Violent death is much in the news, recently. What causes it and who is dying has driven a wedge in US culture. An apocalyptic fever has overcome a small vocal segment of America demanding a posture of self defense against an imaginary foe at the expense of flesh and blood victims; regardless their age.
I have a story. It is a personal story. I have not thought of this evening much since the night. To recall it now returns it to my consciousness as dreams do, vivid colors painting graphic shapes, faces remembered for their emotions instead of their features and sound dissonant from its environment. Notwithstanding what I write here is true.
April 29th 1992 I boarded the #4 bus on Chicago’s Southside. I was returning to my home in Kenwood after teaching my film class at Columbia College, in Chicago’s Loop. This day was different in the otherwise routine exercise because that afternoon in Los Angeles an all White jury acquitted four White officers of criminal wrongdoing in the savage beating of Rodney King.
Chicago bus routes mirror their neighborhoods. Even without knowing the route it’s a fair guess to figure if the bus is going North or South by the balance of Whites and Blacks on board. But then there is Hyde Park/Kenwood. The University of Chicago and the mellow liberalism of the area find these lines, the #1, the #2, the #6 and the #4 fairly mixed among Asian, Black and White. April 29th, 1992 by the time I boarded, it was different.
By dusk in Chicago the verdict had blanketed the city like the cobalt sky. An unnatural quiet filled the bus. I cannot even recall the telltale steel creaks common to the trip. I remember clearly that all the Whites had crowded to the front of the bus and a singular Black man sat alone in the center of the rear bench.
All faces fixed upon me. Normally you might glance at a new rider. But your questions are pedestrian. ‘Do they look like they will squeeze in next to me…? Might I know them…? Will they be an annoyance…’ and the like. These faces on this night were deliberate. Quizzical. Where would I choose to sit?
Race does that. Sex does that. Money does that; forces us to choose up sides. These were not angered faces or arrogant faces. These were befuddled faces. Childlike. Some dependable truth had been stripped bare and the next person onto that bus was necessary to return that truth of fearfully crush it further.
I was the next person on that bus with neither the tools nor nobility to comfort.
I took a seat next to the Black guy. He was seething. People make light of the “vibe” until they pick one up. My bench mate was sending forward a vibe strong enough for the White riders to situate seven seat rows between them.
He opened up to me his disgust of White people. He had had enough of the two sets of rules and the selective justice. He had a murderous rage over the abuse heaped randomly upon Black persons but specifically upon Black people. He spoke without blinking as I remember and I don’t remember him ever turning to see how his words affected me. Not at first.
‘It’s nothing new…’I told him. Why I don’t know. I felt a conversation might take him out of the deadly echoes I suspected ruminating in his head.
‘My father is a Doctor. He studied at Loyola, in Evanston in the 40’s. He rode the train from Chicago to Evanston everyday. Everyday there would be a cop car waiting for him to get off the train-it would follow him to school-and then follow him back to the train every night….this stuff has been going on forever.’
He was looking at me now. ‘That’s fuck’d up. You want me to kill one of these mutha fukkas?’ He tilted his head subtly up the aisle. ‘Pick one. ‘ He was calm and in his request but he too had the aura of a child betrayed.
‘I won’t need you to do that.’
‘I will. Ask me.’
‘I don’t need these, or anybody dead.’
He sat back in his seat and looked back up the aisle. I didn’t get disappointment or defeat from his manner. I got impotence. I cannot remember how long we rode there together but it was in silence until 51st and Woodlawn where I got off.
I stepped down onto the curb with a sense of satisfaction I had no rational reason to possess. I was a fool that bet and won the lottery. The bus engine whirled east down 51st street vanishing into a night so quiet it more closely resembled 11:59 pm Christmas Eve than early spring. I cannot recall another vehicle or pedestrian on the street that night.
I’ve thought since that night I stopped tragedy. I’ve been comforted that no shocking news report perverted my belief. Of course I can’t ever truly know. I have chosen to believe in better angels.