May 4, 2018
To Do Justice
By Frank S. Joseph
First Place Winner of the CWA Annual First Chapter Contest
Ever since I’m little I be wondering who my momma is.
It ain’t Jolene. Jolene been raising me but I ain’t her blood. Reminds me of it every chance she gets. Picked me out of a trash pile one day, that’s what Jolene says. Like a maggot out of a garbage can.
If I’m trash I say, why you done it? Just teasing she says, you be worth real money, check for $102.80 on the first of every month. Calls it her Pinkie check. Long as the Welfare keeps sending the Pinkie check, that’s all she cares about, Jolene.
Jolene just laughs when I ask about my real momma. One day I be finding her though. See if Jolene laughs when that day comes.
Jolene don’t treat Bettina no better than me even though Bettina be blood and flesh to her. Bettina asks who her poppa was but Jolene pretends she don’t hear. Poor little thing, Bettina, bumping into things like she does. Jolene says Bettina was born with a caul, that’s why she so clumsy. I know better though. Bettina can’t help it. Something wrong inside her head. She’s plenty smart all right, just something inside there don’t work how it’s supposed to, like a doorbell is busted or a toaster don’t pop.
All Jolene cares about is the money though, $102.80 a month for me and $94.73 for Bettina. And Bettina’ll be worth more soon, Jolene says, worth as much as you gal, $102.80 a month when she turns nine. Then in September when you turn twelve, you’ll be worth $106.35, and Jolene grins.
No wonder Jolene gets so happy when she talks about the money. We’re her most valuable property. That’s why I got to protect my baby sister best I can. Bettina’s my most valuable property. Till I find my real momma, Bettina’s the closest thing to kinfolk I got in the world.
Should’ve protected Bettina better than I did though, the day things got turned upside-down.
* * *
That day, must’ve been a hundred degrees out. Was a Monday – Monday, July 12, 1965, summer hardly started. Jolene says Gal, you ain’t seen hot yet. Wait till it get August, then we’ll see about hot. Sitting in the window all the while, electric fan blowing in her face.
Pinkie she says, you feel all that hot, go cool off in the hydrant with your baby sister. That’s what folks do on Morgan Street in hot summer, open a fireplug so kids can play in it. Can’t go to the Taylor Pool, been closed years. Hear there’s city pools open in other parts of town but not on the West Side, not around Morgan Street anyhow. City don’t spend no money here. Trash sits in garbage cans till it turns ripe. My school, Galileo, it’s got holes in the roof. Walk down the wrong hallway while it’s storming and you get wet without never leaving the building. Nossir, no Taylor Pool since I’m little and no sign when it’ll open again, if it ever does.
It’s too hot to watch TV even. I put on cutoffs and thongs, what Jolene calls sandals only they’re made of rubber tires not leather. I can play in the hydrant if I want. I ain’t twelve till September.
Outside, sun’s like a furnace on my neck. Fireplug in front of our building goes spraying every which way, onto the cars, kids, grownups too. Plenty grownups out on the street, some cooling off in the water their own selves and laughing like kids all over again, others sitting on folding chairs drinking Olde English 800 malt liquor out of paper bags. Don’t matter it’s a Monday or a Sunday or what it is, grownups are out on Morgan Street in summer. Why not? Ain’t got no jobs to tend to, today nor no other day.
Bettina sings out Pinkie! Come on in! I smile, duck my head and dash towards her, slipslipsliding on the street tar. Wouldn’t care if I slipped and fell, the cold water on my hot skin feels so good.
Someone’s throwing an old rubber ball back and forth, someone else has a Frisbee. We toss them with the other kids till the spray catches the ball and carries it into traffic. Bettina goes chasing behind. I shout Careful gal don’t get yourself hit by no truck but it’s so much fun splashing I forget to keep an eye on her. Forget about Bettina altogether till I hear the siren.
It’s a squad car, blue cherry spinning around. Cop gets out the driver door and waves Bettina over. I throw down the Frisbee and run to where they’re standing.
Cop, he’s one of them greaseball Italians that run things around here. Do their business in them social clubs and ice cream parlors over to Taylor Street and Racine. Walk around smoking cheap cigars and acting like they own it all. Hear the Irish and the Polish got the cop racket sewed up in other parts of town but around here it’s the dagoes. Doubt if the colored are in charge in any part of town.
Don’t know what this fat pig wants with an eight-year-old colored gal though. I walk on over, ask what’s up.
He says, Who you?
He says to Bettina, That so? Sure don’t look like the two of you are related. Tell me little girl, what for you got a white sister?
“She’s colored too,” Bettina says, sticking up for me.
Cop looks me over. Maybe you are at that he says. Little bit at least
I ask what Bettina did wrong. Cop shakes his head, says he’s just trying to get information.
“Then ask me,” I say. “I’ll be twelve in September.”
Cop turns from Bettina and smiles down. Seen all kind of cops in my life – angry cops, tricky cops, cops that act friendly till they get what they want. Think this one’s the last kind.
I ask what he’s looking after. Been complaints about the hydrant and he’s going to have to order it closed he says.
“It’s a hundred degrees out Mister.”
Cop don’t care. Says it’s against city law to open a hydrant. Says what if there’s a fire on the block, you leave the hydrant running, ain’t going to be enough pressure to fight the fire. Says anyhow the fire marshal wants it closed so he done called in a fire truck. Going to close it whether you kids like it or not.
Cop asks who opened it in the first place. I wouldn’t tell and get someone in trouble even if I knew though I surely don’t. I say we’re just kids trying to stay cool on a hot day. Cop says baloney, he knows how things work, everyone on this street knows everyone else so tell me who opened it if you know what’s good for you. Gives us one of them cop looks. Bettina, she’s scared but I know better. He’s just a wop in a cop suit, throwing his weight around. I take Bettina by the hand and walk her back to the apartment.
Half an hour later the fire trucks roll in and things start going crazy.
* * *
The fire trucks like to tear your ears out with their sirens and horns, the red fire cherries spinning around and the motors going varoom varoom. What make it ten times worse though, the firemen ain’t by themselves. Got six or eight squad cars coming in behind. How come they got to fill up the whole street with a hook-and-ladder and a dozen firemen, let alone a cop army? To turn off a fire hydrant? We’re just a bunch of raggedy-ass colored kids. How scary do we look?
The firemen jump out first. Look funny in them red helmets but ain’t nothing funny about what they’re doing. One fireman got a monkey wrench about five feet long, what he uses to shut off the hydrant. Others got fire axes in their hands. Firemen go waving those hatchets like they’re fixing to chop us to pieces.
Then the cops jump out the squad cars and some got guns in their hands. Folks start to yelling. One guy in a blue work shirt shouts to put away the guns around little kids. Gal in a head rag yells This here’s an invasion! Another woman, think she lives on our second floor, sings out Yes sister and we be the Viet Cong!
Even so folks draw back. You got a dozen white Chicago cops waving pistols and the thermometer through the roof already, ain’t no telling what might happen.
A cop with sergeant stripes yells into a bullhorn to clear the streets, you people are in violation of City Ordinance Something Or Other. He comes up on Tom Davidson and pushes Joe down on the sidewalk.
Everyone on Morgan Street knows Old Tom. He don’t never harm a soul, just sits on his piece of sidewalk rain or shine shooting the breeze and drinking Mad Dog 20/20 from a brown paper sack. Tom ain’t so healthy, done lost a few toes to the diabetes. I know because one time he took off his shoe and showed me. Anyhow, when the cop pushes him Tom falls backward. Might’ve been the Mad Dog made Tom lose his balance, might’ve been the missing toes. Whatever, I hear his skull hit the pavement from fifteen feet away.
Gray-haired old lady standing near to Tom falls down on him crying. Woman beside her, one of them likes to sit out with Tom, she starts shouting and cussing at the sergeant. Don’t take no time at all, rest of the folks go to screaming too. They get round the sergeant in about two seconds. What’d that old man ever do to you? and Pig! and cuss words and other nasty stuff.
Rest of the cops come charging in swinging their night-sticks and waving their guns. Folks at the edge of the crowd get hit first. I see a couple men fall, see an old lady go down too. Folks in the middle though, they’re so busy getting up in the sergeant’s face they don’t notice the cops with clubs till too late. Then they’re down on the sidewalk too.
But now the commotion done drawn dozens more. Folks come pouring out of every door, seems. Police had the best of it but now things are going the other way and getting worse every second. I see colored folks carrying big rocks and chunks of cement. Some are swinging clubs of their own, baseball bats and two-by-fours. Never seen a crowd angry like this. Ain’t nothing new that cops mess with folks on Morgan Street. They get away with it on account of they got guns and billy-clubs and squad cars. Today though things are different. Man still has his night-sticks and guns but for the first time he’s outnumbered.
That sergeant in the middle, somehow he ain’t gotten hurt, not yet, and his bullhorn still works. He shouts orders but the other cops got scared looks. They beat it back to the squad cars fast as they can run. Fire truck switches on the siren loud to make you deaf and starts trying to back out but it ain’t no easy trick in a narrow street, not with a forty-foot hook-and-ladder behind. The crowd bellies up to the fire truck, throwing things and cussing, while the driver tries to figure some way to escape.
Most of the cops are hiding in their squad cars now. Even so they ain’t safe. Folks go to rocking the cars side to side, cops locked inside and looking scared as old ladies. And the folks notice. The scareder the cops look, the stronger the folks look.
Every now and then a cop car busts free and a gang of colored folks go running after. Grownups, kids too, waving and screaming and cussing. Got to say I feel angry my own self. Poor Old Tom, he don’t mean no harm. Keeps Tootsie Pops in his pockets for Bettina and me. I go chasing after a cop car myself, south toward Roosevelt Road.
* * *
Roosevelt when I get there, what a sight.
Roosevelt is the big shopping street, stores all up and down from Halsted out west to them fancy suburbs, Oak Park and River Forest. Big stores, some. Rich white guys come in from Evanston and Glencoe to buy shoes at Chernin’s on account of how cheap, and the Jew flea market up Maxwell Street is a carnival every Sunday. There’s small stores for neighborhood folks too, sandwich shops and incense candle stores and churches in storefronts. You see folks out on Roosevelt Road all times of day and night, colored and white both.
This ain’t the usual thing though. Right now there’s thousands in the street like they all of them heard the same signal, not a white face among them. They’re flowing off the sidewalks and into the car lanes. Big street, Roosevelt Road, four lanes of traffic and two more of parked cars, but it’s jam full of folks now. Cars couldn’t get through if they wanted.
I hear a crash of glass. Two guys in skivvies done stove a cinderblock through a storefront. Now they go climbing over the broken glass, talking about getting some of theirs back and laughing to beat the band. I hear another crash and look across street, it’s another store window stove in and folks grabbing things off shelves. They run out the place arms so loaded with Pampers and Pepsis they drop half on the sidewalk. See one guy toting a trash sack cram full of meat, the steaks and roasts bulging out the sides.
A window explodes alongside me. I jump away so’s not to get cut by glass. Don’t want to come home bleeding, I’d never hear the end from Jolene. It’s a hardware store, garden tools and vacuum cleaners and power drills in the window. Two big guys in White Sox caps, they didn’t break the glass but they heard the crash, they let out a whoop and start grabbing tools out the window. They carry more than they can hold too, stuff falling out of their arms, but they don’t give a care. They run past me flashing big grins.
Sun’s been going down and now the streetlights come on. The darker it gets, the nuttier things get. Ain’t never seen so many people in Roosevelt Road night or day and, thing of it is, they’re all laughing. Not just the ones looting the hardware store but everyone. I can’t feature it. Folks were angry when the cops and firemen started this and ain’t nothing done changed since then. Suppose the cops come arrest them. Bet they won’t be laughing then. And what about later on? Folks go tearing up Roosevelt Road tonight, where’ll they be getting breakfast tomorrow? No food shops, no food, not even a Popsicle. Once something closes around here it don’t open back up. Look at the Taylor Pool.
They must not be thinking about none of that though. They’re grinning and slapping each other on the back, laughing and singing like the circus come to Roosevelt Road.
But the police got to get back sooner or later and they do, sirens whining and lights flashing. Using their search beams too. One catches me splat in the eye and I go blind a second. The cops push into the crowd from both sides. They ain’t after no little kids though. Got a real live riot on their hands.
* * *
The riot starts back up again three more nights. I sneak out each night to watch. When the sun goes down the people come out. Second night folks got pop-bottle gasoline bombs, what the guy on WVON calls Molotov cocktails. Now that there’s less to steal, folks go to setting buildings on fire. Ain’t laughing so much neither. Some got signs Pigs Out! and Get Whitey! and Black Power! Never heard that one before. Black Power. Got a good ring to it.
Third night, in come the National Guard and things get real scary. Cops may be mean but the National Guard, they’re mean and crazy and stupid and scared all at once. They’re just kids, kids dressed up in soldier suits only with real guns and bullets. They commence to shooting out the streetlights. Heck, even a fool knows better. Make things dark, you just go making things worse. That’s exactly what happens too. After the lights go out, there’s lots more gunfire but don’t no one know who be shooting at who. I hear that gunfire, I decide I don’t want to stay outside no more.
Third night is the worst. Fourth night things start dying down at last. Most of the stores be stove in now, even ones with Soul Brother signs taped to the windows. The cops finally get their stuff together. During daylight they move in hundreds of squad cars. By time sun’s down, must be half the cops in Chicago are on Roosevelt Road. They’re too late though. After three nights, the folks done run out of steam.
I go out on the fourth day for a look. It’s a Friday, shopping morning, but Roosevelt Road looks empty like a grave. Gutters full of broken glass, smoke flowing out busted windows. Even the storefront churches done got hit. My little food shop too. Guess that mean no more Popsicles, not for a long time.
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