New Heathens

$20 of Regular in Camden, NJ

I pay my way in the world through freelance journalism and I've got a debilitating rock 'n' roll habit plus a car that the NYPD loves to tow. So my financial fortunes usually sway between two proverbial points: treading water and ramming my shoulder against the door to keep out the wolf, praying the hinges don't snap.

Last week, in a particularly loathsome financial nadir, I spent five long days in Camden, NJ hustling on a big story.

If you're not familiar with Camden, it's just across a bridge from Philadelphia and it often ranks at or near the top of the most crime-ridden cities in America. It has eclipsed Detroit as the U.S. city with the most murders per capita.

It was into this impoverished backdrop that I drove my broke-ass. I woke up Friday morning ebuliant because it was payday, and I finally had money again. Unbeknownst to me, an unfortunate collision of elements -- Citibank, State Farm and the IRS -- resulted in there being a block on my bank account. Despite my morning's boasts of renewed solvency, my sweet and cautious fiancee (who knows what she's marrying into, right?) insisted on sending me out the door with all the bills in her wallet; a pair of twenties.

"Take this with you just in case there's an emergency," she said.

"I'll be fine," I protested. She wasn't swayed.

My heart sank when a succession of cash machines and gas pumps in Camden declined my debit card. I dialed my bank and found out that  -- like an international terrorist -- all my assets were still frozen. I spent the morning draining my cell phone battery, pleading with the bank, all to no avail. Suddenly I realized that I was in the middle of dangerous Camden, I had no money of my own, and my gas tank was empty. Shit, I thought, I'm going to have to use that emergency cash just to get out of here. 

A ramshackle gas station sat next to the pothole-pocked roadway, between burned-out and boarded-up buildings. I drove up. In New Jersey every gas station is full service; drivers aren't allowed to pump their own gas, only station attendants. A guy walked from the pumps over to my open driver's side window and asked, "how much you want?"

Normally, I pay for gas with my bank card. This time I had to use cash. I used my shoulder to hold my phone to my ear and I dug into my pocket for the money. I took out one of the two twenty dollar bills and handed it to the guy.

"Twenty of regular please," I told him.

I turned my attention back to my phone, where I was haranguing with a bank supervisor. Out of the corner of my eye I watched the guy break into a sprint. He dashed into the passenger seat of a waiting sedan with tinted windows. The door slammed and the car zoomed off down the street. My jaw and shoulders fell.

An elderly gas station attendant sitting on a lawn chair next to the pumps turned and looked at me.

"What did you give him the money for?" the old timer asked. "He doesn't even work here."

Gas pump in Camden, NJ


(Epilogue: The last $20 got me home. The bank finally released my money. The fiancee was unfazed. And the story I worked on ran on the front page of the New York Times.)

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