An American Summer
Excerpted from Prelude to a Summer
Near midnight on August 19th, 1998, the phone rang, an unusual occurrence at my parents’ home in upstate New York where I was visiting with my wife and infant daughter. I got out of bed, and scrambled to the hallway to grab the phone. The voice on the other end sounded familiar but I couldn’t quite place it. “It’s Anne Chambers,” she said. Anne was a Chicago violent crimes detective whom I knew. She told me she was calling from the kitchen in our home in Oak Park, a suburb bordering Chicago. She told me that Pharoah was there with her, and that he may have been involved in a murder. My legs buckled. I sat down to catch my breath.
This was the Pharoah from my book There Are No Children Here,
a boy who tread cautiously, who loved school and who was so charming and vulnerable that adults went out of their way to protect him. Shortly after the book came out, Pharoah, who had grown up in one of the city’s housing projects, had moved in with me – for what I thought would be a short period. I'd helped get him into Providence St. Mel, a college prep school on the city's west side, and he was struggling, understandably. He couldn't find quiet in his first-floor public housing apartment as rivers of people flowed in and out daily, mostly family and family friends. He called and told me he just wanted to catch up with his school work. Could I be stay with you, for just for a while
? he asked. Maybe a week or two
? I was single at the time, unencumbered and with a spare bedroom, so I invited him to stay. Though only 12, he knew what he needed. He brought with him a garbage bag filled with clothes – and his school backpack. Those two weeks turned into six years.
When I got married, Pharoah walked my wife Maria down the aisle – along with her dad. We moved to Oak Park as we wanted to be near his school, and we figured it was a community that wouldn't look askance at this unusual arrangement. His adolescent years were rocky. I didn't anticipate how this living situation would pull at his sense of identity. While his mother, LaJoe, supported his decision to live with Maria and me, others in his family didn't. One time, his mother called and after leaving a message forgot to hang up, and so on my answering machine I listened to a five-minute rant by a friend of their family berating LaJoe for letting Pharoah live with a white couple. He don't belong there
, the woman told LaJoe. He ain't white
I knew it had to be hard for Pharoah. He undoubtedly heard these harangues, as well. It's tough enough to be a teen in the best of circumstances, grappling with who you are and who you want to be, and here Pharoah had to figure out who he was while living with two white adults who were not related to him by blood, who were not his parents, who were not even his legal guardians. In particular, he had an older brother – I gave him the pseudonym Terence in the book – who clearly resented Pharoah's decision to live with us, and so he would try to pull Pharoah into his activities in the street. There was also a measure of opportunism here as he knew Pharoah, who had never been in trouble with the law, would not likely draw the attention of the police. It felt like a tug of war, and I often felt on the losing end. At one point, Pharoah knew he had to get away, to find some reprieve from these forces pulling at him, and so at his request we sent him to a boarding school in Indiana, a military academy where he had attended summer camp.
A week after he left, I was tidying up his bedroom, picking clothes off the floor, making his bed and finally cleaning his closet, where on the top shelf I noticed a worn black leather bag the size of a medicine ball. I reached to pull it down. It was bloated with cash. I mean lots of cash. Tens. Twenties. Hundreds. All of it stuffed into the bag without much concern for appearance or organization. I knew right away that it belonged to Terence, that he had probably asked Pharoah to hold it for him. I called a friend, an attorney, for advice. His words were simple: "Get rid of it." He called me back a few minutes later, and clarified, "I don't mean throw it away." So, I called Terence, and told him I had something of his which he needed to retrieve. He refused to come to Oak Park, worried that I'd set him up with the local police so I agreed to meet him on the city's West Side, and there in the middle of a one-way, residential street in the early afternoon, in the open so that we both felt protected, exchanged what turned out to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $18,000. (Terence later accused me of taking $300 from the bag, but that's another story.)
This is what Pharoah was up against – and what we were up against, as well. Pharoah got kicked out of the boarding school for selling marijuana, and eventually graduated from our local public school. He was accepted at Southern Illinois University and had decided not to visit New York with us during this summer trip because he wanted to get ready for school. Classes began the following week. And then I got this call.
I knew the detective, Anne Chambers, from my time reporting There Are No Children Here.
Anne, whom everyone in the neighborhood called Mary (for reasons I never could discern), had been a member of the plainclothes tactical unit in the neighborhood, and had a reputation as a fair-minded officer. She was tough, but cared deeply about the kids. She was a single mother, and we use to talk about her son, who at the time was headed off to Harvard with ambitions to be a police officer. She pleaded with him to do something different.
Here's what she told me in that short midnight phone call: Pharoah had taken a taxi from our house to his mother's home on the West Side, and when the cab pulled up two young men pulled Pharoah out of the backseat, and then jumped in. One of them held a pistol to the cabbie’s head, demanding his money. The cabbie must have panicked, and when he pressed down on the accelerator one of the assailants shot him in the back. Anne told me that some detectives suspected Pharoah might have set up the driver. Fortunately, Anne knew Pharoah from her time in the projects, and knew that he wasn't that type of kid. I told her I, too, couldn't fathom Pharoah pulling such a stunt – though privately I worried that maybe his brother had put him up to it.
By the next morning, Anne and her colleagues had determined that in fact Pharoah knew nothing of the robbery. Pharoah's sister saw much of what transpired, and could identify the assailants. For my part, I tried to reach Pharoah. This was before cell phones. His mother said he was out, but wasn't sure where. I tried calling regularly throughout the day. Both Maria and I were concerned. He'd just seen someone murdered. It wasn't the first time, I knew, but I also imagined how disorienting it must be. Morning came and went. As did the afternoon. Finally, that evening I reached him at our house. Where have you been
? I asked. Shopping.
At Marshall Field’s. For school.
I was incredulous. Yeah.
Pharoah, how are you doing?
Why? You just saw someone murdered.
I'm okay. I got to go. I need to get packed for school.
I hung up, shaking my head. I was dumbfounded – and angry. How could he not be grieving? How could he not be upset? Shopping? I told my wife if it was me, I'd be curled up on our couch in a fetal position. I thought to myself, something must be terribly wrong with Pharoah. How can you not feel? How can you not cry? How can you not express gratitude for not getting killed yourself? Pharoah gets yanked out of the backseat of a taxi by two men with a pistol, and then watches as they shoot and kill someone he'd just shared time with. Something, I thought, was off. Out of kilter. And for the longest time, I thought Pharoah was without heart, that he'd become hardened if not numb to the violence around him. This of course is the mistake we all make, thinking that somehow one can get accustomed to it.
I feel like I’ve been working my way to this book for a long while. In reporting There Are No Children Here
, it was the violence that most unmoored me. Since the publication of the book in 1991, four of the kids I befriended have since been murdered, including Pharoah's nephew whom even at the age of 21 everyone called Snugs, short for Snuggles. He was killed in retaliation for someone else getting shot; he was the last person murdered before the Henry Horner Homes were razed. Another young man, Jojo Meeks, had joined me, along with Pharoah and his brother Lafeyette, on a fishing trip one summer. He had a smile so wide you felt like you could just walk right in. Jojo became a stick-up artist, of drug dealers mostly, and was killed when he tried to rob some drug dealers with a bb gun. They were better armed.
The numbers are staggering. In Chicago, in the twenty years between 1990 and 2010, 14,033 people were killed, another 63,000 wounded by gunfire. And the vast majority of these shootings took place in a very concentrated part of the city. Let me put this in some perspective, if perspective is possible; it’s considerably more than the number of American soldiers killed in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. Combined. And here's the thing, Chicago is by no means the most dangerous city, not even close. Its homicide rate doesn't even put it in the top ten. But the city has become a symbol for the personal and collective wreckage caused by a kind of civil war raging in the streets of the nation's most impoverished neighborhoods. Citizens killing citizens, children killing children, police killing young black men. A carnage so long lasting, so stubborn, so persistent that it's made it virtually impossible to have a reasonable conversation about poverty in the country, and has certainly clouded any conversation about race. One friend who worked for a local anti-violence organization – the fact that such groups even exist speaks volumes to the profound depth of the problem – calls it "a madness." What's going on?
Let me tell you what this book isn't. It's not a policy map or a critique. It's not about what works and doesn't work. Anyone who tells you they know is lying. Consider that in Chicago, the police have tried community policing, SWAT teams, data to predict shooters, full saturation of troubled neighborhoods, efforts to win over gang members. And the shootings continue. Anti-violence gurus insist they have the answers. I’ve seen one – the founder of a local program – take credit for the reduction of shootings in the years before his organization even existed. What works? After twenty years of funerals and hospital visits, I don’t feel like I’m any closer to knowing.
And so, what you have here, in these pages, is a set of dispatches, sketches of those left standing, of those emerging from the rubble, of those trying to make sense of what they've left behind. A summer in the city. 2013. There's nothing special about this particular summer other than it's the one I chose to immerse myself in. Over the course of three months, 172 people were killed, another 793 wounded by gunfire. By Chicago standards it was a tamer season than most.
Copyright © 2019 by Alex Kotlowitz. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.