When I moved into a house on Touhy in Rogers Park, I was immediately struck by the neighborhood’s clean lawns and the absence of broken glass and graffiti. Then my 13-year-old son and I took a walk to the Howard el station and I got a lesson in hats.
My son wore an orange hat with its visor pointing to the sky. It was five o’clock, and the streets were crowded with cars and buses. Two men walked toward us. One of them was holding a bat.
There’s a large park near our house with two baseball diamonds. Every morning, I see Park District employees working on it. So I didn’t think anything of the two men until the one holding the bat began swinging it from hand to hand, loosely, as if he were getting ready to strike an object, any object..
When we were 20 feet from him–his bat going from hand to hand–and his partner, I had a sudden mental image of the bat smashing down on a car’s windshield. Then I imagined it hitting a person, my son for example, first against his legs, tripping him, and then against his head.
They stopped directly in front of us. The man with the bat moved it again from hand to hand. Then he asked my son: “You a King?”
“No,” my son answered quickly.
“Good,” said the man. He shifted the bat to his shoulder, as if he were on his way to play baseball.
“Lucky,” said his partner.
Ten feet past them, I asked, “What was that about?”
“They thought I was a King.”
“A King? Like in the gang, Latin Kings?”
“Probably the hat.”
“Yeah. The visor’s pointing up.”
“Pull it down.”
He pulled it down and said, “You can’t even wear hats anymore.”
“Sure you can.”
“No. You got to wear it a certain way. Backwards is one gang. To the side means Folks. Another way means Kings.”
“But those were adults. And you were with me.”
“I don’t think it mattered who I was with,” my son replied.
“But grown folks.”
“Oh, they were Folks, OK.”
“I mean grown-ups.”
We caught the train at Howard, ran our errands, and walked home in the growing darkness.
“Can’t walk that way,” my son said, pulling off his hat.
I wanted to cross the street. “Why not?” I asked.
“Those people on the corner are Folks.”
“Put your hat back on,” I said. He did, and stuck the visor to the side.
As we crossed the street I said, “Straighten it.”
“Just do as I say.”
We walked past them. My son walked faster. His hat occasioned no remarks.
“Those were Folks,” my son said at a safe distance. “You should have let me keep my hat to the side.”
“There wasn’t a need,” I answered him. I’d seen that they all took off their hats when they saw us coming across the street, which I’d guessed meant there would be no confrontation.
Then I looked at my son’s hat. The visor was pointing at the stars.