Camden, New Jersey was the city that I was born in 1950. I was born in West Jersey Hospital that if my memory still serves me correctly was somewhere on Mt. Ephraim Avenue. My mother and most of my immediate family worked in Camden. My mother worked at RCA down by the Delaware River. As a girl she used to help my grandfather Charles J. Kern sweep up and close the American Stores food market at Point & Pearl Street back in the 1930s and perhaps 1940s where he was the store manager. Then Camden was still a decent perhaps even nice place to live and work.
My mothers oldest sister Patricia Kern became a nurse and worked at all three of the hospitals in Camden. There was West Jersey hospital where I was born, Cooper Hospital which was the largest at Broad & Market and then there was Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital on Haddon Avenue right near Harley Cemetery and across the street from the Whitman’s Chocolates factory. Back when I was a kid the first think that you would smell while driving along Haddon Avenue from Collingswood to Camden was the delicious and warm swell of chocolate from the Whitman’s Chocolate factory. The first job that my father’s mother Uarda Hoey had after leaving the family farm in Delaware was using her finger to put little curly cues on the chocolates as they came down the conveyor belt.
Walt Whitman the poet’s beautifully ornate family mausoleum was in Harley Cemetery right across from the chocolate factory. Its dank and dark but I still can remember standing in the doorway wondering where were the lilacs. I think indeed there were lilacs around the mausoleum, if I remember correctly. I only took a tour of his two story wood frame row home one time. It was after I had graduated from high school, had my first major nervous breakdown after dropping out of college at Rutgers University Camden and moving on to other things in my life. I was in my early 20s at the time and a sensitive kid I guess, or at least I seemed to make that impression on people. A neighbor by the name of Joe Goddel who was born and raised in Camden took a special interest in cultivating a friendship with me at that time in my young life. I am very grateful to him and have never ever seen this man again or thanked him for being a real true big brother too me at that time in my life when the reality that I grew up with seemed to be melting all around me like that cake in the hip song of that era “MacArthur’s Park” which basically said it all to many a troubled youth such as myself.
Joe was an allstate forward for the Camden Catholic basketball team and a jock like me with a real sensitive side to his personality. He was married to a very hot young dark haired Italian American/perhaps some Puertoricano and they had one daughter named Judy.
I grew up in a town called Collingswood which was right outside of Camden, New Jersey.
I began working for the Camden County Welfare Board in 1970 and worked there first as a caseworker aide and then as a caseworker. I was 20 years old in 1970 and still seeing a psychiatrist in Cherry Hill by the name of Robert Dunkelman, M.D. who has an office right behind the Cherry Hill Mall in an office high rise built to rent to professionals such as himself. Dunkelman did a pretty good job of bringing back from the abyss of a drug induced psychotic episode that left me with a DSM diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenic or some varient thereof that worked happily to get me a permanent draft deferment. Dunkelman himself had gone to high school with the beat poet Allen Ginsberg in East Orange, New Jersey, served in the US Navy as a physicians assistant and then earned his medical spurs after getting discharged.
I was still on a maintenance dose of anti-psychotics when I began working for the county welfare board. I think that I was just taking Thorazine three times a day in the standard size pill or caplet. The fog of the Thorazine stupor was just beginning to lift a bit but I can still remember days where I seemed to be surrounded by some sort of barely visible fog. Gradually, I was weaned off of anti-psychotics altogether and stopped seeing my psychiatric lord and savior.
I really liked working at the county welfare board because there were so many really hot hot chicks who seemed to really like me. That was back in the day of short skirts, filing, cabinets, and keypunch machines that were an early form of computer or office automation. I eventually had an office cubicle all my own like all the other caseworkers in spite of the fact that I had merely a high school diploma and not the required college degree that the civil service position required. Emotionally and psychologically I was in deep water and did not even realize it. I felt that I had been in such deep waters before as a result of some of my drug experiences with such hallucinogenics as pot. hashish, and LSD and that as a result of that I could deal with anything, go anywhere, do the impossible, I was a kind of wunderkind.
Gradually as a result of the social scene surrounding county welfare I found myself back in with the drug culture to some extent but this time at a higher and much more sophisticated level. Being a county official of sorts meant that all sorts of doors were open to me and a real sense of invulnerability began to develop in my mind in regard to my own personal behavior. Ever so slowly and confidently I was edging my way once again toward another abyss. This one however, would be ever so much deeper and darker. It would take me the rest of my life to recover. In a way I was probably much luckier than some whose sense of personal invulnerability in regard to a walk on the wild side would end in death, madness, loss of family, divorce, and/or imprisonment.
Gradually as I became initiated into the not so sacred mysteries of county welfare I could see that the place was a meeting ground for major and minor drug traffickers of whom I was to become one.
It all began with a fellow caseworker by the name of Tom W. who joined our unit and with whom I developed a close personal bond based upon our love for fishing in the Pine Barrens and smoking really good Colombian pot. Tom introduced me to his drug family one of whom was a former Philadelphia PD police detective out on disability with a serious taste for H. He lived in Northeast Philadelphia and we would drive over to a local bar where Willy hung out and score a pound or two of Colombian pot. We put it in a locking suitcase that I kept under the bed in my one bedroom apartment at an apartment complex called Stockton Station that I had moved into in 1971. It was a nice upscale sort of place with other working professional types but I felt very lonely and out of place most of the time when I was there by myself. It became just a place to sleep but eventually to party as a way of dealing with the loneliness and alienation.
Tom and his wife rented a farm in the Pine Barrens in either Gloucester or Salem county where we planned to begin growing pot ourselves. As Tom explained it to me, Willy had a police source up in the Northeast that was taking the seized pot that had been put into police storage. That was his source and the idea was to set up a distribution network in Camden so that it would not come back to bite the Philly PD in the ass. It all worked out pretty well for a while. I was cash rich for a 21 year old have just bought a brand new car that I wrote a personal check for. A brand new stylish apartment with brand new furnishings that I had also just merely written a personal check for. I was hot shit. I was about as self deluded as any 21 year old could possibly be.
At work I let my responsibilities slide and worked only half days. This was the major major top secret at county welfare, i.e. that the professional employees were getting full time pay while putting in only half a day’s work. Tom and I worked from 8am to 12 noon and then left. That went on for month and months until it became more obvious that I had major issues in my life. Since these issues were drug related issues it was basically no problema as everyone else in the office was either totally smacked out or involved with the elicit side of things to one degree or another.
Note-This piece was originally posted to Open Salon on 01-01-2014