Marion: I think the last time I seen ya with that picture, um, I was upstate at SCI Muncey for like three years, and I got out and I started using right away but then, um, I found out I was pregnant so they put me right on the clinic, and then I stayed sober for probably about another, bout, 18, 19 months, and then I relapsed, um, not this November that just passed but around the November before that, so maybe like, uh, 2000 and, yea, so I, it’s been a year. It’s been…it’s been a little over a year, and um…
JS: How long have you been on the Avenue?
Marion: Off and on for, about, 13 years.
JS: Can you tell me a little bit about how you got started?
Marion: I went into rehab, for, like, snorting cocaine, taking oxies, perks, and I met people that did dope and smoked crack, and, you know, like, one thing led to another, and I was just, I was, I wanted to try it, and I did. But, you know, I sniffed dope; I didn’t shoot it at the time, but it only took a few months before, you know, I started shooting it. But, yea, a guy had introduced me to it, and um, I did dope for a couple months and then I started, you know, smoking crack and then that led into shooting coke, and its like one thing led to another and it just progressed. And then, I, um, I was born and raised around here, so I already knew about Kensington Avenue.
JS: What did you know about it?
Marion: Well I know the prostitution, stuff like that. You know, I, I’ve known about that since I was young. But I was never exposed to it. I grew up down Fishtown. I never came over this side until I started getting high. And then, you know, once you started prostituting and you figure out how quick you get that money, that was it. It’s been a struggle ever since.
JS: So the last time I talked to you, you said you were working on getting clean.
Marion: Ummm… I mean, I, I’ve been taking Suboxone. I got, I finally detoxed. I went down the Poconos on, um, over Christmas vacation, but um, like I used a couple times but it’s just not worth it. So, you know, like I, I used the other day, and it’s just, it’s not worth it. But, you know, I still get high; I still smoke rock, I smoke weed. You know. I gotta try to stop it all.
JS: Do you see, do you think that you’ll ever wind up stopping, or do you think that it’s just something that’s gonna continue?
Marion: Definitely have potential. I just have to put everything down. Everything.
JS: Do you think you could put everything down still living in Philly, still living in this neighborhood?
Marion: Oh yea, yea. Definitely. I mean, relocating is good, you know, especially in beginning, but it doesn’t have to be. I know people that have like 20 some years sober that run recovery houses in the same building that they used to shoot meth 20 years prior. Like, they’re… it might be easier if you relocate, you know, but it really don’t matter. You can put me in Egypt and if I want to get high, I’ll find it. You know what I mean. I’ve all, I’ve already done it. Going down the shore, Atlantic City, you know, I don’t, I don’t know anybody down there, but I found it. It’s not hard to find. You know. It’s up to the person.
JS: It’s up to the person to find a way to get over it.
Marion: Yea. It’s up, it’s up to you. If you wanna get clean, you’re gonna go clean. You know, there’s like, no half ass. There’s no smoking weed but putting down dope. There’s no smoking rock but then putting down dope. It all ties together. You have to put it all down.
JS: Why is it that you think you don’t want to put it down yet?
Marion: Mmmm, well it’s like with the, with the dope, I, I know I definitely don’t wanna do that. But, it’s… still living this lifestyle no matter what. Like you, you wanna get high. That’s why I need to like do a recovery house, a halfway… I need some structure. Discipline. Cause obviously my way don’t work.
Marion: It’s insane out there. That’s what makes me not wanna do it even more because I’m just tired of being… out there. It’s so dangerous. It’s just getting worse and worse.
JS: So you’re saying it’s really hard out there, but apparently it’s not hard enough to keep people from doing it, right?
Marion: Right. That’s the drugs. No matter what, especially if you’re, you know, a Heroin addict, you always need that fix because it’s physical, so you have to make money. You don’t have a choice. See, the person that does cocaine, that’s not physical. You can you can pick it up and put it down and be fine and wake up the next day. You know, if you do dope, you’re gonna, you’re gonna be sick. I mean, you absolutely have to go out. You have to do some; you have to. You don’t have a choice. So no matter how bad it is, and I mean I had a million things happen to me, and I still went anyway. You know, I still went anyway. It didn’t matter.
JS: Do you have family in Philadelphia?
Marion: Everywhere. They’re like blocks away. I have family in Fishtown, Port Richmond, Kensington, yea.
JS: What has your family’s involvement been with, with uh, any of the choices you’ve made in your life?
Marion: It hasn’t been all that positive.
JS: Are they still there? Are you still speaking with them?
Marion: I… I spoke to my sister a couple weeks ago. You know, they’re okay. They’re back and forth. You know. I have, I have two kids. I have a 15 year old daughter and a 17 month old son.
JS: Do you see them?
Marion: I haven’t, no.
Marion: Because I need to be completely clean before I go back into their lives. You know what I mean? That’s one thing– both my kids never seen me high. Never. Never. And I don’t want them to. I also don’t want to confuse them or hurt them more than they’re already hurt.
JS: So you’ve made a conscious decision to sorta keep yourself separate from them for the time being.
JS: And you said 17 months. So, that was not too long ago. Were you working on the Ave then?
Marion: No, no. I was sober and on Suboxone for a while, and, uh, then uh, my mom had passed away. Oh, wait, no; that’s when I relapsed. Um, I was on the Suboxone running a recovery house; two recovery houses actually, and I relapsed. I was getting high for a while, then I found out I was pregnant. That’s when they put me; I went to Jefferson hospital, and they put me on Methodone right away cause you can’t go through withdrawal. They put me on family center clinic and I went into My Sister’s Place, its called. MSP; its like a mother and children program. Awesome program; best program I was ever in. And I was in there for my whole pregnancy. I had my son there and everything. Then I got out, and uh, my mom passed away while I was still there, and I didn’t relapse right away till about three months after she had, she died. That’s when it kinda hit me. That’s when I relapsed. So I’ve been back out here for over a straight year, over a year, straight.
JS: Has the lack of other employment opportunities influenced any of your decisions in a way, like have you had a hard time trying to make money in other ways?
Marion: No, no I mean I’ve never had a problem getting a job. Like, I mean, I’ve, I’ve worked, when I was younger, I used to work for lawyers downtown, um, doing like secretary work, stuff like that. My, my grades in school, I graduated from Hallahan downtown in Center City, um, waitressing jobs, catering jobs, um, I mean, I used to make like $20 an hour. I used to make like really good money. But, when you’re getting high, it just, it can’t work. Not a normal job. You know, all responsibility just goes, pshhh, right out the window.
JS: Can you start over.
Marion: Okay, cause this is so true. It says, If I’ve learned anything throughout my addiction it’s that a dope fiend will take your things and then tell you about it. A crackhead will take your stuff and help you look for it. Kensington is like the land of the lost. Once you get in you’ll never get out. Some people are lucky and do recover. I believe that could be me if I want it. I’m gonna put ‘if I want it.’ And, this, too, shall pass. It took me long enough but I finally believe that. I wish I would have listened to the program, AA, cause I choose AA, years ago but I didn’t, now I’m 34 and still struggling. That is so true. That took me years to learn that, that a dope fiend will take your stuff and then tell you about it once they get well, you know but a crack head will take your stuff and help you look for it. Very sad but true.
I met Edward Merchel III while photographing on the abandoned Lehigh Viaduct, also know as “the tracks”. This is a place where addicts retreat from the street in order to shoot up without fear of getting busted. A few weeks later I was on the corner of Kensington and Somerset, sharing new prints with people I potentially wanted to photograph and I met Robert.
Robert: He died, uh, July 25th they found him at the gas station on uh, at the Sunoco station. I’m not lying to you.
JS: I believe you.
Robert: Uh, my brother Eddie, that’s him…that’s my brother Eddie.
JS: Were you close with Eddie?
Robert: Yeah, he was my only brother.
JS: Were you helping him at all dealing with his addiction?
Robert: Yeah. Yeah.
JS: He was on it for a while, right?
Robert: Since he was 12. Wow, do you have one where you can see his face real good?
JS: I do, the boy took it. Here it is, right here.
Robert: Can I have that, that’s my brother.
Passerby: I know it is but I really like it.
JS: I’ll give you another one.
Passerby: E-mail it to me. E-mail it to me.
Robert: My brother, my brother’s dead.
Passerby: I know he is.
JS: I’ll give you another one man.
Passerby: Can you email it to me?
JS: Yeah yeah yeah.
Passerby: I’ll give you my email address, here. (Passing the photo to Robert)
Robert: Ah, man.
Passerby: That’s a good picture, ain’t it?
Robert: Ah man. Thanks.
Passerby: I was gonna hold onto that. I was just with him a month ago. I was just with him.
Robert: He died.
Passerby: I know he did, let me see the other one.
Robert: He was a wall writer.
Passerby: That’s amazing, man.
Robert: His name was pretty boy back in the 70’s.
Robert: …I was on vacation, and uh, I called home and my father said uh they found my brother we used to call him Stachi.
Passerby: Yeah, that was my home boy.
Robert: and uh, they found him on uh 25th, it was a Mon…it was a Tuesday and uh, they took fingerprints and uh, my father’s name’s Eddie, Eddie Merchel his name is, right and uh, my dad’s brother’s a cop but he’s retired so when they got the fingerprints he thought it was his brother and he came down and met my father at, ya know, went to his house and he was like, they found Eddie at the Sunoco station on uh, Frankford and Lehigh. I went there last week and knocked on the window and asked the woman about the guy they found dead, she said I was here that day. I said, How long was he there? She said he was there an hour and 15 minutes.
Passerby: You’d think you could make a documentary about this neighborhood.
Robert: That’s what he is doin’
Passerby: Seriously..know what I’m saying, this is, this is one of a kind, this neighborhood, really…and throughout the United States there’s probably not a neighborhood like this, seriously.
Robert: Sure there is, every city has a neighborhood just like this. Like I been to the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Passerby: I don’t think there is..there’s something, you don’t even..
Robert: No matter where you go, if you meet somebody from wherever and they’ve been to Philly, everybody knows Kensington and Somerset.
Passerby: It’s like the Bermuda triangle down here.
Passerby: Yeah, man it’s hard.
Robert: Once you get in you can’t get out.
Passerby: …and like just cause I don’t use dope but I’m caught up in this too, I’m caught up in this too. Right there, she be up the street. (Refering to a woman in a photograph of mine)
Robert: I know everybody in that. (Refering to my stack of photos)
Passerby: That’s some picture, man. This is something, man. All this but nobody’s sayin, man, people gotta know what goes on right here, man. I’m telling you man, this is something man, people don’t know man. This is, this is…
Robert: This is Hell. This is my brother.
Passerby: What he’d do?
Robert: He’s dead.
Robert: At the gas station on Lehigh, there he is again. He’s dead now, OD’d. What did he sign, pretty boy? That was his wall right writing name back in the day. That’s what we used to do…tag.
Robert: (Reading Edward’s journal entry) My name is Edward Merchel, Edward Merchel the 3rd. I was once known as king of the graffiti, in this world from 1975 to 1978. I was, I was the king, which he was, but now its Feburary the 11th, I am on drugs Heroin, Coke and need to get off these drugs. I mean now.
Drug Dealer: Suboxone!
Danny: You mind talking to me for a sec?
Robert: Well, that, well…
Danny: I gotta talk to you about them pictures.
JS: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ll talk to you in one sec, man.
Robert: Well, that’s enough about me, see all of you later. That’s my brother. Edward Merchel… I’ll write something.
Robert: (Reading his journal entry) Hello Ed this is your brother Robbie, I knew I’d see you again and I did. It was crazy, I was coming down Kensington Ave, I met this guy that took your picture. I was shocked to see you but I knew where to find you. It made my whole day, its August 25th 2011, you’ve been gone one month to the day. It’s really crazy but I knew I’d see you again. I hope your with Mom, Nana and Jamie I miss you a whole…I miss you a whole lot, and everybody you know down here misses you too. Say hello to Mom, Nana and Jamie for me, come see me in my dreams. I’ll be waiting for you, love your brother Robbie. Aka Bolo NP with PB #1. Take it easy Ed.