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 a trail of blood on Broad Street. It started at the front door of the building I work in, where a man was stabbed earlier this morning. There are altercations in front of our building all the time; petty beefs among drunks and junkies that oftentimes end in screwdriver punctures or tire iron bludgeonings. The weapons are usually improvised. I’m not sure what today’s weapon consisted of but it made a hole in the person on the other end of it big enough to weep fat red droplets that spattered the sidewalk. The trail continued for four blocks north and two blocks west to where the man stumbled into the emergency room of St Joe’s Hospital on 16th and Girard. I followed the trail for about a block and watched passing pedestrians stepping on the still wet spots without knowing it. I turned back and talked to some folks gathered in front of our building who said the police had been there, following the trail just like I had, bent over and walking slow like they were hunters in the forest tracking a wounded deer.
Today I saw a wino walking across a trash strewn lot on Ridge Avenue, down the street from the shelter. It was a classic image, a living stereotype stumbling with bagged bottle in one hand while the other waved in the air unsteadily, like he was struggling to get across the deck of ship in rough waters. He slowed and then stalled, as if he might change direction but had to think hard before continuing. Then he pitched forward, undulating towards the brick wall at the other end of the lot. When he reached the wall he leaned forward at an angle and laid the flat of one palm against it. He hung his head and took a deep breath. Once steadied his movements changed, becoming more sure; he began to bounce a little, shaking his legs out before putting the bottle down and spraying the wall with piss.
Up the block a ways the usual Ridge crowds were gathered, and on a warm day like today the flock was thick. One man walked briskly past wearing three heavy winter jackets layered on top of each other, all unzipped. He said, “Man, this weather’s crazy, this is the El Nino season.” There was a well dressed older white man walking with him, looking furtive and determined, who didn’t say anything before the homeless man continued talking. They sped off down the block to take care of whatever business they had to conduct together.
Outside the shelter a man was holding court (there’s always someone holding court) before a row of tired and run down looking men and women, all piled with thick clothes layers that were unzipped or partially removed, sitting on the small concrete ledge that runs the along ground there. The man was gesturing like a street preacher, fervent and animated as he said, “I don’t play. Naw, man, naw, I don’t play, man. I will not hesistate to put a nigga in the ground. I done did it before, man, plenty of times. But I don’t do no shit like that no more because I love my freedom, man, ain’t nobody gonna take that shit from me, man, because my freedom is everything.”
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.
[Photo by MooCat]