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.
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Illustration: Michelle Thompson/agoodson.com