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The UNSTATISTIC: From the Ghetto to Greatness

Updated: Apr 1


Chicago

The world moves fast, and it would rather pass by than to stop and see what makes you cry.

 

There were 818 homicides, 1,657 rapes, 22,171 robberies, and 12,514 aggravated assaults in my city the year I was born. And that was a good year. By the time I was sixteen, violent crimes peaked at 90,520, up 143% from the year before, and more than Los Angeles and New York combined. We were number one in the nation. For me, it was just another day in the neighborhood.


I grew up on the South Side of the slaughterhouse capital of the world in a neighborhood called The Back of the Yards. It got its name from the Union Stock Yards, nearly one square mile of a maze of pens, filled daily with cattle and hogs for the killing floor of the slaughterhouses. More meat was processed there than anywhere on the planet.


Over a hundred years of blood and guts from millions of slaughtered carcasses dumped into a nearby stretch of the Chicago River turning it into a toxic sludge-filled waterway that earned the nickname “Bubbly Creek.” In 1971, four years before I was born, the Stock Yards shut down, but the slaughtering continued. The killing floor spilled out into The Back of the Yards and surrounding neighborhoods. Gang colors replaced butchers’ aprons. The “butchers” were killing each other, and the neighborhood became its own Bubbly Creek.


My neighborhood was crawling with gang activity, and we were bordered on every side by the turfs of opposite gangs. We called them the “opps.” The South Side had a history of violence long before we got there, the kind of violence that forces confrontation whether you like it or not. Racially restrictive housing covenants and discriminatory zoning practices



excluded Black people from certain neighborhoods. It was a fancy way of saying White people did not want Black people living where they lived. So they kept 80% of the city’s real estate for themselves and forced Black residents into a hostile, parceled-out census tract on the South Side of the city that became known as the “Black Belt.”


We got in where we could. My parents managed to scrape together enough to buy a two-flat. Two stories of terracotta-colored brick, a six-step stoop, an old wooden porch, and bay windows looking out on the street was the place we called home. My father let his cousin, Bluebird, rent upstairs because he didn't have anywhere else to go. We stayed downstairs. Inside the house, we had the safety of family. But the streets? The streets were another story.

The UNSTATISTIC: From the Ghetto to Greatness

The poverty around us was tangible. It was like blood in your mouth. It smelled evil. It gripped you like The Hawk at night in the middle of winter. You could see it in the stone-cold stare of the guy who would shoot you just as soon as look at you. And it screeched in your ears like nails on a chalkboard in the bitter words of those who could not imagine any other life but the one they were living.


Death was an escape for some, a place to get away. But for others, it was like a bounty hunter looking for the most wanted. And if you had the audacity to want to live, you learned to look over your shoulder every five minutes. Life takes on a whole different perspective when you believe the only places that would welcome you are prison, the grave, and Hell.


I never saw green manicured lawns as a kid. We had much more color on the South Side. On any given day, I could spot those little yellow plastic tents with numbers on it, the kind the police use to drop over the shell casings after a shooting. Red, orange, and yellow crime scene and police line barrier tape decorated my neighborhood, marking territories where gang colors clashed.


“POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS.” “CRIME SCENE KEEP OUT.” We saw the police lines and the crime scenes. We lived the “do not cross” and “keep out.” Gangs laid claim to turf that they didn’t even really want. They just did not want any opps to have it. Lukewarm bodies covered in blood-soaked white sheets lying on a cold street happened so often, anything else seemed abnormal. It caught your attention for a few minutes, then it was back to business as usual. Police and ambulance sirens wailed like out of tune backup singers for the mourning women who just found out their son or daughter or man was never coming back home. My kind of town? Chicago. That was my reality.


Violence was my normal. I remember standing upstairs in the hallway with my cousin, just talking. Out of nowhere, I heard gunshots. It was so loud, like a giant whispering right in my ear. PIYAH! PIYAH-PIYAH! We heard gunshots all the time, so we just stood there trying to gauge what kind of gun it was.


“That sounds like a .38.”


“Nah, man. That’s a .45 right there.”


We were in the hallway for about half an hour before we realized what actually happened. We started hearing noise and sirens. We found out that there was a stick up in front of our house. A guy was sitting in his car, when, supposedly, some other guys tried to carjack him. He went to reach for his gun, and they shot him in the head, close range, with a big gun. They blew the guy’s brains out right there in his car, right in front of our house while we were in the hallway.


That was the type of thing that happened all the time. It was so common, you just became numb, desensitized to it. You hated that it happened, but you were just glad it didn’t happen to you. It was that kind of environment, that type of community. I didn't see anything in it, but I really did not know anything else. I did not know anybody else who experience was any different than my own. It seemed like kids were getting shot every day. You got accustomed to it.


Anything could happen at any time, and you never knew if your next step might set off a gang-related landmine. A minor altercation could easily escalate, and the next thing you know, somebody is pulling out a gun. That bullet might not even be meant for you, but you could be targeted because of your association or proximity. You could be standing or walking next to someone who’s got a bullseye on them and not know it. And the thing about a bullet is that it is equal opportunity. Once it leaves the barrel of that gun, it does not check your address, gang affiliation, gender, or age.


Sometimes people make it hard for you to do right, even at school. If you try to stay away from trouble and be by yourself, people pick on you. If you hang around your friends who are in gangs or into other stuff that you’re not, people pick on you because, in their minds, you’re guilty by association. You get labeled because you're hanging out with them. I came to the conclusion that this was just how life was. So even though I was still just a kid, I told myself you’ve got to be tough. You’ve got to be hard. You can't let anybody pick on you. I wasn’t in a gang, but I felt like I had to develop the mentality of a gang member just to survive.


The Back of The Yards is one of the first gangster neighborhoods, so I knew all about gang wars. I grew up in a community where fighting was easy. You always fought; you had to be tough. That might have been why I was fascinated by action movies, and war movies, and the military in general. I think I identified because they so closely resembled what I saw when I stepped outside my door. Chicago was a segregated city. But it wasn’t just Black versus White. It was good versus evil. It was gang versus gang. It was the takers versus the taken.


Every family in my neighborhood had at least one family member who was in a gang. Everybody I knew and hung around with was in a gang. For the most part, gang life was the default. Something as simple as crossing the street meant going in and out of gang turf. And the only thing the opps cared about was whether you were one of them. If you weren’t with them, it didn’t matter if you were part of a gang or not. As far as they were concerned, you were against them, which made you fair game. Nowhere was safe, especially school.


I went to a middle school which at the time was called John Hope Community Academy. It was just south of 55th and Garfield Boulevard. The Boulevard was the dividing line for one of the rival gangs, and the school sat right on their turf. All the kids in my sixth-grade class were from my neighborhood, and they were all in gangs. We would all walk to school together because we thought chances were better for us if were all together.


There were fights, but not many inside the school. High school was a different story; that was crazy. But in elementary and middle school, fights were outside. Gang members from my neighborhood would come at the end of school day and fight with the gangs that were in the school’s neighborhood. That’s just how it was. Fighting was a part of life, so it wasn’t a big deal for me. But something happened that made me start to take it a lot more seriously.


I was twelve going on thirteen. I was heading home from school one day with some of the kids from my neighborhood, and we got to 55th and Garfield Boulevard. It was a wide street with lanes going east on one side and west on the other. In the middle of the lanes there was a grassy area with trees. We knew if we made it to the Boulevard, we were almost on safe territory. But there were times when the gangs on either side would fight right there in the middle of the boulevard. Sometimes they would shoot from one side to the other like a wild, wild West shootout.


Some of the gang members from our neighborhood would usually come and meet us as we were leaving school just in case we got chased to the other side of the boulevard. There was a guy I kind of hung out with from my neighborhood. His name was Patrick. On one particular day, Patrick came with them. He was older than me, maybe sixteen or seventeen, about 5’9”, slim with a big round head and big ears. At the time, he was just starting to get involved with gang activity, but what he did next was a total shock.


Patrick got a little in front of me, right next to me, and suddenly, he pulls out a gun and starts shooting in the crowd. I’m thinking, Whoa! This is crazy! Not because he was shooting at the opposite gang, but because there were innocent people in the crowd who weren’t in gangs, kids my age and some younger, and some parents. Anybody could have been shot.


I was looking around in amazement just hoping no one would get shot. And for the first time I began to think, is this it? This just can't be! But this was it. It was the way of life. I didn't know anything else. I didn’t see any other choice. I could either hang out with these guys, or I could be in the house by myself talking to nobody. That was it. 


From that day, every time I remembered what happened, I thought, Man, that’s a little too far. I do not want to go that route. I don’t want to be doing anything like that, not to innocent people. But at the same time, if a guy came up in front of me and he's trying to jump me and I have a gun, I would shoot. At that time, I wouldn't have even thought twice about it.


I remember when one of my classmates got jumped. He came back to school the next day ready. He grabbed one side of his jacket and held it open for me to see, like Clark Kent revealing his secret identity. Sticking out from the inside pocket was the handle of a .38 revolver. His dad had given him a gun to bring to school. There wasn’t a whole lot that was easy to get in my community, but guns were one of them. The .38 was popular, it had firepower, and as long as you could find someone greedy enough for a fist-full of dollars, these guns were not hard to find.


The look on his face said everything. Yeah, I’m ready.


I nodded my head in response. “Wow! This is really serious, here bwoy. Yeah, it’s on now. Yep, we’re good.”


It was like that. That was the mood and the mindset of the neighborhood. At any given time, almost anywhere, you could become a homicide statistic at one end of the barrel of a gun or the other.


Death was hungry. There were plenty of close calls, some I knew about, some I didn’t. There was one incident that I can say was one of my most “didn’t know how close to death I came” moments. If there was a day that I would have been jumped, it would have been that particular day.


I had to go to summer school during elementary school. This incident happened to be on a day when none of my friends or anyone from the neighborhood gang came that day after school. I don't know where they were. Maybe they had a bad day or woke up late. Whatever the reason, they were not on that side of the Boulevard when I left school. But the opps were there, and I had to walk past them.


As I was walking by them, I did not feel afraid. I had this toughness about me. But looking back now, I know that was all God. So, I just walked right past them. They looked at me, and I just looked straight ahead, mean-mugging.


Just as I nearly cleared, one of the guys gestured with his hand.


“Ay! Ay! Ay! Come ‘ere. Lemme holla at you.”


I just kept walking.


There was a kid coming towards me from the other way. The spokesman for the opps saw this as an opportunity to get his attention and use him to try to intercept me.


“Ay! Call him and tell him to come back.” He motioned with a slight lift of his chin towards me.


“Ay, Montez. They callin’ you!”


I kept walking. I was thinking, I ain't going back there. I ain’t stupid. I got nothing to talk to them about. I mean, they the opps! What I'm talking to them about?  And I just kept walking. It could only have been the hand of God that did not allow them to touch me.


It’s one thing to have a close call. It’s another thing to be told what nearly happened to you. That same little kid that called me out by name was a known murderer. He was known for sneaking up on people in alleys and killing them. Some time after that incident, I saw this kid going to the store, and he couldn’t wait to narrate what could have happened.


“Hey, man. You— Maaan! They were about to kill you, man! Yeah, they wanted you to come back, but they were going to kill you!” He nodded vigorously to emphasize the point. “Yeah, yeah. They were going to kill you!”


The word rolled off his tongue as easy as breathing. I couldn’t tell if he was relieved that they didn’t kill me or disappointed. I just shrugged it off. That same kid was murdered not long after that.


I didn't think about death, to be honest. I really didn’t think about it. I just lived. I was still kind of tough too, still hanging around with the guys from my neighborhood. In that kind of environment, something happens to your mind and your heart. They get lost, hardened, or broken; sometimes all three. As kids, crossing the threshold from childhood to young adulthood, we had to deal with puberty and PTSD. You’re surrounded by so much violence and witness so many tragedies that you get numb. But you don’t think about death until it hits close to home. At least that’s how it was for me.


Things started to slowly shift in the way I saw my life. I think, subconsciously, that close call affected me more than I realized at the time. Something had started to set in. That was not the last of my close calls, not by a longshot. It was like, every time something else happened, a recurring thought was being forced from somewhere, a place I wasn’t yet aware of or in touch with. But that thought kept coming until it penetrated my mind. There’s got to be something more than this. There’s got to be something more than this.


The UNSTATISTIC: From the Ghetto to Greatness

 

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