A woman of East European heritage is floating out in the middle of Axehead Lake. She’s about five foot six. She weighs about 300 pounds. She’s wearing a string bikini.
“Hey, you!” I call. “Get out of that water! There’s no swimming here!”
“Not swim,” she tells me when she finally beaches, showing more white skin than the legendary whale. “Just splash!”
These people have no respect for cops. Talk like this in their own country and they’d be put in boxcars and shipped to some part of the world where summer never comes. But here they’re in the land of the free.
There’s another one on the other side of the lake. I drive over in my squad. “You! Get out of the water!”
He’s a scrawny little guy with black hair and every single one of his front teeth missing.
“No swim,” he says, diving into 12 feet of water. “Just wade.”
Thousands of people are waiting to see what I’ll do. It’s the hottest day of the year, and if I don’t watch it every damn one of them will be jumping in this lake. They’ll be drowning like flies. Flies do drown, don’t they?
I yank out my ticket book. For minor stuff like ordinance violations we don’t actually arrest people, just give them tickets. These tickets have about as much force as a parking ticket. Less. But, hey, it’s better than tying the squad up for an hour while you cart someone into the lockup and do all that paperwork. Who’s going to watch the lake then?
The toothless guy finally staggers out of the water. He’s drunk, of course, and grinning like a monkey. “No swim!” he laughs. “Hah, hah, hah!”
I can feel them watching me all around the lake. There’s a family of Mexicans, father and mother and an entire band of black-haired children, all in bathing suits. There are young women with cigarettes in their fingers encouraging toddlers to wade out. There are beer-bellied suburban boys waiting on their towels. “People!” I shout. “This lake is 30 feet deep! There’s a sudden drop-off! There are ice-cold springs and unexpected undertows. There is no lifeguard, and I can’t swim!”
It’s no use. Half of them don’t speak English. They speak Polish, they speak Spanish, they speak Thai, they speak Korean, they speak obscure dialects from remote third-world countries. As for the other half, those who do speak Eng–
Splash! There goes the toothless guy, back in the water. And when I look across the lake I see that the great white whale is once again afloat. I’m losing control.
The next time the toothless guy staggers out of the water–he doesn’t drown; the obnoxious ones never do–I grab him by his skinny arm and say: “You’re under arrest, buddy!”
“No swim! No swim!” he cries, and suddenly he’s fighting me.
No big deal–I’m twice his size. But in a matter of minutes we’re surrounded by a band of broad-faced men who immediately begin quarreling with me, the toothless guy, and each other in a language I don’t understand. Luckily, this is the moment Sergeant Jack chooses to show up.
Sergeant Jack is a cop’s cop– straight, honest, courageous, and resourceful. One time in the squad room we were screwing around, and he says, “Let me show you this new come-along I just learned.”
A come-along, in case you have a cop friend who wants to demonstrate one, is a way of guiding a reluctant subject into the squad. Such as catching your ear between his thumb and a ballpoint pen. Or shoving his nightstick between your legs and lifting you up by the balls. So I knew better than let him show me, but he showed me anyhow, grabbing my lower lip and leading me around until I begged for mercy. So Sergeant Jack is the right person to have on your side when you’re surrounded by nine Slavic faces.
“Go to hell!” the toothless guy says, and boom! Jack has him in the squad. “Keep watching the lake,” he says. “I’ll take care of this guy.” Away they go.
One of the toothless guy’s friends speaks a little English. “He always no good. Even in Poland he no good.”
Axehead Lake. This is no melting pot, this is the Tower of Babel. Where do these people come from? And how do they get here? Every year the mix gets thicker. A kid from Palestine takes off his shoes, parks them beneath the no-swimming sign, jumps in, and drowns, doesn’t even come up for air. For this he traveled 6,000 miles? An Asian family is accused of barbecuing a dog. Some guy from Lithuania gets drunk and insists on fighting with every black face he sees.
It’s not just Axehead Lake, it’s the whole damn forest preserve. It’s not just today, it’s all summer long. At the Cermak Pool mariachi bands are charging ten dollars a tune, and people are paying it. “Don’t interfere with their ethnic things,” the lieutenant warns. At Dam Number Four Woods the Romanians are having a picnic, parking on the grass, blocking the road. They offer sausages and imported beer and throw a $20 bill into my squad when I’m not looking. At Schiller Woods the Koreans are holding evangelical services, in the next grove Peruvians are quietly cooking peppers, and farther down the line it’s the Philippine Islands.
Everyone offers food. Octopus, they say, very good. Everyone wants to park on the grass. In Catherine Chevalier 2,000 lesbians are celebrating something I haven’t the nerve to ask about. At Miller Meadow, where the barbecue haze is almost too deep to breathe, angry black women are going jaw to jaw over the possession of a picnic table, while the Croatian soccer team waits for the Mexicans to get off the field.
In a little grove on North Avenue people from the islands sacrifice a goat. I tell them next time they must have a permit. The same for the Nigerians who want to sell native fabrics and handmade jewelry. The same for the Greeks who want to dig a barbecue pit in the lawn. The same for the German father who wants to launch a six-foot rocket for his boy. The guy in a kilt who practices on his bagpipes every Sunday morning at Thatcher Woods I leave alone. Where else could you practice on bagpipes?
People are worried about immigration, you hear them crabbing about it on talk radio all the time. “Make ’em learn English,” a man complains. “Build a wall,” a lady suggests. What a laugh. These people, sitting in air-conditioned homes and cars, calling on cellular phones, don’t know the half of it. It’s over, I want to tell them. The world changed while you were looking the other way, and it ain’t never going to get changed back.
Meanwhile, some people have to cope with it and still stay politically correct. “No, no, no,” I tell the guy from Lithuania. “You can’t just come into this country and start fighting with people because they’re black.” “Black no good!” he cries. “Get rid of black!” A few minutes later a black guy comes into the station and bonds him out. “He’s all right,” the black guy says. “He’s just drunk.”
Some of these people are enterprising. They gather up all the picnic tables at Cermak Pool and charge other people a buck each for using them. They sell parking spaces, block off entire groves and charge admission. They pretty much do what they please.
I pull into a grove on Irving Park. There’s a guy from central Europe dragging a gunny sack that seems to have something alive in it. “Open that sack!” I command, half expecting to see some poor kidnapped child emerge. Out come cats–black cats, gray cats, striped cats, orange-and-white cats. The man grins. “Too much cat!” he says. “Take those cats to the Humane Society!” I shout. He drives off, looking for another place to dump his cats.
It’s the long hot summer, even hotter out here away from the lake. The sun beats down on Schiller Woods, and I’m driving with a busted air conditioner, black spots swimming before my eyes. There’s a party of Indians at the fork of the road–not Native Americans, but Indians from India, the women in saris with dark red dots on their foreheads. They look cool and comfortable. Why not? My neighbors, who come from Bengal, tell me the temperature there averages 110 degrees and the only season is summer.
White Anglo-Saxon Americans hold their annual picnics–church groups, family reunions, tavern clubs. They line up as early as January for permits to the more desirable pavilions. When the big day in July finally arrives they find hundreds of brown-skinned people already inside. “Sorry,” I tell them. “You should have been here at nine. I guess you’ll just have to share.”
That’s what America is all about, isn’t it? Listen to some people and you’ll think maybe not. But out here it’s the only way. Serbs and Croats, Indians and Pakistanis, Greeks and Turks, even the Irish and the English, side by side and getting along. The only ones who fight are the suburban white kids, and that’s because they think they’re supposed to. “He insulted my girl!” they cry, wiping their bloody lips. “Where is your girl?” I ask. There she is, lying on the hood of a car stoned.
Then the bikers arrive, wearing leather against their naked skin on a hundred-degree day. Just looking at a biker makes me feel hot–all that shaggy hair, all those heavy beards, all those torrid exhaust pipes. On a traffic stop I accidentally touch one and burn the skin off my fingers. The bikers are true-blue Americans. They drive by with American flags mounted on their handlebars. They have coiled snakes tattooed on their forearms: “Don’t tread on me!”
This is America, I tell myself, my America. It has nothing to do with Frank Capra or Jimmy Stewart. It has nothing to do with Leave It to Beaver. It may not even have anything to do with me.
Fourth of July and the flags are up everywhere. People from Lebanon and Cambodia and Guatemala and Trinidad are flying the American flag, people who never heard of John Adams or Aaron Burr or Plymouth Rock, people who have no idea where the Boston Tea Party was held, people who don’t understand Christmas, who never even, for Pete’s sake, tasted apple pie. What does “the rockets’ red glare” mean to them?
They’re shooting fireworks from one end of the county to the other. They squat down at the curb, touch off an M-80, and wave at the passing cop. By nightfall it sounds like a war zone. On the police radio the sheriff’s guys are getting noise complaints as fast as the dispatcher can read them off, and they’re responding to her as if they actually mean to check them out. In the forest preserves no one cares any longer. Axehead Lake lies under a dense blue cloud of smoke. The stench of gunpowder covers Schiller Woods. Rockets rise up at Cermak Pool. It’s a grand national celebration, and we’re all in it together: black, and white, and brown, and every shade between; Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews–even us cops.