Follow Up: Debbie McConnell

by Jeffrey Stockbridge

Debbie McConnell, at her mother’s home in Staunton, Virginia, 2017.

Edited Audio Transcript

Debbie McConnell: So, this is from my first Christmas home.

Jeffrey Stockbridge: So this is a wall of photos here of your family?

DM: Yeah, this is my brothers and sisters. And as you’ll notice, I’m not in any of them because I wasn’t here. 2014 I got out. I’ve been out since 2014. June 16th I got out.

My name is Debbie McConnell, and I am living in Staunton, Virginia now and I have 7 years clean.

I don’t remember exactly what I clicked on online to find, you know, the Kensington Blues page, but I saw something and I said let me click on this. I remembered a guy taking pictures down there.

I remember writing in a journal, but I don’t see my journal entry. But I remember writing something. So, I was like let me look through this and see what it’s about. So, I watched a little short video of the documentary and then I was like, you know, I know all the people on it. And so I went clicking down all the things and I found the archives. So, I just started going through every single person and when I clicked on Justine I was like, that’s me, haha. But my name is not Justine, I guess I said it was, but I was just like wow, that is so crazy.

I didn’t email you right away, I guess it had been like a month before and then I figured well, let me see if there is a way to get in contact with him because I thought well, there is not a lot of the good stories coming out of some of the people, because I know a lot of them have passed away and um, so I said I thought it would be neat to at least have some good, you know, following that… Um… You know, the one girl Corrine had just passed away in a terrible way, I don’t know if you had heard about that but she’s in there and her journal is and um she was a good friend of mine for many, many years. We were in jail together, we were on the street together. We fought each other, I mean it was- we, we had been through hell and back, so that was sad to see.

JS: It must be pretty crazy um, you know having been there on the avenue been close with a lot of people on the avenue who didn’t make it, but you made it. Why do you think you made it?

DM: Only because I’m not there no more, because I feel like if I ever went back I am sure it would be the death of me. I remember just sitting there thinking I can’t do this anymore. I can’t, I just can’t do it. I’ve been raped like four or five times, I only got beat up once, thank God. I don’t think you have Marlo in the book. Is she in the book? Do you know who Marlo is? Ok, I didn’t see her on there. But I remember when she got beat bad, by I think it was the Kensington Strangler, and like they found her, with her face out to here, just in a bra walking down the street. And she didn’t get clean and, you know, you always think, whats the bad thing that’s going to happen to make you do this?

Debbie McConnell, Kensington Ave, 2009.Journal Entry by Debbie McConnell, 2009.

Well, anyway, I got locked back up. The cops came there for an unrelated thing, they ran my name- I had been wanted here, in Virginia, since 2006. So, this was December 1, 2010, they extradited me out here. I did three and a half years and in that time I just, uh, my sister passed away. Um, she’s on the wall over there. She’s up there with graduation thing. She, she passed away and I hadn’t talked to her in like five or six years. And, um, I hadn’t talked to my family, none of them, except my littlest sister, and they showed up at the jail to tell me that my sister had died.

Then they never stopped coming, my mom kept coming, and kept coming and said like life’s too short, and I just realized… that it is and I don’t want to ever go that much time without my family or die that way. And not have talked to them and… then I have nieces and nephews now I have kids, I have six kids, but I have my one daughter that I talk to all the time. And you know my dad use to come up there and be like, ‘I am going to drop her off up here with you if that will get you straight… and, um, but I love my, I love my, my family you know… That’s the biggest thing. I don’t want to lose my family again. It’s just so important, um, it’s just me and my mom. I feel that my mom needs me. And I need her. And so, I just said I wasn’t gonna go back. And I did go back, to visit, I took the train two years ago for my birthday because I wanted to see my daughter. And I got down there, and I got in a fight with my dad, and he hit me. And he put me out on the street and I wasn’t Philly, we were in a suburb, in Montgomery County. And he was like ‘Oh your just picking a fight, you want your friends to come pick you up because you want to go back down to the Ave.’ I had no such intention, I wasn’t even thinking about the Ave. But I didn’t, I just caught the next train home and just came home.

It was just something in jail. While I was just sitting there, I just thought to myself that it was it for me, like you know, just, nothing great happened, you know, it wasn’t a grand realization or anything, I just thought about it and thought about it and just, it just kinda went away for me, the desire to live that life because I, I just, just, it just went away. Thankfully, because I never thought it would.

Debbie McConnell, Kensington Ave, 2009

Debbie McConnell, shooting up in an abandoned house, 2009.

And you know, it’s funny because when I first started getting high, the girls would say, all the girls in Bucks County jail were always like, ‘you’re a wannabe addict. You, you want, you know- you’re not really an addict’. Like, I don’t know why, they thought I just wanted to be that person for some reason. I just was. But, I came from a good family, and a good neighborhood. I didn’t live in Kensington, I lived in Bucks County. And it was just a boyfriend and his sister, and um, that’s just how I got started. And just ended up down there, because that’s what she did. So, I was just, like, I’m just going to go down there, and I just went down there one day and I just never left, I got stuck. And that was from 2001 to basically 2010. Now, I’ve been in the jail more than I been on the street. I have 95 charges on my record. So, that’s my biggest struggle now, is, you don’t realize what you’re doing to your life. Whenever the day comes that you decide you don’t want to do that anymore. You create a lot of hardship for when you are trying to get right. Like, as far as jobs, and gettin’, gettin’ somewhere in life, you know. I’ve had jobs, you know, I’ve been out three years and I’ve been working. But I haven’t been able to get into a decent job that pays decent because of my record, and Virginia can go back your whole record, so it looks really bad, I have 95 charges.

It was a struggle getting out, but I didn’t think about getting high. I mean, I have days now, today, where I think about it but the good outweighs the bad. You know I can’t, I never want… I can’t even picture being on Kensington Ave. That weekend, when I was there, after I had been locked up for a year, when I went out there, and I am pretty sure that picture is from that weekend, and I remember saying I can’t do this, I just cant. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I can’t even imagine what it would be like today to be out there.

And I had a picture of myself… I had sold my hair. My hair was down to here. I had sold it and it was up to here, and I looked horrible. I was skinny, and just, I didn’t look right. The days that I had bad days, I would look at that picture. I showed it to mom, she starts crying. She’s like, ‘Oh my God’, because she had been down to Kensington a million times looking for me and trying to get me to come home. And I would never go.

JS: You say the good outweighs the bad… What’s the good?

DM: Just my family. Just I know that if I ever got high again I would never be able to see my niece and nephew again. I don’t think my mom would stand by me again through another, you know, prison sentence, or whatever. I’ve never, I’ve been on probation since 2001. I still have two more years, I’ve never given a dirty urine, I’ve held a job, and I mean that’s, that’s something to me- Thats a big accomplishment for me because I haven’t accomplished anything… So… And so I’ve been a cab driver for a year, so I’ve talked to a lot of people, and there are drugs here too. And most of the people that I know are on drugs, the big drug out here is Meth. I’ve tried it before, years ago and I don’t like it. Um, and I try to help them, like I try to tell them, they have no clue though, it’s not the same here, they’re…they don’t have… they have no idea. When I tell them some stories, they think I am talking about a movie or something, they can’t even comprehend that that was real life.

My mom tells me I am too open with people, but I feel like, if I go and apply for a job or something, and if I tell them about who I am or who I was, and how far I’ve come along, changed to be who I am now, that you know… some people can look past the record part of it and, and give me a chance because, I’m a hard worker, I don’t miss work, I can’t afford to, I need money. You know, you need money to live, so.

JS: So you think that like physically removing yourself from Kensington was an absolute necessity?

DS: It’s a big part of it. It doesn’t matter where you go, there is heroin here, people are dropping like flies here because of the fentanyl in the heroin, which I know it’s bigger in Philly, but it’s just, it’s just not worth it. It’s just not worth it to me. To just loose… I mean, I’ve come so far- Everything I have in my room I, I worked for. All the clothes I wear, my perfumes, my jewelry, I bought that stuff. You know, so to own things that you actually pay for, you know, I can’t imagine how much money I made in Kensington, but I had nothing to show for it. And I got lucky- I have no tracks, if I don’t tell somebody that I was a drug addict they would never know. But… I looked like hell, haha, you know, I looked like hell and when I show people pictures they’re like ‘that’s not you.’ I’m like, that was me.

JS: I think it’s awesome that you… You’re not trying to hide from your past and that you offer that information to people, as well. That you tell them about your past to try to you know let them know who you are, and that you, in spite of your past, you’re still a good person. Can you talk a little bit about that?

DM: Well yeah, even like when it comes to dating, like I’ve been single forever. But like, I try to date, but every time… I never meet, or I’ll meet a nice guy, but I have, I have too much for him. You know, they, they don’t, they’re like, they’re running because they’re like, holy shit, you know, hahah. But….You know, that’s not me anymore. I don’t live that life, you know, but when you tell people sometimes, they’re like, if you say you were a prostitute or you shot up drugs you know, automatically they assume you have diseases and all kinds of things, and so, um, I think I sometimes, I’m maybe too forthcoming with information. But that was my life, for a really… ten years. You know, ten years is a long time, So I don’t, I still, to this day, don’t know what I like to do for fun without being high, because I was always high.

But I feel like I’m a better person because of what I lived through and, like, I know a lot of things that I can teach others. Like, that’s what I initially asked probation, if I could go to like the juvenile detention center and talk to those people that are just thinking about getting involved in drugs. I mean, I know they’ll never  be as bad as what that is down there in Kensington, but, you know, if it could help them just a little bit, to deter them, like, oh my God, I would never want to go through things like that, you know, …. (Phone rings) Let me just get that real quick.

DM: Hello. Hey, what’s up? What are you doing? Ok. Ok. Love you. Love you, bye.

JS: Was that your mom?

DM: Yeah. She just got finished getting her hair done. I need to go buy a shirt, cause I do start a waitressing job tomorrow, which I’ve never done, and the manager knows me from eating there and complaining about, haha, the drinks. So, he said, ‘You have to be nice to people Debbie.’ That’s another thing, it is very different here, people don’t get me here. I am very obnoxious to them because I’m just blunt, say it, whatever. They don’t do that here. So, they look at me like I’m kinda mean or rude, but I don’t mean it to be that’s just what I’m used to, that’s just how people are in the city, they’re not like that here. So, I kinda stick out.

Laura Talbert, Debbie’s mom, at home in Staunton, Virginia, 2017.

Edited Audio Transcript

Laura Talbert: My name is Laura, I am Debbie’s mom. Um, Debbie and I have had some issues, um, since she was young, quite young. Um, you know, it started out with a little bit of legal trouble here and there, um sadly it turned in to her addiction. Um, as a mom, it’s very hard, very hard, to watch your child go through this. Um, I have been to Kensington, I have walked the streets, I have begged her to come with me, back home. Um, made sure she had shoes on her feet, um there are times I went down there and she wouldn’t, she just wouldn’t leave, and you know she was of age, I couldn’t make her do it but made sure she had food and clothes or shoes, whatever she might need. And you know, my heart breaks. My heart now, even thinking about, um, those days because for her not to come home, and there were a couple times you know, I’m gonna be totally straight up and honest, that I have gave her money for drugs to get her in my car, to get her to my home, and out of Kensington. And, she did that and that very next day- If she was in jail I knew she was safe. Three meals a day, she wasn’t on drugs. So, as a mom, I had to make that decision. What do you do? She’s not gonna come with you and it’s only gonna get worse, and how long can you watch your child go through this, and I made the conscious decision as a mom, to buy the drugs for her, to get her… Trick her, actually is what I did, and made sure that she ate and what have you, and slept and… but the next day I called the police and you know turned her in, and I knew, I knew she was safe then. And she hated me, she hated me, there were years went by- we didn’t talk. Um… the death of her sister- She was in prison, I had to go there and tell her, you know, her sister had passed away.

This last time in jail I told her this is it. You know. I made sure she had what she needed while she was in there, um, she at least had food, could make phone calls, what have you, but the day she got out of jail I told her, ‘The next time you go back to jail, we are back on that tough love train, because if you are helping yourself, I’m your mom and I will help you.’ But I’ve seen so much heartache and so much tragedy, and she has seen it now herself, because so many of the people that you have interviewed or even talked to, have died, or when the strangler was down there, that was like, to be the mom of… and you know…and I will tell you one thing that I asked her to do- Please tattoo my phone number on your body. That is how, how worried I was, how concerned, because if I thought I was going to burry a child I really thought it was going to be her. And I didn’t want her to be one of those people, in Kensington that they found and couldn’t get a hold of family or what have you. So I did, I begged her.

Now, I couldn’t be prouder of her. Um, she’s worked very hard, very, very hard these past two years.

That’s where we’re at, we’re just, you know, buddies at this point. We’re just two fish in a fish bowl but you know… We lean on each other and we yell at each other, and we laugh with each other, um, but she looks great. She’s doing great. Um, I just, I’m really, very proud of her. Even though I figure she’s my one child that’s never gonna leave home… So, everything I do is, my thoughts are in twos, which is fine. She’ll find her way at some point, but you know it doesn’t matter how old you get, um, your mom’s your mom.

Debbie and Laura, 2017.