Last week, a 55-year-old tourist from Texas was killed when he fell onto the subway tracks at 13th Street Station. He and his wife had just visited the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. Going by the station the next day, I half expected to see some sort of memorial, but there were no flowers, cards or candles. I was heading to Kensington, a place I have written about repeatedly, the last time 10 months ago.
Kensington is always in the news for the wrong reasons. So far this year, there have been 34 assaults, 7 rapes and 2 homicides, but summer is still nearly a month away. As a prosecutor once joked to me, “There’s a correlation between ice cream consumption and crime!”
On May 10, a woman who had been beaten to death was found in an abandoned Kensington home, then two days later, a video surfaced of a Kensington crowd casually watching a man repeatedly punching a woman lying on the street. Some even laughed. The man who filmed it said he didn’t want to intervene because “it’s dangerous out here.”
On the sidewalk, there was a canopy, the kind erected for food tables during block parties, but this communal gesture is rather farcical in context, for the community not only failed to stop the assault, it didn’t even make the assailant hesitate out of shame or fear. It was somehow natural for him to attack a woman in front of his neighbors. Two men and two women stood under the canopy to watch the violence.
Walking down Kensington Avenue, I noticed that all the Vietnamese barbershops have jacked up their cheapest haircut from five to six bucks. At Jack’s Famous Bar, a pitcher of Yuengling has also gone from $3.50 to $4. Still, these are rock bottom prices. Some overheard bits from Jack’s:
“When I was in detox, I was the only one there for alcohol. Everybody else was there for heroin!”
“When you hear an ambulance around here, you know what it’s for.”
“I told her there ain’t nuttin’ in the pina colada mix you buy in the supermarket. You have to get your own shit to mix with it.”
“That’s Madonna from the 70s. That woman is as old as me!”
As is common in bars for old heads, the songs are often nostalgic and speak of loss. “He said he’s goin’ back to find / Ooh, what’s left of his world / The world he left behind / Not so long ago.” Well, there is no going back to a Kensington of half a century ago, for its factories are all gone.
This old Irish neighborhood has seen influxes of blacks, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Vietnamese. More recently, yuppies and hipsters have crossed into its southern edge. There are also quite a number of drug addicts from all over. This day, I met a worn out young woman from Texas and a 54-year-old man from Maine. With his bearish built, ruddy face and lush, white beard, Patrick would make a perfect Santa Claus.
Each day, you’ll find him panhandling at Kensington and Westmoreland, across from the Korean-owned J & J diner. After ten years in Florida, Patrick came to Philly to have better access to drugs. Since he doesn’t drink, Patrick balked at my suggestion to go to Jack’s Famous Bar, so we ended up sitting in J & J, with him sipping a tall glass of milk, and me finishing all too quickly half a pot of coffee. Speaking mostly of despair, Patrick often seemed disdainful. If a man really wants to lie down and dissolve, there’s nothing anybody can do, but I sure hope to see Patrick again.
I left Maine. I wanted something different. I had a friend in Jacksonville, Florida, and things were pretty good for a while, then I discovered crack.
It was crack until about five years ago, and it has been dope since. I’ve been on the streets for almost two years.
I’ve been clean, on and off, for the last twenty years, but this is the longest stint I’ve been using, you know, every day. Ten to fourteen bags a day, usually, sometimes more. Each bag costs ten bucks.
Standing there panhandling, I average about a hundred bucks a day. It all goes to dope pretty much. Since October, I figure I’ve gotten $20,000 just standing there.
Saturday, I made about 180. The day before Christmas, I made almost 300. The day before Easter, I made almost 200. The worst day out here is 50, 60 bucks.
A hundred a day is nothing. I made six figures. At one job, I made 400 a day sitting at a desk playing with a computer. A hundred a day standing there ain’t no big deal.
I think it’s pathetic when people say a hundred a day is great money. That’s sad. You need a new fuckin’ job! That’s fuckin’ minimum wage!
I’m a computer guy. Freelancing, I make a hundred an hour.
I’ve been a computer guy since I was 12. I discovered the computer back in 1973, in 7th grade. I’m pretty good at it.
I have a spot behind Dunkin Donuts. I have a sleeping bag there. I sleep outside.
I haven’t had anything bad happen here. Kensington ain’t half as bad as people think it is.
I get my dope from right around the corner.
Any situation someone is in, it’s incumbent upon them to change it. Me included. I mean, I’m just stuck.
I’d rather be fuckin’ dead, plain and simple. I’ll give you an example. Last June, I shot a bundle of dope, took a couple of bennies, with the intention of not waking up. When I did wake up, I couldn’t stand up. Somehow I wound up with a pinched sciatic nerve in my vertebrae. I’ve been in pain ever since. It’s been almost a year. This is the first time I’ve ever done that, doing dope for the pain. Before, I was just doing dope to do dope.
When I get a decent chunk of change, I’ll try it again. Take more bennies, and more dope. I’m fuckin’ tired.
If I had a gun, I’d blow my brains out, but I don’t have a gun.
My mom is in Maine, but I won’t go back there, because there’s nothing up there. There’s a lot of appeal, but appeal doesn’t pay the bills. The economy is pathetic. I can’t get dope. I can’t get this situation dealt with. I’d be in pain every fuckin’ day.
I wake up every day, it’s the same routine. I’d rather be dead. I’m really tired of it.
I’m here for one fuckin’ reason. There’s dope right there. That’s the only fuckin’ reason I’m sitting in Kensington. There’s no other reason to be here!
I’m not from here. The place is a shit hole. It serves only one purpose. Dope!
Our medical system is a joke. I know people who get pills, prescriptions for pain pills, whatever, and they sell them, OK? I have a legitimate pain, and I can’t even get one. That’s how fucked up our medical system is. It’s pathetic! Across the board, it’s fuckin’ pathetic.
People like me, they want to put on Methadone or Suboxone . . . so I want to be a slave to you?! I’d rather be a slave to dope!
You want to be a slave to government, for real?! Last time I read about slaves in government, it was Nazi Germany!
Fuck government! Government doesn’t do anything right. They spend a lot of money to fuck things up. That’s all government has ever done in our country, and probably historically.
I don’t want the government in my life! They’re in my life enough!
Those pills are a substitute for heroin. I can get heroin anywhere, any time. To get Methadone, you have to play their games. You have to be here at this time, you have to attend these groups. No, no, no!
I’m a Libertarian. I believe in pure, unadulterated freedom. It doesn’t mean you’re free to kill people and rape or burn houses. That’s not what freedom is.
Get out of my life! Let me live my life!
I’ve been a Libertarian ever since I discovered that being a Democrat was for idiots.
I’m proud to say I’ve never voted for a president that won.
My first election, I voted for Carter, but he was too honest and had integrity. That’s not good.
I voted Democrat till the mid 80s. I voted for Ross Perot in the early 90s. I haven’t voted a number of times, because why do I want to waste my time when there’s nothing worth voting for?
I’m a Ron Paul fan. I saw him on my birthday . . . back in 2012, whatever it was. It was in front of Independence Hall. I stood there in the rain for three hours, on my birthday. It was fun.
Yeah, I’m a Ron Paul fan. I’m a Rand Paul fan.
Hillary . . . if that cunt gets elected, I’ll kill myself for sure.
She’s an evil whore, an evil bitch. He’s evil, and his bitch is evil.
People need to look at who these people really are. Do you know how many people have died because of them? You have Benghazi, which everyone seems to have forgotten about. She’s a piece of shit. I mean, people have been murdered. You know, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, people close to them were getting ready to say stuff, OK, but they conveniently committed suicide, shot gun blast through the back of the head. I don’t know any shot gun where you’re capable of killing yourself by holding the trigger back here . . . Why go through all that trouble, first of, let alone it’s not possible.
Nobody seems to care. Yeah, I want to live in a world, and in a country, where no one gives a fuck.
Yeah, everybody says, “Don’t kill yourself! Don’t kill yourself!” but what the fuck is there to live for . . . in this shit hole?
I’m 11th generation. My ancestors came here in the early 1600s. They were the founding fathers of Hampton, New Hampshire.
My 4th great grandfather, in my direct line, was in the Battle of Bunker Hill, OK? On any given day, I wish my 8th great grandfather’s ship had sunk on the way over here. Or any of my other great grandfathers, take any of them out of the picture, and I don’t exist, plain and simple. Without any of those people surviving, I don’t exist, as I am right this second.
Yeah, look at what we’ve got! Thanks, grandpa!
If they could see what our government has become, they wouldn’t have wasted their time 200 years ago. They’re turning over in their fuckin’ graves.
Go down to Independence Mall, stand in the grass, look at Independence Hall and think about the 1700s and the American Revolution, and how cool all that was, then look this way, then look that way. One of them says DOW! The other one says Wells Fargo!
Government of the people, by the people, for the people? Fuck no!
You mean these assholes are taking jobs to make $200,000 . . . when they could be doing more, elsewhere? There has to be more to it. Well, there is, boys and girls, it’s called corporation, and they’re all fuckin’ whores to those corporations. Those corporations have sold out America, and the politicians have allowed them to sell out America. They have sent jobs overseas, so people my age . . . are trying to survive on minimum wage.
Minimum wage is meant for fuckin’ kids! I was making minimum wage in 1976, and that two dollars and something an hour had more buying power! I could get four packs of cigarettes for that $2.35. You can’t even get one for minimum wage today, and the minimum wage is almost three times more. Do the math. It’s fucked up!
People don’t give a fuck. Nobody cares enough to try. Nobody cares enough to unite. Two people ain’t gonna make a difference. Two million people might.
Everybody is like, Oh, I don’t want to miss . . . what’s Kim Kardashian wearing? What’s Kim Kardashian sticking up her ass? Whose black dick is she sucking tonight? Really, that’s all people care about. They care more about that whore than they do about their own fuckin’ neighborhood.
I don’t see how you can watch all that garbage. I don’t watch any garbage, for real.
It’s been shit for as long as I’ve been alive, but I was ignorant. When I was in high school, I was ignorant to what was going on in the world, so everything appeared fine. With my perception, everything was great, but reality wasn’t.
I’ve read some, but not as much as I should have. There was a 50-day period where I read 26 books, eight of them by David Baldacci, who I thought was pretty good. Good stuff.
I had great jobs, then came the drugs, but I don’t blame the drugs, I blame me.
The girl thing and the drug thing are real entwined, and I’ve been a social retard for most of my life, so to satisfy the lust, I got hooked on drugs.
No, I’ve never been married. I’ve never had a long term girlfriend. I was a social retard. I don’t think I’m weird, it’s just that I’ve never been good in that department. I don’t know.
I don’t think I’m picky. I don’t want some ugly, 500-pound beast. Who the fuck does? Am I suppose to settle for whoever the fuck wants to sit on my face?
I just want to be happy. I just want someone who gives a fuck about me, you know, someone who’s not materialistic and phony and all that bullshit. I don’t want drama! I don’t think any of that’s asking for too much. I think that’s probably pretty normal, what people want, you know.
Now that I’m out here, I’m probably not going to find me a girlfriend, ha ha, unless I settle for a Kensington mail order bride, a whore du jour, right over there!
A lot of people have perceptions that drug addicts are these types of people, but drug addicts can be anybody, your uncle, your sister, your brother, your nephew, your niece, your next door neighbor, your mailman. I used to think it was only these people, and you’re all weak, the crack thing and stuff, until I tried it, then I knew that everything I had thought about it was wrong.
There are people that come down here from the suburbs, then five or six years later return home. They were just coming down for the weekend, or just coming down to get some, and got stuck. Or came down and never made it back home because they’re dead. I’ve known of more people that have died down here than I’ve ever known in my entire life, elsewhere.
The ones that overdosed, I envy them, because why the fuck can’t I overdose? I’d overdose, and ten minutes away from being done, and someone would fuckin’ find me. I’d wake up in a fuckin’ hospital!
I’ve overdosed three times.
Of the people who give me money, the best, over all, are the Hispanic women, then Hispanic men, white women, black women. Black men and white men are the worst.
I pay attention to that. Being a computer guy, I look at numbers and stuff.
The ones that you think would, don’t, and the ones that you think don’t, do.
I also have repeat customers, so to speak.
I’m nothing special, but there is a certain type of person that people expect to be doing that, and I don’t fit that. I’m not some fuckin’ lifelong bum. I’ve been homeless a couple of years. I don’t get in people’s face. I don’t ask anybody for anything. I stand there. If someone wants to give me money, help me out . . . There is nothing on that sign that isn’t true.
People would ask me, “Where do you live? Where is your house?” I’d go, “Dude . . .”
Anybody who’s going hungry, really, if you have to beg to eat, you’re really a fuckin’ moron.
There are people that stand there that say they’re homeless that live right around the corner.
I have people tell me I can’t be homeless because of the sneakers I wear, but people give me stuff. Everything I’m wearing was given to me.
People give me food, all day long. People have bought me meals at this diner.
I read . . . I look at the Bible, and it’s great fiction, as far as I’m concerned. I mean, in the 1690s, we were hanging women in Salem, Mass, for being witches, for Christ’s sake. You’d think people would be less naïve than they were in 1692. It amazes me how people would read something and just believe it. The Bible says X Y Z, so it’s X Y and Z. Really, you’re that naïve? You’re that numb? There can’t be more to it, or less to it?
Just because some humans wrote these words in a book you call the Bible, you believe it?
I never went to church. My parents never forced it upon us, which is why I believe people are the way they are. It was forced upon them.
My mom is Russian, but English is the side of my surname, Blake. That’s me.
My mom is actually from this shit hole, not Kensington, but Philly. It has nothing to do with me being here, though. I’m just here for the dope.
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, Postcards from the End of America.