, and Afghanistan don’t fit the bill.

      I can think of better examples of dissonance that relate to the 2016 election:

      (1) Legal immigrants without college scholarships being aggressively told to vote for a party backing illegal immigrants (some of whom bragged on social media about their full-ride scholarships to state universities), many of whom at times enjoy better treatment than them.

      (2) Lower and middle-class, but publicly recognized ‘privileged’ persons being scolded about their cultural appropriation. This, while at the same time being told that desiring some non-trivial say in the way their culture is constituted in the future is xenophobic and bigoted.

      (3) Leftist opponents of the corporate world being ostracized by their in-group for expressing reservation about corporate abuse of H1-B.

      I could go on.

      There are likely a hundred reasons why Trump won-out. Immigration fatigue/reservation/worry and the desire to silence its expression has to be in anyone’s top 10.

    2. That’s because I don’t believe for a second that war fatigue was a stronger factor than opposition to immigration. People just don’t vote on foreign policy, except in extraordinary circumstances. I wish they did, especially in the US (which has such a huge influence on the rest of the world), but they don’t. It’s one of the most solidly established result in political science.

      I know there was recently a study which claimed that war casualties were a crucial factor in Trump’s victory, but I think taking a close look at it confirms my point, rather than the other way around. I may write a post about it, so I won’t get into the details here, but I want to outline why it doesn’t show what many people claim it shows.

      In order to conclude that Clinton would have won in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, had the casualty rate over there been as low as in New York, the authors used the simple regression at state-level with no control. If you look at the county-level regression with a bunch of covariates that control for income, unemployment, racial composition, etc., you see that the swing in the direction of Trump increased by 0.25% for every additional war casualty per 100,000 inhabitants between 2001 and 2016.

      Given that the casualty rate is extremely low in all but a relatively small number of counties in those 3 states, taking the regression at face value, it really doesn’t add up to a lot of votes. (Moreover, we probably shouldn’t take the regression at face value, because the relationship between the swing and the casualty rate is almost certainly not linear, since presumably increases faster than linearly since people don’t care about the war until a certain number of casualties is reached.)

      It’s also worth noting that the R^2 of the simple regression on state-level data is ridiculously small. I would bet a lot of money that, if you did the same thing using support for a restrictionist immigration policy as a covariate, the R^2 would be a lot higher. And I wouldn’t even lose a minute of sleep over the possibility that I might lose my money.

      Like I said, perhaps I’ll write a post about this study, in which case I’ll do the math properly. But right now I don’t have time, so it will have to wait.

  2. “Dinh’s political commentary is mediocre at best…”

    To put it mildly. He’s now taken to travelling about Europe in the company of Jonathan Revusky (!), and seems to accept without question the latter’s view that every jihadist attack you’ve ever heard of was a false flag operation.

    1. I didn’t know that, but there was a few hints of that in the book, so I’m not really surprised. Fortunately, he doesn’t really get into that stuff in the book, but there is plenty of bad economic/political commentary. However, even that is a small part of the book, so it didn’t really bother me.

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