By Gina Gallo
Another Saturday night in Crime Central. That's Chicago's inner city West Side , where I work midnights on 'vertical patrol' - copspeak for the high-rise projects beat. Any cop will tell you this is like no
other. The norm here is that there is no norm - anything can ha and usually does. For cops and the people who live here, the projects are a challenge in staying safe and staying alive,
In Chicago, the high rise projects are located at all points on the city map. The north side is home to the infamous Cabrini-Green, while the south side claims the fearsome
Robert Taylor homes. Where I work, on the west side, it's Rockwell Gardens, a fanciful name for the monoliths that reach high about the ghetto like grimy fingers clawing for release. Violence is the
language spoken here. The clustered placement of the buildings is strategically brilliant, if you're trained in sniping and high-powered weaponry. From apartments on the higher levels , a sniper can
pick off a rival gang member, an innocent bystander or the windshield of a police squad without fear of detection.
In these buildings, apartments are entered from an outdoor balcony, motel-style, that spans the width of the building. A bad idea for the inner city, where too many bodies got tossed over the railings
during domestic disputes, gang fights, or the boozy brawl that went too far. Which made it necessary,
eventually, for the Chicago Housing Authority to add steel mesh on the balconies from ground to roof, making the buildings appear to be what their residents had felt all along; cages of crime and
violence where survival is a daily struggle.
On any given night, it's the same scene. Some people loiter in front of the building, sharing bottles or a
few joints, waiting for the random breeze to dilute the stench that's as much a part of the projects as the eroded bricks. Others lurk in the shadows, watching and waiting. These are the predators, well
versed in the cardinal rule of the street: Crime, like luck, has a certain window of opportunity.
Anyone here is easy prey. Staying alive is the name of the game, one that has few rules and fewer
winners. No one is exempt from the random - and devastating violence, not the players, or the bystanders, or even the police.
It's hard to describe what a cop feels when working a project beat. . Parading whores, lizard-eyed junkies nodding over a nickel of smack, hustlers and thieves who wait in the shadows are all a part of
the landscape here. Inside the buildings, it's the darkness you notice first - a perpetual gloom that comes from shot-out light fixtures, windowless halls and lobbies that look more like grim tunnels than
residential buildings. Nightmare-sized vermin skitter along the walls and floors. Rank odors of human waste mix with the lingering insecticide stench, strong enough to have you choking. Coming into a
building, you breathe through your mouth, creep cautiously up stairwells littered with garbage or worse. You move quickly in the dark, with only the narrow beam of your flashlight to navigate. Just
answer the call, take care of business, and get out fast. This is a dangerous place for cops who come as peacemakers, but arrive as targets.
It's brutally cold tonight, with a relentless wind shrieking like an unpaid whore. The kind of weather that keeps people inside, and the streets nearly deserted. Which means an easy night for
traffic cops, but a tough one for those of us who work this beat. In the projects, liquor and drugs are the common antidote for cabin fever. On nights like this, the police radio crackles all night long with
an onslaught of 'violence calls.' Fights between neighbors, husbands vs. wives, gang against gang - all demanding police presence.
We're so busy tonight that when the call comes, there's no unit available to take it.
"Attention, all units in the Eleventh District, all units on citywide, we have a man shot at Rockwell
Gardens, repeat, a man shot, Rockwell Gardens, Adams at Western Avenue. Any unit available to ride on this?"
The dispatcher's voice is pleading. He knows all units are busy, knows every available officer is out in the fray, hip deep in bad blood and attitude.
"Repeating that flash, we have a man shot at Adams and Western. Getting a lot of calls on this one, people. Any unit nearby that can take this call?"
When no one responds, he exercises his dispatcher's authority.
"1134, hold off on that burglar alarm job, and respond to the man shot instead. 10-4?"
We've just pulling up to a grocery store where the burglar alarm is wailing. And even though we're more than twenty blocks away from the shooting location, orders are orders.
"10-4, Squad. We're on the way." We flip on the blue lights and hit the siren, which nearly drowns out the dispatcher's last message.
"'34, use extreme caution. I have no cars to send for back-up, and callers are saying there's quite a crowd out there."
Our blue lights and siren help us traverse the district in record time, but douse them a few blocks from our destination. No need to broadcast our arrival. There's a rhythm to working these streets -
covert night moves honed from countless encounters, untold fights. No charging up like the cavalry in this parts, not if we want to stay alive. Instead, we ease into the danger zone, slip through the
shadows and assess the situation before making a move.
When we pull up, there's a crowd of shouting people blocking the project's entrance. It's clearly an
incendiary situation, the kind that one wrong move could escalate to full blown riot status. Fear and hostility cut through the darkness as effectively as the howling wind. We park our squad in a copse of
trees some distance from the entrance. All we know is that one man - or maybe more- has been shot, with the shooter possibly still on the scene. No telling who in this crowd might have a gun, a knife, a
high-tech machine pistol loaded with teflon ammo that could slide right through our safety vests. And there's only the two of us, two uniforms to navigate this sea of outraged faces.
This is where we 'walk the walk.' Game face and an authoritative stance - even when we're quaking inside - is the only thing that gets us through this crowd. We move through it quickly, carefully,
reading the faces around us. We haven't drawn our guns - not yet, not with a mob like this. But ready to draw, just in case.
We find him in the darkened lobby. The people are shouting and pointing at the man who's leaning casually against the wall. Maybe too casually. Our weapons are out in an instant.
"Hands UP!" my partner screams, dropping into a combat-shoot crouch. "Get 'em up on your head or I'll drop you right now!"
The man doesn't budge. Instead, he stares at us with glittering eyes while his lips move slowly, almost in slow motion pantomime.
"I'm the one been shot," he rasps, and points toward his chest with a trembling hand. There's no
visible wounds, no evidence of bleeding, but his face is ashen. Those glazed eyes could mean recent drug usage, or recent trauma. Cautiously, we move toward him.
He moans when we touch him, flinches as we lift his sweater. The green cable knit is damp to the touch, sodden with the blood absorbed from five spurting entry wounds that circle his heart. Five .38
caliber bullets had been pumped in - at close range, judging by the singed carbon circles on his chest. But the man is still upright, still talking. A good sign that the bullets have missed his heart.
While my partner radios for an ambulance, the man, Andre Bridwell, tells me what happened. He'd been looking forward to this evening, he says. Saturday is payday, and the only night he didn't have
to work late. He'd stopped off to cash his check, and pick up some wine for later. Saturday nights meant kicking back with his woman, Chantel, the only warm spot in a cold, hard week.
When Andre got home, the candles were already lit, and some smooth sexy jazz was pulsing on the radio. Chantel was waiting for him. He could hear her voice in the bedroom, that deep throaty sound
that made a man hunger. Slipping out of his coat and shoes, Andre grabbed the wine and headed into the bedroom.
Chantel was naked. Gilded by the candle's glow, her body was a ripe offering of gold and bronze
splayed across the bed. Her lush lips were open, moist as bruised berries, and her hooded eyes glinted in the candlelight.
It was something about the candlelight, Andre tells me now. The flames reflected in her eyes, just the way they glinted off the muzzle of the gun held by the man who stepped forward. The man who was
Andre doesn't remember much after that. The candlelight and muzzle fire flashed together - a burst of
gold light and white-hot pain as five rounds were pumped into his chest. He recalls Chantel screaming, and thudding footsteps - his own- as he stumbled out of the apartment and down to the lobby.
Now Andre slumps against the wall, sweating profusely.
She must have been raped, he tells us. His brother Aaron always was a no-count jealous fool -
begrudged his brother everything he had - even Chantel.
Andre reaches out a clutching hand as his eyes roll in supplication.
"You got to help her, officer. You got to take care of my woman."
But it's all we can do to take care of Andre. The wail of sirens in the distance tells us the ambulance
has arrived. But in the projects, paramedics won't enter the premises unless escorted by the police. Since we're the only cops around, we'll have to walk our victim out of the building and across the 200
yards or so to the waiting ambulance rig. Which means negotiating this deadly terrain with a bleeding man while the crowds scream that it's our fault - the police who never show up, never protect the
innocent people. Some people think WE shot Andre, and their angry shouts join in the furor.
We're shoved and jostled as we push through, dragging the trembling man with us. Fear pushes up like
bile in my throat, a taste as sharp as the smell of Andre's blood. Supporting his lax body, surrounded by the frenzied mobs, there's no easy way to get to our guns if someone makes a move. Nothing to
do but push our way through, nothing but prayer and guts to get us out of here.
When a crying woman approaches us, we nearly push past her until Andre cries out. It's Chantel, his
lover, he tells us. The woman who owns his heart. Immediately, the crowds part to allow the sobbing woman closer.
"I thought you were dead!" she cries piteously, reaching out to Andre. Chantel hugs him tight, so
close we almost don't see her plunge the knife in his chest, pull it up in a quick, vicious thrust, finally stilling the heart that she owned.
"Motherfucker wouldn't die!" she shouts. "Shot five times and he wouldn't die!"
A freeze-frame of images follow - the gasping crowd, the repeater blast of smoke and flame as we
shoot the knife-weilding woman. And then the quick swivel spin - our final move in this deadly scenario- as we level 9 millimeter bores on the advancing mob.
"First one comes closer is dead!" my partner shouts. "We'll put you down like a rabid dog! Anybody here ready to die?"
Smoke and cordite burn my eyes, sweat slicks my back. My finger strokes the trigger, and I wait for any takers.
Copyright © 1999 by Gina Gallo - www.gallostories.com
CLICK HERE FOR MORE STORIES
CLICK HERE FOR MORE STORIES BY GINA GALLO