Blue-line riders witness peculiar sights on a regular basis, but a quick glimpse outside of their window just past the Jackson stop on this Thursday evening offers one serious head-scratcher: eight men donning red berets simultaneously kicking and jabbing into the air. Before the onlookers can observe anything more, the train skirts by, but the Taekwondo-like training session continues. “Right cross, round house, round house, left elbow strike,” the training leader says, explaining the move step by step, and the rest of the guys, lined up two by two, strike accordingly, some even whispering “pow!” to accentuate their effectiveness.
Thankfully, these guys are on our side—the Chicago chapter of the Guardian Angels, a volunteer-based organization founded in New York City in 1979 to combat crime by patrolling the city, attempting to defuse testy situations and protect the citizenry from harm. The Chicago chapter is headed by Mike Fuentes, who can clearly multi-task. Upon the patroller’s arrival at the station, he immediately starts a job interview with a new recruit and outlines the evening’s itinerary, all while being filmed by a documentary crew from DePaul (he also perks up at every possible fishy sight or sound, as if the assignment was hardwired into his brain). Fuentes lays down a few rules: don’t show up intoxicated, no weapons of any kind, always cooperate with police, don’t flirt. “Chances are if you weren’t wearing the red beret and t-shirt, she wouldn’t think you’re cute,” Fuentes says. Aside from the Guardian Angels’ t-shirt, which features an eye inside a pyramid that dons heavenly wings, the preference is for black-dominant clothing. “You can be Bruce Lee, you can be Chuck Norris,” Fuentes says. “But if you’re wearing yellow shoes or a pink shirt, when you get on the streets, you’re gonna get a lot of people who are gonna try to test you.”
After the training session, the patrol officially begins. This is a diverse group of Angels—African-American, Caucasian, Latino, college students, middle-aged, big and muscular, thin and lanky—and each has a code name: 914, Jinx, Iceman, Tut and Tow Truck. “Thanks for protecting,” one rider tells Fuentes as the group boards the Red Line towards Howard, and he responds with a polite “You’re welcome.” The guys roam from car to car, looking for the obvious (drunken tirades) to the not-so-obvious (a hidden weapon), as Fuentes uses hand signals to communicate to the his teammates. But this is a quiet evening—no mishaps to report—and thus, a successful evening. They’re not always like this. Fuentes says after one of the Bulls championships in the early 1990s, the Angels had a run-in with a gang, leading to a showdown between the two groups just as the police became involved. “One of the guys pulled out a gun and started shooting at us, and the cops are like, ‘Get down!’” Fuentes says, explaining that he and Tow Truck charged the group as the gunman shot at them five or six times. “I’m thinking, ‘Damn, I haven’t been shot yet,’ so I ran faster.” (Andy Seifert)