[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 last installment of a three-part series. Part I is here, Part II is here]
Later on in the hallway I saw the confident young Don from earlier in the morning, the one who made a complicated ballet of smoking his cigarettes while regaling everyone else waiting in line with their subpoenas about the finer points of family law. Apparently the outcome of his hearing wasn’t so favorable despite the efforts of his crack legal team; I overheard the bailiff accompanying him and his ex-girlfriend from the courtroom say something about the judge pondering whether the Stay Away Order was going to be for three years or indefinite, neither of which are particularly good options for a father who wants to see his child. The bailiff was leading them through the hallway to separate locations where they were to wait for the judge’s decision; they couldn’t be in the same space without one going for the other’s throat. They didn’t even turn the first corner before the boy stopped, turning to yell at his ex-girlfriend.
“Tell them I’ll take the three years! How could you ask for an indefinite Stay Away Order? This is bullshit!”
His ex-girlfriend, a tiny, pretty and surprisingly normal looking young lady stepped up so they were nose to nose and spat venom in his eye.
“You fucking destroyed me. Fuck you. You’ll never see that baby. Fucking walk.” She hit his shoulder hard with the flat of her palm. “Fucking walk!”
The bailiff who had turned the corner thinking they were still following came back to retrieve them; he pointed at them and curled his extended forefinger, as if to say, “Get over here.”
After the girl was out of the picture I overheard the young Don consulting with his attorney. In a matter of moments he improbably regained not only his composure but his cocksuredness, making an analogy about the current state of his court battle.
“I guess if this was a jury trial they’d be out decidin’ right now. You know, they’d be in a room talkin’ about what to give me, you know?”
The lawyer, another sharp looker with a deep tan and complicated slicked and spiked hair, gave him a narrow-eyed look that suggested that his analogy was off the mark. The kid continued.
“Yo, you play chess?”
This lead in to this his next lecture series pushed the lawyer to the brink; he dropped his head, exasperated, and didn’t respond to his client’s rhetorical question.
“Because let me break this down for you, for real, let me tell you a little something about how this shit go. This is some strategy type shit I need to let you know about, ai’ight.”
The lawyer was laughing out loud now; he put his hand on the young Don’s shoulder and with a look that simultaneously conveyed pity and incredulity said,
“You know what, buddy? You don’t need to let me know. In fact, you don’t need to let anybody else know anything about anything else, period. What you really need to do is shut your fucking mouth. Okay? Do you understand this?”
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.