Late one night in July, taking out my trash in the alley behind my Chicago apartment, I ran into a man I’d never seen before. Alleys are public domain, so this wasn’t particularly noteworthy. What was noteworthy was when he broke alley etiquette—a silent hello nod—and said something.
“Hey ma, how you doing?”
He was smirking, and we were alone. My phone was back in my apartment. My neighborhood, Wicker Park, was safe, but not so safe that I wasn’t instantly aware of our bodies.
My body: thinnish, young, and not modestly dressed. I was wearing the tiny pink running shorts I sleep in (and sometimes run in) with a hoodie and a T-shirt. Under that, no bra. I wondered if he could sense my bra’s absence, and if he read it as friendliness. Really, I was about to go to bed.
His body: thinnish with a sunken chest, middle-aged, and dirty enough that his skin looked crusty. He was sinewy, stronger than me, with yellow teeth that looked like they hurt a little bit all the time.
I smiled tightly, dropped my trash in the dumpster, and speed-walked through my back gate. This was the primary way I got inside: in through the gate, which latched but didn’t lock, then up the wooden back stairs to my second-story porch.
The porch overlooked the alley, and when I got there, the guy was standing where I’d left him. He called up to me, Romeo-style.
“Just say hey to me, OK? I’m just making conversation!”
I didn’t need a guy who knew where I lived being mad at me.
“Hey,” I said, and went inside.
I’ve never worried about my physical safety in a sustained way, mostly because I’ve always lived in safe neighborhoods. I grew up in Seattle, walking distance from a Coach store. My college apartment, on the southern edge of Chicago’s Hyde Park, was my most dangerous living space to date and it wasn’t even bad, except on one night, when my roommate called and told me not to come home. Two guys were shooting at each other outside our building. They shot a parked car in its rearview mirror, and when the police showed up, they both fled.
It was a bona-fide gunfight, but I quickly convinced myself it was a random, one-time thing, and fell back into my suspicion-free routines. Our block was not plagued by violence.
This summer, my block was even safer. I took my safety for granted enough that I forgot the alley guy entirely. That is, until I saw him again. And again. Walking down the street, always within a block of my apartment. We made eye contact. By the third time I saw him I thought of him, against my will, as a guy I knew.
I started wondering why he hung around my house so much. I never thought he was stalking me, exactly; I just thought I was having the experience of being stalked, a little. Especially when I came home from the gym one afternoon, opened my gate, and discovered him smoking on my back stairs.
How scary is Chicago? People usually talk about how dangerous it is instead, and that’s certainly the more quantifiable trait. You can use police data to model the probability of being murdered: seven or 18 in 100,000 as of 2013, depending how you do the math.
Fear matters to quality of life, too, though, and it’s tied to the same crime data. It’s just conceptually different. Danger is the probability you’ll be the victim of a crime; fear is the probability you see crime as a real possibility in your daily life, something worth thinking about and taking precautions against. Fear is being the friend of a friend of a murder victim, or hearing gunshots while you’re making dinner. Each crime generates a lot less danger than fear.
Fear is being the friend of a friend of a murder victim, or hearing gunshots while you’re making dinner. Each crime generates a lot less danger than fear.
When I first started thinking about fear in Chicago—around the time I was seeing alley guy in the street a lot—I looked mostly at murder numbers. They’re tough to fudge, and there’s a database worth of them, laid out on a beautiful interactive map, on the Chicago Tribune site. But the stats prompt more questions than they answer.
In 2013, Chicago had 440 murders. That’s less than half the 900-ish homicides per year the city endured in the 1990s. In fact, as Andrew Papachristos noted, Chicago’s recent violent crime rates put it in the middle of the pack for American cities—eons from the country’s murder capital, which is currently Detroit.
Chicago’s on track for even fewer homicides in 2014 than it had in 2013. Still, over this year’s Fourth of July weekend, there was a towering murder spike: 14 people killed in one weekend, and 84 shot. It was bad enough that Roland S. Martin argued, in the Daily Beast, that Obama should send the National Guard to Chicago. Not a popular opinion, but in a Gawker roundtable critiquing Martin’s “narrow-minded” solution, no one contested the problem’s magnitude. Jason Parham referred to it as “the terror taking place.”
Are Chicago’s murder numbers on the right track, or terrifying? Probably both, I decided, clicking around the Tribune’s map.
It’s strange, how easy it is to use the map for neighborhood-wide murder counts without encountering a single victim’s name. It’s even easier to avoid a victim’s photo. I think that the map interface actually makes a clearer statement about Chicago murders than any statistics do. When I feel cynical about the Tribune as a business, that statement is, “Murders are a useful tool for deciding which neighborhood to move to! Click here!”
Really, I think it’s something closer to, “Don’t dig into the stories behind these map dots casually. You need to be prepared for what you’ll find.”
No worthwhile crime map would have a dot where I ran into the guy smoking on my back steps. Life is too short to map daytime trespassing. I was still startled to see him, though, and extra startled that I couldn’t reach my back door unless he moved.
“Hi!” I said.
“I don’t mean no harm,” he said, standing up. He wasn’t blocking the stairs anymore, but he wasn’t leaving, either. I noticed, randomly, the sloppiness of his cutoffs; it looked like he had hacked at a pair of jeans with a butcher knife.
“OK,” I said. “Can you please leave?”
He did. For a while after, I could hear my pulse thumping in my ears.
A week later, my roommate encountered him on the same stairs, and they had the same terse, polite conversation. Afterward, she and I agreed that we didn’t like this pattern. Even my dad, who usually calms me down when I’m worried, agreed that it sounded “not great.”
I was drinking the same size coffee every morning, but I was feeling way more alert, more conscious of my body. The alley guy hadn’t shown any particular interest in it, but I still thought regularly about what was under my skin (pulsing blood, bones, a liver) and how any person, theoretically, could gouge that stuff out.
Maybe I’m overreacting, I thought. I didn’t have a good way to tell.
How scary is Chicago? According to a 2013 Fox News article by Darlene Hill—titled “Tipping Point: From the Streets to Valedictorian, Teen Beats All Odds to Succeed”—not so scary. One of the city’s worst neighborhoods, despite endemic gun violence, has produced a beacon of hope: Deonte Tanner.
“Gang and gun violence have turned [Englewood] into one of the toughest neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side,” Hill writes. She notes that it’s especially dangerous for young black men, like Tanner. However, Tanner threw himself into his studies at Harper High School, and his hard work paid off: He was one of the school’s first two students to earn a Gates Millennium Scholarship. Bill Gates gave him a full ride to college.
At under 350 words, the Fox story doesn’t dig deep into what “toughness” means as a neighborhood descriptor. My guess is that Hill’s referencing the oozy quality of gang violence in Chicago, which tends to be confined relatively geographically, but hard to opt out of in the neighborhoods where it’s taken root.
This American Life covered the phenomenon in 2013. The show’s reporters spent five months at Harper High School, and noted that in Englewood and similarly violent areas, gang membership is tied primarily to where you live. Just hanging out with your neighbors can be tantamount to joining a gang. In fact, the show team interviewed only one Harper High student who had avoided gangs altogether: Tanner, a then-senior.
From the episode transcript:
Linda Lutton: Do you ever go out, just around the neighborhood?
Deonte Tanner: Oh, no. No, not at all. And in a way, that can be bad as well. Because that’s when depression is easy to set in. That took a hold of me, because I’ve been in the house for about three years. I’ve been staying in the house a lot.
Linda Lutton: Do you feel lonely?
Deonte Tanner: At times. At times I feel lonely. At times, I would want to have some friends. Because I’m not really friends with anybody.
To me, that’s a more meaningful measure of Chicago’s scariness than any scholarship. It can take self-imposed house arrest to succeed here. Or, at least, Tanner thought it did—and if there was a less cloistered way, who cares? Scariness is subjective. It’s as much about what one person thinks might happen as what actually does happen.
My story is very, very different from Tanner’s. Compared to his story, mine is remarkable for all the ways I’m lucky, all the ways I haven’t been scared. I’ve never seen a loaded gun. I’ve never been mugged, punched, or slapped. I don’t have to worry about the cost of healthcare or rent, either. I’m well-off for a Millennial. Worst-case scenario, I can borrow money from my similarly well-off dad.
Even when the alley guy was a frequent guest on my steps, I was only scared in bursts. Mostly, I worried about the same minor stuff as always. When I got home from a party late, one night in August, my biggest fear was that I’d be hungover the next day.
No worthwhile crime map would have a dot where I ran into a guy smoking on my back steps.
I headed up my back stairs. Each step of these stairs is a flat board. As you climb, you can see between the steps closest to eye level. Looking tipsily in front of me, I noticed something unexpected: a pair of eyes, staring back at me.
The alley guy was under the stairs, on my downstairs neighbor’s porch.
“Hi!” I said, like I always did. Like he was a friend I hadn’t expected to stop by.
“I didn’t mean no harm,” he said, like he always did, emerging from his hiding spot with his hands above his head. I asked him to leave, and he went wordlessly.
As it happened, I didn’t feel scared. Adrenaline usually suspends fear for me, keeping me calm and sickly sweet, so no one in their right mind could get mad at me. When I got inside and told my roommate what happened, though, it started to hit me, how creepy that was. How he’d probably hidden under there before and gone unseen. How, worst of all, it felt like our relationship was ramping up towards some unknown destination. We were day friends, then night friends. Throughout it all, we weren’t friends.
“You should tell the landlord,” my roommate said.
My landlord told me to call the cops; the cops told me they couldn’t do much, unless I called 911 the next time the guy appeared. “You could also just threaten to call us,” my cop told me over the phone. “That usually gets the job done.”
How scary is Chicago? Scary enough to give residents in its most violent areas PTSD, according to a recent Chicago Reader piece by Steve Bogira. Kids are especially susceptible to the disorder, as Latoya Winters, the heroine of Bogira’s piece, knows firsthand. Growing up in East and West Garfield Park, she survived a list of traumas. When she was 12, her brother was shot and killed. In eighth grade, she was almost shot during a crowd-sized brawl. Those are just two of the reasons that Winters, now 26, still struggles with PTSD symptoms.
In one passage of the article, though, she worries about other PTSD candidates: the girls who were with 11-year-old Shamiya Adams this past July, when Adams was shot and killed by a stray bullet. Adams was at a friend’s sleepover party. She was in the middle of making s’mores.
Our relationship was ramping up toward some unknown destination. We were day friends, then night friends. Throughout it all, we weren’t friends.
Bogira describes Winters’s concern for Adams’s friends: “How will the abrupt and inexplicable [death] affect them? Winters knows from her own experience that ‘things you never see coming, they really stick with you.’”
In other words, even harder than confronting violence is confronting random violence. Like the gun muzzle waved haphazardly in Winters’s face, or Adams’s death. No one had anything in particular against those girls, and they didn’t do anything foolish. It’s hard to know what to learn from their experiences, except to always be afraid.
The alley guy’s schedule is the closest I’ve gotten to that cocktail of fear and randomness, the feeling that the shoe could drop at any time. I never went up my back stairs tipsy again, or after 10 p.m. Still, it got to the point where just looking at them made me feel a surge of fear, as if the stairs themselves were what I was afraid of.
I was walking down them on my way to work one morning, about a week after I called the cops, when I noticed a newspaper by the bottom step. Crisply folded. I stopped, contemplating how nice it looked in the morning light, and how I hadn’t put it there.
He must have been here last night, I thought absently. After a minute, I looked over my shoulder. He was behind me.
He stood a respectful distance away, looking at me much the same way I had been looking at the paper. He probably wished I would stop messing up his space, too.
“Please leave and don’t come back here,” I attempted to yell. It came out quivery, like I was on the verge of tears, which I was. “If I see you again, I’m going to call the cops.”
“Why you gotta be like that, ma?” he said.
I had to be like that because I was tired of being scared. I didn’t say that, though. It was a rhetorical question, a way of telling me I was “like that.”
“Take this,” I said, handing him his paper. I was trying to get him to pick up after himself, but he thanked me for it gravely, almost bowing on his way out.
That was the last time I saw him. At the end of September, I moved.
Before I moved, I still thought he might return, and I regularly tried to imagine what I’d do if he did. All I saw in my head was a firework of rage. Why wouldn’t he listen to me? Why did I have to call 911, knowing full well they wouldn’t come fast enough to catch him? Why couldn’t I go up my back stairs without strategizing about it first?
I could feel this situation—this barely-even-illegal situation, of frequently seeing a man I didn’t want to see—expanding what I was capable of doing. I could suddenly imagine throwing a screaming tantrum that drew the attention of the neighbors. Or starting a physical fight with the guy, one I was bound to lose.
It reminded me of the night he came out from under the stairs with his hands over his head, like I might shoot him. He probably knew what I was just starting to figure out—that people will go to great, sometimes scary lengths to stop being afraid. Tanner stayed inside for three years. Winters avoided getting close to people. “I felt like any person I built a relationship with, they’re just gonna die on me,” she told Bogira. My guess is that the alley guy himself hung out on my steps out of fear. Perhaps fear of getting assaulted in a less safe neighborhood.
I have no doubt that fear is a common motivation behind homicides, too. Killers are often pegged as angry; I’ve never been angrier than I was about being afraid.
I was mad enough that it was only after I moved that I remembered the obvious: The alley guy faces a bigger struggle than I do. I can only guess at it, but it’s bigger than one guy on one staircase. Homelessness is probably part of it, and means he could get dangerously hungry, dangerously cold, arrested for loitering—all of it anywhere. His level of fear probably waxes and wanes, but he definitely lives in fear more than I ever have.
I don’t want to hang out with him, and I don’t want a frightening life for him. I could have expressed that two-part feeling better when I actually talked to him; I wish I hadn’t been too scared to figure out how.