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 gleaming silver Mercedes station wagon sitting at a stop sign at 5th and Cambria, in the heart of the barrio. That’s a corner so infamous for heroin trafficking that the Philly PD keeps an RV parked there around the clock, like a blue-and-white armored motor home.
The Mercedes was slung low, riding near the ground. The kid behind the wheel had a scruffy teenager’s attempt at a beard, and a cockeyed baseball cap overtop a bandana with the Puerto Rican flag. His seat was eased back so far I could only see his head and his hand on the steering wheel. He was holding traffic up on Cambria Street, sitting there with his windows down, waiting.
The drug dealers in the Zone, as it’s called by dopers, love to do this. They sit at stop signs, small pond/big fish in their Benzes and Escalades, testing the neighborhood’s patience. Sometimes it’s a carload of really young kids, the driver not old enough for a license and with only enough fast money to slap a set of ridiculously oversized chrome rims on an old shitbox.
I’ve seen this; a ’96 Pontiac Grand Prix, paint dulled but sitting on shiny spinners, parked at a stop sign on a narrow, one-lane street as four kids straight from truancy court take a couple of minutes to holler at the shorties on the corner. Behind them, a string of cars — one of them mine — dared to sound their horns. I turned on the radio and got comfortable, better than getting loud and impatient — and possibly shot in the ass.
The line of cars behind the Benz sat patiently, quietly, just as I had that day. As I prepared to pass through the intersection, headed north on 5th towards Allegheney, a heavy-set young black kid in an unzipped hoodie saw the Benz from the far corner and his face lit up with recognition. He ran through the intersection, holding a hand up in my direction, expecting me to let him pass. I waited, and then drove off, turning my head for a last look at the scene. El Pez Grande in the Benz didn’t acknowledge the other boy; he kept staring straight ahead into the distance, even as the bulky kid hunkered down, leaning heavily on the car’s door. It looked like the two had business to attend to that would take a couple minutes and he wanted to get comfortable.
Today I saw a kid, probably about 12 years old, coming out of a Chinese takeout place near 8th and Somerset. He bounced through the propped-open doorway on the balls of his feet and down a single concrete step to the sidewalk. He turned his head from side to side with his eyes squinted, surveying the nearby corners and rolling his shoulders. His facial expression and posture were that of a much older man, and the lit Newport 100 in his mouth was half the size of his head, its smoldering tip hung down well past his chin.
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]