“Yeah? Well, you’re not from Chicago.” — Eliot Ness, “The Untouchables”
In Lady Gaga’s song, “Poker Face”, she has a line that goes, “Russian Roulette is not the same without a gun”…neither is the simple action of walking to school for Derek Hatcher. In a scene that is far too relatable for too many kids, Derek reminisces about living in the rough side of town, where trying to go from Point A to Point B is akin to surviving a war zone. Facing down his own mortality as a teenager, the day-to-day task of going to and coming from school is a gamble, leaving you hoping not to land on red.
by Derek Hatcher
I lived on the West side of Chicago, a forgettable area of the city that was rampant with drugs, alcohol use, street gangs and various kinds of criminal activity. Death is an everyday occurrence on the West side; people get shot; people get robbed.
Every day, I would get up to walk the half mile journey to high school. For me, walking that half mile was like entering an obstacle course. I’ve seen guys have the coat on their back pulled off in dead winter and it’s no fun walking on hot sidewalk in the summer when someone demands your shoes. This never happened to me, but I’ve seen it happen to others; often.
I was fortunate that their misfortune served as my buffer, helping me recognize impending danger. For example, you’re walking down the street and there is no one in sight. Suddenly, two guys emerge from a building in front of you. They don’t smile but they don’t appear hostile. Even if you’re smart, it’s too late because the trap is set. Two guys walking down the street together not interacting and focusing on you is kind of a robber’s giveaway signal. It’s what a poker player
would call a tell. Sometimes they’ll even ask you a question, just to initiate the sequence.
“Hey what time is it?”
Oh, check it; he’s got a watch man!
Thieves and gang bangers are creatures of habit. Their behavior is repetitious; rarely does it ever deviate; making them predictable. For example, the street corner of a gang’s turf designated their territory; meaning all unaffiliated were open prey. Enter the turf of a gang and you’re inviting conflict. Most thieves look for prey within a radius of where they typically hang out.
Unless there was no alternative, I would detour these spots.
As a high school freshman, I was what one might call, “young”. By that I mean, I didn’t run the streets, my Grandmother didn’t allow me to hang out with (what she referred to as) thugs and so for that period of time I avoided being recruited in a gang. Although I was young, I wasn’t dumb and young.
In mathematics, I learned pattern recognition, making it easy to observe behavioral tendencies within my neighborhood obstacle course. I had a routine as well; deviation, I was never predictable. I would walk one path to school, but I would never use that same path to go home.
If this sounds like a game, I suppose in a way it was for me. I remember at this one corner there was a huge multi-dwelling, five floor brick apartment building. On one particular morning, as I approached the corner of this building, this guy, who appeared to be no older than seventeen or eighteen, stepped from around the corner of this building. He stood in front of me, in his hand was a gun (I believe it was a .22) and he pointed it at my face. I heard the sound of the gun click but there was no explosion, no bullet discharge.
I remember now how quiet it was that morning. I love early morning quiet; there is a calm peace in that kind of quiet. Time seemed to momentarily stand still for me, that gun and this other guy. I stood there, first staring at the gun that had misfired, the hand holding it and finally into the face of this guy. I looked in his light brown eyes and I calmly said, “What’s happening man”.
At that moment, that statement might qualify as the most inappropriate thing to say. I believe it wasn’t what I said, but the way I said it. I spoke as if he and I were childhood friends. It wasn’t a question. Maybe it was a rhetorical remark by someone who couldn’t think of anything else to say. Somehow, it seemed to disarm him (I like to think it did). I somehow have this ability to make people feel at ease in a disarming kind of way; particularly when someone wants to rob or
hurt me. My Mom would say that “even at a very young age I was quite persuasive”. I can only say (smiling), “It’s a gift I only use for good”.
This guy holding a gun in my face never answered and he never uttered a word. He just walked away.
You might say, “that a cheap handgun, is easily obtainable and is likely to misfire or fail to discharge”. You might offer some nice sounding piously spiritual divine intervention reason. I might even credit it to my cool and detached demeanor. But the truth is I don’t know why I wasn’t shot that morning. I’ve had experiences where you just don’t have time to do something scripted, you just respond, and for whatever reason, you come out unscathed. There’s nothing unique about me that negates me being shot. I can’t say I’m smarter, or nicer, or more deserving. I can’t attribute it to biology because my brother was murdered.
I like to think of it as grace because I can’t point to some ability on my own. There was no reason for it to happen that way and yet it did. It inexplicably did happen. Just like that.
What I know is that I made it through that day, as I did, each preceding day. I don’t know where that guy is today, at the time, he was just a member of a local neighborhood gang. Years later, I would become friends with the leader of that gang, and one day we visited the house of the very same guy. I didn’t mention my recollection of that morning; I don’t know if he remembered me. I no longer resembled that young kid anymore. Somehow, I knew that some topics are better left unspoken.
I remember sharing this experience with someone years later, and they asked, “Why he didn’t pull the trigger a second time?” It never occurred to me why he didn’t.
* * * *
Never mind the big wars. Kids are being made warriors on the streets.
* * * *
In his own words!
“I’m originally from Chicago, Illinois (in the United States). After reading a book about computers in fourth grade, I knew what I wanted to do. While my career in Information Technology exceeded my childhood dream, I found myself desiring another challenge. I began writing (short stories and poems). I retired as a Subject Matter Expert in 2013 and moved to Sweden. After being reminded why I no longer enjoyed winter weather, I moved along the Adriatic Coast of Croatia. Croatia reminded me of hot central Texas summers and once again, I yearned to move. I guess you could say I was like Goldilocks because when I arrived in Cuenca, I felt it was just right. My interests include reading, writing, staying abreast with technology, travel, music, learning to play alto sax, fitness exercise, and cooking. During the pandemic, I began working on a manuscript about American racism. In an effort to improve my Spanish, I’m currently reading a book of poems entitled Fractura Primaria by Roxana Landivar.”