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 man pacing on the corner of Kensington and Somerset in front of the used appliance shop that keeps refurbished fridges and washing machines lined up outside on the sidewalk. He was a tall, light skinned black man, maybe in his mid-30s, with a stylish grey and black knit cap that matched his grey and black fleece pullover. He had on brand new designer jeans with intricate green, red and yellow stitching on the back pockets. He was a good looking guy, well put together and he was watching out for someone who was running late. He looked a little impatient.
Down the block on Somerset a man and woman were approaching. The woman looked like a girl you might see on the Avenue after dark; poorly dyed blond hair with dark roots, skin tight jeans, black parka unzipped to reveal a halter top that showed her pale midriff and a set of imitation suede black boots. Her face looked hard; she might have been pretty at one point but she was aged beyond her years, worn down by fast living. Her face was sheet white and she looked sick. Next to her was a Latin man in a zipped up cobalt blue parka; the jacket’s bright color was darkened by a layer of grime. He had the stony, stoic face of a cigar store Indian and eyes that were blanked by sedation.
The pacing man started towards them; his time was short and they were taking too long with their slow motion shambling. He sidled up next to the girl and bent down a little bit so he could whisper in her ear. He walked whispering like that for the last quarter of the block until they hit Kensington Avenue and then he nodded towards Bentley’s, the battered dive bar across the street. The man and woman made their way to Bentley’s, which, judging from the traffic going in and out, was open and doing a booming business for 11 am on a Tuesday morning. They pulled the garishly red painted front door open and ducked inside. A moment later they reappeared and turned the corner, heading south on the Avenue. They walked faster than had just moments before as if their sense of purpose was suddenly renewed, energized by whatever just transpired in the bar.
The pacing man made his way back down the block and through the intersection of Kensington and Somerset. A minute later he went back across the same intersection and up the Avenue in the opposite direction. He did this two more times in the next ten minutes; back and forth, back and forth. He had a quick, determined stride and his eyes were always fixed on the distance, like he was still looking for familiar faces to materialize from the sidewalk crowds. Beyond him there was melting ice loudly cascading off the rusting blue steel of the El in sheets like a waterfall.
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]