On a cold, clear December afternoon where the dark makes you think it’s night until you remember to check the time, under trees festooned with pale yellow bulbs and past storefronts decked in reindeer, two cops walked in tandem past Loyola’s downtown campus.
A bit down the street, east past more bulbs and reindeer, another policeman scribbled in a notebook inside Argo Tea.
Two more ambled by the Einstein Bagel.
Two were inside the Hershey store on the corner of Pearson and that little half-street that separates the Water Tower from the shops and hotels. A group of six or seven police officers stood in the cold just outside the Hershey store doorway, joking and clowning as the afternoon darkened and chilled.
What the holy hell is going on?
I asked an older officer outside the Hershey store, more politely than “holy hell,” of course.
A wiry young Irish-looking cop popped up, jumping back and forth to warm himself as he spoke.
“We’re doing roll call out here,” he joked before being playfully slapped on the arm by a beautiful young Latina officer.
The older cop gave him a severe look, then turned back to me.
“There’s nothing going on,” he said.
As I walked north past the Park Hyatt, two higher-ranked policemen in heavy wool dress coats crossed the little half-street to join the Hershey’s crew.
As I headed west on Chicago, two Latino officers walked in the other direction, toward the Mag Mile. The older one was practically bald from how buzzed his buzz cut was. He was smoking a cigarette.
They laughed and joked my “What’s going on?” off in that menacing way some cops have.
“Don’t worry when you see us,” the buzz-cutted man said between drags on his smoke. “Worry when you don’t see us.”
Workers were leaving the offices. Shoppers were taking to the Michigan Avenue retail Valhalla. I bought a cookie at a Starbucks and let three #66 buses pass by as the crowd became increasingly sprinkled with cryptic Chicago police officers.
On the northeast corner of Chicago and Michigan, a white officer paced angry by the recycle bins and compactor trash can. Two heavyset black officers, one male and one female, stood back by the shrubbery chatting.
The embroidery on the woman’s sweater said she was from the Calumet precinct, nearly 18 miles away.
The man looked me dead in the eye.
“Do you feel safe?” he asked.
“I do now,” I joked. “But I’m going home and I don’t know how safe I’ll feel there.”
“But you feel safe here?”
“That’s why we’re here.”
I looked at him blankly for a second. The corner of my eye caught a middle-aged woman with a long coat and a fur hat, just one in the throng of people oozing in and around Chicago’s ritzy shopping district. It hit me.
They were there for the shoppers. The rich and fancy needed to feel safe and snug before they could spend the night away.
I don’t know if the cops were there on orders or just to pick up a little overtime, but on that night under bulbs and past reindeer, someone decided a little strip of ritz was the most important part of Chicago’s 230 square miles to patrol.
And every one of them, coincidentally of course, decided the best course of action was to laugh off any inquiries from passers-by like me.
I asked if what I was thinking was correct, that they were there as a show of force for the shoppers. The woman glanced at the man. Non-verbal OK given, she looked ahead — not at me — and gave a curt nod.
I left it with a “Thanks” and a “Merry Christmas” and went the hell home.