A Mugging on Lake Street

FROM SEPTEMBER 2009: A veteran investigative reporter looks into his own beating and finds himself confronting harsh and lingering questions of race

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“In my next conscious moment, I was dimly aware that I was facedown on the pavement. There was blood in my mouth.”


I was ambushed on the West Side last year, an attack that on its face made no sense. I’d never seen my assailant before; he’d never seen me; no words were exchanged; nothing was taken. Like many crime victims, I wanted the incident, which changed my life for the worse, to have some meaning. I’m white, he is black, and in time it was hard not to wonder if race had something to do with it.

The attack came at about 4:15 on May 9th, a sunny Friday afternoon. I had ridden my bike to the Loop for a meeting, and on my way back I took my usual route—Fulton west to the Garfield Park Conservatory, then over to Lake Street. As I neared the intersection of Lake and Laramie, I noticed a group of perhaps six teenagers on a corner.

Pedestrians on Lake Street are low on a cyclist’s list of potential hazards. The trestles supporting the Green Line, the behavior they inspire among drivers, and the condition of the pavement command more attention. The street here passes through an industrial strip, not an area where people hang out, and there was nothing sinister about this group. One kid with long hair looked my way, smiling broadly. Another stepped off the curb and paused, as if he had changed his mind about crossing the street in the heavy traffic, his body angled away from me as though he might now head back to the curb. I kept pedaling.

In my next conscious moment, I was dimly aware that I was facedown on the street. There was blood in my mouth. Someone was holding my arm, helping me up. I looked up to see that I was near the curb and my Good Samaritan was a middle-aged African American man. “Sit in my car,” he said.

 “I’ll get blood in it,” I said. I was now on my feet, not feeling pain or any great emotion—on the planet, but not aware of my place in it yet. I bent over, resting my hands on my knees, and spat.

A second Samaritan appeared, a white man, middle-aged, with an athlete’s build. He had me straighten up so he could better assess the damage to my head. One of the two men speculated that I’d been hit with a pipe, and the white man told me that my front teeth had cut clean through my upper lip.

Police cars arrived. I was of little help. All I could recall was passing a group of teenagers and one stepping off the sidewalk, but I didn’t think he was close enough to reach me.

A fire truck pulled up, and a group of firemen gathered around. One with a first-aid kit began cleaning my face, starting around my right eye socket, where the skin had been ripped open. “What month is it?” he asked.

“March,” I said, but then caught myself. “May.”

“Say that they called you ‘honky,’” a fireman told me. If my attackers had indeed said that, they might be charged with a hate crime and face harsher punishments. The fireman called to the reporting officers, who were now about 15 feet away. “They called him ‘honky,’” he said. But I must have signaled differently, because nobody leaped at the bait.

One of the plainclothesmen offered to load my bike into the trunk of his unmarked car and deliver it to my house. The bike is nothing special: a black 12-speed, modest when I bought it in 1982, now dented and well chipped, worth perhaps $20 on the open market. But I like the bike, and I was grateful for the officer’s offer.

Around this time, paramedics arrived, and the African American Samaritan indicated he was going to leave. I shook his hand. “I can’t thank you enough for stopping,” I said.

“I’m a Christian,” he replied.

I was in the ambulance a second later and never got to thank my white Samaritan.

I was taken to West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park, where the emergency room doctor ordered CT scans to see if I’d suffered brain damage or fractures of the skull or face. I hadn’t (I’d been wearing a helmet). She stitched the cut below my nose and glued the jagged lacerations near my eye. “You’ve got road burn,” she told me, explaining that parts of the pavement were embedded in my face and would work their way out over the next week or two. My knee ached and my jaw hurt, but she assured me that no bones were broken. She gave me a prescription for a painkiller, and about six hours after leaving the Loop, I was sent home. My daughter took one look at my face and suggested that come Monday, she could walk to school by herself.

* * *

Illustration:  Michelle Thompson/agoodson.com



5 years ago
Posted by Mr. P

I feel like this article made me think a lot more than one that would have been resolved with Larry's interview. It's very disturbing to think that this single act of aggression has added so much pain to your life while not really affecting his substantially. I guess he's in a different place, but maybe not that different a person than he would have been.

It seems like violence can so easily make the world a worse place while there isn't as powerful a positive force to counteract it. Is there some positive thing that could have happened to Larry that would have affected him as deeply? Could he have been randomly hit in the face with kindness? Kind of laughable to think so.

5 years ago
Posted by Some guy

The world might be a better place without people like Larry.

5 years ago
Posted by charlieblaze

I wish that I could say this directly to the author. There are trashy people in the 'hood and there are good people in the 'hood. I'm African-American myself, and my first apartment was around 63 and Western. I was mugged by 2 young wannabe thugs, just because during my first 2 months. They just wanted to fight someone and thought that I was a good target. I applaud you for your introspective reflection and, more importantly, for not being bitter and succumbing to racism. But some people live their lives like bandits, and you just have to be aware just like you would with someone of your own race.

Your story reminds me of the incidents that have been happening in Lincoln Park. To other white people that may be surprised about assaults from young black people, do what the rest of us do that have lived in rough areas. Be alert, look tough, and don't show fear.

5 years ago
Posted by vertigo

What surprises me is that people are quick to slap a racism tag on everything. When really it's about money. If you look like a poor white person in a black community, you don't get hassled as much as a well-to-do white person would. So much of a neighborhood's stigma, identity and ultimately, pride, is related to wealth more than anything else.

5 years ago
Posted by vertigo

What surprises me is that people are quick to slap a racism tag on everything. When really it's about money. If you look like a poor white person in a black community, you don't get hassled as much as a well-to-do white person would. So much of a neighborhood's stigma, identity and ultimately, pride, is related to wealth more than anything else.

5 years ago
Posted by ModernNomad


After reading your personal reflection. I don't know how I feel about this. I was surprised you wanted to talk to Larry. But I wasn't surprised his uncle asked for compensation. As a recent Chicago transplant from Seattle, I was also a victim of a mugging in Wicker Park. The perp was Hispanic and I'm black. For days I questioned why I was a victim, why me? I'm black, poor and also a struggling journalist. I was bitter and feelings of racism creeped up. I remember walking around seeing some young Hispanic men wondering if one of them did it. But I had to quickly squash these thoughts. I'm glad to be alive, the only thing bruised was my psyche. It makes me angry that people can be so heartless. But for many young black men-- this is their reality. Or as one West Garfield resident told me "Chicago is a fucked up place." And he's right.

5 years ago
Posted by Al

I was thinking about a few angles to approach this, but I'm settling on one: "Well, duh."

5 years ago
Posted by landis2615

Here's the lick...

It was a bigger deal to you, than it was to Larry and his friends. You were just another punk (an older punk, but punk just the same). Cracking you in the head and watching you go down was like a 3-D video game to them.

I know the area you live in. I know other white professionals that live there, drawn by the architecture. One female that's a friend of a friend, was brutally mugged in her own building - probably by the other Larry in the hood. See, the Larrys and his pals come with that neighborhood. It's like ordering a hamburger deluxe, you get fries, and coleslaw with it. Even if you don't want the coleslaw, you get it.

Hey man, this is America and you have the right to live where you please. That goes for anybody. But like the white settlers that died at the hands of Native Americans, taming the west. You're just gonna have to battle some natives. So buy a gun, or move. NOW.

Larrys 1 White Dude 0

p.s. glad to see you are okay. Truly.

5 years ago
Posted by Zoso

Well I have nothing really to say. It was a good story and the outcome could've been a lot worse. The system seems to have done an adequate job (for a chance).

I guess all I want to say is that there are a lot of scumbags in the city and I wish they'd just go away. There's no need for them to occupy the wonderful city and waste the benefits it could provide to people who are willing - and capable - to use them. To the burbs with them. Let gentrification prosper.

5 years ago
Posted by vishu

I would like to hear from the pastor at Doris's church.

To me this article describes a failure of the community to deal with the destructive behavior of an adolescent boy. Clearly his aunt and uncle are not grasping the seriousness of his actions. It sounds from the face-to-face like Doris may have had good intentions but not the resources to back them up.

On the other hand, as you say, perhaps Larry's working at a south suburban McDonald's is the best possible outcome.

5 years ago
Posted by MPsully

The author has a nice life: family, education, friends and neighbors, professional standing, and an open heart that allows him to bike through sketchy neighborhoods and trust others. On the other hand Larry couldn't even hack it at a high school where standards were likely very low, and he is now dragging his shiftless ass around a circular road of poverty, bitterness and "why me?" trouble. Larry gets paid, justice gets served, and yes, I would like fries with that.

5 years ago
Posted by skafiend

More than anything else, I think this is a product of the times, not racism. There is a disconnect between teenagers/younger adults when it comes to the consequences of their actions than I've ever seen before (I'm an African American male in my late 40s.) Had this been, oh, 20 years ago, the most you might have gotten is a "get out of our neighborhood, white man" comment because the idea that committing a crime against a white person would result in swifter and harsher punishment was prevalent (and backed up by statistics). But today, there's a "get out of my way" and "I gotta get mine, you gotta get your" mentality that seems to fuel this feeling of impunity (and I don't think it's any coincidence that those two lines of thinking are also from rap songs). Sure, it may seem like racism because, as you said, they'd more likely attack a white person who they can be SURE isn't related to someone a little more influential in the neighborhood, but trust me, if they were sure the potential victim was a "nobody", white or black, they would have pounced. As for the reaction of Larry's family, they realized they dodged a bullet. They'll bow and scrape and wear a suit to court and do whatever is necessary to escape with the fewest amount of bruises. But once they're in the clear, it's back to the swagger and "get out the way" mentality. I had an incident recently where I was driving and a young black kid, probably no more than 10, took his time crossing the street in front of me and flipped me off. I saw him in the side mirror and stopped my car. He immediately got a look of panic on his face, not knowing what I was going to do (get out? pull a gun?) I started driving again and he regained his swagger and yelled something at me I didn't hear. I was amazed that after a potentially deadly incident (considering how quickly guns are used here and for the most minor of reasons), he realized he had made it through and didn't realize the potential consequences 0f his actions. Granted, he was 10ish, but still...

I just feel sorry for Larry's next victim, because he's going to do it again. I suggest you use whatever resources you have to keep tabs on his future arrest. Let him and his mother see that you tried to give them a chance to fix this.

5 years ago
Posted by ekang

Call me naive, but I think what the author did in showing mercy — while it may have resulted in a less-than-satisfying "ending" for readers — is better for all parties involved in the long run. Conroy, reputedly an extremely kind and compassionate writer and person, is better off moving forward, producing great work and not wasting his time dragging this case through the courts. It's difficult to say what ending Larry deserves because it's not our call. The tough life he has lived — and still has ahead of him — perhaps is judgment enough.

Also, as for the "Christian" debate, sure, many use it as a cloak, but we don't know Doris' circumstances or why she did what she did. And we see another Christian in the story: the Good Samaritan whose faith was his very reason for not turning a blind eye.

In any case, I'm grateful that Conroy wrote this story. Its complexities and shades of gray are so true to life.

5 years ago
Posted by marsh_monster

Just wait till Larry's dad gets a hold of him....
wait, where is he? These kids have a simple life equation:
(no one showing them the right way to live) +
(nothing stopping them) = we all lose. These kids have single parents working all the time, or even worse crackhead parents. No one's around to supervise and they run the streets like feral dogs.
What's to be done?

5 years ago
Posted by joelambert13

Like John, I've had a number of racially motivated experiences while living in this city over the past decade. Each time I've gone through the same process of justification that he's described. In the end, I've realized racial issues in this city run deep and they run both ways.

As I was walking down Chicago ave by the brown line one afternoon, I had a group of kids mob me and try to pick my pockets clean. A passing cop saved the day.

I've been in a restaurant in a black neighborhood that refused to serve me. I was the only white person there. I left and ate somewhere else.

When I lived in a gentrifying neighborhood where old public housing was being demolished, I would experience almost daily attempts to intimidate me by a small number of people because I was white. I got the "you people" treatment on more than one occasion there.

Its strange to think that these sorts of things still happen. It would be nice to believe that we're on our way to a more equitable society, but we're still far short on both sides. Overall, you shouldn't let racial thinking cloud your judgment of people, but if you're out of your element and see someone acting strange, save yourself some trouble and steer clear.

5 years ago
Posted by megancottrell

Hi John - thanks for this incredible article. I really appreciated how honest you were and how much you thought this incident through, instead of just reacting.

I'm a reporter too, although I don't nearly have your experience. I cover public housing in Chicago, so I spend time in lots of neighborhoods where I "don't belong." To be honest, I almost always feel nervous. And I almost expect that, one day, something like this will happen to me.

I was thinking about your words near the end - about your "karma bank." It's hard to think about, because when something like this happens, it's Larry hitting John, not blacks hitting whites. But I think a certain amount of our collective karma does catch up with us sometimes. For the two hundred years of slavery, of lynchings, of making a intellectual justification for subjugating a group of people, of white flight, of Jim Crow - maybe you didn't get what you deserve, but maybe you got what has been coming to us.

I certainly don't support any sort of physical violence as a way to solve problems. And it's terrible that this happened to such a great, engaged, thoughtful person. I can't imagine how horrible the pain that you've been through, both physical and mental, has been.

Is it wrong to say though that, if this had to happen, I'm glad it could happen to someone who would then use the experience to share it with others and make people think?

Anyway, thanks for writing. Your work is an inspiration.

5 years ago
Posted by Sharon Woodhouse

John, Thank you for a moving, complicated article. I’ve returned to leave a comment, a few hours after first reading it, because it’s still on my mind. I’m saddened, sort of horrified even, at the lingering maybe lifelong costs to you of this random act of violence. My feelings are similar when considering all the equivocating, mitigating, and qualifying that appear in the article, in the comments, and in our society around the issues you ruminate on when candidly sharing your experience. Who knows what the best societal response to Larry’s behavior is—restorative justice, juvenile probation, compassionate rehabilitation, adult lockup—but let’s just say as an advanced (?), civilized (?), leading (?) culture that brutally attacking others for the heck of it and leaving them with permanent injuries is wrong, period. It doesn’t matter the age, race, upbringing, proclivity to boredom and stupidity of the perpetrator. Let’s also say that individuals who commit such vicious acts should be accountable for their behavior, period. Again, whatever that means…but accountable. Let’s also say that those of us that want to live in a harmonious society are accountable for maximizing the options for such, including calling out those who violate our standards of decency. That goes for Christian mothers who collude in letting their children escape responsibility. And let’s just say it’s okay for all of us to have such expectations of civilized conduct. I kinda want to say that it doesn’t take much…you don’t need a middle-class life, a father figure, constructive after-school activities, or the absence of video games in your life to know that you shouldn’t thuggishly be knocking strangers off of bicycles. If you have the wherewithal to work at McDonald’s, you can be expected to know that, even if you don’t have the good sense to not do it. On the off, off chance you thought it was a fine thing to do, this appears to have been the missed opportunity for the entire system—parent(s), community/relatives, juvenile justice—to instill the definitive message in you otherwise. Good luck with your healing!

5 years ago
Posted by dignam

Extremely moved by your story and in great admiration that you filed it. I lived in Chicago for seven years and worked for the alt press in Chicago and this is a saga that has moved me as much as any novel.

I do think this should be ultimately regarded as a hate crime. The problem is that there's no way to prove it. I think there's an instantaneous, weird flash in the mind that says "let's get the vulnerable whitey" and suddenly you're lying bloody on the street. And there's no good answer to such a thing: is the world better served by him being locked up? Is the world better served by the guilt you insisted upon dealing to him (to your credit, if not to any effect)?

All I can say is that I wish you well; I hope that you continue to write as compelling (though certainly not as painful) stories as this one; and that you seek further.

Best wishes and thank you.

5 years ago
Posted by lulub

{A friend of mine, a retired Chicago police officer, ripped into me when I told him all this. Larry, he wrote in an e-mail, was “most likely NOT sorry. Remorse after arrest is an affect. Cops see it all the time, and it infuriates them, particularly when good people try to see good in the very people who victimize them.”}

But what is the alternative? To see only the bad? I taught in the CPS for several years, and this was one of the biggest difficulties for me. I want to see the good in people, I want to trust people and assume that they learn from their mistakes, but at the same time, I don't want to be a chump. I know I was bamboozled by numerous kids who swore that they had learned a lesson, but were really playing me. And frequently, their parents were playing me too. Eventually you become like the cop quoted above and pretty much assume it is all affect and that no one is remorseful about their actions. And really, who wants to be that person?

This was an amazing article, thank you so much for sharing your experience with us.

5 years ago
Posted by TedG

I am happy you've mostly recovered, and weren't even more seriously hurt.

I am also happy to see you're again being paid to write. I thought the Reader sacking was terrible, however this event puts a little more perspective to .

I really appreciate the honesty and thoroughness of your article. I wish our media were more populated with people of your abilities, heart, and devotion to the factual truths rather than so many memes.
Maximum respect to you, sir, and may your recovery continue, as you move through life with enviable integrity.

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