I grew up in Far Northeast Philly but went to high school in the suburbs. Add in trips to the Neshaminy Mall and time spent in Wawa parking lots and the place I’ve probably spent the second-most time in my life is Bensalem, Pa.
The township doesn’t seem like the ninth-largest municipality in Pennsylvania -— it barely feels like a singular town at all, with various communities of the township retaining different characteristics. If I want to make my high school sound fancier, I could say it was in Cornwells Heights.
But bedroom communities are by their nature not very notable, and the most famous thing about Bensalem is probably the Parx Casino and Racetrack. The most famous Bensalem resident in history is either Smarty Jones, a horse, or Joseph Galloway, an American-born loyalist to the Crown during the Revolutionary War. Sure, there’s a shrine to St. Katharine Drexel but the Nifty Fifty’s burnt down.
Linh Dinh is a writer who lives in Philadelphia. Born in Saigon, he was a 1993 Pew fellow and is the author of such poetry collections as Some Kind of Cheese Orgy. He keeps a blog and photo journal, Postcards from the End of America, and has chronicled the tales of places like Scranton, Cherry Hill, Atlantic City, Haddonfield and, yes, Philadelphia. As he is on record saying he believes the United States is currently collapsing, his essays tend to focus on bleakness.
On Sunday, he published an entertaining, dark essay on Bensalem that describes the township as “an asphalt quilt of parking lots, freeways and highways, with a golf course and three cemeteries to provide large green spaces.” He walked through the place on foot.
He hits on the township’s weirdest aspects: The giant creepy horse head outside Parx, the sketchy Neshaminy Inn. These are the upbeat parts of the narrative: Dinh also tracks Pakistani immigrant Anwar, his agoraphobic wife Momna, their secluded children and Anwar’s mistress. Later -— after buying a lager for a buck at the Neshaminy Inn’s bar -— he hears from a woman with four types of cancer and an ex-husband who re-married a woman who looks just like her. There are also several weird tangents, one of which I am choosing to summarize as, “It’s either move to Mexico or kill yourself.”
The Bensalem travelogue ends up being a portrait of several down-on-their-luck residents of Bensalem —- a group that seems too tired to do anything but accept their lives as they are. Also, a poet walked through Bensalem on foot and wasn’t hit by a car? That’s like getting the high score on Frogger.