Learning Spanish the hard way, in Logan Square Chicago

Saturday, September 01, 2007


In my family, you had a choice when you entered junior high school, to play an instrument or to learn a language. I picked the trumpet, probably a mistake because by the time I made it to high school I had been demoted to baritone, a larger and strangely enough, louder version of the horn that I was apparently not meant to play. The shear amount of months that I spent playing the wrong notes at the wrong time could have easily been spent learning 2 or 3 languages, a choice I came to regret years later when I moved into Logan Square in Chicago.

Logan Square hinges the northwest corner of a series of grand boulevards designed in 1870 by William Le Baron Jenney to connect the close-in neighborhoods and city parks around Chicago's Loop. Century old mansions along the leafy boulevards have always attracted the well-to-do, but most of the residents are immigrant Poles, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans living in simple three flats and bungalows on the side streets.

At the center of Logan Square is a large spire capped with a big eagle erected in 1918 to honor 100 years of Illinois statehood. By day, art school students and retirees lounge around on the grass underneath taking in the sun. But at night, the square gives way (or did at the time) to junkies and street dealers, and a steady stream of kids from the suburbs popping off the nearby I-94 expressway exit to buy drugs.

In some odd mix of urban planning and community policing during the 90's, Chicago began dead-ending the streets leading to the square, and it was on one of these (Schubert Street) that I found an apartment in 2000 whose main entrance was off an alley behind Milwaukee Avenue.

Milwaukee Avenue slices diagonally through Logan Square as the main artery headed downtown. It was, and still is, a colorful array of storefronts from Nelson Algren's City on the Make: Dollar Stores mixed with creepy medical supply places, Mexican bakeries, groceries showcasing cow heads in their freezers and storefront butcher shops where you could pick out your own live chicken for slaughter. From the narrow porch of my back staircase, I could watch the roving bands of street punks move from the Laundromat to the liquor stores to my favorite restaurant "Best Sub 2", which served beef sandwiches through a revolving cash window made of bulletproof glass.

The drizzle of graffiti on the garage doors and alleyways in my little corner of paradise – a large circle with an "A" inside -- said my turf belonged to the OA's, or, more formally, Orchestra Albany. Local legend has it that the gang started as a mariachi band on nearby Albany Street. But when the leader and another member were shot on the way to a party, the band found it had too few members to play the gig, but plenty enough rage to start a gang. Their rivals were the Latin Kings, a consortium of other gangs who thrived just south in Humboldt Park but often spilled over into the square to handle the drug traffic.

One of my first friends in the neighborhood was Peanut, a little guy, only 17, who lived with his extended Mexican family in the same apartment building. On any given day, Peanut would show up at my doorstep with a black eye or fat lip. He was working hard to be a hood but, from all appearances, not doing too well at it. In a place that valued toughness, Peanut was just too nice a guy.

When some aunt wasn't kicking him out of the house, he was grinning through his wounds and trying unsuccessfully to find great deals on weed. One day, tapped out after a trip to Spain, I gave Peanut my car stereo to see what he could get for it. He returned three hours later still carrying the stereo. Nobody took him seriously enough to make an offer. Watching Peanut and his buddies negotiate the streets all seemed like innocent fun until one spring weekend when the bullets started flying.

It was a Friday night. I must have had my stereo down low because I distinctly remember the shots. Not one or two, but eight or nine, then the sound of a vehicle speeding away. And then – nothing. No sirens, no screams, no nothing.

The next day, I walked across Milwaukee to get churros and coffee. Next to the Dollar Store, at the top of the escalator leading down to the Logan Square el station, a kid was doing some sort of rap song in Spanish. I didn't recognize him as one of the kids from the neighborhood; and I would have, because he had a very distinctive wandering eye. When I got close, he stopped singing, shifted into his "hey man" tone and offered me some "mota." We had a new dealer in the neighborhood, I surmised.

Only a couple hours later, I heard more gunshots, six or seven this time. Like a moron, I raced to the back window to see what the deal was. My little drug dealer was running away down the sidewalk, one arm cupped inside his shirt like Napoleon heading out of Moscow. Two shootings in one 24-hour period was enough to prompt me to call 911. The operator must have thought I was a reporter or something because she said "We don't have any information on that shooting yet."

"Well I do," I said. "I think I saw a suspicious character running away from the scene a few minutes ago." This got her attention and she transferred me to a homicide detective who took my name and number and said he'd be in touch.

Once I felt enough time had passed, I walked down to Milwaukee Avenue where several police cars and a black Lexus were parked in front of the little Cuban coffee shop. The sidewalk was roped off with crime tape. The Lexus was getting the CSI treatment and, from what the neighbors were saying, the victim had been the driver.

I went home and wondered if this was the best way to learn Spanish. That evening, the homicide detective and his partner came by to take a look at what I saw. They wore long raincoats with that boozy stench of cigarettes and carried little notebooks that they occasionally made notes in. I pointed out my window at what I saw earlier that day. One took a look. Then the other one. Neither said much about the case, and they left me a pair of business cards and the general idea they could not have cared less.

A few days later, I was leaving my apartment and there, in the middle of the sidewalk, was the little cross-eyed kid hanging out with his homies. It was all I could do not to freak out and scream, "What the hell are you still doing hanging around here clown-boy!?" But I kept my mouth shut and kept walking. We made eye contact for longer than normal. If he thought there was anything unusual about this, he didn't show it.

About a week later, another Chicago detective left a message on my answering machine telling me that the Logan Square shooter had struck again, and that this time he was in custody. They needed me to identify him in a lineup.

The cops picked me up in an unmarked brown Crown Vic just as I was finishing teaching a class at Columbia College. Introductions were brief then we were off to the Cook County Jail. The back seat of a cop car is never an easy place to relax and these guys did little to help calm my sense that I was in for something dreadful.

On the way to the jail I got the lowdown one the shootings from the guys in front, which really didn't help. Apparently, the first shooting Friday night was directly related to the second shooting the next afternoon. The singing kid's boss, upset that some product had gone missing, drove by the first night to scare a little sense into the boy.

More scared than sensible, the kid then got his own gun and shot the boss in his Lexus six times the next day. Both crimes might have slipped under the police radar. But only a week later the kid took the same gun to a Laundromat/party store on Diversey where, in broad daylight, he started shooting it off again in the parking lot. No one was hurt, but others at the scene helped the police apprehend him. Following the arrest, he confessed to both shootings. My testimony, the cops said, was just part of wrapping up the case.

The Crown Vic pulled into a gated area in back of the county jail. Several large white guys in black jumpsuits -- guards I presumed -- were walking around and one was dispatched to go get some bad guys from the cells for me to look at.

The waiting took forever. It gave me a chance to check the place out. There wasn't much to the station house. Thick coats of pealing paint covered the walls. There was a locker to one side filled with weapons and a steel door with a small piece of glass leading to a back room on the other. That's where they held the line-up.

I was positioned in front of this window and the suspects were led in. They stood against a bare wall with lines denoting height. My first instinct, of course, was to wonder whether this was even one-way glass I was peering through. Five guys stood about four feet from my nose, and one of them was the kid who only a couple of weeks ago had been rapping on my street corner.

For me the whole thing was done. There was no doubt in my mind that he was the dude I saw running. But the detectives made each suspect run through a standard routine of stepping forward, turning from side to side, etc. Someone came in and had me sign something. I asked if I could have a copy, or a phone number, or a name -- or anything. But I guess that's not really standard procedure.

The same detectives who picked me up dropped me back at school. I stepped out of the car reeling in confusion. What the hell did I just do? What if that kid was just selling weed and wanted to run away from some whack job that was shooting some dude that he knew? I would run! So why did he confess? And what the hell was his name? And what's going to happen to him? And why is this all just standard procedure? Is this my role in this community? To finger the bad guys and get the hell back to school?

I don't live in Logan Square anymore. I learned a lot of Spanish in my time there – and I learned a lot about life in the big city. But I've been looking in my attic lately for my old baritone. At least when I play a wrong note on my baritone, nobody gets hurt.


Kevin Leeser

Registered Nurse, Camera operator, Father