Like Mercury . . . and Just as Toxic

Something very strange is going on in the neighborhood. I don’t want to jinx anything, but it looks as though the whole new batch of gangbangers is gone. Gone. Not here anymore. This is not to say that we are now a gang-free neighborhood, but . . . Let me explain.

If you read my last post, “The Start of the Gang House Era,” you know that the police, some years ago, got the gangs off the corner of St. Louis and McLean at last. Unfortunately, they then moved into a house four doors east of us. The way it works is that a woman, often with children, rents the apartment. Then, she allows the gang to use it as a hangout and drug-selling post, in exchange for whatever–drugs, rent money. Starting in the summer of 2004, this is what happened at 3506 McLean.

There are a lot of things the Chicago police can and will arrest someone for. Sitting on your front step is not one of them, even if everyone in the neighborhood knows you’re on the lookout for drug buyers. Drinking all day, if you stay in your yard, is not one of them. Standing on your porch and yelling obscenities at each other is not one of them, even if you can be heard a block away, even if you don’t stop when the parade of mothers walking their children home from school passes by.

The irony was painful. It was as though a doctor had cured a bad skin rash only to have the disease move into the vital organs. When the gang left the corner and moved into 3506, life became almost unbearable. With the exception of a few hours just after dawn, the gangbangers were on the porch day in and day out, drunk and stoned and mad as hell at each other and the world. They hardly ever actually fought, but they pushed each other a fair amount and yelled like you wouldn’t believe, and one of them got shot in the leg in a drive-by.

Then the same thing happened at 3519, just across the street and down two doors. There, it was the gang leader’s mother who rented the apartment and let her son, Buddha, run his drug-selling business from there. Buddha was a hugely fat man who smiled a lot. Once, late at night, I saw him passing out oversized white tee shirts to his guys out of the back of a station wagon. “What were they wearing?” “Uh, white tee shirts and baggy jeans.” “Thanks. That helps.” The guys moved back and forth between the two houses all day.

One night I heard a commotion on the porch. I opened the door to see one of the older gangbangers lying on our steps. A couple of others were high-tailing it away. The guy on the steps was clutching his stomach and moaning. I called up to Michael, who was upstairs. He started down the stairs just as the guy forced himself into the front hallway and onto the bottom of the stairway. This meant the guy was between me and Michael, and he kept trying to get me to rub his stomach. (When I think about it now, it’s almost funny. Big tough gangbanger asking me to rub his tummy.)

Michael grabbed the upstairs phone and called 911. In the meantime, I realized what was wrong with the guy. There had been a story on the news about some bad heroin making the rounds in Humboldt Park, just across Armitage from us. I reassured the guy that we would get him to the hospital, but he was almost out of his senses with pain. He heard nothing. Fortunately, the police and ambulance got there in just a few minutes. Three or four people died from the brown heroin. I don’t know whether he was one of them.

One afternoon, I was moved to write a poem about what had just happened.


I was almost home when the shots
rang out. I’d gone to the thrift shop
for more books to give the neighbor
kids, then taken the bus west
on Armitage. It was windy.

Trash had blown into the parkway
barberries at the corner house.

Isaac and Ishmael sat on their
bikes, in front of the house next door.
They don’t ride their bikes much, just sit
on them, with a hand on the fence
for balance. Sally, their mother,
sat on the steps talking to Stella,
watching them.

I had almost reached my own steps
when the gunfire started. “Run, run
inside,” Sally shouted to the
children as the two bikes clattered
to the ground. I dropped the books
on the porch on my way inside
to call 911. Michael passed
me in the doorway, going out
to see.

I dialed the phone and reported
the shots. “How many were there?” “Four,
I think. Or five. I saw some boys
running west.” I went back out
to the front porch to get the books,
then into the kitchen to put
vegetables into the steamer

Michael went back to his laptop
to look at a blog. “Welcome home,”
he said.

Two days later, Joey came by
for books. “Did you hear the shots then?
I was at the playground. There was
a paddy wagon and a black
and white. I been reading that book
you gave me about Merlin.”

This is when we started making 911 calls in earnest and going to the CAPS meeting. And this is why, when things get quiet and the gangs seem to disappear, I look around and wonder. Where will they turn up next?

Oh, and just to remind you to keep laughing, here’s the latest outfit on our yard art goddess.

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7 Responses to Like Mercury . . . and Just as Toxic

  1. Liz Bradbury says:

    I’m happy for you that it has quieted down. I pray it stays that way this time.

  2. Carolyn W says:

    What would the world be like without drugs? I guess we’ll never know. I think addictive substances have always been a part of the world – just more widespread now. What pain they cause! “If only…” is a happy path to ponder though.

  3. Mac says:

    no words…but I’m glad there’s some peace…may it last, and last, and last

  4. Olga says:

    I feel the same way you do, as I have suffered longer enough of the vicious cycle of the gangbangers. In the meantime I am cherishing the peace and quiet time on the street that I hope will last forever.

  5. I know, Olga. You have suffered so much longer than we have.

  6. Penny and Irene says:

    IWe are happy that you are having some releif and some quiet. Lately Mick has been annoyed by the loud music from the two teen age boys across the street. I encouraged him to read your blog so he cam appreciate that a little night music under his window is probably a good thing.

    Next week when he leaves to take his first teaching job in the very small town of Casey, Illinois he will most likely have a hard time getting used to the quiet.


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