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Anne Wallingford, WordSmith


Less Than Perfect
March 1986

I spent quite a bit of time trying to decide whether I wanted to post this, or not. I finally decided I would simply because it is part of where I've been. And where I've been has made me who I am today. Every so often a visitor sends me a note saying how optimistic I am. But I'm not, really. I do believe bad things can and do happen to good people. Sometimes it can take years to put the bad events in the past where they belong. Rereading this was good for me. I'm a storyteller by nature, and this is one of my stories. Rather than edit it, I'm copying it as I wrote it several years ago.

There is one incident that occurred in '86 that had a major impact on me. It changed my life because it made me face up to the fact that life is short enough, and we must take action for our happiness while we can. It also made me more cautious, and made me examine my attitudes towards peace making and fighting.

It was a brisk March evening in Chicago. The science fair had gone successfully, and eight of the middle school boys who had worked hard in setting everything up were treated to pizza dinner. By the time we left the restaurant it was about 9 p.m.

It is my habit when driving students home from activities to take the farthest ones home first so that I'd have company in the car while I made the rounds. Then, when the last student was dropped off at home, I am closer to home, myself.

On this night, six of the boys were Latino, one was Vietnamese, and one was African American. I mention this because it is relevant to what happened. I taught in an inner city school and surrounding the school were pockets run by different gangs, and the division between gangs in this area was racial. It's one reason why I never let students go home alone after dark.

R.P. lived the furthest so his apartment complex was the first stop. By the time we reached his building, three of the boys needed to run in for a 'pit stop.' Figuring they would be a few minutes, I shut off the car motor. Now I had dropped R.P. at home other times and was aware that the block he lived in was part of the 'black' neighborhood. I just wasn't thinking in those terms that night.

Maybe what happened next was because it was a Friday night; maybe it was because I had a carful of Latino teenage boys in a black gang neighborhood, maybe it was just the way it was meant to be.

The three boys returned to the car in about five minutes. I went to start the car—and it would not start. No lights, no horn, no grinding…nothing.

It did not take long for the neighborhood toughs to get wind of us, a group of Latino boys and a white lady, sitting in a stalled car in a black ghetto neighborhood in Chicago. The local gang began gathering at the street corner, three buildings down from us, watching. Quickly assessing the situation, I realized that I would not be able to get all the boys through the growing crowd and up to R.P.'s apartment safely.

Two of the boys, J, the skinniest runt you ever did see, and A, the shortest of the boys, volunteered to go through the crowd and phone for help from R.P.'s apartment. Their reasoning was that since they were so innocuous looking they could get through the crowd. I wrote down some phone numbers for them to call, and they were the gutsiest kids, strolling through the hostile gathering, kidding around and joking. The rest of us sat in the car, watching.

J and A had been told to stay up in R.P.'s apartment until they saw help arrive. But they returned. No sooner had they climbed back into the car than hostilities began. I don't know how many of you have ever watched teen boys use break-dancing as a sign of aggression. It is much different than the fun kind of break dancing kids usually do. The car was surrounded by a motley group of teen boys of assorted ages. They were doing their dancing, alternating the dance with shaking of fists and distorted faces, then coming up and pounding on the car. It reminded me of nothing so much as animals challenging each other.

The first reaction of my group of boys was one of anger. They were responding to the hostile dance as would any other animal being threatened by getting their backs up, getting ready to fight. I seriously thought about getting out of the car by myself and facing down the group surrounding us. My first concern, though, was the safety of the boys in my car. We were outnumbered and I did not know how long it would take before my husband arrived with the tow truck. There were two choices: get out, act tough, and try to face them down. Or stay in the car, act nonchalant, and hope that the tow truck would arrive quickly. I opted for the second choice. I could not take the risk that the first plan would not work and that one of my students could be seriously hurt.

As the dancing and taunting got louder, my boys had lost their initial burst of bravado. They were nervous and apprehensive and now recognized several members of different gangs. And so we sat in the car, making small talk, and letting the windows steam up. We sat and waited for forty minutes.

Finally my husband turned the corner in his car. Even as he drove down the street the block became deserted and the crowd disappeared faster than it had appeared.

My first and foremost thought was to get the boys out of there quickly and safely. But my husband had not brought a tow truck; he assumed the boys who called were exaggerating and that I just needed a jump. I quickly decided to leave my car and come back with a tow truck after we took the boys home. The boys needed to be gotten out of there immediately.

Unfortunately, my husband did not comprehend the seriousness of our situation. He insisted that I wait with the car and the kids while he went to get a tow truck. As he argued, I literally shoved the boys into his car and said he had to take them along. That made him even angrier so he stormed into his car and drove off, leaving me to sit with the stalled car.

In the confusion, and without my realizing it, one boy had gotten out the other side of my husband's car and had gone back to my car to wait with me. He said that the fellows had picked, and he was the one picked to wait. As much as I admired his chivalry, I was upset that not all the boys had left.

And that's when I made a serious miscalculation. I thought that since the boys were gone, and R was slumped down in the front seat, out of sight, I wouldn't be hassled. So I got back into the car and locked the car doors. I also thought that if R.P. was watching from his apartment window and saw anything happening he would call the police. After all, he had told J and A that that's what he would do.

However, as soon as my husband's car drove off the gang reappeared. Only this time there was an older group of teens standing on the corner, egging on the younger ones. The dancing ritual began again, this time more wild and vocal. For years I replayed that scene in my mind and wondered if I had gotten out of the car at that moment, to stare them down, if it would have been better.

It was only moments before the hubcaps were gone, and only a few moments longer before I could understand the words to the taunts of the older boys. They wanted the car. And they wanted me.

R was on the passenger side, crouched down on the floor, still out of sight. He was an athlete, and a good runner. I looked at him and calmly said that if it looked as if the car would be broken into he was to open his door, leave it open, and run for help. Not to stop. Not to look back. Just to go and get help. He got that stubborn look on his face, so I explained to him that I was obviously not going to outrun the crowd, but he had a chance. He was our only chance. I then reassured him that the gang was after the car, really, and what did it matter if the car was lost…

By this time, the car on the driver's side was being pelted with rocks. Then, a group charged the car, still on the driver's side, and began rocking the car, trying to overturn it. The back window was smashed with a brick.

A lot of thoughts were going through my mind at the time. Not fear as much as a sense of fatality. That yes, I was a good person, but bad things could and did happen to good people all the time. I thought to stay in the car as long as I could, and if dragged out, at least fight my way down. All the while I kept talking calmly to R, trying to keep him from panicking, and repeating to him that if he could break away he was to run for help, not to try and stay and fight. He was fighting back tears and not even aware of it. In my mind I was also calling on God to help, insistently reminding Him of a few good deeds I had done, and trying to bargain with Him to pay attention.

I don't know for sure what happened next, and no one can tell me that God wasn't listening. A car came shooting out of the alley, screeching to a stop just a few feet from my car. A giant of a man leaped out of the car, swinging a tire iron…and in the pit of my stomach I thought that this was the end of the line, and braced myself for the smashing of the front window. I turned my face away and reached over to open the passenger door…when it got abruptly silent. The man began the most fearsome cussing I had ever heard. He called those street kids every name you could think of, and then some, all the while pushing through the crowd swinging the tire iron at some of them, challenging them to pick on him. He came up to my smashed car window, leaned down, and said, “Lady, do you need some help with the car?”

I just sat and stared at him stupidly. R shouted that a tow truck was on its way, and the man replied that he would just stand there and wait with us, if we didn't mind, until the tow truck showed up. And that is exactly what he did.

When I later looked at my watch, what had seemed like a lifetime was only 45 minutes. Those were the longest 45 minutes I had ever known.

When the tow truck arrived, along with my husband, I got out of my car and went over to shake the man's hand and to offer my gratitude. He only brushed my thanks aside, and said that if everything was okay with me now he would go on home. I never did learn his name.

To this day, R swears I gave a blood-curdling scream when the man with the tire iron jumped out of his car. I don't recall screaming, but I do know that for months afterwards I would not drive in that neighborhood. For the longest time, the nightmare played itself over and over in my head, and each time it replayed I would torture myself trying to decide whether I had done this or that differently, would it have been better? Should I have gotten out to fight? Was sitting in the car signaling me as a victim? Would a show of bravado been enough? Or would it have made matters worse? And if I was ever in a situation like this again, what would I do? I didn't think I would ever take that passive role to safety again. I hoped I would never have to find out.

Copyright © 2004 Anne Wallingford All Rights Reserved

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Friday, August 06, 2004