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Saturday, May 1, 2010

Neighborhood Drug Frenzy Suicide

Visitors to the (always crowded) WAWA on Aramingo Avenue near the Richmond Shopping Center are familiar with the groups of beggars and homeless there who ask strangers for spare change. In many cases, the faces of these people change with the season, but for the last two years now there have been two regulars, Ron (not his real name) and his girlfriend, both young twenty something kids without a place to live and who struggle daily with a severe drug problem.

Whatever the weather—rain, cold, sleet or blazing spring sunshine —these two work the familiar “spare change” rounds, hobbling from parking lot to parking lot, sometimes settling near Applebee’s (where they wind up talking to people in cars), or migrating to Thriftway where the (very mannerly) Ron will approach passersby with his sad Barry Manilow eyes and ask, “I don’t mean to disturb you, sir, but can you help a guy out by letting me carry your shopping bags?”

Ron’s girlfriend often adopts a different approach. Since they don’t beg together (couple teams rarely illicit the same sympathy and “opportunities” that going it alone seems to generate), I often see Ron’s girl sitting curbside with her head in her arms, half hidden under a hoodie, or staring benignly into space ready to catch the eyes of strangers.

People look at her, especially men, and probably think of a lost waif in a Charles Dickens story.

Since the homeless cannot work the “spare change” circuit without attracting the attention of store managers, this couple is often “watched.” When I stop to say hello to Ron, I find I’m sometimes eyed by “managerial” types as “a friend of the fuzzy haired homeless guy who may also be a serious drug addict.” So yes, I definitely get the vibe that I’m not supposed to get too familiar with “these people.”

Ron and his girl, as nice as they are, represent the worst example of what happens when drugs take over a person’s life. They live on the street, and often look like they need a bath. But in the larger drug picture, the couple represents only the tip of the iceberg.

Not seen in the public square, are the other types of addicts.
Whether it’s a student selling prescription Percocet, a father of four dispensing Klonopin while working as a roofer, or a neighborhood bartender trading Valium and Oxycontin for Cloud Nine (crack cocaine), drugs have become an all too accepted part of neighborhood life. They seem to be everywhere.

Today’s dealers include students, kids on bicycles and assorted professionals.

Serious dealing (heroin), once the province of men, has given way to a kind of equal opportunity “feminism”: women dealers—with full time jobs and kids enrolled in day care-- are not uncommon.

The city, sadly, is not winning the war on drugs, although it has made a few noble efforts. Years ago it was “Operation Sunrise,” Mayor Street’s attempt to get drug dealers off street corners. At that time, 20,000 people were arrested on drug related charges, mostly in Kensington and North Philadelphia. But “Operation Sunrise” was perceived as inhumane, so the city initiated “Operation Safe Streets, where instead of arresting people, hordes of uniformed cops infiltrated Kensington and North Philadelphia to deter people from dealing drugs.

I don’t have the answer to the problem other than to mouth Nancy Reagan’s famous words, “Just say no,” a mantra that kids determined to experiment are going to flag as thoroughly uncool.

Let me tell you what’s uncool:

Some years ago I witnessed a neighbor’s fall from grace. I used to see this man sprucing up his property or washing and polishing his car on weekends. His life, in fact, seemed so regimented I assumed he was a police officer or had some administrative job with the city, but then one night, in a change as drastic as an earthquake, I encountered him walking the streets selling his DVD and VHS movie collection from a paper bag.

He’d gotten so hooked on crack cocaine he eventually wound up selling his house and his car.

When he first approached me that night with his bag of films, talking in a frenzied “crack” manner---imagine what the Acela High Speed Rail System would sound like if it could talk-- I knew right away that he had joined the land of the lost.
His story is the reason why you should just say No.

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