Obscured American: Benny the Landlord, Casanova and Covert Operator

Last Saturday, five eternally misunderstood and oppressed gentlemen fired 41 shots at a crowd at 20th and Susquehanna, killing one and injuring four others, including a 5-year-old boy. The TV news reported that the deceased was a “standout basketball player.”

North Philly is generally not good for your health and happiness. Though neighborhoods have cute, idyllic names like Nicetown, Hunting Park and Fairhill, they’re mostly postindustrial, trash strewn, drugged up ghettos with plenty of dead businesses, dilapidated churches, boarded up homes, caged porches and corner bodegas with signs forbidding hoodies, guns and knives. Chinese takeouts dish up beef lo mein, moo shoo pork and fried chicken from behind bullet-proof plexiglass. Graffiti mar just about every flat surface, including, sometimes, beautiful murals celebrating prominent black figures in art, science, politics and civil rights.

The northeast corner of North Philly, though, is generally spared from this mayhem and squalor. Composed primarily of Poles, Irish, Ukrainians and Italians, Port Richmond and Bridesburg retain their dignity and orderliness through half a century of economic decline.

On Allegheny, there’s the magnificent St. Aldabert Church, with perhaps the most beautiful altarpiece in the entire city. Founded in 1903, it has masses in both English and Polish. Popular eateries The Dinner House and Syrenka are just down the street, as well as cozy Donna’s Bar, where I’ve had cheap bottles of Okocim, Zywiec and Lech, plus tasty bigos and perogies. Their golabki is also wonderful, I’ve been told. I must get that the next time.

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A guy in his mid-50’s said, “I had no problems paying child support. In fact, I gave my kids twice as much, because they’re my kids. This one guy told me, a black guy, he said, ‘After they arrest you six times for nonpayment, they’ll stop bothering you.’”

“That’s ridiculous,” I laughed. “Why would anyone want to be arrested six times for anything?!”

“Even if there was no law, I would still pay, because they’re my kids! Their mom tried to turn them against me, you know, but I’ve never said a bad word about her, because she’s my kids’ mom. As they get older, they can judge me for themselves, see if I was an asshole or not.”

Sunday at Donna’s, I met two intriguing characters, Rick and Benny. Bar regulars, they’re good friends.

An American-born Colombian in his mid-30’s, Rick said he had just been chased from another neighborhood tavern, after his very first beer there, “At first, I didn’t even know what he was talking about, so he said it again, ‘I think it’s time for you get out of here, buddy. Beat it!’ I was so shocked, man, I felt like crying. I had never been treated like that.”

“That is outrageous.”

“And I don’t even look that Hispanic. It was unreal.”

“So what did you do?”

“I just left, man. I couldn’t process it. I just got off work. I just wanted a beer, that’s all.”

This night, Rick had another unpleasant encounter. Talking to me, he reached for what he thought was Benny’s pack of cigarettes, but it belonged to the woman next to him. After she snatched it away, Rick explained his misunderstanding and apologized repeatedly, but the middle-aged lady never lightened up. Stern, she pointed to her pack and blurted several times, “This! You go! Wawa!”

Looking hurt, Rick turned to me, “See how quickly that shit comes out?”

“I wouldn’t worry about it, man. It doesn’t look like she speaks much English. She can’t understand you, dude!”

“And I’ve eaten at her restaurant too. Once. I will never go back there.” Shaking his head, Rick went outside to calm down.

Later, Rick told me about his sister. American born, she went to Colombia, ended up working as an escort, then was raped and murdered by two Polish tourists, “But don’t you believe all this shit about Colombia. They make it out like it’s the most dangerous place on earth, but it’s perfectly safe for foreigners. The people are so nice and friendly, and Colombian women are the most beautiful. You’re constantly looking at this one, and this one. It’s like, you’re constantly walking around with a hard-on, man. Ain’t that right, Benny?”

“He’s right,” Benny turned to me, “they are the most beautiful.”

“You’ve been there?”

“I’ve been everywhere,” Benny smiled.

In his mid-60’s, Benny has done just about everything and wants you to know about it. Familiar with this proclivity, the bartender  Love Like Hate: A Novel Linh Dinh Best Price: $3.59 Buy New $10.08 (as of 08:20 EDT - Details) kept asking me, “Is he bothering you?” as Benny went on about himself.

Outside, the intermitten downpour had paused, and we were only interrupted once by some vapid disco, blaring from the jukebox.

I’m a Tartar, from the Crimea. I’m a part of the Yellow Horde, like you. We’re brothers!

My father was ugly, like you, with slanted eyes. Ha, ha!

My mother is Polish.

The Crimea was its own country, then the Russians came. I hate Russians. They should all be castrated!

Look what they did to your country. The Russians and Americans used Vietnam as an experiment. They caused so many people so much pain. They don’t give a shit.

Communism is so evil because it destroys your entire culture. It destroys your mind.

Ninety percent of the Jews in the world were in Poland, because no one else wanted them. They destroy everything. I hate Jews.

The first time I was in Auschwitz, I saw a plaque that said three million Jews were killed there. Ten years later, I came back and it said 1.8 million Jews were killed in Auschwitz. The last time I was there, the plaque said 800,000, so what the fuck is it? It’s greatly exaggerated. There was no Final Solution.

I had a good Jewish friend, Jacob. One morning, he called and asked if he could borrow 4,000 bucks. I was still in bed. This guy had millions, and here he was asking to borrow 4,000 bucks, but he was a good friend, so I went to the bank to get him the money. Two hours later, he paid me back! He was just testing me, you see.

Just before he died, he would sometimes give me a hundred bucks and said, “Go get yourself a whore, Benny. I can’t fuck anymore!”

His own son didn’t go to his funeral, because he had to close out a business deal that day. That’s the kind of asshole he was. Jacob said to me, “I’m a Jew, but my son, he’s an Israeli!”

I speak eight languages. I speak Tartar, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, some English. When I went to Bulgaria, I could make myself understood. All the Slavic languages are very similar. I speak Spanish.

By the time I was 19, I had been to 40 countries. I have been to 150 countries.

I sold and bought contracts. I did import, export. I own properties.

Have you heard of Radio Free Europe? I worked for it. During the Solidarity movement, I went to Poland with a Swiss passport. I brought them ink, paper, printing equipment. Once I was stopped by the police, so I yelled at them, “Do you know who the fuck I am?! I’m glad you stopped me, because now, you can hold my dick while I take a piss!” They backed off. I bluffed my way out of trouble.

I was in Afghanistan a couple of weeks before the Soviets invaded.

I was in Vietnam, but only for the pussy!

I was in the Special Force, in Grenada. I killed a guy. It’s something I think about every day. I feel so horrible, guilty and ashamed, but it was either me or him. He pointed, I pointed, so I shot him.

Nobody should have to kill anybody.

I was in this cheap hotel in El Paso, and there was a door between my room and the next. There were all these little holes in the door, you know, eaten away by bugs. I looked into one of these holes and could see, in the next room, a guy who was completely naked, except for his cowboy hat and boots, and there was a senorita, you know, sucking him. He smoked a cigarette while she was doing it. He didn’t say anything, didn’t make a noise. When it was over, he said to her, “Same time, next week.”

I’ve been with two thousand women, maybe three thousand. I don’t like to sleep with women. I just like the sex.

I haven’t slept with her [the bartender]. I knew her before she had genital hair.

Once in Turkey, I saw a guy fuck a chicken. It was in 1994, near Ankara. I haven’t had chicken since.

I just bought a house for $30,000 in Costa Rica. It’s a peaceful place. They’re the only country on earth without an army. When my mother passes away, I will move down there. May she live forever.

Once I was in Vanuatu, in this tiny place that had no running water, no electricity, but everyone was so relaxed and happy. They cooked with firewood, on the beach. It’s so wonderful.

Life should be like that, everywhere.

Reprinted with permission from The Unz Review.