AUTHOR’S NOTE: Today I Saw was a series of short imagistic non-fiction narratives I did back in 2007. I didn’t even conceive it as a series for publication, it was really just a bunch of scenes and images I jotted down while doing field work as a social worker. It ran twice a week for a year straight. Each installment begins with the same phrase, “Today I Saw” because I was literally writing down things I was seeing in the neighborhoods, as I was seeing them each day.
BY JEFF DEENEY Today I saw a fire fight break out on Old York Road and Venango Street. Right before I heard the first shots fired I was staring idly out the window of my car while two young dudes were engaged in friendly conversation on the sidewalk next to where I was parked. One of them leaned back against the minivan in front of me. He had his keys out and it looked like they were getting ready to part company. The shots rang out from about fifty feet away, four in quick succession, pop…poppop…pop. It could have been school kids throwing fire crackers but I knew otherwise when the guy leaning on the minivan hopped up off it and crouched down, looking up the block in the direction of the sound and pressing himself tight up against the side door. The other guy ran around the back of the van and squatted behind it for cover, waiting for some signal of what to do next. He ran to the driver’s side door, yelling as he pulled it open for his friend to get in, fast. He fired up the engine and they tore off, making a fast three point turn and heading in the opposite direction. As he did there were more pops coming from up the block.
One of the shooters was coming my way. I felt this before I actually saw him. There wasn’t anything I could do but get down and wait for him to pass. When I saw the shooter 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 sit up a little to see what was going on.
The shooter was a young black kid, maybe in his late teens, 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.
He slowed to a walk when he got within arm’s reach of me; if my window was down I could have reached out to touch him. Maybe he felt comfortable, thinking he had escaped unharmed. Maybe he was lingering for a second, thinking about going back to pop off a couple more shots. He was smiling broadly, like street corner crossfires were fun and games. His face said, ain’t no thang. Just throwin’ some lead, baby. Just bustin’ slugs. We were two blocks from Temple Hospital in the mid-afternoon. The streets were filled with pedestrians and working folks.
When the shooter saw me leaned back in the passenger’s seat, my wide eyes darting back and forth from the gun to his face and back again — he started to laugh. Look at him. Motherfucker about to shit his pants. The shooter jogged off, turning the corner on Tioga Street and heading east.
When I pulled to the corner of Venango Street the other shooter was there, standing in the middle of the intersection with his gun held close against his thigh. He was scanning the line of parked cars I just drove away from, looking for the kid who just ran past me. The other shooter was an older guy, maybe in his 30s, with a Muslim’s big beard and close cropped hair. His caramel colored baggy shirt and pants matched exactly. When I slowed at the stop sign he waved me through the intersection with his free hand.
I turned right onto Erie Avenue and within a minute there was a blue and white with lights flashing and siren screaming parting the traffic in the westbound lanes. Out of nowhere I started to laugh hysterically. I couldn’t say why then and I’m still not sure. Maybe it was the relief; maybe I realized how foolish I must have looked laid out flat on my back in the seat of my car, bug eyed and scared half to death. At the first red light I came to I rolled my window down for some air with a severely shaking hand and from the car parked next to mine I heard hype hip hop blasting, the rapper practically hyperventilating as he rhymed about being a maniac when he’s out on these motherfuckin’ streets.
AFTERWORD: If you are a social worker doing intensive community based work it’s just a matter of time until you get caught up in street violence. You understand intellectually as you go about your day that you work in violent neighborhoods, but it’s not until there are actually guns going off around you that you truly understand how dangerous your work is. There are safety protocols you can practice, but you really have no idea how you will handle a situation like this until it happens. Dropping my seat so I could be horizontal while the shooting was going on was completely instinctual; I wasn’t thinking about what I was doing at that moment. It wasn’t until later that day when I was writing this narrative that I realized it also just happened to be exactly the right thing to do in that situation, that could have prevented catching a bullet in the face. Taking this right course of action was unintentional; it was a moment of blind panic. I remember being terrified that the shooter saw me looking him in the face, knowing that I could potentially witness against him. It would have been nothing for him to stop for a moment and shoot from point blank range as he walked right past me.
PREVIOUSLY: Today I Saw… Revisited#1