Minor Call, Bad Neighborhood: Riding Where Things Never Seem To Get Better

Chicago

I was riding with a friend I’ll call Jim, since technically I wasn’t supposed to be there, in a run-down section that was mostly welfare. It was maybe two in the afternoon. The buildings were old, tired, of three or four stories and crumbling. Men sat on stoops, alone or in small groups, doing nothing. Jobs are scarce to nonexistent in these neighborhoods, and most of the men don’t have much training. After decades of sitting around, what they mostly know how to do is sit around.

Jim and I talked about it, about the unchanging sameness of the city, or the bad parts anyway, over the years. You can get cynical. In ten years the kids of today’s sitters will be dallying in crime, and in thirty, the juices of youth running more slowly, will be beginning to sit. Some will get out, some will get jobs somewhere. Most will stay on the margins of life.

A call came, theft from a home. As we drove through an alley to get there, kids yelled, “Five-Oh!” (“Cops.”) They weren’t doing anything wrong, just kids playing. We were in one of those unmarked cars that in fact might as well have “Police” written on them in neon: a junker probably confiscated from drug dealers. After three days on the beat, everybody in the neighborhood recognizes it as a cop car. Besides, anybody white has to be with the government in some capacity.

We went up a couple of flights of stairs and knocked. The woman who came to the door looked to be sixty, small and slight of build. She reminded me of my grandmother. She said, “Thank you so much for coming, officer. Won’t you come in?” It’s nice to encounter courtesy. Cops don’t see a whole lot of it.

The apartment was small, tidy, dark, and smelled of good cooking. Three men in middle age sat in the living room, watching television. They looked tired somehow. I forget what the show was. The woman took us into the kitchen, barely big enough for the three of us, and told us that her daughter had taken the rent money. She didn’t like to, but she had to report the child — her word — because this kept happening and she just couldn’t afford it.

“I just don’t know what young people are thinking of these days,” she said. I didn’t know either, I said. The child wasn’t bad, she just got started running with the wrong crowd, the woman said, and didn’t care about school and the schools were no good anyway.

How old was she, Jim asked. Seventeen. She was messing around with boys and drugs. She didn’t really mean to steal the money. She always thought she was just borrowing. But she was getting wild. Could we get the money back without putting her in jail?

She assumed I was a cop. People usually do. It was easier not to explain, so I didn’t.

Jim said we’d try. I could tell he wasn’t going to treat it as an official crime, that needed reports and had consequences. It would serve no purpose. The best he could do was, maybe, find the girl and bring her back with the money, providing that she hadn’t already spent it, which was likely. Wild kids looking at taking the wrong road were more the rule than the exception. The woman had enough problems without a child getting enmeshed in the criminal-justice system.

The men were still watching television as we left.

We drove around, looking for a teenager in a red tam and blue jeans. It wasn’t the crime of the century, but we were going to drive around anyway.

I thought about granny, as I mentally called her, and the guys in the living room. They struck me as being warehoused. In all likelihood they were decent people, but they just weren’t necessary. Maybe most of us aren’t — the world wouldn’t fall from its orbit if, say, lawyers and columnists vanished. But most of us do things in the day that let us imagine that we aren’t just breathing.

Downtown, many don’t. The men in the living room weren’t hungry, had adequate clothing, weren’t mistreated by anybody. They just had nothing to do, no trade, nothing to offer that anyone wanted. “Get a job” is great advice, but not everyone can. Someone has to want you. I don’t know what to do about it, but it isn’t pretty.

We never did find the girl.

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