Wabash, by Bo McMillan


Staring out of four different windows, four friends with four different perspectives from the L train green line snaking above Holden and Wabash before turning left on Lake towards the West Side. As Ethan says, we’re going to get “loosey goosey.” It’s 11:45 a.m., our second day in Chicago. And we’re on our way to a brewery—me, Devin, Ethan, Graham.

Over and past the wide-set boulevards opening out into the Formal Gardens, Grant Park and the museums to the east. On the other side of the car a pale gray ochre of brick stretches high and weaves towards us, at times in courtyard-like spaces, at other times close enough for an outstretched arm to touch. The sky is still a mediated gray.

“Man it’s heavy out there, them streets are full today, boy,” says a man on the car.

“Lot’s of people, lot’s of people comin’ out for sure,” a companion adds.

At Van Buren we rejoin the Loop, the burning center of it all. Rather than disparate clots migrating in similar channels, the avenue pedestrians move as a singular mass now, pushing and pulling in herded waves that ripple to and fro: This side is going to the parks and probably the Bean, this side is going to the Board of Exchange. It’s a far cry from last night’s empty city. The commentator in the car resumes:

“I’m telling you man, shit’s about to happen.”

“Mmmmhmmm. That’s right. Them streets are burstin’ out, boy. Them things are ready.”

The car, previously filled with the white noise of distant garrulity, of idle phone comments, shuffling, and genial “how-do-you-dos,” grows quiet. Gradually. I turn around to view this public transport prophet and his conceding companion. Two seats to my right, he begins again:

“There’s going to be riots in Chicago today, boy.”

“Amen, brother.”

The first speaker, a small, salt-and-pepper bearded, freckled black man in a ragged overcoat with a cane in one hand, sits cross-legged with a holding a cigarette as if he’s going to light it right here on the train. The commentary momentarily ceased, he settles back into his seat and folds hid hands over his lap agitatedly. His companion, a slightly younger looking, bald and tall black man in a jumpsuit and a baseball cap that he constantly removes to rub his head, stands by a door to the immediate right of Graham and Ethan. He, too, holds a cigarette between the index and middle fingers of one hand, twiddles a lighter as he looks out the door anxiously.

“An officer shoots an unarmed black boy, and the city knows about it, and they don’t do a damn thing. Cover it up and put the man on administrative leave. They pay him.” The prophet talks by thrusting out his cigarette hand with gusto, striking the air in front of his face. “Man had 18 complaints against him in his career. Eight-teen. That was an unarmed white boy you think we’d even be having this conversation? Think there’d be some fucking secret videotape? Think he’d be getting paid right now?”

“Hell no. Ain’t no goddam way…”

“And it for damn sure wouldn’t take no goddam year to figure out things…”

“No sir, no it fuckin’ wouldn’t…”

A debate smoldering across the country, blowing in from all sides, disparate dialogue fanning the flames over streets filled with, in fact, made up of fodder. How do we solve adversity, all adversity, of which a large part is the glaringly apparent malfeasance that causes racial adversity, when many are but kites and crows, battering about in the air for their share of a carcass…

“You guys talking about the Martin case?” Devin asks.

“Hell yeah we are,” the man responds as we bend onto Lake Street, heading out to the West Side of the city. “You hear what they’re doing now? They’re bringing in the Justice Department to come look at things. The Justice Department, man, they’re the fucking friends of that police officer. You think that’s going to do a damn thing? And they’re already taking too long on the verdict.”

“And they clearly need to do something soon, people are upset,” Devin says.

“Exactly man, exactly.”

Dev on my left, the man two seats to my right, both are leaning over to share— I’m in the conversation by mere virtue of turning my head. Their eye contact stipulates that I respond. I venture to share:

“Well…to be fair, they’re going to conduct the case in a way that doesn’t set a precedent of expedited justice, which is good in some ways…” Pause. Nervous. Try again. “To me…that at least is a good thing. Otherwise it could backfire against people who the law doesn’t tend to work fairly for.” The friendly nod I receive is confirming, I continue…

“I do agree though that this whole investigation and probe should have started a year ago when the police department was made aware of the situation. I also think that there needs to be definite prosecution by a democratically-chosen third party with limited ties to police organizations.”

“Exactly man, exactly. You don’t think the Justice Department has been here before? You think they did a damn thing to fix the Chicago Police? That force has been broken for years, dude. Years.” Sits back, throws up his hands. “The police riots of 1968, the corruption with the mob, Burge, Miedzianowski, fucking Daley, you think a goddamn thing is going to change if the same people come in to ‘fix things?’”

Devin leans in, too. Also loves speaking with his hands, I feel like a pool of gestures are collecting in my lap:

“It also shouldn’t just be focused on Chicago, right? I think this problem is a nationwide thing.” Vigorous mutual nodding. “Even if the details are as clear as this—which, we can all say….you just watch that video and there’s no doubt that the officer does something uncalled for—“

“—Not a single doubtable thing. And that man said he feared for his life? Is that why you keep shooting into a limp body?”

“—It confirms that there’s some kind of disconnect in the way we police, that there’s some crucial conversation that’s missing. You shouldn’t look at a police officer and feel scared or angry, right?”

“No sir, no way.”

Clamor into ardor. Together, we’re thriving.

“Police made me and my friend Taylor spend a night in jail for underage drinking in high school. They made a fucking joke of us in front of our whole fucking high school, and it was humiliating. It didn’t teach me anything other than not to respect the police.”

“Yes, ab-so-lute-ly.”

“You know,” I cut back in, “I’ve been reading that a lot of progressive critics say all this stuff should make us look back to the era of neighborhood policing. You know, back when officers were essentially a part of a community rather than acting like military out patrolling for wrongdoers. It was like neighbors looking out for other neighbors’ safety, there wasn’t this us-and-them divide.”

“Exactly,” Dev says. “Exactly.”

“Now, to get to the heat of it, I want to say that we all know—and keep in mind I’m not saying this to offend or affront you all,” the man says, tapping us on the shoulder, his hands raised as if in surrender, “That if this boy had happened to be of your…complexion…this wouldn’t be a debate at all. No. This man would have been put in jail and punished swiftly. And he most certainly would not have been given paid leave.”

“Oh no totally—you’re so right,” says Devin. “It’s a fact that it’s easier to be white in this country. It’s not a pretty one, but it’s there. I think it’s important to conversate about all—everyone’s—problems a whole, but I think that in order to have that conversation we have to recognize the divides. That’s how we can try and help change things and listen.”

“Oh—everyone’s got problems, no doubt in that,” says the prophet, “I just speak from what I know, and what I know is that there’s a problem with the police in this city.”

“And as someone that can’t talk from that perspective, it should be my duty to learn it and listen to your experience, then all of us conversate. In my opinion, that’s how I can best function as a human being—is having that ability to listen.”

“And that’s all we can do, brother: listen. As long as you all keep listening, things are going to change.” He rises from his seat. “Pleasure talking to you young gentleman today.” He shakes our hands. “You have a good one, now.”

He taps his companion on the shoulder and they exit at Clark Street, two blocks north of Courthouse Square.

“Good luck with everything,” Devin calls after. They wave back to us as the train pulls away from the platform. Ethan and Graham move over to the two seats to my right.

“Bro…,” Ethan whispers, “That almost got intense.”

“Yeah, I felt that,” I reply.

“I mean, you know…it’s like I agreed with pretty much everything everyone ended up saying, but I freeze up in those situations. I don’t know if I should even say anything.”

“For me it was good to hear him expand on what he was upset about,” Graham adds. “You know, I’m not big into the news, like, to be totally honest, but I feel like when I do get into them it always seems like everyone out there doesn’t know what the fuck they’re talking about or they’re just ranting. That guy seemed pretty fucking knowledgeable. Like he definitely knew and felt that shit.”

“Oh totally, totally,” Devin says. “And it’s all about those crucial conversations. You just have to be ready to listen and hope that people give you the privilege of trusting you enough to talk to you. He shouldn’t have had to feel like he was talking to nobody.”

We disembark at the Ashland Avenue station in the Near West Side, across the Chicago River from Jake’s neighborhood of the West Loop.

The now-clearing skyline is framed portrait-like by the iron rails of the station bridge, a vista so impressive we have to document it in pictures. It’s hard to imagine that unrest could exist in such a beautiful scene, but alas, not 135 years ago, just south of here, used to stand the residence of the O’Leary family. I laugh; I’m sure the stargazers on that fateful day of Oct. 10 were thinking the same thing before they found themselves fleeing the cupolas as the vistas began burning…

A single spark conflated by winds and neglect into conflagration, the city serving as its own fueling fodder for wasted energy. Not even the pump house, full of alleviating water, was left standing. Some called it “The Scourge of the Queen of the West,” a response to the irresponsible decadence of Chicago’s expansion. Others called it a “blind Samson” unwitting of whether it worked for good or for evil, a possible boon to developers rather than a tragedy.

The Jungle was written in 1906. The Fire happened in 1871.

A reporter said of a consumed building: “He will look about as good as new, though the traces of the wounds are still visible, if you know where to look for them…”

            Where did things stand now, if any differently?

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