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They were dressed in black. Black boots, black uniforms, black gloves, black sunglasses, black guns. One wore a black ski cap. Against the blazing gold of the autumn leaves, which skittered and eddied in the cold November morning gusts, they looked as dark and ominous as a thunderstorm.
He was not dressed in black. Rather, he wore bone-colored chinos and a cheery chalk-striped Polo shirt under a light-gray Providence College pullover. His shoes were not black boots but hiking shoes—Hi-Tec mountain shoes, to be precise—the kind you expect to see on a soccer dad on a trail in Starved Rock State Park. They wore guns. He wore glasses.
The others looked like authority. He looked like the mild-mannered high-school math teacher you trusted with your problems.
They clomped up the back stairs of a two-story frame house off South California Avenue in Chicago Lawn. One of the men in black banged on the door. “Sheriff’s office!”
The landlord had called. He wanted them out. Time was, that would have been it. The men, deputies from the Cook County Sheriff’s Department, would have burst through the door, with a battering ram if necessary, and swept the tenants and their belongings onto the street. But that was before the other man had been put in charge.
The door opened. The apartment was bare. In the bedroom, a thin mattress lay on the cold floor. On a small round table, the lone piece of furniture in the kitchen, a few soggy circles of red and yellow cereal floated in a bowl of milk like the forgotten survivors of a shipwreck.
The couple, a thin woman in boxer shorts, with braided hair and large heart-shaped earrings, and a shirtless man whose sagging jeans rode so low on his hips that a good three inches of his own boxers were exposed, looked bewildered. The landlord wouldn’t take their rent, they claimed. He had, more than once, locked them out for several days. That was illegal, right? As they spoke, a little girl with pink and white plastic barrettes in her hair peeked around the corner and grinned.
“Well, hello there,” one of the deputies said. “How old are you?”
“Three? You’re so big!”
“You have beautiful hair!” added the man in the chinos.
“Thank you,” she said, smiling shyly.
The men in black listened patiently to the couple’s story, then looked to their boss, the man in the gray pullover and hiking shoes. “Should we call it off?” one asked. “It’s your call.”
The man, Tom Dart, the Cook County sheriff, knew that he could toss the family—even if their story were true. He knew some demanded it, believed to do otherwise was being a bleeding heart. He looked back at the little girl. She was already dressed in a red jacket, white gloves, and a white knit cap with a patch showing two hugging bears. She looked up at the man and smiled a wide toothy grin. His call.
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Photograph by Ryan Robinson