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 Garages open under a warm afternoon sun, their contents arranged on the crowded, narrow strip of sidewalk that lines Indiana Avenue between Front and Second streets. The Garages are a strip of metal storage containers set back from the street in a patch of grass that butts up against the train tracks running under Front Street. The containers stay closed all winter, looking like foreboding and forgotten industrial sheds that might have once belonged to the railroad. They’re painted gunmetal grey and green, and are kept shut with padlocks and thick chains.When the spring arrives the chains come off and the doors open to reveal storage spaces packed with used furniture, refurbished appliances, secondhand housewares and aged electronics.
The proprietors of The Garages are Latin families with pictures of the Blessed Mother and the Sacred Heart taped up to the container doors. They sit under beach umbrellas sipping soda or playing dominoes on the glass-topped tables they’re selling. A motley assortment of people moves along this tight stretch of backstreet, a place where two cars passing in opposite directions can barely pass each other. Neighborhood men linger on the corners drinking cheap canned beer, and addicts scurry past looking deathly ill. Some cars pass The Garages moving too fast to be safe near so much foot traffic; the drivers are young white guys in newer-model cars who just copped from nearby drug corners and are beating feet back to DelCo or Jersey to get that shot off. Their impatience with the street-clogging crowds shows on their faces as desperate pain.
The best time to hit the Garages is Friday or Saturday, because the auctions are on Thursday. The vendors get their wares from self-storage facilities that liquidate the contents of delinquent container accounts once a week. At self-storage auctions, you don’t see the contents of a container before you bid; you use its exterior dimensions to form your bidding strategy. A big container might net you a two-bedroom house worth of furniture for $20. Other times, other bidders drive the price up and for $250 the winning bidder gets a busted-ass old love seat and a rusty bed frame. The auctions are a little like gambling, and some are better at it than others.
I made small talk with the vendors, some of whom were very friendly and made easy conversation. Some probably thought I was from L&I or maybe a plain-clothes cop; they stiffened a little at my approach and gave terse answers without making eye contact, though I asked innocent questions about bassinets and coffee tables for my clients. When I left The Garages I looped around the block to get back on Front Street and when I passed the corner of Howard Street and Cambria, a young Latin boy sitting on a BMX bike announced “dopedopedope” three times real fast. There was a school directly across the street that was letting out for the day, and I could see DRUG FREE SCHOOL ZONE signs posted all around as a swarm of small children made their noisy way toward the corner.
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]