BY JEFF DEENEY Today I saw a long and boxy old black Cadillac parked on Master Street just west of 17th. Master Street is on the south edge of Pill Hill; up the block towards Jefferson Street young pushers were perched on every stoop with pockets full of Oxys, Percs, and Xanies. They watched the passing traffic for white guys from downtown who might be out cruising on their lunch breaks with fat wallets and runny noses, hoping to cop their medication. Every eye in that crowded corridor between Jefferson and Master Street vied for contact with mine, assuming I was there to buy. After being closely watched by the young neighborhood boys who were all waiting for me to pull over, or maybe swing around the block for another slow cruise past the loitering crews, I pulled to a stop at a red light.
There’s a pay phone near the end of the block and a man in a lightweight, acid-washed denim jacket with beige leather sleeves was holding the receiver away from his face, his conversation interrupted by a passerby. He held his hand out, letting the other man who stopped to talk to him take something from it that I couldn’t clearly see. In turn, the other man put a folded up bill in his still outstretched palm. The man on the phone went back to talking and the other man walked off.
That was when I saw the Cadillac — it was in the background as I watched the man walking off with what were probably a couple of pills in a little plastic baggie. I saw a man on a bicycle leaning into the Caddy’s window; the ass end of his bike was sticking out into the middle of the street, blocking my path. When the light turned green I made a right onto Master Street and pulled up to his rear tire. He looked like a rough, white addict and I didn’t want to start drama by laying on the horn, so I gave him a minute to finish his business. There was an elderly black couple inside the car. The old man in the driver’s seat, who was 80 if he was a day, handed the man on the bike a bag like you get at the bodega, made from thin black plastic with a smiley face printed on it. The man on the bike opened the bag and took a quick peek inside; he liked what he saw and reached into his pocket for a knot of cash.
Who would have thought? The neighborhood oldsters were out for an afternoon drive, probably straight from the pharmacist with a sack full of meds for sale. The driver gave a quick tip of the fedora and started to crank his window closed. He wife was sat stern and stony-faced, sitting stock still as her husband steered their big boat of a vehicle out into traffic right in front of me. They turned on to 18th Street, with me behind them. They were driving so slow that the guy on the bike was way out ahead of us. They had a white bumper sticker that said, “Marriage =” in bright red letters next to a pair of stick figures like you find on public bathroom doors, one lady and one gentleman, holding hands.
AFTERWORD: It occurred to me while sitting in detox coming off a 320 mg/day OxyContin habit in January of 2004 that it’s kind of fascinating that North Philadelphia has a specific section dedicated strictly to the distribution of black market pharmaceutical drugs. I honestly hadn’t thought much about it when I was there buying pills because I was usually feeling pretty miserable and also a little nervous about getting stuck up for my money or stopped by the cops. Once I had a chance to reflect it struck me that Pill Hill was a sociologically significant location whose emergence as a major destination for drug abusers citywide mirrored the increasing incidence of prescription drug abuse nationwide. I’ve written about Pill Hill and prescription drug abuse in Philadelphia periodically over the past 3 years. This particular Today I Saw was written while I was working with homeless families; I had returned to Pill Hill to work with a couple local churches who were helping out my clients. As a social worker I’ve had the opportunity to help families in other neighborhoods likeFairhill and West Kensington where I used to score drugs. I feel like I have paid down some sort of cosmic debt in being part of the solution and not the problem. I returned to Pill Hill recently, this time for the Daily Beast, and that story is set to run soon. Keep an eye out for a link to it here on Phawker.