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 three winos sitting side by side on a Francisville park bench, making fun of a crackhead. It’s not much of a park, more just a diamond-shaped piece of concrete about 50 ft. across that butts up against Poplar Street to the east of 19th. There are black-painted benches around the perimeter of the park made from curved steel poles that are cemented to the ground and linked together by metal mesh. The park’s in an area that’s seen its share of gentrification in the last 10 years but still hasn’t made it over the hurdle to a neighborhood that attracts white yuppies en masse, like nearby Fairmount. There are still abandoned buildings on the neighboring blocks, mixed in among other houses that are relatively well maintained and those that have been recently renovated and converted to rental units.
Down the block by Ridge Avenue, there’s a lot of Section 8 housing, some vacant lots that attract prostitutes after dark, and the Mary Jane Hotel that brings homeless folks from the shelters looking for a meal. There was a murder near 19th and Poplar about two months ago, and a peppering of shootings on the surrounding blocks over the last year. As far as neighborhoods in transition go, Francisville has a figurative foot firmly planted in the future and the past, in an awkward socioeconomic straddle between upward momentum and stagnation.
The winos and crackheads in the park are evidence of the latter. Early in the morning you can find rummies basking in the warmth of the rising sun, tilting malt liquor bottles and Styrofoam cups filled with turpentine vodka and juice from a Little Hug. They look sopping wet with liquor, red-eyed and slurring like they’ve been at it all night. This morning they had a crackhead to focus their attention on; she was clearly at the end of her run, using a scavenged length of wire to frantically clean out the inside of her stem. She was hoping to scrape another hit’s worth of coke residue from its walls; there was a copy of yesterday’s paper on the bench next to her that she was hunched over, her one arm pumping like a piston. She had a dirty doo-rag wrapped around her head and her pants legs rolled up to the knee. She was missing some teeth and her shoes; her bare feet rested on the ground amidst the broken glass and bits of asphalt.
“Look at them chicken legs!” the winos called out, pointing at her and laughing from the other end of the park. The woman’s under-fed legs were like twigs, narrow enough to wrap your hand around.
“Put them chicken legs away, girl. Don’t nobody want to see your damn chicken legs.”
The crackhead ignored them, obsessed with her scraping, desperate for that last blast. She froze when she saw me out of the corner of her eye, terrified by my watching white face, not certain if I was a cop. She pulled her pipe in close, clutching it to her breast like she’d just been stabbed in the heart. She sat totally motionless like this until after I was out of sight.”***
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.