Authors: Sabrina Vourvoulias
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I am at B Street and Somerset, headed for Zombie City. Or La Boca del Diabloâthe Devil's Mouthâas the Latinos in the surrounding barrio call it.
Neither name shows up on GPS, of course, because maps are pure fantasy. What is real doesn't fit on a grid. And Zombie City/La Boca del Diablo is real.
The zombies, los vivos, the ghosts who live thereâall real. Their hungerâreal.
It's the city's double-named portal to the underworld, and I'm headed there because I have some sympathy for its inhabitants. Because I know hunger. And because it's my beat.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Not the Expected Fictions
The zombies are all white.
They take the subway to Somerset, cross the streets of the barrio, then climb through a hole in the railroad fence and scramble down under the Conrail tracks to get their ten dollar fixes of heroin.
After shooting up, while their minds are swaddled in the wooliest moment of their drug, they pace the railsâwordless, aimless, brains on muteâuntil need turns them back around to do it again.
Los vivos are Latino.
Vivo means aliveâas in the mothers, grandmothers, kids, comais, and compais who live on the streets above la Boca del Diablo. But it also means cunning, as in the drug dealers they are always assumed to be, and sometimes are.
The zombies and los vivos coexist for minutes, hours, and sometimes days together: the dead white ones who pay not to see, and the living brown ones who can't look away.
And around them, flitting in and out of notice, the ghosts. They are black and white and brown, because homelessness may be the only thing in this city that doesn't heed our segregated neighborhood lines.
The ghosts pitch their tents at the edge of Zombie City and string wards and prayers from tarp to tarp. Better than any other resident or visitor, the ghosts know the truth. No moment of peace is guaranteed.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Stay In or Take Out
Yolanda looks up at me, hands spread protectively over the bags of food in the trunk of her car. She always parks it at the same spot on the Richmond bridge above Zombie City.
“Ah, Blanca,” she says. It's not my name, but what she calls me because I take after my father and pass for white. She's Afrolatina, so the Boricuas and Dominicans call her morena. Or, when they want to slur, prieta.
Spanish is so damned regional, even in the city. As a Mexican from South Philly, morena doesn't mean black to me, and prieta is an insult more commonly levied at those of us with indigenous heritage. But I learned as soon as I got to the 24th precinct that I'd better adapt to the older barrio's way.
“Somebody been hassling you, Yoli?” I ask. The ghosts love her because she brings cooked meals for them every other day, but the zombies and dealers can get rough sometimes.
“No, of course not,” she answers, but I see her shoulders relax.
I'm shorter than Yoliâshorter than most women in the United States because my mother is from Chiapas and my tatarabuela was Mamâbut I'm big otherwise and all of it is muscle. Plus, I'm quick with my taser and the 9 mm. People know not to mess with Yoli when I'm around.
“La Isleta gave me some pork and yuca for today's meals,” she says. “And McDonald's pitched in some fries.” Yoli doesn't have much to call her own, but she gets every merchant in the barrio to contribute food for the ghosts.
“It's all still warm. Want some?” she asks. She knows I don't eat while I'm on duty, but she asks the same thing every time we meet, because she's got that gene that equates food with caring.
“Nah,” I say, even though my stomach is swimming with Dunkin' Donuts black and nothing else to soak up its acid. “We got a missing person's report, I'm just here to look for the kid among the zombies.”
Her nose twitches. If it's possible for Yoli to feel disdain for another human beingâand I'm not sure it isâit'd be for the zombies. It's not the drug use (she herself carries old scars from addiction), but the fact that most of them have an open future and decent schooling and still choose to live lit.
Despair Yoli understands, boredom not so much. Those are her words. I know it's not just boredom that drives the zombies, but why argue with her? Yoli is one of the few truly decent people I know, and when I argue I tend to alienate.
“Help me distribute food first,” she says. Her eyes are wide, full of entreaty and the type of pain that makes me want to reconfigure the world.
I raise my eyebrows to let her know I'm on to her. She's got magicâall of us doâand she's apt to use it when she's asking for the ghosts.
She gives a little laugh and lets her eyes slide away from mine. “It is such a pain in the ass that you're resistant to el embrujo,” she says.
“You know I wouldn't be here otherwise,” I say.
Long ago I learned that if you reveal one ugly story people will leave off asking for more. They'll think they've gotten to the core of what makes you who you are. Yoli knows that my resistance to magic was born from an act of violence, but she doesn't know any of the rest. And just as well.
“I'm hearing things from the tents,” Yoli says by way of explanation for her attempted manipulation. “There are new folks in la Boca del Diablo. Almost every ghost I speak to is haunted and in fear and it's not the usual. I could use your help figuring out what's going on.”
“Later,” I say. “I have only a short window of opportunity before the missing kid gets caught up and can no longer leave. But if you need help carrying those bags downâ¦”
She shakes her head. I've put some ten feet of busted-up asphalt between us before she says anything.
Her use of my proper name stops me, spins me around to face her again.
There's a beat, or two, before she says anything. “Are we caught up? Can either of
“We're not in thrall to anything,” I say.
She gives me a smile weighted by doubt.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
To Spell It in Spanish, End at I
I think about Yoli's smile as I climb down the Devil's Mouth, to the heart of Zombie City. A scan of the tracks is all I need: the zombies cluster under the overpass, busy at their table of floored girder, heating powder on aluminum bowls made from can bottoms before shooting the stuff into their necks, because their arms are already shot to shit.
One look isn't enough to tell me whether the teen I'm searching for is in any of the tents that wing out from that central hub under the bridge, but it isn't likely. The ghosts and zombies may share this eight-block stretch of rail bed, but the ghosts are families with children, and they don't let anyone else near their tarps. Only Yoli.
Still, I do a quick check down the alleys between tents, and plod through a carpet of used syringes as I walk the tracks. Nothing catches my attention. Except a needle almost makes it through the thick sole of my shoe, and I'm thankfulâas I am at least once a dayâthat the department requires the clunkiest, heaviest mother of a shoe. I would already have the Hep alphabet flowing through my veins if not.
I meet up with Yoli again as she's hauling her garbage bags full of food down into la Boca and I'm climbing out. “I heard one of the Biblicals mention a new house,” she says when she stops to catch her breath.
The Biblicals are two Boricuas and a CubanâIsmael, Ezequiel, and ZacarÃasâwho started as lowly bagmen in the eighties and are now kings of whatever makes it onto the barrio streets and down to Zombie City/La Boca del Diablo. Even with their tripled magic, the Biblicals aren't top echelon in the Philly drug trade. But they're as close as any Latino has gotten. The fraudulent drug rehabilitation houses they've set up to import the already addicted from the island to the mainland has earned them a steady supply of clients and money.
What can I say? We prey best on our own.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Johnny the Fox
Back up on the streets, there are dozens of people out and about in the commercial hub under the El: PuertorriqueÃ±as and Dominicanas in quilted jackets even though the weather hasn't turned yet; white girls just off the subway and already crossing onto the lying-est place in the barrioâHope Streetâfor party favors to take back to school with them. And, on one of my favorite corners, old men shuffling dominoes on rickety tables in front of the busiest of the old-time bodegas. Their guayaberas are so white they dazzle the eye.
“Eh, Mena,” one of the guayabera clad says to me, overfamiliar as always.
I've got more nicknames than I can keep track of, but Officer VillagrÃ¡n is what I've told this guy he should call me. You've got to demand your respect when most people are twice your size. But Johnny ZafÃ³n is hopeless, and not to be trusted even with a name.
Johnny, el del barrio. Johnny, el Zorro. A charmer, a con man and ex-con. He didn't serve much time, but enough to bear its marks.
“Know anything about a missing kid?” I ask him. “Five-nine or so, just eighteen, buying for his frat?”
“What will you give me for the information, Jimena, Mena, Menita?” he croons.
Of course. Johnny's magic is in his voice. Back in MayagÃ¼ez, his father used to sing the sailboats safely into port. Even I feel the tug of the rich baritone and his repeating words.
“Nada,” I say. “I don't buy or sell.”
For an instant his eyes go sad. “You know you're going to pay sometime.”
“Not today,” I say.
He cocks his head like the fox of his nickname, studies me, then gives me an address. I nod my thanks before turning to go.
“You're going to need backup,” Johnny says.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Partners and Other Troubles
Everyone in the barrio hates my partner, Nasey. I don't blame them. Nasey's the first to tell you he's got a thing for spics, likes to fuck them over in every possible sense of the word.
He tried with me when I started, but after that hellish first day I've added a pinch of one of my mother's mixes into every pot of station-house coffee. Nasey always accepts a cupâhe says after the childhood he had, he doesn't ever turn down a gift or free foodâand as soon as he has a sip, he becomes nauseated in my presence. Gag reflex on overdrive, acid rushing up his throat, stomach cramps. If he steps away from me, it's better.
The nausea makes him amenable to breaking protocols, and he drives the cruiser down the streets of our beat in the 24th while I cross the 26th precinct line to work Zombie City/La Boca. Nasey's got the friendships to make sure the cops at both the 24th and the 26th turn a blind eye to the arrangement. They don't call it blue solidarity for nothing.
Johnny watches me as all this runs through my head (and across my face), then gives me a glum “are you done with me?” look before ducking into the bodega. No doubt to warn wizened little TatÃ¡n OrtÃz that the cops will be all over the neighborhood soon, so he should hide any evidence that he trades food and WIC vouchers for cash payouts (minus his cut). They don't call it barrio solidarity for nothing.