TODAY I SAW…

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jeffdeeney.thumbnail.jpgBY 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 the sanctuary of an African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was set up for bingo, with picnic tables lined up side by side and ringed with chairs, with a concession stand off in a corner at the rear of the room. The walls were fiberboard patterned to look like wood and the table tops were chipped at the corners. There was a stage at the front of the room and tall, rectangular mirrors attached to the wall that would reflect parishioners’ faces back at them during a sermon. There was a movable pulpit placed at center stage and an ornate, throne-like wooden chair set behind it.

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On one side of the stage was an electric organ with a picture of Jesus over it. He was portrayed with skin the color of milk chocolate and a well-trimmed black beard. He wore a white robe with a hood that covered his head and smiled serenely from under its folds, holding his hands out palm up.

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On the other side of the stage there was a piano and another electric organ side by side. Next to them, against the facing wall, was a small Marshall guitar amplifier. At the rear of the room there was a desk like they have in banks, where deposit and withdrawal slips are kept in little compartments under glass that customers reach into. In the little compartments were gospel tracts with titles like, “The Messiah …Who is He?” Next to that were two vending machines, one with sodas for .50; the other was out of order, covered over a tarp made from slit-open trash bags taped together.

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On the wall directly above the glass desk was a collage of photos showing smiling black faces beneath church crowns and feathered fedoras; the faithful making their way to Sunday worship. There were narrow slips of paper reading MIGHTY GOD and AWESOME GOD and HALLELUJAH taped over the spaces between the pictures.

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When I left the church there were two men in the parking lot wearing wool hats and heavy coats. There was a brown bagged bottle on the ground between them. They had torn a piece off the brown bag and one of them was holding it bent in a U shape while the other sprinkled something into it. They were looking at this very intently. When they noticed me passing they stared at me angrily, challenging me to say something to them.

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TODAY I SAW a boarded-up house on Hurley Street in Kensington whose sealed windows were painted over with flowing curtains and a flower box. The paint was weather-worn and faded, the rough grain of the plywood showing through. The curtains were a light gray that was nearly faded to white and were parted, held back on either side to let sunlight into a room that no longer existed. In the roughly-drawn window box, which itself was once red but now approached brown, there were pink flowers on green stems. The lines were thick and not entirely straight, clearly painted by an untrained hand. Across the front of the house the word SMOOK was spray painted in black letters that had been crossed out by someone who spray painted the word SMOKE to the left of it.

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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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