[Illustration by Alex Fine]
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 Latino man in red-stained butcher’s whites standing on the corner of 5th and Somerset amongst the bustling barrio foot traffic, a skinned pig slung over his shoulder.*
Today I saw feral animals prowling the cold streets of West Kensington. The first was a brindle dog with fat, dangling teats, slinking along 2nd Street just south of Lehigh. She trotted along, her head low to the ground like a hungry hyena, nosing piles of garbage on the sidewalk. The few neighborhood boys who passed by, braving the chill in bulky parkas and Timberland boots, gave her wide berth, watching her intently as she cruised along as if she might snap at them if they came too close. The rest were cats. Cats on Allegheny Avenue. Cats on D Street. Cats defiantly perched in the middle of the street with cars honking horns at them, and then dashing into the open spaces leading into the basements of abandoned houses.
Today I saw a young Latino boy in a Pittsburgh Pirates jacket, standing on the corner of A Street and Westmoreland. He had just enough dark down on his upper lip to qualify as a mustache. I wondered why he was standing there, in the midst of a deep freeze, when I saw a yellow school bus approach slowly. There was another young boy in a gray hooded sweatshirt waving at him from across the street. The first boy kept looking up the block toward the bus, and I thought he was watching to see if he had enough time to talk with his friend before hopping on. But when the boy in the gray hoodie crossed the street, he instead slapped a bill into the first boy’s outstretched hand, and received in exchange a glass vial that appeared from up the first boy’s coat sleeve. They pressed hands hard for a split second, before the second boy jogged away.
Today I saw a man in blue denim overalls masturbating near a school. He had his hands slid down the front of them and was working himself furiously, causing the fabric to pull taut with every stroke. He was an older black man with a salt and pepper goatee and an unzipped black leather jacket with two horizontal red stripes around each arm.
I said, “There’s a school right there you fucking sick asshole.”
His eyes bugged out and he said, “Yeah, I’ll do what I want, what you gone do about it?” MORE
This morning they had a crackhead to focus their attention on; she was clearly at the end of her run, using a scavenged length of wire to frantically clean out the inside of her stem. She was hoping to scrape another hit’s worth of coke residue from its walls; there was a copy of yesterday’s paper on the bench next to her that she was hunched over, her one arm pumping like a piston. She had a dirty doo-rag wrapped around her head and her pants legs rolled up to the knee. She was missing some teeth and her shoes; her bare feet rested on the ground amidst the broken glass and bits of asphalt.
“Look at them chicken legs!” the winos called out, pointing at her and laughing from the other end of the park. The woman’s under-fed legs were like twigs, narrow enough to wrap your hand around.
“Put them chicken legs away, girl. Don’t nobody want to see your damn chicken legs.”
The crackhead ignored them, obsessed with her scraping, desperate for that last blast. She froze when she saw me out of the corner of her eye, terrified by my watching white face, not certain if I was a cop. She pulled her pipe in close, clutching it to her breast like she’d just been stabbed in the heart. She sat totally motionless like this until after I was out of sight.” MORE
Today I saw an ancient toilet attached to the back of a house on Old York Road near Erie Avenue. It was an unearthed relic from another time; an antique that was once covered by an outhouse shed. It had a wooden seat and lid that was worn by time so that there was no indication of its former painted color or shade of stain. It was dull, dead looking wood attached to a porcelain base that was eaten away in spots with what looked like brownish rust. To get to the toilet I had to walk down a long alleyway that was over grown with thick hedges that had sprouted long, snakey wooded tendrils. I bent over and lifted the lid on the toilet, revealing a pipe that vanished into blackness. The bowl was filled with thick cobwebs and what looked like sacs of either thoroughly cocooned spider food or perhaps unhatched spider’s eggs. MORE
Today I saw a trail of blood on Broad Street. It started at the front door of the building I work in, where a man was stabbed earlier this morning. There are altercations in front of our building all the time; petty beefs among drunks and junkies that oftentimes end in screwdriver punctures or tire iron bludgeonings. The weapons are usually improvised. I’m not sure what today’s weapon consisted of but it made a hole in the person on the other end of it big enough to weep fat red droplets that spattered the sidewalk. The trail continued for four blocks north and two blocks west to where the man stumbled into the emergency room of St Joe’s Hospital on 16th and Girard. I followed the trail for about a block and watched passing pedestrians stepping on the still wet spots without knowing it. I turned back and talked to some folks gathered in front of our building who said the police had been there, following the trail just like I had, bent over and walking slow like they were hunters in the forest tracking a wounded deer. MORE
One of the shooters was coming my way. I knew this before I saw him. I was in the passenger’s seat and the car wasn’t running so there wasn’t anything I could do but get down and wait for him to pass. When I saw him half-running, half-skipping towards me, turning his head as he did to see if he was being pursued, I reached down and pulled on the seat release and eased the seat back as far as I could. If a bullet were to come through the windshield I didn’t want to catch it in the head. Even with my body laid out horizontally I could still lift my head a little and see what was going on.
The shooter was a young black kid, maybe in his early twenties, clean shaven and boyish looking in an oversized black t-shirt and baggy brown jeans. I saw the gun that was still in his hand, a boxy and mean looking piece of black metal that he had partially stuffed into his front pocket. He wanted to keep his finger on the trigger in case he had to start shooting again but at the same time he didn’t want to openly brandish the weapon for witnesses to see. MORE
This is a classic Philadelphia scene: Jersey kids in town to score dope getting fucked with by the finest. Fifth Street is the funnel into the Zone, as addicts call the area around Cambria Street where the heroin markets are, if you’re coming from across the bridge. Jersey kids take the Ben Franklin and swing north, taking 5th Street because the bridge dumps them right onto to it. The problem for Jersey dope fiends is that the police know they do this and will ride the bumper of a car full of white kids with Jersey tags going north on 5th Street anywhere above Girard Avenue, waiting for a reason to flash their lights. Then the cop makes you sit, stewing as he calls for back up. Then he shoots the shit for a half hour while you get dopesick. MORE
BY DAVID GAMBACORTA I’m sure you’ve all noticed by now that reporters rarely, if ever, witness a crime that we end up writing about. Ninety-nine percent of the time, someone gets shot, our little breaking news pagers go off, and we dash out to the crime scene. But every now and then, someone comes along and tells us what it’s like when you fall into that other one percent.
Super friends, meet Jeff Deeney. Jeff’s a local freelance writer who also doubles a social worker in our troubled town. He details his gritty and sometimes unpleasant encounters in a vivid biweekly column, “Today I saw…” on Phawer. Last week, Jeff saw a twentysomething kid try to murder two other kids in the far reaches of North Philly. […] When I asked Jeff what he thought of witnessing a near shooting, he was honest — but still hopeful. MORE
Today I saw a small side street in Southwest Philly that was littered with garbage. It looked like trash day had come and gone and the block was passed over; a spell of high wind had tumbled the bags left by the curb out into the street, where they were carelessly struck by passing cars, split open and their contents spilled. The loose garbage was scooped up by the howling gusts and spun around, picked up and put down at random. All that disregarded litter and the deteriorated condition of the surrounding houses made me think a tornado had struck. It looked like a vicious twister had ripped through the block and then dissipating into nothing, leaving behind broken windows, doors hanging from hinges and empty pizza boxes in the gutter. The only thing that was missing from the picture was a totaled car still spinning on its roof in the middle of the street. MORE
I’m from a small town (45,000) in Central Florida, across the river from where they launch the space shuttle and about a half hour from Orlando. I currently am fixated with Jeff Deeney’s “Today I Saw…” and I love the style in which the news is reported on your website, modern enough for college students and teenagers to be interested in it. I found out about the website after I read a post on the news group “alt.drugs.hard” (sorry if thats not exactly the publicity you were looking for) that mentioned a report in the Philadelphia Weekly about the “Top 10 Drug Corners” in Philadelphia, which linked to an NPR story on your website where they interviewed the author. I’ve always been curious about life in a large city, which I guess is why I’m drawn to TIS and the other stories on your website. Please keep up the good work for my sake and thanks. –Adam
[Photo by JONATHAN VALANIA]
When you talk to the Reverend, God is always the third person in the room. To the Reverend, God is tangible, his presence palpable and she speaks of him with the matter of fact tone most people reserve for material objects like tables and chairs. When speaking about her recently-ill husband, who also leads Sunday sermons at the church, God is at the center of his miraculous recovery. Her husband suffered kidney failure that was complicated by his overall frailty and he somehow pulled through despite doctors deeming recovery improbable. “You know I didnt worry even a little bit,” the Reverend says. “Because you know that I know God,” she continues, like he’s right there next to me. “That’s right,” chimes one of the women in the room. “God wasn’t about to let his good brother go,” the Reverend says, “not yet, not while there’s so much work to be done around here. God told me not to trouble myself; he said that there are many days left for my husband in this world.”
Whenever someone leaves the Reverend’s presence she gives them a blessing and they bless her back. As I turn to leave she looks me in the eye and says, “Bless you,” and I find myself saying it back to her despite the fact that I don’t even go to church. MORE
TODAY I SAW a man with his dick out on the corner of 15th and Poplar. He was an unkempt black man, probably in his 40s, with a receding hair line and a full, nappy beard. He looked dirty and mentally ill, as a lot of the transients in and around Francisville do.I was sitting a stop light when I first noticed him; he was pulling branches off a tree set back just a little from the sidewalk, malingering and looking for attention. I didn’t notice his dick at first and instead turned to watch one of the local prostitutes as she walked through the intersection. There seem to be fewer prostitutes in the area than last year, but I still see them pretty regularly. The pay-by-the-hour Hotel Carlyle is only a block away and Ridge Avenue, a well-known hooker stroll, is within eyeshot. The girls work out of the Carlyle and then walk back down to Ridge. You can spot the prostitutes, because they favor white tank tops made of such thin cotton fabric that they’re practically sheer and they don’t wear bras. It’s not very attractive, but I guess to a street-trawling, nickel-and-dime monger it is. That’s what guys who pick up streetwalkers call themselves, mongers, as in pussy mongers I guess. This particular prostitute was also missing some teeth, had a bandanna wrapped around her head and was sweating profusely in the swamp-like heat. MORE
The heat has turned this narrow block into a furnace, and every family is outside on their stoop as I walk past. Very few people here work. Young Latin mothers blast salsa and reggaeton from living room stereos while their children play on the dirty sidewalk barefoot, wearing nothing but diapers. They don’t speak English and won’t make eye contact with me. The black families won’t either. They blast rap music from boom boxes in second-story windows. I keep walking and see more children in diapers tiptoeing around the shattered glass and dried cat shit. The only one who says hello to me is the old head who likes to drink malt liquor from a brown bag for breakfast and is always perched on my client’s steps when I arrive. He’s nice enough; he jumped up to move when he saw me and we exchanged niceties about the heat before I disappeared inside. MORE
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.” MORE
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. MORE
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JEFF DEENEY SAYS: The two remaining legal graffiti spaces I know of are on Carpenter Street between 12th and 13th and at 49th and Westminster Street in West Philly. There are likely more than these; those with more knowledge of the city’s graffiti scene can feel free to chime in and school us. Please link more photos if you’ve got them. According to BESO the walls around 12th and Carpenter are open to anyone who wants to paint there but at 49th and Westminster, not so much. I think the quality of the work on the walls reflects this, with the artistic bar being set far higher on the Westminster wall than those around Carpenter Street. I remember seeing the Westminster wall for the first time while at my job as a social worker. I was driving through the neighborhood on my way to do a home visit with a client; I caught a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye and almost had an accident. It was so stunning, awesome and enormous that my head whipsawed as I tried to get a better look. I almost drove into a parked car. I circled back and walked the length of the wall (it is looooong) and kicked myself for not carrying a camera. I had never heard about it, which isn’t surprising; unless you’re in the graffiti scene or have intimate knowledge of West Philadelphia you probably haven’t. It’s deep in the heart of the Wild West, not the kind of place most Philadelphians happen to find themselves, unless they happen to live there or know someone who does. I’d be curious to know more about the Westminster wall. The only thing I got from BESO when I asked him about it was a wide-eyed declaration of pure awe, “Yo, man, you don’t just walk up on that wall. It’s strictly old heads paintin’ there.” Take a look at the photo set and see why the Philly graffiti scene holds the site in near-holy reverence. [Photos by JONATHAN VALANIA]