Thursday February 26, 1981
Joey Coyle was crashing. He had been high all night, and coming down from the meth always made him feel desperate and confused. When he was cranked up the drug gave him gusts of energy so great that his lungs and brain fought to keep pace. That was how he felt at night. When he slept it was usually during the day.
Today there would be little sleep because he had used up his whole stash. No stash and, as usual, no money. It had been almost a month since the union had called to give him work on the docks. He made good money as a longshoreman. It was where his father had worked and where his older brother worked. Joey had never finished high school but he had an educated feel for machinery. On the docks they used him to repair the lifts, and he was good at it. He took pride in that. Engine grease colored gray the heavy calluses on his hands. But for more than a year the economy had been bad in Philadelphia and there had been few chances to work. They had called him to fill in for a few weeks over the Christmas holidays, but there had been nothing since. So the desperation kicked in at sunrise. Where would he find the next fix?
The empty hours weighed on Joey. He was twenty-eight and he still lived in his mother's house. He was devoted to his mom. His father had died of a heart attack on a night after Joey had stormed out following an argument. The old man hadn't liked the length of Joey's hair. His last words to his son were spoken in anger, and Joey believed he had killed him. Eight years had passed and the guilt he felt was undiminished. Looking after his mother had helped, staying with her, but she had fallen ill with liver disease and she needed care he couldn't give, or couldn't be relied upon to give. She had moved just a few blocks away to his sister Ellen's apartment. Joey took it as another defeat. He felt like he had let his mother down, but also that she had let him down. She had left. He felt rejected and a failure, but would not have put those words on the feelings because Joey was not the type to look inside himself to figure out how and why he felt the way he did. He just kept moving. Meth helped with that. Most people called it speed. Joey called it 'blow.' It blew away all the demons of self-doubt and depression. In the months since his mother left his days blurred into nights in a speeding carousel of exhilarating highs and then crushing lows. Then would come the accelerating frantic urge to find money to buy more, to fire himself up again.
His home on Front Street was at the tattered edge of the tight matrix of South Philly's streets. To the west was the neighborhood's strong, nurturing core, its churches, schools, markets, and corner restaurants and bars. It was the oldest part of the city, low houses in row after brick row, most of them just two stories high. Kinship was sewn tightly in its even blocks. Brothers lived across narrow streets from brothers, fathers from sons and nephews and grandsons. In the narrow alleys folks would grin at the way they could sometimes see in the awkward way a boy ran or squinted or threw a ball the reflected image of his grandfather or great-uncle. When a man from South Philly said he knew a fellow 'from the neighborhood,' it meant something more like family than an acquaintance. South Philly was Catholic. It was proud and superstitious, pragmatic and devout.
The world had changed around South Philly. The jobs that had built it were mostly gone. It cohered like a fine-spun rug, its loyalties and affections knit tougher than the forces that would wear it down. It was a shelter against change, the future. Out Joey's back door, to the east, was a vision of the unforgiving world outside its boundaries, a wasteland, a vast expanse of weedy, trash-piled lots, junkyards, old brick warehouses defaced with graffiti, the discarded remnants of a once thriving port and manufacturing giant. Rusting hulks of old boxcars crouched in forlorn rows alongside the newer cars that occasionally came and went, moving between the fenced-in lots around the trucking yards and dwindling industrial works along the Delaware River waterfront. Over this bleak expanse the air was tinged gray and tasted of ash. Just behind the row of houses on Joey's block loomed the hulking concrete underside of Interstate 95, which cast a perpetual shadow wider than a city block.
When Joey was a little boy he would leave the comfortable nest of his neighborhood to play in the wasteland. He would pass through the cool shadow of the interstate, with its incessant traffic overhead roaring like an angry god. He would search out clusters of rat holes, pour gasoline down them, and set them on fire. He would leave one hole dry, then sit a few yards away from it to shoot at the fleeing rats with a bow and arrow. When he was older, he and his friends stealthily passed TV sets from loaded boxcars to waiting arms, then ran to trade the loot for money to buy grass and beer. For a boy, and then a young man, the wasteland was a haven, a place to escape all the friendly watching eyes of the neighborhood. It was wild, exciting, and even dangerous. Once older bullies had knocked him around and hung him by his thumbs. So long as you had your friends to help you down and you could come back every night to your mom and dad, your house, your block, the world outside was mostly a thrill. But now it just loomed.
Unlike his old friends, Joey had not outgrown those years. The death of his father, the decline of the shipyards, his growing dependency on the drug-it all conspired to prolong his childhood. Born in a different age, Joey might have lived his life happily along a well-worn path, to work after high school, marriage, children, grandfatherhood, and gone to his eternal rest in Holy Cross Cemetery. But the jobs were gone. Most of Joey's friends had gone to school and learned skills and found work elsewhere, but Joey couldn't adapt. He lacked the patience to sit still in school and to read a book. He had to be moving, doing. That's why he liked working on the docks, where he could learn on his feet, using his hands. Without the work, he was just stuck.
Still, despite his demons, he was feckless and fun loving in a way that endeared him to those who loved him. His complexion was pale pink, his hair so thin and blond you could hardly make out the mustache he had been growing for five years or the eyebrows over his small, deep-set pale blue eyes. Joey spoke in a gruff whisper that often turned into laughter. He had the generosity of a child who doesn't yet understand the value of things. If Joey was in the mood, he would give you anything, even things that didn't belong to him. It was easy to like him, but also easy to be frustrated by him, because you couldn't count on Joey for anything. His word was as insubstantial as the breath it took to give it.
Trouble was immune to Joey's charm; it sought him out and when it stayed away he went looking for it. Like the time his car stalled and blocked a street. Now, blocking streets is a time-honored privilege in South Philly, a way the locals assert turf. With cars parked on both sides of a narrow street, there was often only one lane to work with. But it was understood that passage on these streets was at the pleasure of those who lived there. If somebody from down the street wanted to stop his car and have a chat with a neighbor on a stoop, well, traffic behind him could just wait. If you had groceries to take into the house, you stopped your car on the street in front of your door and delivered the goods. The day Joey's car stalled, he got out to take a look under the hood. A man in a car trapped behind him, clearly ignorant of neighborhood protocol, disputed the blockade. Joey grew indignant, and in the ensuing brawl the stranger drew a savage slice across the left side of Joey's face. It had healed into a crooked gray scar from eye to earlobe. There was nothing funny about that scar but Joey would tell the story in a way that would make you laugh, about how he finally got the man down just in time for the fuzz to arrive and spot him as the aggressor-which earned him another, official, beating. But bad luck just seemed to bounce off Joey. He would laugh and laugh even though the joke was on him. With bitter irony he would call it the luck of the Irish; he even had the word 'Irish' tattooed on his upper right arm with a pipe and shamrock and shillelagh. His neck and chest and arms were broad and thick, and his hands seemed oversized, so swollen from all the times he had broken them working on engines that it was hard for him to close them into a fist. He looked tough, especially with that scar, and he had a swagger that went along with it, but he was always more of a danger to himself than to anyone else. Speed had muddied his mind so that sometimes he couldn't think straight for more than a few sentences. His front teeth had all been knocked out and replaced by a row of fakes. When he removed them his face caved in like an old man's. He had the look of someone who had been knocked down a lot on hard streets, yet he had a smile that wouldn't quit.
He would need that resilience for the joke fate would play on him this day.
Excerpted from Finders Keepers: The Story of a Man Who Found $1 Million
©2002 by Mark Bowden. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.