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 tall, lean old black man emptying a brown sack of canned goods onto the stoop in front of the corner house on Carlisle and Parrish. It’s an abandoned house and the stoop isn’t quite a porch but a concrete slab, much larger than a front step but not so big as to have ever been worth enclosing. Two steps that lead down to the sidewalk from the slab, and during the warmer months the hookers who on the stroll nearby, on Ridge Avenue, sit on it side by side sharing 40s of malt liquor and crack stems. When it got cold last fall, the hookers broke the windows and moved in, but somebody has since boarded the place up. Once over the summer I was walking to my car after work and one of the girls came up to me wearing a filthy white tank top so loose her breasts were hanging out of it. “Gimme a dollar,” she demanded, harsh and nasty, wide-eyed and high as a kite. I told her to get lost. It seems like there’s always somebody perched or passed out on that slab when the sun is shining.
The old man was wearing a coordinated jumpsuit, brightly blue with yellow and the word “Enyce” in bold letters across the front. It looked like the pants came up short on him; the overall fit was bad. I imagine the outfit was donated but I could be wrong — maybe that was just Pops’ style, dressing like the young boys. He had thick brown plastic-rimmed glasses on, the lenses opaque like the bottoms of ancient glass soda bottles. He pulled one can of food after the next from the bag, holding them up at a distance so he could read their labels before placing them in a line along the slab’s ledge. That’s what poor folks do when they’ve just come from the food bank, or the Salvation Army — pull up on a nearby stoop somewhere and take a look at what they got. They check expiration dates, see if there’s anything worth trading away for a dollar or two. Usually they leave the fresh produce behind since they don’t really have the means to cook it anyway. If you’re relying on the food bank for your canned goods, there’s a good chance your gas is shut off, you live in a rooming house, or have some other tenuous housing situation that prevents you from preparing hot meals.
Over the past couple weeks, I saw deflated-looking eggplants, soggy ears of corn and wilted peppers, orange and red, on the slab or tossed neglected onto the sidewalk amongst the broken bottle glass.
TODAY I SAW a Latino man in red-stained butcher’s whites standing on the corner of 5th and Somerset amongst the bustling barrio foot traffic, a skinned pig slung over his shoulder.
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]