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 small side street in Southwest Philly that was littered with garbage. It looked like trash day had come and gone and the block was passed over; a spell of high wind had tumbled the bags left by the curb out into the street, where they were carelessly struck by passing cars, split open and their contents spilled. The loose garbage was scooped up by the howling gusts and spun around, picked up and put down at random. All that disregarded litter and the deteriorated condition of the surrounding houses made me think a tornado had struck. It looked like a vicious twister had ripped through the block and then dissipating into nothing, leaving behind broken windows, doors hanging from hinges and empty pizza boxes in the gutter. The only thing that was missing from the picture was a totaled car still spinning on its roof in the middle of the street.

I stood on the front steps of an empty house and listened to a middle-aged woman in a colorful doo-rag yelling through a doorway up the block.

“Put some shoes on that child! And if you comin’ out you best put some more clothes on his behind, it’s cold out here, now!”

She started towards me, muttering under her breath as she got closer, not noticing me standing there. She was a stocky, solid woman wearing a zipped-up black hooded sweatshirt with a big, bright neon green skull and crossbones on it. The design covered her whole chest; the skull was bisected by the zipper’s vertical trail. She was startled when she looked up and saw me. A lot of folks in the neighborhoods are startled to see me. Sometimes when I talk to them they’re momentarily stunned, like they saw a ghost or heard a scream. I look too well-fed for an addict, so I imagine they think I’m police, especially today with the 12th District headquarters just around the corner. A white man hanging out like he’s got all day must be plainclothes narcotics. I think that’s why when I’m out in the neighborhoods, seeing things, I’m generally left alone.

“How’s this block?”

“What’s this, now?” She seemed confused, taken aback, but polite.

“How’s this block? You know, is it a good block? Is it safe?”

“This block?” she asked, rhetorically, turning and looking back in the direction she came from, “this block ain’t a good block. No, no. This block got its problems.”

“Does it get wild at night?”

“At night? Shit, day, night, don’t matter none.”

“A lot of drugs on this block?”

“Yeah, drugs, lots of drugs. Nonsense all the time on this block. I wouldn’t live on this block, no.”

“You don’t live on this block?”

“Me? Hell no. My daughter live on this block. Just moved here with her 2-year-old son. She crazy, I told her not to. I told her you don’t need to be up in that mess. This is what she can afford, though, and she want to be on her own, she don’t want to live with her mother no more.”

“You live around here?”

“Four blocks down that way,” she waved her hand in a general southwesterly direction, “it’s better down there, quieter than this here block.”


“Oh, no problem, baby, you have a good day, now.”

“You do the same, ma’am.”

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]


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