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The Bombing Begins 

Remember when the prospect of war in the Gulf was frightening?

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A disheveled old Jew--or is it an Assyrian?--passes another man on the crosswalk at Devon and California, then turns abruptly to face him, eyes blazing, speaking aloud like a street person, but in good, clear, American English:

"Are you ready for war?"

The second man's mouth drops open.

"God," says the first, continuing on his way, "there's so much hate out there it's unbelievable."

Here at the Semite crossroads of Chicago, Jews in skullcaps are rubbing shoulders with Assyrians, Palestinians, Greeks, the whole Mediterranean mishegas. In a newspaper box, the New York Times headline declares, "U.S. and Iraq Prepare for War," while inside the paper a science feature, no doubt destined for low readership this Tuesday, says the universe may not have started with a bang after all.

It is morning, January 15, l991. Bush's deadline for Iraq to leave Kuwait has come, but not gone. People look worried. Even those in groups seem alone with their thoughts. When will it start? And what will it prove to be? It's the most unanimous surge of national anxiety since Kennedy and Khrushchev faced off in l962.

This stretch of Devon Avenue runs about a mile, roughly from Bell Street to the east and the Lebanese Palestinian's well-kept grocery store, where you can buy baklava, Syrian fig blocks, and roasted Jordanian watermelon seeds, to the kosher Dunkin Donuts on the west, where the baked goods are signed off by the Chicago Rabbinical Council and "may be eaten by the strictest observer of Kashruth."

If you include the small commercial spillover that runs up the side streets, there is an Islamic library and bookstore, two synagogues, Assyrian, Greek, Russian and Jewish bakeries, the Gulf Travel Agency, a dozen sari stores, Kosher butcher shops, Muslim halal butcher shops, Iranian, Pakistani, Indian and Jewish restaurants, Indian grocery and video stores, and at least one mosque.

The mosque is in a basement apartment just off Devon. Through most of the summer a person strolling past it on a warm Friday evening could glance down through the windows and see prayer rugs, men in skull caps, and sometimes men at prayer. But sometime during "the buildup," after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, newspapers are taped over the inside of the windows. As the crisis ripens, the newspapers get yellower and dryer by the day, while in the alley behind the building, the hand-painted Arabic sign nailed to the phone pole, with the arrow directing the faithful to a rear door, becomes bleached and faded and is finally removed.

This is Bernie Stone's ward. In l987 he proposed the city hang six miles of rope around part of it that includes this stretch of Devon, in order to create an "eruv"--a circumscribed space which is considered by some Orthodox Jews to have certain attributes of a home. Thus on the Sabbath it becomes permissible to do things within the eruv--like push a baby carriage, carry books, or a pot of soup--which otherwise would be prohibited except in the home.

What the jovial, tough-looking Shi'ite butchers at the Zabiha Meat Market or the Koranic scholars at the IQRA bookstore would feel about being contained in an eruv is a question that never had to come up, fortunately or not, because disagreements among the rabbis caused the plan to be scuttled. Since then the neighborhood has grown ever more polyglot. It is a community of minorities, tied to families and their own affairs, without either much contact or antagonism.

That night, the night of January 15th, the bombing of Baghdad begins, prime time.

By the next day, it looks like a turkey shoot. The stock market jumps a hundred points. But the mailman is skeptical. He shakes his head. "This might be World War III," he says. Others just speak ominously about a coming "ground war."

Also on tv, faring poorly in competition with live war reports, is a repeat special on the Civil War, the only period in U.S. history--if you don't count the Indian Wars--when the country is really drenched in blood. Some wonder if our time hasn't come due. Everything jumps borders now: capital, labor, technology, gym shoes--everything that counts. Why not war? Why not bombs in suitcases? Poison gas? Poison water?

The second evening of the war, at the kosher hot dog restaurant near Devon and California, the tv is on, suspended over the line of tables. The woman behind the counter is saying she is sorry, but milk is not served here, when someone watching the tv says, "They're bombing Israel." The place falls silent. No one knows if it is one missile or a barrage, explosives or poison gas.

Fear clutches the American viewer for the second time in two days. If they can reach Israel, "the deformed stepchild of America," as Sadaam has it, can they reach the parental bastion itself? And now, what will snakey Israel do?

The euphoria is over. Anything could happen.

That night, like any media jackal out of the loop, I head for the bar.

Devon is deserted. The wind chill is down around zero. Walking to the quietest of the two nearby bars, I see just one man on the street, at an outdoor pay phone off the sidewalk on the edge of a parking lot.

At the bar, the scene through the diamond-shaped front door window does not look promising: two patrons sit with half a dozen empty stools between them. The bartender has her back to them both, and neither tv is on.

I walk back the way I came, wondering if I'm up for the second bar, which is generally noisy, has a "fashion show" one night a week and a clientele that seems to include Indian taxi drivers, businessmen, hustlers and occasional tough-looking white boys in metal and leather.

By the time I approach the pay phone again, I'm tilting toward home. The same man still has the phone to his ear, but this time I note there doesn't appear to be anyone on the line. He is looking directly at me.

"You have any change?" he says as I pass.

I look up to see a pasty-faced white man, maybe in his late 40s. Leather-like coat. A white scarf around his neck. And no gloves.

Why, I wonder, is a guy who needs phone change standing in the cold with a phone to his ear? It's a question I can't answer, but I decide to give him a quarter anyway.

"I'm really down," he says while I'm feeling for change.

Ah, here it comes.

"... I need something to eat."

I make it 50 cents, a compromise sum which incorporates a mental hedge against being a chump. Without looking at the coins, he asks if I have any spare coats at my place.

"I'm pretty far from home," I reply. "There's a Dunkin Donuts about 10 blocks, either way."

I give him another quarter. Reasonable advice and the wherewithal to carry it out. I was done.

But when I start walking, he walks with me. I angle abruptly into the street.

"Where you going?" he asks.

"To the bar," I reply, without turning around.

By the time I get there, a block and a half away, he is out of my mind, and I'm getting ready for the big noise.

But as I approach the door, I see four or five grown men running in my direction down the sidewalk. As they close in, I realize they are cops or detectives--I glimpse badges on outdoor jackets, but no uniforms. They ignore me and divide themselves into two groups, one at the side door of the bar, one at the front.

The first group enters the foyer and stops short. "Nope, not here," one of them says.

Then they all start walking back up the sidewalk. I ask the man who spoke what happened.

He turns out to be the cousin of the owner of the kosher hot dog restaurant where I'd been earlier in the evening.

"Some guy was banging at the door," he says. "He threatened to blow up the place."

"When?"

"Just a while ago."

"What did he look like?"

"A little bit shorter than me, husky. And he had a white scarf around his neck. I mean, he was screaming."

"Was he a white guy?"

"Yeah. Yeah. He wasn't an Arab."

"Kind of slack- faced?"

"Yeah."

"I just saw the guy."

"You saw him?"

"Yeah. I gave him 75 cents."

"Officer! Hey! He just saw the guy!"

"Yeah," I repeat for their benefit, "wearing a white scarf. A little balding, maybe. No beard."

One of the cops steps up. "Where was he?"

"He was talking on the pay phone. He panhandled me and I felt sorry for him, and I gave him 50--ah, 75 ..."

"Never feel sorry for anybody!" says one of the cops.

Hearty laughter all around.

"How about giving me a buck!" says another officer.

"You got a fin?" says another.

Then we all head up the street to the restaurant. The cousin unlocks the door, and we make ourselves comfortable, standing and sitting under the bright fluorescent lights. Moshe, the owner's son is there. He is a gentle-looking, rotund young man, who wears a yamekah. The cousin, a Chicago native, doesn't. He has dark curly hair, a jacket, a mustache, and he's missing part of two fingers.

Officers in uniform arrive, and the detectives get ready to leave. "The guy said he was going to bomb the place," says one of the detectives, by way of summation. "Then he left."

On his way out, he turns to the cousin. "We'll be around later tonight. The officers will take a little report. Have a good night."

Later, Moshe tells me he was the only one present when the incident occurs. But tonight the cousin does the talking.

One officer settles down at a restaurant table with a pad of paper in front of him. Two bomb threats, the cousin says, were phoned in earlier in the evening. And one of them sounded like the guy who showed up at the door.

As the report comes together, the conversation keeps drifting away from the incident. The cousin mentions that his kid was upset by tv footage of somebody putting a gas mask or some kind of air enclosure over a baby.

"How old is your kid?" I ask.

"Eight."

"Mine is five. She wants to know what the explosions are for."

"They don't know what's real and what isn't," remarks the officer taking the report. "Did you see a car or anything?"

"No, he was walking," the cousin replies.

"Any weapon?"

"No. First he came to the door and said I'm going to beat your ass. Then he went. Then he came back and said 'I'm going to blow this whole motherfuckin street up tonight. And I'm going to make sure everything goes.'"

"Was it ethnic stuff?" I ask. "Was he an anti-Semite, or what?"

"He was just standing here screaming, 'I'm going to blow this motherfucker up. I'm going to blow all you motherfuckers up.'"

"Sounds like it was anti-Semitic."

"Well, he didn't actually say it. But with everything going on, how do you take it?"

Later, I wonder about that. If somebody blew up Devon Avenue, it would take out a lot of Semites, all right, but they wouldn't all be Jews. Semites aside, there would be the Asians, the Indians, the Greeks. Or are Greeks Semites? There's plenty here for the honkey to sink his teeth into.

Then again--"in mitigation," as the lawyers say--Moshe later mentions that when the guy first came banging on the door he wanted him to open the place up and "make him something." This is the first trouble they've had, Moshe says. One Iraqi kid comes in from time to time, but he just plays the video games. He says that 60,000 Americans would die in a war.

After the report is finished, the cousin and one of the officers discover they have a mutual acquaintance, a police department employee who collects baseball cards. The cousin is a collector too. He seems a little apologetic. "Maybe it's my childhood," he says. "I just enjoy it."

"I ride motorcycles," jokes one of the officers, for an exit line. "Take it easy. If you need us, give us a call."

Then I leave too. Outside, it's still bitter cold, and nearly deserted. At the stop light on Devon and California a lone semi is revving up, a reminder this street is in fact a tributary of the interstate highway system, part of one great network of asphalt and cement serving one vast economic engine, with one currency. Day and night the semis roll off 1-90 and then lumber up Devon through this transported Asian bazaar, to Clark or Broadway, then north or south.

Poor Sadaam Hussein! First the left hand sells him weapons, then the right hand tries to murder him because he is too well-armed.

I step off the curb and look to the east, toward the lake, then back to the west. But there is no sign of the mad bomber of Devon Avenue, to whom I have given 75 cents.

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