Rust Belt Dharma

article image
REUTERS / Mike Segar

Utica, New York, was a factory town when I was born here, famous for corruption and violence, for the vanished Mohawk tribe, for white bread and cheap beer and the Erie Canal. That city’s gone, dying like the rest of the Rust Belt: Utica’s population is down 40 percent. Incomes are less than half the national average. Nearly half the buildings downtown have been torn down.

I left Utica 47 years ago, age 10, and never returned. The day I left, John Kennedy had four months to live. They were advertising a new TV show called The Fugitive. Radios played “Surf City,” “Memphis,” and bad-girl group the Angels promising a “beating” in “My Boyfriend’s Back.”

And now, instead of the Angels, devas. Refugees, including Buddhists from war-torn regions in Asia, have arrived in Utica. The monks who led Burma’s Saffron Revolution came here, along with Cambodian and Vietnamese exiles. Their presence gave me a reason to return. I’d first engaged with Buddhism as something exotic, another form of escape like many I’d tried. Impermanence, interconnected­ness, dukkha (suffering), the nature of self–they had been abstract ideas to me. Maybe seeing this place again and meeting these people would make them more real. For years I’d run away from the frightened kid I’d been. Maybe now I was ready to face this place, and whatever remained of this place in me.

“Sin City USA!” screamed the cover of a 1959 magazine about Utica. “Corrupt Policemen, Racketeers Laughing at the Law . . . An Empire of Vice and Drugs.” A few years later the town’s prosperity faded, until even the hit men left for more promising territory. The house where I spent my first few months of life is now boarded up. Drug deals go down on the street outside. But three blocks away, kindly monks encouraged me to eat an apple and sip a Thai energy drink. “I spent 10 years in prison for pro-democracy activities,” said U Pyinya Zawta, executive director in exile of the All Burma Monks’ Alliance. “There I suffered the pain of torture.”

The Burmese monks were brought here by the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, the hub of a 13,000-person immigrant community that makes up roughly 12 percent of the city’s population. Most of Utica’s 2,000 Burmese are ethnically Karen Christians, along with some Muslim families and 200 or 300 Buddhists.

Some Buddhists speak of karmic residue, vasana, as “perfume.” “After you scream,” said Zen teacher Dainin Katagiri, “something is still there . . . not as a shadow, but as something in your body and mind.” At the age of 8 I was held in our family’s garage for hours by a gang of older kids, stabbed 19 times with a rusty hatpin. U Pyinya offered no specifics about his 10-year ordeal. Instead, he told me how his experience with HIV-infected prisoners led him to build the first HIV facility in Burma.

Peeling paint and crayon scribblings marked the walls of the tiny house he shared with three other monks. I asked him if monasticism and political activism are in conflict. “The Buddha taught us that we need to work for the whole universe,” he answered, “and for all living beings to be peaceful and happy.” Burmese visitors wandered in and out of the house, but activity stopped when the BBC’s Burmese-language news broadcast came on, and the monks huddled around the radio.

“Do you meditate?” U Pyinya asked me. “You seem like that. Calm.” I thanked him, thinking my wife might disagree. What did he expect now for Burma? “Things will get worse,” he said. “Soldiers are raiding villages, raping and robbing the people there. There will be more poverty. They’ll keep recruiting younger and younger child soldiers. We hear they are recruiting them at 14 and 15 now. Burma was very rich in jade, sapphire, natural gas, tea . . . but the military doesn’t share it with the people. In a country rich with natural gas, people can’t get electricity more than a couple of days a week.”

Poppies are a natural resource there, too. Burma reportedly supplies more than half of the world’s heroin. How’s this for interconnectedness? Americans who die from overdoses are victims of Burma’s generals, too. A question I hesitated to ask: Did they feel that their uprising failed? “We’re satisfied that more people know about Burma now. The world community is much more aware of the brutality of the military regime,” he replied, then paused. “We will continue to make people aware of Burma’s problems.”

I asked his fellow monk U Agga Nya Na how they handled loneliness: “We meditate and pray and develop our loving-kindness,” he said. “We can’t call or email our families, because the regime controls all communications. If we miss them, we meditate more.”

Most Burmese monks in the United States have been forced into lay life, working at meatpacking plants and other blue-collar jobs. In response, the Utica monks have formed the All Burma Monks’ Alliance to build a monastery and publicize Burma’s struggle.

I left Utica before puberty, a presexual being as celibate as a monk. The erotic images I saw here were tawdry or brutal: the nude Marilyn Monroe calendar in the gas station, the sordid sex-and-violence covers of the Police Gazette and True Detective (“No Mercy for Mary! Pretty Chicago Brunette Loses Her Fight Against a Killer”). Utica has several strip joints but no bookstores.

The night I returned, I found a pharmacy in an unfamiliar industrial area. Inside, loudspeakers played the oldies of my childhood. I remembered an old Twilight Zone episode: A man returns to the poor neighborhood where bullies once tormented him, only to become a trapped child again. I wondered how far we were from my old home and keyed the address into my iPhone: “Driving time: One minute.”

They’d torn down the Pontiac dealership where a salesman once lifted a tarp to show me the taillights on the new Bonneville–a “company secret”–and then said, “Son, promise me you’ll never sell cars for a living.”

Walking toward our old home, I saw a friend’s house, where his drunken mother once said, “Shut up or I’ll smash your lips.” I passed the corner where kids from another block threw rocks at me just for the hell of it. In contrast to the now-abandoned house my parents brought me home to after I was born, the gray-and-white house we moved into a few months later was well maintained.

My earliest memory: I’m sitting on the floor of this house, playing with blocks as the babysitter leaves. I can still see her clearly, smiling as she kneels down to spell my nickname with the blocks. I see that too, red letters on cream-colored blocks: “R-I-C-K-Y.” Some might say her act bound me to my identity, my ego, samsara. But she showed me what words are. She gave me my name.

A transistor radio upstairs once played a saxophone instrumental called “Stranger on the Shore,” making me sad in a way I wanted to feel over and over. Outside, when I was 4, a factory whistle sounded in the distance and the sky seemed to turn gold. I felt completely alone in the universe. I tried to find that feeling again for a long time.

I set off for my school, John F. Hughes, a third of a mile away, and found I still knew every turn of the walk. Approaching the building, I remembered something I’d heard in a support group for alcoholics and addicts: “The minute I walked into kindergarten, I needed a goddamned drink.”

Happy memories return, too: Oneida Avenue, at the hill’s summit, limning the farthest reaches of my childhood. The cemetery, with knobbed stone gates like a troll’s gateway. Train tracks, now gone, where I’d look down the line and imagine I was seeing California.

The barbershop’s gone. In 1962 I was getting a haircut when an air-raid drill sounded. It was illegal to be outside during a drill, but the barber sprayed me with hair tonic to drive me away. “Get the fuck outta here,” he said. Reeking of Vitalis, I walked home through deserted streets as sirens wailed. Now I cut through the same vacant lots, behind the same brick buildings. Two bikers drank beer on their porch, motorcycles gleaming at the curb. On my block an old woman watched me suspiciously until I introduced myself. Everyone you knew is gone, she said, listing one family name after another. Dead, or moved to New Hartford, a nicer town down the road.

The next day I joined the monks for lunch. As Burmese women served food and shared the meal, two refugee children lingered outside. Where do you guys go to school? “Hughes.” Me too, I said–50 years ago. They laughed. How do they like Hughes? An American answer: “It’s okay.”

U Agga described a shootout outside their front door last winter. “Bang! Bang!” he said. “Two bodies. Many police came, with flashing lights. Scary.” Outside the house was a garden, its fence and gate made of woven branches in the traditional way. Once I had a garden in Utica, too, with carrots and morning glories. I could never wake up early enough to see the flowers’ blossoms, which only appear at daybreak. Finally my father carried me outside to look at them. I only saw them that one time, but they were beautiful.

From the monks’ garden I saw this on the street outside: An African woman in hijab watched by blond kids inside a house draped with a giant American flag. Villagers from Vietnam and Cambodia passing each other in the midday sun. A fat, shirtless, ponytailed white man driving down the center of the street on a tractor, pulling a trailer filled with junk.

Utica’s Cambodian temple is a few short blocks away. The 75 families who built it wrote their wishes on pieces of paper that are buried beneath its cornerstone. A beaming monk let us in. An old man in his undershorts was watching TV in the kitchen, but he slipped away as we entered.

A Cambodian American whose name sounds like Phil wore a sparkly T-shirt and spoke at a street vendor’s clip. He showed us the altar, rich with offerings. The eaves were draped with Christmas tree lights. Admiring the temple’s fine woodwork, I was told the refugees did it themselves. The sign over the gate reads “Wat Satheatak Uticaram.” I knew that wat means “temple” and the last word means “of Utica.” Is that other word Pali, I asked? “You know a lot,” said Phil. After conferring, they translated satheatak as “opening of the heart.”

The house next door was for sale. Phil thinks people are afraid to sleep near a temple. “Ghosts?” I asked. “I knew you know a lot!” Phil said, but the monk shook his head in disagreement. Tradition says the fiercest khmoc–ghosts–are the spirits of people who died violent deaths. These refugees, survivors of the killing fields, know about ghosts. I left an offering at the altar.

At dusk I stumbled upon the hospital where I was born, framed in the sunset like a B-movie image. A giant banner was draped across it: “The Birthplace.” It reminded me of the Philip K. Dick novel in which the protagonist finds the landmarks in his life replaced with signs bearing their names. But the hospital was just advertising its new maternity ward. I was a newborn infant once, right here, tiny and speechless. That idea had never felt real to me before.

The Air Force base whose B-52s once flew over our house is closed. Sometimes I’d look up to make sure the bomber overhead was “one of ours.” During the Cuban Missile Crisis I dreamed an H-bomb exploded. No fire or noise, just the world turning yellowish brown and crumbling away like old parchment. But Utica’s still here, fighting to reinvent itself. There are signs of attempted renewal: microbreweries, a still-thriving museum, a playhouse. There’s even a haunted house called Horror Realm in an abandoned factory, where make-believe ghouls enact freakish industrial experiments for paying visitors. Our childhood nightmares have become a tourist attraction.

My city’s gone. The child who lived here is not the same person as the man I am. But there’s a connection, an unbroken current. Utica will continue. Or it will die, and something else will take its place. Utica’s Buddhists seem intent on staying. But the Mohawks, whose empire vanished centuries ago, probably thought they were staying, too. So did the families on my block. Two weeks after my visit, I learned that the Burmese monks had unexpectedly left town.

As I drove away, I saw they hadn’t torn up the old trolley tracks in some older neighborhoods. The sign outside the Catholic church, “Fish Fry or Pirogis Every Friday,” could have been there 50 years ago. The Cambodian kids in the takeout restaurant might have been the Irish or Italian or Polish teenagers of my childhood, as the girl behind the counter licked the overflow from a takeout cup and apologized shyly, “It’s for my boyfriend.”

Most stories here won’t be told, but then most stories never are. Memories fade, and other people create new ones. One person’s Horror Realm becomes another person’s refuge. Stories can be rewritten. You can decide for yourself where you’re from.

I’m from here.

Richard Eskow is a writer, blogger, and consultant active in health, economics, and technology. He is a senior fellow with a Washington advocacy group. Excerpted from The Best Buddhist Writing 2011 (Shambhala), originally published in Tricycle (Winter 2010), a magazine of Buddhist wisdom, meditation, and practices for daily life.

Have something to say? Send a letter to This article first appeared in the January-February 2012 issue of Utne Reader.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.