The streetlights didn’t shine on this stretch of street, but the little boy walked down it nonetheless.
He was about 10 or so, bundled up with hat and coat that made his arms stick out a little as he walked, looking around with wide-eyed tension. He knew the area, you could tell. He lived here. But alone after dark on a stretch of street where the lights don’t come on, the familiarity gave way for him.
I took a breath and just accepted that I was about to scare the crap out of this kid.
“Excuse me,” I said as the kid jolted a bit. “Which way is Humboldt?”
He looked at me wide-eyed again and poked one of the already sticking out arms a bit further to the direction I had just come from.
“That way,” he almost whispered.
I thanked him and left quickly. The boy’s skin said he belonged there. My skin said I was visiting, in a place I shouldn’t be for a reason that couldn’t be any good.
My reason was neither malicious nor mysterious, just dumb. I was heading to a house I hadn’t been to before and overshot the street by nearly three quarters of a mile.
When I started recognizing street names from my old neighborhood, I realized I was getting to the part of Logan Square where the hipsters end and the families and gangs start up. It’s not bad, per se. You just stay inside a lot.
It seems silly writing this out a day later, safe in my warm bedroom miles to the east, drinking Bengal Spice herbal tea as I listen to the rain spatter outside. But I was afraid as I walked down that dark street. I remembered some of the things I saw, heard or saw the remnants of when I lived there. Nothing soul-searing, but not good thoughts as I wandered lost where I had no reason to be.
Fear is strange on a dark, cold night. The pulse quickens and the breath gets rushed. The eyes start to dart. You walk toward the street end of the sidewalk so no one can rush out and slam you against a wall.
It makes no sense sometimes. It’s arbitrary sometimes. I had lived in this neighborhood, in a slightly worse section than this. It was safe enough that a 10-year-old boy was let walk home alone, but even he looked on edge.
The boy knew the place and was still wary. That thought burned in as I headed in the direction the little boy pointed.
My winding path down darkened streets brought me to a well-lit one. The light helped calm me, made me think about how silly my quickened pulse and rushed breath were. But the pulse didn’t slow until I saw a liquor store selling pricy microbrews.
It turns out I’m not racist, just afraid of the poor.
I’m not going to give a pat ending. That’s “Home Improvement” turf, not mine. People die in Chicago. People get robbed and murdered and beaten and raped. Just because my misadventure in a place I used to live ended with some tired legs and a sense of moral failure doesn’t mean there aren’t things that go bump in the night.
That wary little boy was walking down the same dark street I was, looking out for the same killers and criminals I had on my mind. He likely had the same quickened pulse. His eyes darted too. He felt the creep down the back of the neck and the hearing heightened by adrenaline to almost a sense of pain.
The little boy looked into the darkness for monsters. The thing that scared him most was me.