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 white kid, maybe 12, with dirty blond hair cropped short, pedaling an adult size tricycle with a wooden box between the rear wheels up D Street towards Indiana Avenue. Attached to the back of the tagged up wooden box was a fifteen inch stereo speaker that was blaring rap music loud enough to shake my windshield. The face of a car stereo was mounted into the front of the box such that he could reach down to adjust the volume or skip tracks while coasting along. There was a subwoofer inside the box nestled in a tangle of wires that linked the whole thing together. The speaker itself was vibrating, rattling the wooden box as the rapper Scarface said to everyone in a two block radius, “I murder by numbers nigga, one, two, three, darin’ any motherfucker to come test me, ya standin’ in the jungle nigga.”
The boy pulled to the curb near Indiana Avenue and I pulled in behind him, pulling my van up to his rear wheel as the Latin kids that sling on the corner swarmed him, looking his bike over like it was a shiny Escalade right off the showroom floor. The white kid was brimming with pride but he kept his face hard and blank as he adjusted the volume even louder, clearly showing off. He cut the volume as I walked past and they all turned to stare uncertainly, like most corner kids do when they see me. I noticed the white boy had a string of Kanji characters tattooed along the inside of his left forearm, despite the fact that he barely stood higher than my waist.
“Did you make that?” I asked him, pointing at the box.
He looked at me like he was going to tell me to go fuck myself but gave me a straight answer.
“Yeah, my cousin helped me, he built the box but I did everything else.”
“That’s cool. I like that,” I said, but this time got ignored so I walked on. Behind me the music started to blast again, its throbbing bass beating on my back.
When I left D Street to head back to the office I saw the same kid cruising down Kensington Avenue just north of Somerset. I pulled up next to him, took my foot off the gas and coasted at his speed. When he finally looked over and saw me smiling at him he smiled back. It was a wide, confident smile, like he knew he was coolest thing happening in Kensington today. I laughed and so did he. He stood up and pedaled hard, veering off onto Boudinot Street, every head on the Avenue turning in his deafening wake.
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.