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Welcome to Zombieland

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By Frank Rubino 

It's sunny but cold on this first Tuesday of the year, but the arctic air hasn't chilled under-the-El street commerce at Philadelphia's seamiest intersection.  More than a dozen men, most of them with soiled clothes and vacant expressions, mill around the Somerset El station on either side of Kensington Avenue yelling "Works!" and "Sub!" at passersby.  Several rough-around-the-edges women loiter among them, shooting hopeful glances at vehicles and at commuters descending the SEPTA station's steps.  A stupefied young man squats near the gutter as if seated on a toilet, his eyes closed, his mouth agape and drooling spit.  Oblivious jaywalkers crisscross the avenue with impunity, forcing cars to brake.

Welcome to Zombieland.

 It's a typical morning on this splotch of turf one ex-denizen calls "the Land of the Living Dead." Anyone who has experienced the spectacle that is Kensington Avenue and Somerset Street would agree: it's otherworldly. And virtually every inhabitant of this stark world under the El shares a common denominator: heroin.  K&S Use This for real.jpg

"Pretty much everything down here is about heroin," says 43-year-old Tony Moreno, a homeless Kensington native with a shaved head, an affinity for Axe malt liquor and a 20-year heroin addiction.

The drug and its synthetic variations are bought and sold here; ingested, inhaled and injected here. Heroin rules Kensington and Somerset day and night, just a surely as it rules the lives of those who are addicted to the opiate.  This area was the stomping grounds of both the Kensington Strangler and the three women he allegedly strangled to death. The lots where their bodies were found are all situated within a quarter mile of this intersection.

Philippe Bourgois, a University of Pennsylvania anthropologist who has studied and written about street drug abusers around the country, has observed the comings and goings at Kensington and Somerset.  He likens K &S to the Ninth Ring of Hell in Dante's Inferno - the last and worst ring.

"In a way, it's kind of a familiar spot," says Bourgois, 54, noting that San Francisco has a similar block at the 16th Street BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station.

"But one thing that fascinates me about Kensington and Somerset is the racial dynamic," he adds. "If you've noticed, one side of the street is dominated by white and Puerto Rican (hustlers) and the other side is black.  It's fascinating, isn't it?  The classic statement of American segregation.  No matter what social class you're in, boom, people separate each other out by race."

Although they're commonly regarded as lowlifes by non-drug abusers, Bourgois says the intersection's purveyors of clean "works" (syringes) and "Sub" (the methadone-like pill Suboxone) actually serve a useful public health function. Distributing brand-new syringes, even for an illicit profit, mitigates the spread of HIV and hepatitis.  And instead of getting heroin addicts high, Suboxone is supposed to allow them to make it through a day without requiring multiple injections to stave off heroin's severe withdrawal symptoms, or "dope-sickness," which one ex-sufferer describes as "the flu but 17 times worse."

Tony Moreno Use This.jpgOf course, works and Sub salesmen aren't motivated by the by the notion that they're making the world of drugs a better place.

Take "O.G.," a lanky 59-year-old Latino man with a crooked nose and an imperturbable manner, who has become an institution of sorts outside Martin's Delicatessen on the intersection's west side.  Wearing a Toronto Blue Jays cap and a black down jacket, O.G. acknowledges that he hawks clean sets of works for a buck or two apiece and Suboxone tablets for $10 apiece daily as his "main way of making a hustle."   He claims he kicked his own heroin habit 27 years ago. If he did, he is an exception to the rule. Most dealers are addicts who peddle strictly to pay for their next hit.

O.G. says any works or Sub dealer will gladly tip off prospective drug buyers which corners have good heroin on particular days.  They typically charge $5 for the info, $10 (or a bag of heroin) to accompany the buyer to the corner.  He says the good stuff on this day is called "Lucifer," and that it can be purchased at nearby Rosehill Street and Somerset.  Another good brand, "U2," is available at D and Cambria.

Other brand names are just as clever:  Blue Eyes, Viagra, Godfather, and Terminator.

As O.G. describes his entrepreneurialism, a gray Chrysler 300 stops at the curb, and one of the car's two young white male occupants passes him $6 for three syringes.  O.G. says he scours "abandominiums" for the dirty syringes and needles he turns in every Friday at the Prevention Point needle exchange office at Lehigh Avenue and Hancock Street. 

A doctor, he says, writes him prescriptions for Suboxone. "I get 90 a month, and I sell 'em all, so that's $900, and that ain't too bad," he shrugs.

Crack, O.G. adds, remains a big seller in the area, too, at corners such as C and Clearfield, Hartville and Cambria and E and Lippincott. But crack moves better at night.  By day, Kensington and Somerset is principally about heroin, known on the street simply as dope.

It's important to get the colloquialisms down.  Crack cocaine is crack.  Powder cocaine is powder.  Angel dust is wet.  Heroin alone is dope.  Meander down to, say, little Tusculum Street and consider a dope addict who's just shot up and now seems forever frozen in an awkward, catatonic position - perhaps with his head plunged earthward and his arms flung skyward behind him - and you'll understand why.

Bourgois, who for more than a year has rented a house a few blocks from Kensington and Somerset as part of a National Institutes of Health study he's conducting on the neighborhood's drug subculture, says young people have largely eschewed crack in recent years and become drawn to heroin and other opiates (typically pills such as Oxycontin and Percocet, both of which are also available in the Kensington and Somerset vicinity).

"They're young and they're white," he says of the buyers he frequently observes at West Kensington heroin corners.  "A lot of them come from the suburbs.  Some don't even look like they're out of high school."

Bourgois contends that although heroin has always been present where white people live - particularly where poor and working-class white people live - it never overwhelmed and devastated those communities the way it did many Latino and African American population centers.

"The result is that most African American and Latino kids won't touch a needle.  They are using Percocets and Oxycontin, but they're only doing that because they don't know it's heroin.  Whites, on the other hand, didn't learn the heroin history lesson, so to speak.  It's kind of a tragic thing."

A young women we'll call Dawn, another Kensington and Somerset regular, makes his point in human form.

Clad in a black hoodie inscribed with the word "Hope," she says she hails from Havertown, and that she recently turned 24.  She's neither haggard nor wraith-thin, and the stud in her right nostril makes her look like any hip college-age chick.   Nonetheless, she landed in Kensington six years ago and admits she's been injecting heroin ever since.  To earn money for her and her boyfriend's addictions (she says she needs to make at least $150 a day), she steers buyers to corners, although she's also sold herself many times.

"I did it (prostitution) a lot last year," she says.  "I'm not doing it as much now."

Asked whether she's frightened by the reality that three young drug-using women were discovered murdered within a quarter-mile of Kensington and Somerset between Nov. 3 and Dec. 15, she replies, "Yeah, of course.  You don't have a quarter or two, do you?"

 (Police arrested 22-year-old Antonio Rodriguez for the Kensington Strangler slayings on Jan. 17; hours after a database reportedly identified his DNA as the killer's.)

Inside Phil's Appliances, the refurbished refrigerator, washer and dryer dealership his father Jim opened on the northwest corner of Kensington and Somerset in the 1970s, Vincent Imbrenda, 64, says he's saddened by the parade of squandered youth he sees on the avenue.

Phils Appliances Use This.jpg "There's new faces out there every day," he says.  "They get younger and younger.  They see the other ones get strung out on dope and destroyed by it, yet it don't stop 'em a bit."

Imbrenda grew up on nearby Hurley Street and hung out at D and Indiana as a teenager, back when Kensington was a thriving manufacturing center. He says a bugler might as well blow Taps over the entire area now.  "It's too far gone," he says.  "This avenue used to be beautiful.  But it's not our neighborhood anymore.  It's hopeless."

Asked for an example of the sort of show he and his colleagues are regularly treated to outside Phil's windows, Imbrenda talks about a middle-aged couple who push a shopping cart to Kensington and Somerset nearly every afternoon during the summertime.  He says the pair, both addicts, meander onto the trash-strewn lot adjacent to Bentley's Place, a bar across the street, where the woman defecates in plain view.

"She takes a shit on the lot just about every afternoon at 3:30, he wipes her ass, and off they go.  Unbelievable."

Imbrenda adds that it's no big deal for rescue squads to pull junkies who've died of overdoses from the neighborhood's innumerable abandominiums.  "Then too, sometimes times they'll revive (O.D.'d addicts who are still alive) right in the street.  Then they fight with them for ruining their high."

Capt. Thomas Davidson, commander of the 24th Police District, says he comes through whenever he's on street patrol.  "We like to keep a police presence around, allocate as many resources as possible up there," he says.  "Obviously, when a cop's around people won't do the same things they might otherwise."

Davidson adds he'd "absolutely" like to clean up the intersection.  "But it's a struggle, a daily struggle.  We could use some help.  I know it's a police issue but it's also a sociological issue."

Bourgois, however, says, "Really, the police have no relationship with the community."

On another sunny but frigid weekday, Tony Moreno shuffles by the El station and pauses to take in an impromptu prayer circle.  Moreno, who contends police detained and interrogated him at the Roundhouse for 33 hours between Christmas and New Year's as part of The Strangler sweep, nods approvingly at the sight of fresh-faced college kids locking arms with haggard junkies. Their heads bowed, the group prays for some time before breaking up.

The students, guests of Pastor Frank Vega's Inner City Ministries, situated a half-mile down Kensington Avenue, attend Monroe Community College in Rochester, N.Y. and have made the pilgrimage to Kensington during their Christmas break.  Vega, a 57-yeara-old recovering addict, hosts similar groups from other colleges at spring break and during the summer.

"We do a lot of street outreach," he says.  "We try to form relationships with (addicts), let them know that when they're ready to take the first step, we're here for them."

One of the students, a blonde 18-year-old named Miranda Kirsop, says interacting with the downtrodden has touched her.

"It makes me want to cry," she says.  "They need hope."

Proceeding down the avenue, Moreno spots a familiar face and nods. Gesturing back toward the students, he says, "They were here last night, too, with hot chocolate and sandwiches.  It's a nice thing.  They're nice kids.  It ain't always bad down here, you know.  Sometimes you eat good."

 

Next: A Zombieland survivor tells her tale of life as a heroin addict

 

Cover Photo: A prostitute patrols Kensington Ave. near Somerset     

 Photos by Frank Rubino

 

 

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