She said her name was Jackie and she was from South Jersey. She stood on a side street in Kensington, awaiting her next shot of heroin.
She had red hair and cheeks too full for her to have been on The Avenue very long. She had hugged her mother goodbye a week before, and had come here to find the father of her children. “It was supposed to be for a day,” she said.
A man passed on the sidewalk with a missing-person poster. She took care to give it a long look.
“It could be any one of us,” she said – any one of these young people waiting in a cold drizzle for the hit that could be their last, any one of the families waiting at home for them to return.
I was asked a few weeks ago to speak at Camden County’s Regional Candlelight Vigil to remember loved ones lost to addiction – a Saturday event to honor the dead and maybe stop more people from dying.
They asked me to talk about my experience reporting on this crisis. So I’ll tell them about the lawn where I first started, where I watched librarians save overdose victims. I’ll tell them about my brother, who died of an overdose himself. But when I sat down to put words to paper, I thought, too, of Jackie, a young mother of two children, and the look in her eyes. Trying to make sense of how she got there. I thought of the way all these vigils I have been to are as much for those lost as it is for those still suffering. And the many more from all over who arrive in Kensington each day.
Here’s what I saw, and what Jackie saw, all around The Avenue that morning: A woman tending to a man lying in the street, plugging an abscess in his hand with toilet paper. Crowds of people running for the free samples dealers hand out, passing overdose victims who had just tried those wares. Friends clustering around them, ready with Narcan doses. An outreach worker comforting a crying woman in a doorway – saying she was ready to leave. She wanted her life back. She wanted her babies. The outreach worker promising she would do all she could to find her a detox bed, a promise she likely couldn’t keep in a system long past its breaking point.
I tell about these scenes often enough that they begin to bleed together. But that is exactly what happens in Kensington in the crush of this opioid crisis: the commonplace suffering that plays out every day, in thousands of indignities.
Indignities. The first thing you learn about the human beings living on The Avenue is that no one wants to be here.
I will tell the crowd in Camden this, even though it’s from Kensington, because a little bit of Kensington is everywhere now. This is the epicenter, this disorientating, isolating place that collapses under the freight of a crisis defined by individual miseries. In the last five months, reporting from Kensington, I’ve met hundreds of people in this catastrophe’s grip. The Jackies from South Jersey and Rays from down the block and Joes from Delco and Ryans from the Northeast.
What’s laid bare in Kensington lives in all the communities touched by this disease, in diner bathrooms and suburban bedrooms of South Jersey. In Kensington, the only sound that drowns out the sound of a human voice more than the rush of the El is the scream of the ambulance siren. One comes as regularly as the other. It’s hard to keep up with the streams of faces: people at the beginning, like Jackie, and people near their end. Those sirens echo across the bridge, too.
More than ever.
Camden authorities responded to 14 nonfatal overdoses in just four hours this week. The lists of the dead grow. Overdose fatalities in Philadelphia and its surrounding counties are up an average of 50 percent for the first six months of 2017, from 874 to 1,1314. In Camden County, deaths have more than doubled. In Burlington County, they jumped by 74 percent.
But percentages don’t capture the dead.
So on Saturday night in Camden, thousands of people are to gather at the stadium by the river to read a growing list of names – to remember those gone and to celebrate those in recovery. Family members and loved ones who know their own isolation will come together to fight against it. The fight takes many forms: through treatment, through policy, through political action. This weekend in Camden, families will fight by simply telling their stories.
That’s what I’ve tried to do, too – to show how, in the depths of addiction, their kindness and wit and pain and fear and hope, most of all, hope – shine through still.
To show people like Jackie, in this wet alleyway, who, like everyone touched by this crisis, doesn’t want to be here. Who are hoping, somehow, to find their way back home.