On the streets and sidewalks of Old Chicago there are always flakes of broken glass. The neighbors, dogs and cats pick their way around the shards, moving about on the filthy streets. The animals always seem to be more savvy, more attuned to the cloak of tragedy that hangs over a neighborhood where violence, depression, and unending noise seems to stop kinder deeds.
If a kid has been around for any time at all, it’s noticed he has probably made some kind of deal to stay alive. If he has made it to young adulthood, it means he has a crew. If he makes it to middle age, everyone knows he has consoled more than a few mothers, the younger ones who’s loss is weighted by the banishment of reason, and the blatant dissolution of promises made in the short hours of childhood.
The streets are fast, and they are hard; for anyone, right down to the insects who are unwittingly sentenced to a hard surface hell. The sidewalks will not give up the space it takes to say something to anyone. Everything is moving, incomplete, wanting, sizing up, and roaring with smoke, exhaust, and frayed nerve endings. On the streets you try to ignore the gaze of swift punks, who mark most newcomers as “faggot”, or “pussy-ass mutha fucka.”
The Faggot tag was attached to me early in my first week in the neighborhood. A small collection of boys who lived and hung out adjacent to my studio had marked me. It was done with some fanfare…at least for them.
I was walking up my street not giving the group any attention, not making eye contact and as I got further away, I nearly flinched at the popping sound of soda bottles hitting the pavement around me. I turned and yelled back at the pukes.
“Hey you fucks! Someone is gonna get hurt!”
“Good one!” I thought after I foolishly shouted.
“You da one pussy-ass faggot mutha fucka!” They were letting loose another volley of bottles.
I was out of range, and the bottles made a beautiful spectacle of transparent explosions on the dirty concrete. I was shaking my head, and then I held up my middle finger as I picked up an empty, quart size beer bottle and hurled it back at them. It was a fortunate thing I was charged up with adrenaline, because it sailed over their heads. It was almost comical watching them follow the trajectory. The bottle smashed against a building wall far past the storefront where they were standing. As I turned back and walked away from them I could hear one of them yell, “son of a bitch!”
In the collection of little pukes, there were two brothers who had more sociopathic issues than most kids. Julio, and Raymond seemed to be leaders of the small group. They were endowed with beautiful looks and a strange smiling demeanor that scared most people. They both had transparent green eyes.
One evening, Raymond was on a date with a girl he had just met. He was inexperienced at 16, and he was going out with a girl who was 10 years older than him. He tried to get fresh with this girl, and she pulled a gun from her purse and shot him in the head. The boy died before the authorities could save him.
I heard the news two days later. Then, on the third day, as I was driving down Halsted Street, I saw the family, with a few of the other boys, going into the local mortuary. Julio was at the entrance, smiling, with a cigarette dangling from his lips. I slowed way down and saw Julio’s father yank him around and slap the cigarette from his mouth. The father was yelling something in Spanish. It was a very strange scene, all of them dressed in dark suits, with Julio’s father screaming and gesturing, barely keeping his balance on the broken pavement.
As I rounded the corner I saw a striking middle-aged woman coming out of the door of the funeral home. She was small, with short-cropped blonde hair.
“Raymond’s mother.” I thought.
She was screaming at the boys and the father. I pulled to the curb and stopped. The father stepped towards her holding his hands with the intention of cupping the woman’s face. The mother knocked the fathers hands away and began wailing, with her head tilted back, rebuking some higher order. Her hands were clenched, and held even with her head. She fell silent and stumbled towards the father. She collapsed in his arms…
I had never heard a scream so horrible, either in the woods, or on the streets. I pulled away from the curb, ashamed to stare into this family’s tragedy.
I didn’t see the same group of boys hanging around the streets for several days. I imagined they were commanded to stay inside during an appropriate period of mourning. For the first time, I felt safe, even slightly giddy walking around the streets of my new neighborhood. The cause of the low ebb in activity was not something to celebrate, but the atmosphere was welcomed by most of my neighbors and store- keepers.
I wondered how the young parents were taking all of this.
Along the southern end of Canal Street, going towards China town, the street crosses the south leg of the Chicago River. The Canal Street Bridge is easy on traffic and pedestrians as an un-cluttered avenue leading to the famous neighborhood of Bridgeport. The bridge was also an important feature of my walking route to China Town, and I crossed it many times in those first warm months.
I found comfort in a new routine. Once a week, my dog Alex and I walked to Lawrence’s Fisheries, located between my neighborhood and China Town. I always ordered ½ lb. of fried shrimp. We would start back over the bridge, stopping at one of the stone parapets where I could sit up high, eating my shrimp and occasionally throwing a piece to Alex.
Alex 1980 photo by the author
The air that coursed across the bridge was usually ten to twelve degrees cooler than the surrounding air. We would eat and watch the massive barges below. We could see them through the large steel mesh floor, as they glided smoothly and swiftly seventy feet below us. There was a strange dreamlike silence in the movement…the mass of the boat filling one’s vision, pulling our fixed gaze along the graceful curve of the river. If you blurred your vision, you might be able to imagine a part of the grassy river shore breaking loose, sending hundreds of small inhabitants along a remarkable, unexpected journey.
On the decks of a few vessels, particular members of the crews were becoming familiar to us, and us to them. We always exchanged waves. I would see two men together sometimes, one talking to the other while pointing up at Alex, who sat at attention, waiting for the next breaded projectile. I wondered how many similar scenarios had been repeated over the decades before, and how many were yet to be realized. In those moments, I felt the city’s embrace, in all its magnificent rumblings and tightfisted growls.
During one of those punkless, blissful days, Alex and I were walking towards the bridge and hoping to arrive at the Fisheries before they closed. The air was chilly, and to the west, I could see a dark mass of clouds moving quickly towards the city. I sensed a strange, disorderly energy in the air. As I approached the bridge, I caught sight of a barge below.
There was a group of men standing on deck, shouting loudly up at the bridge. I recognized two of them. The two men saw me and yelled louder, gesturing towards the bridge’s east railing. The boat was moving fast, and the shouting faded quickly as they moved well out of my earshot. I could still see one of them was holding the sides of his head with his palms. Several of the men were shaking their heads.
Towards the far end from where we had entered the bridge, I saw a small figure near the railing. As I got closer, I could see the figure stepping up onto the first rung of the railing, then step down. Still closer, I could see it was a woman, with short blonde hair.
“Oh God!” I realized it was Julio’s mother…
I moved slowly, as close as I felt it might be safe, and reached out my left hand. Rain began falling, and I watched the drops striking the back of my hand.
“Ma’am, you don’t know me, but I am a neighbor, and there are people back at your house, worried. Let me take you there…”
She had cried until her face was streaked and her white blouse was discolored. This was the look of a broken human being, one so profoundly damaged, something I had rarely seen. I was determined, by any means I could imagine, to keep her on that bridge. She turned and looked at me.
“My Raymond….My baby!!!...I want to die!!...”
I moved closer, slowly taking her hand in mine.
“You don’t have a sweater or raincoat.” I removed my windbreaker and gently wrapped her tiny shoulders. In that moment, she seemed suddenly lucid.
“Father Sabro said my baby is with Daddy now and they are making a place for us in paradise. Do you believe that?”
It was not the place to talk to her about my uncertainties.
“I believe it…and it is surely marvelous.”
In the next moment, a car roared onto the bridge and halted beside us.
Julio bolted from the car, leaving the door open. He ran towards us, and I could see his face was ashen as he embraced the tiny woman. The rain was falling harder.
“Mom…It’s OK..You know he was a good boy. He loved you so much. He said so many times Mom.”
He gently turned his mother and began walking her to the car. When they were nearly there, Julio stopped and turned back towards me.
“I will never forget this man…I really am so sorry. I'm sorry I called you a fucking faggot.”
He paused for a moment as his voice wavered. He rubbed his eyes.
“I didn’t know I was looking at an Angel.”
Julio made sure his mother was safely seated; he walked to the driver’s door, got behind the wheel, then smiled and nodded towards me as they slowly drove away.
I always imagine bridges to be places where our known world, and other less visible realms are mediated. In some cases, they allow the impossible, making our minds stretch from a comfortable vantage point, to unfamiliar territory. Death comes for some, but for most of us, bridges intervene between the faults of a malevolent city, and our intricate functions and tireless schemes of survival.
I’ve never felt anything more than I believed any man should feel. I realized early in young adulthood that I was fated with an active imagination, and an unconventional way of reacting to most things. The reasonable part of me always believed angels were only inventions from the minds of pre-renaissance artists and thinkers. Although I had never seen one, I watched for them nonetheless.
It was not until many years later that I realized Julio was seeing more than just my face that afternoon on the bridge. I remembered for many years there were three of us, but after living through times where extraordinary events occur, without reasonable explanations, I realized there could have been a fourth. Things both earthly and mysterious had guided me to that point on the bridge, and handed me the words; then, something stood quietly behind the scene, calming our passions and letting loose the soft, unexpected rain.
The names of characters other than my dog, Alex, were changed in this essay
Photos of the Canal Street Bridge and the barge, courtesy of the City of Chicago, public works