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 tall, gaunt old hobo with wild eyes and pale skin mottled with patches of ruddy pink, running down the long corridor parallel to the Market East train tracks. It was a quick and skip-footed, stiff-legged hobble, like an aged junkie in helpless flight from a narc squad sting. He had greasy gray hair that stuck out from under a baseball cap, and wore a bright orange Flyers windbreaker. His whole body looked tense, clenched; his fists were balled tight and swinging back and forth, aiding his awkward forward momentum and causing his jacket?s nylon to make a husking sound, like flapped wings.
As he passed me he yelled, “Yo, man, I gotta go to the bathroom!” He dragged out the o’s, like the urgent siren of a speeding ambulance. I turned to look at the man walking next to me, a sport-coated young black man with a meticulous pencil mustache and leather brief case. He looked at me and we both laughed, turning back as we did to watch the still wailing hobo shrink into the distance.
Two minutes later the westbound El pulled into 11th Street, where I was waiting on the platform. When the doors opened, a young Latina in a snug black jacket with a fur-rimmed collar weaved in the doorway, obviously intoxicated. Each eye pointed in a different direction and her footing was uncertain as she fumbled forward with her hands splayed, as if reaching for a handrail to guide her. Her fingernails were long, fake and ornately painted. She stopped for a moment to ask me for the time and I told her I didn’t have it. She then stumbled into the off-loading foot traffic, knocking into passersby and calling out in a thickly slurred voice for someone to give her the time; she needed to know the time. I got on the train and turned around to continue watching. The doors shut in front of me and I saw her through the etched and scratched window grabbing onto a man’s arm. As the train jolted into motion I noticed that the the bleached-out crotch of her jeans was stained dark, soaking wet.
Today I saw a patrol car parked on 42nd Street, near the corner of Lancaster. Early in the morning there’s usually a group of old heads in track suits and Kangols standing around in front of the bodega shooting the shit. But today the block was empty, except for the two officers in the car — and the kid in the back. The officers were big black men, like former college footballers, and one of them was turned at the waist so he could look at the boy in the back. The kid had on a gray hooded sweatshirt, hood down. The officer was clearly shouting, his face contorted with anger and hard as stone as the kid, no older than 19, stared into his lap, looking gravely concerned.
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]