A Man With a Knife | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

A Man With a Knife 

Sunday Morning at the Neighborhood Drugstore

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Sunday starts with somebody yelling under my bedroom window. Usual stuff: motherfucker this and that, I'll get you nigger, and so on.

Many drug deals are finalized under my bedroom window and I'm used to the noise, but this is pretty early. I look at my alarm clock: 6:15 AM. I try to go back to sleep but it's no use. I get up and use the bathroom, and all the while I hear this guy yelling outside.

I make coffee and sit at the front window. I have a catbird seat. I've witnessed many auto accidents, some with injuries, people bleeding onto the pavement; also marital arguments, drug negotiations, fistfights, gang bangs, and a few arrests. Once I looked out and saw a man handcuffed to a light post, Once a murder. I've written about some of them. When I have writer's block, all I have to do is look out my front window, and there is inspiration.

The yeller is now walking down Kedzie by the Marathon station. Scrawny white guy: dirty blond hair, blue T-shirt, clearly drunk as a lord. He staggers, puts each foot down deliberately, as if each step required a separate decision. A moon-walk sort of feeling. Though he's making some forward progress, it looks as if he's pushing against a mighty wind. He's not: it's a cool morning, cloudy but mild, the sun barely up. How is it he's so drunk so early in the morning? Or still drunk from the night before? I don't recognize him from the neighborhood.

He's still shouting out free-form challenges to no one in particular. He comes to a late-model Ford parked at the Marathon station, rummages around in it for a while, slams the door as hard as he can (the force of this almost pushes him over), then goes to the pay phone nearby. It doesn't look like he's making a call, more like he's pounding on the phone, trying to get a response from it.

I open the window a crack, and sure enough, he's cursing and bashing at the phone. He holds onto the receiver and pulls and swings on it, like a fish caught on a hook.

Jesus, what a neighborhood.

Then a tall, neatly dressed black guy strolls across the Marathon's tarmac, opens the passenger door of the Ford, leans in and pulls out a raincoat, and puts it over his arm. He walks around to where the drunken white guy is swinging on the phone cord, winds back his fist, deliberately and with good aim, and punches him once, hard and accurately, in the face. Then he turns and walks away, across the tarmac and west on Diversey.

The white guy doesn't fall down or stagger or even act surprised. He doesn't yell or run after the black guy, nothing.

When I see this punch I have the usual rush of fear: oh God, a fight, how long, will it escalate . . . ? But no, it's one good, swift punch and that's that. I don't recognize the black guy either, and he doesn't look especially scummy or dangerous, like a lot of the guys--black, white, Hispanic--who hang out on this "drugstore" corner. He could be a student, or maybe a low-level wage slave. Young anyway, well-groomed, good posture, firm stride--good, strong punch!

Well, that's that, I think. But no: the white guy goes to the passenger side of the car, rummages through the back, comes out with a huge mug of beer (it looks like it holds a full liter), takes a swallow, and sets it on top of the car. Then he rummages a while longer and comes out with a long, shiny knife.

I'm 50 yards away, but I have good eyes and I know a knife when I see one. He carefully places the knife alongside the building, a few feet away from the car, and covers it with a piece of paper, patting it down. For as drunk as he is, he is extremely careful and deliberate about the act of hiding this knife.

OK, now I' m scared. Coupla drunks punching each other out, who cares. But weapons: I dial 911.

I have dialed 911 often in the past, but let me tell you, the way to get real action is to say "a man with a knife." I hear sirens from all directions as soon as I hang up the phone.

Now the man is walking around without his shirt. His face looks battered, and there is blood running down his bare chest. He wipes at it with the T-shirt, but his chest is soon smeared with blood again.

A cop car pulls in, the man goes over to it, leans on the door, points down Diversey: "He went that way." I called the cops on this dude, and he's sending them after the guy who punched him. The cops don't fall for it, and soon there are two, three, four more cop cars, and then a fire engine (small), and then a big, square paramedics ambulance. Our tax dollars at work.

The firemen give the guy some clean white stuff to hold on his face. The cops are poking around the car. The drunk keeps going over to his liter mug of beer and taking long drags at it. The cops finally tell him to stop, and he does, after taking one long last drag.

From here I can see the place where he hid the knife. The cops keep walking right past it. Should I go down and point it out? Or would I be a troublemaker?

Soon all the cop cars are gone except the one that arrived first. The firemen are gone, the ambulance has gone (taking the drunk with it), and the original two cops--a man and a woman--have crossed to my side of the street and are looking around and under the cars parked there.

I decide to make my move. I go down and meet them as they're on the way back to their car. "I'm the one who called," I say. They seem only mildly interested to meet me. "I saw him take a knife out of his car," I say. "That's when I called."

"Yeah, a junkie attacked him with a broken bottle. Cut a chunk out of his face," says the male cop.

This does not jibe with what I have just seen but I don't say so. I tell them about the knife. "It looked like a knife," I say. "I saw him hide it over here. I want to see if it's still there."

I lead them over to the spot. I'm going to be very embarrassed if it turns out to be something else, or nothing. There is a piece of cardboard from a 12-pack of beer, and under it is a knife with a ten-inch blade. What a relief.

"Yeah, it's a knife all right," says the male cop, and picks it up. It's a cheap kitchen butcher knife, the kind that come in sets with their own wooden block to hold them. They're usually so dull they won't cut anything. Still . . .

"The guy was yelling around the corner for half an hour before I called you guys," I say. "Then I saw a black guy go up and punch him. I called when I saw the knife."

The cop is holding it gingerly between thumb and forefinger. I've done my duty and head back to the house. I wonder what the law is: they didn't find the knife on the guy, so is he guilty of anything? They didn't ask my name, but I'd be willing to be a witness . . .

By the time everyone has left, it's nine o'clock. I put on my jacket and go for my morning walk. A few idlers are hanging out by the laundromat discussing what just went down. I walk on down Kedzie a block, turn left, and take a tour of Logan Boulevard, my usual route.

A different world down there: big renovated Victorian graystones with stained-glass windows, lots of green--high arching trees, also expensive landscaping, flowers (safe behind wrought-iron fencing)--and a better class of cars, parked along wide, grassy parkways.

No grass grows on my corner, no trees. I planted tulips once; they were beheaded before they bloomed. Some K mart potted shrubs died aborning. The only thing that thrives is an evil vine called devil weed, which chokes out everything else and gives no blooms in return. Oh, and morning glory. You can't kill morning glory.

I'm moving along briskly, but three racewalkers pass me up; then they pause, pacing in place, while the woman of the group (small, long black hair, neon Spandex tights) goes to check out a "For Rent" sign on a six-flat.

"This is a biggie," she tells the other two. "Only $695, including a garage." (She pronounces it GA-raj, British style, though she has no British accent.)

"Three-bedroom?" asks the man wearing tights and gym shorts (longish gray hair in a ponytail, Cubs hat),

"Yes," she says. "It's a biggie."

"Well, it's less than you're paying now," says the other man (30-ish, athletic, bicycle shorts, Walkman, high-tech sneakers).

"Yes," she says, "and I don't have a GA-raj." And they start off again, swinging their hips, pumping their heavy-hands.

Lord, I think, are the Yups coming back to Logan Square? They were here in force for a while, and then in those few years of the bull market they all moved back to the lakefront. Damn the expense, give us lake views. Now people are looking at prices again. I guess if you've been paying $1,200 a month in Lincoln Park, a big three-bedroom with a GA-raj for $695 sounds cheap. A block north, on my corner, a three-bedroom goes for about half that.

On my way home I walk past the Marathon station. The drunk's car is gone; towed, I suppose. The phone is broken: the receiver is dangling, some wires are coming out of the mouthpiece. Quite a bit of blood on the sidewalk. Rapidly drying, though. You won't notice it after a while.

It's like when the Cuban junkie killed a man in the gangway of the apartment building across the street. I watched the commotion from my window, but I didn't know what I was seeing until cops arrived and broke it up and carried the dead man out. I thought it might have been a fight, or maybe two people making love, it was hard to tell.

The next day I went and peeked in there: a lot of blood on the concrete. Nobody ever washed it up. It just dried, and faded, and finally after a week or so you couldn't tell it was blood anymore.

In folklore, there is a strong taboo against spilling human blood onto the earth. That bit of earth becomes polluted, sterile, haunted. I wonder about sidewalks.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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