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 Mona, a tall, stick-thin woman who’s missing one of her two front teeth and staring me in the face as she leans in the window of my car. She’s the block captain, or what passes for one, on a street in Kensington I won’t name. It’s a narrow side street where neighbors have to park their cars half on the sidewalk so other cars can get by. Most of the cars on the block are missing their driver’s side mirrors because their owners forgot to pull them in one time and they got clipped. Really narrow blocks like this tend to be a little wilder than others, simply because of the poverty density factor. People live practically on top of each other here, and it magnifies the problems they have. This is the worst block I’ve seen in the entire city.
Mona was eyeing me hard because it was the first time we met. I was holding her eye contact to let her know there was no reason for me not to. Mona’s probably been thinking I’m a cop for the last week or two that I’ve been coming here regularly. So has the rest of the block — the distaste they have for me is open and obvious. Any time I’m here, a crowd congregates two stoops down from where I’m parked to give me the stink eye. They whisper amongst themselves, pointing in my direction. The neighbors are all petty dealers and there’s more than one drug house on the block. They must have stopped thinking I was a cop somewhere along the way because they make transactions now while looking right at me.
There’s a wild, frenetic energy on this street as addicts dash back and forth, desperately banging on doors, yelling up to windows to see who is selling. Standing in the center of all of it feels like being in the eye of a tornado. The chaos whirls around you noisily before disappearing, only to touch down at the other end of the block moments later. The little kids seem oblivious to everything, throwing their footballs over the dealers and then dashing through the dope fiends to run it back.
I asked Mona if she was the block captain and she broke eye contact, stepping away from the car and dipping her knees like the thought necessary to answer the question entirely sapped her strength. Her eyes rolled back in her head, showing not whites but a sickly, jaundiced yellow. When she came out of her spell she said, “Excuse me, I am not right in the mind this morning.” I resisted the urge to tell her that was entirely apparent and let her give her block captain spiel, talking about the free school lunch list for new kids to sign.
“Listen, Mona,” I said, and suddenly we were eye to eye again, “I’m a social worker. OK? I know you’ve seen me around here and you’re going to be seeing me around here a lot in the next couple weeks. When I’m here I’m not here to be up in anybody else’s business. I’m here to attend to business of my own. I’d appreciate it if everyone paid me the same courtesy.”
She nodded seriously and genuinely before looking down the block at some commotion, taking a second to yell at someone I couldn’t see.
“Yeah, I figured you was a social worker or some shit. You got a card? I want to see it.” She held her hand out, palm up.
“I got a lot of cards. Take a bunch of them. Hand them out; let everyone know, if you don’t mind doing me the favor.” I pulled a short stack of cards from my wallet and laid them in her palm.
“Yeah,” she said, “Yeah, I got you. Don’t worry about nothing.”
As she walked off, I thought this is how you make peace in the war zone.
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.