Of the 10 or so guys hanging out in front of the house in North Lawndale, it was the one in the wheelchair who scared me.
How did he get there? What happened? And how does tough does a man have to be in this neighborhood to go out at night in a wheelchair? That’s what scared me.
That and the fact the house they were hanging out in front of had no lights.
I kept driving.
I had checked out my car-sharing car to drive to Chinatown. Highway traffic pushed me onto surface streets. My sense of direction pushed me to Little Village, almost four miles to the east of the dim sum and illegal weapons I sought.
The cruise west on Cermak had been pleasant and uneventful. I passed some storefronts closed for the night, some closed forever. Botanicas, abogados, agencias de viajes, a Church’s Chicken.
A few stories beckoned, things I made mental notes to come back and write about when they were open (an old theater called Apollo’s 2000), when I could bring someone to translate (a place called Pizza Tango) or when I grew a foot taller, got some muscles and learned how to fight (a sketchy looking pool hall with a hand-painted sign).
Turning back north on Kedzie into North Lawndale was a bit harder a transition. The stores went away, replaced by homes punctuated with corner convenience liquor stores that all took LINK. Groups of young guys hanging out on corners in front of buildings with no lights, some in wheelchairs.
A firetruck stopped and started up along the road, apparently pulling over to check their directions.
But I was in a car.
A car is separate. A car is safe. It’s the urban battle tank, we convince ourselves. Nothing bad can happen in a car and if something looks like it needs some extra security, just roll up the windows and gape at the poverty, gape at the urban blight, gape at the people just trying to get through a day on cracked roads that lead everybody out but them.
The car turns us into a fool, a gawker and a tourist.
And on my gaping tourist drive, my coward’s run through a place I had no reason being, I caught a glimpse of myself in the rear view mirror.
It was the one I saw there who scared me.