The newest arrival at the trauma unit of Chicago’s Cook County Hospital managed to reply lucidly to the first few urgent questions posed to her after paramedics wheeled her in one night last July. She was a black woman in her early twenties who had been shot once near her pubis, destroying the femoral artery and vein serving her left leg. As blood pumped from the wound and she headed into shock, each query about her medical history elicited an answer vaguer than the preceding one. “Her lights were on,” remembers Dr. John Fildes, an attending surgeon who was on duty at the time, “but nobody was home.”

Laboring for twelve hours, Fildes mended the damage and succeeded in restoring the blood flow, all the while expecting he would eventually have to amputate below the knee. As his patient recuperated at home, though, he was amazed to find that the only problem caused by the blood deprivation was with her big toe. Blood vessels there had been damaged and the flesh slowly began to darken and die. Months passed. Finally, the woman called Fildes at home during the second weekend of November to register her weariness with tending to her toe. The time had come to amputate, and Fildes arranged to meet her at the hospital.

After six years working in the Cook County Hospital trauma unit, where 4,221 patients were admitted last year, and for six years before that at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center in New York, Fildes has seen just about everything that can result from perils to the human body, but he had never before encountered anything like what he discovered when his patient arrived for her appointment that Monday and the dressing was removed from her toe. Doing her best to improve its unappetizing appearance, the woman had, while giving herself a pedicure, dabbed a bit of nail polish on it, too—not realizing that she had no nail there to polish. Gangrene had so withered the flesh that half an inch of distal phalanx protruded where the tip of her toe should have been. She had been applying red enamel to white bone.

As it happened, that very November weekend when Fildes’s patient called him to do something about the lingering reminder of the shooting, experts of every stripe, also anxious to do something about gunshot wounds—and stabbings, robberies, rapes, and the whole hideous menu of criminality that blights modern life—were convening in Chicago at the invitation of the Illinois Humanities Council. They had gathered for Chicago Humanities Festival V, a kaleidoscope of lectures, panel discussions, musical and theatrical performances, and other events—39 in all—devoted to the theme, “Crime and Punishment.”

“Since its inception five years ago the Chicago Humanities Festival has taken a fresh approach to a problem that dominates the news,” noted the publicity material. And this time the festival’s organizers could congratulate themselves on their oneness with the Zeitgeist. The crime issue last fall dominated much of the news, as well as many political campaigns and plenty of opinion polls. As election day approached, the New Yorker had run a Bob Mankoff cartoon in which a man proposing marriage is told by his girlfriend, “I’m fond of you Dave, I really am, but you’re just not tough enough on crime.”

The gathering’s sponsors—including the MacArthur Foundation, the Sara Lee Corporation, and the First National Bank of Chicago—certainly thought the subject was ripe, and the festival calendar extended a double-starred “THANK YOU!” to more than a dozen underwriters in all. Festival V clearly was riding some sort of wave; even Town & Country sent a correspondent.

I planned to attend as much of it as I could, but I also wanted to see how the issues under discussion were playing out in the city where the festival was being held. To that end, I rode the night shift with Chicago police officers whose beat included the scabrous Cabrini Green housing project; interviewed a public defender assigned to a team of lawyers that exclusively handles homicide cases; spent several hours in the Cook County Hospital trauma unit; monitored the three-day crime tally at police headquarters; and sat in on a felony-review session as Illinois State’s attorneys examined the cases they had decided to prosecute from a weekend’s worth of crime. Still, there was plenty of time left over for me to attend events like the crime festival’s gala dinner and many of its performances, exhibits, and talks.

_____________

 

Friday, 6:30 p.m.

The first big event of the Crime and Punishment festival is a staged reading of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral at St. James Episcopal Cathedral on the Near North Side. Commissioned by the Canterbury Festival of 1935 to write a poetic drama about the conflict between Thomas à Becket and Henry II, Eliot intended Murder in the Cathedral (as he later explained it) for those who go to religious plays “and expect to be patiently bored and to satisfy themselves with the feeling that they have done something meritorious,” and “for an audience of those serious people who go to ‘festivals’ and expect to have to put up with poetry.”

In Chicago, it becomes apparent, audiences have to put up not only with poetry but with politics. The program for Murder in the Cathedral takes a startlingly contemporary view of Eliot’s play. The Reverend Professor R. William Franklin of the General Theological Seminary in New York explains to us that we should think of Becket in terms of “a parallel figure,” the late Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador, who “was also murdered by four government agents before the high altar of his cathedral in 1980 in San Salvador because he sought to defend the rights of the Church of El Salvador.”

Maria Scott, an English professor at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, performs a close reading of Eliot’s play and turns up evidence that Old Possum was a closet feminist. The “real losers” in the battle between the “patriarchal hierarchies” of Becket’s church and Henry’s state, Professor Scott says,

are the poor and disenfranchised, specifically the women of Canterbury who make up the Chorus. They are the true alternative to institutional struggle, but the women are doomed from the beginning to be subsumed by the patriarchal struggle.

About 600 people pack the pews, others sit in the aisles. It turns out to be a typical Crime and Punishment festival audience in that it is almost entirely white and middle-class.

_____________

 

Friday, 9:00 p.m.

One of the Chicago Police Department’s three shifts ends. Crime in that eight-hour spell includes a baseball-bat attack by a half-dozen gang members on a twenty-one-year-old black male; the rape of a forty-five-year-old black woman walking along South King Street when two black men accost her, smash her in the head, and drag her into a vacant building; and the shooting of a twenty-six-year-old black male standing on the sidewalk along South Steward Street when a young man walks up and announces that he is a Gangster Disciple before pulling out a gun and squeezing the trigger. His victim is listed in good condition at Christ Hospital with a bullet wound in the jaw.

_____________

 

Friday, 9:05 p.m.

Accustomed to foreseeing and solving problems, Eileen R. Mackevich, executive producer of the Chicago Humanities Festival, has a foolproof method for putting her guests at ease. During the party she throws for festival participants in her home on Lake Shore Drive, she navigates from one cluster of guests to the next with her dog, a Maltese named George, perched on her chest, his tiny head, with its long white fur, resting on her shoulder. George is an instant conversation-starter.

Not that Mackevich needs one: she worked on local public radio for about a dozen years in the 70’s and 80’s, and, like any good radio veteran, has no tolerance for dead air. Even her red-walled apartment seems dedicated to not letting interest flag. “I like to live in red,” Mackevich later tells me. “It’s fun—it’s like being onstage.”

The only drama during my first hour at the party is the fleeting threat that the chicken tonnato at the buffet will run out. But then, a little after 10:00 P.M., Mackevich suddenly begins to clap as several young black men emerge from the elevator. The rappers have arrived. Two groups, D.O.P.E. Mob (for Destroy Other Poets’ Effectiveness) and 180, will be performing at Orchestra Hall tomorrow afternoon, but now they are here, basking in Mackevich’s applause.

Not many others recognize them. The guests include the mystery writers Stuart Kaminsky, Elizabeth George, and Batia Gur (panelists on Sunday, 1:00 P.M.: “The Who’s Who Talk About Whodunit! Stellar Best-sellers Explore Crime, Punishment, and Plot”); Congressman Lane Evans, a Democrat from Illinois (Saturday, 3:30 P.M.: “War Veterans as Outcasts: The Legacy of Vietnam”); New York University music professor Robert Bailey (Sunday, 4:00 P.M.: “Wagnerian Opera: Archetypes of Redemption”); and Illinois Humanities Council board member and socialite-author Donna Rautbord, a sort of Second City Ivana Trump, whom everyone calls Sugar. As Mackevich later says, some of these people have never heard rap before.

Perhaps sensing that some orientation will be useful, Joe Oliver, leader of the group 180, hands out copies of the Journal of Ordinary Thought, published under the auspices of the University of Illinois’s College of Education. The August 1994 issue, “Through the Eyes of a Villain,” collects the work of a writing group composed of rappers and rap fans. “I try to write poetry,” goes a typical passage in one of several pieces Oliver himself contributed, “but it ends up being about the white man or cops. I can’t stand you ignorant evil motherf—rs. You make my life miserable.”

White women apparently have not particularly cheered up the rapper, either. Oliver speculates that the “woman that fired me from Blooming-dale’s” is “an overworked, underpaid, stuck-up ass-kissin’ white bitch.” Elsewhere in the Journal of Ordinary Thought Oliver counsels: “Watch out for women and white people”—the latter have been “tricked by the devil. I can’t warn you enough about them.”

“Through the Eyes of a Villain” was published with generous financial support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

I leave the party well before midnight, to my later regret when I learn that Oliver gave an impromptu rap performance at the party that night.

_____________

 

Saturday, 12:10 A.M.

“Don’t step in that, it’s piss.”

I am in the 18th District police station, thinking I have found an out-of-the-way place to stand.

“It’s piss,” repeats an officer behind the desk as I look down uncomprehendingly at what appears to be chemically-treated sawdust sprinkled on the floor. “A homeless gentleman decided to cause a scene,” adds another officer behind the desk, motioning toward the ragged figures crowded beyond the glass doors of the station house. (Coming into the 18th District at night in cold weather means running a gauntlet of destitute souls who sleep in the enclosure between the building’s inner and outer doors.)

I am there to hook up with two officers for a “ride-along.” The 18th District spans the spectrum of Chicago’s social classes, from the sheltered Gold Coast enclave on the lake to the Cabrini Green housing projects. Between them is a buffer zone, the middle-class area around Rush Street, studded with bars and populated at night by “708ers,” the designation police give to suburbanites who live outside the city’s 312 area code.

Officer James A. Sim, a 27-year veteran, and Ed Kelly, a rookie just a week out of the police academy, do not make any arrests during the four hours I ride with them. But there is plenty of racing the patrol car through the streets. The officers search for an armed-robbery suspect reported fleeing on foot and wearing a trenchcoat; respond to a call for help by other officers when an arrest outside a crowded Division Street bar nearly turns into a brawl; investigate a report of gunshots at Cabrini Green; and check into an assortment of other calls blurted out over the police radio. In between, there is a lot of “Hey, you can’t park there.”

_____________

 

Saturday 12:30 p.m.

“Conflict Resolution, Cross-Cultural Perspectives” takes place in the A. Montgomery Ward Lecture Hall of Chicago’s Field Museum. It is a panel discussion moderated by Alaka Wali, Ph.D., director of the museum’s Center for Cultural Understanding and Change. The festival calendar promises an examination of the questions: “Why are Americans so quick to escalate disputes into violence?” and “How do other cultures resolve conflicts?” Wali shows part of a video called Little Injustices: Laura Nader Looks at the Law, which compares the difficulties American consumers encounter when they try to complain about defective products with the speedy satisfaction obtained by a vendor in Talea, Mexico, when he lodges a complaint against a trucker who drove over his chilies.

In the discussion that follows the video presentation, a trio of scholars dissect customs in New Guinea, South America, and other locales. The subject of conflict-resolution in America does not really come up until a young woman in the back of the room denounces the United States for punishing car thieves more severely than rapists. Then she blasts the panelists themselves for seeing conflict-resolution “through the prism of property—like materialistic Americans.”

_____________

 

Saturday, 1:00 p.m.

An eighteen-year-old black woman argues with her ex-boyfriend on the front porch of her home on South Bishop Street until the conflict is brought to a swift resolution: someone shoots her. Police suspect that one of the former beau’s friends did it. The woman is listed in stable condition at Mt. Sinai hospital with a gunshot wound in the left leg.

_____________

 

Saturday, 7:00 p.m.

The social centerpiece of the Chicago Humanities Festival is the annual dinner, which at Festival V is a $200-a-plate affair at the Art Institute. The entertainment for the evening is “The Trial of Hamlet,” an exercise in Shakespeare and the law devised by Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. A roster of local legal all-stars will try Hamlet for murdering Polonius.

Justice Kennedy presides on the stage of the Rubloff Auditorium as defense lawyers face off against a team of prosecutors. Two forensic psychiatrists, one for each side, are the only witnesses called. Hamlet is pleading not guilty by reason of insanity.

A one-hour intermission allows enough time to usher the crowd from the Rubloff to dinner tables in the Stock Exchange Room (salvaged for the Art Institute after the exchange was demolished in 1972) for a meal of chilled medley of sea scallops, shrimp, and poached salmon on a bed of mixed greens with saffron sauce, grilled veal chop, rosemary whipped potatoes, asparagus, and squash.

_____________

 

Saturday, 7:45 p.m.

Jack Carey has not had dinner and his dog, Ralph, needs to go for a walk, so Carey heads over to Milwaukee Avenue with Ralph and stops by El Chino’s restaurant to pick up a burrito.

Carey is a public defender, a PD, one of two dozen on an elite team assigned to work exclusively on Cook County murder cases. Being a public defender used to mean taking a vow of poverty, but that no longer holds true: since the Cook County PD’s formed a union in the mid-80’s, starting salaries have increased from about $20,000 to over $30,000 and top salaries, after fifteen years of service, have jumped from the mid-$40,000 range to over $70,000. “You can look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I can go on vacation, I can buy a car,’” says Carey, who has been a PD for ten years, five of them on the murder unit.

Late in the afternoon, Carey had driven his 1988 Volkswagen Fox to two addresses hoping to find a woman called Cookie, an elusive witness he needs to talk to for a murder trial that starts on Monday. It is a trial Carey is reluctant to take to court. He wants his client, a nineteen-year-old Puerto Rican, to accept a plea-bargain. But his client refuses to believe he is guilty of anything even though he was behind the wheel during a fatal drive-by shooting. “He’s found religion—he thinks God’s going to save him,” says Carey.

With no luck finding Cookie, Carey drives to the Cook County jail to meet with another client, a black man in his mid-thirties. Told by his wife that a drug dealer had sexually abused their ten-year-old daughter, this man allegedly killed the dealer with a sledgehammer, stored the body in a freezer overnight, and then cut it into eleven pieces with a circular saw.

After the jailhouse meeting, Carey cruises by one of the houses he checked earlier, hoping to find a light on. One is, but the woman who answers the door claims no one else is in the house, so Carey gives up for the night and heads home.

Carey is long divorced and at age forty-two wonders if he will ever remarry and start a family. He is going to a party tonight where he has heard there will be some single women, then on to a favorite nightspot, the Green Mill, to hear a Latin jazz band he admires. But the folders on his desk are never far from his mind. He has spent part of his weekend working on the drive-by shooting and circular-saw cases simply because they are the most pressing; when he gets back to work on Monday, seventeen other murder cases will be waiting. They include:

  • A fifteen-year-old member of the Gangster Disciples gang accused of participating in the murder of someone who approached him to buy drugs. The victim’s body was stuffed into a trash can. Carey’s client made a detailed confession and wants to accept a plea bargain, but his mother refuses to believe he did it and wants the case to go to trial. “It’s like we used to say in juvenile court,” Carey remarks. “More mothers send their kids to the penitentiary than any state’s attorney.”
  • A twenty-two-year-old male from Honduras accused of killing a prostitute.
  • A twenty-eight-year-old black female prostitute, who, Carey says, is epileptic, retarded, schizophrenic, and has AIDS and AIDS-related dementia. Arrested for killing a John, she was committed to a mental hospital in early November.
  • A twenty-eight-year-old white male, one of two men charged with murder for torching an apartment building in an arson-for-profit scheme that killed seven.
  • A twenty-three-year-old white male, accused of shaking his girlfriend’s baby to death.
  • A twenty-year-old black woman charged with murder for not protecting her baby even though she was aware that her boyfriend had repeatedly abused the infant. Carey points out that his client grew up in a household where her mother used heroin and her stepfather sexually abused her. But “since she’s been in jail, she’s gotten her G.E.D.—she’s basically in an environment now where she’s gotten away from these losers and she has blossomed.” Still, in dead-baby cases, he adds, it is hard to drum up much sympathy in court.
  • A nineteen-year-old black male accused of a fatal shooting outside a West Side housing project.
  • A twenty-year-old black male accused of shooting a man in the head after losing to him in a dice game.
  • A thirty-year-old black male accused of strangling his mother and setting her apartment on fire.
  • An eighteen-year-old black male, one of three gang members accused of allegedly abducting a girl from her apartment and bludgeoning her with a baseball bat even as she pleaded with them that she was pregnant. She died from her injuries.
  • A nineteen-year-old black male charged in a gang-retaliation murder.
  • A thirty-five-year-old black male accused of murdering his sister. The sister, a cocaine addict “on the highway to hell,” says Carey, had terrorized the neighborhood for months and attacked her brother with the knife that he grabbed and then stabbed her with. “All the neighbors are going to testify,” Carey reports, sounding hopeful.
  • A twenty-one-year-old black male accused of stalking his former girlfriend, confronting her outside a grocery store, and then stabbing to death a friend of hers who intervened.
  • A sixteen-year-old black male charged with murder during a shoot-out between cars on a bridge over the Dan Ryan Expressway on the South Side.
  • An eighteen-year-old black male. Carey has not seen the police report yet, and his client will only say that he has no idea why he is in jail.

_____________

 

Saturday, 9:30 p.m.

The remainder of the evening of Hamlet’s trial is divided into half-hour segments: closing arguments; dessert (miniature fruit tarts in chocolate cups, chocolate-dipped strawberries, cookies), coffee, tea, champagne and cordials; a last chance to bid at the silent auction; and a verdict (hung jury: Justice Kennedy remands the prisoner to the pages of literature). When court adjourns, we are free to pick up our party favors in the lobby. Mine include a 55-milliliter bottle of Crown Royal blended Canadian whiskey in a plush purple sack, and a sampler of Galanos eau de toilette.

_____________

 

Sunday, 10:30 a.m.

The keynote address by Tom Wolfe, on “Crime and Moral Fever in the 1990’s,” sells out the 2,590-seat Orchestra Hall. Wolfe puts on a remarkable performance, bringing to the stage many of the attractions of his work. He speaks for well over an hour, never failing to entertain with his lacerating humor and merciless, pitch-perfect social analysis even as he gracefully conveys an enormous amount of information, enlisting everyone from Hobbes, Hegel, and Nietzsche to ATM robbers, world’s-worst-mother Susan Smith, and George Pataki to make his point.

Wolfe begins his talk by referring to the just-concluded 1994 elections, “a tidal wave that changed the landscape of American politics literally overnight.” Obviously, Wolfe points out, there are deep connections between the results of the elections and the theme of the Chicago festival: crime and punishment are much on America’s mind. Yet even Wolfe is unable to say what, exactly, the Republican sweep portends for the criminal chaos of our cities which, in his novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, he has captured perhaps better than anyone. He concludes:

This is a great moment, objectively speaking, in the history of a nation, certainly a good moment, but we are dogged by a question that so far I have not seen answered. That question is: yes, but good for what? And if there is anybody in Orchestra Hall this morning who knows the answer to that question, who can create the higher synthesis that brings us out of the moment of confusion that we’ve seen this week, not only will you earn the gratitude of your fellow citizens, but you will light up the sky and be famous forever. . . .

_____________

 

Sunday, 3:00 p.m.

The Cook County Medical Examiner’s office is well along in processing the nine bodies brought in from the killings so far this weekend. Among the victims is fifteen-year-old Antoine Bowen, felled in what prosecutors later call a ride-by shooting.

Bowen was hanging out with friends on West 91 Street on Friday night when another fifteen-year-old pedaled past on a bicycle. The bike rider shouted “GDK”—meaning “Gangster Disciple Killer,” and thus a sworn enemy of Bowen and company. They shouted gang insults back at him. Police said the teen on the bike then circled the block, wheeled up to the group, and let fly with eight shots from a 9-mm automatic pistol, hitting Bowen in the head. His friends had scattered when they saw the handgun; a stranger found the body.

_____________

 

Wednesday

Three days after the Crime and Punishment festival ends, local businessmen are scheduled to convene at the Chicago Cultural Center for an invitation-only summit on the prevention of violence. “The premise of the conference is that business leaders can help find a solution to the problems of violence, which detracts from the city’s economic vitality,” says an article in the Chicago Tribune promoting the Tribune Foundation-sponsored event. Among the panelists who will be discussing violence prevention: the Tribune’s movie critic Gene Siskel.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link