“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.
(EDITOR NOTE: The following occurred yesterday at 2:30 in the afternoon.)
Today I saw a fire fight break out on Old York Road and Venango Street. Right before I heard the first shots fired I was staring idly out the window while two young dudes were engaged in friendly conversation on the sidewalk next to where I was parked. One of them leaned back against the minivan in front of me. He had his keys out and it looked like they were getting ready to part company. The shots rang out from about fifty feet away, four in quick succession, pop…poppop…pop. It could have been school kids throwing fire crackers but I knew otherwise when the guy leaning on the van hopped up off it and crouched down, looking up the block in the direction of the sound and pressing himself tight up against the side door. His friend came around the back of the van and squatted behind it, waiting for some signal of what to do next. The driver ran around the rear of the van and yelled for his friend to get in, fast. He fired up the engine and they tore off, making a fast three point turn and heading in the opposite direction. As he did there were more pops coming from up the block.
One of the shooters was coming my way. I knew this before I saw him. I was in the passenger?s seat and the car wasn’t running so there wasn’t anything I could do but get down and wait for him to pass. When I saw him half-running, half-skipping towards me, turning his head as he did to see if he was being pursued, I reached down and pulled on the seat release and eased the seat back as far as I could. If a bullet were to come through the windshield I didn’t want to catch it in the head. Even with my body laid out horizontally I could still lift my head a little and see what was going on.
The shooter was a young black kid, maybe in his early twenties, clean shaven and boyish looking in an oversized black t-shirt and baggy brown jeans. I saw the gun that was still in his hand, a boxy and mean looking piece of black metal that he had partially stuffed into his front pocket. He wanted to keep his finger on the trigger in case he had to start shooting again but at the same time he didn’t want to openly brandish the weapon for witnesses to see.
He slowed to a walk when he got within arm’s reach of me; if my window was down I could have reached out to touch him. Maybe he felt comfortable, thinking he had escaped unharmed. Maybe he was lingering for a second, thinking about going back to pop off a couple more. He was smiling broadly, like street corner crossfires were fun and games. His face said, ain’t no thang. Just throwin’ some lead, baby. Just bustin’ slugs. We were two blocks from Temple Hospital. The streets were filled with pedestrians and working folks.
When he saw me leaned back in the passenger’s seat, my wide eyes darting back and forth from the gun to his face and back again — he started to laugh. Look at white man. He scared. He about to shit his pants. You’re goddamn right I was, even after he jogged away.
When I got to the corner of Venango the other shooter was there, standing in the middle of the intersection with his gun held close against his thigh. He was scanning the line of parked cars I just pulled away from, looking for the kid who just ran past me. He was and older guy, maybe in his 30s, with a Muslim beard and close cropped head. His caramel colored baggy shirt and pants matched exactly. When I pulled up to the stop sign he waved me through the intersection with his free hand.
I turned right onto Erie Avenue and within a minute there was a blue and white with lights shining and siren screaming parting the traffic in the westbound lanes. At the first red light I came to I rolled my window down for some air with a severely shaking hand and from the car parked next to mine I heard hype hip hop blasting, the rapper practically hyperventilating as he rhymed about being a maniac when he’s out on these motherfuckin’ streets.
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.