With huge tax breaks, Camden has lured several companies to this wrecked city, so a small chunk of downtown is getting spruced up. Shirtless or in wifebeaters, tattooed junkies still lurk around the Walter Rand Transportation Center, but the Third-World clothing stands have been shooed from the shadow of City Hall. Crown Chicken has moved into a less squalid space, and Dunkin’ Donuts has gotten a facelift. A yuppyish-looking bar has opened on Martin Luther King.
Much of Camden is still a menacing disaster, however. Shop signs cue you in to where you are: “See an overdose? Call 911 immediately!” “REWARD $12,000 For information leading to the arrest and conviction in the shooting of an 8-year-old girl.” “Demeal Rudoph Has been missing Since monday 8-1-16. Age 15.” “DO NOT ENTER WITH MASK OR HOOD. IF SO YOU ARE NOW TRESPASSING.”
It’s not all bad. In Off Broadway Lounge, old heads can chill and bitch about politics, inept pitching, manipulative lovers and ungrateful children. “She ain’t never gave me a present! Ain’t never gave me a card! Ain’t called me on Father’s Day! My daughter don’t even know when my birthday is. The only time I hear from her is when she’s in trouble. ‘Dad, I need a thousand dollars!’”
It’s frighteningly bad. On July 26th, the Courier Post reported, “The city’s homicide toll more than doubled in the first half of 2016 [...] Camden residents also saw an increase in rapes, assaults and motor vehicle thefts during the first six months of 2016.” Remember, this is a city that, year in and year out, ranks among the top two or three in the entire nation for murders and rapes, and it has only gotten worse. Don’t let a few new buildings downtown fool you.
In trash strewn alleys, junkies shoot up all day long. By night, three dozen strung-out whores trawl downtown. In this mostly black city, most of these ladies are white. When I first met Amanda in May of 2015, she was ragged yet cheerful. Showing me stab wounds on her wrinkled belly, the 29-year-old skinny blonde laughed.
In March of 2016, I searched for Amanda after not having seen her for six months. Expecting a total wreck, I was cheered to find Amanda looking better and happier.
“You like my makeup, baby? I put on some eyeliner!”
Declaring she’s off heroin, Amanda showed me her arms. I also admired her new work boots, “You can kick people in the balls with those!”
“Yes, I will!”
Tricking on these nastiest of streets, Amanda had been raped, assaulted and jailed, but it looked like she might have turned a corner. Heroin, though, doesn’t let go like that. In 2014, 10,574 Americans died from heroin overdoses, a five-fold increase from just a decade earlier.
Last Monday, I checked on Amanda again. I had never seen her so foul and distressed. She was relieved to see me. I was shocked.
I’m from Brownville, NJ. My mom was a nurse. My dad was an electrician.
Of course, I was good in school. Yup! Hey, baby!
I got married at 16. Yes, of course I got married. I didn’t have kids out of wedlock. I’m old-fashioned. I was raised on a farm.
My husband was 8 years older than me. He was my brother’s friend. He was nice until we got married, then he started to beat me. He was a roofer.
When I was 19, I wanted to join the Army and become a field doctor. I scored 92 on my ASVAB. That’s the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test. I missed by one question a perfect score.
Two days later, I found out I was pregnant with my first son, Noah. You can’t be pregnant and in the Marines. I became a nurse instead. I was a nurse for eight years, and I was a good nurse too.
My second son is dead. Christopher was only four-year-old when he died of leukemia at Children’s Hospital in Camden. I had never even been to Camden.
An intern nurse had injected him with an antibiotic to which he was allergic.
I’d start singing, and Christopher would make up his own words to it. And Noah, my older son, I’d read him a story, right. Ha, ha! He’d say, “Give me the book, mommy, and I’ll read to you and Sugar,” because he called the baby “Sugar,” and he’d fuckin’, he’d open the book to the middle and start reading it, his own fuckin’ version. Ha, ha!
The story was Velveteen Rabbit.
My little brother is a heroin addict. He introduced me to it. My own family. Yes, indeed. He’s in Bayside Prison. Ha, ha! Four years.
My older brother is with his wife and his daughter. Yup! They don’t like me. I’m a junkie.
No one will help me. I’m a loser. No one will help me get out of here. I’m going to die.
Noah lives with my mom. She just had a heart attack. My mom also has cancer. Pancreatic. I talked to her four days ago. She’s poor. I have an aunt in TomsRiver, but she has no money either.
Last night, I was covered with ants. They were everywhere, biting. One crawled into my ear.
I don’t feel good, at all. I’m dope sick. I had no tricks today.
Mommy! Where’s my mommy? I want to be with my mommy!
I’m dope sick, sweetheart. I’m sorry. I didn’t make any money today. At all.
Dope! Dope! Now!
Urgh, urgh, urgh!
Please help me, God. Please help me, God.
You don’t understand. I’m going to drop dead!
My life is in the toilet. My whole life is in the toilet! It’s not fair! I don’t understand why? I used to be so strong.
Why did my fuckin’ brother get me to do it then?
I didn’t even like to do drugs. My whole life, I did not do no drugs.
I can’t use my son as an excuse. It’s my own fault. He would never have wanted me to get high.
He’s my boobie bear. He’s my baby.
I know I’m not the same person. I apologize, Sir. I love you.
There are two places out here that can get you clean. There’s the UrbanTreatmentCenter at 8th and Market, and there’s Project Hope.
But there’s a waiting list, honey. You can’t just walk in when you want to. It don’t work like that. There are, like, 500 people ahead of me. I’ve been calling every single day. I’ve been calling, like, a month straight. Ha, ha!
This Thursday, I have an appointment. Oh, fuckin’ hell yeah! I’m definitely going. I have no choice.
Hey, baby! Hey, baby! I love those cops. They’re Alvarez and Martin.
I said, “I’ll climb all over your ass!” They said, “Not today, Amanda. Behave!” Ha, ha!
They could tell that I was dope sick. They said, “You want me to call an ambulance?”
I said, “Why? Are they going to give me heroin at the hospital?”
They said, “Go on and be safe!” They don’t give a fuck.
One day, I was shooting up, right? I was in an alley, and Martin walked around the corner. He said, “Amanda! Really? Fuckin’ really?!”
I said, “Listen, buddy, you know how long it took for me to get this shit? You know how many dicks I had to suck?!”
“Please, Amanda, can’t you go hide a little bit?”
“I’m going to wrestle your fuckin’ ass. You’re not taking my fuckin’ shit!”
I told him I had to suck five dicks, but I had to suck just one! Ha, ha!
I come out of an alleyway. I’m all hot. I say, “I just got gang banged by five monkeys!” Ha, ha, ha!
The cops say, “Ewww! You dirty girl!”
I joke with them every day. They’re my family.
Alvarez and Martin say, “You’re our favorite hooker, Amanda.” That’s what they tell me every day. Ha, ha!
I get $20 for head, $40 for fucking.
Sometimes, I only charge $10 for a quick bendover. You’ve only got five minutes. Go!
Some guys don’t even last five minutes. Ha, ha! Especially when I get them all worked up. Blrrrrr! Blrrrr! Blrrrr!
Sometimes, I get a lot more than that. I’ve made a thousand in a day.
Once, I got $800. I copped some junk for him, and he got so high, he fuckin’ fell asleep. When I woke up, he was gone, but there was $800 in an envelope, plus a rose and a letter.
What a homo, right? What’s this fag shit?! Ha, ha!
I have about 10 regulars. They’re old guys in their 60’s and 70’s. They’re all white. Their wives are dead, baby. They can’t get it up anymore. Nothing wrong with that. Sometimes I even stay overnight at a guy’s house. Usually, we go to a hotel. They don’t want the neighbors to see. Some of them live far away, too.
You want to hear a fucked up story? The other night, this big dude was really grinding on me. He wouldn’t fuckin’ get off me! He was really hurting me, like really hurting me! He couldn’t come, so he only gave me two ones. That’s pretty funny, right?
I’m not going to see that nigger again.
Hobobo, works! Who got works? Hey, you faggot! Who’s my boy? You got works?! Works?! Works?! Works?!
Boobah, boobah, boobah!
Motherfucker! Cocksucker! How are you, baby?
Hello, hello! Boop, boop! Oh, oh, oh!
My fuckin’ feet hurt, lover! Mother, motherfucker! I’m going to shoot another! Undercover!
Dokey, pokey! I finally got down to where I wanted it. Oh yeah, oh yeah!
Oh yeah, here we go again, my fuckin’ fucked up friend, I’d do it all again!
Boobah! Look at you, love. How’s my baby?
The doper man takes it up on Dreary Lane. Ha, ha!
Do you know the nothing man, nothing man, nothing man? Do you know the nothing man that lives on Dreary Lane?
Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, Postcards from the End of America.