I have lived in Uptown since the mid eighties. It is different now. Back then it was a bonified ghetto, with burnt out buildings, drunks to step over on the sidewalk and children of drug addicts playing on the streets in rags. Over the years it has changed. Like much of the North side of Chicago it has been gentrified. Starbucks and Borders, condos and a Target. Only there are still gangs.
Youth groups who visit will ask about gangs. They are the stuff of urban legend and tv movies, bands of terrifying black men with gold teeth out to kill and rape innocent whites for street cred. Remind them to turn on their headlights and they will follow you home to your nice house and kill you in your carport. Once a visitor asked me how to stay safe from gangs when they went shopping downtown. I suppressed a smile when I told her the Magnificent Mile was not really part of their turf.
The Black P Stones are a few blocks away on Magnolia, and they battle the Uptown Vice Lords who live on our street. In the summer the Vice Lords hang out near our building, behind the school. I hate that they are selling drugs, I hate that their leaders send younger members like so much cannon fodder to kill one another. Lives ruined, mothers crying for dead children. Gangs are easy to hate. It is easy to see the insanity of what they do.
When I was a teenager my drug dealer drove a nice car and lived in a nice house in the suburbs just like me. When he got caught his parents sent him to rehab. I think he ended up going to college. Wars by governments are complicated, and they have people whose job it is to spin it to the people who foot the bill, with their taxes and the lives of their children. Maybe there are good reasons to kill one another. It is hard for me to wrap my head around.
Once when someone threw a juice box over the wall of our yard, hitting my autistic son, I marched back to the group of Vice Lords doing business on their phones and demanded they tell me who did it. They stared at me for a moment, clearly thrown by this white lady in shorts and crocs addressing them without fear. When they recovered they expressed outrage at the drive by juice box incident, and offered to find the culprit. “That ain’t right.” I declined the offer, picturing them beating the crap out of an eight year old, and thanked them. They admired my tattoos to one another as I walked away.
In the summer my family walks to where the P Stones hang, a park across the street from Starbucks that has a big water fountain. They are there with their families. The dads play basketball and the kids play with my kids in the water. The adults get a kick out of Jude, my big autistic son flapping and laughing in the water, and Eden, my eight year old, runs around with the other kids. Once one of the men made a joke about Eden’s bright red hair, and he scowled at the group of men, not wanting to be singled out.
I brought Eden over and had him apologize. These members of the P Stone nation were incredulous, this lady making her kid apologize to them. “Just trying to teach him to be respectful,” I explained. Not because they were P Stones, or because this was their park. Because they were humans, people, who God loves and have mothers and children and matter. How am I going to teach my son that the homeless man on the corner matters if I deny the humanity of someone in a white tshirt? I didn’t say that. Mr. P Stone smiled at me, and nodded respect to my husband.
Since November the gunfire has been nightly on Wilson Avenue, and it has been loud. It has been warm so the windows are still open, and when we hear the crack, crack, crack it seems like the city noises all stop for just a moment, the streets holding their breath, and then the sirens. The other night my husband was out walking to the corner store, and we heard the shots. I ran from the kitchen, down to the first floor, in my socks. I began calling Don on his cell phone, no answer. No answer. Sirens.
Not answering the phone. He did not come home. He did not call.
I stayed in the lobby, frozen to the floor. Peter walked by, and he looked at me and told me he would go find Don. Don did not come home, he did not call.
I had a bad taste in my mouth. Someone went to get my mother. I stood waiting. Thinking how I could not do this, raise these boys, sleep in a bed alone. He did not call. My thoughts were for myself. I cannot do this alone.
Don and Peter walked through the doors. I ran up to Don and started hitting him. “Answer your PHONE, how many times have I told you, ANSWER YOUR PHONE!!” And then we both burst into tears.
Don had walked past a group of Vice Lords, and as soon as he got across the alley back on to the curb, the shooting started. Instead of calling me or leaving, he went back and helped one of the men who had bullets in his leg and hand and foot. That is who I married, I would expect nothing less. I went upstairs and threw up, and thought about moving to New Hampshire.
The next day I heard a group of men talking. “And this one tall white dude, he was helping the one who got shot in the foot..”
I have no way of knowing this for sure, but I believe in my heart that the people who did the shooting from the car across the street waited for Don to get past before they shot. Maybe they didn’t want the heat killing an innocent white guy brings. Maybe they remembered him from the park. Maybe there was a little scrap of humanity in there, in the midst of this war over a couple of yards of pavement, he didn’t want to take a civilian away from his kids at Christmas. I will never know.
I only know that these men have mothers, and God loves them, and they were children once, and are fighting a war that makes no sense, and dying for no good reason. It would be easy to see them as evil personified, to dismiss their humanity, which is what they have done to one another, and what we all need to do to inflict violence and injustice on other human beings.
So no moving to New Hampshire. Uptown is my home, just like the guy with the white tshirt at the park. Just like him I have sin, and a mother who loves me, and I need some direction, somehow to make sense of this sinful, broken world. Merry Christmas, Mr. P Stone. Thanks for not shooting my husband, and try to stay safe. Hope to see you next summer at the park. God loves you, and I am guessing your mother does, too. Take care.