I’m walking with Andy through my Riverwards neighborhood.
Andy’s been in Philadelphia for two years. He’s 26 years old but could easily pass as younger. He has a quiet and agreeable nature and seems more of a ‘60s stoner type than a typical K & A “slumped over” drug addict. Andy’s drug is fentanyl. He makes it clear to me that it is not meth. He would never use meth which often creates open sores and abscesses on the skin.
We pass other lost souls on our way to Wendy’s where I’ll buy him a hamburger. They include a young man who steals beef jerky from Wawa and who can always be found flat on his back in the Rite Aid parking lot; the ginger-haired scrapper with brain cancer; a number of bulk shoplifters headed to the dollar stores with empty Santa Claus bags that will soon be filled with goodies stripped from the shelves.
In many ways, the scene parallels the fall of the greater society. Why shouldn’t the homeless be getting worse when society itself seems to be splitting like cracks on an I-95 bridge?
“Demonic nihilism has infected the nation,” Jacob Howland recently declared in UnHerd. “America is now a zombie state.”
America is on a different kind of fentanyl.
Case study #1: The woke zombies at the Philadelphia Inquirer recently ran an investigatory piece detailing how many “unacceptable” political tweets Mark L. Tykocinski, president of Thomas Jefferson University, liked since being appointed president in July 2022.
Those tweets included comments questioning the validity of Covid vaccines to condemnations of child sex change operations. The president also liked tweets expressing skepticism about certain radical equity issues.
They investigated Tykocinski’s tweets as if they were digging for facts behind a major crime. Imagine paying reporters to investigate how many tweets someone liked just to ruin their life. And the story doesn’t end there. The Inquirer was first tipped off by a group of woke students at the university. The president then resigned under pressure but before that he apologized to the fascists in an attempt to save his job.
As the upper reaches of society crumble over trivialities like this, it’s no wonder that people like Andy, who comes from a good but impoverished home in Delaware, decide to go full hog into the drug world. Turn on, tune in, and drop out is happening all over.
When Andy first arrived in Philadelphia he didn’t know how to panhandle, so asked a street elder how to do it. The elder, a guy named Moose, has been homeless for years, traveling the nation like the hobos of old: riding boxcars, hitchhiking, and taking Greyhound buses when he could afford to.
Moose spent some years on the streets of San Francisco, a city he calls the “most evil in the nation.” He was drawn to Philadelphia by the lure of cheap and plentiful drugs. There’s safety in numbers: just go to Kensington and Allegheny if you want proof of this. Hillary Clinton was right: “It takes a village.”
Moose gave Andy a few pointers: make a sign; walk with the sign through traffic at intersections, then wait for people to hand you dollar bills, sometimes twenties, sometimes even larger. Or wait for the unexpected: a banana in your face, milk shakes, soda bottles, a big blast of pepper spray. You never know what’s going to come out of a car window — or who’s driving.
Andy has a makeshift tent not far off Aramingo Avenue in a small wooded area that developers no doubt have their eyes on.
The developers have claimed a lot of Kensington as their own, building condo multiplexes for more exiled New Yorkers and millennials with dogs. With nowhere else to go, the Kensington homeless are now forced to travel — book bags and syringes in tow — into areas of Port Richmond like Campbell Park, long considered a family spot but quickly turning into Narcan Plaza.
Complaints from neighbors in the Port Richmond area are growing. What was a beautiful neighborhood with decent Polish residents going to Mass every Sunday is slowly turning into your typical Philly dung heap.
Some of the homeless have Home Depot-style tents but Andy’s tent is his own rustic creation. Several feet away from him a fellow panhandler has pitched his own tent. They are not friends but acquaintances. Friends are hard to come by when you live on the street. It’s every man or woman for himself.
Belongings — book bags, tents, bicycles, shoes and cell phones — disappear, thanks mainly to “friends.”
“I came back from panhandling once and found a fat half-naked black man in my tent,” Andy told me.
The weather was 95 degrees, the overweight man was sweating profusely, and Andy wanted him out. The man refused. “This is my spot now,” the man said. Andy reached for his pen knife and threatened him: Soft spoken peace-loving Andy, the stoner. Once a Gandhi pacifist, life on the streets has him pulling out a knife.
The street will do that to you.
The tent-crasher eventually left, but there was still Billy and Bob to worry about.
Billy and Bob are much like the editors at the Inquirer, the same ones who ruined the life of Mark Tykocinski. They keep watch. They keep tabs. They live to cancel people.
Billy and Bob live in a Home Depot tent with lots of perks. They steal from fellow homeless but do it in clever, manipulative ways. They are also a couple but not in the Ozzie and Harriet sense because they are open to interludes with strangers, especially new young homeless faces who might want to make a few bucks.
Because Billy is the younger and more attractive partner, overweight Bob does most of the (grueling) panhandling. It’s the price you sometimes have to pay when you have a trophy lover.
Andy says Billy and Bob snowballed him when he needed to use their phone to access an app in order to get money his father sent him. Billy and Bob stole his money and then acted as if they had a right to do so, just as the Inquirer editors felt it was their right to cancel out Tykocinski. Billy and Bob have hit on other homeless people as well.
Some history: The city’s drug-addicted homeless were different when heroin was the drug everyone was abusing. In those days, even the worst of addicts could hold a conversation, make eye contact, and act in normal ways. Today’s addicts are often the reverse of that. The effects of animal tranquilizer additives produce anti-social behavior, an inability to construct simple sentences, and spasmodic bodily movements on a par with the antics in The Exorcist.
A thousand and one ways to make your way in a society on the decline: this might be a book title if Clint and May, a homeless couple from the Lancaster area, were to write a book.
May’s daily beat includes holding a sign and walking in the middle of traffic at Aramingo and York Streets while waving at drivers like she’s in the Miss America Pageant. Last year she and Clint hosted a Thanksgiving dinner in the woods where they roasted a turkey near the Conrail tracks. Invited guests brought shoplifted items from Wawa and various dollar stores. “The turkey was good,” Andy recalls.
Clint and May have been together forever, an unusual thing in homeless circles.
Drug addicted homeless couples rarely go on to live happy lives together. Life on the street is not conducive to happy relationships.
A mere ten years ago, most of the Riverwards homeless were single men. Women simply didn’t subject themselves to the dicey possibilities that living on the street entails. In today’s world, equality rules; homeless women prowl the streets late at night while well bred domestic women who live in houses express fear about going out late alone.
Sometimes May will throw Andy a few extra bucks when she makes a lot of panhandling money. “She’s got a motherly instinct,” Andy says. She’s also an avid fighter: Clint and May’s fights are usually public spectacles.
Getting arrested is always a possibility when you go “down the way” — an expression a lot of addicts use — to acquire your daily allotment of drugs. The thing is, don’t be fooled by the apparent “freedom” and anarchy on the streets at K & A where zombies shoot up on the streets. There’s still vast undercover police sting operations away from K & A around the Huntingdon and Somerset El stations. Men and women in or out of uniform wait in unmarked police cars.
Andy tells me he was caught buying five dollars’ worth.
Two men sprung out of a car and nabbed him near a boarded up storefront.
A legitimate arrest is one thing. After all, a law has been broken, but why the need to take Andy’s book bag, his only possession, and cut it in half after dumping the contents out in a dumpster? After this came taunting and a bit of bullying. No offers of a phone call at the police station. Andy was thrown in with a bunch of people who bragged about killing someone.
Okay, cops are human and they have limits like everybody else. They’re sick of dealing with drug violations and the bizarre anti-social behavior produced by animal tranquilizers.
Everybody and everything is breaking down, even people who are supposed to be the “good guys.”
In the meantime, the societal decline continues on its merry way. Andy is waiting for another arrest, which is sure to come, as the Inquirer, in its self-righteous blindness, prepares to take aim at another unsuspecting lover of freedom.
Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, and Frontpage Magazine. He is the author of fifteen books, including “Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” His latest, “Death in Philadelphia: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest” was released in May 2023.