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TODAY I SAW: The Valley of The Shadow Of Death

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[Photos by JUSTIN ROMAN]

deeneythumbnail.jpgBY JEFF DEENEY What looks at first glance like a makeshift pyramid of stuffed animals outside an abandoned brownstone between 22nd and 21st on Dauphin Street is in fact it is one of Philly’s many street shrines for neighborhood homicide victims. The stuffed animals comprising this shrine are mostly bears of different sizes, shapes and pedigree. There’s writing in black magic marker on the bears that reveals a name: Mook. The same name is spray painted on the front window of the house next door to the abandoned brownstone. “RIP Mook” is scrawled in big, black letters on a green painted wall on the facing corner of Van Pelt Street which bisects Dauphin Street mid-block.

On a warm late-winter Thursday afternoon the 2100 block of Dauphin Street is humming; there’s a big group of corner boys sitting on the steps of another abandoned home just past the corner of Van Pelt Street. There’s a corner bodega by 21st Street whose hanging yellow sign advertises cold beer, seafood, steaks and hoagies; the sign’s color matches the gaudily painted brick of the shop’s façade. There’s a lot of foot traffic going in and out of the corner store and another group of corner boys lingers outside it. Directly across the street is a big, vacant lot littered with garbage. Some buildings on the opposite side of the street near the vacant lot are spray painted with graffiti tags advertising, “Hater Rock.”

A woman approaches, looking cocaine-skinny in an ankle length faded denim skirt and a bandana wrapped aroundshrinemookcropped_1.jpg her head. She’s missing some teeth and seems tired, like she’s still trying to wake up at two in the afternoon. I ask her about the memorial and she explains that Mook got shot here back in January, right around New Year’s. He must have been popular, I say, considering how well maintained the memorial is more than two months after the fact. Yes, she affirms, Mook was real popular around here. I ask her to speak on the street shrine phenomenon; is there an economic reason them? Is it that Mook’s family is too poor to afford a grave plot? Is it because friends and neighbors can’t arrange transportation to the grave site?

The woman explains that the memorial is mostly for Mook’s friends. Mook was 18 years old and this was the corner he hung out on; the memorial acts as a place for other neighborhood teens to pay informal respects. “His family don’t got nothin’ to do with this,” she says. The woman points to a spot on the sidewalk a few steps away where “RIP M” is spray painted. “That’s the spot where he dropped, right there,” she says.

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Police are investigating the shooting deaths of two men in separate incidents last night. At about 8:17 p.m., Edward Coaxum was found with multiple gun shot wounds the 2100 block of Dauphin Street in North Philadelphia, police said. The 18-year-old, of the 200 block of W. Clapier Street, was taken to Temple University Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 8:32 p.m. Less than an hour later, police found a man with a gunshot wound to the head in the rear of a vacant lot in the 2800 block of N. Mutter Street in Fairhill. He was pronounced dead at the scene at 9:40 p.m. by medics. Police are still trying to determine his identity this morning.Police do not have a motive for either incident, which are the second and third killings of 2008. [via PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER]

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A big, pink bear at the center of the pile has, “I love U dad,” written on it. The woman says that Mook left behind a baby girl, and then looks down the block and calls to a young boy in an unzipped maroon hoodie, white polo shirt shrinemook4_1.jpgand black jeans. He reluctantly climbs down off the steps where he’s sitting with the crowd of corner boys. “He knew Mook, he can tell you more about him,” she says. But the boy is reluctant to talk to a white man with a notepad. He looks over my shoulder and won’t make eye contact. I ask him to tell me a little bit about Mook but the boy only mumbles a few sentences I can’t quite hear. I detect sadness in his eyes and decide not to press him. After a moment he drifts away.

The block’s heavy foot traffic dries up while I talk with the woman in the denim skirt. The crowds get suspicious and disperse. After only a few minutes the block is silent and empty except for a man with wide eyes and missing teeth who approaches us with a sense of urgency.

“Is it safe to talk?” he asks, looking directly at me. Before the woman can answer he asks again more forcefully, his eyes darting from my face to the notebook I’m holding and back. He takes the woman by the wrist and leads her off towards the corner bodega to take care of whatever business they have together.

Mook had a Myspace page that’s now become a gathering place online for family and friends in mourning. The page’s background is a picture of the shrine on Dauphin Street. Condolences from friends and family have been posted in the page’s comment section steadily since January; the most recent was posted this morning.The profile has a picture of Mook’s baby girl wearing a khaki skirt, purple top, ruffled socks, little white sneakers and a head full of blue and pink plastic berets. She’s crying, looking up and away from the camera. The picture’s caption reads, “DON’T CRY BABY GIRL I PROMISE U WILL C ME AGAIN.”

But there was another side to Mook beside the young father beloved by his family and popular in the neighborhood. A search of municipal court records shows that Mook was scheduled to appear on aggravated assault charges in February. And on his Myspace there’s another picture; a cache of handguns and automatic weapons neatly arranged on a bed mattress. There’s two Uzis, a Tec 9, an AK-47 assault rifle and two Glocks, one of which is loaded with an oversized 15 round magazine. Underneath the picture of the guns is the inscription, “MY SHADOW WHERE EVA I GO THEY GO.” Indeed.

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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.

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