[photo by JONATHAN VALANIA]
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. [Note: This is Part II of a three-part series. Part I is here, Part III runs tomorrow]
Family court verges on a free-for-all; in the hallways upstairs by the courtrooms there is a never ending parade of bad behavior. In family court you see people at their worst; former lovers are forced to occupy the same space as the one they now passionately loathe, in an atmosphere where stakes run high as important decisions regarding support payments and child custody get passed down in eight different courtrooms. There’s little privacy or concern for confidentiality and shouting matches regularly erupt in the hallways and waiting rooms. In the main waiting room a bookish, young legal advocate talks with the domestic violence cases, taking a few moments to sit and coach nervous looking women clutching Protection from Abuse petitions. There are slick looking lawyers with deep tans and wearing sleek suits and loads of hair gel, talking amongst themselves between glances at their Blackberries. An old man in a blue blazer signifying him as an officer of the court sits at the front of the room reading names off a tattered computer print out.
The waiting room dramas play out in excruciatingly close quarters; the couple in the next row of seats was fighting out an ugly custody battle and the woman’s lawyer relished the opportunity to embarrass her ex-boyfriend in front of an audience. He was one of the slick lawyers who looked straight from the Sopranos in a double breasted suit, bold Italian tie and a Rado watch that looked like a shiny, black insect coiled around his wrist. The woman’s ex-boyfriend was suited up in grey with pink pinstripes and a pink pocket square; he was playing lawyer, representing himself in court. I watched their conversation play out as they talked in loud voices from a couple seats away.
“See, the thing is that you think this is a fuckin’ joke. This shit ain’t a joke, you hear me? Ask me how long I’ve been doin’ this. Seriously, I want you to ask me this.”
The boyfriend looked dumbstruck; he was a big, flat-topped bruiser who was clearly in over his head, intellectually speaking. He complied, asking the lawyer how long he’s been practicing.
“Thirty fuckin’ years I’ve been doing this. And you come in here, thinking this is bullshit. Like you just put on a suit and say some bullshit and that’s going to fly in a court of law. I am here to tell you that this is not bullshit. I am not a bullshitter. Do you even understand what’s going, here?”
The question at hand was a paternity test the father ordered in an attempt to delay his child support order. He thought that he could tie up the court for weeks with genetic tests that would prevent him from having to pay. The lawyer explained that this wasn’t going to be the case.
“See that’s what you don’t fuckin’ know. I don’t need to establish fucking paternity to get money from you. You are going to pay me. I am going to get money from you whether you like it or not. If you were a lawyer, you would have known that but you aren’t and you don’t. Consider it free advice. Besides, the one thing that I know, you know, she knows and everyone in that courtroom knew is that the child is yours.”
The dad looked dejected and confused. They moved on to visitation negotiations, now with all parties standing in a circle, like they might mercifully be wrapping things up. The lawyer dismissed out of hand the boyfriend’s pitch for an even time split with his kid.
“I’m going to try to say this as respectfully as possible. Actually, forget that. There’s no way to tell you this respectfully. You are really fucking dumb. Do you know that? Do you know how fucking stupid you are? That’s the worst I idea I’ve ever heard. You know what you’re going to get? Every other Saturday. And you’ll get that because the child’s mother wants that. If I were her I would walk away and give you nothing, which, by the way, I could do right now, just so you know.”
The father sputtered, flabbergasted; he wanted to throw a punch at the lawyer but knew he couldn’t.
“Are you kidding me? Every other Saturday? I know guys who were railroaded down here and still got every other Saturday.”
“Well, that’s what you got, okay? We’re done.? The lawyer turned to the mother. “Get your stuff.”
As they packed up the mother, a pretty girl still heavy with baby weight who wore lots of dark curls and ruby red lipstick turned to the watching waiting room crowd to add a last minute editorial about her ex-boyfriend.
“You see that? He loves to fight, this one. That’s all he knows how to do. That’s all he ever wants to do.”
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.