It was a typical summer night in Oak Park. On this early summer evening, I took my two boys to Taylor Park, smack dab between their two sets of grandparents' homes. I plopped down on a bench with my dog, next to two bikes. No sooner had my dog nestled himself in the grass, than three young children, black, maybe 12 or 13 years old, came up to my place of calm.
I noticed they were going to pick up a football, but one of them quickly advised against it. That's not ours! We shouldn't touch it. The youngest one ran off to get a stray tennis ball by the tennis courts. Then the other two said something to each other, got on their bikes, and rode away.
A minute or two went by, and the third boy returned, having gotten that tennis ball. To my surprise he asked what happened to his bike. I told the young lad his buddies just rode off. He looked shocked, and then told me that those kids just stole his bike. More surprise.
That this would happen in Taylor Park, where my siblings and I probably had 3-4 bikes stolen when we were young, should not have surprised me. Immediately I sensed that feeling of loss. Of dread. Of fear. Of anger. As I grew older, the perversely true economics of supply and demand made perfect sense to me. The Austin neighborhood is filled with thousands of poor, black, bike-less children; Oak Park is filled with thousands of well-off children with all kinds of bikes, oftentimes unguarded. In any case, I knew that feeling.
I think what caught me off guard was that he was black. In my mind, victims, especially of this particular crime in these parts, were generally white; perpetrators black. Upon being asked if he knew the two boys he was with, he said no. The young man was bewildered. So I walked around the immediate area with him to see if I could spy his ride. The purloiners were gone. Where did he live? I asked. Over that way, he pointed east. Where exactly? Mason and Rice. No, Massoit and Thomas. Wait, no, Augusta and Mayfield. These intersections are all in the city.
Kid, let's start over. How did you get here? I double-rided with those kids. Ah. So you do know them. Yeah they live on my block, I think. How old are you? 11. I see. Not to judge, kid, but an 11-year-old should really know his address. You should probably work on that. You hang with those kids a lot? No. They run with a rough crowd, don't they? Yeah.
It struck me that the boys knew not to mess with a stray football, likely the owner of which was white; but to steal a bike from their friend and leave him high and dry far from home? Not a second thought was given.
So I had my boys introduce themselves to this kid. They stretched their little hands out for a handshake. We played catch with his tennis ball. He seemed like a sweet kid; not a troublemaker.
Are your parents home? No. Where are they? Work. Where's that? Far away, the South Side. They help people at home. Ah, like a nurse? Yeah. Tears started to flow. The kid just wanted his bike back. We played more catch. And waited.
At this point, I could have called the Oak Park police, who will promptly hand him over to CPD, who will then do God knows what. Charge his parents with neglect? Dump him into DCFS? Take him to the station until they can locate them? That he is African-American and from the West Side and living in a two-parent, double-employment home is something of a miracle, so yeah, let's screw that up. Having driven through the West Side for years en route to work, I knew all of the intersections he spoke of well. Not the worst section by any stretch of the bloody Chicago we read about every day, but not so nice. So I told him I would take him home.
I dropped my boys off with my mother. Charity and education are one thing; safety is another. As they excitedly ran up to greet their beloved Gammy, I couldn't help but wonder if this kid had ever known such a feeling. So I drove the short mile to his neighborhood. We went to a couple of different intersections until he saw a friend. The friend said he knew where he lived. It was twilight. There were lots of old folks out on their stoops. Some drinking. Some smoking cigars. Some just commiserating with each other on another Chicago summer night. But a safe enough place.
I wrote a note on my business card for him to give to his parents that stated I had witnessed his bike being stolen and they should call me and off he went. One block east of Austin Boulevard and the Oak Park border, but as close as I'll ever come to identifying with a young, poor black kid.
Before he darted away, I asked him one more question. I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. Maybe a cop, fireman, basketball player?
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