Long Bright River

All morning, during Eddie Lafferty’s very infrequent pauses, I have tried my best to interject only the basics of what he needs to know about the neighborhood.

Kensington is one of the newer neighborhoods in what is, by American standards, the very old city of Philadelphia. It was established in the 1730s by the Englishman Anthony Palmer, who acquired a small tract of nondescript land and named it after a regal neighborhood—one that was, at the time, the preferred residence of the British monarchy. (Perhaps Palmer, too, was a phony. Or, more kindly, an optimist.) The eastern edge of present-day Kensington is a mile from the Delaware River, but in its earliest days it bordered the river directly. Accordingly, its earliest industries were shipbuilding and fishing, but by the middle of the nineteenth century its long tenure as a manufacturing hub was beginning. At its peak it boasted producers of iron, steel, textiles, and— perhaps fittingly—pharmaceuticals. But when, a century later, the factories in this country died in great numbers, Kensington, too, began a slow and then a rapid economic decline. Many residents moved farther into or out of the city, seeking other work; others stayed, persuaded by allegiance or delusion that a change would come. Today, Kensington comprises in nearly equal parts the Irish-Americans who moved here in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and a newer population of families of Puerto Rican and other Latino descent—along with groups who represent successively smaller slivers of Kensington’s demographic pie: African-American, East Asian, Caribbean.

Present-day Kensington is shot through by two main arteries: Front Street, which runs north up the eastern edge of the city, and Kensington Ave—usually just called the Ave, an alternately friendly or disdainful appellation, depending on who’s saying it—which begins at Front and veers northeast. The Market-Frankford elevated train—or, more commonly, the El, since a city called Philly can’t let any of its infrastructure go unabbreviated—runs directly over both Front and Kensington, which means both roads spend the majority of the day in the shadows. Large steel beams support the train line, blue legs spaced thirty feet apart, which gives the whole apparatus the look of a giant and menacing caterpillar hovering over the neighborhood. Most of the transactions (narcotic, sexual) that happen in Kensington begin on one of these two roads and end on one of the many smaller streets that cross them, or more often in one of the abandoned houses or empty lots that populate the neighborhood’s side streets and alleys. The businesses that can be found along the main streets are nail salons, takeout places, mobile phone stores, convenience stores, dollar stores, appliance stores, pawnshops, soup kitchens, other charitable organizations, and bars. About a third of the storefronts are shuttered.

And yet—like the condos that are sprouting, to our left now, from an empty lot that has lain fallow since a wrecking ball took out the factory it used to house—the neighborhood is rising. New bars and businesses are cropping up on the periphery, toward Fishtown, where I grew up. New young faces are populating those businesses: earnest, rich, naive, ripe for the picking. So the mayor is getting concerned with appearances. More troops, the mayor says. More troops, more troops, more troops.

* * *

It’s raining hard today, and this forces me to drive more slowly than I normally would when responding to a call. I name the businesses we pass, name their proprietors. I describe recent crimes I think Lafferty should know about (each time, Lafferty whistles, shakes his head). I list allies. Outside our windows: the usual mix of people seeking a fix and people in the aftermath of one. Half of the people on the sidewalks are melting slowly toward the earth, their legs unable to support them. The Kensington lean, say people who make jokes about that kind of thing. I never do.

Because of the weather, some of the women we pass have umbrellas. They wear winter hats and puffy jackets, jeans, dirty sneakers. They range in age from teenagers to the elderly. The large majority are Caucasian, though addiction doesn’t discriminate, and all races and creeds can be found here. The women wear no makeup, or maybe a hard black ring of liner around their eyes. The women working the Ave don’t wear anything that shows they’re working, but everyone knows: it’s the look that does it, a long hard gaze at the driver of every passing car, every passing man. I know most of these women, and most of them know me.

—There’s Jamie, I say to Lafferty as we pass her. There’s Amanda. There’s Rose.

I consider it part of his training to know these women.

Down the block, at Kensington and Cambria, I see Paula Mulroney. She’s on crutches today, hovering miserably on one foot, getting rained on because she can’t balance an umbrella too. Her denim jacket has turned a dark upsetting blue. I wish she’d go inside.

I glance around quickly, checking for Kacey. This is the corner on which she and Paula can usually be found. Occasionally they’ll get into a fight or have a falling-out, and one or the other of them will go stand someplace else for a while, but a week later I’ll see them there, reunited, their arms slung about one another cheerfully, Kacey with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, Paula with a water or a juice or a beer in a paper bag.

Today, I don’t see Kacey anyplace. It occurs to me, in fact, that I have not seen her in quite some time.

Paula spots our car as we drive toward her and she squints in our direction, seeing who’s inside. I lift two fingers off the steering wheel: a wave. Paula looks at me, and then at Lafferty, and then turns her face slightly upward, toward the sky.

—That’s Paula, I say to Lafferty.

I think about saying more. I went to school with her, I could say. She’s a friend of the family. She’s my sister’s friend.

But already, Lafferty has moved on to another subject: this time it is the heartburn that has plagued him for the better part of a year.

I can think of no response.

—Are you always this quiet? he says suddenly. It’s the first question he’s asked me since determining my ice cream preferences.

—Just tired, I say.

—Have you had a lot of partners before me? says Lafferty, and then he laughs, as if he’s made a joke.

—That sounded wrong, he says. Sorry.

For just long enough, I say nothing.

Then I say, Only one.

—How long did you work together?

—Ten years.

—What happened to him? says Lafferty.

—He hurt his knee last spring, I say. He’s out on medical leave for a while.

—How’d he hurt it? asks Lafferty.

I don’t know that it’s any of his business. Nevertheless, I say, At work.

If Truman wants everyone to know the full story, Truman can tell it.

—Have any kids? Have a husband? he asks.

I wish he’d go back to talking about himself.

—One child, I say. No husband.

—Oh yeah? How old?

—Four years old. Almost five.

—Good age, says Lafferty. I miss when mine were that age.

* * *

When I pull up to the entry point to the tracks that Dispatch indicated—a man-made opening in a fence, something someone kicked out years ago that’s never been repaired—I see we’ve beaten the medical unit to the scene.

I look at Lafferty, assessing him. Unexpectedly, I feel a twinge of sympathy for him, for what we are about to see. His field training was in the 23rd District, which is next to ours, but much lower in crime. Besides, he would mostly have been doing foot patrol, crowd control, that sort of thing. I’m not sure if he’s ever responded to this type of call before. There are only so many ways you can ask someone how many dead people they’ve seen in their life, so in the end I decide to keep things vague.

—Have you ever done this before? I ask him.

He shakes his head. He says, Nope.

—Well, here we go, I say, brightly.

I’m not certain what else I can say. There is no way to prepare a person sufficiently.

Thirteen years ago, when I first started, it happened a few times a year: we’d get a report that someone had fatally overdosed, had been deceased so long that medical intervention was unnecessary. More common were calls about overdoses in progress, and typically those individuals could be revived. These days, it happens frequently. This year alone the city is on track for 1,200, and the vast majority of those are in our district. Most are relatively recent ODs. Others are bodies that have already started to decay. Sometimes they’re inexpertly hidden by friends or lovers who witnessed the death but don’t want to jump through the hoops of reporting it, don’t want to answer to anyone about how it happened. More often they’re just out in the open, having nodded off forever in a secluded place. Sometimes their family finds them first. Sometimes their children. Sometimes, we do: out on patrol we simply see them there, sprawled out or slumped over, and when we check their vital signs they have no pulse. They’re cold to the touch. Even in summer.

* * *

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