Last week a 13-year old boy named Robert Freeman was shot 22 times while riding his bicycle in front of his home on Chicago's far south side. Last night I almost became a statistic while taking my daily walk in another south-Chicago neighborhood not far from where Freeman was killed.
For the past few months, I have been staying with family in Evergreen Park, a relatively quiet southwest Chicago suburb adjacent to the city. Sometimes my walk takes me back into the city limits of Chicago. Last night at about 10 o'clock, I was walking south on Kedzie Avenue just past the Evergreen Park-Chicago border when I got a phone call from a friend in Pittsburgh. As we chatted, I decided to cut the walk short and turned off the main street onto a less well-lit residential side street. Suddenly a speeding white car screeched into an alley in front of me just as I was about to cross.
At first I thought it was an unmarked police car. Then the driver asked if I knew where 83rd and Central Park was. I told my friend on the phone to hold on as I was about to walk closer to the car. Then I noticed the rear passenger-side window being lowered, and something — perhaps my street smarts from growing up in Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes housing project, or perhaps the guardian angel I have always believed watches over me — made me start backing away from the car. As I did, I saw the barrel of a gun pointing out the window in my direction. I yelled, stumbled backward and tripped over the curb. As I fell, I saw the flash and smoke from the gun and heard four shots.
On the ground, I heard the four young men in the car laughing and the screech of the car's tires as they burned rubber down the alley. Perhaps they did not really intend to shoot me but merely meant to scare me and have a good laugh. Or maybe the way I was dressed — in a pair of baggy jeans, a loose jersey, sneakers and CNN baseball cap — made them think I was younger than I am and a prime target for teen gang violence. I will never know.
What I do know is that lying on the ground wondering whether I had been shot, with my heart pounding so hard I thought it would burst through my chest, I learned firsthand how easy it is to become a victim of the senseless gun violence that plagues the streets of so many black neighborhoods in Chicago. I know now, up close and personal, the fear that so many parents have for their children. And I know the terror that young Robert Freeman and scores of other unsuspecting children and young adults must have felt just before they fell in a hail of bullets on Chicago's mean streets.
Closer to home, my own sister moved out of Chicago to Evergreen Park to protect her two sons, now 20 and 14. She once lived directly across the street from Chicago's Fenger High School, where a teenaged boy was beaten to death last year while a crowd stood by and watched.
Whatever the reason, I was extremely lucky last night. I got away with a scraped elbow and fingers, a bruised hip, broken cell phone and the scare of my life. And I will never forget how close I came to becoming a Chicago crime statistic. I will continue to take my walks — but within the city limits of Evergreen Park, not on the streets of Chicago.
Sylvester Monroe is a Chicago-based writer who grew up in the city's now-razed Robert Taylor Homes, once the largest public housing project in the U.S. He is co-author with Peter Goldman of the best-selling book Brothers: Black and Poor — A True Story of Courage and Survival, about 11 of his boyhood friends in the projects.