At Gleaner's Coffee House, Jeff gave some guy in a saffron robe $10 for the beads and amulet.
Dinh also likes to go off on rants. Much of one chapter, before his stop at the town’s lone bar, is taken up against a “criminal government.” Barack Obama is a “lying psychopath” guilty of “staggering historical crimes.” He spends almost an entire page questioning fundamental events of Sept. 11, 2001. “You’re liable to get into a fistfight if you merely point out the absurdity of a skyscraper collapsing at free-fall speed without being hit by anything,” he writes. Dinh gives us no evidence, or reason, for what convinces him of any of this, yet these asides accompany us throughout “Postcards.”
The problem is, it’s hard to keep rants and bar tabs going for 368 pages. It’s also disappointing. It feels as though after traveling our country, Dinh found little that challenges what seem to be the ideas he had when he set out. If travel doesn’t change you, then it’s hard to see what will.
This is a collection of Linh Dinh’s postcards, which taken together are a diary of his travels and his conversations with those he meets. When he arrives in town, he doesn’t look for the “important” people in town or the local celebrities. Instead, he seeks out the ordinary Americans that populate buses, trains, local bars and restaurants, or the streets themselves. In impressive detail, he shares with his readers brief portraits of them and the details of their conversations together.
Each of these postcards skillfully and subtly pulls you into the intimacy of the conversation. Although Linh never goes for sentimentality or sympathy, and does not judge his conversation partners, you would need a heart of stone to avoid feeling sad or occasionally heartbroken. This feeling builds as you eventually realize in your travels with Linh that he has not cherry-picked his experiences—the people he meets are everywhere, and not hard to find if you are looking in the right place.
Linh’s descriptions truly bring each person he meets to life. The subjects themselves are by turns cheerful, resigned, once in a while briefly angry or irritated. Unexpectedly, they hardly ever seem to feel openly sorry for themselves. Linh takes a personal risk time and time again that few of us would risk even once, actively seeking engagement with people no matter where he needs to go to meet them.
Although the “postcards” are arranged in chronological order (tracking his progress across the US by bus and train), none are dependent on one another, and could be read in any order. Even without Linh’s prompting, however, you will feel some themes emerge unbidden as you continue. Linh reserves his own judgements for general commentary on the state of US society, spaced throughout his narrative. Personally, this reader did not find much to disagree with in that respect.
Some might be tempted to judge or label many of the people Linh talks to as isolated aberrations or society’s outliers, but Linh will help you recognize that there are a lot more of them than you think, and they more and more are becoming the largest part of what is now America.
This is one of the best and most engaging books I have read in a long time, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. You can also read Linh’s ongoing postcards at his blog at linhdinhphotos.blogspot.com.
As published at Unz Review, 3/20/17:
Knowing you can’t run from their jokes, bus drivers will crack a few, so on the endless leg from Washington to Atlanta, the driver intoned, “I don’t believe in Lost and Found, ladies and gentlemen, only eBay. If you forget something on this bus, you can find it on eBay.” Later, he chastised us all because someone had pissed on the toilet’s floor.
As the cheapest means of traveling long distance, MegaBus is bare-boned. Most stops have no shelter, so no bathrooms. Riders may have to wait for their bus, which may be quite late, in withering heat, snow, sleet or hurricane. In Atlanta, however, there’s the amenity of a MegaBus snack truck that also sells pregnancy tests ($3), tasers ($20) and pepper sprays ($7).
What perils could possibly befall these downtrodden or cheapskate travelers? Use your imagination. If Donald Trump sat next to you and grabbed your pussy, wouldn’t you be glad you had bought that pepper spray or taser? If these failed to dissuade our commander-in-chief, you could use your pregnancy test in the bus’ john. Of course, those in the middle class or above would likely shudder at the thought of riding Greyhound, much less MegaBus.
On the bus, there was an actual comedian, Chris Thomas. As “The Mayor,” Thomas had hosted Rap City, a show on Black Entertainment Television. His best loved joke, “I saw this little white girl the other day. She said, ‘You have such big lips! I wish I had lips like yours!’ I said, ‘Bitch, hold still,’” and Thomas bunches his fist. Soft spoken, The Mayor never aimed for humor before getting off in Charlotte.
The MegaBus stop in Atlanta is right outside the Civic Center subway station, and when it’s very cold, passengers go underground to escape the wind. I saw a ragged, middle-aged black man, likely homeless, dancing quite cheerfully. Laughing, a woman joined him. They jerked and twisted. “I’m dreaming of a black Christmas!” she growled.
There is much to love about the South, and not the least is its food. Soon after arriving in Atlanta, I had some excellent collard greens and mac and cheese with my meatloaf at Metro Deli Soul Food. About half of the merchants inside Sweet Auburn Curb Market were black, but there were also several Korean grocers.
The new South is more diverse than you think. In North Charleston in 2012, I chanced upon Lion’s Den, a bar in a black neighborhood that was owned by an Indian-American. Living there since 1982, the confident, affable man had even run for city council. He boasted of carrying four passports, American, English, Kiwi and Indian, and had visited 53 countries. His bar was decorated with a “WE SUPPORT OUR TROOPS” banner and statues of Shiva, Parvati and Buddha.
Of course, two Southern states, Louisiana and South Carolina, gave us our first two Indian-American governors.
In the hills of Tennessee, and old, befuddled lady told me, “My doctor, you know, he’s not black. He’s something.” She meant Indian.
Each time I travel through the South, I’m struck by the waning of its accent. Attending high school in Northern Virginia from 1978-81, I heard Southern accents much more often than I have in recent trips to Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee. True, I haven’t wandered into rural areas, but it’s sad that natives of Savannah, Raleigh or Charleston, for example, should sound more or less like Yankees.
While television and movies have homogenized American English, the disappearance of the Southern accent can also be attributed to the national media’s relentless shaming of the South. Tired of being depicted as racist morons, many Southerners have neutered and deformed their speech.
The South still knows that Washington is the enemy, but this cognitive advantage is canceled out if you hate yourself. In Durham, I saw a sticker, “GOOD NIGHT WHITE PRIDE,” with one man about to slam a bicycle on another man, sitting on the ground. I had seen the same sticker in Leipzig, Germany.
How bad can the South be if blacks from all parts of the country are moving there? Often referred to as the capital of Black America, Atlanta has many thriving black businesses, including a bank, Citizens Trust, and a car dealer, Wade Ford Inc, that rakes in half a billion bucks yearly.
In Sweet Auburn, I encountered a tiny yet remarkable business owned by one Big Mouth Ben. What attracted me to it was a bicycle that was mostly wrapped in bright yellow tape, with an orange sign above it, “DREAMS AHEAD / PROCEED WITH DETERMINATION.”
There was also a flyer, “I WENT FROM BEING HOMELESS ON AUBURN AVE TO BEING A BUSINESS OWNER ON AUBURN AVE! COME INSIDE TO HEAR THE STORY.”
At six-years-old, Big Mouth Ben saw, at a gas station, a man return a Coke bottle for ten cents, “My eyes got that big!” so he filled his red cart that day with empties and made two bucks.
Though scoring 98 on his ASVAB to join the Air Force, Big Mouth Ben was also accepted by the University of Georgia, so he attended and thrived, but dropped out after three years to become a rap star, for he had made a name for himself in Athens.
Back in Atlanta, Big Mouth Ben floundered as a rapper, so he secured a government office job, but quit to co-found a mail-order business. He wanted to be a millionaire by 30, and a billionaire by 40. After thriving for several years, his cash cow was poleaxed by online shopping.
Destitute, Big Mouth Ben sold drugs and got hooked himself. Still, he managed to find work as a garbage man, and actually “loved it,” until a reckless car crushed his pelvis. “It was excruciating pain. If you offered me billions of dollars to go do that again, I wouldn’t do it,” he told Wesley Shelby Jr., a television host.
After willing himself through rehabilitation, Big Mouth Ben could swagger again, so used his wheelchair as a cart to peddle soft drinks, water and snacks on the streets. Always a hustler, he also sold add spaces on his modest wheels. “If you want to sell it, let me tell it.”
Wheelchairs can’t fly, however, so Big Mouth Ben switched to a bicycle, and this he wrapped in bright yellow tape, for it represented sunshine. Now, Big Mouth Ben could push refreshment in The Bluff, West End, Kirkwood, College Park and Riverdale, etc. Our hero was everywhere. A recent rap explains:
Man, I love these streets,
But, man, these streets,
They f$$k wit me.
East Point, they f$$k wit me.
Decatur, they f$$k wit me.
Big Mouth Ben loves the streets.
The streets love Big Mouth Ben.
I show you nothing but love,
And most of them are my friends.
Man, I’m well connected.
Man, I’m well respected.
Robbing me, you might get jumped
By these bystanders.
Keep my foot on the pedal.
I hustle so hard,
I deserve a gold medal.
Keep money in my pocket.
I know that’s what you don’t like.
I ain’t worried about you, though.
I got it all on my bike.
I stayed down and I prayed.
I stayed down and I made.
My dream now a reality,
I got it made in the shade.
Atlanta is my city,
For all the love they show me.