Halfway between dusk and dawn in the dead of winter, I parked under the Pink Line viaduct and stepped out into blackened snow and biting cold. I had driven southwest from the Tribune Tower, down Ogden Avenue, the skyline shrinking in the rearview mirror, out past Mount Sinai Hospital and the Ogden District police station to Lawndale Avenue.
Snow reflected light from dirty yellow streetlamps, casting an industrial glow over the neighborhood. The sky was an eerie shade of lavender. A police officer wanted to know who I was, then told me I’d get a better picture of the body if I circled back through the alley to the other side of the crime scene. The cops said a man had been shot after stepping on someone’s shoe at a house party. A murder over nothing, almost too petty to be believed.
I didn’t know the body would still be there. I didn’t know the police would be OK with me being there. I didn’t know what to do when the family showed up—the dead man’s son was there. I didn’t know how to talk to them. This was only my second murder scene in the city. Being out in the night was still new, and I carried an anxiety in my stomach wherever I went.
I tried to make myself invisible, but I was the only white person outside the police tape. As family members started walking away, I stopped a few of them and handed out my card, in case they wanted to talk. (They didn’t.)
It was the beginning of a three-year stint working overnights at the Chicago Tribune, covering any violent event that happened in the city after dark. I’d wanted a job at the paper, and this was the one they had. I was 25 years old. It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve been able to gain any perspective on what those three years have meant for me. I still feel wrecked sometimes. I still feel drained from the work of chasing incessant violence. Drained from going from shooting to shooting to shooting. Drained from enduring the mind-numbing silence of a slow night only to be jolted awake, adrenaline on, into full chase mode. Drained from trying to convince my wife that the job hasn’t changed me. Or that the change hasn’t been so bad.
I lurked in shadows, riding around listening to the police scanners, getting close enough to observe but staying far enough away not to interfere. Watching for new graffiti, gangbangers, memorials, crowds. Listening for yelling, breaking glass, squealing tires, revving engines. For calls of gang disturbances, for the battery in progress, for the battery just occurred. For anonymous neighbors complaining about young men harassing passing motorists or young men selling drugs in front of homes.
For shots fired.
“And now a call of a person shot.”
“Units in 009 and on the citywide, we’re getting a ticket of a person shot. Person shot.”
Two calls. Three calls. I’d turn the car around.
“Caller’s hysterical.” “Caller says he is on the ground.” “Caller says he’s not moving.”
Responding officers would report their locations. “Put me en route, squad.” “Show us going.” “Put that on my box.” “Show us rolling, squad.”
“Bona fide, squad.” “Roll EMS.”
[The man] was shot in front of his apartment building on Lake Street just east of Austin Boulevard before 1 a.m. after returning from his job at Sears. … He died at the scene. …
A few months into that first summer, I watched a father praying over his 19-year-old son’s body. He’d pleaded with officers to let him see the boy before workers took him to the morgue. More than 20 people would be shot before the end of my shift that night, but I stayed at this scene, trying to be patient as events unfolded.
The young man, Akil Partee, had been shot while walking home from work; his neighbors had been fighting earlier, and a man had come back to the house with a gun just as Partee was getting there. He’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The father thought I was an officer at first, but when he got close, he stopped and said, “You’re not the person I need to talk to.”
We did talk, though. I was learning to talk to people. When I slipped into the past tense, asking him what kinds of things his son had enjoyed—what sports, what music—he stopped me. He wasn’t ready to accept the death yet, he said.
The father had been speaking at length with a police sergeant and a handful of detectives while the evidence technicians finished their work. He wanted to see his son. The sergeant had tried to talk him out of it.
“You may have an image of your son,” he said, and warned that this image might be forever changed.
But the father persisted. He said he needed a moment of prayer over his son’s body to accept that he was gone.
Hours passed. A white van arrived to pick up the body. Officers cut the crime tape. The sergeant and the detectives made a last attempt to talk the father out of looking at the body. Their tone was gentle, man to man, father to father.
In the end, the sergeant let the man see his son. The father walked over to where the body lay uncovered on the pavement. He held his arm out and prayed. Then he walked away with an empty gaze. A few minutes later, a fire engine pulled up, and firefighters hosed the blood into the gutter.
I went to the morgue to get the night’s list of unnatural deaths in the city: overdoses, car crashes, homicides. This was a regular part of my job for a while. Then I tried writing, though I wasn’t sure what benefit could come from airing that father’s intimate moment. I worried about stepping on his grief. But the only way the city would know of it was for me to write about it, so I did.
I learned a lot that first summer. One night, two women at a shooting scene in Little Village explained the neighborhood to me: Satan’s Disciples east of California Avenue, Latin Kings west, except for a tiny pocket held down by the Two-Two Boys.
The guy who’d been shot was a Two-Two Boy. He’d been in the process of disrespecting the other two gangs, spray-painting “SDK” (for Satan’s Disciples Killa) and an upside-down crown (the Latin Kings’ symbol, flipped) in black paint on a garage across from where the three of us now stood. Someone had seen him, walked up, and shot him in the head. The blood was still there, pooled thick, and there were bits of matter in it. The paint on the wall smelled like black licorice. The can had rolled underneath a car in the driveway. As I was talking to the two women, an officer stopped a lady walking her dog, concerned the dog would try to lap up the blood.
I learned a lot from cops, too, sometimes just from watching how they handled themselves. Later that summer, there was a homicide in the Hundreds: a young man shot while walking home from a party. I wasn’t close when I heard it on the scanner, but overnight you can get anywhere in 15 minutes.
When I was a minute or two away, I heard officers asking for more cars. A bystander had crossed the tape and was fighting with police. I could see the just-summoned squad cars coming up behind me on State Street as I approached the scene, and more heading toward me from the north, blue lights bouncing off stop signs and illuminating trees and brick houses. I heard sirens in stereo.
The arriving officers jumped out and walked up to the scene, which had attracted a crowd. It was a confident “test me” walk, all of them moving together. The walk itself was a deterrent. It was something I’ve since seen hundreds of times. But then, it was new.
Authorities said no adults were present when the fire started. … The cause was under investigation, though officials said it appeared a hot plate, possibly being used to heat the room, fell onto some clothes, and started the fire.
Just before Christmas that year, the Chicago Fire Department tweeted a photo in the middle of the night of firefighters trying to cut their way through window bars to get into an old graystone in Englewood. Sparks from the saw were the brightest part of the photo. There were reports of kids trapped inside. As I was almost to my car in the Trib Tower parking lot, I heard a fire supervisor on the scanner strike out the alarm, which meant most of the heavy lifting was already done. I was about to head back inside when I heard the supervisor ask for the Office of Fire Investigations and say that the investigator should make sure to bring a camera to document DOAs.
The fire was still smoldering when I got there. A structure fire has its own smell, and I could taste it as I got close. Four children had been left on their own with a hot plate for heat. Two of them had been rescued from the burning building by their aunt and taken in by neighbors, but the other two—a 2-year-old girl and 3-year-old boy—hadn’t made it out.
I waited in the neighbors’ living room, lit only by the blue light of a TV, while the fire investigators and police interviewed the two children. When they were done, I talked to the boys in a small bedroom, with the adult neighbors present. While I’d been waiting in the living room, I kept thinking: Put your face on. No emotion. The younger of the two, a 4-year-old, didn’t talk much. The older one, 7, said they’d been watching Batman cartoons when the fire started. Neither of them knew that their cousin and sibling had died. I didn’t tell them. Their mothers arrived, the glare of TV cameras on them as they walked up to the house. Officers arrested them moments later.
I remember taking a photo of the sunrise in my driver’s side mirror before I headed home. I try to look for moments of beauty when I can’t find decency. After covering the fire, all I wanted to do was get home and hug Erin, my wife. I couldn’t conceive of anything else—not breakfast, not the next shift, not anything. I was exhausted, sad, and angry. A week later, a man set himself and his family on fire in Lawndale; he and two others died. It felt unending.
On the Father’s Day weekend of my second summer, a torrential downpour had given way to smothering humidity. Forty-seven people would be shot in the city that weekend. I was working with a photographer named Anthony Souffle, and over the course of a single night we were threatened by gang members, heard gunfire at a West Side murder scene, went to a retaliatory-murder scene not far away, were threatened at the scene of another West Side shooting, and were threatened again by relatives of a man killed by police.
As we reached the end of the shift, we decided to check on one last call—another shooting—at Homan and Walnut near Garfield Park. A single police car guarded the far end of a long crime scene. We parked our cars at the opposite end. Anthony was taking photos and I was shooting some video when a shirtless man, smelling of liquor and weed, asked us what we knew about the man who had been shot. We didn’t have much to tell him. He got angry, telling us to fuck off and go back to our neighborhood. He said he was going to get a gun and shoot us. Then he walked across the street and yelled to a woman on a porch to go inside and get his gun.
Anthony and I didn’t wait around. He was U-turning onto Homan and I was backing around a corner when the man stepped down from the porch and started coming at us, one arm behind his back and the other pumping the air as he ran. I swerved around him and floored it. I couldn’t see if he really had a gun, but at that point my body had taken over. If the guy was messing with us, he was doing a good job. I didn’t take my foot off the gas until I was a couple of blocks away. Later, Anthony told me he’d seen the gun.
The two brothers were sleeping in bunk beds in the living room, the 12-year-old on the top and the 5-year-old below, when gunshots erupted from their mother’s bedroom.
A couple of weeks later, another photographer, Jason Wambsgans, and I headed to a “person shot” call in Back of the Yards. We arrived before the crime tape had been set up. By then I was getting to places quicker. I knew the scanners better, knew the map better, knew the police better.
I saw a couple of officers leaving a house. One was rubbing his temples as he walked down the front steps. A 5-year-old boy and his mother had been shot inside. The boy’s 12-year-old brother, sleeping in the same bunk bed, had been spared—probably, according to the police, because the shooter’s gun had jammed. Cops started swarming the area, showing the suspect’s picture to people. We would see officers later that morning talking with some young men a few blocks away who had been drinking and seemed angry about what had happened. The cops knew that whoever had done this was probably marked—by the child’s family, maybe, or by his own guys for bringing too much heat to the neighborhood.
I talked with the boys’ father. He was seated on the front steps of a nearby house with relatives. He spoke about how happy his son had been to graduate from preschool and how he hadn’t wanted school to end. They had gone to Haunted Trails for mini golf and go-karts after the ceremony. He spoke about his two older kids, who were away at college, about how the older boys’ mother had died when they were young.
The first scene I went to on my next shift was the shooting of the man police suspected of the previous night’s crime. He’d been shot on the West Side and was in critical condition. Police said he’d been set up by his getaway driver.
I barely had time to process any of that. The following night, multiple witnesses started calling in gunfire from a single neighborhood, many giving descriptions of the shooters. I was just a mile away. As I got closer, driving slow along a stretch of 47th Street where giant trees loomed overhead, creating the effect of a tunnel, I cracked my window, listening. There were no cops in sight. From about a block away, I saw a handful of guys standing in the street, one of them shooting. I saw the muzzle flash, could smell the smoke, saw it hanging over 47th Street in the cool blue of early morning. Everything slowed down at that moment. Each shot echoed and reverberated. It was as if I could feel the sound moving toward me.
I pulled over and watched the guys jump into two cars and start speeding in my direction. They flew past, toward the Dan Ryan Expressway. Two SUVs followed. I could hear the engine of the first one thrumming as it sped through a red light at the intersection where I was parked. The trailing SUV swerved around a van coming out of the old stockyards and careened through the intersection. I watched the SUVs in my rearview mirror, and just as I was thinking, Please don’t crash, they did. One into the back of the other.
Two guys jumped out of one of the SUVs and fled south. The other SUV kept flying toward the Dan Ryan. Feeling exposed, I pulled into a tiny parking lot just off the intersection and turned my lights off. A car circled the block twice. The third time, the driver slowed down, leaned forward to make eye contact with me, yelled something I couldn’t understand, and drove off. I waited a few seconds and, sensing a safe moment to get a little farther from the scene, started to pull away just as a police Tahoe approached. One of the officers got out, shouldered an AR-15, and made a wide circle around the passenger side of the smoldering SUV while his partner walked up to the driver’s side, right hand on her gun. I thought there was a chance that they would find a victim or a shooter inside, but the SUV was empty.
I got out to talk with the officers. They said the crashed vehicle was registered to someone who lived nearby. It was a “rammer,” bought by gangbangers for a few hundred dollars so they could wreck it chasing other guys around the neighborhood. In the end, no one had been shot. Just a bit of chaos, barely a city news footnote.
When it was all over, I was shaking a little, but I felt good. I hadn’t freaked out. I’d kept my head clear and my eyes open.
The next weekend was the first Fourth of July weekend I’d worked on the overnight shift. That Friday, in separate incidents, two boys, 5 and 7, were hit by bullets while with their families in South Side parks. The 5-year-old was rushed to Advocate Christ Medical Center by his mother. She came out of the hospital for a smoke as doctors were removing three of her son’s organs. She had the boy’s blood all over her dress and shoes; nurses would later give her scrubs to wear. Some time after, the boy’s aunt came out, accompanied by his siblings, who had witnessed the shooting and seen their brother bleeding. Once outside, a few of them vomited, and their aunt gave them water. I checked myself before I talked to them. I didn’t want to let the family see me struggling.
I felt like I’d lived a year’s worth of stress between Father’s Day and that weekend. I felt like I’d finally found my place as an observer in a volatile world. Work had become something that I lived and not just something that I did.
Jamarrie Toney was at his aunt’s home across from Cornell Square Park when he heard the shots. He ran to the park’s gate and saw his younger brother lying on the ground with a gunshot wound to the face.
Jason and I arrived before paramedics had finished wheeling victims off the basketball court. As firefighters hosed blood from the pavement, wind carried the mist into the street, where we stood with officers and a few other reporters and photographers. Earlier in the night, two guys had fired an AK-47 and a revolver into a park where people were hanging out and playing ball. They wounded 13, including a 3-year-old.
Twelve hours later, I was back at the park, sweaty and tired. I sat on a wall by the basketball court, trying to catch a moment of calm and get my head around what had happened. A park had been sprayed with bullets. Not in a war zone. In this city. Stretcher after stretcher was wheeled away. A rare bit of emotion in a dispatcher’s voice on hearing that a 3-year-old had been shot in the face: “Jesus Christ. Ten-four.”
The boy’s aunt and 9-year-old brother walked up to the court. He wondered aloud whether the stains on it were blood from his younger brother, whose nickname, he said, was Tay-Man. He was wearing an oversize flat-brimmed hat over short dreads and had giant, innocent eyes. He said he missed his brother. The pitch of his voice rose a little as he uttered the words.
A recurring thought came to me: In what world is any of this OK? I felt dirty, short of breath, and my chest was tight. I could taste the stink of cigarette and weed smoke and liquor and had the smell of blood stuck on my tongue. I wanted to wash everything off me. I wanted to get out of there, find one of the spots I went to when it got like this: a friendly diner, the lakefront, a corner with a regular tamale vendor—places that had become a refuge.
I didn’t see straight for a month after Cornell Square Park was shot up. I couldn’t see what was happening in front of me, couldn’t make a logical story out of it. It all seemed so routine: the murder, the body taken away, the family upset, the police looking indifferent, and the sun still rises.
A few months later, before Christmas, Erin and I went to a book signing for Rachael Ray at the Field Museum. Not normally my thing, but Erin wanted to go. Being by the lake, with snow in the air and the city lit up for the holidays—it felt good. Ray was drinking wine and talking with her fans. People were laughing, full of joy. Erin took a picture with Ray and got a book signed. Ray called Erin a “cutie-pie.” Standing there, it hit me that I had spent the past two years going to where bad things happened, listening to people come to grips with sudden death. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been around people just being happy.
It started when someone shot and wounded a couple, then two people fired at the shooter, then there was a chase and shots exchanged and a man sitting on a porch was hit. Responding officers kept cutting each other off on their radios as they reported other gunfire in the area late Sunday night and early Monday morning. … It was just one of dozens of shooting scenes across Chicago over the long Fourth of July weekend.
Weariness grew. Soaking up the sound of grief night after night, getting threatened with violence at crime scenes, the on-off-on-off adrenaline. Still, I felt confident as I headed into my third summer. I had been through this, I’d handled it. As the Fourth of July weekend approached, I felt I knew what to expect.
I started work at 6 or 7 each night with Jason and worked until 8 or 10 each morning. I woke up hazy in the afternoon and used my commute downtown to get awake. Coffee to go, breakfast in the car heading toward the first scene, snacks from Erin to get me through the shift. We went to about two dozen scenes over five nights, a frenzied clip even for us. Thirty people were shot in 13 hours of the last night of the weekend, a pace we could not keep up with.
That night, in Roseland, we heard gunfire and saw silhouettes ducking between cars a block from us. A round ricocheted off something metal, making a zinging sound like in the movies. We didn’t flinch. By that point, gunfire had become normal. From there, we went to South Chicago, where police were looking for men who had been chasing and shooting at each other. A few minutes after that shootout, as police were flooding the neighborhood, someone let off a bunch of rounds from a porch, and officers nearby yelled “Ten-one” into their radios so all the cops in the city would know they were in distress, possibly under fire, and in need of immediate help. Maybe an hour later, someone shot up a house a few blocks away, even with hundreds of police still scouring the streets. Officers jogged toward the gunfire, weapons drawn, trigger fingers pointed down barrels as they searched alleys.
I have this image in my head of a supervisor, a big Irish guy, standing out on Exchange Avenue, radio to his mouth, his face glazed with sweat, waiting for the radio traffic to clear so he could continue directing the search. A helicopter thumped overhead, so close I could feel it. Trucks equipped with rifle lockers and loaded with SWAT teams sped south on Exchange. Everyone was sweaty. Under the streetlights, you could see the sweat around armpits and collars and vests.
Eighty-two people were hit by gunfire over that long weekend. Sixteen died. The silver lining—other reporters working that weekend still talk about it—is that no children were shot. But it didn’t last. The holiday weekend seemed to have touched off something. In the month that followed, there were four nights in which more than 20 people were shot—some of them kids.
Sometime that summer—I have trouble recalling exactly when—the bursts of exhilaration that had been keeping me going started to peter out. I had trouble staying awake and was stealing sleep in the car between shootings. I spent slow nights in a sort of tape delay, neither awake nor asleep, stirring only when I heard something on the scanner. My senses were dulled. The adrenaline valve wasn’t opening like it used to. I responded to intense scenes—bystanders screaming at police, a paramedic wrestling an air mask onto a victim’s face—with a weird calm. Jason felt it, too, and described it as the feeling you get just after you dive into a pool, your body weightless, your muscles relaxed, sounds muted, your mind focused. At ease.
And yet the shootings that followed that Fourth of July weekend were some of the most harrowing I’d ever covered. A kid killed at a slumber party. A 3-year-old shot on the block with his mom. Jason and I spent hours one August night in Englewood listening to relatives of a dead 16-year-old girl wail with grief. Hours of shrieking. A detective had confirmed the mother’s fear that it was her daughter lying dead down the street by walking up and starting the conversation with “So, uh, she has a tattoo on her left hand?” Boys had been warring in that neighborhood for years. At one point while Jason and I were talking with a woman, a man lunged at her. He had a dead look behind his eyes. Another guy held him back while the woman taunted him for smoking crack. Later, after they’d gone inside a nearby house, we could hear fighting—people beating on each other and getting slammed against the walls.
I’d visited the same house a week earlier after two people had been shot outside it. Both had survived. They’d been shot together a year before that, too.
“I know who did the shooting,” the woman said with a sneer. … The sergeant stood across yellow tape, and a delayed look of bewilderment briefly overtook his face before he asked, “Well, are you going to tell me?” The woman said nothing. She kept walking.
Toward the end of my last summer working overnights, a call came over the scanner: three people shot in Lawndale, including a woman in her 70s—a big crowd, possibly an exchange of gunfire at a street party on Pulaski just south of the Eisenhower. There was a manic energy in the back-and-forth between police and dispatchers. Jason heard it, too. He started checking his gear in the car on the way over, readying himself to jump out as soon as we got there.
It was chaos when we arrived. Bystanders were trying to edge into the crime scene, and dozens of officers were pushing them back. A few were aiming Tasers, the white targeting dots dancing on the chests of some of the men, who held their hands held up and stepped backward. A stocky man in a black T-shirt in his late 30s or early 40s, his arms ticking like a metronome to the beat of his stride, approached the officers. I pegged him as ex-military. A golden retriever trotted at his side. He addressed a plainclothes officer, who greeted him with a fraternal embrace, as though the two had some shared history. The man started speaking loudly about how there was too much violence, too much shooting, and stomped his feet. I tried to take in the hectic scene, my eyes tracking from the man to the other bystanders and back again.
I looked away from him for a moment, and when I looked back, he was on the ground. I couldn’t tell if he had been struck by someone or had maybe suffered a seizure. Some of the kids in the crowd jokingly yelled, “Man down!” Others seemed to think he was faking. The dog was sitting calmly next to him. An officer called for an ambulance.
The cops waited watchfully for the man to come to. When he regained consciousness, his eyes darted around and he started to lash out. Officers held him down. One of them shouted, “At ease! At ease! At ease!”
The man, chest heaving, stopped struggling. An ambulance took him away, and an officer took the dog.
Throughout this episode, other small dramas continued unfolding. A sergeant was navigating the crowd, trying to engage people wherever he saw the sliver of an opening. A woman approached him, but only to taunt, boasting that she knew who the gunman was, then continuing on her way. Someone in a passing car held up a phone to grab a photo, and the bystanders started shouting at the motorist. One woman sent a bottle through the air toward the car. It missed and shattered on a blue-and-white SUV parked nearby. A 15-year-old was arrested on a curfew violation after he’d tested the edge of the crime scene one too many times. Leading the handcuffed boy away, the sergeant looked over his shoulder at the kid’s friends and asked if they wanted to get locked up, too. They laughed and walked off.
There was something about the whole scene that night that drained the life out of me. Maybe it was the man who collapsed; I have a younger brother who served and struggles with illness and stress. Maybe it was because this was my 500th or 600th shooting scene in three years. Maybe it was seeing cops and bystanders milling around the edges of the scene, looking calm, as if this had become their norm. Everyone a little damaged.
I spent my last overnight shift parked outside the Ogden District station, a few blocks from where I’d covered that murder on Lawndale Avenue three years before. I listened to old jazz with the scanners turned low. Only one person was shot all night.
I called a few people to tell them I was done.
“Days? What the fuck are you going to do on days?”
“You’re gonna be one of those daytime dollies.”
“Oh, you’ll be back, lad.”
I looked like shit. Few people told me, but I knew. I’d gained weight, and I’d taken on this gaze I couldn’t shake. My right eye twitched. I hadn’t been sleeping, and I looked mean when I was relaxing.
When my shift was done that morning, I went to the Billy Goat and drank Jameson with friends. We drank more at Rossi’s. I went home, ordered Mexican food, and passed out before I could eat it. It was a celebration for me.
I never really left overnights. I still work them here and there. More over the summer, when it’s busy.
For three years, I’d inhabited a world separate from the one my friends lived in. On the train into work on summer Fridays, the other passengers dressed up for a night out in Wicker Park or Lake View, I’d sit there preparing for my shift, checking Twitter to see where people were getting shot or where people were calling in gunfire. I’d vacillate between wishing I were out with my wife and just wanting to start working.
There’s not a relationship in my life that is stronger now than it was when I started covering violence. I don’t remember when I stopped giving honest answers when people at dinners or parties asked, “How’s work?” The truth is a conversation ender. I’d start a story, see things getting awkward, then power through it, apologizing at the end. It’s an isolating job. Part of leaving nights has been learning to move past that, or deciding whether to even try. Maybe it’s not healthy, but writing about violence feels like what I should be doing. It feels normal. It’s what I want to do. I want to help the city understand a little. That’s important to me.
The winter after I’d finished working overnights, Erin and I were sitting on our couch, drinking wine, catching up. I was trying to explain to her how that three-year stretch had felt like a fever dream, an otherworldly odyssey, and how the world had throbbed around me while I learned to keep my eyes open. For three years, I hadn’t been home on weekends, and when I was home, I was in a fog. The closest to alive I felt during that time was in moments of fear and stress. That had become life.
I said all this to Erin, telling her I’d packed a lot of living into those three years.
She looked at me and asked, “But what kind of living?”