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 Latina in pajama bottoms and bedroom slippers standing on the sidewalk near D Street and Clearfield holding onto the handlebars of a little boy’s BMX bike. Pajama bottoms and bedroom slippers became acceptable street wear in the ghetto at some point; I see young girls out pushing baby strollers or shopping on Kensington and Frankford Avenue in them almost every day. The neighborhood old heads don’t appreciate the trend; I’ve spoken to many older black and Latin men and women in North Philly who see the development in End Time terms. They say we’ve fallen real far when chronic unemployment is so acceptable and expected that young girls don’t even bother putting on pants or shoes before leaving the house any more. I once heard a woman say, “How can a girl wear her bed clothes to go shopping? It makes me think she ain’t washed her a-s-s today.”
The woman holding the bike had on a pink camisole top, and a green and red dragon soared up from under its fabric, a big tattoo reaching nearly to the nape of her neck. Her face was hard, pulled tight with anger as she leaned in to say loudly right into the little boy’s ear, “You say, ‘Excuse me?'”
The little boy was maybe seven, wearing a pair of shorts and a T-shirt in need of washing. He sneered and rolled his eyes as he turned his head away: He wouldn’t pay attention to the woman let alone give her the respect she was looking for. He stared across the street and said, “I told you to watch out.”
The woman cupped his cheek and pulled his face back towards hers, demanding that he look at her. She raised her voice up another notch. “You say, ‘Excuse me?'”
The kid yanked his face out of her hand; as he pulled away he said loudly, “I told you to watch out.”
The woman put her mouth back up to the boy’s ear and screamed, “YOU SAY EXCUSE ME!” and as she did the kid yelled back, raising up to start pedaling, “I told you to watch the fuck out you fucking nasty bitch!”
The boy pedaled off, cruising slowly to show he wasn’t scared. The woman screamed at him, telling him to watch his back when he comes around, she might have one of her boy’s from the block teach him some manners in a way he’ll understand. The kid grabbed on his crotch and told her to suck his dick without looking back at her.
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.
[Art: “Della” acrylic on canvas, artist unknown]