A couple weeks ago, someone on Reddit published a photo of this handmade sign advertising marijuana plants. He said he snapped it at the Italian Market. The cardboard watermelon box, the little roof above the fruit stand—the surroundings checked out. But the brazen promotion was almost too much to believe. So, last Sunday, I decided to find out for sure.
Heading south down 9th street around 10:30 a.m. my expedition was immediately derailed when I passed by the charming Anthony’s Italian Coffee House, where I treated myself to a coffee and a sfogliatelle. Sitting al fresco, peering down at the potential narcotics bonanza that awaited me, I plotted my strategy.
1. Keep notebook in back pocket of shorts, tucked under t-shirt. Slip down side streets to record information, out of sightline of fruit stand vendors. Don’t scare the dealers.
2. No talking. Just browse, calmly. You know what you’re looking for. Be the buyer.
After procrastinating for half an hour at Anthony’s—throwing oneself headlong into a covert drug investigation is not easy—I was ready. Unfortunately, the beginning of my quest, all adrenaline and clammy palms, is a blur. My notes will have to fill in the blanks. First stop: Scott + Judy Grocery and Fresh Fruit Produce, 911 S. 9th St. “No weed visible. News channel showing penguins, however.”
Next stop: Los Amigos’ stand, near the Italian Market Visitor’s Center. “Overpriced mini-watermelons but no weed in view.”
Next stop: Another produce stand, the name of which, I came to realize, did not matter. “Some sweet bell pepper plants. No weed.”
After continuing in this vein all the way to Pat’s and Geno’s, I realized the fatal flaw in my strategy: I didn’t know what a marijuana plant looked like. I tried Googling some images on my iPhone, but the leafy, overgrown monsters I beheld seemed overly developed compared to the little $14 plants supposedly being hawked at the Italian Market. After trying unsuccessfully to recruit a colleague who lives nearby and smokes a lot of weed, I had only one option: To ask the vendors whether they were slinging product.
Trying to come across as shifty and nervous as possible, I dropped into a flower shop on Ellsworth. The storekeeper’s English wasn’t so good, and my Spanish was worse, but eventually she told me she didn’t have any and that I should head to Tasker and Passyunk, where there was a better flower shop. Whether she misunderstood me or not is ultimately irrelevant: I was not to venture outside the Italian Market. Northward I trudged.
It was at my next stop that I really started making progress. Off to the side of a fruit stand, I quizzed a slightly doughy vendor wearing a black tank top and a patchy goatee. “This is a serious question, I swear: Do you know of a place that sells marijuana plants?” Sure, he did! Just head to Carpenter, he told me.
Here we go, baby.
There are several options around the intersection of 9th and Carpenter. The most suspicious of them was a little plant/hardware/knickknacks joint run by a couple of old white guys. So I lingered for a bit, thumbing random herbs, before striking.
“I hear there’s marijuana plants around here,” I said.
“No way,” one of them responded. “That’s illegal!”
“I know,” I said, playing it cool.
After withstanding my withering barrage of questions, two old guys seemed clean. But one of them did tell me that I wasn’t the first one that had looked for weed there before.
“A cop came here once wearing a full uniform—rookie cop, probably. And he said to me, pointing at one of my plants, ‘You know, that’s illegal.’ I said, ‘That’s a flower.’ It was a marigold plant.” Plainclothes FBI agents, too, they suspected, had been snooping around.
To what extent the Philadelphia police are lurking around the Italian Market, searching for weed, we may never know. A request for comment from the captain of the 3rd district was not returned.
Moving on from the two white guys, I interrogated a Southeast Asian couple running a small stand of their own. No weed, the man told me. But I could find a plant called “ruta” nearby, which is “similar but not the same.” Ruta graveolens, I later discovered, appears to be some kind of an anti-fertility witch drug, and I’m pleased to report I didn’t find any of that either.
It was around then that my marijuana-obsessed brain began playing tricks on me. I started seeing the plant everywhere. Trees, bushes, common sidewalk weeds; maybe my magic drug had been staring me in the eye the whole time. “Are you sick?” read a piece of paper next to one of the non-marijuana plants I investigated. Was I sick? Slapping myself out of my stupor, I resolved to make one last stab at the 9th and Carpenter cartel.
Standing behind his family’s stand, my last interviewee was a teenage boy who looked at me in wild-eyed wonder after I popped the question. “I hadn’t heard of it,” he said, “but I’d like one too.”
Deflated and defeated after my exhaustive one-hour search, I decided to head home. Then, suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, a smirking guy with a baseball cap gestured to me.
“Hey there,” he said. I turned around. “Strawberries. Only a dollar.”
What the hell. I bought a box and got out of there.