by Carlos Antonio Piñón
May 12, 2017
When I was a kid, I was scared of spiders—and the bugs that ate those spiders. I feared that they would all convene to cover every inch of my body and try to eat me. If I saw a spider, I'd scream so loudly that my sister used to make fun of me, but I never made a noise at the sound of a bottle being thrown at a speeding car. To this day, I clear the cobwebs forming in my room. I mean, if there's a rogue spider in my room, the danger is right there facing me, but whatever dispute outside has nothing to do with me. The only thing scarier would be spider gang violence, I guess, but if you were dealing with humans in a gang, you wouldn't want to scream anyway. You'd want to keep quiet and move away from the windows. That would be all that you could do, and even then, you aren't really doing anything but hiding.
I live in the Gage Park neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. The neighborhood itself is rather tranquil with more family-owned businesses than big companies. The closest McDonald's isn't even in walking distance and the public library is the same size as my house. In the afternoon, you can hear children playing in the parking lot of the elementary school, but by late evening, the streets' sole inhabitants are wildlife scurrying between houses. On most evenings, the only sound to be heard is the shuffling of tree branches from the wind's caress accompanied only by the hum of cars driving in the distance. On other nights, however, you can hear them. The clink of the beer bottles, the slam of the car doors, and the chatter of the men up to no good. They infest the night.
Dying isn't the part I'm scared of when I'm walking late at night. It's the gunshots, the bullets firing, digging their way into me. I don't know that pain, but I imagine it every time a car pulls up, or someone walks the opposite way towards me. I imagine the pop. The first bullet cracks my ribs and punctures my lungs, and then the second one pierces through my skull. If it's not that, it's someone pulling my head back and slitting my throat. Either way, I always end up a blood-soaked corpse on the sidewalk of my neighborhood.
On my last day as a freshman in high school, I wanted to show my childhood friend the elementary school I transferred to when we were younger. We were about three blocks from the Church near the school when the two guys I noticed following us finally caught up. They weren't much older than us, but they were big enough to beat us up without breaking a sweat. "Take everything out of your pockets," the bigger one said. There was nowhere to hide and we didn't know what they had on them. I stood there with my phone, iPod, and wallet in my hands, hoping they'd just leave us alone. The other guy thought real hard about keeping my friend's headphones before settling on taking only the money from our wallets. They walked back the direction they came from as we sped up without a single word.
When we finally got to the school, I apologized to my friend, then laughed. If they had really been hardened criminals, they would've taken everything we had. They would've known to search our pockets themselves and would've found more than twice as much money as we had in our wallets. But they didn't. I don't know why they didn't try harder. I don't even know why they chose us. Maybe they were just bad robbers, or maybe they didn't want to rob us in the first place. They were kids, too. Maybe they were stuck in a life already chosen for them by where they lived.
I'm scared every evening that I hear the men outside. They like to hang out right in front of my house because the streetlights give adequate lighting, and both my neighbor and the house across the street have driveways, giving them a place to stand. They also sometimes hide slouched in parked cars where they keep guns stashed below the seats, so it's never obvious exactly how many people are out there. Being a one-way street, they block the alleys with dumpsters so as to assure cars can only come from one direction. This is how they stop cars they find suspicious. When they want to alert others of something, they whistle, although in a pinch, they'll shout. I keep my distance from the window regardless of their activities, but being inside is no safer than being one of them. A shooting is not expected every evening, but every evening is as game as the last. Sure, you may not be the target, but you could always be the victim. Stray bullets don't discriminate.
I sometimes have to walk home from the train station. It's only an eight-minute walk, but still, I gotta hope I'm dressed flamboyantly enough not to look threatening. Even then, I have to keep my head up to look around and my arms in front of me like I'm ready to defend myself. I walk fast. Really fast. I have headphones in, loud enough to hear, but quiet enough to be aware. When they're in groups and I have to walk through them, I put my head down and I avoid eye contact. They could grab me if they wanted to, but if there's ever a drive-by and this is where they're aiming, at least I'd be surrounded by them. When I get to my house, I open the latch to my front gate and unlock my front door. When I turn the knob, I hold my breath in fear that one day I'll find my whole family has been slaughtered while I was gone. Mere blocks away in 2016, an entire family has already been the victim to this in a robbery gone wrong. This is known as The Gage Park Stabbings.
One particular evening, months after the mugging by the Church, I was sitting by the window in the living room so that I could be on the lookout for my mom and sister. They had gone to buy groceries. The men were hanging outside like they always do when my mom and sister came through the front door. They had just enough time to set the bags down when we heard it. The whistles, the shouts, the pops. And then the thud in the wall behind me. We didn't have time to think before crawling to the kitchen. It was only minutes before the commotion died down and my dad, who was in the garage, looked out the front door. This time, no one was hit and the police investigation was short. The next morning, we found bullet holes below the window.
Usually we don't speak to the cops, but a year after that shooting, we had to. During this time, our block had been getting frequent crank calls to the police for things that weren't happening. I remember the police officer who asked my mom how she was able to keep us out of gang life. He more or less said, "These days, keeping four boys safe from that life is a miracle." Because the police were being led to believe something was happening, they came prepared to deal with whatever situation was called for, except when they showed up, nothing was happening. Even when things are going down, no one else on my block calls the police either. No one knows anything when the police show up anyway, and no one tells them anything even as everyone peeks their eyes out through the curtains. But since someone was making these calls, we had to deal with dissolving the situation each time they came. We've had to tell them that none of our family members were in a domestic dispute and that there wasn't an elderly man having a heart attack. One crank call actually led to the firefighters kicking our door in when we weren't home to extinguish a fire. Even though no one was hurt, we were concerned. How far were these calls going to go?
One day when just my sister, my baby cousin, and I were at home, we heard a knock on our door. My sister, with my little cousin in her arm, opened the door to what must've been at least four police officers with guns in their hands. At that moment, I thought, Oh shit, better take my hands out of my back pockets because I don't want them to think I'm hiding something behind my back. So I did what any scared kid would do: I moved my hands in front of me quickly. But instead of resolving anything, all of the police officers pointed their guns at me. The police officer closest to the door twitched before putting his gun down. He explained that a call was placed about a man with a gun at our address. I sat on the living room couch as they searched the house. By mere chance, I dodged a bullet. If even one of them had reacted too quickly, I would've been shot. These days, I sometimes catch myself thinking, Thank god I'm not black.
As I grow older, I find myself asking what separates me from the men outside. I'm no smarter, no better, no safer. We come from the same neighborhood, the same demographic. Why are they out there on the streets? Why am I hiding in my room? I've been living in the same house for nearly two decades. Years of quiet evenings interrupted by cars speeding, glass breaking, men yelling, the deafening pop; there are days when I just don't hear it anymore. It's not shocking. It just happens outside my window. It's never a part of my life; rather, it's a life adjacent to mine. No matter what I do, whatever happens won't be my fault. No wrong color, no stupid face, no hand in my pockets, no cap slightly sideways that I didn't even notice. Every step I take outside, I'm hoping today isn't the day that I die. I dread thinking what would happen to my family if I were killed. I've fantasized what would happen if I had a gun pulled on me, forcing me to pledge allegiance to their gang. I always run through it in my head, saying that I've got nothing of value, nothing to lose, no expensive electronic worth sacrificing myself over. I beg every time, saying they could just take my credit card and I wouldn't tell the police anything, to just let me tell my best friends I love them, and let me call to my mom so she could tell my little brother not to worry. I plead, please don't do it, but then they shoot me anyway, and I imagine my lifeless body lying there, my mom not yet knowing that this time, it was her son.