Authors: Charlie Newton
Meet Patti Black, the most decorated cop in Chicago. Solitary, stoic, loveless—her steel-plated exterior belies the wrenching legacy of an orphan childhood. Plagued by the horrifying abuse suffered at the hands of her foster parents, Black sublimates past torments into a meticulously maintained ghetto-tough persona.
When a series of unrelated cases—a drug bust gone bad, a mayoral assassination attempt, the murder of a state’s attorney; and ultimately, the exhumation of a long-concealed body from a tenement basement wall—all point in Patti Black’s direction, she finds herself facing the dark truth of a dusty old chestnut: You can’t hide from your history, no matter how far into the fog you run. For Patti Black, that history didn’t die in the tenement wall; it’s alive—and riding her down.
In 1959 there was a hurricane in the Libyan desert. They don’t get many of those there.
, like the others that preceded it, is probably for her.
There’s this place in Chinatown.
Off Wentworth Avenue in the 25th Ward, where the four-story walkups lean out over the street. Buildings not yet leveled by urban renewal, mattress fires, or debts to the wrong politicians. The kind of neighborhood that scares people who look too close.
A block east the ’L’ screeches overhead, sharp like it’s mad, metal-on-metal that bitters the back of your throat. Amtrak runs up there too, on iron bridging painted gray to match the concrete it shades. Above and below and beyond the trains, twenty lanes of loud expressways rumble and honk in four directions. Everything at ground level vibrates, the sense of movement so strong you can lose your balance.
During the day Great Lakes sailors and bus-tour adventurers shop for trinkets and a glimpse of something that isn’t here; at night it’s a Mexican border town selling vice in Mandarin. Behind the pagoda storefronts and across the alley, the Outfit runs dice and card rooms, and the Chinese Merchants Association with their teenage hitmen run everything else.
Me, I’m sitting in a side-street restaurant with faded Chinese characters for an address and six tables for locals who should know better. It’s dim in here, and that’s unusual. The floor’s dirty, and that isn’t. Rice kettles and radiators steam the stale air humid. Back by the kitchen an old woman sits smoking unfiltered cigarettes down to her fingertips and has for as long as I can remember. We don’t speak, her and I; we stare out the front window. Her eyes hide behind the smoke and that’s probably a good thing—she hears what I hear: the echoes of a long, violent struggle between me and the devil.
The devil has a man’s first and last name—you need to believe that—he’s got saliva, busy hands, and a Bible he quotes, and shoes that are always new. But he’s the devil just the same.
And he’s out there beyond the glass. I’ve seen his footprints. And so has she.
For the last seventeen years I’ve come to this restaurant, always alone. Every Friday night since I came on the job. Back then Patti Black was a tough-talking twenty-one, but it was bluster. At heart I was a little-white-girl orphan with bad history and worse dreams, hoping to hide inside a uniform from history that won’t let you hide.
Seventeen years I’ve sat at this same table, looking out this same window, me and a nightmare secret that’s kept me a well-armed coward. Tonight I face it: We finish here. I’m bruised and cut, there’s a pistol in my pocket that doesn’t belong to me, and the taste of its barrel in my mouth. You might say the clock’s running. ’Cause it is.
It’s Monday in Chicago, which is actually worse than it sounds.
Our bookies, palm readers, and civil servants are all doing double-shift overtime. We’re in an end-of-season baseball thing—the Cubs and Sox are still alive. A planetary alignment so rare that today’s
suggested biblical implications.
It’s also election eve.
And then there’s the other
—nineteen hours ago a "lone gunman" tried to kill our mayor. Three bullets. High caliber. All into the airspace surrounding his and his wife’s expensive haircuts.
As you might imagine, our police department is experiencing a bit of discomfort over this. At least above the rank of sergeant there’s a bit of discomfort. Below the rank of sergeant we’re more focused on policing the city, saving mankind, and stealing the odd apple here and there. Don’t get me wrong, I like the mayor—his wife Mary Kate’s a bitch, but that’s another story—and I don’t think Hizzoner should die in office. And as long as my sergeant’s not frustrated or hungry, neither does he: big, badass Irish Sonny Barrett.
At this moment Sonny’s face is mostly two-handed sandwich. But neither the breaded steak nor the Dan Ryan’s southbound trucks lumbering overhead slow his comments on my appearance. "I’m tellin’ you, Patti, and no shit now, you gotta drop a few."
I’m only 5’6" and change, but I have a pistol, and although Sonny can’t see it under my faded windbreaker, he knows it’s there. He’s seen me use it. "Really? You think?"
Sonny nods across the battered fender that separates us, eyes my figure or his opinion thereof, and keeps eating. The other five officers in our Tactical Unit (TAC) are doing the same, enjoying Sonny’s lounge act with their Ricobene’s—medium-sized, breaded-steak footballs with tomato sauce.
"Don’t mind workin’ with fat chicks, but shit…."
I weigh half what he does and often think Sonny and I would be better off if he were severely wounded in the line of duty. Had he not saved my life on Seventy-ninth, over by St. Rita’s, I would’ve shot him long ago. And I still might. See, we have sort of an unwritten rule in our crew—my personal appearance and your opinion, compliment, or critique, don’t need to mingle. But Sonny’s safe today and knows it. After this tailgate lunch we’re serving a stolen-property warrant on a Gangster Disciples building. A warrant that requires all seven of us be alive. There are thirty thousand members of the GDs nationwide, probably a third or more headquartered in Chicago. Many, if not all, can be on the violent side of unpleasant.
I, on the other hand, am a model of self-control when responding to my sergeant. "And your freight-train ass is modeling underwear?"
My partner Cisco Pike reaches to mediate and sloshes coffee across the hood of our Ford, stammering something nobody understands. Cisco has a speech impediment when he’s flustered; I think it makes him semi-adorable, but not enough for what you’re thinking. Like Cisco, my fellow TAC officers are chuckling, trying to imagine Sergeant Sonny Barrett BVD-clad and runway-ready. Only I bother to wipe at the coffee.
This TAC vehicle, like all the others, is a beater—five years on the job, one hubcap, and two-thirds of the paint it had when new. In Chicago TAC officers only drive what the detectives won’t. The dicks wear department-store blazers and knowing expressions. We wear body armor and quick-draw holsters, clothes you could garden in, and tomato sauce on our sleeves—although that’s primarily Sonny. Many of the brass and media rate TAC officers only slightly above the outlaws we police. We invite both groups to ride the ghetto with us. Better still, without us. Bring the wife and kids; make a day of it.
District 6, where we work, like districts 2 and 7, is not a good place to be. For anyone. There’s plenty of harsh on both sides, plenty of animosity, enough to poison families for generations. Trust me, I know: I came from a place like this. Bosses and reporters ask me why I don’t work Traffic instead. Traffic doesn’t help and that’s as far as I can explain it. I want to help, and most of the folks down here get so little, it wouldn’t add up to pity.
Sonny hard-eyes me across the fender and taps the hood.
"How ’bout you break-this-shit-down, Patti Ann, one last time for da brothers."
Good sergeants let you run your own warrants; mine wants a replay of the raid diagram while he looks for a street-corner high-five to go with his modified pimp roll. He looks stupid, sort of a cross between a grizzly bear and an Irishman two beers into the parade, but I know why he’s doing it. A focused and loose crew makes fewer mistakes.
Cisco smiles at Sonny’s act, then at me. Without me, Cisco would be three times dead, and there isn’t a moment when that statistic is lost on him. If luck is real—and it damn sure is—then I’m his and he’s mine. Other than his tendency toward fad cologne, Cisco’s perfect.
perfect—there is the occasional smatter of night-school psychobabble. Since spring, his college homework has often been focused at me and the illusion that I have shortcomings. "Issues," Cisco likes to call them now that he’s educated: "An unapproachable self"—figure that out while you’re rolling through the ghetto. "Avoidance of thread"—another simple one he says has to do with "connecting the dots of one’s life." And yesterday’s comment, that I still play rugby every weekend and won’t wear nail polish. That one I get. I have trouble being a
girl, but that’s none of his fucking business, is it? Then there’s this other rumor, that I only take criticism well as long as I don’t hear it.
Sonny burps and says, "Okay, cowboys, saddle up." He’s done eating, so the rest of us need to be. "We gon get us some stereo equipment."
The attempt on the mayor ceases to matter, as do our cultural differences on the Cubs and Sox. We toss the coffee, pack the papers, and bag the cups. I keep everyone’s edible scraps; they help sustain most of the stray animals in 6 and save me from buying them emergency hot dogs.
Everyone checks their pistols. Mine’s the only revolver, and they mention that all the time too. Three of us check shotguns. I draw the plan a second time on my hood. Everyone nods, the levity fading, the adrenaline coming. Two of the boys will handle the Chicago bar and the sixteen-pound hammer. I’ll do the door since I know the perps. They’ll hear, "Better to live till tomorrow," then it’s up to them. And occasionally GDs make very poor decisions.
Sonny drops his chin, eyeing all of us; he’s lost two partners where we’re going, one dead, one to a wheelchair. "These are bad people, kids. None of us die today."
We all nod. Eloquent he’s not, but Sonny Barrett’s always on the money.
This far south, Halsted Street looks like what it is. And the seven of us look like what we are—three TAC cars rolling fast in convoy, passing street-corner lookouts with junior high educations and only one question:
They’re part; we’re part, everyone mixed into the swizzle and swazzle. Sonny’s Ford makes a left on Vincennes; he has the lead, burning oil we can taste.
and we’ll be at the dead end of Gilbert Court. Two uniform officers died there in ’03, shot fifteen times in their car. My heart’s starting to ramp, keeping time with the song in my head. Springsteen’s "Born in the U.S.A." Cisco’s smiling, at what I’m not sure. He does that with some frequency.
Sonny’s Ford is pushing 50 and so’s ours; the brick storefronts start to blur, hand-painted signs mush into one sentence, "Big Julie’s Suit Up, Temple Mercy, Time Out Lounge, Esta’s Chicken Wings." The shotgun bumps heavy against my vest; I’ve never had to kill anyone. You make me, and I will, nobody on these streets doubts that, but I lose sleep over a split-second decision that’s
right here, right now
all the time.
. This neighborhood is ten square miles, parts of which most Americans wouldn’t believe were in our country. I’ve been here since I was twenty-one, watched it change from white to black, working-class to poor, then poor to ghetto. Plywood covers more windows than glass, and not because it’s cheaper.