GREATEST HITS: Today I Saw…Revisited


deeneythumbnail.jpgBY JEFF DEENEY Today I saw a hot sun shining down on North Philly for the first time this year. The forecasted high was 82 degrees with nothing but bright blue overhead; compared to the cold spring the city was emerging from, it felt like mid-July. The flavor on the streets was beer, even at 11 a.m. on a Monday. On 25th Street near Dauphin, a young girl in skintight capris, a halter top and a waist-length weave drained a Miller High Life bottle on her front step, her head tilted back 45 degrees and her throat open in full chug. When she lowered the bottle, she hollered across the street to the dealer boys in their Muslim beards congregated around the front of an abandoned corner store on Dakota Street, grasping dark, amber bottles of their own by the neck.

At 23rd and Allegheny a man dodged through traffic, cradling a brown-bagged 40 oz. beer like a football, giving oncoming traffic the Heisman straight arm. The bars were open, too; corner dives with names like Boo’s Double Down Lounge, Lou & Choo’s, the Tender Touch and Club Menage A Trois. These darkened gin joints had their doors propped wide to let the fresh air wash over their stale innards. A peek inside showed anemic business; only three or four Jeff-capped neighborhood old heads per place, perched on old style round-topped bar stools.

On Allegheny closer to Kensington there was a Latin family sitting in umbrella-shaded beach chairs, circled around a smoldering grill piled high with spicy chicken skewers. Those go for a couple bucks each and they were doing brisk business, selling cold Buds from a cooler “to go.” The beer cans were hauled from under an ice pile by a stocky older man with a crooked nose who popped them open with hard, fighter’s hands. He then passed them to his customers, mostly neighborhood young boys who held pacing, panting pit bulls on the end of long ropes. The young boys are fast learners who know a good potential front when they see it; around the corner on Clearfield Street there’s another grill set up just like this one and while it never smokes there is a plastic Igloo cooler underneath it that they reach into when an addict approaches.

On an old steel loading dock attached to the back of an abandoned warehouse south of Clearfield Street, four men sat with legs dangling over its edge, toasting with tall boys and looking like Depression Era train-hopping hobos in dirty denim and tank tops, their toes pushing through the fronts of torn-up construction boots. A middle-aged neighborhood woman in a business suit passed by, surveying the scene in frustration, the distaste apparent on her face. She said, “My, my, we got a whole lot of nothins out here today not workin’.”

AFTERWORD:  The representative working class black woman’s voice that occasionally appears in the Today I Saw series belongs to a former coworker of mine who I rode with into the neighborhoods just about every day. White liberals tend to be shocked by the toughness working and middle class blacks often display towards members of their own community. White liberals often view poor minorities who engage in criminality or succumb to addiction as victims of an oppressive system that drove them to that behavior. In my experience, the black community — especially the working and middle class — tends to see these same behaviors more as a failure of personal responsibility, much the way white conservatives do. My coworker would reference her own biography in order to qualify these seemingly harsh judgements; she also grew up in a housing project in North Philly, was dirt poor, went to public schools, had children at an early age, and despite all this still worked her whole life and as a result was stable and comfortable in her middle age. If she could do it, why couldn’t everyone? It’s a sentiment I’ve heard repeated by frustrated church ladies and neighborhood oldheads a hundred times.

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