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In Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood, heroin is far from 'chic'

Guillermo A. Santos on his high school graduation day in 2021, with his father, Guillermo Jose Santos. The elder Santos died later the same year of a drug overdose.
The Santos-Honkala Family
Guillermo A. Santos on his high school graduation day in 2021, with his father, Guillermo Jose Santos. The elder Santos died later the same year of a drug overdose.

In 2021, after years of societal neglect and denial around the issue, the number of overdose-related deaths in the U.S. reached more than 100,000, the largest it had ever been. One of those people was my father.

In December of that year, his life was finally taken from him by a lethal cocktail of heroin and fentanyl after a lifelong dependency. This is a story that many Americans, especially those in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington where he lived and I grew up, know well.

If you look up videos of the worst of the opioid epidemic, you will see Kensington's "zombies." People seem to fall asleep standing up, lingering under bridges and near subway stations. They stagger with needles still in their arms or hunch over in the pains of withdrawal, sometimes motionless in the middle of the street trying to keep standing. In those videos, you can see the house where I grew up.

It is a house in an intensely red-lined neighborhood. I went to school online and I studied music across town, in a more affluent part of Philadelphia. I had "friends" from my music classes who would never visit my house out of fear of all that lay within Kensington. Opting to stay away from the horrors of drug use associated with my domain, they instead occupied Rittenhouse Square in Center City, a local park that provided them ample coverage to smoke pot and cigarettes but didn't scare their parents or nannies as much.

In my own youthful desperation for the approval of these peers, I once tried to host a small party for these people at my house while my mother was out of town. I went through a lot of trouble and everybody told me they were coming. I met people at the subway and walked them to my house. But out of all invited guests it was only the other minorities in the group that came. And it quickly became apparent that no one else would.

The author as a baby held by his dad. Guillermo Jose Santos was 26 when his son was born.
/ The Santos-Honkala Family
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The Santos-Honkala Family
The author as a baby held by his dad. Guillermo Jose Santos was 26 when his son was born.

Over texts they claimed that they didn't know I lived in Kensington and had they known, they never would have promised in the first place. But of course, they knew. It's why they had never come before.

I was angry, and I let people know. I was told to stop complaining; it wasn't that big a deal. One person said he knew what it was like to be a minority: "I'm used to weird looks on the street. I dyed my hair green."

Soon after, on social media, we saw that the white kids I'd invited had their own party somewhere else. But they took selfies, tagged me, and claimed to be at my house having a great time.

Flash forward a few years, and the peers who avoided the realities of my impoverished upbringing when we were younger are now spending their time in California, New York and even a few blocks from my former home in raver warehouses, dressing up like addicts. They post and pose on social media, wearing distressed vintage, "wife beater" t-shirts they buy on Depop and heavy eyeliner, all the better to look sullen yet cool. And it is not just my old verdant-haired peers. TikTok and Instagram Reels have endless streams of people adopting this look. Snapshots from these parties show them there standing motionless in the middle of the dance floor, hunched over their phones like a zombie in withdrawal, watching the like count grow on their own posts of them too pretending to be at someplace like my old home.

This is, of course, not new. The same impulse made previous generations long for television appearances and their own Warholian 15 minutes. It's a recurrent fashion trend for the affluent to wear the rags of the marginalized. When someone pale, thin, pretty and famous gets hooked, condemnation flips to adulation and imitation.

You can argue the aesthetic of "heroin chic" was born in the same city I was. Model Gia Carangi was born in Philadelphia and died there as well, of addiction just like my father. She is where a lot of the fixation on heroin's "attractive" qualities come from, an early supermodel whose fame rose even as drugs and disease whittled her away. An entire new generation was introduced to her from Angelina Jolie's eponymous portrayal of her in 1998. She died in 1986 at 26. The same age my father was when I was born.

Growing up, I confronted the painful juxtaposition of the people outside my window, cast aside by society while on my television, gossip news glamorized addicted celebrities. Even as a child, it seemed clear to me that the only difference between my neighbors and their identically addicted counterparts in California was wealth and color.

Here, on the literal wrong side of the tracks of Philly's blue Market Frankford train line, there is no glamour to be found among those with addiction — no modeling gigs, no festivities, no solace or grace. And few resources to get out of the quagmire.

The graduation photo adorns containers holding the ashes of Guillermo Jose Santos, one of more than 100,000 Americans who died of drug overdoses in 2021. That number was more than 111,000 in 2023.
/ The Santos-Honkala Family
/
The Santos-Honkala Family
The graduation photo adorns containers holding the ashes of Guillermo Jose Santos, one of more than 100,000 Americans who died of drug overdoses in 2021. That number was more than 111,000 in 2023.

My whole life my father lived trapped — in a city that wouldn't trust his brown hands with a job, in a body that withered away from AIDS, and in a mind that only found brief reprieves from the substances that held him in thrall. I built my relationship with him during those times when he could abstain for a few weeks or months at a time. But they didn't last. I do not fault him for taking the same path so many of his peers did. I fault a system that gave them few other options. And a culture that again tries to idealize addiction.

My father's overdose wasn't chic, so why are people trying to look like him?

The worst parties I have been to have been full of what the Washington Post's Robin Givhan first called a "nihilistic version of beauty" back in 1996. Without poverty, addiction can afford to look cool. Crushing reality for some can be seen as an aesthetic choice for the privileged.

They can afford to not know how we live, just to pick the parts that feel like a nice enough departure from their day-to-day. They return to luxury.

To those people, superiority is as much a drug as any other they consume.


Guillermo A. Santos is a disabled Puerto Rican and Native American writer and poet from Philadelphia whose further work can be found at GuillermoASantos.com or @guillermoasantos on Instagram. He now lives in New York.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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