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 a young woman in a black head scarf sitting on a stoop and reading Dora the Explorer with her daughter. Mona‘s crew was two stoops down, whispering to each other and eyeing me warily, which they still do every time I’m there. I’m slowly meeting the neighbors; I now know that one of Mona’s friends, on whose stoop she’s perched, is a young, wide-eyed crack addict named Lamont.
All I know about Lamont is his name and that he steps inside his house about every five minutes, presumably to hit on a pipe. He emerges breathless, then paces in circles around parked cars. The last time I was here he was fixated on something in his mouth, which he stared at in the side mirror of a beat up old SUV. He pulled his lips back, got close to the glass and inspected his gums. After he was done staring at whatever it was he thought he saw, he started to walk away from the mirror but turned back, obsessed, unable to look away, probing now with a Q-tip he pulled from his pocket. He was bent over, looking in the mirror like this when I showed up, and still later when I left. This kind of obsessive/compulsive behavior is a tell-tale side effect of cocaine abuse.
When I leave my client’s house now, there are two young Latin thugs posted on either side of the front steps like sentries. They’re clearly ordered to stand there, maybe by Mona, maybe by one of the other petty dealers on the block. They listen through the door while I work with my client. Perhaps they’re still trying to verify that I’m not a cop, and that my client isn’t working on the block as an informant. When I left, I stepped over them without asking them to move, not wanting to give them an opportunity to start a confrontation or to seem intimidated. I asked the little girl on the next stoop over if she’s a big Dora fan. She smiled and nodded emphatically. I told her that my niece is, too.
I started my van and went to pull out, but there was a basketball left in the street. This street is too narrow to drive around anything, and there are often children’s toys or garbage bags lying around. I waited while an older boy yelled over the sound of a running hose, telling his little brother to move the ball. There was a heavy woman sitting in a beach chair on the sidewalk, eating brightly orange chicken wings from a Styrofoam take-out box. She had cougar paw print tattoos that traced a path from her chest up the side of her neck and behind her ear. Her front door was open, and through it I could see she had no furniture at all in her house.
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.