The El rumbles above Somerset Street, above Ray Rivero, already deep in his sales pitch.
“I’m king,” he says, in a pair of red-mirrored sunglasses. “I make the most money. I got the most clients. And I give the best runs.”
That’s what Ray is — a runner. Every day, from early morning to late night, he sells “works” — clean syringes — at the foot of the El station in Kensington.
There, he’ll meet the people getting off — the ones from outside the neighborhood, the ones who don’t know the place the way Ray does. He sells the syringes. He guides them off the avenue to the best dope. And for those who need it, he’ll mine a vein in their neck and shoot them up.
“Come see Ray Rocz,” he says, the nickname a reference to the crack habit he’s had since 14. “You get more than a run. You get an experience.”
By his side, girlfriend Carol Yancer giggles and rolls her eyes. She knows he likes to be the center of attention. It’s early afternoon. It’s a good day. They have get-well money — enough to buy their first fix in the morning, the one that staves off the early symptoms of withdrawal, the nausea, and the aches and pain. Together, they inject up to 30 bags of heroin a day.
They are homeless, and they sleep on the steps of a church blocks from Ray’s childhood home, where his family still lives, and a five-minute drive from Carol’s mother’s house, where her three kids now live.
To support their habit, Ray, 33, sells his works. And when cash is low, Carol searches for dates on the avenue.
Ray’s customers, from far-off suburbs and rural towns, can tell themselves Kensington is an interlude. A stopover.
To Ray and Carol, this is home.
A journey to the avenue — and addiction
Ray met Carol on the avenue seven months ago.
He’d been on the street for three years after a four-year stint in prison for forgery — stealing a neighbor’s ID and cashing checks pilfered from her mailbox.
Carol, who is 37, was newly homeless. She’d been thrown out of her mother’s Port Richmond home. She had relapsed and been stealing from her children, ages, 10, 17, and 19. Xboxes and games and clothes.
For that, Carol is wracked by guilt. It’s one of the reasons she uses, she said: to forget.
After taking Carol in so many times, kicking her out was the hardest thing she’s ever done, Carol’s mother told me, rocking in grief in her living room. She had to think of Carol’s kids, she said. Carol can come home when she stops using, she said.
Ray, who has two children of his own whom he's lost custody of, is no longer welcomed in his house. Weeks after he got home from prison in 2013, his mom threw him out of the family home on Emerald Street after he walked out with their TV. Two years later, then sleeping on the street, Ray got into a fight with his mother’s boyfriend, who accused him of brandishing a gun. Ray denied it but spent more than a year in jail awaiting trial before he was eventually acquitted.
“Why don’t they come?” Ray says of his family. “They know where I’m at.”
Ray’s mother, Barbara Rivero, said she just cannot trust her son in her home. But she lives with the knowledge that he is blocks away every day, she said.
Ray and Carol met in their addiction in a neighborhood that had pushed them toward it.
A neighborhood whose plight has been ignored for decades as drugs have taken generations. A neighborhood where now, amid a ballooning heroin crisis, the imperative should be to keep people alive — the ones visiting it and the ones who have only ever known it. The ones, like Ray and Carol, who have been overlooked, who shoulder the brunt of the stigma against drug addiction.
Ray had grown up with an alcoholic father in a poor family ripped apart by the heroin that blanketed Kensington. Two of his sisters were addicted. Carol was with a man who beat her. Together they grew hooked on pills. When the pills ran out, she turned to the heroin five minutes away.
When they met, Ray offered Carol the only thing he could: protection and a high.
But these days, Carol wants out.
Competition from the county kids
Some days, Ray sells in front of the bar on the corner of Kensington and Somerset (featured in the first Rocky movie, he notes with an ironic shrug).
Danny Hinkie works the corner, too, and has done so much longer than Ray.
“I’m the king of Kensington and Somerset,” Danny says. “I’m passing it on to Ray.”
These days, Danny’s ruling passion is his hatred of the county kids. The ones from Bucks and Montgomery who have spent enough time in the neighborhood that they’ve begun to sell works, too. Competition. The kids they once guided to get high got stuck on the avenue and now guide others.
“Chumps,” Danny spits. “And if they die in Kensington, it’s a big deal. We die? Another Kensington scumbag dead.”
Still, on good days, with syringes going for a $1 and trips to a dealer negotiable on how much they need, Ray can make a few hundred bucks in 12 hours of work. He can keep him and Carol high.
And there are the other hustles: Carol has her dates. Ray’s not above plucking the pockets of passed out users along the avenue.
And when money is flush, Ray and Carol spend nights at the Hotel Carlyle, a boarding house in Francisville. There, they lie in bed watching Comedy Central. Carol likes the tub — likes feeling “normal.” They go to bed laughing.
“I miss my kids”
But not every day is a day at the hotel. And things seem to be spiraling. Somehow amid a heroin boom, Ray is making less money. There are 50 other runners on the avenue now, he says. There’s Carol’s ex-boyfriend who recently got out of prison and beat Ray up for five nights straight. On the sixth night, he fatally overdosed on the avenue. Ray’s older sister overdosed a few weeks ago. Ray found out from a bartender that she died. For that, he went home. “You’re next,” his mother told him.
He worries something is wrong with him — that he hasn’t cried more.
Carol cries more now. For her kids and her mom. For her and Ray.
Despite his bravado, Ray admits the foundation is cracking. After all, he said, it’s built on heroin. They believe they can make a life without it.
“I miss my kids. I miss my mom. I want Ray,” Carol said. “He’s a good person. I don’t want to see him dead. I want him to be part of my life. We just have to get our stuff together. But every day, it’s just the same thing.”
So they pick through the weeded lot on Helen Street, just off Somerset, where Ray will inject Carol, and Carol will help Ray back to their church step.
And Carol will cry, and Ray will hug her. And soon they will pick up their belongings and go back to the avenue. Back to the lifeline.
Carol will lean against the pay phone, muster up a smile, hoping for a date. The light will change, traffic will shift, and she will be gone.
And Ray will make his way back to the El, his voice thin above the crowd — “works, works” — until the train rumbles overhead, and you can’t hear him at all.