BY JEFF DEENEY “Today I saw…” is a series of nonfiction shorts based on my experiences as a caseworker serving formerly homeless families now living in North and West Philadelphia. I decided not long after starting the job that I was seeing so many fascinating and disturbing things in the city’s poorest neighborhoods that I needed to start cataloging them. I hope this bi-weekly column serves as a record of a side of the city that many Philadelphians don’t come in contact with on a daily basis. I want to capture moments not frequently covered by the local media, which tends to only cover the most fantastically violent or sordid aspects of life there.
Today I saw the sanctuary of another African Methodist Episcopal Church, this time on 16th and Jefferson Street about block away from where they sell the Oxys at. It was much like the other one I saw recently; a stage at the front of the room with a podium and throne-like wooden chair with deep maroon velvet cushions on it standing at the center. There were pianos on either side of the stage and folding tables set up for bingo.
I went to an antechamber at the center of the church where there were fading black and white photos of former Reverends lining a wall made from wood patterned fiber board. There were two rows of portraits in a long line that stretched across the wall of stately black men in smart suits that changed with the current fashions as time moved backwards to the first picture taken in 1856. There was a group shot taken in the 1950s of a room filled with smiling black families seated around decorated tables that was labeled, “150th Anniversary Party.” The woman showing me around told me a quick history, explaining that this church was built more than 130 years ago but the congregation itself was nearly 70 years older than that.
On my way out I took a look down the block towards 17th and Jefferson where I could see the pill pushers out in force on the corners in their black fur lined hooded parkas.
Today I saw a man in blue denim overalls masturbating near a school. He had his hands slid down the front of them and was working himself furiously, causing the fabric to pull taut with every stroke. He was an older black man with a salt and pepper goatee and an unzipped black leather jacket with two horizontal red stripes around each arm.
I said, “There’s a school right there you fucking sick asshole.”
His eyes bugged out and he said, “Yeah, I’ll do what I want, what you gone do about it?”
I pulled the cellphone from my pocket and started dialing, showing him the phone and my fingers hitting the keypad. “I’m dialing 911 right now.”
He said, “You go ahead and call. I got my ID on me. I got my ID right here with me.”
The entire time he kept pumping his hands inside his overalls. He started walking across the street towards me and I got back in my car and locked the doors while describing the man to the police. He circled around the back of my car but then went back towards the school.
I heard a middle aged black woman yell from across the street, “you nasty, nasty buzzard!”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Deeney is a freelance writer who has contributed to the City Paper and the Inquirer. He focuses on issues of urban poverty and drug culture. He is also a caseworker with a nonprofit housing program that serves homeless families.