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 the counter girls at an Olde Kensington sandwich shop exchanging a handful of pills. They were pretty young Latinas, both with dyed blond hair pulled back in pony tails and eyebrows plucked down to narrow, dark arches. They were standing back by the grill, where a young black kid was chopping out chicken cheesesteaks, when one produced an amber pill bottle and shook out a bunch of fat yellow-and-brown caplets.
“You got to gimme enough to get out from under this,” said the shorter of the two as the other capped the bottle.
“You be fine, just take those, that’s enough,” the taller girl said.
I didn’t recognize what the pills were; they weren’t prescription narcotics as far as I could see. I wasn’t the only one in the shop whose curiosity was piqued, though, there was a heavy-set, rough-looking Latino guy with bad tattoos, a shaved head and a dirty tank top. He leaned against the counter, giving them the same sly look I was. He finished the last bit of pizza in his hand and yelled out, his mouth still full:
“Yo, sell me five of those.”
The girls turned to look at him, their faces screwed up with confusion. The short girl handled the situation.
“Sell you five of these?”
“Yeah, man, right here. Right now. Gimme like six of them.” His weekend had started early, his voice already thick with liquor at 2 o’clock on a Friday.
“Nigga, this is penicillin. This shit ain’t gonna do nothin’ for you.”
He’s undeterred. “Yeah, OK, girl. Come on, sell me five, then.”
“For real, this ain’t for that — this shit just get you well if you sick. This is for strep throat and shit. Get me a ginger ale and quit buggin? me.”
“Damn, yo, I’m just playin’.” He went to the soda case and pulled a ginger ale from it, delivering it to the girl behind the counter before slipping out the door.
The short girl saw me looking at her out of the corner of me eye and walked over to where I was standing. She was rubbing her neck under her chin like she had painfully swollen nodes.
“Seriously, that was just penicillin. I’ve had this thing in my throat for a month straight now and it’s killin’ me.”
“Do you have any health insurance?”
“I don’t got no insurance but my sister does,” she pointed her thumb in the direction of the taller girl, who was taking money from another customer, “so I sent her to the doctor and told her to get me some antibiotics.”
“The clinic at 11th and Parrish is really good. They work on a sliding scale. You should get it looked at.”
“How do you know that?”
“I’m a social worker. I work for a housing program. I refer clients there.”
“Shit, I got a housing story for you. I used to be at this place around the corner; me and my eight sisters all lived there together. You know what happened? We was all here working one day and the city came and knocked our house down with all our stuff still in it. They was only supposed to tear down the abandoned building next door but knocked ours down too. Then they said the land was theirs. Intimate domain, they said.”
“Yeah, that’s it; they said that means we got nothing now. And you know the real estate in this neighborhood is through the roof these past couple years. People was callin’ my mom every day beggin’ to buy that house off us. I guess they got it anyway, didn’t they? That’s alright, though, we gone sue the shit out of the city for that.”
“Where are you guys staying now?”
“We scattered all over, you know, we all had a little money saved up so we all got places of our own.”
“Good, I’m glad you at least got a roof.”
“For real,” she said, sliding a foil-wrapped sandwich into a paper bag and pushing it across the counter at me. “You have a good day now.”
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]