[Illustration by Alex Fine]
BY JEFF DEENEY ďToday I saw…Ē 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 cityís 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 donít 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 the methadone set congregated in front of the Dunkin Donuts on 10th and Girard, around the corner from the big clinic on 9th Street. They’re always there, some conglomerate of shady characters either shabby and shambling like streetcorner winos or decked out in Rocawear and Baby Phat with blank, glassy eyes, frowning mouths and long, glossy nails. They cause trouble all day, coming in and out, setting up shop over pushed together tables that they squat on with maybe a small coffee purchase between the whole group, making their loud lewd conversation. Eventually a blue and white pulls in and they get quiet like kids in detention when the teacher shows up.
This time it was an all girl crew, heavy set white girls with hard Frankford faces, labret piercings and dense layers of makeup. Tight denim taut over expansive thighs that flared out over pristine white trainers. They wore the same bulky, fur-lined parkas the corner boys favor. One had dyed red hair, one had thick straight brown hair that looked recently blown dry and another one that had rolls of belly pouring over her waistline actually had curly extensions like the black girls get. Bad tattoos. Cheap, plastic cell phones. It was like a swap meet outside the donut shop (it’s always like a swap meet somewhere near a methadone clinic) with each girl holding an amber pill bottle in each hand, taking turns shaking one or two out, exchanging them. Brazen, out in the open, careless.
One looked like the end stages of cancer. Pushed in cheeks, bad skin, dirty clothes and clumsily applied, garish blue eyemake up. She walked palsied, shaky and stiff, like she was already in the midst of rigor mortis. She came in to change a five so she could buy a pill from one of the heavy girls and then dropped the bills all over the floor after the counter girl handed them over. As she was scooping them up a patrol car pulled in and the girls out front sauntered inside like they were just getting there.
Cancer Lady did her Saint Vitus dance out the door as the cop came in, hoping to scoot unnoticed. She was making her way across the parking lot when the young, athletic looking white officer asked the counter girl, “Is that the one who was shooting up in the bathroom?” The counter girl nodded and the officer turned to walk after the cancer lady in a sad parody of a cops and robbers. An eighty year old man with a walker could have run this woman down.
The officer gently took her by the arm and started to question her, pushing the sleeve of her dirty coat up and revealing a well worn path of red scabs on the back of her hand and wrist. He let her walk with only a warning, and she headed north on 10th Street doing her palsy strut.
And then I heard one of the rough clinic girls say to her friend, “Look at this nosey ass over here starin’,” and I caught a glimpse of her out of the corner of my eye pointing at me whiled I sipped on my tea at the Dunkin’ Donuts.
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.
[Photo by R Bradley Maule, phillyskyline.com]