Obscured American: Don The Retired Building Contractor


Don the hunter and fisherman, Philadelphia, 2015
Don the hunter and fisherman, Philadelphia, 2015

Showing up in Friendly Lounge, beaming Maria said to bartender Manon, “How’s my baby? Come here and give me a hug! How are your job applications?”

“Nothing yet, but I have a couple of interviews coming up.” For the last six months, Manon has been trying to get hired as a school counselor. She only gets one shift a week at Friendly.

Manon wouldn’t mind disappearing from sight, so I’ve suggested Montana. She’s been there and liked it. Prowling around the remote and destitute Fort Peck Indian Reservation in 2014, I was told it was constantly losing teachers, counselors and doctors.

If you don’t mind an occasional bar stool or cue stick swinging fight, there are many pleasant places to get groggy on the rez, and the chicken fried steak at Old Town Grill in Wolf Point is down South good. My buddy, Mervin Garfield, just got arrested for stabbing somebody at Arlo’s.

I also gave Manon the phone number of an Uber driving friend of mine. An immigrant from Pakistan, Anwar is a bit hard to understand over the phone. With business at his purse and watch store declining steadily, Anwar would be dead without Uber. When it rains hard, he gets paid triple. Though Manon’s car is too old, Uber will sell her another if they hire her.

Who says there are jobs? I know a guy in Fishtown who can do roofing, plumbing, carpentry, house painting, flooring and electrical wiring. Though O’Neal will work for just a hundred a day, he’s often idle. Even O’Neal’s cousin won’t hire him. “Standing outside Best Buy are Mexican guys who will work for as little as 40 bucks a day, and they’ll bring their own tools too! I can’t compete against that.” O’Neal has six kids, with five still living with him. His wife has no job.

Though a klutz from inside the womb, even I got a hundred a day in the early 90’s as a housepainter. Everything has gone up but wages.

O’Neal is voting Trump. In an old school Kensington bar, I saw a pool player with a “FUCK HITLER” T-shirt. O’Neal interpreted this as anti-Trump.

A contractor in my neighborhood has “TRUMP” sprayed painted in gold on his beat up, white pickup truck. On the driver’s door is a shamrock.

A Friendly regular, Mike, wouldn’t admit he’s backing Trump. He only growled, “I ain’t gonna vote for no woman.” Born in Puerto Rico, Mike used to work in a tinsel factory.

One man who no longer has to worry about finding work is 64-year-old Don. For three decades, my friend and neighbor was a building contractor, with a crew of six employees, usually. When Don was 58, he fell during work and cracked his neck, broke several bones in his right arm and damaged his back. Don retired two years later.

His hammering days over, Don imbibes Bud, fishes and still thinks of himself as a hunter. Even with the yews and hearse in sight, lots of people don’t know they’re old. He has a T-shirt, “DON IS MY NAME / HUNTING IS MY GAME.”

A “Don’s Hunting Excuses Shirt” has, “Trees were in the way. Scope was foggy. I didn’t miss… those were warning shots. I was reloading. Too dark. Someone distracted me. Safety lock was on. Gun barrel must’ve been bent. Waiting for the big one. The gun jammed. My finger slipped.”

It is assumed that Don is suffering from alcoholic anorexia. Sated by beer and Stoli, Don forgets to eat. Deprived of nutrients, his skeleton is starting to skew. Trudging, Don leans on an aluminum cane with foam grip. When times are bad, though, the old don’t envy but pity the young. Soon enough, perhaps the dead will feel sorry for us all.

In Friendly, I’ve caught Don dazed, but never cranky. What’s quoted here has been gathered through half a dozen encounters, the latest just a few hours ago. If Don didn’t have to stumble home to fix something in his basement, we’d still be talking.

I got married at 18. It only lasted two years. I have a 42-year-old son. He lives on the Jersey Shore.

I got a tattoo of my name when I was 18. It’s my only tattoo. I don’t really regret it.

My dad was a beef deboner at Cross Brothers. You know how heavy a side of beef is? It threw out his back. Joe Frazier worked at Cross Brothers.

My dad was a bartender at Villa di Roma. You know where it is. He was real popular.

You can learn more things in a bar than anywhere else. A lawyer might come in and sit next to you. You buy him a beer, he’ll tell you stuff.

I live with my mom and take care of her. She’s 91-years-old. No, she’s not doing too well.

We have a five-bedroom house. It’s too big for us. That’s why we’re selling it, finally. We’ll find a smaller house, maybe down by Oregon Avenue.

I learnt Italian from my grandma. That’s all she ever spoke. Our dog only listened to her. If I said “get out” in English, the dog would just look at me. He only spoke Italian.

I worked at Claudio’s. You had to know Italian to work on 9th Street back in the day.

We’re from Sicily. I haven’t been to Italy. None of us have but my cousins. They didn’t like it. They said the food was bad, but maybe you’re right, maybe they only ate at the touristy places. They said the wine was good, though. Soon as you walked into a place, they’d have a bottle waiting for you, and if you wanted another, they’d only charge you $2. You can’t beat that!

You’ve been all over Italy! I like my pasta simple too. I like it white. I like it with just olive oil and lots of grated cheese.

We never went back to Italy because we didn’t have any money.

I’ll think about it. Maybe I’ll visit Italy. My mom is too sick to go anywhere. She’s lived in South Philly her whole life. She wants to die in South Philly. I’ve lived in South Philly my whole life.

I’ve always been a saver. I’d take out my money and count it. I’ve bought gold coins. Yes, gold is definitely going back up.

Last night, my mom wanted ice cream, so I went out to get it for her, and some bread. Sometimes, she falls down and I can’t even pick her up to put her back on the wheelchair. I have to run outside to find somebody to help me.

Today, the nurse will come to check on my mom. She comes once a week. After leaving this bar, I’ll go home and brush my teeth. I don’t want the nurse to smell beer on my breath.

Oh man, I have a really nice fishing rod. It cost me 200 bucks. Every so often, I go on these fishing trips out on the open sea. It only costs $65 for eight hours. If we don’t catch nothing, the boat captain will make it ten hours. Usually, we just go for flounders. You want to come?

I have 22 guns.

On a hunting trip to Idaho, I shot mule deer. We rode horses. They can’t really climb, they’re not like goats. I want to go to North Carolina to shoot birds. Pheasants! The ones in Jersey don’t even bother to fly.

About ten years ago, I took a trip to Mongolia with a doctor and a dentist. I figured if I get sick, there’s a doctor right there, and if I need a tooth pulled, I’ll be OK too. I want to go to Africa next.

The trip over there took forever. I thought we were never going to land. I read an entire book on the plane, and I never read!

In Mongolia, my joints were hurting because of the high altitude. I could hardly walk. I just wanted to go home. I told them, “I need a helicopter! Just get me out of here! I don’t care how much it costs. You can have my gun. I just want to go home!”

I ended up killing the first argali of the day, which meant I had to eat a piece of its raw testicle. I got sick that day and all of the next day. Oh man, it was terrible.

That was the trip of a lifetime. I have all these photos in an album. I’ll always have it.

The Mongolians were the friendliest people, but the food wasn’t too good. When we gave our guides their tips at the end of the trip, they were all sitting on top of the SUV playing cards!

On the way back, we stayed for a couple nights in Seoul, South Korea. That was wonderful.

Though I’m retired, I still take a job every now and then. People know me. I have a couple of Mexican guys working for me. I pay each guy a hundred bucks a day. They’re good. They earn it.

I’ve always voted Republican, but I don’t know this time. It doesn’t really make a difference. I mean, one person won’t make a difference, it takes the whole country. I may not even vote this time. I’m not really political.

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America.



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