I spent my teen years strolling the streets of the south side of Chicago. All times of day and night. Stoned, sober, rain, shine, cold, hot it just did not matter. If I could avoid home, I did. What I marvel at now is how scared I was much of the time.
I was fascinated by the streets, the sounds, the smells and the sights. I can recall walking alone and fights breaking out in alleyways between 2 guys for reasons I know not. Police cars would cruise by real slow measuring up whether to stop and frisk me. I was often carrying marijuana and I was always scared of a police search. ( I calculate that I have been stopped and searched by police over 40 times.)
Another common sight was groups of young boys on their stingray bicycles with banana seats and high handle bars with colorful streamers at the handle bar ends.
Frankly I have always found the inner-city of Chicago to be fascinating and terrifying. Gardens growing in front of small older homes next door to boarded up homes with fallen chain link fences and discarded beer bottles. (Homes there now often sport a large red X sign on the building front. Chicago assigns red “X” signs to tell firefighters and other first-responders that it is structurally unsound and should take precautions when responding to emergencies there. It’s also a reminder to anyone who might wander into this vacant building that they should stay out.) Older Black women are watering those pretty gardens or sitting on porches with their hand fans. At the end of the block is a park with young men playing basketball, while another group sits on the park benches drinking wine and smoking pot.
I knew all the gang signs in case I was challenged, but frankly I was either simply chased or ignored. But I knew that a any teen boy or a woman alone were likely prey. The inner-city has no shortage of predators. But the more I lived there the more I saw why. Kids were being groomed to be hard. Show no weakness or you will be picked on. Look like lunch and you will be eaten.
For some, jail and prison time were like badges of courage and considered a necessary stop on the road to street success. The manifestation of toughness starts with the way you move and the way you dress. I certainly dressed for success. I wore sunglasses night and day, jeans and button down Italian knits, Florsheim shoes or sneakers. In jacket weather I wore leather jackets, one that went to the hips only and one that went to the thighs. I stole both jackets from parties I went to. I never had clothing money then.
My basic menu was a loaf of french bread and cream cheese. I bought the bread and stole the cream cheese. Sometimes I would be able to steal a pack of deli meat like bologna or roast beef (the cheap kind). My dining room was usually a park bench or some front stoop of a 3 flat. The other food source was going to restaurants and running out on the check. I did not really run, I kind of casually walked out as though I had just paid the bill. One time an owner followed me to the street. He let me know he had a handgun in his rear pocket and was screaming at me. I feigned confusion and luckily I had enough to pay the bill.
So I have flashbacks of days long gone. I still love the memories. Watching the world in my youth unfold in front of me taught me so much about life. I should have modified my behavior at times to respect my fear. I should have stayed out of inner-city alleys and taverns. It is only looking back that I can appreciate the value of following my curiosity rather than my fear.
My favorite book which I first read when I was about 9 years old was Knock on Any Door by Willard Motley. His description of Chicago’s skid row and lower-income communities was so graphic that when I was old enough to seek out those same streets, off I went.
I am now the book. Or a book. I am a story of sights, sounds and smells. I wish I had the skill to depict it as I experienced it. I wish we could grasp what abject poverty feels like in its glory and in its shame. Often imitated but never duplicated, the south side of our many large cities is a marvelous tapestry of brilliance, imagination and pain because if you look closely, beneath the fallen tear drops of grief are blood stains of violence covering crushed dreams. But keep moving and you will hear the beautiful staccato of jazz riffs and rap and then the rubbing sounds of local writers’ erasers as they craft great American songs and stories.
I’m not dead yet. I will be back.