[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.
TODAY I SAW Mona’s crew giving out lunches to the kids on the block. The lunches are part of the Summer Food Service Program, a city initiative that’s meant to provide free meals and recreational activities during summer recess. Mona and her crew do provide lunches sporadically; black plastic containers divided into sections like TV dinners. In the container are two pieces of white bread, a plastic cup containing peanut butter and jelly, and what looks like either applesauce or maybe vanilla pudding, it’s hard to tell. Yesterday there were no lunches, only an Igloo cooler with juice boxes on ice. The street was roped off for lunch anyway; I suppose it will be for the rest of the summer between the hours of 10 and 4, but of course it doesn’t much matter. The addicts who come here to cop bags are locals on foot. I figure the whole setup is an elaborate front that keeps cops off the block. At least today there were actually lunches.
Since it’s roped off, I have to park on Allegheny now and walk the length of the block to get to my client’s house. Regularly walking the worst block in the city from end to end is a profound experience. From this vantage I see dried piles of feces left by the feral cats and dogs who seem to skulk everywhere. The piles are dried and hard, swarming with flies that rise up and buzz around my face when I walk past. There is shattered glass everywhere, and I don’t mean the little cubes that fall from a smashed car window. These are long and jagged pieces of glass from house windows hit with projectiles. In fact, on their first day here someone threw a brick through my client family’s front window. Welcome to Kensington. Nobody on the block knows who threw the brick, though the adjacent stoops are mobbed with people day and night. I think the neighbors were jealous because they saw me carrying in bags of groceries that weren’t for them.
The word on the surrounding blocks is that here the dealers like to toss quarter-sticks of dynamite into the unoccupied homes for kicks. This sounded like neighborhood apocrypha to me, but lo and behold, the next day a window was missing from the house next to my client, there was more jagged glass on the sidewalk and a look inside the empty house showed scorch marks on the carpet.
The heat has turned this narrow block into a furnace, and every family is outside on their stoop as I walk past. Very few people here work. Young Latin mothers blast salsa and reggaeton from living room stereos while their children play on the dirty sidewalk barefoot, wearing nothing but diapers. They don’t speak English and won’t make eye contact with me. The black families won’t either. They blast rap music from boom boxes in second-story windows. I keep walking and see more children in diapers tiptoeing around the shattered glass and dried cat shit. The only one who says hello to me is the old head who likes to drink malt liquor from a brown bag for breakfast and is always perched on my client’s steps when I arrive. He’s nice enough; he jumped up to move when he saw me and we exchanged niceties about the heat before I disappeared inside.
On my way out I saw a little Latin boy toting his black plastic box lunch. I walked back to my van through the music and heat and sweat, past the children in diapers and dead-eyed drug addicts and thought to myself this street is like a shanty town in the West Indies. It’s a slice of the Third World knotted into the fabric of America.
The hopelessness of it all is unbearable.
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.