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 pigeon coop attached to the second story rear of a Chinese take-out joint in Kensington. I would never have seen it if it hadn’t been pointed out to me, as it’s not on street level and you have to crane your neck a bit to spot it. Chinese restaurants cooking up rats and cats and pigeons are staple urban legends so I didn’t believe the stories about the rooftop coop all the neighbors told until I laid eyes on it. These urban legends are a part of the fabric of ghetto life, homespun folk tales created by inquisitive yet undereducated story tellers who often confuse correlation with causation in an attempt to fill in gaps in understanding about their sometimes confusing and tumultuous worlds.
One persistent and popular myth tells of a special wing in Temple Hospital where the organs of young black men who have suffered gunshots are harvested. The genesis of such a story probably goes something like this: I knew so-and-so was alive when the EMTs brought him into the emergency room and his wound wasn’t that bad, but the doctors took him away and the next time we saw him he was dead. Enough young men die at Temple Hospital from the innumerable possible complications of gunshots that somewhere along the way an aggrieved family member or friend introduced the organ harvesting angle to make sense of the tragedy and it stuck. Now it’s taken as common knowledge in North Philly that if you’re a young black man with a bullet wound you best not go to Temple because they?ll steal your liver, lungs and kidneys and leave you to die on the slab.
I figured the Chinese restaurant pigeon-serving myth was along those lines, but now I’m not so sure. Maybe there really are Chinese take out places all over North Philly substituting pigeons for chickens. The coop was pointed out to me by a young Latina with a baby stroller who was talking to a friend about an alley cat she claimed the restaurant owner captured, killed and cooked.
“Shit,” she said, “you don’t think they serve cats? Look at the mother fuckin’ pigeon coop on the roof.” I followed the trajectory of her long fingernail and saw a green-painted, ramshackle wood enclosure covered in chicken wire, brimming with birds.
“Damn,” I said, interrupting her conversation, “I heard the neighbors talking about that but never saw it. I guess I didn’t believe it.”
She said, “That’s right, pigeons, cats, rats, they cook whatever the fuck they get their hands on.”
As if on cue, a feral cat, just a bit bigger than a kitten, took a running dive at the cyclone fence blocking the alley behind the restaurant. He clung on with his tiny paws and struggled his way up and over. We watched, amazed, and once the cat disappeared the woman with the baby stroller turned to me.
“See that? They’ll be serving that shit for dinner tonight.”
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.
[photo courtesy of DAVID GIFFORD]