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 summertime crowds congregated in front of Ridge shelter. There were loose clusters of men leaning against the north-facing facades of buildings between Broad and 13th. They drank fruit punch through straws from ice-filled plastic wonton containers with square holes punctured in their tops to help stave off the murky heat. One group unfurled a rubber roll-up chess table on top of a wood shipping pallet that sat on a rusted steel drum. The grizzled old black men on either end of the board pushed the plastic pieces while making small talk and sharing a cigarette. Another group of men were circled on the sidewalk passing a joint and watching as one of theirs ran his thumb down the length of a split open cigar wrapper like a plow, spilling cheap tobacco all over the sidewalk and making space for more smoke.

At Girard and Ridge I saw a yellow school district bus barely half filled; summer school is in session and most kids are home but special needs kids are still going, along with your standard underachievers. There were a couple rows of seats filled behind the driver, who slammed on the gas when the light went green. In the rear of the bus away from the other students there was a girl strapped to her motorized wheel chair. She rocked back and forth, making the colorful plastic barrettes at the end of her braids sway pendulously.

I rode past the motorcycle club that burned down last night and saw crowds of people helping to clear the wreckage. The building’s front door was propped open and some men were hauling out what looked like a charred sofa to be dumped with the other blackened remains in the adjoining vacant lot.

At the 27th street entrance to the James W. Johnson homes, a low rise project comprising a maze of one-story brown brick boxes, a crowd of young boys were passing a joint directly under a “Drug Free Zone” sign. They were shirtless and wore their oversized denim shorts half down their asses, exposing patterned boxer shorts. They waved me over when they saw me. “What you need? Circle around!”

And everywhere the waving banners, hanging from lampposts the entire length of the Avenue proclaiming, “Ridge on the Rise!”

“Ridge on the Rise!”

“Ridge on the Rise!”

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.

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