Philly's Favorite Port-a-Potty, R.I.P.

By Jeff Deeney 10/13/11
Junkies jonesed for the Aramingo john. photo via

This story out of Wisconsin about a 26-year-old Madison man who got arrested after overdosing on heroin in a Port-a-Potty reminded me of a similar story I heard a few years back told by a heroin addict I’ll call Dave. Now, Dave used to commute to Philly from Delaware on a daily basis to cop dope. It’s common for addicts in the 50-mile radius of suburban sprawl to flock to the Badlands section of North Philly for its famed 24-hour drive-through service at one of the many heroin corners in the barrio. Police know this, too; anyone with an out-of-state plate in that particular neighborhood on a Saturday night is liable to be tailed, pulled over and then escorted back to the Interstate by Philly’s Finest. So buying drugs for the out-of-towner is a real in-and-out affair; you want to get your shit and roll out pronto so as not to attract too much attention.

But where to shoot up? You’ve got a bundle sitting in your lap, and obviously you don’t feel like waiting an hour until you’re home to get high, especially if you’re dopesick, so where do you get a hit off in the middle of the night when every business with a public bathroom is closed?

A few years back, the answer to that question for hundreds of commuter junkies was the legendary Port-a-Potty on Aramingo Avenue. Aramingo is the main thoroughfare connecting the Interstate with Lehigh Avenue, gateway to the Badlands dope corners. And for many months a big stretch of Aramingo was under construction as a strip mall was being put up. There, at the building site, just off Aramingo, right before the highway on-ramp, basically in the perfect location for an addict who just copped a bunch of Badlands dope, was a single Port-a-Potty. You can imagine the scene there on Saturday nights.

Dave said that often when he pulled up to the Port-a-Potty there was such a long line that you’d think the Thanksgiving Day parade had just rolled past; it was a patently absurd sight for an otherwise remote, quiet part of town at that time of day. Sometimes he stopped by the site and, seeing no line, thought he had the Port-a-Potty all to himself—but when he yanked on the door he found it locked, and there would be a shout from within for him to be patient and wait his turn. One night he found no line for the Port-a-Potty, and the door was unlocked. Jackpot!

Except that the Port-a-Potty was in fact occupied—by a corpse with a syringe still stuck in the crook of its arm. Dave cursed the corpse: What kind of fucking jerkoff ODs in a Port-a-John? This dead guy was preventing him from getting his hit off. Dave was pissed that he would now have to cook and shoot his dope on the side of the road in full view of passing traffic, which he did.

Not surprisingly, after the body was found by construction workers the Port-a-Potty disappeared, much to the dismay of thousands of suburban dopefiends around the Tri-State Area.

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Jeff Deeney is a social worker, freelance writer and recovering addict in Philadelphia. He is a contributor to the Atlantic and has written for the Daily Beast, The Nation, and The Marshall Project. Follow Jeff on Twitter.