Sisters on the Case
PUBLISHED October 2, 2007
Even half a mile from the park, Victoria could hear the screaming: ten thousand throats open in hate. The cops at the intersection, uniforms wet under the hot sun, were so tense that they shouted at everyone—old women asking what the trouble was, even a priest riding up on a bicycle—the cops shouted at them all, including Victoria Warshawski darting under the sawhorses that blocked Seventy-first Street.
She had ridden her bike the three miles to Seventy-First and Stony, where she’d chained it to a streetlight. A number 71 bus was just coming along, and she climbed thankfully on board. Her torn shirt was soaked with sweat; her throat was hoarse and dry. She had eighty-two cents in her pockets. If she used thirty cents on the round-trip fare, she’d have plenty to buy a Coke when she found a vending machine.
Seventy-first Street was blocked off half a mile from Marquette Park. Cops in riot gear were diverting all traffic, even CTA buses, in a wide loop around the park. Traffic was jammed on Western Avenue in both directions. The cops told the bus driver that no one was allowed off the bus until it got to the far side of the park, but while they were stuck in the intersection, Victoria forced open the back door and jumped out.
When the cops at Western Avenue yelled at her, she was afraid one of them was a friend of her dad’s who’d recognized her. She didn’t realize that every face was a blur to these hot, edgy men, but she couldn’t help turning around, to see if they were calling her by name. When she did, she saw something shocking.
Uncle Tomas’s white convertible pulled into the intersection. Uncle Tomas was at the wheel; another man, a stranger to Victoria, sat next to him. He was blond, like Tomas, and riding in the open car had boiled both their faces bright red, as red as the wild shirt the stranger was wearing. At first the officer tried to stop the car, but Uncle Tomas pulled out his wallet. The cop looked around, as if checking to see who was watching. He took a bill out of Tomas’s wallet, then moved two sawhorses so the Wildcat could drive through.
The uniformed man was taking a bribe. This was terrible! Tony Warshawski talked about this over and over again, the people who tried to give him money to get out of traffic tickets, and how wrong it was, it gave everyone on the force a bad name.
Victoria took a picture of the cop moving the sawhorses and then of Uncle Tomas and the stranger. Tomas must have gotten someone to help him find her father. The two men would gang up on Tony and kill him, and then some evil cop would take a bribe to pretend not to see that it had happened.
Victoria started running. She couldn’t beat the convertible to the park, but she had to get there as fast as she could, to find her father before Tomas and his partner did. When she got to the park, she saw this was going to be nearly impossible. The crowds were so thick that a child, even a girl like Victoria who was tall for her age, couldn’t see around them. She had to fight her way through them.
People were holding up signs with horrible words on them. One said, “King would look good with a knife in his back,” but the others! They said things that you were never supposed to say about anyone.
Victoria used her elbows the way Boom-Boom had taught her at hockey practice and pushed her way through a massive wedge of people. They were yelling and screaming and waving confederate flags. Some of them had sewn swastikas to their clothes, or painted them on their faces. This was also very bad: Gabriella had to leave her mother and father forever and come to America because of people in Italy who wore swastikas.
Even as she looked for her father, Victoria realized she couldn’t tell her mother the things she was seeing—swastikas, people calling Martin Luther King by a name worse than a swear word. She hoped Tony wouldn’t say anything, either. It would upset Gabriella terribly, and she and Tony had a duty to protect Gabriella from any further unhappiness in this life.
As she moved further west into the park, she saw a group of teenagers turn a car over and set fire to it. The people near them cheered. Six policemen in riot helmets ran to the teenagers, who spat at them and started throwing rocks and bottles.
Victoria pushed through the cheering mob to where the policemen were using their billy clubs, trying to arrest the boys who’d set the fire.
She tugged on one officer’s arm. “Please, I’m looking for Officer Warshawski, do you know him, have you seen him?”
“Get back, get out of the way. This is no place for a kid like you. Go home to your mommy and daddy.” The man pushed her out of the way.
“Tony Warshawski,” she cried. “He’s my dad, he’s working here, he’s a cop, I need to find him.”
This time the men ignored her completely. They couldn’t pay attention to her—the crowd was protecting the boys, throwing rocks, and cans of Coke at the officers. One can hit an officer in the head; the crowd roared with laughter when the soda spilled into his eyes, blinding him.
“The niggers are on Homan,” someone shrieked. The whole mob swerved west, chanting, “Find the niggers, kill the niggers!”
Victoria followed them, her legs aching, a stitch in her side making her gasp for breath. She couldn’t pay attention to her pain, it would only get in her way. She had to find Tony. She elbowed her way past the screaming adults. One of them put out a hand and grabbed her, so hard she couldn’t wriggle free.
It was Father Gielczowski. With him were half a dozen people she recognized from her own neighborhood, two of them women carrying bags of sugar.
“I’m looking for my dad. Have you seen him?”
“Have you seen him, Father. Doesn’t your Jew mother teach you to respect your elders?”
“You’re not my father!” Victoria kicked him hard on the shin; he let go of her shoulder, swearing at her in Polish.
Victoria slithered away. The crowd was so thick that the priest couldn’t move fast enough to catch up with her.
“Daddy, where are you, where are you?” She realized tears were running down her cheeks. “Babies cry; you aren’t a baby.”
She passed a drinking fountain and stopped to drink and to run her head under the stream of water. Other people came up and pushed her out of the way, but she was cooler now and could move faster.
For over an hour she pushed her way through the mob. It was like swimming in giant waves in Lake Michigan: you worked hard, but you couldn’t move very far. Every time she came to a cop, she tried to ask about Tony Warshawski. Sometimes the man would take time to shake his head, no, he didn’t know Tony. Once, someone knew Tony but hadn’t seen him. More often, the over-heated officers brushed her aside.
People were throwing cans and stones and cherry bombs. One exploded near her, filling her eyes with smoke. A rumor swept through the mob: someone had knocked King down with a rock.
“One down, eleven million to go,” a woman cackled.
“King Nigger’s on his feet, they’re treating him like he’s royalty while we have to suffer in the heat,” a man growled.
Victoria saw the golf course on her right. It looked green, refreshing, and almost empty of people. She shoved her way through the mob and made it onto the course. She climbed the short hill around one of the holes and came on the road that threaded the greens. To her amazement, Uncle Tomas’s white convertible stood there. Tomas wasn’t in it, only the stranger who’d been with him back at Western Avenue. He was driving slowly, looking at the bushes.
Victoria was too exhausted to run; she limped up to the car and started pounding on the door. “What happened to Tomas? Where’s my dad? What have you done with him?”
“Who are you?” the stranger demanded. “Tomas doesn’t have any kids!”
“My dad, Officer Warshawski,” she screamed. “Tomas said he was going to kill Tony, where is he?”
The stranger opened the door. The look on his face was terrifying. For some reason, the girl held up her camera, almost as a protection against his huge angry face, and took his picture. He yanked at the camera strap, almost choking Victoria; the strap broke and he flung the camera onto the grass. As she bent to pick it up, he grabbed her. She bit him and kicked at him, but she couldn’t make him let go.