I am at B Street and Somerset, headed for Zombie City. Or La Boca del Diabloâthe Devilâs Mouthâas the Latinos in the surrounding barrio call it.
Neither name shows up on GPS, of course, because maps are pure fantasy. What is real doesnât fit on a grid. And Zombie City/La Boca del Diablo is real.
The zombies, los vivos, the ghosts who live thereâall real. Their hungerâreal.
Itâs the cityâs double-named portal to the underworld, and Iâm headed there because I have some sympathy for its inhabitants. Because I know hunger. And because itâs my beat.
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Not the Expected Fictions
The zombies are all white.
They take the subway to Somerset, cross the streets of the barrio, then climb through a hole in the railroad fence and scramble down under the Conrail tracks to get their ten dollar fixes of heroin.
After shooting up, while their minds are swaddled in the wooliest moment of their drug, they pace the railsâwordless, aimless, brains on muteâuntil need turns them back around to do it again.
Los vivos are Latino.
Vivo means aliveâas in the mothers, grandmothers, kids, comais, and compais who live on the streets above la Boca del Diablo. But it also means cunning, as in the drug dealers they are always assumed to be, and sometimes are.
The zombies and los vivos coexist for minutes, hours, and sometimes days together: the dead white ones who pay not to see, and the living brown ones who canât look away.
And around them, flitting in and out of notice, the ghosts. They are black and white and brown, because homelessness may be the only thing in this city that doesnât heed our segregated neighborhood lines.
The ghosts pitch their tents at the edge of Zombie City and string wards and prayers from tarp to tarp. Better than any other resident or visitor, the ghosts know the truth. No moment of peace is guaranteed.
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Stay In or Take Out
Yolanda looks up at me, hands spread protectively over the bags of food in the trunk of her car. She always parks it at the same spot on the Richmond bridge above Zombie City.
âAh, Blanca,â she says. Itâs not my name, but what she calls me because I take after my father and pass for white. Sheâs Afrolatina, so the Boricuas and Dominicans call her morena. Or, when they want to slur, prieta.
Spanish is so damned regional, even in the city. As a Mexican from South Philly, morena doesnât mean black to me, and prieta is an insult more commonly levied at those of us with indigenous heritage. But I learned as soon as I got to the 24th precinct that Iâd better adapt to the older barrioâs way.
âSomebody been hassling you, Yoli?â I ask. The ghosts love her because she brings cooked meals for them every other day, but the zombies and dealers can get rough sometimes.
âNo, of course not,â she answers, but I see her shoulders relax.
Iâm shorter than Yoliâshorter than most women in the United States because my mother is from Chiapas and my tatarabuela was Mamâbut Iâm big otherwise and all of it is muscle. Plus, Iâm quick with my taser and the 9 mm. People know not to mess with Yoli when Iâm around.
âLa Isleta gave me some pork and yuca for todayâs meals,â she says. âAnd McDonaldâs pitched in some fries.â Yoli doesnât have much to call her own, but she gets every merchant in the barrio to contribute food for the ghosts.
âItâs all still warm. Want some?â she asks. She knows I donât eat while Iâm on duty, but she asks the same thing every time we meet, because sheâs got that gene that equates food with caring.
âNah,â I say, even though my stomach is swimming with Dunkinâ Donuts black and nothing else to soak up its acid. âWe got a missing personâs report, Iâm just here to look for the