It was August 1998. I’d been living in my “garden”-level apartment on the Far North Side of Chicago for only a few months, and I still wasn’t sure that random individuals wouldn’t be trying to climb in through the windows on a regular basis. I had lived within a few hours of Chicago for my entire life, but I was 30 before I moved to the city itself, and my expectations about city life were derived from hearsay and news stories, most of which leaned toward the sensational, or at least the dramatic.
A lot of Chicagoans like to embrace the stereotypes about the city – even the negative ones. Especially the negative ones. They like to play up the rough edges. Nelson Algren famously said about Chicago, “Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”
I guess I assumed that “real” meant, in large part, “dangerous.” So during that first summer in the urban jungle, I had made it a habit to pay close attention to what was going on outside, at all times.
OK. What I really mean is, I looked out the window once in a while. Because, although I’m laying this on a bit thick, it wasn’t that big a deal. Maybe just a little startling.
What happened was this. One sunny day, while walking into my living room from the kitchen, beer in hand, I couldn’t help but notice the blue flashing lights outside. I don’t remember how many squad cars were parked out there – I don’t think I’d be exaggerating to say three. Could have been four or five. And at least one paddy wagon (politically correct term: “squadrol,” but nobody outside the professional media uses it). That seemed like a lot of cops for a quiet, tree-lined street corner, in the middle of the afternoon.
Speaking of stereotypes, Chicago cops have a pretty specific reputation, and you probably know what it is. My preconceived view of Chicago cops was materially informed by things like documentary footage of the 1968 Democratic Convention (“The whole world is watching!”), accounts of the assassination of Fred Hampton (the student legal services director at my college worked on the investigation and had first-hand stories), and a number of benign but unpleasant encounters during music festivals, traffic stops, etc.
I think it’s accurate to say that big, dumb, vicious, mean, and cruel are just a few adjectives that many people commonly associate with Chicago’s men (and women) in blue.
I wasn’t sure how wise it would be to barge into a crime scene, but I was curious, so I went outside to check it out. I saw a few people standing on the opposite corner. At that time, most of the residents of this block were Asian immigrants (it’s “yuppied” up somewhat since then). I tried to ask an older Asian couple what was happening, but they either didn’t understand English or didn’t like the looks of me, because they frowned and turned away as if I weren’t there.
Then I noticed a few police officers, three or four doors down the street, walking back toward the corner. And that’s when I got surprised.
Not only were they smiling, they were young. And ethnically diverse. And fairly good looking. I’m not sure if they were police academy exchange students from Hollywood – or a team of special operatives called Telegenic Force One or something – but they would have been perfectly at home on a TV show aimed at the 18-to-24-year-old demographic.
I’m telling you, I didn’t dream it. I was there. I saw it. A whole crowd of uniformed Chicago cops – all of them young, cheerful, and pretty. And a balanced group of men and women, black, white, Asian, and Latino.
I still didn’t know why they were there, but they seemed friendly enough, so, despite my inherent fear of the badge, I asked. They told me that someone had called 911 to report that a “big snake” was loose in their yard, so they came to investigate the situation, and now they were trying to catch it. Because, sure enough, there was a big snake crawling around in somebody’s little patch of grass.
They couldn’t possibly have needed a show of force that large – and it couldn’t have been proper procedure to unilaterally seize a reptile (without a warrant, even) – but it must have been a slow-crime day in Uptown, because there they all were, and having a good a time, too.
One of the cops – who had taken charge, apparently because he knew something about snakes – asked me if he could have a pillowcase, so I ran inside and got one. Then, somehow, he got the snake to crawl into the pillowcase, and just like that, the suspect was in custody.
Of course, I was dying to know what kind of snake it was, but the cop wasn’t sure. He said it was either a king snake – harmless, possibly somebody’s pet that escaped or was abandoned – or it could be a coral snake – poisonous. They have similar markings and are often confused. It was better to play it safe, he said. That seemed reasonable to me.
And, like Tommy Edwards of the old “Animal Stories” running bit on Larry Lujack’s WLS radio show, I wanted to know if the snake was gonna be all right. I was politely assured that the animal would be taken to a suitable area near the Chicago River and released.
I was kind of hoping to get a nice certificate from City Hall, in recognition of my brave sacrifice of a pillowcase for the common good, but I never did. Chicago is a rough burg, after all.