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 two fresh faced white kids in almost military looking black overcoats, starched slacks and gleaming patent leather shoes canvassing a bleak stretch of 19th Street just north of Wingohocking, an area pocked with crack markets and tiny row houses covered in flaking paint. They were standing under an awning on one of the small front porches that lined the block. One of the kids banged repeatedly on the door while the other peered through the blinds, trying to assess if there was someone home.
After waiting for a minute they moved on to the next set of steps and again one banged on the door while the other watched. A heavy man in his undershirt opened it looking confused, not expecting visitors. I rolled my window down to listen. The kids said something I couldn’t quite hear and the man shook his head and closed the door in their faces.
As the kids were coming down the steps towards where I was parked, they stopped to talk to a passerby. He had on a green Boston Celtics jumper, baggy jeans, a knit cap and brand new Timberland boots. He had a Muslim’s thick beard. One of the kids called out to him, “Do you want to come to church this Sunday?” His voice was enthusiastic, full good cheer; it was as sincere an invitation as I ever heard. The Muslim boy took a quick glance at them and chuckled, threw them the deuce (a sign of goodwill, two fingers held up like a peace sign and given a little shake) and said to the boy who called out to him, “Nah, I’m cool, big man.”
The kids saw me watching them. As they came over to the car I saw they had black plastic tags attached to their coats, signifying them as elders with the Church of Latter Day Saints. The kid who did the door knocking came right up to my window, smiling a rosy cheeked, sparklingly white toothed smile less than a foot from my face. His voice was brimming with the enthusiasm of a small child inviting another child to play his favorite sandbox game. He said, “Would you like to come to church this Sunday?”
TODAY I SAW the city swallowed in a thick fog that entirely obscured the skyline. Looking south from Broad and Girard I couldn’t see downtown; the tallest building in sight was maybe five stories, the street a long corridor of mostly empty low rise lofts and faded facades. Fast food restaurants, a dollar store, dingy pizza shops, a dirty gas station with the prices hung crooked on its sign. Without the sun reflected skyscrapers in the distance it was easy to imagine Philadelphia as a small city, maybe a dilapidated mining town upstate, or a Midwestern metropolis reduced to a nothing by industry that disappeared decades before.
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 Rachael Shirley]