I don’t ever want a park named after me.
It was an early summer afternoon that several hundred kids will never forget. I was in my usual spot. Off the grid, but not too far off. Not too far because the grid always kept me going. The grid sustained me. Sustained me in my hour of not wanting to hear the usual analysis about 20th Century Urban America and how it was not going to successfully fight its way out of a challenging adolescence.
I didn’t hear the analysis, but I heard the gunshots. Don’t remember how many casings they eventually found. Of course, casings equated to bullets which equated to gunshots. I don’t know how many casings they found, but it must have been a hundred gunshots. Could have been more. I can still hear them. Might have been two hundred gunshots. Maybe more.
The thing I remember most was the dad who said it was a terrible Father’s Day weekend for him. He said that his child gotta live with being shot and she’s never gonna forget.
The life of a crossing guard is relatively easy. You get up early five days a week. Stand on a street corner. Smile. Listen – especially if it’s a bad day. Smile some more. Watch. Watching is important because, truth be told, they usually don’t stop. Pedestrians rarely stop. Vehicles never stop. The big, brilliantly red, octagonal sign that I hold in my hand, doesn’t mean a thing. Maybe red has ceased being the right color. Maybe they should go from octagonal to something less geometrically complex. I mentioned this assessment to a safety officer right after the shooting. The safety officer gave me the blankest of stares. I walked away from the safety officer more in admiration than contempt at her laser-focused callousness.
It might have been over three hundred gunshots. I can still hear them.
The headlines read something like – Two young girls were wounded in a shooting.
I can no longer remember the name of the elementary school where the shooting took place – I can barely remember the neighborhood – a neighborhood that used to contain the residences of some of the top physicians in Chicago. Perched on a not-so-acute hilly slope – they all moved out in the 60s and never looked back. They, the physicians, to my recollection, never, ever saw a single casing.
The shooting occurred at around 1:45 p.m., exactly the time children were outside enjoying a picnic to celebrate the end of the school year.It was at that moment, the moment of the first gunshot, when I realized that the last thing I ever wanted to do was get old. Growing old translates into seeing a lot more casings.
I’m sick of casings.
In the aftermath, the rather cryptic reporting went on to say that while students were celebrating at the playground, gunfire tore through the jungle gym. I didn’t have a clue what a jungle gym was, but I didn’t like the connotations that went with it – then or now. I’m also not sure that I like the notion of gunfire tearing through something either, but I’m more agnostic along those lines than I am on the jungle gym designation.
They said the school had practiced for situations like this. Is that even possible? Whether gunshot tore through something or not, you run. You practice later.
One girl had just turned thirteen earlier that spring. The other girl was all but seven. The 13-year- old was shot in the hand and required surgery. The 7-year-old, had her leg grazed by the bullet, but, according to reliable news reports, she was smiling and doing fine.
Practice. You practice getting down, low to the ground, and you practice a lot. A lot may sound like a lot, but if you can’t run, you better dive to the ground. Not sure if that’s what all the children did, but that’s the calculus for survival.
Somebody, I believe it was a safety officer, started complaining about the tools of the trade – never mind that the tools of the trade had nothing to do with the fact that there were between four hundred to five hundred casings along the street, sidewalk and playground.
So, what is it about the tools of the trade? The safety officer said that maybe the hand-held stop sign should be a deeper red. That, maybe, the fact that it is octagonal may render it useless or at least ineffective when it comes to preventing casings from littering the street, sidewalk and playground. This didn’t make any sense to me. The third suggestion by the safety officer was to provide each crossing guard with a two-sided stop sign. I was about to complain, but I couldn’t quite remember if my own stop sign was two-sided or not. My hesitation let the safety officer off the hook.
“Your stop sign is already two-sided,” shouted a parent, yards from a pile of casings.
“I couldn’t agree with you more,” I replied.
It’s tough when you rely on other people for the truth, even when they’re parents or safety officers, even if you trust them, and even if you don’t. I made a mental note to myself that the first thing I would check, if I could locate it, would be the actual configuration of my stop sign.
“How much do you crossing guards make?” asked a reporter. She was a local reporter because she wore too much makeup. I didn’t think the question was any of her business so I left it unanswered.
“What are your hours?” the same reporter asked. I didn’t have a ready-enough answer for her because I was too busy looking at her hair. It didn’t quite work in a neighborhood such as ours.
“Why were you just hanging around here?” asked the reporter. “Wasn’t it <i>way</i> before you were <i>supposed</i> to be at your corner?”
It was probably the only intelligent question she asked all day. I still didn’t answer it.
Other crossing guards were starting to surface. Some I had never seen before and many who had never seen <i>me.</i>
“How long have you been a crossing guard?” a different reporter asked. She was also local, but with much less makeup and hair that was more neighborhood appropriate. I started to answer her question, but one of the other crossing guards butted in and started answering with a series of enthusiastic lies about the profession.
It got worse.
The police superintendent, having somehow arrived only seconds before the cameras and microphones appeared, said the “individuals” “being” shot “at” “then” ran back into the picnic area “drawing” that fire to the “folks” that were in there “enjoying” the picnic. The superintendent went quickly to his talking points and, as quickly, shouted down by parents.
A teacher being interviewed suggested that the children were not the intended targets. Which got me to wondering – What’s the ratio of intended targets to unintended targets? And does it have a geographical bent? Does it have anything to do with socioeconomic status? Does it have anything to do with education and poverty?
No one within a ten-mile radius of any casing had an adequate answer.
Intertwined in doubt – that’s what the principal was out there saying to the same pack of cameras and microphones that had tired of the superintendent. Something about our nation being in doubt about itself, its direction and its future. That it had never been this way before – said the principal. Our law officials were reluctant to enforce; our teachers were confused as to what to teach; and our children dubious about what to learn – either when ducking bullets or diving to the ground. There is so much to learn and there is so much to unlearn – said the principal. Hence there is a sowing of doubt within the community.
I couldn’t listen to it anymore. The principal’s podium transitioned to a pedestal and, not much later, an altar. How many were converted? You never know. Converted or not, a host of parents started sobbing in unison at the foot of that altar. There was little intertwining in doubt within this symphony of sobs.
Finally, the old man.
The old man, who consistently nudged his battered import’s front bumper into one of my 12” x 36” vertical panel plastic Stop-for-Pedestrian signs, crawled out the vehicle and immediately went into 2nd gear.
“See, I told you this would happen,” said the old man. “And it happened sooner rather than later. They should stop having school picnics.”
I knew he was only getting started.
The old man always wore a custodian cap and it always seemed to be the same custodian cap. I’ve known him and his cap for years. He was well read however; though his reading list leaned heavily toward unapologetic 20th Century dictators.
“You know, you never, ever hear or see the one that gets you,” said the old man.
The reporter with the most makeup walked up to the old man. Before she could open her mouth, he took his custodian hat off for the first time ever.
He cleared his throat. “The death of one Chicagoan is a tragedy, the death of six-hundred and fifty is a statistic.”
I had heard it before and to his credit, the old man always kept an updated head count.
“Oh look,” said the old man, “there’s another casing . . . and this one doesn’t have a name on it.”
I thought about wavering, but instead I told the old man that I didn’t want to be the name of a park, no mattered how well they maintained it.
“There’s another casing,” repeated the old man, pointing to the ground.
I didn’t see it.
“Right there,” he said. “Right there, right next to you.”
I didn’t . . . and . . . I never . . . saw it.
Cedric Williams is a storyteller, screenwriter and permanent fixture on the South Side of Chicago. He is currently writing a graphic novel about some very weird individuals. He is also filming a documentary about the first woman postmaster of the Chicago Post Office.