Then it's showtime: A crack addict fires up an L-shaped tube, proclaiming "L is for losers," and gets deeply lost himself. Nail-tough neighborhood girls brag about roughing up hookers. "Nice quiet neighborhood," says a father of ten, "if they stop finding bodies."
Each vignette is short -- between two and three minutes -- composed with a painter's eye, and populated with a carnival of characters who David Kessler somehow gets to tell their stories.
Since January the 32-year-old filmmaker has been setting up his tripod under the El, and turning out these dark gems, which he posts to his blog, called Shadow World:
The El called to Kessler the moment he saw it; he'd been a student at the University of the Arts in the mid-90s. He chose it as a location for a feature film then again for his documentary on Zoe Strauss, the Philadelphia artist.
Then in January he moved into a $450-a-month studio, utilities included, seven doors down from the tracks, in a grim apartment building that bears the hand-written sign "Please knock like a human. Don't break the door."
He hated living there, but he knew the location would offer great material the sharp contrasts, the constant rattle, the beat-up buildings.
He had no idea he'd fall so hard for the people.
The woman wobbles down Front Street in a bright red T-shirt, worn around her midriff, and dungaree Daisy Dukes. She sees Kessler, and waves excitedly, "How are you, honey?"
"Nice to see you again," he calls across the street.
Hes skinny, unshaven and bespectacled, wearing mud-toned slacks and shirt and a small gray fedora. The full hipster.
She launches into her woe of the moment.
"I was trying to get into the bar," she says. "But they wouldn't serve me because I had a bra top on."
Kessler smiles empathetically. She tells him to take care.
"She's a prostitute," he says as we walk. "I interviewed her yesterday. I was walking out here with my camera. She invited me to sit down next to her. She said she's been out here nine years, since her husband was killed. She walks with a limp. She was in a serious car accident. We talked about that. She has a deep scar on her leg."
I ask whether the people he shoots ever see his work, and so far only one has that he knows of -- a man at Bada Bargains whose hobby is collecting buttons. "He loved it."
Kessler says he often edits out things he thinks might get his subjects in trouble, and only features people he feels some connection to. "I think about this a lot," he says. "I don't want to be seen as exploiting these people."
At Front & Emerald a woman nearly staggers into us, staring someplace far away. Working girls idle on corners. A man hollers at a woman as they push their groceries down the street.
"It's unfortunate," Kessler says, "that I can't capture all of the smells."
He talks how each block is a different world, one Spanish, the next one Vietnamese. When the El passes, the ground shakes. He says he no longer hears it.
His recorder, a tiny Sony Handycam, is always at the ready. He's found material at the laundry. Outside the methadone clinic. At the soup kitchen. On his doorstep.
"I want to find more joyous moments," he says, as the El rumbles overhead. "It is getting progressively darker, with the crack and people talking about the bodies being found in the walls. Its not what I set out to do. But that is hard to ignore."