It was a gang fight. I could tell that much from my window. Twenty boys with baseball bats, pit bulls, and acne careened up and down the street, shrieking and swinging the bats as they chased down a pair of adolescents interloping on their turf. The group darted between trees and parked cars in pursuit of the two, ducking in and out the streetlight shadows. My wife punched 911. And I pulled the shade back a touch and peeked out to watch the show.

The boys caught up with their prey and pushed them up against a chain-link fence. The crowd swaggered back and forth, poking the trapped pair with the butt ends of the bats and threatening them with the quick clicks of switchblades snapping open. The cornered pair looked like nothing more than what they were–two frightened children, waiting bug-eyed for something terrible to happen to them. They stared into the mob, trying to call up a facade of indifference.

And then it seemed that the mob hesitated. Inside their threats they hemmed and hawed, looking for a pal to strike the first blow. A pit bull sniffed a piece of sidewalk refuse, undisturbed by the rantings and ravings of its master. Still, no one swung. They stalled so long that finally, from both ends of the street, a half-dozen police cars barreled down onto the scene.

The mob’s bravado ran like piss down their pant legs. Stunned by the blue lights, they scattered like cockroaches, skittering into gangways and alleys, sucked into the dark. The cops slammed on their brakes, swung open their doors, and raced after them. For a moment, the street was quiet. The flashing lights of the squad cars cast strobelike silhouettes of bare trees against the silent apartment buildings.

Most of the boys’ faces were familiar to us. We pass them every day as they slouch against the wall of the comer store. We step by them as they gulp soda-pop wine and harass any woman walking alone. They wait, I suppose, for the first woman in the history of the world to respond favorably to a wine-soaked teenager clicking his tongue at her like some rabid squirrel. They speak in that guttural city way that can best be described as the Yo, Fuck dialect. They quit school years ago, don’t have jobs, and still live at home with their mothers. Each one of them loves to be called a gangbanger.

So they spray-paint anything, from trash cans to tombstones, with cryptic insignia. They wear their baseball caps at the exact tilt, talk shit, and hang. Occasionally we see that one of the crew has managed to latch on to a gum-smacking girl who has strayed from her own gaggle. But for the most part these boys stick to themselves, swilling and swapping wine and gangbanging tales. In the winter, the cold forces the group to seek out unlocked lobbies and foyers to smoke and drink in. Twice last February the remnants of a “party” kept our mail from being delivered. The postal service may guarantee their appointed rounds through sleet and driving snow, but they draw the line at vomit. In the summertime, the fighting kicks in.

There is no one angrier than a Chicago cop who has to chase down a gangbanger at the end of his shift. The policemen emerged from the alleys with a few of the slower elements, dragging them out by the collars of their jean jackets. Banging the boys up against the same chain-link fence, the cops told them to stand still. Each boy protested, pleading that he was just out for a walk. Each boy was told to shut the fuck up. An undercover cop began tossing them into his backseat as if he were a stoker in a boiler room. He heaved them in, one after another, until there must have been a dozen of them stuffed into the back of his Chevy Caprice. When one of the captured complained, the cop called him by his first name, told him to shut the fuck up, and warned him that if he didn’t he would call the boy’s mother. He shut up.

The cops paused to let a Hispanic couple pass by. The woman, clutching an infant to her chest, stepped carefully over a baseball bat. A lady sergeant picked up the bat and apologized for the inconvenience. The undercover cop resumed stoking.

Satisfied with their bounty, the police slammed the doors shut and sped down the street toward the precinct station.

Once the last of the squads had pulled away, the remaining boys crawled out of the alleys’ cracks and crevices and back onto the sidewalk, One by one they emerged; bereft of the mob machismo, they skulked warily down the block, sometimes peeking furtively over their shoulders. But mostly they walked quickly, hands in pockets and eyes staring straight down. The headlights of a passing car sent them scurrying back into the shadows. Within a half-hour, each boy had succeeded in the dash back to mother and home. The night became so quiet you could hear the mercury-vapor hum of the streetlights.

The next morning, my wife and I passed one of the boys. He still had the same tough-guy swagger from the night before, the same baseball cap atilt, the same menacing sneer. But his hands, which last night gripped a bat and a knife, were now wrapped around a garbage bag full of dirty clothes. Whether as punishment or everyday chore, yesterday’s street warrior was loaded down with the family laundry.

It seemed too early for his friends to be hanging outside the corner store. He tromped past the empty corner, but paused nervously before he rounded the bend. It’s one thing to be caught gangbanging by the police; it’s quite another to be caught by your pals holding your kid sister’s dirty diapers.

He slipped into the laundromat and slouched into a chair behind the washers. He ducked so low that all there was left to see was a pair of dull eyes peering out from under a baseball cap.