Meet Mike Newall, Poet Laureate of the Opioid Epidemic

As scores of people continue to overdose on Philly’s streets, the Inquirer columnist has a simple mission: to make sure you don’t look the other way.

Photograph by Adam Jones

Mike Newall, the Philadelphia Inquirer metro columnist, is 40 years old, Irish, Catholic and intense. He is pleasant and kind but doesn’t often laugh; he has suffered great loss. He thinks with a take-no-prisoners moral fervor. Newall is from New York, though a decade and a half ago he fell in love with Philadelphia, which is a dangerous relationship to have and makes him a dangerous columnist. Especially when he latches onto a subject he cares deeply about. Last year, Mike Newall found one that changed everything for him, as someone who spends most of his waking hours thinking about or writing about this city.

It started with a visit last May to the Free Library’s branch in Kensington, a Greek Revival design that was turning 100 years old. The library was kind of an oasis, a safe place for children to come to, up on a hill on McPherson Square, serving what has long been one of the city’s poorest and most troubled neighborhoods.

Newall had gotten a tip about something strange going on at McPherson, and sure enough, on the Thursday he was there: “Come outside!” Sterling Davis, the library’s security guard, suddenly shouted to the librarians. “And bring the Narcan!”

Chera Kowalski, at her desk in the adult-fiction room, jumped up and ran. Out on the sloping front lawn, a young woman named PJ had overdosed. Someone had already given her a dose of Narcan, a nasal spray that counteracts an overdose; Kowalski held PJ and turned her on her side, as she had been taught to do. PJ soon started to come around. Paramedics arrived, and Kowalski went back to her job in adult fiction.

Overdoses were becoming routine on McPherson Square. “I walked out to that lawn and immediately, the crisis was put into stark relief,” Newall says. “At that point, the librarians had been yelling for a year to get help.”

Drug tourists — mostly white kids, from all over the country — had descended on Kensington, seeking the pure heroin sold there; they camped out on the library’s lawn for days at a time. Sometimes they bought fentanyl instead, the synthetic opioid up to 50 times stronger than heroin, and much deadlier. The librarians had become expert on overdoses based on the sounds coming from the bathroom: Someone overdosing on heroin tends to slide into unconsciousness, but fentanyl victims collapse fast, hitting the floor in a boom that can be heard all over the library.

“There’s an opioid epidemic in Philly,” Newall would write. “But there is a catastrophe on the lawn of McPherson Square. And right now, the best hope for the people there is a young librarian and a security guard who watches for overdoses from the library’s historic terrace like a ship captain scanning the horizon for icebergs.”

Drugs are certainly not new to Kensington. For half a century, the neighborhood has been wracked with the use and sale of various illegal substances — the corner of Kensington and Somerset has long been a go-to point for city and suburban kids looking to score, especially, heroin. Those who track drugs say that Kensington hosts one of the biggest open-air opioid markets on the East Coast.

But this was different, because of the fentanyl being sold and the 1,200 deaths from overdose in Philadelphia last year, and because Newall’s story quickly brought the national media in for a look at white kids from all over the country overdosing outside the library and being saved by librarians. Kowalski personally administered Narcan six times last year.

The heroin users were immediately pushed away from the library by Philly cops. Many first camped nearby inside Ascension of Our Lord Church, which was abandoned; then, when the city boarded up the church, they moved to train underpasses in Kensington. Newall followed and watched and wrote.

The intersection of C Street and Tusculum. Photograph courtesy of Jeffrey Stockbridge

He would end up spending months last year walking the streets of Kensington. This is personal for him — he lost an older brother he revered to a heroin overdose two decades ago. But Newall had a great deal to learn about Kensington. “Empathy is not the same as understanding,” he says. “It’s not enough to feel. You gotta know what’s going on.” He needed to understand why Kensington has festered since drugs showed up in the ’60s, sliding into a place of no return for so many. Drug tourists sometimes end up living on the street there now, trapped by their addiction, along with locals of every color and age.

At this point, Mike Newall has seen enough. The city, he believes, is at a crossroads. He fears that “Philly will do what Philly does” — that is, not care enough, not step forward, not deal with what has been happening in Kensington, and to it, for so long. He will push us to see what he sees. This is where Newall’s romance with the city makes him dangerous. Because he’s not about to let us off the hook.

The big-city columnist is a dead breed. They were stars in many American cities, in Chicago and Boston and New York: Royko and Barnicle, Hamill and Breslin. Philly once had its own: Pete Dexter, Steve Lopez. They all possessed one thing in common: a seriousness of purpose. Since the city they covered was such a teeming, strange, screwed-up place, they took it on as one-man bands, digging into poverty and corruption and bizarre characters and so forth.

Newspapers don’t do that anymore — not in the way that Lopez capturing the idiocy of City Hall or Dexter introducing a cat stalking geese in his backyard or a drunk on a barstool shined a light, somehow, on all of us. It was a cracked mirror they held up. For Newall, there was only one way to understand what he needed to. “I found the people,” he says, and he began to get the strong sense that the saga of Kensington is about a lot of things. “We went out to Hope Park and found the residents who’d been living there for a long time. We just kept going, to the [abandoned church], to Kensington Avenue — it was a journey for me, in a sense.”

And now he was rolling into the age-old territory of the big-city columnist, who has a take, a way of looking at things, who finds a way of saying: This is who we are.

Or maybe, when it comes to Kensington: This is what we need to see. Newall would make the point through the stories he found, as bald and true as he could make them. Consider last July’s “Hooked and Hustling Heroin: A Couple’s Life in Kensington”:

They are homeless, and they sleep on the steps of a church blocks from Ray’s childhood home, where his family still lives, and a five-minute drive from Carol’s mother’s house, where her three kids now live.

To support their habit, Ray, 33, sells his works [clean syringes]. And when cash is low, Carol searches for dates on the avenue.

Ray and Carol met on Kensington Avenue seven months earlier. He’d been living on the street for three years, after spending four years in prison for stealing a neighbor’s ID and checks from her mailbox. When he got home from prison, his mother threw him out of the house after he stole her TV. Carol, then 37, had recently been kicked out of her mother’s home in Port Richmond; she had relapsed and was stealing from her own children — ages 10, 17, 19 — swiping their Xboxes and games and clothes.

It’s horrible stuff — and so are their backstories. Ray grew up poor in Kensington, with an alcoholic father. Two of his sisters became addicts; he recently learned, from a bartender, that one of them had died. When he went home, his mother told him, “You’re next.” Carol had a boyfriend who beat her; they got addicted to pills, and then she turned to heroin.

In his portrayal of them — and of many others in Kensington — Newall is walking a fine line, because, in fact, it isn’t hard to think Ray deserves his mother’s harshness: He will be next. Or Carol will be — one of the photos accompanying Newall’s piece shows Ray shooting heroin into her neck. And you can easily jump to a next thought: This is the life they’ve chosen. But to really feel what Newall is up to, we need to spend a moment with how he ends his portrayal of Carol and Ray:

Despite his bravado, Ray admits the foundation is cracking. After all, he said, it’s built on heroin. They believe they can make a life without it.

“I miss my kids. I miss my mom. I want Ray,” Carol said. “He’s a good person. I don’t want to see him dead. I want him to be part of my life. We just have to get our stuff together. But every day, it’s just the same thing.”

So they pick through the weeded lot on Helen Street, just off Somerset, where Ray will inject Carol, and Carol will help Ray back to their church step.

And Carol will cry, and Ray will hug her. And soon they will pick up their belongings and go back to the avenue. Back to the lifeline.

Carol will lean against the pay phone, muster up a smile, hoping for a date. The light will change, traffic will shift, and she will be gone.

And Ray will make his way back to the El, his voice thin above the crowd — “Works, works” — until the train rumbles overhead, and you can’t hear him at all.

Newall is asking for something quite simple: that we don’t begin by judging them; that we feel something about Carol’s and Ray’s humanity. And if we can, it’s because he hasn’t sugarcoated anything.

A homeless addict’s spot under a Kensington bridge in 2017. Photograph courtesy of Dominick Reuter/AFP Photo/Getty Images

In May, I visit Kensington Avenue a half dozen times, to see where Newall spent last summer. Tents are lined up under the El there, just off of Lehigh, and perhaps 35 people — white, black, Hispanic, young, not so young, women, men — lie inside them, or hover about, or shoot up. There’s an unsettling casualness about it; one guy in an open tent I pass is holding his needle along the tips of his fingers like it’s a Marlboro, as if it’s always right there. Many of the tent residents shoot up openly. Mostly, though, they seem to be at utter loose ends, sprawled or sifting through their meager belongings or their own trash, which blooms everywhere. Occasionally, someone dances — always alone.

One Sunday evening, I meet people with stories as wrenching as Ray’s and Carol’s, like Elwood, a Navy vet in black sweats who looks to be in his 40s and has been addicted to heroin for a dozen years. He hasn’t seen his 11-year-old daughter, who lives with her mother in Jersey, for months, though his current problems are more pressing. Two days ago, throwing up, incontinent, sick on bad heroin, he begged the VA for more help than the low-rent methadone they were giving him. The answer was no. So he’s back here, looking to score. And Billie Jo, 51, an unemployed waitress who grew up in Kensington and got hooked on Percocets after back surgery a decade ago; she turns to “dates” on Kensington Avenue to fund her habit — “I won’t lie to you,” she assures me — and tells me that last night, she got in a car with a man who put a gun to her head and raped her. But here she is, back on the Avenue, chatting me up.

“In every heroin victim I still see my brother,” Mike Newall wrote last August. It had been three months since he’d watched Chera Kowalski help save an overdose victim on the lawn of McPherson Square, and it was time to share his own story. His brother John — 12 years older — died in 1999 against a bus-stop fence in Long Island of a heroin overdose. He’d been fighting addiction since college, and he was on his way back to a halfway house. “Buses passed,” Newall wrote. “No one stopped.” John was 34.

“It almost broke me,” Newall says at the Down Home Diner in Reading Terminal Market in April. He idolized John, who had a brilliant mind for computers — he’d been offered a job running Fordham’s computer lab shortly after getting an undergraduate degree there. John wasn’t interested; he wanted to play music, and did, at CBGB in New York and other places.

John, Mike says, “as an artist had that innate ability that sets you apart, of being able to take everything in. But he couldn’t let it out. So much stayed in him.” And he never made it as a musician, really, though he did spend hours trying to teach Mike to play the Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon” in their parents’ attic.

His Brooklyn neighborhood was, Newall remembers, a little like South Philly, where he lives now. “My mom was a collector of people. At our table, there was always an open spot. We had this one guy — Crazy Jeff. He loved to ride the buses. My brother was a lifeguard at Coney Island, and he would ride the buses down there. Crazy Jeff would start fights with people — my brother a few times would rescue him from getting his butt kicked. Of course my mom said, ‘Invite him over for Sunday dinner.’ And he would come. He was infatuated with my other brother, saying he looked like Bobby Kennedy. And then he would steal all our silverware. My dad would be patting him down, and my mom would say, ‘Come next week.’”

Newall would write:

The morning after my brother died, I remember coming downstairs, the wails of my sisters and mother filling the house, to find my dad, a retired firefighter, at the kitchen table polishing John’s shoes for the burial. He had put everything he had into fighting for his son; now it took everything he had to hold himself together. And it took all he had with me on the phone earlier this week to get the words out: “It’s an open wound,” he said, his voice raw. But my parents told me to tell my brother’s story. 

If it would help someone. If John’s story would save someone’s life.

His death had rocked Mike, too: “I looked at it like, I felt so much of myself in him that if he couldn’t make it, it really … ”

Newall stops; the point is obvious. At the time, Mike, too, was grappling. He wanted something large but feared he’d end up small. A year before John’s death, James Joyce’s Dubliners, filled with characters stunted by paralysis and fear, had shaken him: “I saw the type of person I feared I could become,” Newall says. “I wanted to be some kind of writer, had no earthly idea about how to do it, and saw people in my life, people I loved, dealing with the fallout of stunted dreams. So the book scared the hell out of me. I hopped a plane to Dublin.” Newall was all of 19.

Two years after John’s death, 9/11 happened. Newall was living at home then, post-college — his parents had moved to Breezy Point from Brooklyn. Mike had friends who worked in the towers and were killed in the collapses. He went to funeral after funeral. He remembers those years as a terrible time of loss.

“I was young enough to believe that a simple change of scenery can make things better,” he says. “So I came down here. And I knew what I wanted to do at that point. I knew that somehow, I wanted to be a part of the conversation.”

He started writing for Philadelphia Weekly and City Paper. Tim Whitaker, then the Weekly’s editor, remembers Newall possessing “a deep Irish romantic quality about the working class.” And that he was raw.

“Tim gave me all this incredible space to go out and write terrible stuff and fail, and fail miserably,” Newall says. “Except you were getting all the bad words out, and that’s important for young writers.”

He’s smooth now, as a writer, but writing a column is a hit-or-miss challenge, and when he misses, Newall comes across as trying too hard, as too earnest. In a recent column about the role of libraries in helping city residents, he wrote, “It’s a conversation that’s becoming increasingly urgent in a dynamic city still marked by some of the worst poverty in the country. And then there’s this stunning statistic: Half of working-age Philadelphians, about 550,000 people, lack ‘workforce literacy skills.’” Well, yes, it is a stunning, and horrendous, statistic, but when he hits us with blunt facts, leaving his inner Pete Dexter behind, Newall has forgotten a cardinal column-writing mandate, one he’s fully capable of nailing: The message has to come wrapped in the voice, the sensibility, the story.

About a decade ago, Newall almost quit writing altogether; he’d been spending all his time figuring out other people and needed a break. He tended bar, made new friends, met his future wife, Jaclyn. “I think you get broke a little bit,” Newall says, referring, especially, to losing his brother. “What is becoming adult but kind of finding yourself in the broken pieces and making what you can out of that?”

But he missed writing and got hired by the Inquirer in 2010 as a reporter covering South Jersey, then landed his gig as city columnist three years ago. It would be a reported column, with Newall pounding around the city writing about whatever interested him. And while his intensity is a natural match for a place like Kensington, he can poke into any odd corner of Philly he wants to. For example, the beginning of “In Port Richmond, a Tire Man’s Unlikely Menagerie,” written in September 2015:

On East Somerset Street, in a clean and roomy paddock next to a tire shop, in the shade of a giant weeping willow, lives a fat and contented pony — the Pony of Port Richmond. His name is Albert, but everyone calls him Coco. …

He is owned by a sweet and gracious tire salesman named Kazem Nabavi. “Kaz,” as his many loyal customers call him, lavishes Coco and all his animals — chickens and roosters and pheasants and even peacocks — with care and affection, because they remind him of his treasured childhood in the ancient fortress city of Shushtar in Iran. There, as a boy, Kaz and his friends galloped Arabian horses through the fields and along the streams and rivers, playing out favorite scenes from the movies of John Wayne.

There’s a lot of that sort of thing in Newall — oddballs, characters. They ground his column, and he comes by them naturally, via his dinner table growing up. “The aim of the column,” Newall says, “like any city column, is to make the city small.”

To bring us in, through those characters. Not everyone buys what he’s up to in Kensington, though, telling the stories of addicts camped on the street. Newall gets plenty of emails telling him to cease and desist, to let them rot in jail. Then there’s Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who represents a big chunk of Kensington. “You need to check your biases,” she told Newall one day. Which he took to mean: You need to get over your brother.

Which misses Mike Newall’s point — the mission he’s on in Kensington isn’t about saving middle-class white guys who get addicted to heroin. Or, certainly, not just them. What’s struck him about Kensington goes far beyond his brother.

Discarded needles at a Kensington encampment. Photograph courtesy of Dominick Reuter/AFP Photo/Getty Images

I follow Newall’s learning curve on what has happened there over time. First, Casey O’Donnell, CEO of Impact Services, a Kensington community development nonprofit, takes me to the top of a long-vacant carpet mill at A and Indiana, and what was once a homey neighborhood below comes into sharp relief: clusters of rowhouses surrounded by the big brick factories and warehouses in easy walking distance, where hats, carpet, lace and scores of other products were manufactured. That was Kensington for a hundred years, starting in the mid-1800s. Now, some of those brick buildings are empty, while others are being developed; almost zero industry is left.

Kensington really got hit with something of a double whammy: Like so many urban neighborhoods in the eastern United States, what was manufactured there became much cheaper to make elsewhere. By the late ’50s, factories were closing; workers were leaving. African-Americans and Puerto Ricans came north to move into the thousands of abandoned houses. There were race riots and fewer and fewer jobs, but the big abandoned factories, it turned out, were perfect places for a new, quite lucrative industry: drugs.

An anthropologist named Philippe Bourgois, who taught at Penn and lived in Kensington, is writing a book about the drug trade there. He blames official Philadelphia for abandoning Kensington — “We’ve seen the devastation of a whole neighborhood.” The empty houses and factories, expansive spaces with plenty of nooks and crannies for the hiding and selling and taking of drugs, turned into scores of shooting galleries. It wasn’t just heroin, but a dizzying array of pretty much every facet of American drug culture, 1960s to now: heroin in the late ’60s, speed in the early ’70s, then cocaine, crack, and, starting in the early ’90s, heroin so pure that it could be snorted. For the most part, the city looked the other way.

Then, in the late ’90s, highly potent prescription opioids mushroomed. We’re now into a second generation of opioid addicts hitting the streets of Kensington in search of essentially the same high, through heroin. The El and I-95 make access easy.

The Conrail gulch off of Gurney Street became a huge encampment of addicts; the city ignored that, too, for decades. In fact, says Casey O’Donnell, nobody in the city saw fit even to include them in counts of Philadelphia’s homeless — as if they were so dangerous or hidden away that they didn’t exist at all. Until, that is, a stink was raised in 2016 by Alfred Lubrano, Newall’s colleague at the Inquirer, and the mayor’s office took a look and professed shock at the squalor and drugs and danger — as if city officials had no idea, because, apparently, they didn’t — and a tug of war ensued between the city and Conrail until the encampment was pushed out into the light of Kensington street life.

There’s been one more recent, and deadly, step: fentanyl, the synthetic opioid coming into Kensington from China via Mexican dealers. The Drug Enforcement Agency’s Patrick Trainor, who’s worked in Kensington for 20 years, says, “The landscape hasn’t changed all that much — Kensington was as much a heroin market when I got here as now. The emergence of fentanyl is the big difference.” Last year’s 1,200 overdose deaths in Philadelphia was the highest rate of any big American city. Kensington is the epicenter, but other pockets of the city — in South Philly, West Philly and the Far Northeast — have been hit hard, too. It is, says Tom Farley, the city’s health commissioner, “the worst public-health crisis in a century in Philadelphia.”

In mid-May, the Inquirer held its second annual Opioid Forum at Sky Philadelphia. Newall kicked it off, explaining what he has learned in Kensington. How he started to see clearly how deep the problems connected to addiction go: the neglect of our poor neighborhoods, institutional racism, joblessness, the ravages of the war on drugs in the ’80s. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 mandated minimum sentences for possessing certain amounts of cocaine but deemed crack worse than powder, which hit African-American communities especially hard here; making criminals out of inner-city drug users proved to be, of course, an abysmal failure nationwide.

Maybe one positive in the overstocking of opioids in America’s medicine cabinets in the past two decades is the discovery that addiction is an equal-opportunity horror. Meaning that the addicts on Kensington’s streets can’t be so easily dismissed as junkies not worth the time or expense to figure out.

Tony Luke, the restaurateur who lost a son to addiction last year, also spoke at the Inquirer forum. He talked about one night when he went looking for his son and found him: “Standing on a corner smoking a cigarette, and there was no hope in his eyes. None. It is the worst thing to see in a human being when they truly feel that all hope is gone. … Addiction is far deeper than just getting high. They are self-medicating, running from something. What, I don’t know.”

Mike Newall has been writing about the need for safe injection sites, something the panel at the forum agreed with. If addicts have a place to go to shoot heroin that is supervised by medical personnel, they can buy time, at least. It’s been tried in many cities in Europe and Canada with success — injection sites have proved to be a gateway to treatment, and no one has ever died, anywhere in the world, at any of them. The city has endorsed the idea; Philadelphia would be first in the country to take the step, though there are still significant political and legal issues to overcome.

Meantime, while we haggle and wait and haggle some more — the DEA’s Trainor is adamantly opposed to safe injection sites — the epidemic of heroin deaths grows worse.

I go back to Kensington on a rainy Saturday morning to look for Elwood, the Navy veteran and father of an 11-year-old he hasn’t seen for months, a heroin addict for more than a decade. I want to touch base, to see how he’s doing, to learn more about him. I emailed Elwood, and called him. No response. I ask about him at the encampment on Kensington Avenue, which the city has since cleared out. No one has seen him lately.

Then I cross the street, because I suddenly realize that my walk by the encampment and my questions about Elwood are too close, as if I’m partaking of what Casey O’Donnell calls “heroin porn” in gazing into the tents there, watching people shoot up. From the other side of the street, where there’s a strong odor of urine, in dim gray light, those still in the encampment — on this day, about 25 people — seem to be waiting, more than anything, with nothing at all to do until the next fix. They appear utterly stuck. It makes me think of Mathew Brady’s Civil War photos of tent encampments — how the soldiers in them had just experienced battle and were waiting, some of them injured, some of them shoeless, for the next one. From one horror to another. There was absolutely nothing to do in between. Now, as I watch from across the street, there’s nothing to do in between getting high and … getting high again.

These people, in this state, are what Mike Newall has brought to life for us. The job of a big-city columnist is to be a witness to what’s going on. Or, as Newall describes his method, “to go and to stick around long enough to feel something, you know?” Something that readers might prefer not to think about at all. “And to then bring it back and write it in a way that the readers feel it, too.”

Long ago, Mike Newall fell in love with his adopted city, with what a beautiful place it is in so many ways: “But it’s a broken place, too.”

Published as “The Poet Laureate of the Opioid Epidemic” in the August 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.