[Photo by JUSTIN ROMAN]
The Valley of the Shadow is an ongoing series documenting how those in Philadelphia’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods publicly mourn and commemorate their dead. Jeff Deeney knows these neighborhoods well from his days as a social worker. The hope is to shine a light on the city’s untouchables, brighten the darkest corners and gather-and-share ultra-vivid and all-too-real stories of loss, grief and remembrance.
BY JEFF DEENEY One of the hard things about being a social worker in Philadelphia is seeing your client’s block turn up in newspaper crime reports. Sometimes details about shootings and homicides are so scant you can’t tell if someone in your client family was hurt. Sometimes your client family is too poor to afford a phone, and you have to ride out first thing in the morning to knock on their door and make sure everyone’s OK. The fear of a client’s kid, with whom you bonded during home visits — a kid you played games or read stories with on the living room floor — catching a stray bullet in a crossfire always sits in the back of your mind. When you see your client’s block in the newspaper you can’t help but jump to the conclusion that one of your kids was shot. The thought forms before you’ve even finished reading the story’s first sentence.
I imagine urban school teachers go through the same thing.
I imagine if you do the job long enough the nightmare eventually comes true.
That old impulse kicked in when I read about the fatal shooting on Wakefield Street in East Germantown, during that particularly violent Easter Sunday. An old client of mine lives on Wakefield, usually a quiet street lined with row houses and apartment complexes interspersed with grassy lots and brush patches not far from Germantown Avenue. A lot of East Germantown has this almost scenic quality: It looks greener than your average ghetto, and parts of it are downright pretty, but gunshots still ring out here with some regularity. East Germantown’s had a rough year so far after a period of relative quiet last fall and winter. A series of shootings, more than one fatal, have occurred over the last few months. I remember East Germantown being unpredictable in this way when I worked there: long stretches of almost serene quiet prevailed between unforeseeable, brutally violent, flare-ups.
When we pulled up to the corner of Wakefield and Ashmead, my old client just happened to be getting into her car. I asked her if everything was alright, and while she assured me that nobody in her family got hurt she still looked gravely concerned, saying that she couldn’t talk about it because she was in a rush. There were a lot of people on the street, young kids gathered by the memorial for the victim set up on the west end of the block, and half-drunk old heads were causing commotion by the dark and dank corner bar, Milley’s Hideout. I couldn’t tell if my old client was genuinely in a rush or concerned about people seeing her talking to me and thinking I was a cop. She thanked me for coming to check on her family and pointed to her mother, who sat on the porch of her house, two doors down. I had met her mother a number of times during the months I worked here, and the older lady waved when she saw me, calling for me to come over, saying it was nice to see me again.
Mom is one of those spunky church lady types, with a house so packed with religious tchotchkes there’s not enough space on any flat surface to set a cup of coffee, yet who still likes to tip a drink or two from time to time. She gave me a warm welcome, inviting me up onto the porch where she sat in the afternoon sun with her grandkids. I asked her what happened and she cautiously lowered her voice, saying, “It was about 10 o’clock at night, it sounded like the shots went off right outside the window. BLAM, BLAM, BLAM, like that. I fell right to the ground for a second, but then I got up and ran to the window. I seen the car pulling away, it was a drive-by shooting.” Her voice dropped to a bare whisper and she continued, “I can’t say too much about it now, you know,” she nodded her head at a heavy set, bearded Muslim man in a red-and-white track suit who lingered on the sidewalk in front of her house, leaning up against a car. “There’s a lot of ears around here.”
I told her that I understood.
Were the kids scared, I asked?
“Scared to death. They was with their mom, she said they couldn’t sleep a wink that night.”
I looked off toward Milley’s Corner, which I always suspected was the hub of neighborhood drug trafficking. Last summer when I worked here I watched heavy foot traffic coming to and going from the bar even at mid-morning on a weekday. It always drew a rough-looking crowd, and I recognized the same crew of malingerers still hanging outside.
“I bet that Milley’s Corner had something to with it,” I said, speculating aloud about the bar. “What do you think?”
Mom rolled her eyes and said, “Baby, let me tell you something. I like me a beer from time to time. But I do not need a beer so bad that I’m going to walk in there to get one.”
“Enough said,” I replied.
I explained about the memorial project and asked her if she thought the corner crew would mind us snapping pictures. Mom told us to go ahead, that we weren’t hurting nobody, and to use her name if anyone had a problem with it. I turned to leave after thanking her for her help and she said, “Good looking out, sweety, it’s nice to know you still thinkin’ about us.”
When we set up to shoot the memorial, the tall, lanky old head with a graying Afro and shaggy beard who’s in front of Milley’s Corner 24/7/365 called out, “Who you with?”
“The news,” I called back.
“Yo, bring a copy ’round when you get it. Bring us a copy ’round.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Deeney is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in PW, City Paper and the Inquirer. He focuses on issues of urban poverty and drug culture.