June 4, 2023

On Cold Winters and Colder Truths

The first winter I spent in Chicago I was 9 years old. Before that, I had spent my winters with
my grandparents in the cornfields just outside of Crawfordsville, Indiana, a sleepy college town.
My mom, my younger sister and I lived in a Section 8 housing project called Parkway Gardens,
right next to the Norfolk Southern depot on Calumet Avenue on the south side. Looking back, I
don’t understand why they gave those projects the names they did, because there were no
gardens. The only thing that grew was discontent and despair that seemed to rise out of the
concrete and lingered like fog.
It was Dec. 22, and it was our last school day before Christmas break. It was cold and windy.
It’s Chicago in winter. It’s always windy and no amount of layers can save one’s’ self from the
icy air.
The school day blew by quick and I ran home, because I knew that if I didn’t get home quickly,
the middle school and high school kids would be out, and I would get jumped for what little
change rattled in my threadbare jeans. These were the days before my grandfather taught me
to box, and as a pudgy white kid in my neighborhood I was an easy target.
I arrived out front to see my friend LJ, who was in sixth grade, and his cousin Jamal out front
smoking Newports. Both were laughing and carrying on.
Jamal spoke first, “What up, young bull. You tryin’ to get a deuce off this ‘Port. Them little a–
lungs, you gonna choke,” he said with a raspy laugh.
LJ laughed and we did our handshake and I shook my head no, embarrassed to tell them the
lecture my grandmother had given me the year before about smoking. Jamal cuffed me upside
the head and I went inside, with LJ following me.
I entered my apartment and there was mom, sleeping. Not sleeping peacefully, merely taking
a break between heroin binges. I picked up the needles with a rag and collected trash. The
dumpster was on the side of the building and I walked down the side stairwell to the sound of
police sirens outside. I crept out the access door, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible.
Two cops were standing next to the bench where Jamal previously sat. One was shouting,
“Stay the f– – down! Don’t resist. Where’s the drugs? We know you. We know you’re pushing,
where’s the stash?” The other one was kneeling on Jamal’s neck with a baton pressed into his
An icy feeling gripped my stomach as I heard Jamal grunt, “I don’t have nothing, I was visiting
my cousin. Chill man.” I dropped the bag into the dumpster slowly, but the needles rattled in the
bag and one of the cops looked over as I hid behind the garbage. Unconcerned, they began to
rifle his jacket and hauled him up, slamming him onto the hood, face down. LJ’s father, came
out and began to protest. The cop shouted, pulled a Taser out, and commanded him not to step
any closer. They shoved Jamal into the car and I ran upstairs feeling nauseated and scared.
What I later found out was that Jamal was arrested for some charge or another, and
disappeared in the system because the family didn’t have the resources to get a lawyer or post
Jamal was killed by a Gangster Disciple member three days into his stay and bled to death in
his cell. After witnessing that brutality by the police and knowing that the death of my friend’s
cousin was unnecessary, I realized that I had to do what I could to get out of the neighborhood
and lend my voice as a writer to those who could not speak for themselves.

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