By Joshua Fischer
I spent the summer of 1997 as a Michigan college kid living in Chicago, getting an education that my suburban eyes had never seen from my temporary home in Logan Square.
That summer introduced me to a world where an army of pushcarts patrolled the streets leaving a trail of chimes in the air; sirens howled and police lights flashed nightly; open fire hydrants relieved ecstatic children from the oppressive heat; the murderous Good Humor truck blasted “The Entertainer” nonstop; and ubiquitous Puerto Rican flags in apartment windows waved to low-riders and family vans. Part of the week, I worked a soul-destroying office admin job. The other part, I, along with my roommate Alec—a fellow indie-rocker from Michigan—interned for college credit at an independent punk record label.
We found cheap rent on the first floor of an “amazingly spacious and gloriously vintage three-story brownstone ten-minutes walking distance from the Blue Line.” On the second floor lived Jim, a hirsute twentysomething who toiled two jobs (picture framer and coffeehouse jockey), and Kristen, a part bright-eyed, part zombie-faced (depending on the time of day) twentysomething woman who pulled twelve-hour shifts as a social worker. On the third floor lived every single family on the block; or so it seemed as the stairway interminably stomped with the footsteps of kids, aunts and uncles, and cousins twice-removed. The stoop was a different domain. Though floors one through three paid the rent, the stairs to our front door were owned by a swarm of kids—partly charming and earnest but mostly cocksure and pugnacious young gangbangers—raucously trading insults, selling and smoking dope, and simply passing time in the sweltering Chicago heat.
The time between my move to the authentic urban city of Chicago and return to the manufactured multicultural college town of Ann Arbor told many stories. But my last day proved to go out with the loudest bang.
Having at last moved the final item, a plush leather sofa loaner, into the Ryder truck, Alec, Jim, and I sat on the rarely uninhabited front stoop, waiting for our landlord to pick up the keys to our apartment. Oddly, the neighborhood seemed devoid of the gangbangers, save for a lone bicyclist on rounds detail, peddling back and forth on our one-way street, on call for marijuana orders from buyers looking to score. It was a stiflingly hot August day, and we sweated through our thrift-store T-shirts and Dickies shorts.
At one point, a beat-up brown Caprice rounded the corner as the bicyclist wheeled into the vehicle’s course. Neither car nor bicycle would give the other right-of-way and a game of chicken ensued. Inevitably, as the Caprice came within inches of destroying the bike, the bicyclist swerved, launching the rider into the air and onto the ground. As if by reflex, the young gangbanger jumped to his feet and called out obscenities after the car. Stopping dead in front of the three of us watching pie-eyed from the stoop, the passenger exited the vehicle and pulled out a handgun.
The events cinematically assumed slow motion as the passenger took aim at the bicyclist. My view was obscured by the distraction of Alec and Jim frantically retreating to the apartment for cover. Finally catching on, I snapped out of innocent-bystander mode and booked for the front door.
Shots rang out, wheels screeched, and we peered sheepishly through the safety of our bulletproof window blinds as the car peeled away, skid marks burned into the pavement. Exiting the building, we were horrorstruck to see the body of the young bicyclist flat on the sidewalk.
A long, anguished second passed before the body resurrected itself, jumping to its feet and calling out “Motherfucker!” which echoed in the city streets like an inner-city battle cry. The bullet had missed.
From the furthest reaches of the neighborhood, legions of young men who normally sat dormant on our stoop leapt into action armed with baseball bats, crowbars, and presumably concealed weapons. One mousy but heroic associate manned the fallen bike as the gangbanger who had just escaped death hopped onto the handlebars and rode off with the rest after the Caprice.
In a moment, the scene cleared completely and an eerily serene silence hushed over the neighborhood save for a couple chirping birds and “The Entertainer” trilling somewhere in the distance. Just then, the landlord, an amicable guy with a deep investment in the betterment of the community, appeared.
Not a word was exchanged about the events that had just unfolded. I tossed him the keys with nothing more than a hurried, “Thanks, see you later.” Alec and I fled to the arms of our college town.
Our yellow moving truck cruised down I94, back to the homeland for fall, the season of syllabi and welcome-back keggers. Chicago was a “What I Did Last Summer” essay. But it was only after I graduated and moved to the city permanently that I’ve learned Chicago’s cruelest brutality—winter.