7 February 2008 |
“What time you have?” asks the young man with the mottled, gloomy face.
He doesn’t want to know the time, but I tell him anyway. “Around 11:30.”
He nods and I look at him. We’re standing at Kensington and Somerset. He’d spotted me when I came off the El, watched me cross Somerset Street, and caught up while I waited for the light to change. “Watch out,” he says, assuming I’ve come to buy heroin. “Cops are laying out behind those buildings.”
Across Kensington Avenue, past another set of dealers, the voices are loud and the conversation is animated. “Dude, you got to do it now. Now’s the time. Right now. “
“OK, dude, OK,” comes the reply. “Now’s the time. I’ll do it. Dude, I gotta do it. I’m doing it, I’m going to detox tomorrow.”
This is life at the city’s top drug corner. A half-dozen blocks up, K&A bustles; two El stops south, Norris Square feels Fishtown coming. But here, the most ambitious thing is the rotting Orinoka upholstery mill.
On a January afternoon, it begins to feel like only heroin can pierce the darkness. That’s until I see the sign, a few doors beyond the dealers. “Relax … Play Darts,” it says in a script of another time. This is Widdy Dart Boards, the workshop that supplies serious American dart players. The store wasn’t anachronistic in 1935.
Joe Marafino, an affable man with a round face and pleasant smile, inherited the business from his father-in-law, Charles Wittmeier. Marafino hand-makes the 2,000 wooden dart cabinets Widdy sells each year ($75 each), most of them to customers on the East Coast. Upstairs, his wife makes the darts.
I ask him if business is good. “It gets harder every year,” he answers. But you’re still here, I say hopefully. “Where you gonna go?” he shrugs.
Caridad Delgado, the persuasive owner of Pio Pio, the Cuban restaurant three doors closer to the El, has an answer. “I thought about opening in other places,” she explains, “but there I’ll never own. This is mine.”
I sit at the white tile counter at the front of the restaurant between the wide case of pastries and the espresso machine. Pio Pio is a bright place with peach-colored walls, and framed photos of Cuba. Delgado’s sister Ydalma, who’s just emigrated from Havana, serves me a fried pork chop, rice and beans, the $5 lunch special, so much food I need the espresso just to digest it. While I’m sitting there, their mother arrives, then a few Cuban regulars for café con leche. Soon the front room has filled and the jokes are flying.
Delgado, who immigrated seven years ago, is that kind of duena who is capable of doing several things at once. Her confidence infuses the restaurant. She doesn’t have a lot of Cuban customers, she says (there aren’t many in the city), but overall business is growing. “Give me a couple of years. They’ll find me.”
Here? I wonder.
Though she is critical of certain things, like the city’s needle exchange program, Delgado is careful not to put down the neighborhood. She admits it isn’t safe there, but explains that it’s no better in Cherry Hill, where she lives. “If I can pick [Kensington] up,” she says excitedly, “I will.” I get the feeling that after having started the restaurant, she’s begun to imagine this corner without all the drug dealers milling around.
In the meantime, on Valentine’s Day, Pio Pio will celebrate its first anniversary. Maybe Joe Marafino should put down his tools and come over for guava juice and pastry. But I wonder if after all these years, he can imagine Kensington and Somerset as something besides junkie row. Kensington dreaming, after all, can puncture your heart.