On June 22, 1990, my friend Greg Allen–an actor, director, and playwright who works a day job in my neighborhood–went up the street during his break to get some Fritos and milk at the nearby 7-Eleven. It was not where he usually took lunch. He was just about there when he heard a pop, felt a burning in his knee, and said, almost matter-of-factly, “I’ve been shot.” He spotted a boy pedaling away on a StingRay bicycle, and then another boy taking off after him. “A bike-by shooting,” he mused.
Greg was surprised that the gunshot had sounded like a pop. He thought it should have banged like gunshots do in the movies. He thought for a second that he’d heard the bullet fall to the sidewalk beside him, and he looked for it. It wasn’t there. It surprised him that he was thinking all this and not seeking help. It had been about three seconds since he’d been shot.
Greg hopped and limped to the small parking lot that the 7-Eleven shared with the Chicago School of Massage Therapy and slowly lowered himself to the asphalt, folding up like a chaise longue. As he did, a crowd of women came running out of the school, two carrying chairs. The women guided him into one of them, their hands rubbing and squeezing every body part within reach. He was at the center of a small mob of masseuses when the ambulance from Illinois Masonic arrived.
He’d been very lucky. The bullet had only grazed the fleshy part of his knee. The attractive medical student who attended him hazarded a diagnosis. Yes, he’d live. He’d walk, stroll, skip, hop, and jump again. Greg was euphoric in the way that only someone who has just survived a brush with death can be. He wanted to ask the med student then and there for her phone number, but his ex-girlfriend had arrived and he thought it might hurt her if he asked someone else for a date while she was so upset over him. That he was prone, in a hospital bed, also didn’t help. He didn’t get a phone number. He didn’t even find out the med student’s name. Medical ethics would probably have prevented her from going out with him anyway.
Greg was released two hours after being brought to the hospital. The next day he took flowers to the women at the massage school, but they were in the middle of a class so he didn’t stay long. The police called. They had the boy who’d shot him. They’d been able to find him quickly because he lived just across the street from the 7-Eleven and the massage school. I knew him. He was the most prolific criminal in the neighborhood.
Greg, going about his business, put off calling his parents. He had a show the next night. He created it three years ago, and it’s been running ever since. In Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind 30 miniature plays are presented in 60 minutes. Two dollars plus the roll of a die determines the price of admission. The numbers 1 through 30 are hung on a clothesline about nine feet above the stage, and these correspond to the titles of the plays that are presented to the audience on a “menu” they’re given when they walk in. The audience calls out the numbers, and that determines which play is performed next. This works nicely most of the time. Chance plays a major role in just how well.
Chance worked in Greg’s favor, and he went on that night with a big bandage around his knee that was too big to look real. Most of the time he’s the one who leaps up and grabs the numbers, since he’s the tallest member of the cast. But he couldn’t do it, much as he tried.
Greg had put in a new running theme that wasn’t written on the menu. Members of the cast made several large cardboard signs that each performer displayed at intervals during the show. The signs announced: “Someone in This Room Has Been Shot!” Members of the audience were asked to come onstage and hold up the signs, which cracked up the crowd. While there wasn’t any doubt as to which person in the room was the one who’d been shot, most of the audience left that night uncertain whether it was true.
The next day Greg phoned his parents. He tried to soft-pedal his injury. “Mom? Get Dad on the phone. I have some news.” His father picked up the extension, asking “Good news, son?” “Well, Dad, Mom, I’m OK now, but something happened a little while ago.” “What happened, son?” “I didn’t tell you before because I’m fine and I didn’t want you to worry. And you shouldn’t worry, because I’m fine.” “What happened? Tell us.” “Well, Mom, Dad, I was shot.” “What?” By that evening Greg had written a new two-minute play entitled How Not to Tell Your Mother You’ve Been Shot. It starts with “Mime”–the cast pantomimes each facet of the shooting. One performer plays the bullet barreling into Greg’s knee. The last act is called “Avoidance.” Greg phones home and says, “Hi Mom!” His mother answers brightly, “Hi son, what’s new?” Greg looks at the floor and pauses, “Oh . . . nothing.” He put it on the menu.
The wound took hardly any time to heal. Four months had gone by since the shooting when a woman came up to Greg after the show and said, “You know, my roommate was the one who stitched you up after you were shot.” Greg said, “Really? I thought she was really nice. I was going to ask her out, but I couldn’t because my ex-girlfriend showed up and she still gets jealous.” The woman nodded. “No kidding? Well, she kind of liked you too.” Greg asked, “Why don’t you set us up?” She shook her head. “I couldn’t do that. But I’ll give you our phone number.” Greg had never before asked anyone that he didn’t already know for a date, but he called and they went out.
Ten months passed. The boy who’d fired at Greg was still in jail, still awaiting trial. He’d been 17 at the time of the shooting and had passed his 18th birthday in prison, but he still looked younger than his age. He’d been aiming for a member of a rival gang when he’d hit Greg. It’s not easy to get your target from a moving bike, especially with a gun as small as the one he’d been carrying, a .22. The kid was no marksman. Greg looks about as much like a gang member as Walter Jacobson. The police said that the day before shooting Greg he’d shot someone else in the forehead. This victim was seriously injured but alive.
At the time of the shooting Greg lived in an area considered unsafe, Uptown, and nothing bad had ever happened to him there. The area where he was shot, my mostly middle-class neighborhood, is thought to be very safe. The kid was a suspect in practically every petty crime around there. I was certain that he’d broken into my car, but there wasn’t any way to prove it. The break-in took place in the alley, in the dark, without a witness. But the day after the break-in, I saw him walk by. He glanced over, caught my gaze, and held it for a moment. I read no guilt in his expression, only a mixture of hostility and triumph, and I was sure. I felt like grabbing him and shaking him like a bad puppy. I wanted to transfer that expression from his face to mine. But I’m an adult. I said nothing. Later I planned to give him an old-fashioned talking-to, but I didn’t see him again. The next I heard of him, he’d been picked up for shooting Greg.
Unlike Greg, I have extensive experience with crime. When I was younger, I was both victim and perpetrator of a variety of petty criminal acts. Friends of mine were also murdered. One friend had her skull caved in by a 14-year-old boy with a golf club. Another was shot to death in her apartment. When I was eight, the first friend I’d made after my family moved to New York City, a woman in her 80s named Mrs. Clark, was killed.
The neighborhood we’d moved to had once been grand, but it had been on the decline for several years. Most of the people who’d lived there when it was prosperous had left by the time we arrived, but the area still contained many elderly people who would not or could not leave. The apartment building we lived in was almost entirely filled with them. Mrs. Clark lived alone with her two poodles and was kind to the new boy, friendless, with problems at home. I also had two dogs, my closest companions. Sometimes we’d walk our dogs together, an 8-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman with more in common than we could ever talk about.
The last time I saw her she was crying. She’d taken her older dog to the vet and had been advised to have him destroyed. His health problems were incurable. Through her tears she explained that she would have him put to sleep but that she wanted to keep him with her one last weekend. While she was walking the dogs in the park that Saturday afternoon, she was murdered for a couple of dollars and change. The other old people in the building shook their heads. They wouldn’t go in that park, not even in the daytime. They too mourned her, but their fears had once again been justified. They said that her body had been discovered several blocks uptown, a nice long walk from where we lived. The two little dogs were alive. They were found next to her body, nuzzling up against her hand.
I grew into a rowdy and enraged teenager. The neighborhood changed again. As the older people died, young, prosperous people from the suburbs moved in. Property values soared. The old people who had savings did well; those who didn’t were pushed out. Some were terrorized by their landlords. I moved away from the area, leaving home when I was 16. I came to Chicago ten years later and moved into the apartment where I live now, on the triangle block created by Lincoln Avenue, George Street, and Southport. The neighborhood was somewhat marginal then, but inexpensive and quieter than the place I’d left behind. I could tell the area was due for a make-over, but I settled in. Off and on over the years I would see the kid who eventually shot Greg, see him grow into an embittered teenager, for reasons I can only speculate about. I didn’t sympathize, but I knew him.
When crime occurred, neighborhood fingers were pointed in the kid’s direction. One home owner had formerly been the leader of the Outlaws, a motorcycle gang. But like every other home owner around there, he spent several weekends painting over gang graffiti on his garage. There was nothing else he could do about it. Another neighbor, also a theater director, was repeatedly intimidated by the kid and his buddies. One time they bumped him, pushing him aside in the alley. Of course when the kid was alone, he kept his distance, scowling.
While the kid waited in jail, some neighbors wondered whether his mother would bail him out. She owns a store in the area, and people thought she could raise the money. Nobody suggested that she try. The other theater director moved away, as did the former Outlaws leader. Gentrification continued, and with the kid gone, most of the petty crime in the area stopped. The 7-Eleven closed. Some of Greg’s friends told him that if he hadn’t wanted Fritos and milk, he wouldn’t have gone there and wouldn’t have been shot. It seemed reasonable.
Finally, more than a year after he’d been arrested, the kid was tried, convicted, and sentenced to six years for attempted murder. Greg had mixed emotions. He was relieved that the waiting was over, afraid that prison would just make the kid worse. Maybe next time he’d hit the person he aimed at, and maybe next time he’d kill someone. He’d probably have to get a bigger gun.
But maybe the kid won’t be a criminal after he gets out. That chance bullet had started two wheels turning, and not just on the kid’s bike. Looking back, it’s easy to say it was destiny, that the path to the 7-Eleven, the bullet’s trail to Greg’s knee, and the kid’s road to prison were all laid before the event. It’s a simple matter to determine the spin of a wheel when you can look back at its track. It’s true that cities are violent, dangerous places. But they are also places where magic occurs. And the resolution of one event only starts another wheel turning.
Greg performs in many venues. Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind goes to New York for a week in early December. Recently Greg did a one-man show at a benefit for an organization called Business Volunteers for the Arts. I was invited by other friends who’d helped organize it.
The benefit was held in a renovated building that houses several galleries in a marginal neighborhood at Orleans and Division. A policeman guarded the door against gate-crashers. While throngs of well-dressed business volunteers crowded four floors, lining up for food, performers of all types competed for their attention.
Greg was billed as a performance artist. His show was 30 minutes long and divided into 12 parts, vignettes on the major themes of life. Birth. Truth. Fear. Faith. He ended with Peace and Death. He also told the story of his shooting, holding up a plaque that usually hangs on the wall of his new apartment. The plaque contains the report that was filed with the hospital by Miriam, the medical student who attended him when he was shot. They moved in together shortly after the kid was sentenced. They are in love. Greg titled this part of the show “Beauty.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman.