An Area of Darkness | Feature | Chicago Reader

An Area of Darkness 

A peaceful night, a violent attack, and a sense of the city lost forever

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On a Sunday night a few months ago, my girlfriend and I took a moonlit stroll down Hutchinson Street just north of Irving Park and off Marine Drive. The street's mansions and Prairie-style homes were built in the late 1800s, during that era's version of suburban expansion. The area was already wealthy. The summer home of S.H. Kerfoot occupied 11 acres of plush gardens and abutted James Waller's 60-acre estate known as "Buena." The neighborhood began to be called Buena Park in 1889. Some of the houses on Hutchinson were designed by George Maher, a great architect in a city of great architects. The two-block stretch between Marine and Hazel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

A white colonial-style home sits at Marine and Hutchinson. As we walked past it, my girlfriend, Michelle, wondered who might live there. Maybe a diplomat or a politician. An American flag was illuminated on the front lawn.

The street was still and silent. We took our time, stopping to discuss each house, stepping into driveways to get a better look. Trees loomed overhead, thick with leaves. It was dark. Farther in the streetlights were out, but we kept walking, rounding the corner at Hazel to take in one more house before turning back.

Down the street a guy said good-bye to his buddies and started walking toward us. Full of turn-of-the-century charm, I told Michelle this guy was certainly "an imposing figure." She chuckled. We continued down Hazel, and the street grew darker. As we crossed paths with the guy I gave a cool and respectful nod. "Hey." I didn't stop.

"Do you know where Trumbull Street is?" he asked.

"Huh?"

Too late. He grabbed me. I shook loose, and Michelle and I ran down Hazel. The guy's pals--the two men we'd seen him say good-bye to--were crouching alongside the parked cars. They jumped us. One grabbed Michelle. I turned around and the other guy threw me against a fence. I was wrestled to the ground. Two men were on me. I got punched, kicked. I tried to scream, but I was out of breath.

"HEEEEEELP!" I yelled longer and louder than I'd ever yelled.

That pissed them off. While one reached into my pockets, another kicked me. My wallet was grabbed, my socks and shoes searched.

"Is this all you have?" one of them asked, holding the 40 bucks he found in my wallet.

"That's all I got, man."

The third guy came over. "What the fuck do you think you're doing?" he asked. "Are you stupid?" He waved a gun in my face, then pistol-whipped me. My head was bleeding. He riffled through my wallet. "I'm gonna kill you," he said in disgust. "You ain't even from around here." He thought I lived in this part of town. "I should just kill you."

"No, no," I replied. "I live in the city." I didn't know what that meant.

"Do you want to die?" he asked, pointing the gun at my face. "Do you want to die?" He pressed it to my skin. I almost wanted to be a smart-ass--just say, whatever, go ahead--but I was seriously freaked. I cowered on the sidewalk and pictured myself dying in the parkway. I was thinking of all the things I still planned to do with my life. I shook, crying--no! no! All three guys laid into me. Kick, punch, kick, like some sort of drill. My glasses fell off. I couldn't see.

"Get up and run before I kill you."

Michelle and I jumped up and ran. We didn't see their car pull away or which way it headed. We didn't stop running until we were back on Hutchinson, where some guy was walking his dog and talking on his cell phone. He saw us and quickly walked toward Hazel.

"Don't go down there," Michelle warned him. "We just got mugged."

He turned to help us. We were taken to a neighbor's house, and the police were called.

Afterward we did all the stuff you'd expect. We talked with a detective, twice. Then we visited the police district headquarters at Belmont and Western to look at mug shots on a computer. We didn't know how many entries would fit our description: age 20-25, skin color black, approximate height five-feet-nine-inches tall, weight 250 to 300 pounds. The system bogged down, and we had to sit in the detective's office for half an hour.

We sat alone because our detective was out on a call. On the walls were pictures of criminals in all races, shapes, and sizes. An FBI poster offered a reward for information leading to the capture of Osama bin Laden, just in case bin Laden took refuge in Hubbard's Cave. Finally the computer spit out 916 matches.

Our muggers were never found. For weeks, when I closed my eyes each night, I saw their faces. I could still see their fists raining down on me. But catching them began to seem less important. I had to learn to live in a new city.

Chicago had been my city. I felt comfortable going anywhere. But then nothing was in my control. The city became a place with strange, violent people, dark streets, and creepy alleys. Michelle and I no longer talked when we walked outside. We were worried about who might harm us.

"What's that guy doing there?" Michelle would ask, seeing a guy standing by an alley.

"I dunno," I'd reply as we'd hustle to our destination.

The mugging made me understand how victims of random violence must feel--everyone became a potential victimizer. It made me understand how people could become obsessed by the apocalypse. The collapse of civilization had never been a major concern. But when you're walking down the street holding hands one moment, and on the ground with a gun at your temple the next, it feels like the end of the world.

Violence from nowhere feels like the apocalypse. Everything--nice houses, concert halls, neighborhood names--can be wiped out or rendered meaningless in a minute.

It took effort to go out, and it became hard to appreciate little things, like a walk through Lincoln Park in the middle of the afternoon. On an 80-degree day without a cloud in the sky, I found it difficult to sit on a park bench and watch ducks in the lagoon. I felt like a duck myself. This was once my city, I thought, but I never owned it. Owning anything had become one more fragile concept.

I watched the ducks and the kids on a Park District field trip who yelled at them. I watched everyone who walked past my park bench. I watched three men approach, and my heart beat fuzzily with fear. Once they passed, I breathed deeply and watched the ducks again.

Life is still enjoyable without the same comforts, but my feelings of safety and well-being have passed. The city is not mine anymore, but it's more vivid when I look at it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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