Looking out the window you wouldn’t know Chicago is disintegrating. Cotton-candy skies swirl across the horizon. I sip cold coffee on the thirty-sixth floor of an office building. Bean-flavored liquid, the consistency of cough syrup, slides down my throat. Too much sugar. In this moment, I pretend everything is normal.
People scurry from the glisten and glamour of The Loop, rats from a sinking ship. The new law dictates everyone be in their homes by nightfall. Well, everyone who lives where the man on the screen deems dangerous. He’s in charge now so if he says my place is a “war zone,” it’s a fact. The areas black and brown people occupy typically are, he says. They are damaged swaths of grimy concrete and underperforming schools, he says.
Who wants to be bothered with that except real estate developers?
The neighborhoods without us are okay. They don’t have The Rules. They also don’t have anyone with a tan darker than the heavy-cream lattes savored while ignoring homeless people begging for change. The North Side contracts and expands with the capitalistic ease of an artisan bakery in Lincoln Park. The South and West Sides choke on the smoke and cut themselves on mirrored fictions spewed out by an orange magnate splashed across television sets.
Most think it’s a joke when he declares martial law. We believe he can’t strip away our freedoms with the ease you remove dirty bed linen.
The tanks come a few days later.
Rubber and steel sentinels are stationed on odd clustered blocks. Skin Suits dressed in fatigues and helmets roam our ‘hoods, make us sit on curbs if we don’t have the right identification. Sometimes we park our asses on the curbs anyway when we do.
We are all suspects until we are citizens.
For one day I want to live without fear so I work in my cubicle and act as if everything is fine until five o’ clock.
Now I’m screwed. Now I imagine being beaten by the Skin Suits, captured and carted off to some forgotten prison where no one finds me. Where I scream and scream and the air welcomes my cries and swallows my anguish with pleasure.
Why am I still drinking this nasty coffee?
* * *
I hustle out the revolving doors and catch the last bus willing to go near my neighborhood. Everything else is diverted or shut down for the early evening. The onslaught of protests and fires, raging and shoving, batons and plastic shields. Tear gas and blood. Television cameras and articulate reporters who use the terms “urban” and “inner city” as codified speak for black.
All-consuming happy savagery encircles my South Side homestead. Every night. Some perpetual racial and cosmic joke on repeat with no end in sight.
I remember sermons from the preacher behind the pulpit who flails around like a dying crow in his black robe. I remember the lyrics from an old Public Enemy song.
The orange man on the television says he’s making progress. Says gang leaders want to talk to him. They’re clamoring for his attention. He’s close to peace. To Chicago not being such a “war zone.” Profane characterizations of certain zip codes easily gliding off greasy lips and smarmy smiles. Slippery notions of what black and brown hues mean for a fractured nation. I remember the American flag behind him as he talks, the subject somehow always circling back to self-praise. A nation cosigned to this bombastic nonsense, and an entire city, the hometown of a dark-skinned president, pays an unjust tax.
Adrift in my own thoughts I don’t hear the driver impatiently ushering me onto the high steps of his vehicle. The girth of his belly taking up most of the bottom steering wheel he shouts, “Come on, come on! They gon’ start all this foolishness and demonstrations. I ain’t gettin’ caught up in that.”
Too anxious to take offence to his tone, I rush past the doors and his plastic enclosure, the one that protects him from me, and I sit down.
I’m an hour and fifteen minutes away. Only three others occupy seats. None of us speak. We pray with our brown eyes open. We move our ample lips but there is no sound.
I know prayer when I see it.
I can’t tell you what they ask God or Allah or Whomever for. I can tell you I ask God to make this a dream. I ask God to wake up, and if He won’t give me that, then just get me safely to my destination.
Bouncing down patches of collapsing asphalt, the driver maneuvers east, then south. Faster and faster still. Tires screech, brakes squeal. Toppling to my side, I remain for a few moments until I witness the ashy chestnut-colored ankles of the driver escaping across the park.
Even with the collective of angular African bodies marching towards me, I marvel at my surroundings. At the lake crashing, spraying white foam towards the shore. The mass of structures drawing up and receding into the fabric of legends, a beating heart of stories in each building. The forming buds of spring leaves clasping to old trees.
I cherish this moment because it is my last. Hard hands bang and knock against the sides of the bus. I rock to and fro. I close my eyes and pray this time. I remember words from my momma and grandma. I remember sermons from the preacher behind the pulpit who flails around like a dying crow in his black robe. I remember the lyrics from an old Public Enemy song.
Cobbling this altogether, I create a semi-coherent prayer. Screams, feral and anguished, lay themselves amongst the rubble of orders shouted by the Skin Suits. The others desert the bus. I remain marble-encased in my own terror.
“No Justice. No Peace!” The chant grows louder. Conception of free speech slaughtered with a BOOM and tenor thud of tear gas.
Toxic white mist infiltrates the bus. I’m left with no choice so I flee into the chaos.
* * *
“You’re not protesting?” I hear him ask.
I almost consider it when I focus my gaze in the direction of the voice. Even with the yelling, the heat of the fire growing from the abandoned car ten yards away, I hear him above the maladjusted clamor.
I reply, “Hell no! Do you see what’s going on?”
He has the nerve to smile. Whatever for, I have no idea. We reside in Hell and he smiles bright and beautiful as the moon. He smiles like we’re enjoying a drink on a white-sand beach!
“I see precisely what’s going on and this is why we’re marching,” he reasons.
His size isn’t intimidating to me. He possesses the height and muscles of one always asked if he plays a sport. Hell, what else would a large black man in America do?
Canisters of smoke are propelled into the band of brothers and sisters. They anticipate the launch and target. They scatter from ground zero and regroup to the east. Synchronized swimmers would’ve been jealous with the slick grace of this army.
He possesses the height and muscles of one always asked if he plays a sport. Hell, what else would a large black man in America do?
The Skin Suits advance with their armor.
“It’s gonna take all of us standing against this,” he says. He extends his hand.
There’s a cell waiting for him.
And one for me if I go. He’s right, but I can’t take this chance.
I turn from him. His last words as I go: “Good luck.”
I look back again. He stares at me another moment with that smile and walks back into the acrid mist.
* * *
I haven’t run like this since I was in college. When I was in better shape, when I thought the world a better place, when I could eat a medium-sized cheese pizza without gaining a pound and live on two hours of sleep.
Close to home, I slow my pace and keep to the shadows. Apricot-tinted lights betray night-blackened blocks, refracting their harsh orange glow, creating demons where none exist—at least none on this street. I can’t be sure of the next.
Marchers swarm. Some groups big and some small. My phone buzzes with constant updates. Information drowning all with no ability to distinguish the truth from fallacy. In a rush for news, there’s no rush for right, just the prize of being first. I have no time to vet what is correct.
When I was in better shape, when I thought the world a better place, when I could eat a medium-sized cheese pizza without gaining a pound and live on two hours of sleep.
I pass Ronnie as he hunkers down near the crumbling white overpass. Scents of old beer and piss cling to his filthy clothes and skin, the color of wilted leaves. Normally, I give Ronnie a dollar and he calls me beautiful.
The Skin Suits have no use for an old black man, as battered as he. Life has already done its worst. Where’s the sport in trying to do more?
Ronnie’s croaky whisper stops my urgent pilgrimage. “Slow down.”
“It’s not safe out here, Ronnie.”
“Ain’t safe nowhere even ‘fore all of this mess.”
They’re growing closer. The Skin Suits will be here soon. I have no time to debate.
Long face, sagging, sandpaper rough skin, the whites of his eyes the color of weathered lace, he opens dry, cracked lips. “This all here is familiar,” he opines. “Like the ’60s.”
All I know from those times are the grainy, black-and-white celluloid images. Dark skin. Water cannons. German shepherds. Beatings. Smoke. Blood. Death.
Ronnie is right. This isn’t his midnight ramblings, his teeterings and nonsensical declarations. This is real and this is at my doorstep.
The shouting is getting louder. People trickle through the road to my left.
“Some of these folk walkin’ these streets to be seen. Some of y’all really tryin’ to make a difference. Even tho’ you layin’ your very life on the line.”
“I’m not,” I admit. “I just want to go home.”
“Then what? You go home and you think all this out there ain’t gon’ touch you in there? It will.”
The guy with the moon-bright smile. He is one of those people Ronnie’s talking about. He might be dead. If he is, his blood is as much on my hands as it is on the Skin Suits, on the orange guy from the television. All of their blood will be mine to keep. Permanent stains on any future happiness I’ll allow myself.
The trickle of people becomes a torrent of dark and light and tan, of men and women, of black and white and Latino.
The hollow swish of cheap vodka in a plastic bottle assaults my ears. “Hey Beautiful, you want me to help you home?”
Chants in the street grow into roars, and ferocious voices inside my head telling me I’m crazy, slowly quiet themselves. I’m almost home.
Just a few blocks east.
“No, Ronnie. I don’t need you to take me home,” I respond.
I walk west.