A block and a half from Scotty's, I met a homeless guy sitting against a fence and wrapped in a ragged comforter. He said he was an artist, which he elaborated as being an R&B and rap singer. He never sang in a public venue, but during a performance at a house party, a bullet hit him in the face and took out a piece of his nasal bone.
"You look fine," I said after looking closely at his face. "I don't see anything."
"The doctors did a good job."
"Was the shooter aiming at you?"
"It's complicated. Someone had his penis punctured and so it had to happen that way."
"I don't understand. What are you talking about?"
"I'm not gay, I like women, but someone had his penis punctured. It's about integrity."
"That's all you have."
"Correct, and once it's lost, you're gone!"
"You can get it back."
"No, you can't."
"Life is long, dude, you can lose all kinds of shit, so if you lose your integrity, you can get it back."
"No, you can't."
"I still don't understand if you were shot at intentionally or not."
"There was a lot of electricity in the air. It came through the television."
Divane was his name and he was 24. He said he had also been a basketball player.
A security guard approached and asked why I was taking photos. He said the school had to be vigilant against people taking photos of the female students or trying to kidnap them. I said the sign was public, but he said no, it's private. I got him to relax, however, and we were both laughing by the time I left.
Twenty-four-years-old, Rob has been on the streets for a month and a half. He's from Vorhees, NJ, a 30-minute drive from Philly, but his family has gone back to Puerto Rico without him, "They got sick of me. I went bad for three and a half years. I was on heroin."
Rob has found a girlfriend, so it's a little less cold sleeping outside. He wants to go to Ohio where he has a friend, but when I asked him which town, he couldn't tell me. He didn't even know which city it's near.
Rob confirmed that black women are most generous at giving the homeless money. An old black woman gave him $20. As we were talking, however, a white woman gave him a bag from Dunkin' Donuts. Inside was a hot chocolate and a chocolate chip muffin.
A block from Rob, I talked to a Vietnam vet in his late 60's. Two years ago, I had asked him if I could take his photo, but he said no, "It's like you Orientals, I don't want to lose face." Talking to Ken this time, I found out he spent the Vietnam War shuttling back and forth between Vietnam and Okinawa, where he was based. In Da Nang, Cam Ranh Bay, Qui Nhon and Saigon, Ken's job was to unload supplies from ship, "I love Vietnam, because I was never in combat. Many Vietnam vets get nervous around Vietnamese because they can't tell if you're Viet Cong or not, but I don't have that problem."
Ken has been living in his car and has a girlfriend. Intriguingly, he declared himself a political prisoner.
"Since I was in Vietnam."
"Wow, man, you have to tell me more!"
"If I tell you more, I'll have to kill you!"
When I kept asking him to explain, Ken said, "Are you with the FBI or CIA? Lots of Vietnamese worked for the government."
I changed the subject, but before leaving Ken, I said, "One of these days, you're going to tell me why you're a political prisoner."
Born in Vietnam in 1963, I came to the US in 1975, and have also lived in Italy and England. I'm the author of two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), five of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007) and Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009), and a novel, Love Like Hate (2010). I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, among other places. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013), and translator of Night, Fish and Charlie Parker, the poetry of Phan Nhien Hao (2006). Blood and Soap was chosen by Village Voice as one of the best books of 2004. My writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Reykjavik, Toronto and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.