Mean Street | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Mean Street 

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There was a bang outside my kitchen window--a big bang with reverb, a Hollywood bang. Whatever that was, it wasn't a gunshot, I thought. A gunshot sounds like metal corn popping.

Then a car peeled out, and I pulled back the curtain.

He was lying on his back under the stop sign across the street, his arms at his sides and his legs together. He could have been sleeping. Two of his friends were already bending over him.

The street filled up with women screaming, "Who is it? Who is it?"

"It's little Mario."

Mario is one of a group of teenage boys who hang out around this intersection on the near west side. It's not a bad neighborhood. There are a couple of corner stores, a swimming pool, a park, a popular restaurant down the block, all kinds of people coming and going at all hours. The teenagers ignore everybody, and everybody ignores them.

I watch them quite a bit. They don't seem to do much of anything besides hang out, though sometimes they wander around in groups of three or four, shouting at one another, or just roll around the block in their cars and on their motorcycles. But sometimes a weird stillness comes down, and they all disappear at once. Or just one of them will stand on the corner alone with his hands in his pockets for hours.

Sometimes I get pissed when I think of them just hanging out. How can they do so much of nothing? Even when I'm screwing around I'm doing something--reading, watching TV, cleaning the bathtub. But then they're kids. And not too long ago I spent a lot of my own time with my hands in my pockets, desperate for something to happen to pass the time--though the games I invented to make myself feel alive seem amateur compared to the ones these kids play.

Last spring my girlfriend and I were driving on a busy street in the neighborhood. It was mid-afternoon on the first nice day of the year, and everyone was outside. I noticed people staring down the street and heads rubbernecking out of apartment windows and storefronts. Ahead of us a pack of kids was running in the street. I slowed down, and as I pulled up alongside the first kid, he turned his head and looked at us with a face full of thrill and fear. He was holding something in his hand.

"Oh, he has a gun," I said.

My girlfriend realized the import of what I'd said before I did. "Well stop the car then," she said.

Yeah, of course, I thought.

The kid looked over at us as if to say, "Hey, watch this." He raised his arm in the direction of his friends, and the gun popped off--a small sound, as if the gun were made of plastic. He chased them, then the whole group of them turned down an alley and vanished like a bunch of puppies chasing a tennis ball.

My girlfriend told people we'd seen a shooting. I qualified that. No one was hit. The kid had aimed in a lazy way, and I was certain he'd intentionally fired over their heads. They were just blowing off steam after a long winter, I said.

At about three in the morning on Puerto Rican Independence Day there was a rumble in the intersection below my apartment involving about 30 boys. Each side had a flag that its members rallied around and defended. It was the Puerto Ricans versus the Mexicans.

The two groups were aligned on opposite sides of the street, from which they launched periodic raids into the enemy's territory. Between these skirmishes they taunted each other. "Come on, nigga." "You want somma this, wetback?" Some girls stood on the sidelines cheering.

Puerto Rico had Mexico outnumbered. Every time the sides clashed Mexicans fled in every direction. But there were rules, and there was strategy. A group of two or three would gang up on one, chasing him down and pummelling him. But they all seemed to be pulling their punches, and after a brief flurry of fists and feet they all retreated to their respective sides. One kid appeared with a two-by-four and stood in the center of the intersection swinging it around. He was ignored. After a while he lost interest and dropped it.

This went on for almost 25 minutes. Someone shouted "Five-oh," and a patrol car cruised into the intersection. Everybody put hands in pockets and strolled off. As soon as the cops drove away they went back at it. Eventually they moved out of sight down the street. The next day I saw them all hanging out together, laughing and shouting.

It looked like a lot of fun. When I told the story to people I'd also tell about dressing up in camouflage when I was 14 and running around in the woods with my friends. We'd shoot at one another with BB guns. One friend got hit square in the forehead. The skin scabbed over the little brass ball, and when it healed he let people touch his war wound. We thought it was hilarious.

Two months ago some guys in a car tore down the street and plugged a bunch of bullets into a parked car. Some of the kids who were hanging out jumped in their cars and chased after them. A few police came by and strutted around shining their flashlights in people's faces.

I started noticing more cops. They'd pull over cars full of teenagers and frisk them in the middle of the street while one cop stood back with his hand on his gun. The cops and the kids would smile and joke with one another. Usually the police let them go.

Then Mario got shot. I told myself he was dead. He certainly wasn't moving. It happens all the time, right? All over the city. Every day. But nobody dies on this street.

I ran downstairs and into the street. An older man in a Jeep had pulled up, loaded the kid, and sped off. There was a puddle of blood about the size of a record album where his head had been.

The kid's friends were running all over the place, shouting at one another, making phone calls from the corner store and a nearby bar.

"Hey, is he alive?" I asked one of them.

He rolled his eyes as if annoyed by the question. "Yeah," he said.

A young woman shouted at a couple of the kids, "It was a beat-up car. An old car."

Five minutes after the Jeep took Mario away the police showed up and tied off the spot where he fell. One by one witnesses got in the back of a squad car. People went back inside their houses. Later someone washed the blood away.

That night I went into the corner store and asked the owner if he'd heard anything.

"These gangs, they're always picking on each other," he said. He told me the kid was alive, but the bullet was lodged in his throat and would remain there until the doctors could figure out a way to remove it. "Maybe he gonna have to swallow it," he said hopefully.

The voice that answered the phone at the district police station knew exactly what I was talking about. "We've got detectives on it," the voice said. "We're gonna pick 'em up."

"So you know who did it?" I asked.

"Yeah, we're gonna pick 'em up."

Later the guy at the corner store told me that Mario, who's 14 or 15, couldn't move one of his legs. He didn't know where Mario lived, but he thought the shooters were trying to get Mario's older brother.

Lately when I go into the store I've seen some of the older kids peeking out the window and whispering into the pay phone. I've seen them standing on their front porches talking to cops. The ones with cars are still driving around, but they drive a lot faster, talking earnestly into their cellular phones. No one's hanging around on the corner much, but then again it's getting really cold outside.

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

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