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[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 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,]

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27 Responses to “Introducing: TODAY I SAW…By JEFF DEENEY”

  1. Clinic Employee Says:

    As a Master’s Level Social Worker who is employed at this facility you speak of, I am deeply offended by the image you have painted of these women who are desperately trying to get their lives together. “They cause trouble all day”??? This couldn’t be further from the truth- these women come to receive their methadone and then leave. Things aren’t always as they appear. Try looking beneath the surface next time you are about to pass judgement.

  2. deeney Says:

    That’s okay, you can be offended and I’ll keep writing about what I’m seeing. I’m more concerned with accurately capturing reality in words than how presenting that reality is going to make you feel.

    I was back in that same Dunkin’ Donuts last week and there was yet another argument over the key for the bathroom. This time it was a woman with needle scars all over the back of her arm (I used to favor that vein, myself); I could see them quite clearly because she had the sleeve to her sweater rolled up and I know what tracks look like. She was crosseyed high and had an unlit cigarette in her mouth the whole time that kept falling out and she kept picking it up off the floor and putting it back in while she was fighting with the counter staff.

    But I guess I shouldn’t write about that here since it might offend you, despite the fact that that’s what I saw and this series happens to be called, “Today I saw.” Maybe we’ll change the name to, “Today I saw and was found acceptable to report by the staff of the methadone clinic on 9th Street.”

  3. Clinic Employee Says:

    I can’t believe that a so-called “Caseworker” would describe people in this manner. Again, you made unacceptable, untrue generalizations about these women in a classist, racist and misogynistic tone. No wonder social services in this city are so screwed up with people like you running the show. Now, excuse me as I paint another coat of polish on my nails and adjust my Rocawear hat…

  4. deeney Says:

    Do you have a problem with the fact that your clients wear Rocawear clothes and fake nails? If I see one of your clients and decide to write about her should I leave those details out even if they’re accurate because you think that’s somehow racist, classist and misogynist? Are you accusing me of having made those details up?

    Please, delineate for me exactly what you think is acceptable for me to write or not write. Give me some rules of what’s okay to say and not say so I can ignore them.

    You’re not really grasping the concept, here. This isn’t going to be a Reader’s Digest column. This is going to be a series that accurately portrays discreet moments of reality in Philadelphia.

    Maybe you should stop reading, or better yet you should please keep checking back so we can do this twice a week for the next couple months. I’ll write something I feel is real and true, you’ll wring your hands over it and be offended, and I’ll not give a shit.


  5. numbie Says:

    I know you don’t take the comments seriously, but I’d like to say that some people only want to see the pepsident smile version of life and disregard reality as something that should be swept under the carpet. I like what you write and your reality is as real as it gets. I work for “public service” and see and hear things that are really creepy. It’s a source for creativity. And like you said, if people don’t like it, why the hell are they reading it? They’ve completely missed the point due to their personal beliefs. I guess they want you to see the world as they do. That’s even creepier.

  6. Rev. Satan Says:

    very good Jeff.

    to those who are offended at Jeffs words, should be more offended at the world we live in.

    look around, this is not a beautiful world.

  7. deeney Says:

    Thanks, numbie and Rev.

    This is a dead issue now but I wanted to share something I got in my email a number of months ago regarding the 9th Street Clinic, I had forgotten about it until this morning. This woman was referred to me by someone who knew I was doing some writing about black market pharmaceuticals in Philadelphia. She wanted me to write a story about her for one of the local weeklies but unfortunately the general story (“is methadone the new OxyContin?”) was a little old and had already been covered by the Philadelphia Weekly. Anyway, here’s what she said, it was a really long message so I’m excerpting the parts that are pertinent to establishing the fact (which anyone with half a brain already knows) that the patients at the 9th Street Clinic aren’t all angels who are struggling to get their lives back and never cause any trouble in the neighborhood:

    I am Danny Diamond’s Mother and methadone killed him on April
    30th 2001 because of a patient in the methadone clinic at 8th and
    girard, This “patient gave him some of his. You see he sells this drug they
    give him so he can buy the herion…the reason I am
    writing you is to let you know that this “Man” is still walking the
    streets…I wanted to let you know that the clinic in charge of his Rehab never
    threw him out of the program after hot urine’s time and time again, he
    was caught selling pills outside the clinic and in their own reports his
    counselers note that methadone bottles are missing when he brings them
    back and he seems high…All of the above are rules that if you break you are to be automatically thrown out of the program. He never was until my lawyer send the letter to the clinic in December of 01 months after my son died. All of
    the violations that I described above where prior to Danny’s death. We
    buried him the day before his sixteenth birthday…I have no Idea how he got away with selling the pills but the clinic has all of these things written down in their reports so it is not hearsay, they had to provide this information in
    court. I am not saying (the clinics) should be closed because they do help the
    people who want to be helped but they are killing our children a whole lot
    faster than they are helping people.

  8. Clinic Employee Says:

    I hope that you feel better about yourself now that you’ve PROVED “patients at the 9th Street Clinic arenít all angels who are struggling to get their lives back and never cause any trouble in the neighborhood”. Again, your statement “They cause trouble all day” is a GROSS generalization, completely unsubstantiated (no, your email discussing one 6 year old incident does NOT back you up- there are close to 1000 patients who receive methadone daily from the clinic). If it makes you feel like a bigger person to describe women in the manner in which you’d describe animals at the zoo, then by all means, elevate your self-esteem. In the meantime, I’ll continue to work for the marginalized and believe in their inherent goodness. I realize that it’s a harsh world- I’m a social worker at a methadone clinic, for pete’s sake. The difference between you and me is that I would never reduce these women to the terms in which you have. Stick with freelance writing. Leave social work to those with some compassion.

  9. antoinette mclaughlin Says:

    jeff- i like your writting and the photography. Good story. i felt as if i were there.
    i’m interested in seeing the world through your eyes.

  10. alice Says:

    Carry on your observations. Good on ya. Well observed and written.

    Dang, you’re sure getting a lot of flack from Clinic Employee. I’m suspicious of someone starting off with that Masters Level Social Work foot. How do they relate to street folk. These kids may very well be running away from their abusive parents…. So while his patients are getting their lives together, they hawk a few pills, see. Maybe his Beemer CD player too.

  11. nope Says:

    Right on, Clinic Employee.

    I came here hoping to see some kind of balanced and objective writing, but all I see is a viewpoint that borders on freakshow presentation. “Loud, lewd conversation”? This is some of the lewdest writing I’ve seen in a while; race and class contempt masquerading as benevolent help, ‘accurate portrayal’. The fact that you call your encounters ‘fascinating’ is in of itself explanatory.

    Props to you for ‘keeping it real’.

    [The column is one man’s impressions as he goes about his job. We would be happy to send you into the very same neighborhoods and let you write whatever you like about your experience. However, you have to go those neighborhoods EVERY DAY and stay there ALL DAY. That’s what Mr. Deeney does. Feel free to contact us if you feel like putting your ass where your snark is. — Ed.]

  12. deeney Says:

    Why were you expecting balanced and objective writing? I generally donít shoot for that; a two second google search of my writing would have revealed this. Iím not a journalist, not in any strict sense of the world. Iím not interested in fact stringing. Iím interested in taking readers into the world as I perceive it, using the language I hear being used there to depict as closely as I can the events that happen there, as they are perceived by the kinds of people who see them. I donít just watch events unfold, I watch other people watching events unfold. I try to capture the overall sense of things; mood, energy, unspoken thoughts and feelings and emotions that evince through facial expression and body language. Iím in the business of subjective, not objective writing, and thereís more art than science in what I do. You trust my judgment or you donít.

    You donít have to like what I write. I donít particularly care if you do. What I care about is whether or not it is True (capital ďTĒ), and if you donít think it is, than I question whether you know enough about addiction or poverty (none of which are very pretty to view up close) to even make that judgment in the first place. Proove me wrong.

    Shut yer yap and keep reading. Or donít. Iím done explaining it, either way.

  13. marti robles Says:

    jeff i like your writing, its so true about what you write,and how you write. I lived in New York, the bronx.. Every morning i walked to the subway to get to work, and i would observe a long line of methadone young and old and in between waiting outside this south bronx clinic. During winter i saw some children in line one was about 5 years old another maybe 7 yrs old, and holding in her arms a baby i would say no more than 6months old. They were in line because they were waiting for mom to get her methadone, they were not even dressed warm. I had to be at the subway at 6.00am to get to work. These children were out there that early, hungry, and cold. I thought about these children all day and cried.
    I live in california now, and i have yet to see long lines. marti robles (san diego)

  14. No Name Says:

    I live on 15th and Jefferson (very close to where you did your story on the OXY-pill-hill) and I’ve been here for about 6 years now. I’m young (23 now) and I do have the basic same EXTREMELY realistic and bleak look of the more unfortunate sections of our city. I have NO problem with any of your comments, although, saying that these women “cause trouble all day” is a gross exaggeration and a very opinionated comment. I take no offense to this of course, if I did I wouldn’t be living where I do, and my skin is very thick. Obviously just about everything you write is an opinion and the readers need to see that, now if you were trying to say that they’re causing trouble all day is a fact, than thats a whole different story. Keep on writing though my man, pretty good stuff…(“hard Frankford faces, wow, what a great way to describe some of the looks of people in north)

    OH YEA AND BY THE WAY!!! How in the heck do you get away with being around some of these blocks, cause around my way if I see a white-boy especially past 16th street going west!! I’m turning my head and asking myself ‘WTF!!! IS HE DOING!!!” I’m sure you get approached and yelled at all the time huh? Either way your a brave dude, b/c I’m sure some people think your a narc of some sort.

  15. deeney Says:

    Well, I work in these neighborhoods so I have a reason to be there. I have clients with needs whose homes I have to be in to adequately serve them. When I’m out in the neighborhoods I look like I know where I’m going and know what I’m doing there because I actually do know where I am and what I’m doing. That’s my job, I’m out there almost every day.

    It’s no secret that I’m a former drug addict; I used to cop drugs in a lot of these neighborhoods and I was terrified to be in those neighborhoods then. As a white drug addict in these neighborhoods trying to cop dope you are a target to pretty much everyone and will eventually get hurt. You might get hurt by a dealer, you might get hurt by the cops, you might get hurt by another addict but it’s only a matter of time until you get fucked up by somebody.

    I don’t have anything to do with any of that any more and the cops, dealers and addicts can all see that. I’m well fed, clear eyed, decently dressed, moving with a purpose. I don’t really know what people think of me when they see me but I know they’re not thinking, “fucking junky,” which is all that really matters from a safety standpoint.

  16. Lilly Says:

    I have been reading your posts for quite some time, and I must say I thoroughly enjoy them. I must admit hearing your stories about the 19th street Methadone Clinic don’t make me happy, but only because I deal with a stigma every day because a lot of the time ALL people see are “those” patients at the clinic.

    They don’t see, nor do they care to, the non-using, rule-abiding, college-attending, all-around great person that I am. (There was a bit sarcastic) Seriously though, I’m attending college to get my Human Services degree, I want nothing more than to help people in this world, and even when I was an active junky I never portrayed a picture like these people do.

    I didn’t write this to rag on you for sharing your opinion or for telling the truth as you see it. Quite the opposite. I enjoy your articles and look forward to reading more. I happen to know the “mother of the deceased boy” because she’s been terrorizing my Addiction Treatment Watchdog website for some time now; cutting and pasting the comments of our posts to make what we say look villainous and evil. While I feel for her grief, she’s on the entirely wrong page. When I read posts like these, inside I get sad for all the people that just don’t know better.

  17. freedom club Says:

    Hey Jeff, I’ve been following you for a while, excitedly awaiting the next installment in your quest to get Pharmadelphia published but you need to do a little research as far as methadone maintanence is concerned. Methadone has been around for what…40 + yrs now and is considered the gold standard for opiate addiciton. The problems with methadone arose when Docs were forced to start prescribing it due to all the stigma involving Oxycontin. You depict the salacious side of methadone treatment. It is the more interesting side to me as well but it is very skewed. You won’t find the people on proper doses (far too many clinics are underdosing which forces addicts to supplement) doing all those nasty things you witnessed, except maybe still making fashion faux pas (methadone is a wonder drug for opiate addicts but it won’t make you a better dresser.

  18. a grieving mother Says:

    I think people are so blind when it comes to methadone b/c I was once was blind until I found my son dead in his apartment due to the fact he died from a take home dose from a clinic which killed him. The guy got caught but is still able to get methadone. What kind of justice is that for my family as I wake up in the morning knowing my son is dead and off to work I go to pay for these clinics to be up and running through my tax dollars. I think if a person uses methadone probably ok but lets get how many are not polydrugging. However the way you describe them is harsh, but they are your eyes in what you see

  19. deeney Says:

    Methadone is a lot like OxyContin in that any piece of writing about it, regardless of how the issue is presented, is going to bring out strong feelings from advocates on either side of the issue. An article I wrote in the Philadelphia City Paper recently had a similar out pouring of strong feelings.

    I guess the only thing I’d like to continue to stress is that there’s no indictment of methadone, methadone clinics or methadone clinic patients here. It’s a description of a discreet incident of public behavior that was I think honestly represented. The larger message across all the shorts I’m writing is that poverty is not pretty, it’s not romantic, it’s not sexy. The Wire is oftentimes ugly, but also a lot more romantic and sexy than the lives of the vast majority of people living in poverty.

    Drugs are a part of the poverty problem. Lack of education is, too. Likewise, violence. There’s a lot of negative behaviors and outcomes associated with urban poverty in America. If you want to make this about methadone specifically, please do, I understand that’s your issue and you feel strongly about it one way or the other. Taken apart from the rest of the series that makes perfect sense. However, I see this incident as simply another facet in the glorious gemstone called American urban poverty, the rest of the shorts are facets, as well, and there’s a bigger picture to be seen and shown.

    But beyond this, please don’t expect me to start putting a spit polish on anything I see, to stop using the language I hear, to stop perceiving the way I perceive. If I see ugly and I hear ugly then I write ugly.

  20. Rob Says:

    I’m inspired by your writing. Absolutely keeps me glued to each piece you log in on this site. Being a student heavily interested in case work, this really makes me feel good that you give your whole hearted honest opinion, whether people like or not, because this is reality here, and in reality sometimes we can’t put it the way people would like to view it, thats why it’s called “reality.”

  21. R. Vernon Says:

    I love this.


  22. d Says:

    i dont see why the clinic worker is so upset. if thats what those women looked like then thats what they looked like. i go to a methadone clinic myself and hes right. some of the folks i have to wait in line beside talk loud about how they did this much herion or how they fucked their vein up the other day and if thats not lewd what is?
    and to the mother who lost her son – that really sucks but did that guy force your son to buy and do the methadone or did your son buy it and drink it himself? you keep saying the clinic killed your son but if your son wanted to buy methadone he most likely would have found a way to buy it regardless if it was from a methadone clinic patient or from one of his buddies who steals his grandma’s script. i definatley agree with you that they should be regulating on the people who are shitty enough to stand outside a clinic and sell dope though. most of them employ a security guard to stand outside and make sure its not going on. just because some peice of shit sold a 16 year old kid his methadone doesnt mean that these clinic shoudlnt be up and running though.

  23. Phawker » Blog Archive » MEDIA: Today I Saw Jeff Deeney In The Daily Pennsylvanian Says:

    […] not to mention your reader’s understanding of the issues at hand, if you had pointed out that THE REASON YOU KNOW WHO JEFF DEENEY IS BECAUSE HE WRITES FOR PHAWKER and then linked to one or two of his MANY posts on the topic of urban poverty. Just a […]

  24. ELLIE Says:


  25. phillygrrl Says:

    You go Deeney, tell ‘em! Huge fan of your writing. Don’t let anyone tell you to change your style.

    Echoing Ellie – I’d love to read your book.

  26. Ron Says:

    I thought Jeff was black?!
    Even with the subjective comments regarding the subjects causing trouble all day, I found this a good read. It’s like I was there, which is what this type of writing SHOULD do for the reader. Being someone who often finds himself in situations which are less-than-ideal, I can second that “look” he was getting. Heh, like they owned the joint. As if.

  27. RW Says:

    As a former addict with similar characteristics/personality as you Jeff, from what I can gather about you from your writing, I am truly inspired by this column. I’ve come a long way and interested in your book. I’ve passed your Citypaper Cover Story on Oxy’s to many friends in need and, believe it or not, there is a small group of people that you’ve indirectly helped get sober, but the article had an effect on all of them, regardless of current habits.

    Thanks Jeff. Keep up the good work.

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