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 long and boxy old black Cadillac parked on Master Street just west of 17th. Master Street is on the south edge of Pill Hill proper; up the block towards Jefferson Street young pushers were perched on every stoop with pockets full of Oxys, Percs, and Xanies. They watched the passing traffic for white guys from downtown who might be out cruising on their lunch breaks with fat wallets and runny noses, hoping to cop their medication. Every eye in that crowded corridor between Jefferson and Master Street vied for contact with mine, assuming that’s why I was there. After being closely watched by the young neighborhood boys who were all waiting for me to pull over, or maybe swing around the block for another slow cruise past the loitering crews, I pulled to a stop at a red light.
There’s a pay phone near the end of the block and a man in a lightweight, acid-washed denim jacket with beige leather sleeves was holding the receiver away from his face, his conversation interrupted by a passerby. He held his hand out, letting the other man who stopped to talk to him take something from it that I couldn’t clearly see. In turn, the other man put a folded up bill in his still outstretched palm. The man on the phone went back to talking and the other man walked off.
That was when I saw the Cadillac — it was in the background as I watched the man walking off with what were probably a couple of pills in a little plastic baggie. I saw a man on a bicycle leaning into the Caddy’s window; the ass end of his bike was sticking out into the middle of the street, blocking my path. When the light turned green I made a right onto Master Street and pulled up to his rear tire. He looked like a rough, white addict and I didn’t want to start drama by laying on the horn, so I gave him a minute to finish his business.
There was an elderly black couple inside the car. The old man in the driver’s seat, who was 80 if he was a day, handed the man on the bike a bag like you get at the bodega, made from thin black plastic with a smiley face printed on it. The man on the bike opened the bag and took a quick peek inside; he liked what he saw and reached into his pocket for a knot of cash. Who would have thought? Neighborhood oldsters out for an afternoon drive, probably straight from the pharmacist with a sack full of meds for sale. The driver gave a quick tip of the fedora and started to crank his window closed. He wife was sat stern and stony-faced, sitting stock still as her husband steered their big boat of a vehicle out into traffic right in front of me.
They turned on to 18th Street, with me behind them. They were driving so slow that the guy on the bike was way out ahead of us. They had a white bumper sticker that said, “Marriage =” in bright red letters next to a pair of stick figures like you find on public bathroom doors, one lady and one gentleman, holding hands.
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 JONATHAN VALANIA]