Kensington, Philadelphia – With not much on the agenda today I thought I might make cookies, but I instead put on my Sunday best and headed north to the badlands where a man dubbed the Kensington Strangler has murdered two, but maybe upwards of four woman in recent months and has choked and raped just as many.
Several people, including myself, disembarked the el at the Somerset Station. Slow walkers they all were and it seemed like an eternity passed before the line traversed the narrow berth to the stairwell leading down to the street. Through the chainlink fence, I spied block after block of vacant buildings with shattered windows, and trash-strewn streets. The Center City skyscrapers peeked above the distant horizon an entire world away.
The line fell out of formation once we reached the stairs. Awaiting us at the bottom was a group of five or six older guys who were something of a neighborhood welcoming committee, offering liquid-filled syringes to my fellow passengers, some of whom were all too eager to do business with these needle merchants. As I approached, a meaty-faced black guy with open sores around his mouth held out his hand. He did this without looking at me, but rather scanning the mad throngs that peopled Kensington Avenue, presumably watching for the law. But something about me grabbed his attention, because he did a double-take and faster than I’ve seen anyone move, he shoved the syringes back in his coat pocket and goes, “Damn, them some shiny shoes.”
Indeed they were. Nice shiny black shoes I purchased yesterday, complemented by a pair of Levi’s Silver Tab Jeans, a black peacoat, gray cashmere scarf and gold aviator sunglasses, which I sported despite the day’s grayness. (My eyes with age have become incredibly light sensitive.) Normally I look like scumbag, but I figured with the police and media attention serial rape and murder brings to a neighborhood, no one was going to fuck with a well-dressed, mean-faced white man in shiny new shoes.
Around noon, Kensington was a hive of activity. Mothers pushed their kids in strollers along the avenue, oblivious to the open drug traffic and whores standing at attention with every creeping car. The el tracks, which run parallel with the avenue, rest on arch-shaped supports straddling the street and sitting just below the rooftops, giving day the gradient of night. Stepping onto Kensington Avenue is like venturing into a modern Heart of Darkness. Large groups of teenagers loitered about, but instead of eating hippo meat they smoked blunts. Despite all the media hoopla about police crackdowns, there wasn’t a cop in sight. I was petrified, certain that at any moment I would get jumped.
There is only a cunt hair’s difference between instinct and impulse, courage and crazy, daring and dumb. If my beating heart attested to anything at that moment it was that I should’ve made haste and gotten the hell out of there. But I was already there and at times I’m impulsive, crazy and dumb combined, which has always been my problem in life. And this was one of those times. So rather than flee, I opted to take a nice scenic stroll along Kensington Avenue in my Sunday best and a $600 camera and $300 in lenses and accessories draped over my shoulder.
After a couple of blocks I swung a right, and then another onto Ruth Street, where a 21-year-old nursing student was found strangled on Nov. 3. She was the first murder attributed to the Kensington Strangler, a young black or latino male who has terrorized the area for several weeks now. A third strangulation murder occured last week, but hasn’t been linked definitively to the first two. Last week, police released a video of who they believe is that man. An FBI profiler believes the killer lives in the area, perhaps with an older relative since he chooses not to bring his victims home.
Unable to find the memorial indicating where the first victim was found, I asked a woman walking with her three kids if she knew. Tiffany, 21, told me it was near the church at the end of the street. “We’re going to the church now to pray for the neighborhood,” she said. As we walked, I asked if the murders have shaken her, considering the area’s epidemic of more ordinary violence.
“Baby, you know it,” she said. “There’s a lot of dark places to hide around here, so I ain’t even trying to be out at night.”
When we reached the end of the street, Tiffany confessed she wasn’t exactly sure where the nursing student’s body was found, except that “it’s somewhere around here.”
As Tiffany marshaled her kids into church, I found myself back at the el station. I see the syringe merchant. He began walking toward me, but when I begin to ask him about the lot, he rudely blows me off. I turned around and watched him engage in some deal with another man. Moments later, as I was walking away, he hollers for me. “Yo! Jack! Can I help you wit something brother?”
I tell him I’m looking for the vacant lot where the body was found.
“Which body?” he asks. “Niggas drop like flies around here, Jack, know what I’m sayin?”
“The girl who was strangled.”
“Oh, her,” he says, his mood becoming dour. “Why, that’s down there. You’ll see a white truck. They found her right there in those weeds.”
I thank him.
He asks for a dollar, but all I had was a twenty. I brought a twenty only because people say around here that robbers are more liable to pop you if you have nothing to give them. I guess a little change assuages the pain of a wasted effort. But in that instant, I had a brilliant idea. “How about this,” I tell the man, “I’ll give you twenty dollars if you show me around the neighborhood.”
He laughed a rich melodious laugh. “What’chu wanna see, Jack? Ain’t too many tourists visit Kensington.”
“Show me the lot.”
Really, I was just scared and didn’t want to walk around alone.
After consulting with others on the welcoming committee, he returns and he leads me down Ruth Street toward the lot where Elaine Goldberg was raped and strangled. His name is Simi. He doesn’t ask me mine, content with calling me Jack, which I can’t help but think is some kind of pejorative for whitey. Simi explains the body of another man was found in this same lot a week before Goldberg’s, though drugs rather than foul play were suspected in his death. Simi explained that the three-acre parcel is where the whores bring their tricks.
He warned me to avoid the car tires scattered about, explaining the homeless defecate in them.
When we arrived I realized why I hadn’t seen it on my first pass. I was looking for a memorial – teddy bears, balloons, pictures, candles – but there was nothing but yellow police tape tied to the tall grass and whipping in the wind. The landscape was a mosaic of old car tires, neck-high weeds and discarded syringes, which Simi called “helpers.”
“Don’t step on’em,” he warned. “Muhfuckas’ll bite right through dem shiny shoes.”
I pulled out my camera to take some quick pictures.
“How much that camera cost?” Simi asked, with the slightest hint of menace in his voice. Or maybe I was just a tad jumpy.
“Too much,” I replied, beginning to question his intentions. It then occurred to me how isolated we were, that that is why the Kensington Strangler chose this spot. Even the high beams of a passing squad car in the dead of night wouldn’t have seen him straddling his victim, his powerful hands squeezing the life right out of her.
The surrounding buildings were crumbling and lifeless and I spied a pack of teenagers approaching from several blocks down. By this time, about 20 minutes had passed since Simi agreed to be my tour guide. In that time he had become fidgety and restless. Dope sickness was creeping in. “Yo Jack, lemme get that Jackson.”
My thoughts turned to the slew of police that were supposedly canvassing the area. The deputy commissioner told the Inquirer there were so many patrols now assigned to the area that undercover narcotics officers were getting pulled over for suspicious behavior. How would it look should one spy me handing Simi $20 right there in the open, at a murder scene and brothel spot. But I had no other choice but to reach in my pocket. As I paid him, I asked if he was going to go get well.
Presumptuously, he informed, “You gonna need more of them Jacksons if you wanna taste.”
I laughed nervously.
“Nah, I was wondering if I could take pictures of… you know,” and pantomimed spiking a vein.
His eyes narrowed in what I thought might be offense and anger, but to my surprise – and great relief – he began laughing uproariously, sweet and melodious. “Nigga, you crazy. Hell naw,” he yelped. “We done. Last thing I need is my nana seeing my pretty face in some newspaper. Hell! Naw!”
So we walked back toward the el station without a word between us. I wanted to ask him about his hustle, how it worked and about his life, but he seemed preoccupied. At some point, Simi had a semi-change of heart regarding my request. “You gimme another Jackson you can take a picture, but not fo’ no newspaper.”
But I didn’t have another Jackson and that was that. Simi met up with the others from the welcoming committee. No good byes or thank yous, be safes or stay in touches. He walked one way with them and I went up the stairs. Then, out of nowhere, I heard him yelling. “Yo! Jack!”
I turned around.
“You gotta catch the westbound across the street,” he hollered. “Over there!”
He then disappeared into Kensington Avenue’s maelstrom.