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 young Latino boy on the El; I sat directly across from him in the seat near the doors, the one that faces the opposite direction of the other seats around it. We were practically face-to-face but he was staring out the window. I got on at the 30th Street stop and the train was headed eastbound. The kid had on one of those crazily patterned oversized hooded zip up sweat jackets that all the kids wear. I see the jackets every day when I’m in the neighborhoods; Louis Vuitton logos edged in day glow pink and green, set against black fabric like stellar constellations in the night. Another popular version has banded rolls of gold colored hundred dollar bills on it that look like a cascading avalanche of money. Another is just a jumbled mess of blinding colors, like Jackson Pollock on PCP, splattered against white or bright orange cloth — the camouflage of urban foot soldiers in a neon warzone.
When the train stopped at 15th Street a grizzled older black man — in a brown houndstooth jeff cap, imitation brown gators that were worn down at the toe and blue jeans that were bleached out along the inseam — came strutting down the center aisle. When he came to the empty seat next to the young Latino kid he threw himself into it, leaning hard up against the kid to let him know that he wanted some space. He muttered at the kid about taking up two seats and gave him the stink eye. You kids these days on the train all spread out and taking up my space. Think you own the mother fucker. Don’t bring that bullshit on this train while I’m riding.
The kid didn’t hear him over the loud hip hop spilling out of his iPod ear buds. In fact, the kid hadn’t been taking up two seats at all. Only the tail of his unzipped coat was lying on the seat when the old man dropped down next to him and the kid didn’t have a chance to pull it back into his own space. As the kid pulled at his coat, struggling to wrench it from under the old man’s ass, the old man looked away, defiant and satisfied with his tugging. Once the kid got his coat free he shook his head a little at the old man?s rudeness before sinking back into his head-nodding trance of ringing chimes, slippery hi-hat, snare slaps and nimble rhymes.
At 13th Street a set of seats in the opposite aisle opened up and when they did the old man got up and lunged for it, landing hard against the window and then sliding down. He spread himself out across both seats and got comfortable. He kept muttering to himself, clearly aggrieved about something — maybe still about these young kids on the subway lounging out and taking up his space, maybe about something else.
A well-dressed middle-aged white woman with a touch of gray in her dark hair got on board and sat down next to the kid. She did that thing a lot of white professional people do on the El when they sit down next to black and Latino kids who look a little too thug for suburban comfort. She put her ass half on the seat, half off; she made sure there were three or four inches of space between her and the kid. She flapped open a copy of the Inquirer and started to read the local section, her body balanced on the edge of the seat, swaying with the train as it tilted and shook.
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]