Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A war zone, in a country at peace.

It was 3:52 p.m. on Chicago’s South Side, and I was probably going to be at least five minutes late for work. The 55 Bus, on which I was a passenger, was rolling slowly down Garfield, picking folks up from from beneath highway overpasses, from the curbs of fast food joints and gas stations. I had a four o’clock appointment in a nicer neighborhood, and I was dreading the sweaty, stressful sprint I’d have to break into once I left the bus.

I’d struck up a conversation with a thin, rough-looking black man as we’d waited together for this bus. He’d come all the way from 101st street to help his son change a flat tire, and he’d brought a small television for his seven-year-old granddaughter, too. He carried the tire jack and the television in a big plastic bin. To be honest, he looked like the kind of man I avoid when I travel alone. But as soon as we began speaking, I knew he was good, kind, relatable, and funny. Side by side on the bus, we bitched good-naturedly together about the sorry state of our public transit, and I asked him about his family.

Just as we reached Indiana Avenue, his stop, he opened up. “I do the best I can. I try to take good care of ‘em.” He spoke with warmth and pride and a tired shrug of his shoulders. “You got to have somebody. But it seems like whenever I’m in trouble, I’m all alone.”

Everyone needs someone to take care of them, I thought.

“Yeah, but me and God” – he pointed at the ceiling of the bus – “We do all right together.” We were stopped at a red light.

And then the bus driver started screaming, and told us all to get down. “Get down! Get down! Oh my God!” There was terror in her voice. She’d seen something. Without hesitation, we hit the bus floor, hearts in our throats.

When, an instant later, we heard gunfire exploding just outside the bus, my fellow passenger’s terror grew palpable. A nicely dressed man lying next to me moaned, “Oh, Jesus!” I saw his public transit passes as he clutched his wallet in his hands. I wondered if we could be hurt, or even die, together on this bus. Behind me, a younger man muttered, “God DAMN.” From my position on the floor, I could see his small daughter, wedged behind some seats at the back of the bus. Our eyes met.

Once the gunfire had stopped, we waited a long time before we sat up, and even longer before we felt it was safe to move again. The bus driver, brave and loudmouthed, asked angrily why it was taking so long for police to show up. She speculated that the fire may have come from an undercover officer, who was now – according to her account – waiting quietly on the street, gun still in his hand.

Eventually, once a police car had appeared, we rolled through that intersection and headed towards my Hyde Park appointment. From the father at the back of the bus, I borrowed a cell phone and the comfort of conversation.

“I was just reading a story with my daughter” – he gestured incredulously at the cheerful pink and purple book cover – “and we’ve got guns going off. Those bullets coulda come in the bus! Coulda hit you, coulda hit me, coulda hit my kid.” He shook his head and said, with profound sadness, “I have got to get out of this city.”

“But we’re gonna keep reading the book, daddy!” his daughter said. She was asking him a question, and she looked at us with big concerned eyes.

“Yes we will, baby,” he said. He turned to me and shook his head again. “Daddy needs a few minutes to recover.”

Later, I tried to Google the gunfire I’d experienced. I guessed, correctly, that it wouldn’t even appear on the radar of South Side gun violence. But the Google search results are upsetting enough.

As we cowered on the floor of that bus, we could have been in many places besides Chicago. We could have been in any one of a number of war zones where deadly weapons are deployed daily in public spaces. I might never know who fired those shots mere feet from my bus, but in that moment, we only knew that our lives were threatened, and we had no control.

Chicago loses more black children to gun violence than it does soldiers to the Iraq conflict. When I was done working, I took the train back up to the North side of the city. But I want to stand in solidarity with the kind people I rode the bus with, who bear the heavy burden of out-of-control gun violence in their neighborhoods. I met two dedicated fathers on this bus who are powerless to protect their children and grandchildren -- and they know it. No one wants to live in an environment where heart-stopping fear can come at any moment, and where senseless death happens with stunning regularity. Violence is oppressive and destructive. All people – rich, poor, black, white, young, old, Muslim, Christian – deserve to live in peace. Sorry for the rainbow hippie language, but seriously, Jesus Christ.

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