Dead Land Excerpt

1

South Side Sisters

The girls lined up along the wall, their faces glistening with sweat, still breathing hard.

“We could have won if Lureen had moved her fat ass into place to block — ” one girl began, but Bernie silenced her.

“No one who plays for me calls another player a bad name. And there is only one way to lose a competition. What way is that?”

The girl who’d issued the insult turned her head away but the other seven chanted in unison, “Dishonesty.”

“Right!” Bernie said. “If you don’t do your best, you are dishonest to yourself and to your team. If you do your best, you’ve won even if the other team outscores you. You learn from mistakes, ne c’est pas? Losing a match is only a loss if you don’t learn and grow from it.”

“Yes, coach.”

“Louder. You believe this!”

“Yes, coach!” They shouted.

The South Side Sisters had lost their match to the Lincoln Park Lions. Bernie – Bernadine Fouchard – had coached them with the ardor she brought to everything in her life. The girls loved her: they’d started sprinkling their conversation with French phrases, they copied her mannerisms – the way she stood with hands on hips, surveying the field; the way she smacked her palm against her forehead and groaned, Mon dieu, at egregious mistakes.

Bernie’s sport was hockey – like her father, Pierre, like her godfather, my cousin Boom-Boom, both former Chicago Blackhawks stars. Unlike them, even though she was a gifted player, there wasn’t any way for her to make a living playing the game, so she was doing next best, majoring in sports management at Northwestern, where she played for their Big Ten hockey team.

This summer she was interning in Chicago’s park district summer camp. She was coaching soccer at a South Side camp for the first half of the season. Although hockey was her main sport, she’d played enough soccer as a kid that she knew the basics; she jumped into the sport with the energy she brought to everything she did. Even though her kids hadn’t had all the private camps and other opportunities that came to girls in affluent communities, Bernie inspired them to play with something close to her own intensity.

I’d come down to Forty-seventh Street to watch the ten-year-old Sisters play their final match of the summer. The game had started at five so that the girls’ families could see at least some of the match. The South Lakefront Improvement Council –SLICK – had helped sponsor the Sisters and wanted them to take a bow following the game. SLICK was holding their monthly meeting; the girls and their friends and parents were supposed to wait in the hall until someone came out for them.

A woman whose tightly curled hair was dyed a rusty brown, opened the common room door and stuck her head into the hall. “Can you girls keep it down – oh! Are these our soccer players?”

“Yes,” Bernie said. “We are a wonderful team, but we are not wonderful at waiting in the hall. When do we go in?”

“Very soon.” The woman tittered, as if Bernie had made a mildly amusing joke. As she shut the door, we heard a man yelling from inside the room.

“You damned liar! Where’d you come up with this pile of crap? You go to Lying School? Because you sure as hell didn’t learn this in any environmental studies program.”

The girls put their hands over their mouths to muffle their shocked laughter.

I moved to the door and stuck my head through. The meeting room had served as a community meeting hall back when the bank was a Bronzeville landmark. It held a shallow stage and perhaps a hundred-fifty folding chairs, arranged today in concentric semi-circles. The seats were full, not because the community wanted to attend a meeting on a late summer afternoon, but with family members who’d been rooting for the Sisters and now wanted to see them get their awards.

Two men and a woman, all in later middle age, were trying to run the meeting, but the shouting from the audience had apparently taken them by surprise. One of the men had a gavel that he kept pounding against a wood block while shouting, “Order, order!” The woman – thin, wiry, wearing a blue t-shirt with the SLICK logo – was bouncing up and down in her chair, trying to scream at the man in the audience. The third man didn’t look up; he was writing on a white pad in a slow hand – maybe putting down the proceedings, or perhaps working on a novel.

The protestor was a white man of about forty, his skin tanned like old leather, wearing khaki shorts and a t-shirt with the silhouette of a sailboard. He might have been handsome, but fury had distorted his expression. He was leaning over the people in front of him, who’d shrunk out of his way, unable to be near such strong emotion.

His wrath was apparently directed at a young man on the stage who was awkwardly balancing a computer on a music stand: like much of the South Side, the building where SLICK held its meetings didn’t run to amenities like podiums. He’d apparently been making a presentation about filling in part of the lakefront around 47th Street; a sketch of a sand beach, playground equipment, and a bar and restaurant was projected onto the wall behind the stage.

“But, sir, this is part of the original Burnham plan, or at least, it’s how Burnham –“

“Like crap it’s the Burnham plan.” Although the younger man had a mike, the protestor’s shout drowned it out.

The man charged up the aisle to the stage. The youth flinched and dropped his mouse. When he bent to pick it up, his computer hit the floor. The picture on the wall behind the stage disappeared..

Before the protestor reached the steps, several audience members were there, blocking his path. He wrestled with them, still shouting abuse, both at the speaker and the trio running the meeting.

A pair of Chicago cops appeared from a far corner. They pinned the man’s arms behind his back and marched him down the aisle and out the door, shoving me to one side. A forest of cellphones rose up, recording the moment.

Much of the audience had cheered the cops, but a few yelled in support of the protestor. “Let him speak!” “Let him breathe.” “The whole world’s watching.”

The man with the gavel continued to slam it against a wood block, every “wham” amplified through his mike so that they sounded like rifle shots.

In the hall behind me, the girls were watching, open-mouthed, as the cops hustled the protestor out of the building. When they’d disappeared, the soccer players and their friends began an excited chatter that Bernie didn’t try to silence.

“That is Leo he was attacking,” she said to me. “Good that the police have arrested him!”

“Leo?” I echoed.

“He is doing odd jobs for this SLICK this summer. He helped me organize this public recognition for my team. He does not need this attack.”

She ushered her players into the room, where they clustered behind the last row of chairs.

The woman on the stage was now marching back and forth across the short platform. She slapped a wooden pointer against the open palm of her left hand as if it were a field marshal’s swagger stick.

“Our Council is committed to protecting the lake and the lakefront,” she screamed. “We scrutinize every action that impacts Lake Michigan. I’ve been living on the South Side since I was nineteen; I raised three children here. I’ve dedicated my life to this community and to our lakefront. I resent professional protestors coming in here trying to overturn the applecart.”

“Hear, hear!” cried the gaveller.  “No professional protestors.”

A few members of the audience took up the phrase as a chant, but it died out when they realized most people weren’t participating.

The second man on the stage didn’t look up from the documents he was working.

“We need a motion to accept the report as Leo presented it.” The woman smacked her pointer on the table so hard that the note maker dropped his pen.

“But I haven’t finished,” Leo objected.

“That’s okay, son,” the gaveller boomed. “Everyone who wants the details can get them from the SLICK website.”

A white-haired woman near the front of the room got to her feet. “I’m not a professional protestor, Mona; I’ve lived on the South Side longer than you, I’ve raised children here, although what that has to do with protecting the lakefront I don’t know. However, I also have some knowledge of parliamentary procedure. We can’t vote on a proposal whose details we don’t even know.”

“You’re not recognized, the chair does not recognize you,” the gaveller roared. His cheeks swelled with rage. I wondered if he might be on the brink of a stroke.

Next to me, Bernie was frowning, worried by the way the meeting was devolving. “This isn’t right. Why won’t they let this Leo finish?”

I didn’t try to answer. “This would be a good time for your girls to get their awards. Otherwise the meeting will turn into a gongshow and your kids will be ignored.”

Idea and action go hand in hand with Bernie. She blew a sharp trill on her coach’s whistle. The room became silent. She nodded at her team and they marched to the stage, chanting,

“South Side Sisters Coming Through

We finish any job we start to do.

We played our best

We passed the test

We’re the champs

So forget the rest.”

 

The girls stepped in front of the table. They stomped, twirled, and performed an elaborate choreography with their arms. The audience burst into spontaneous applause, everyone relieved to abandon the fights between Mona and the white-haired woman, the protestor and Leo.

Mona went to the mike where Leo had been speaking, told the girls what a credit they were to the South Side, to the values of hard work and determination, and presented each with a certificate and a red rosette. Another sponsor, a local pizza parlor, handed out coupons for a free pizza, and the girls marched off the stage, yelling their chant again, more loudly than before. Bernie shepherded them from the meeting room. Their families followed. In a few minutes, only about a dozen people were left inside. I stopped to ask the white-haired woman what was going on.

She shook her head. “I wish I knew. Everyone is trying to cash in on the economic boom that’s supposed to come to the South Side when the Obama Center goes in, but this landfill proposal came out of nowhere. Mona and her gang are pitching it as a goodwill gesture to the community, a new beach like the one they put in at 31st Street. Even so, that isn’t something they should build without public hearings, and this is the first we’ve heard about it.”

She stopped suddenly and eyed me narrowly. “What’s your interest in this?”

“Just a curious bystander. I grew up in South Chicago and I vaguely remember SLICK from when U.S. Steel was closing the Southworks plant. SLICK had a plan for repurposing the site, but I don’t think they ever got funding for it.”

The woman grimaced. “Name of the song for getting the city to invest in the South Side. Big plans and nothing ever comes of them. The same thing may happen to this little beach plan, but Coop – the guy who got hustled out just now – seems to think it’s more than that. Or maybe he resents any change to the lakefront. Some people do.”

“Who is Coop?”

“You could say he’s a professional protestor, except that would imply someone’s paying him. But no one really knows who he is. He showed up about a year ago with a big old dog. He seems to spend his life walking up and down the lakefront with it. Who knows where they live or where they spent the winter.”

“This plan SLICK’s presenting – do you think it is something bigger than a new beach?”

She shrugged. “I haven’t seen anything to suggest it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t going on. Chicago’s planning process is like an iceberg – you don’t see ninety percent of it until you’re impaled on it.”

“What’s your interest?” I asked.

“Local resident. Tired of SLICK being a mouthpiece for the city without taking the neighborhood wishes into account. The landfill may be a good idea, but it’s like everything else in this town – no transparency. Decisions made in private meetings where money changes hands.”

She handed me a card: Nashita Lyndes, South Lakeshore Monitor Project. I handed her one of my own, which identifies me as an investigator. Maybe I should expand my title to Chicagoland Crime Monitor  – after all, I do handle crime not just in Chicago but the six counties as well.

“An investigator?” She brightened. “Were you here to dig up information on the city’s plans?”

“Sorry, Ms. Lyndes: I was here with the soccer players. Anyway, trying to find information on anything this city is planning would require nuclear-powered shovel. A mere steam-powered machine couldn’t handle the job.”