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 traffic stop on N.5th Street, just past the graffiti wall on Cecil B. Moore. The pulled over car was a tiny, late-80s model Toyota with Jersey tags and two young white kids inside. The car was on its last leg, rust eaten, dented and dirty. The girl in the passenger seat had deep, red-dyed hair pulled into pigtails and the guy behind the wheel was wearing a black-and-white striped knit hat. As I cruised past, they were smoking cigarettes and looking stressed, both pale and sickly; the boy was gaunt, his cheeks had that tell-tale concavity that addicts get from skipping meals in favor of dope. The cop questioning was shabby-looking, his jacket unzipped one shirt tail hanging out of the front of his uniform. As I pulled away from the stop sign where I was linged, I looked over my shoulder and saw the cop with his palm out, his fingers quickly curling as if to say, “fork it over.”
I got some lunch at the Cousins Supermarket around the corner — they’ve got decent roast pork, red beans and rice at the meat counter — and then followed Germantown Avenue to where it bisects 5th Street at Montgomery Avenue. The Toyota was still sitting there, 15 minutes later, now with another patrol car sitting behind the first, both with their lights flashing silently. A third crept slowly up beside those two, and the officer inside stopped for a second to talk before moving on. I circled the block to take another look at the white kids in the car. They were still chain smoking and looking even more miserable than they did before, clearly having lost any hope of getting where they were going before they got stopped. I noticed Officer Shabby had tucked his shirt in and was talking to the athletic-looking, light-skinned black cop whose car was parked behind his. They were laughing, having an animated conversation.
This is a classic Philadelphia scene: Jersey kids in town to score dope getting fucked with by the finest. Fifth Street is the funnel into the Zone, as addicts call the area around Cambria Street where the heroin markets are, if you’re coming from across the bridge. Jersey kids take the Ben Franklin and swing north, taking 5th Street because the bridge dumps them right onto to it. The problem for Jersey dope fiends is that the police know they do this and will ride the bumper of a car full of white kids with Jersey tags going north on 5th Street anywhere above Girard Avenue, waiting for a reason to flash their lights. Then the cop makes you sit, stewing as he calls for back up. Then he shoots the shit for a half hour while you get dopesick.
He doesn’t want to hear about how you got lost on your way to visit your friend at Temple. He might make you drive back across the bridge once he’s tossed your car and written some tickets. He’ll follow right on your ass the whole way to make sure you get there. He doesn’t care if you try your luck in Camden on the way home. You’re Jersey’s problem, 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 JIM TRYON]