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 uncapped fire hydrants, their streams being shaped and directed by child hands into geysers that arced over the streets. It’s that time of year; the arrival of searing light and heat that reflects off a lake of glass and metal, making for a blinding whiteness everywhere that you have to constantly squint against. On many tightly packed blocks there are no trees for shelter from the unrelenting sun and all that stacked up stone acts like oven bricks, creating a steamy haze that clings to your face; it gathers around your eyes like packed cotton. The heat pushes people out of their houses and the sidewalks become a maze of lawn chairs and children’s toys. The caps come off the hydrants and kids dance through the cooling blasts. They shower passing cars before running to take cover when their drivers slow down to shout and shake their fists, forced to turn on their windshield wipers.
I heard the familiar Mister Softee jingle around G Street and Westmoreland but couldn’t spot the truck. The sound was right next to me, seeming to emanate from nothing. When I pulled through the intersection I saw a man with a minivan that had colorful pictures of popsicles and snow cones taped to it. He was pulling ice cream sandwiches from a cardboard box in a big Igloo cooler and selling them to the neighborhood kids that crowded his open side door. The Mister Softee soundtrack was a bootleg, blaring from his stereo.***
TODAY I SAW a hard faced blonde woman in a short skirt crossing the street at Frankford and Ruan, under the Church Street El station. She carried a pocketbook and wasn’t aware that it had caught her hem when she shouldered it, causing the back of her skirt to come up to her waist. She had no underwear on and her ass was in plain view as she cleared the intersection and went into the check cashing store on the far corner. There were haggard men with aged, blotchy tattoos wearing basketball jerseys, tank tops and cut off jean shorts standing in front of The Next Stop, the dive bar catty corner from the check cashing store. They gave each other elbow nudges and then hooted in her direction.
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.