You may have heard that Dr. Oz brought his circus to town last week for a look at Philly’s heroin encampment. I wish he had the opportunity to interview Mike, whom I met Tuesday at the camp that sits along the railroad tracks in Fairhill.
Mike wasn’t planning on watching Dr. Oz’s show that aired Tuesday afternoon, delving into life in the half-mile gulch known by its inhabitants as El Campamento. So, I showed Mike the promos on my phone.
Hell, Dr. Oz described it.
It is hell, Mike agreed.
The first time he came to get high two years ago he saw a man bathing in an oil drum. Heroin addicts bathing in oil cans — think of the ratings, Doc!
Oz is a sideshow. His piece was what you’d expect. For his tour, he was accompanied by an army of police, which wasn’t necessary since almost everyone had been sent running. Still, stepping among the trash, Dr. Oz couldn’t believe what he was “seeing, hearing, and smelling — and right here in Philadelphia.”
More needles than an ER, he cracked. A Third World country, he pronounced. Soon, he quoted 16th-century poetry — “There but for the Grace of God go I” — and cut to a commercial before a segment on Casey Anthony.
So now our city’s embarrassment is a national one.
It’s only fitting that a carnival barker like Dr. Oz and his gawkers would show up. What shocks Dr. Oz and his viewers is to us old news. It doesn’t shock us because we have allowed it to fester for decades — and just five miles from City Hall.
So now comes Oz with his hot lights.
“Just raising awareness,” said a spokesman for Gary Tuggle, the special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Philadelphia, when I asked what had made Tuggle agree to take Oz through El Campamento.
Awareness. That’s the only thing Oz can offer. And God help us if we can’t make something good out of that. Maybe it takes the great and powerful Oz, of all people, to get us to fix something that should have been fixed long ago.
And that’s a shame all its own.
Last year, a person overdosed at El Campamento — which sits on land owned by Conrail — about once every three weeks. I’d like to hope that if bodies were stacking up in the parking lot of the Inquirer, we’d do something about it. Or, that the city and state would have succeeded by now in making us.
Maybe all the newfound attention finally shames Conrail. Maybe the lights keep pressure on the city, which in the last two years has finally moved to act, to get something done. Maybe it spurs sympathy and summons others to help. Maybe it just provides more validation to those who look for any reason to write off suffering neighborhoods in cities anywhere.
Maybe it’s just good ratings.
The “festering epicenter of the heroin crisis,” Dr. Oz called it in his show. Yes, in Philadelphia. But what is El Campamento really, but just the most visible glimpse into the national heroin crisis. A look at the desperation that lies beneath the heroin problem in cities and towns and cul-de-sacs everywhere. And what happens when you ignore it for so long.
For years, the people who died at El Campamento were deemed expendable. Now, amid the heroin crisis, the camp makes headlines. Now, people promise action. Now, Dr. Oz does his drive-by and calls it hell.
That’s not something people like Mike need to be told.
He lives nearby with his mother, he told me, but comes to the camp each day, despite her pleadings for him to stop digesting death and embrace life.
Sometimes, he said, in the hours between his fixes, when he grows sick from want and shame, he thinks that he wants out. That he would like to leave this place where he is stuck — leave this hell once and for all.