The two little boys in the matching lion jammies both held up four fingers, but daddy corrected the smaller one.
“No,” he said in that paternal sing-song men bring home from the hospital with the bassinet and baby. “You’re two-and-a-half, aren’t you?”
The little one nodded and offered me a look through his bright yellow binoculars. The one who was actually 4, Braeden or something similar that is now somehow considered a name, looked up at his daddy with pleading eyes. He wanted to get back to painting over the gang tag.
The tag was that too-common squiggle left by that special breed of real or imagined gangsta who comes prepared with a Sharpie wherever they go. Apparently, a flat, metal door on a posh residential strip of hipster Valhalla Wicker Park was contested gang territory and real men don’t fuck around with dry-erase when settling scores.
As the little one ran back and forth across the sidewalk, looking backwards through his binoculars, the dad hoisted up a brush-wielding Braeden to happily slap gray paint over the tag. If tags have power in gang culture, the two messy-haired blond boys in the lion jammies were warlords supreme.
“They’ve got to learn some time,” the dad said with a bit of resentment in his voice.
Braeden continued painting, stroke by stroke covering the tag with a muted gray. It reminded me of helping my own father stain the picnic tables he built for the back yard. I left wondering who the two little boys would become.
I can hear my neighbors’ little ones play as I type this in my apartment’s shared back yard. They play in Spanish from the yard to the west; English from the east. But kids are part of the scenery to me, earning no thought until they’re old enough to have political opinions or get in line in front of me at the store.
I don’t know if Braeden and his brother will stay city kids or if his parents will pull up stakes when the possibility of sending them to Chicago Public Schools becomes more than a horrifying “what if.” I don’t know if the memory of turning graffiti removal into a father-sons activity will factor into the decision.
A city is beautiful and a city is horrible. It leaves no one unaffected.
The little neighbor girl, maybe 5, said hello as she walked by. Within a few seconds, she was running in the other direction, shrieking with delight and now carrying a bucket. Kids sort of rule.
The girl with the bucket will someday be hurt by this dirty, cutthroat town. Maybe she already has. I’m sure she’s already found joy in the beauty, the strength and the resilience that marks Chicago. Pain from the grit and crime must follow.
That’s the riddle of Chicago, I guess. It’s the riddle of any place not deemed safe by God and magazine rankings. Is it good with some bad or bad with some good?
Is the real Chicago the Sharpie tag or the paint covering it? Braeden or the nighttime defacer: Who’s the true city kid?