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 the usual motley crew gathered around the front doors to municipal court where, more than once, I have been compelled to appear as a witness in domestic violence cases. As always, the crowd was colorful. While I waited outside for a lawyer from the DA’s office to show up I stood next to a pot bellied white woman wearing gigantic tortoise shell sun glasses. They were knock-off Dolce & Gabbanas with the letters “D&B” embedded in rhinestones along their arms. She had on gold hoop earrings and a baby blue terry cloth top that barely covered her big belly. She was chain smoking and talking to a friend, ticking off a litany of personal problems. DHS home inspections, drug programs, working at McDonalds to afford a room, legal woes, spousal abuse; she rattled them off one after the next, pausing to puff on a Newport between each new chorus of woe.
These are the tribulations of life under the poverty line, and her friend nodded up and down in sympathy, and then back and forth in disgust. As the attorney I was waiting for walked up the woman was talking about an obese friend of hers who wears a bikini to the pool, “lettin’ her flubber hang all out.”
The attorney was an attractive black woman with pristine dreadlocks in a sharp navy suit and holding a black alligator briefcase. She called my name out and I waved to get her attention. She handed me the subpoena I needed to get inside. You can’t just stroll into municipal court; you either present a subpoena or get bounced by the guards. Every now and then a sheriff’s office van rolls up and the guards clear out everyone waiting in line so they can bring in prisoners from the county lockup. This morning three black Muslims in oversized white t-shirts and knit Kufi’s were marched in, each man chained to the other and watched over by shotgun-wielding cops.
A young black girl walked by with a crude pot leaf tattooed in thick lines on her neck and a shirt that asked, “What have you done for me lately?”
Behind me in line there was a white boy in an oversized powder blue-and-white Rocawear shirt with matching powder blue basketball shorts and Air Jordan sport sandals. Sport sandals with ankle socks seem to be the preferred footwear choice for men of a broad range of ages and races at the courthouse. The white boy had a chin strap beard and fade haircut with Caesar bangs. When the court officer asked him what business he had at the courthouse he said, “Yo, I’m here to file for custody.”
I showed the guard my subpoena and went upstairs to the waiting area outside one of the many courtrooms on the second floor. Up here, time is an old dog and it will learn no new tricks.
[End of Part 1]
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.