[Photo by RACHAEL SHIRLEY]
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 motley crowd milling around outside Family Court. That’s on Ludlow Street, a half-block south of Market, which between 11th and 12th Streets is little more than an alleyway. There’s a round-topped, tinted glass awning that runs the length of the street where lawyers and clients congregate, smoking cigarettes and talking over their cases. The building itself is white brick, stained an ashy grey in some parts and the pale yellow of dried urine in others. Municipal Court is next door; that’s where you go to Housing Court if you get evicted. Outside the courthouse there’s an odd mix of thugs, around-the-way girls, burly Northeast bruisers and dime-store lawyers. There’s plenty of drama to go around as plaintiffs and defendants who didn’t get enough of yelling at each other in the courtroom spill out onto Ludlow Street after their case is closed.
I watched a Muslim brother in a white hoodie covered in colorful Hindu Om symbols passing out business cards under the awning. I realized after a minute that he was targeting the young single girls as they came and went, kitted out in the kind of proudly misguided hoochie-mama version appropriate court attire — low-rider capris with a thong showing, stiletto heels with leather braces that come almost up to the knee and a halter top that reads along the lines of, “I’m allergic to broke.” The girls took the card and slipped it in their handbags. I crept closer to the man so I could see what the card said when he handed it to another thugged-out, thickly-bearded brother in a cockeyed Yankees cap with a cartoonishly oversized symbol on it. The card read, “Upscale Topless.” New jawn, he said, I just opened it. Lookin’ for talent, you know any girls that need work?
To the left of them, a white kid with close-cropped brown hair and goatee lit a cigarette with so much ceremony you?d think there was a camera crew filming him. He was wearing a suit that I would wager is the only one he owns; in his head he was Al Capone brought to court on some trumped-up bullshit. He swaggered in circles, looking for someone to someone to hear him out. He settled on the same guy who was still looking over the Upscale Topless business card. I’m waitin’ on my lawyer, yo, he said. Gotta talk to my attorney about some shit, you know? I hear that, the guy said, sounding totally genuine and sympathetic to a man’s need for proper legal representation.
She don’t think I got no lawyer, the white boy continued, shooting the cuffs of his cheap suit and taking the cigarette from his mouth after a long drag. Well, she’s in for a surprise, boy, he said while exhaling smoke. I gots a lawyer and I know she don’t got none. He looked off towards 11th Street, watching for his attorney’s approach, smugly satisfied with his superior strategizing.
(Look for part II tomorrow and the exciting conclusion on Thursday)
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.