Now and Then

Things remain fairly quiet in the neighborhood, although there was some encroachment on the garden. Or, more accurately, the park. Because that’s what our lot came to be. You may remember, if you’ve been following our story, that a huge branch had fallen from the mulberry some time before we started Green on McLean. On our second workday, some of the neighborhood men used their chainsaws to cut it into “stumps” that we grouped under the magnolia for people to sit on. Soon, dog owners took to sitting on the stumps while their dogs ran around the grass. Mothers sat and talked with each other while their kids played tag. Then, at one of our garden parties, the father of a couple of young teenagers hung a tire swing from a high branch of the mulberry, and the neighborhood kids started to use it. We also had a few older guys who sat on the stumps in the early morning and drank their beer. They filled watering jugs and helped keep the lot cleaned up. The garden is a source of great pride and it gives the kids something to do, but the “park” has become equally important.

We were warned from the beginning that the gangs would co-opt the seats, but it didn’t happen, not for a long time. We learned that our particular gang leader, the older guy who was clearly in charge of the youngbloods, had been keeping them out of the garden. Then that leader disappeared, along with most of the gangbangers. It seemed to happen suddenly but was actually the last stage of a long, hard struggle.

However, there were a few of the younger guys who showed up on the corner from time to time. After awhile it became clear that they were on duty, probably to redirect potential customers to another selling point. It was two of these younger guys that the kids and I had to throw out. (Bits of the Neighborhood and Pieces of My Life) It was other guys like these who started sitting on the stumps under the magnolia when it was hot or when they got tired of standing on the corner. (The only other place to sit is the fire hydrant, and it’s not exactly comfortable.) Someone even put gang signs on the stumps with a Sharpie.

After three of the kids reported guys smoking dope while the kids were watering the garden, we decided the stumps had to go. Beth, one of our garden supporters, asked for a stay of execution and proposed scattering the stumps around the lot, more out in the open and not together. That seems to be working.

If you’re wondering why we have to throw out guys for smoking dope–especially when we let the older guys drink their beer in the garden in the morning–I’ve decided to put in another remembrance of things past. This is a bit of a journal I kept just a couple of years ago.

June 17th   I hate waking up to something that might, or might not, be gunshots. Especially in the early hours of the morning. Michael was sure they were, and I had to admit that they didn’t sound like firecrackers, so we called 911. They always ask how many shots. I wonder why. It makes sense that they ask how many people when we report that the gang guys are arguing or drinking or smoking dope in the street. The police have to know what they’re walking into. But when we call about shots, why is the first question “how many?”

About five minutes later, there was another volley. This time it was pretty clear that they were shots. We called 911 again.

June 18th   It was a night. The gang guys were “loud-talking” until the early hours. Mac says that’s what it’s called these days. It’s a fairly descriptive term. They don’t actually shout, but somehow they make their voices heard all over the neighborhood. And, of course, they use the f-word as though it were “the” or “and.” I don’t actually mind the obscenity. There’s no connection between their use of that word and anything resembling sex. I mind the anger and violence behind it.

Anyway, it was a long night. I was awake for way too much of it. I called 911 a few times and then did a lot of deep breathing. I thought about my book. I even worked out a new approach to the introduction. I fell asleep sometime before the sun rose.

 June 19   Michael had to leave for work at the crack of dawn. I slept too late and then called the doc and left a message asking him to call the pharmacy and okay my Paxil refill. The morning was cool and grey, and I decided to cook the pot roast I had thawing in the refrigerator. It’s some special grass-fed beef Michael got from one of his horticultural friends. I put it in the oven about 1:00 and an hour later the day had turned warm and muggy.

Michael left Mac and me the car today when he went downtown, so we abandoned the spelling program around 4 o’clock and went shopping. Mac picked up cat food at PetSmart while I bought half a yard of fabric that I may eventually make into a scarf. Then we went to the thrift shop. Michael met us there because it’s only two blocks from his El stop, and we drove home to eat pot roast. My shrink called on the way home to ask how I was doing before he okayed my Paxil refill. I was strongly tempted to refer him to Buddha [one of the gang leaders], but I just said I was getting better.

Mac and Michael dropped me at Armitage Produce because I needed some carrots. All I had at home were those expensive little baby carrots, and you don’t put them in a pot roast. On the way from Armitage Produce to our house, I passed a cluster of gang guys at the Quicker Liquor corner. They pretended they didn’t see me.

I only made one 911 call tonight.

 June 20   It was a green tarp night. The tarp went up over the yard across the alley at about 4 in the afternoon. Before long, the sound system had cranked up, and the oompah loompah music was blaring so loud it was hard to talk over it. Michael and I stayed outside as long as we could because the evening was pleasant and the garden was beautiful. Then we went inside and ate leftover pot roast while we did his show prep. Before I went upstairs, I found a window fan and took it up. With that in the bedroom window, and earplugs in my ears, the noise was pretty much bearable. I fell asleep.

 June 22 It was very quiet last night. At any rate, nothing got through the fan and the earplugs. This morning, Mac and I went to the diner on Western to have breakfast and work. I feel a lot better when I’m out of the neighborhood, even in the morning, when nothing’s going on anyway. From the diner, we went downtown.

Down at the County Archives, I looked through criminal records for our genealogical client. While I was staring at the microfiche reader, I struck up a conversation with a guy waiting for a divorce record for his buddy in Arizona. Or really, I think he struck up a conversation with me. He was waiting for the clerk to find his papers and he was bored. He was also mad because he was a cop and he’d been dissed by a CTA employee.

We ended up talking about the Imperial Gangstas because that’s what I do these days. I talk about the gang. I think about them, worry about them, hate them, and talk about them. The guy told me not to give up. He also said he was a scene of the crime officer and, when there wasn’t a scene of the crime for him to go to, he drove around the North Side. Sometimes he just parked and provided a “police presence.” He said he’d come to our neighborhood tonight. I felt like crying with gratitude. I also worried that there wouldn’t be any gang activity and he’d think I was a nut.

Olga called while Mac and I were coming out of the archives, and our phone connection was terrible, but I finally got the message. Olga had gone on the Chicago Police Department website to look for another number for the District. When she saw a place to click to see Chicago’s Most Wanted, she clicked. She recognized the first face that came up. She says it’s one of the new guys[older gang members who had just got out of prison] that are hanging out at 3516. She recognized him immediately. He’s wanted for murder.

Mac and I went across the street to get some tea and see if we could connect to the net. We did. Thank God for free WiFi. I went to the CPD site and found the Most Wanted. I didn’t recognize anybody. Of course, it hadn’t occurred to me to ask Olga for a name.

I’d feel hopeful, thinking maybe Olga’s imagination was burgeoning under the stress, but the fact is that I haven’t been making eye contact lately. Osama Bin Laden could be hanging out on the porch and I doubt that I would recognize him.

So, I came home and made myself a cold dinner and went out onto the front porch. Michael had a softball game and a Godot rehearsal. I accessed the CPD site and pulled up Chicago’s Most Wanted. Then I did some research on my book. When anyone showed up at 3516 or 3519, I went back and looked at the Most Wanted list. I felt ridiculous.

This evening there were only the younger guys.

. . . . . . .

That’s as far as I got on the journal. I realized that writing about the gang every day was starting to make me obsess. Now, you probably think I was obsessing already, but this was a whole new level. I didn’t need to be bringing my focus onto the gang once a day when they were always there, filling up the background of my life.

So I stopped writing the journal and just made notes from time to time. Most of it is way too clear in my memory anyway. Indelibly etched, to coin a phrase.

Anyway, I called Officer Torres at the 14th and told her about Mr. Most Wanted, Fernando X. She put me on hold while she called a detective, and I talked to him. He gave me his cell and told me to call him if there was any other information. Within a few days there was.

Obed Garcia told his wife that she was right. X was visiting 3516. As a father. The four beautiful children next door were his, and while he was in hiding, wanted for murder, he came by to see them. Obed got the information from one of the guys hanging out there. I passed it on to the detective.

And then, for a long time, nothing happened. That is, no progress was made. Plenty happened. I continued to watch drug deals going down in front of our house, standing two or three feet behind the beveled glass in our Victorian-era wooden door, under the crystal chandelier I had restrung with bright green and dark amber beads. Michael and I continued to wake up at 3:00 AM under the quilt my mother made and the bedspread my grandmother crocheted and grope for the phone to call 911.

We learned how to get the 911 dispatcher to pay attention and get the squad cars there. We had long since stopped using words like “kids,” “guys,” and “people.” We said “gang member.” “Gang members on the corner of St. Louis and McLean.” “Gang members hanging out on the porch of 3516 W. McLean.” “Gang members in the street, 3500 block of McLean.” Now we also stressed escalating arguments and potential violence. “No, I can’t see whether they have weapons, but it’s starting to sound pretty scary.”

And that was true. It was scary. But less than two months later came the event that would begin the change in our neighborhood. It started with a CAPS meeting held on our corner. Two squad cars, three police officers, thirty neighbors and friends, and State Representative Luis Arroyo met and talked. I’ll go into more detail about how that happened and what followed in the next blog.

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3 Responses to Now and Then

  1. Mac says:

    This brings back such unpleasant memories… I remember the day we met Danny (Rep Arroyo’s representative) on the street. You were so happy that he listened to what you had to say and took it seriously.

  2. Gene Knight says:

    Kathy, I really enjoy the chapters and the blogs. I have known you forever, but realize I know so little about all the things you have done and experienced. I hope you will continue to post so I can catch up on just a little bit of what I have missed. Someday I will pay you back just a little bit by telling you a few of the experiences involving teaching, coaching, and traveling around playing softball , and all that is involved in going to powerlifting meets. Gene

    • I would love to hear about your experiences. I have believed for a long time that it is not our lives, but our willingness to tell the truth about them, that make for interesting reading. Even the attempt at truth is so rare.

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