WE PULLED UP TO THE PROJECTS
And the first impression was of illness: size-wise, hospital buildings were my only point of comparison for the 13-story Rockwell Gardens project looming before us. I’d grown up watching the Bosnian War on TV—images of blast-dazed civilians lost in gunmetal landscapes—and seeing the crackheads shuffling away from the entrance set that footage unreeling in my head.
The windows were the first thing about the buildings to get my attention: some of them had scorch marks around them—shadows of Chinese fans. My first thought was that it was the result of some sort of medievalesque siege; that here in the projects, at some point in gangland past, things had gotten so fierce that a trebuchet had been rolled up to the building.
“Apartment fires,” Que would later explain, shaking his head.
It was late December and a recent snowfall was in mid-melt; slush coming down on discarded beer bottles and packages of junk food. A group of men at the entrance of the building rose to their feet as we parked, eyeing us hard.
“You want two soft bucks, right?” Que said, turning off the ignition.
(“Soft buck” is Chicago slang for ten dollars, or, in this case, a ten-dollar bag of weed.)
I handed Que a twenty for two soft bucks.
I asked him if I was going in with him and he told me no, it wouldn’t be a good idea. I’d been excited at the prospect of being able to say that I’d seen the projects from the inside, but now, looking at the group of men in thermal coats and hoodies bulging around the waist, it seemed safer to just stay in the car and wait. I watched Que as he made for the building, the foot soldiers at the entrance tracking his approach. He initiated a complex handshake with one of them, was lightly frisked by another, and then disappeared into the building.
I rolled the window down to take in the sounds of the projects: shouts, shrieks, bass waves flowing from passing cars. The metered clank of iron on concrete. A narco-salesman’s pitch of rocks, blows, rocks, blows quavering on the wind. A man stood in front of the building, head up-turned, shouting through megaphoned hands; a tinny female voice responded from above. Project intercom.
I couldn’t tell if the men standing at the entrance were staring at me, or beyond me. Hypes and crackheads—eyes spark-blown and bodies emaciated, ribs practically showing through their tattered winter coats—crisscrossed the project’s courtyard.
The parking lot was empty save for the rusted frames of a few abandoned vehicles. One of the building’s sentries was pointing in my direction, and I was sure that the men were all eyeing me, now. They could tell, even from 50 yards, that I didn’t belong there, that I was a foreigner to the projects—just another person come to pick something up.
Panic struck as I realized that I would stand out not only to the local gangbangers, but to the cops, as well. I didn’t have a criminal record, yet, and wasn’t too hot on the idea of starting in on one that day.
The DEA and ATF had been coming down hard and flashy on the street gangs with the escalation of the War on Drugs, and Chicago had seen more than its share of raids. The projects had become so dangerous that many descendants of those who had come to Chicago during the Great Migration had begun saving up money to send their children back to the South. Clinton had been to the Robert Taylor Homes just a few years prior, in 1994, speechifying on how he planned to demilitarize the projects with continued warrantless federal police sweeps:
“Someone asked me about the policy here of the sweeps and about the assault weapons, and he said, ‘Mr. President, are we going to have to be willing to give up some of our personal freedom to live in safety?’ And I said that I thought the most important freedom we have in this country is the freedom from fear. And if people aren’t free from fear, they are not free.”
(Light cheering from the crowd)
I was worried that I would be unlucky enough to be de-freed in a sweep that day. I felt I had to set myself apart from the cliché image of a suburban kid waiting nervously in a ghetto parking lot, and so I got out of the car, lit a cigarette and took a look around, careful to avoid eye contact with the men at the entrance.
It was then that I noticed a metallic sound—kerklink, kerklink—droning toward the side of the building, where
A LITTLE GIRL ROLLED A DOG CAGE
across the dead project playground, the girl—no more than 7 years old, alone and bundled in a faded pink snowsuit with too-long sleeves—flipped the metal cage end-over-end, stopping only to dance little circles around her found plaything. She did it as if to substitute for games that would never again be played there; the backboards on the playground’s basketball hoops were missing, the rims’ netting made of chain. An old man with a large plastic bag full of soda and beer cans slung over-shoulder—old tortoise with an aluminum carapace—doddered along the slushy knoll in front of the playground, the two project residents drifting crosswise.
Rockwell, once touted as a beacon of hope for impoverished peoples seeking safe and clean housing, had become a dumping ground for all that the city had abandoned; an ecosystem driven by things discarded. The men in front of the buildings sold junk, the dope fiends deteriorated even as they walked. Driving through the West Side on the way to Rockwell I’d noticed that the commercial strips had been comprised largely of pawnshops. A people reduced to scrounging and petty exchanges.
Where had the girl found this dog cage, and who had abandoned it? Where was her father, and where was her mother? Then I looked to the windows, the thousand-eyed tenements— at the far-up figures of people chilling in the breezeways— and realized that the child belonged to the concrete village; that it was all of them, collectively—and so maybe none at all—who were monitoring the progress of the child and her cage.
I turned around and began walking back, and was actually relieved to see Que already waiting there, angry that I’d left the car.
He handed me two dime bags, stuffed in that mass market style of the city—jewelry bags, originally meant to hold earring studs and the like.
Que had one of the dimes rolled into a blunt before we even pulled out onto Western Ave. He sparked it and passed it to me. I remember eyeing the vehicles in the rearview nervously, expecting the Crown Victoria behind us to turn out to be an unmarked dick, a flashing light slapped suddenly on the roof.
Que saw that I was nervous and laughed:
“The cops don’t come around here, man.”
TWO IN THE CHEST
Que was short for Quentin, I found out when he was dead. His girlfriend, Tricia, had saved the funeral program: In Loving Memory, Quentin T. Johnson. It was always like that with Que, though: the important things omitted and filled in after the fact.
I had first scented Que on a trail of skunk smoke drifting up and out from the bay window of his aunt’s two-bedroom. Que and I lived in the largest apartment complex of our suburb, which played host to most of the town’s blacks and Hispanics. Que’s grandparents had come up from the South, like my father—his people had moved from Florida to Detroit. His father had never been around, his mother had flickered in and out of heroin addiction until she vanished for good. Que spent much of his youth in juvenile detention, running with a Gangster Disciples set in Detroit. He was sent to live with his aunt in the projects at the age of 16, where he became the man of the house by default. His aunt tried to make the best of their life: the first time I entered their apartment, I was struck by the degree to which the color gold had figured into her decorating sense, as though she had tried to enrich her home by gilding the only things she could—chintz and velour.
His aunt had worked day and night in order to save enough money to get Que away from the projects. He’d spent a year in my high school, a few classes ahead of me, before dropping out when he realized what he had in the suburbs: an entire market of gangbanger-wannabes looking to score weed and cocaine.
Talk of the future with Que invariably centered around three things: drugs, women, and tattoos, the latter being his greatest passion. It seemed Que was trying to counter the transience of his street life destiny with the permanence of flesh-threaded ink.“Thug Life, across your whole back. Like Tupac,” I suggested during one brainstorming session in his living room, a blunt passing between us. Tricia stood behind him, braiding his hair into cornrows.
“Naw, played out. Plus, how’m I gon’ put myself next to ‘Pac like that. Have females comparin’ me to ‘Pac once I take my shirt off and shit,” Que said.
Tricia stopped braiding and smacked Que in the back of the head.
“Get a tattoo of all the GD symbols combined into one big mural,” I countered.
“A guy with a pitchfork rolling a pair of dice with a sword resting on the table, and then like a girl with a Playboy bunny tattoo-within-the-tattoo…”
Que turned the volume up on BET, drowning me out. I was always getting too far into things for Que’s taste.
“‘Bout It,’” he shouted, echoing the rap video that was playing on TV. “‘Bout It’ in Old English, across my chest.”
He bobbed his head to the song, mimicking Master P’s fist pump-grunt-move, smoke streaming from his nostrils. “Yeah, that’s cold. That’s what imma’ do. What you think?” he asked Tricia.
Tricia was 35 years old to Que’s 21. Their relationship had been a curiosity for me from the beginning. She was a mousy looking woman with fishbowl eyeglasses, always dressed in jeans and baggy sweatshirts. Que was quite proud of her, which ran counter to the Blonde Barbie/Sloe-Eyed Girl Next Door/Glistening Rap Video Body Beauty Standard which everyone I’d known had adhered to. Que was the first person in my life to advance the idea that it could be alright to have sex with a woman who could be both your school librarian and your mother, as long as she was cool and had a “banging ass body creepin’ underneath,” as Que put it. The imperative was sex.
Besides tats, Que was always abuzz with vague plans to lay a cocaine pipeline out to our suburb, city-plugged into his city connections. Cocaine was a relatively hard score, and crack addiction was exceedingly rare, two facts which Que saw as a potential goldmine. I tried to point out that a sudden cocaine explosion set off by Que in a near-Chicago suburb would probably take all of 30 seconds to be sourced to our apartment building by the police. But it didn’t matter: toeing the line of trouble was what Que did.
He never laid that cocaine connect (though I would later realize the idea with another friend of mine, setting up an arrangement that would supply our town with a majority of its yeyo back in the early 2000s). But he regularly made weed runs back to Rockwell Gardens, and to East Detroit, to hang with his old friends.
I remember Tricia and Que’s aunt—the women in his life—used to warn him that he would end up dead if he didn’t stay away from his old street friends. That spring day in 2000, when Tricia showed me the funeral program, she delivered the details of his murder with all the shock of a crime beat reporter:
“Detroit. Gangs. Two in the chest.”