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 an old black man waiting for a westbound train at the 11th Street El stop. He was sitting on one of the wooden benches under a blowing fan, leaning forward and resting on his cane. He had on a green golf shirt that was tucked into a set of grey thrift store slacks that were pulled up real high. He had on wrap around shades and a grey baseball cap that was resting on top of his head; its dome was pinched and came to a conical point that made his head look larger than it was. He was muttering something to himself about some ‘dick sucking motherfucker…motherfucking faggot’ who did him wrong.
He rose up from the bench and started to walk the length of the platform, stopping every couple steps to turn and point his cane like a long finger at something invisible. “Watch yourself, faggot,” he said to nobody in particular. “Dick sucking mother fucker, keep back.” He held this pose for a moment, keeping whatever he saw at bay before taking a couple more steps. Then he turned and pointed the cane again, fending off whatever pursued him. “Fucking dick sucker,” he said. “Stay back, motherfucker.”
I talked with a psychiatrist about this behavior, once. He was a doctor who treated the indigent insane, the 302s coming off the streets and out of the subway concourses that invariably arrive at the hospital strapped to stretchers. He stressed that untreated schizophrenics aren’t actually talking to themselves, they are experiencing full-blown auditory and visual hallucinations. They exist in a world entirely different from ours. They aren’t in control of what they see and hear. These visions are as real to them as daily life is to us.
This made me wonder who it was the old man saw, the ‘dick sucking motherfucker’ who had to be kept at bay with a cane. Was it hallucinatory return of an old enemy, a distant angry memory revived from the graveyard of years gone past and given a physical shape by an imbalance of brain chemicals? Or did it wear a face fabricated from whole cloth? Was this unseeable figure a translucent and misty floating ghost or perfectly corporeal and indistinguishable from any other person waiting for the train? What is life like, I wondered, shuffling around in a world full of hostile phantasms that dog your every step, tilting at windmills and striking them down with the mighty sword you and I call a cane?
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.