The elevated train rumbles above Kensington Avenue, so riding on it, you can see all of these desolate windows on the upper floors, many of which are boarded up, bricked over or hollow. Ruins of factories loom nearby. Until recently, there was an open coffin in the yard of The Last Stop recovery center. Lying inside it, a wide eyed, pink faced dummy stared up.
At ground level, you can shuffle pass these cheap hoagie joints, Chinese take outs (with bullet-proof order windows), pawn shops, bodegas, discount clothing stores, used appliance dealers and a church of the Black Israelites, who believe that only blacks, Latinos and native Americans can enter heaven. Many store fronts are empty, many lots trash-strewn and weed-infested. Here, most of the barbershops are owned by Vietnamese immigrants, and with competition so fierce, they all advertise a 5-buck haircut. Revealing their primary clientele, American and Puerto Rican flags grace their signs.
On side streets, there are all these “abandominiums,” which serve as shooting galleries, but the biggest one of all are the wooded flanks of the railroad tracks running along Tusculum Street. Shootings follow illegal drugs, so here, there and everywhere are death shrines with their candles and stuffed animals. At Ella and Cambria, there’s one housed in an old TV cabinet, of the type made 50 years ago. “R.I.P. BUM,” it mourns. In Camden, I have seen one that said, “R.I.P. CUNT.”
When I first strayed into this neighborhood 25 years ago, I thought the people rather misshapen, their faces dull, but between the poor diet, cheap alcohol and abundant drugs, it’s hard to appear otherwise. (To be fair, they’d probably deem me a gargoyle also.) Much has been written about the illegal drugs and sex that plague Kensington, and hardly a week goes by without a shooting or two, but normal families also live here, and beneath the bloody headlines, there is also resilience, dignity and beauty. Three years ago, for example, I was invited by Emily Diefendorf to address her 6th grade class at the Visitation School. Before my talk, we met at the Thang Long [Rising Dragon, Hanoi’s old name] Restaurant, and had pho. Most of the kids were Dominicans or Puerto Ricans, and though many had never had this dish, with one or two never having even used chopsticks, they all behaved exceptionally well at the meal, then afterwards in the classroom.
Respectful and attentive, they were a tribute to their school and teacher, a transplant from Indiana who had majored in journalism and history. Kids being kids, though, they did ask me some goofy questions. My favorite, “You told us you can’t sing and you can’t dance, and you weren’t any good at sports, so, ah, what are you good at?”
On that occasion, I also met Tung Nguyen, the school’s handyman. In 1981, he survived a boat escape from Vietnam to wash up in Indonesia, where he stayed for a year in a refugee camp. Finally admitted to the US, Tung first found work on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Three weeks on the rig, then one at home, so he saved much, though the pay wasn’t all that great. The 27 men on the rig ate really well, though, but they weren’t allowed to drink. When idle, they fished. After this company went bankrupt, Tung tried to find work in Spokane, Seattle and Kansas City, before arriving in Philadelphia, where he was hired by a steel processing plant. He remained there for 13 years before it shut down. All four of Tung’s kids had attended or were at the Visitation School, with the oldest ready for college. She was being offered a full, eight-year scholarship to four different schools, including Temple and Penn. I asked Tung what it was like to have kids in Kensington, and he just shrugged, “You don’t let them out after dark, that’s all. They basically just go to school, then come home.”
So an exceptional student can escape Kensington via the Ivy League, but what of the mediocre kids? In a healthy and functioning society, which we no longer are, even the stragglers and dim-witted have productive roles to fill, and can contribute. This is a terrible time to be young in America, frankly, except that it will get even worse, much worse. There are few jobs, and most college degrees should be double-ply, so you won’t stink up your hand using it once, and we’re not just talking about a bachelor’s in print-making here, but also a law certificate from a first-tier school, etc.
At the other end of the arc, it’s not so great to be gray, either, for there’s little money, with less coming all the time. Having paid taxes all your working life, you’re now short-changed in your old age, for they have looted Social Security to fund wars and bank bailouts. They have also swindled away your retirement investments, should you have any. Having been fleeced for decades, you’re now treated like a parasite by the real parasites. Recently, a Detroit columnist challenged himself by trimming a grand from his monthly budget, as in reducing his cable subscription to 200 channels, for example, but many of us don’t even have $1,000 to spend each month. Take Tom “Whitey” Kopeski, whom I met the other day at Jack’s, a Kensington dive. Whitey gets $792 in Social Security, plus $71 of food stamps. “So how much do you spend for rent?” I asked.
“Wow, that’s pretty good! But you have to share a kitchen and a bathroom, right?”
“How many people are in the house altogether?”
“Five, but some of them bring in a woman every now and then.”
“You’re not married?”
“No, I’ve never been married.”
“Most women just want to be your mother. After the first few months, every girlfriend you have will turn into your mother! Do this, do that, you’re not doing that right! They want to control every little thing that you do. It’s wired into them!”
“What’s the longest you’ve been with a woman?”
“Continuously? Six or seven months.”
“You’re not lonely when you go home?”
“No! When I go home, I have peace, and I like it that way.” Then, “When I was 20, I fell in love with this girl, and I treated her the right way. I was considerate and listened to her, but guess what she did? She left me for an asshole! You see, all they want is someone like their dad, and since she had an asshole for a dad, she needed an asshole for a husband!”
“But don’t some people want the opposite from their dad or mom? I mean, shouldn’t she have wanted a nice guy for a husband?”
“I was that nice guy, and she didn’t want me! They may think they want a nice guy, but subconsciously, they really need an asshole!”
“Is your mom still around?”
“No, she died a long time ago. She was only 41.”
“Wow, that’s pretty young! That’s ridiculous! What did she die of?”
“Kidney problems. It runs in my family.”
“And from drinking, too?”
“What was your mom like?”
“She raised five kids all by herself, since my dad was never around, and whenever he showed up, all he wanted was money, and he hit all of us. He’d sucker punch us. At fifteen, though, I hit him back, and I was kicking him too as he lay on the ground. He never hit me again. My older brother also beat him up once, with a baseball bat.”
“What did your father do for a living.”
“He was a writer.”
“A writer?! That’s interesting. What did he write?”
“He wrote for newspapers. He worked for the Courier-Post in Camden, then the Philadelphia Bulletin. Later he worked for the Trenton Times.”
“And how old was he when he died?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t even care. I don’t even know where he’s buried.”
“Boy, you really hate your dad!”
“No, it’s not hate. If you hit a dog, he’ll bite you back. He has to. When I beat him that one time, I didn’t feel any hate, just satisfaction.”
“How old were you when your mom died?”
“Nineteen. I was right there. Whenever she got sick, she would just lay there and be real quiet, and she had been laying in bed for about a week, and it was around 2 o’clock when I stepped out to get a hoagie, and when I came back, I tried to talk to her but she wouldn’t say nothing. Suddenly I realized she was dead. It was about 2:30 AM.”
As we were talking, an old woman walked in and went to the far end of the bar. Though she didn’t say hi to Whitey, he let on, “I used to date her, 43 years ago. We went back and forth for about a year and a half. Sometimes, when I have money, I still buy her a drink.”
“Man, you’ve been around here a long time!”
“I have only lived in three places, Camden, Fishtown and Kensington, but I’ve traveled some, you know. Had a few adventures. I used to hitchhike. It was so easy then. People weren’t paranoid. Now, everybody’s looking over their shoulder. It used to be, you’d walk into a bar, any bar, and people would talk. Now, some of them don’t even want to talk to you. There’s so much mistrust, and unfriendliness, and anger too. People are pissed!”
“Did you hear about the blind guy who was beaten up?”
“Yeah, yeah, and there’s a video of it.”
“What was most incredible was all these people walked right by and did nothing. Here was a young guy beating up a blind guy, and kicking him while he was on the ground.”
“And they didn’t even know each other, from what I heard.”
“No, they didn’t. Dude just felt like beating up someone blind, an easy target. Anyway, anyway, where did you go when you traveled?”
“I’ve been to Los Angeles, Toronto and Montreal, and when I was 21, I went down to Miami and stayed for a few months.”
“Who did you know down there?”
“Nobody. I just took a bus, and went down. I wanted to see Florida. When I got there, I found a job right away, so I stayed for a while.”
“What did you do?”
“I was a waiter. I’ve done that a lot, and I’ve bussed tables. Mostly, though, I worked in factories. There was so much work, then, you could always find something to do. You could quit one factory job, and find another one, that same day!”
“The kids don’t have any idea how easy it was to get work, because there are no jobs now. I feel sorry for them.”
“We’ve sent all our jobs overseas! To China! Kensington used to have these factories, but they’re all gone, every single one of them. I used to work at ITE, we made circuit breakers, and there were so many garment factories in this area.”
“In 1988, I worked for this guy in Logan who made sweatshirts and sweatpants. Even in the late 80s, there were garment factories here.”
Whitey never served in the army, for he had an extensive juvenile record, “We used to break into houses and steal cars.”
“What did you take?”
“Whatever that was there! But the cars, we only took them for joy rides. We really didn’t keep them.”
“Were you locked up for all this shit?”
“Yeah, a couple years, in a juvenile facility. It wasn’t that bad, but it was bad enough. It straightened me out. I haven’t been in trouble since.”
Whitey had been drinking, very slowly, a $1.50 can of Schaefer. The beer is dirt cheap in Jack’s, at only two bucks for a pint of Yuengling. A hot dog is $1. A grilled cheese sandwich is $2.25, plus 25 cents for a slice of tomato. A cheesesteak is $3. A life-size cardboard of John Wayne guards the front. At the back, Marilyn Monroe teases. A photo from 1993 shows 12 faces, all white, but an image dated 2005 has five black patrons out of the 23 shown.
“You come here every day, Whitey?”
“When I have the money, yes, but I always run out by the end of the month. That’s when I have to sit home for about a week.”
“What do you do at home?”
“Nothing. I don’t even have a television.”
“And even if you did, you’d need cable.”
“I can’t afford that! By the end of the month, I can’t even afford to eat. That’s when I go down to St. Francis.”
“How many times do you eat there each month?”
“About ten. They’re very nice down there, and the food is pretty good. Today, they gave us macaroni and beef, plus a bologna sandwich. Sometimes, they even have roast beef!”
“Wow, that’s pretty good!”
“But the line is getting longer all the time, though. More people need help these days.”
“Who goes there?”
“Everybody. Men, women, young people, kids. You see moms pushing strollers. Everybody goes there. You should try it sometimes.”
“Today is the 2nd, so you really didn’t need to go down there, right?”
“Yeah, but I went anyway. Saved a few bucks. Plus, I like it down there. I can’t really cook at home, you know. When I buy my own food, I usually just get a hoagie, or I go to this salad bar. I don’t really eat much.”
“How much do you drink a day, when you have the money?”
“I don’t know. Fifteen bucks? I drink until the money runs out by the end of the month. Sometimes I borrow from people. My landlord, he’s Chinese, he lends me money sometimes.”
“How much does he lend you?”
“Twenty, sometimes forty bucks, but I always pay my rent on time. He’s a nice guy, my landlord.”
Behind the bar, there were all these lottery tickets cascading down, like festive streamers. They ranged from $1 to $20, and nearly always, you could see one or several people scratching away as they drank. Handing over a ticket, Pat the bartender would say, “Good luck, sweetie!” Or, “I’ve got a good feeling about this one, hon!”
Broke as he is, Whitey sometimes goes to Sugarhouse and diddles with the penny slots. Pat had just been to Parx Casino, where she lost a chunk, but this same week, she snagged a winning number, plus aced a trifecta at the horse race. Having inherited her row home, she doesn’t have to worry about rent, and only serves drinks at Jack’s once a week. A big seller here is the 40-ounce Hurricane bottle, to go. Malt lick’er. Working, Pat sang along to the juke box, “Everybody plays the fool, sometimes! No exception to the rules. No, no!” Then, “It’s jew, babe! I got jew, babe!”
The poor’s worst habits are magnified and roundly condemned, but these same vices become glamorized in the rich. A cloudy-eyed chick in sweatpants who’s strung out on drugs is nothing but trash, but if she came from money, she’d be a socialite, like Britney Spears. A slumping man at the bar scratching away his last buck is a fool, but if he had an office in Lower Manhattan, he’d still be respectable as he gambled away everyone’s money. A small-time killer is a monster who deserves to be beaten, then shot, but our most prolific mass murderers, of foreigners and Americans, are (s)elected to the highest offices in the land.
St. Francis feeds nearly 400 people a day in Kensington. There’s also Rock Ministries, where neighborhood kids can learn how to box, for free. Speaking of right crosses and left hooks, Rocky Balboa was placed in Kensington, for South Philly, the real Italian neighborhood, was not crummy enough. The bar scene in Rocky V was filmed using the interior of One and One Half Bar and the outside of Bentley’s Place, across the street from it. Only Bentley’s Place is still around. Before it shut down, a can of Bud at One and One Half was down to $1.25 during happy hour. McCarthy’s, at the same intersection, is also gone.
Recently, I found myself sitting in a near empty Bentley’s Place. It wasn’t quite 3 o’clock. A young black man came in trying to sell men’s socks, but got no taker, then a Puerto Rican guy walked around with a shoe box with a photo of some smiling, middle-aged dude taped to it. There was also a slit to insert money, “My uncle died last night, and I’m trying to raise money for his funeral.”
After he left, I stared at a sign advertising a tin of sardine for only two bucks, knocked down from $2.50. “What do you get with that?” I asked the bartender.
“No piece of bread, no cracker?”
“Nothing, just a plastic spoon. My husband bought all these cans at the Dollar Store. We must have food to open on Sundays. See that sign for the hot dogs? There ain’t no hot dogs.”
In Kensington, serving cans of sardine qualifies an establishment as a restaurant, and you can be an instant hotelier by renting any spot to sleep by the night, week or month. No bed is necessary, just a piece of plywood would do. Flop houses dot this neighborhood. If you’re a prissy mofo who’s leery of sharing a room with four or five other bodies, you can come to Charles Rickard. Charles has a building at Kensington and Tusculum. For just $300 a month, you can have your own suite of bedroom, kitchen and bathroom. If you talk nice, or are pleasant to look at, Charles may knock it down to $200, however, so do bargain. A garbage man is currently occupying the front part of the third floor. “He’s my best tenant ever. He’s about the only one who has never stolen from me. The rest would take whatever, even my utensils.”
The other sections of this spacious wreck of a house is available. A bedroom on the second floor even has two TVs, although only one is working. In the adjacent kitchen, there is an image of the Last Supper, and one of Christ praying on the Mount of Olives. In the yellow light, you’ll nod, watched over by these reproduced Jesuses, and should you OD, God forbid, it won’t be that big of a deal, at least not to Charles, your final earthly landlord, “I’ve had people die in every single room of this house. See that chair there? A woman died sitting right on it!”
Charles himself sleeps on a bare mattress littered with receipts, bills, medical prescriptions and pill bottles. On the floor are clothing, tissues and more miscellaneous pieces of paper. When I asked Charles why he had the television on, he said, “I just turned it on for you! To show that I watch television, to show that I’m not an animal, you know what I mean?” He complained that sometimes when he jerked off, a family of squirrels looked at him from outside the window, as if to laugh at him.
Fifty-six-years-old, Charles has served in the Army, and has worked as a plumber, roofer, electrician, car mechanic, bug exterminator and embalmer of corpses, but when his meth-dealing brother tried to run him over with a truck, he became disabled, so now collects $700 a month in Social Security. When not in a wheelchair, he hobbles around with two canes. Smiling, he admitted to having an encyclopedic criminal record, “I’ve done a lot of bad things.”
One set of crimes Charles has never been charged for, however, is robbing from corpses, “We’d strip them of their jewelry, and lots of time, we’d switch them from their coffins, to a cheaper version, you know. Some of them, we’d bury in styrofoam coffins.”
“You’re shitting me?!”
“No, I’m not. This was twenty, thirty years ago, but I’m sure, it’s still happening today. When the family leaves, that pit is still open, and that mound of dirt is still there, so we’d jump right in and do what we have to do, you know what I mean? We got it down to a science. We’re fast!”
With his Social Security and rent from his tenants, Charles makes out OK, and he still does an occasional odd job, using his many skills. For $35, he’ll rid your house of roaches, mice, rats and even bedbugs. A faded sign outside his house also advertises, “CAR WASH $1.”
“How many cars do you wash a month?”
“None. Maybe a car a year.”
There is also a well-perforated portrait of Martin Luther King over his door. “What’s up with that? Are those bullet holes?”
“No, I love the man! I got it from this guy I was working for. He had three portraits of Martin Luther King he was using for target practice, and I asked him if I could have them all, so he gave them to me.”
“It’s pretty weird to see it like that.”
“I just put it up as a conversation piece, to get people talking, you know. There are a lot of prejudiced people in this neighborhood, but I ain’t one of them. The Puerto Ricans, they’re prejudiced too. They don’t even like themselves! I love Martin Luther King, and I voted for Obama, twice! I’m half Italian and half Jewish. My parents met in Africa. I’m not prejudiced at all. One of my tenants was this Thai woman. She lived with me forever.”
Leaving Charles’ house at dusk, I was tempted to duck into Bentley’s Place again. At that hour, I would probably run into Ralph. Done with hanging dry wall, this 57-year-old man would treat himself to two beers, no more, for that’s all he can afford now. Once he easily made $200–300 a day. At 13, he got his girlfriend pregnant. At 17, he came to the US from Puerto Rico. Ralph has three kids altogether, from two different women. His younger son, 34, is living with him, and he’s in touch with the others. Thirteen years ago, the mother of his last child got shot six times, but miraculously survived, “I saw her in the hospital, and they got her cut up from her pussy to her neck, and her thigh also. They had all these clamps on her. She stayed in the hospital for nearly a year, and when she got out, she was walking like this,” and he dipped a shoulder and contorted his body, “but now she’s all fine, like nothing ever happened!” She never told him who had tried to kill her, or even why she was shot.
At this hour, the whores were becoming more visible on Kensington Avenue. The economy is so bad, Ralph had told me, you can now get a blow job for only three bucks. Out of cash, Whitey was likely in bed already. Meanwhile, Charles could pop in a video rented from the Woodshed XXX Store. Glancing at each other knowingly, the squirrels clicked their tongues and cackled. One floor above, the garbage man lifted weight. He is saving to buy a house, but with two kids to support on $23,000 a year, gross, the same as working at Taco Bell, it won’t happen for a while, if ever. As the stores closed, zombies straggled about, to be shadowed by those who would profit or take brief pleasure from them.
Kensington has a few nicknames, none too flattering, but I’d like to nominate one more, The CIA’s Asshole, which I got from my long-time friend, James, as we were BS-ing that one time in Bentley’s Place, “All that heroin the CIA sucks up in Afghanistan, where do you think it ends up? It ends up in places like this, so Kensington’s really the CIA’s asshole.”
Leaving the CIA’s Asshole, I got on the El at Kensington and Somerset, and on my way home, I could see, etched against a purple sky, the twin spires of the Visitation Church. The next day, Emily would instruct, coach, coax and inspire her class anew. On her classroom’s wall, there is a quotation: “Whatever you can do or dream, you can. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now—Goethe.” Just across the street, however, there would likely be, as not, a nodding junkie or two.
Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.