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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.” “You’re gonna be sorry you were ever born,” they sneered. “If I were you I’d take a permanent vacation.” 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. There was something I didn’t want to face here, some reason I never came back. 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 began to fade, until finally even the hit men left for more promising territory. The house where I spent my first few months of life is now boarded up, abandoned like most on the block. 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 ten 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 20 percent of the city’s population. Most of Utica’s 2,000 Burmese are ethnically Karen Christians, along with some Muslim families and two or three hundred 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 offers no specifics about his 10-year ordeal. Instead, he told me how his experience with HIVinfected 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 Zawta asked me. “You seem like that. Calm.” I thanked him, thinking my wife might disagree. What does 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 U.S.’s heroin. How’s this for interconnectedness? Americans who die from overdoses in cities like Utica are victims of Burma’s generals, too. A question I hesitated to ask: Do they feel 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 pauses. “We will continue to make people aware of Burma’s problems.” U Gawsita, the public face of the Saffron Revolution, wandered in and out of the room with what seemed like indifference. Later I heard him say in a taped interview that life in Utica was difficult because he couldn’t understand the language. I asked his fellow monk U Agga how they handled loneliness: “We meditate and pray and develop our lovingkindness. We can’t call or email our families, because the regime controls all communications. If we miss them, we meditate more.” Utica’s Burmese have adapted their folk traditions, moving their annual Thingyan Water Festival from April to July to accommodate the long winters. The number 9—ko—is considered good fortune in Burmese tradition. Traveling parties of eight sometimes brought along a symbolic “ninth member” for luck, and traditionally nine monks would perform the ritual that dispels restless ghosts. Those ghosts may have to linger now. All but eight Burmese monks in the U.S. 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. “Young Girls Led Into Lives of Degradation,” The 1959 headlines shouted. “Joy Houses Ran the Gamut from Tawdry to Posh Pleasure Palaces for the Well-Heeled.” I left Utica before puberty, a presexual being as celibate as a monk. The erotic images I saw here were brutal or tawdry: the nude Marilyn Monroe calendar in the gas station, the sordid sex-and-violence covers of Police Gazette and True Detective (“No Mercy for Mary! Pretty Chicago Brunette Loses Her Fight Against a Killer”) in the neighborhood barbershop. Others have sensed a degraded sexual perfume here, too: “Most corrupt, vial [sic] city in New York state,” one online comment reads. “Hey, remember when the Mayor said Utica doesn’t have $2 hookers, it has $20 hookers?” reads another. Utica has several strip joints but no bookstores. The city was a “processing hub” for Vietnamese refugees, four or five hundred of whom stayed and built a temple. A photo of their monks’ induction ceremony shows women marching single file down Miller Street, baskets on their heads and children in costumes at their feet. The temple’s erecting a statue of Quan Am, Bodhisattva of Compassion. Perhaps her intercession will help the city’s Amerasians, mixed-race children of U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese mothers, brought here after Congress granted them citizenship. As small children some of them lived on Vietnam’s streets, bearing the poetic-sounding but heartless name bui doi (“dust of life”). Some, their fathers unknown, say they don’t know their true names. Others wonder where they’re “from.” The night I returned, I found a pharmacy in an unfamiliar industrial area. Inside, loudspeakers played only 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.” The pharmacy was built on the site of a White Tower burger joint. The ice cream parlor had been replaced by a body shop. 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. The garage was gone.