Journalist Peter Nickeas describes three years on the nighttime crime beat in Chicago.
Halfway between dusk and dawn in the dead of winter, I parked under the Pink Line viaduct and stepped out into blackened snow and biting cold. I had driven southwest from the Tribune Tower, down Ogden Avenue, the skyline shrinking in the rearview mirror, out past Mount Sinai Hospital and the Ogden District police station to Lawndale Avenue.
Snow reflected light from dirty yellow streetlamps, casting an industrial glow over the neighborhood. The sky was an eerie shade of lavender. A police officer wanted to know who I was, then told me I’d get a better picture of the body if I circled back through the alley to the other side of the crime scene. The cops said a man had been shot after stepping on someone’s shoe at a house party. A murder over nothing, almost too petty to be believed.
I didn’t know the body would still be there. I didn’t know the police would be OK with me being there. I didn’t know what to do when the family showed up—the dead man’s son was there. I didn’t know how to talk to them. This was only my second murder scene in the city. Being out in the night was still new, and I carried an anxiety in my stomach wherever I went.
I tried to make myself invisible, but I was the only white person outside the police tape. As family members started walking away, I stopped a few of them and handed out my card, in case they wanted to talk. (They didn’t.)
It was the beginning of a three-year stint working overnights at the Chicago Tribune, covering any violent event that happened in the city after dark. I’d wanted a job at the paper, and this was the one they had. I was 25 years old. It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve been able to gain any perspective on what those three years have meant for me. I still feel wrecked sometimes. I still feel drained from the work of chasing incessant violence. Drained from going from shooting to shooting to shooting. Drained from enduring the mind-numbing silence of a slow night only to be jolted awake, adrenaline on, into full chase mode. Drained from trying to convince my wife that the job hasn’t changed me. Or that the change hasn’t been so bad.
I lurked in shadows, riding around listening to the police scanners, getting close enough to observe but staying far enough away not to interfere. Watching for new graffiti, gangbangers, memorials, crowds. Listening for yelling, breaking glass, squealing tires, revving engines. For calls of gang disturbances, for the battery in progress, for the battery just occurred. For anonymous neighbors complaining about young men harassing passing motorists or young men selling drugs in front of homes.
For shots fired.
There's more at the link. It's repellent, but fascinating and highly recommended reading.
People who live in such a culture of violence and social degradation (whether by choice, or because they can't afford anything better) are conditioned by it to a frightening extent. (An excellent example occurred in a Chicago courtroom just yesterday.) When frustrations boil over in such areas, they spill over from there to more civilized suburbs, and to towns that would normally consider themselves free of big-city problems. Natural disasters can produce the same effect; witness, for example, the migration of crime and violence in the wake of the dispersion of refugees from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. (I experienced that myself in central Louisiana, and wrote about it at the time.)
It's important for us to understand what's going on in inner-city ghettoes and impoverished areas such as those Mr. Nickeas describes, because such problems are only a heartbeat away from becoming our problems too. It's all very well to say that 'the government' must fix them, but the cold, hard truth is that no government can address them. Poverty and social degradation can't be solved by bureaucratic edicts or political promises. There will always be people who choose the 'dark side' of life; drugs, crime, violence, and the like. They tend to gravitate to such areas, and if moved out of them, will simply drag down their new places of residence until they resemble the old.
That's reality . . . and we'll do well not to forget it. Mr. Nickeas has done us a service by reminding us about that.