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 hot sun shining down on North Philly for the first time this year. The forecasted high was 82 degrees with nothing but bright blue overhead; compared to the cold spring the city was emerging from it felt like mid-July. The flavor on the streets was beer, even at 11 am on a Monday: On 25th Street near Dauphin, a young girl in skintight capris and a halter top (with a waist-length weave) drained a Miller High Life bottle on her front step, her head tilted back 45 degrees and her throat open in full chug. When she lowered the bottle, she hollered across the street to the dealer boys in their Muslim beards congregated around the front of an abandoned corner store on Dakota Street, grasping dark, amber bottles of their own by the neck. At 23rd and Allegheny a man dodged through traffic, cradling a brown-bagged 40 oz. like a football, giving oncoming traffic the Heisman straight arm. The bars were open, too; corner dives with names like Boo’s Double Down Lounge, Lou & Choo’s, the Tender Touch and Club Menage A Trois. These darkened gin joints had their doors propped wide to let the fresh air wash over their stale innards. A peek inside showed anemic business; only three or four Jeff-capped neighborhood old heads per place, perched on old style round-topped bar stools.
On Allegheny closer to Kensington there was a Latin family sitting in umbrella-shaded beach chairs, circled around a smoldering grill piled high with spicy chicken skewers. Those go for a couple bucks each and they were doing brisk business, selling cold Buds from a cooler to go with. The beer cans were hauled from under an ice pile by a stocky older man with a crooked nose who popped them open with hard, fighter’s hands. He then passed them to his customers, mostly neighborhood young boys who held pacing, panting pit bulls on the end of long ropes. The young boys are fast learners who know a good potential front when they see it; around the corner on Clearfield Street there’s another grill set up just like this one and while it never smokes there is a plastic Igloo cooler underneath it that they reach into when an addict approaches.
On an old steel loading dock attached to the back of an abandoned warehouse south of Clearfield Street, four men sat with legs dangling over its edge, toasting with Tall Boys and looking like Depression Era train-hopping hobos in dirty denim and tank tops, their toes pushing through the fronts of torn-up construction boots. At a nearby corner, a professionally dressed middle-aged black woman with a briefcase (maybe another social worker, maybe a local pastor) surveyed the streets in frustration, the distaste apparent on her face. She said, “My, my, we got a whole lot of nothin’s out here today not workin’.”
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]