Monday, September 28, 2009

69th Street Flashback

Last weekend I was driving down my street when I passed one of the local kids standing in the middle of the road. He had some kind of crap all over his face--hopefully it was chocolate--and as I drove by with my window open, he yelled something at me. I couldn't hear what he said because my radio was turned up, but I'm guessing it wasn't too kind. Probably, "you just rolled over my foot" or something.

The experience took me back a dozen years to the summer of 1997, as I was tooling down 69th Street in South Chicago on my trusty Trek 820 mountain bike "Thunderlips" en route to a teaching appointment. As I rode past a small ten-year-old boy standing on the side of the road, he looked me square in the eye and insulted both my race and my relationship to my mother in one super-efficient phrase.

Now, this particular insult wasn't all that unique. My companions and I heard it all the time as we rode around the South Side. What was strange, though, was that the expression came via the lips of a ten-year-old, and instead of being yelled from a distance at my back, this volley was delivered direct to my face. I was so impressed by this kid's bravery, in fact, that I completely forgot to be insulted, and instead laughed as I rode on down the street.

A half dozen blocks further, my companion and I made a quick left and locked up our bikes in front of a home we'd been scheduled to visit that afternoon. An hour later, we emerged from the house onto the front porch to a surprising sight. There before us was the same little kid, now cowering in shame instead of cursing our heritage. He was cowering because his older sister--at least four times his size--was looming behind him, with her hand on the back of his neck.

"OK," she said threateningly, "say it."

From the depths of sorrow came a defeated whisper:

"I'm sorry."

After nearly six months of dodging bricks, bottles, speeding cars, threats, and even the distant sound of gunshots, there wasn't much that caught my attention on the South Side. In a lot of ways, I figured the place was just ripening for Armageddon. Or at least a catastrophic NBA championship riot. But I had to smile when I realized that even in the worst of neighborhoods, there were still a few people determined to practice common courtesy, and who made sure that their siblings did the same.

I have no idea what Chocolate-Face Kid said last weekend, and I don't care. But I do hope that kid in Chicago kept listening to his big sister.