When I left overnights, my first shift back at work was when Gary police were sorting out a serial killer. They had found women dead, and media was sort of scrambling, and my first shift was to head that way.
We talked to the suspect’s brother, briefly. I remember him being nice, and apologetic, and at the same time his family was going through something too behind his brother’s alleged crimes. Gray areas abound.
It was October, and I didn’t know what days were going to look like yet because I had only worked my first day at the Tribune as a day shift and it was nights for the next 37 months. Was weird walking in for day shifts. I met so many people those first few months, even though I had been there more than three years.
But I was figuring things out.
And all winter, into the spring, I was figuring things out. A photographer and I poked around the edges at a murder that ended up making a nice story, I thought, one that showed not just the grief of a young man’s relatives but the guilt and mixed emotions that went along with watching his death spiral. (It was the photographer’s sizing up the scene when it was fresh, when I was on the desk and couldn’t leave, that made the story happen some months later — he saw something that needed a little work and he kinda pushed me out there to do it.)
In the spring, for some reason, I found myself on the Southwest Side and without an assignment. It was one of the first nice days of the year. I had scanners, laptop, all the usual stuff so I didn’t need to be in the office.
So I pulled into the parking lot at McKinley Park down by Pershing and Western and sat, with the windows open for a minute, looking around. It was nice, I thought. This is what McKinley Park looks like during the day. Green grass, moms with kids, guys playing basketball.
All winter I had been having these revelations. Neighborhoods I knew by night came alive during the day. There were colors on buildings I never noticed. Colored siding, colored paint, all kinds of colors. Not just buildings shaded by darkness or lit by the yellow glow of city street lamps. These were blocks whose architecture I knew, blocks I could see pictures of and call it out. I would have sworn to the colors of the buildings but I would have been wrong.
Even in the grime of winter with gray slurry everywhere and the sharp edges of the city dulled by winter’s bite, I could see life during the day I just couldn’t at night. It’s something about seeing colors differently, and daylight too I’m sure, that changed how I took things in.
Sitting there that first Spring after nights felt nice, to see what a park looks like when I wasn’t there for a crime scene. I realized, things happen at parks other than shootings. No shit, right? I couldn’t remember last time I was at a city park for anything other than a shooting, though. I don’t have kids, I don’t hang out at the park.
McKinley Park isn’t some holy ground. Guys get shot there. Guys get shot during the daytime too, all over the city. A mile or so away, another photographer shot the saddest picture I can remember from overnights, a dead kid whose family was proud because he made 6 months sober but he had one foot in the street and one foot out and he was caught because of that and the guys there who told him, don’t be out here, they mourned his death. But it was just nice at the time to think, a park can be something other than a crime scene.
I was sitting there and I was happy, just watching the guys play basketball. Nice breeze, nice weather. One of the first warm days of the year after a long winter, a short winter, any Chicago winter and it brings a euphoria that can’t be repeated in July. Sitting out there late afternoon watching guys hoop, it occurred to me then that this is something I would need to keep doing.
McKinley Park was sort of the beginning of how I started to understand that I needed to change my association with places, my memories of the city. And not just stop associating a corner with a shooting, because that I’ll always do I think, but to force new memories.
Erin and I drive around the city and sometimes I tell her, “I know about a guy who was killed right here.” “There was a fatal fire back there, a kid died.”
It’s tiresome, for her, I think, so I’ve tried to stop. The photographer calls it “a map of misery.”
It’s how I know the city. It’s how I think of this one victim when I’m near McKinley Park, along the Eisenhower on the West Side ,or a kid shot in Ada Park when I’m in the hundreds, or the dozens of shootings or murders we’ve been to on 26th and 31st in Little Village, 47th and 51st in Back of the Yards, 63rd in Englewood or Woodlawn, along 71st or 75th or 79th from the Lake to Western, all over the city it’s this.
Even in neighborhoods on the North Side where there’s very little shooting — I happen to have been to a lot of North Side neighborhoods for shootings and murders. The photographer who pushed me to pursue this murder story right when I left overnights — me and him watched a guy get pronounced outside a bar on Milwaukee Avenue one night and I can’t hear “Get Lucky” by Pharrell without thinking of the pictures he shot that night because that’s the song that was playing when the paramedics were pumping his chest.
Me and the other photog, we stand at scenes sometimes and get to talking with people, and they’re like, you guys do this for a living? This is all you do?
And it’s weird sometimes, we look at each other and laugh it off like, well, who’s going to answer this? Yes, more or less. This is what we do.
The reactions to hearing this are varied. Some say they’ll pray for us, some laugh, some are really into it and tell us street gossip, whose into it with who and what guys are beefing and what the last few shootings nearby were over. It just depends.
Some people tell us about their friends or relatives shot over the last few years, and if it happened at night, there’s not a bad chance one of us was there, sometimes both. And if they’re curious whether someone got locked up for that shooting or murder, it’s an easy enough thing to find out.
So since I’ve been off overnights I’ve been trying to learn the city other ways. Erin and I went to one of the food places I frequent at night. I took her to one of the places where I hide out after bad nights, a place I use to get centered after bad weekends or write when I don’t want to be in the office.
Even when I’m working, if it’s just going to blocks for shootings and murders where I’ve been at night, I meet different people and can talk about the things we’ve seen at night as a starting point.
I still know if I’m on Wilcox between Pulaski and Kostner I’ll probably be there for a shooting or murder, I can’t help that. I go to breaking news and sometimes people get shot over there.
But when I’m over there I think, it’s nice to see what it’s like during the day. It’s not about just seeing things other than shootings and murders, it’s about seeing shootings and murders different ways too.