Off the Grid

writer-in-residence blog for Chicago Magazine

The Trauma of Violence and Our Broken Communities

Fifteen years ago, I was on vacation with my family in upstate New York, when late one night I got a phone call from a homicide detective I knew from the West Side. She was calling from my house. Pharoah Rivers, one of the boys I wrote about in There Are No Children Here, was staying with us, and earlier that evening he’d taken a cab from our home in Oak Park to his mom’s home on the West Side. The detective told me that when the cab pulled up in the city, two men approached the car. One of them yanked Pharoah out, and they then both rushed into the backseat. As they tried to rob the cab driver, something went amiss, and they shot and killed him. The detective wanted us to know that Pharoah was okay, that he was back at our house, in shock.

The next day—this was before cell phones—we tried to check in with Pharoah. We called him at our house. We tried his mom’s house. We tried his brother. But we couldn’t find him. Needless to say, we were deeply concerned. Finally, that evening he called. He told us he’d been out clothes shopping all day at Marshall Field’s, preparing to go off to college. I remember my wife and I looking at each other and thinking, “How can you go shopping the day after witnessing a murder? After coming so close? How can you be so nonchalant—so desensitized and so detached?”

But Pharoah was traumatized. Still is. He grew up in a community that discouraged people from talking about such moments—where you just keep moving, mostly because if you slow down, you think. And the more you think, the more it hurts. And so moments like this roil inside.

Eddie Bocanegra knows this better than anyone.

I first met Eddie two years ago over lunch, at an empty Mexican restaurant on Cermak in Cicero. Eddie, who’s of slight build, has a quiet, contemplative demeanor. As his boss, Tio Hardiman, likes to say, Eddie dresses like a college student (which he is): collared shirts, sweaters, pressed jeans. We talked about a lot of things that day, including the murder he committed when he was 18, a retaliatory gang shooting, but mostly we commiserated over the violence in the city and how deeply scarred it has left both individuals and communities. A “violence interrupter” for the Chicago-based anti-violence group CeaseFire, Eddie became one of the central characters in The Interrupters, and his narrative in the film became that of someone trying to come to terms with the violence, both its effect on him as well as on others. So much of Eddie’s journey is his effort to forgive himself for what he did—to make sense of a senseless act.

At one point in The Interrupters, Eddie meets a teenage girl, Vanessa Villalba, who spends every day with her family at the gravesite of her brother, Miguel. Miguel died in her arms after being shot. Does it matter what it was over? What could possibly explain it? He was 15. Vanessa, who’s a petite, tenderhearted girl, had been a top-notch student and played soccer, but after her brother’s death, everything unraveled. Her grades dropped, she stopped playing sports, and, completely out of character, she got into a fight at school.

“This person made a comment, she was already enraged, and that was probably her boiling point, that was it,” Eddie says in the film. “One day you might have all the strength you think you have, and you think, ‘You know what? I could go continue on with my life.’ But then the next day your emotions are triggered by something, and it kind of puts them back to square one. I don’t think people ever get over it.”

Eddie told me that when he was in prison, where he served 14 years, he was visited by his brother, Alex, who had just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. Eddie had a kind of epiphany. Alex talked about what he’d seen in Iraq, including the loss of a close friend who was shot while riding in a convoy. He also talked about what he’d done, things that felt so out of character, things that shamed him. He did this with purpose. Alex was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, and he saw some of the same struggles in Eddie.

Indeed, Eddie has told me he has trouble sleeping at night. He feels the need to be busy all the time, out of fear that if he slows down he’ll have too much time to think about incidents from the past. “I can’t sit still,” he told me. And he gets agitated at small, petty things. Eddie saw some of himself in his brother. And then he looked at the kids from his neighborhood, Little Village. And he saw some of his brother in them. They were fidgety, had trouble staying in one place. They got agitated easily. They had no patience. They couldn’t focus. “They’re looking for something to calm them down,” Eddie said, and so many turn to smoking weed and drinking. They, like his brother, he realized, suffered from PTSD.

Why not, Eddie thought, bring war veterans into a community like Little Village, to share their experiences? Not their experiences of war, but their experiences of coming home, of grappling with what they’ve seen and heard. Maybe, Eddie thought, it’d be a way to get guys in the neighborhood to talk about what’s drowning them. It’d be a way to make them realize what they’re up against. So beginning this fall, Eddie plans to have war veterans who, like his brother, have battled PTSD to talk with young people in Little Village who have witnessed their own share of bloodshed. “Unless we start healing ourselves, we can’t expect the community to heal,” Eddie told me.

I think about the family of the six-year-old girl who was fatally shot last week while sleeping on the living room couch, and about the family of the 13-year-old-boy who was shot playing basketball. And I think of their friends. And of those who witnessed the violence, those like Vanessa and Pharoah. We make the mistake of thinking that somehow people move on, that people get numb to such brutality. But they don’t. And yet outside of having someone like Eddie, there’s really nowhere to turn. This is the untold story in parts of our city: communities and a people sapped of their spirit, communities and a people back on their heels.

Driving by Manley High School on the West Side the other day, I saw a sign outside that read, “Have a Peaceful Summer.” What does it say about a community—and about our city—that we even need such a reminder?



The Fiction of the American Dream: An Afternoon at Chicago Pawners

A pawnshop is a sobering place.

Along one wall: acoustic and electric guitars, wedding rings, cufflinks (one pair sells for $749), a gold medallion of a hand holding four Aces (which sells for $3,250), a lone trombone and trumpet, a couple of violins, two bikes and a wall of flat-screen TVs. Along the other wall: game systems, cameras, aging fur coats (beaver and fox, mink and lamb), power tools, and more flat-screen TVs—all playing The View. Each item here because it was given up for cash, something to tide their owners over in the wake of calamity or misfortune.

Dan Lebovitz, who runs Chicago Pawners along with his brother and father, once told me that the job was like bartending—listening to people’s woes and offering solace, which in Dan’s case takes the form of money. Late morning, and a petite African-American woman hesitantly sidles up to the window. She’s in her late thirties, wearing a floral blouse and fashionable rectangular glasses. She gives Dan a gold bracelet, a gold ring, and a camera. “How much you need?” Dan asks. “I gotta pay two months of my daughter’s tuition—fifteen-hundred dollars,” she replies, her voice barely audible through the plexiglass window. Her daughter attends Trinity High School in River Forest though she’s hoping to get her into Fenwick. She tells Dan—he never asks—that the ring was a tenth anniversary gift from her husband but they’re now divorced. Nonetheless, she wants her daughter to have it someday. Dan weighs the jewelry, and has another worker—someone more mechanically inclined—examine the camera, and offers her $700. “It’ll get you halfway there,” he tells her. She takes his offer. On her way out, the woman whose first name is Yvonne tells me she’s unemployed, laid off from a clothing store, and that she’s now studying towards her master’s degree in business. “You just gotta do what you gotta do,” she says. She drove in from Woodridge because she heard that Chicago Pawners treated people fairly.

This is the big shift for Chicago Pawners: first-time customers from the suburbs, here because the economy’s unraveling has shaken their routines and their comfort. It’d be facile, though, to suggest that, here, at the corner of Western and Madison, would be a good place to measure an economy’s health. It isn’t. Chicago Pawners been around for 58 years (it used to be in a location next door to a housing project)—and its customer base has always been people who are skimming along the margins, trying to hold on, trying to avoid getting shafted. They’re people who are entrepreneurial, who are walking—sometimes running—one step away from losing a home, or a job, or a lover, or a way of life. They’re hustling to stay afloat, usually with dignity and decency, but without time for reflection, either on the past or the future. They’re so on the edge—so grounded in the present, in the moment—that you can already feel the next crisis descending. In good times, you walk into the pawnshop, people are lined up desperate for just a little cash, and you realize the fiction of the American dream. In bad times, like today, you get a glimpse of what could be around the corner for the rest of us.

The next person in line, a young man, unwraps a silver stud earring from a crumpled-up napkin. He tells Dan he found it. “Look like something to you?” he asks. Dan examines it for half a minute. “Yeah, an earring,” he says, deadpan. It takes a moment for the guy to realize Dan’s joking. “Costume jewelry,” Dan informs him. He returns the earring, and the man pockets it before going on his way.

A middle-aged man in a white T-shirt and gray baseball cap gets $50 for a gold cross necklace—a birthday present from his mom many years ago. It’s the seventh time he’s pawned it. He runs a cleaning business in the neighborhood, but it’s been a slow couple of weeks, and he needs some cash for gas.

A woman plops down in a motorized wheelchair, and wonders if it might fit her friend’s adult son who can’t walk because of a brain tumor. A man brings in two flat-screen TVs, looking for $250 so that he can get his car out of the pound. When he learns he can only get $200, his friend mumbles, “That shit doesn’t even sound right.” They try to get the pawnshop to bump it up $30. A husband and wife, both retired—she a blonde in a long black dress, he silver-haired in shorts and flip-flops—bring a few bags of jewelry and watches and old coins, hoping to get enough money to help pay for their son’s upcoming wedding. Gold prices are soaring now, nearly three times what they were just three years ago, (so much so that hustlers are going door-to-door offering to buy people’s jewelry) and so after half an hour of wading through the goods, Dan offers $5,000, which is $1,500 more than their jeweler offered them.

Dan, who wears a black button-up shirt with “Chicago Pawners” emblazoned on it as if it were a bowling team, relishes the company at the store. Many of the customers he knows by first name. One woman comes in carrying her three-year-old daughter, Denise. “She never smiled, never looked at me,” he tells me. He then reaches below the counter, and pulls out a handful of suckers. Holding them up, he hollers through the glass window to Denise, “This enough?” Denise breaks out into a big smile. “Purple or green?” She chooses the purple. “She’s my buddy now,” Dan tells me.

About six months ago, Dan, who is easily amused, opened a Twitter account (@pawnshoptweets)—something just to pass the time, a collection of comments from customers.

First customer of day..” Hey Dan haven’t seen you in a while…. you are getting fat and old”… can I get a little extra for my ring?” (August 4)

Customer: ” Do you guys take antique toy cars?….. this shit is real old….. from the 1840’s.” (June 14)

Man pointing to his girl after selling his rings for $80…”I am going to the hotel and tear that ass up”(April 21)

Two plumbers pawn a concrete gas saw for $50, enough for gas money so they can drive to a couple of jobs. A woman who’s been caring for an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s but hasn’t gotten paid in a couple of weeks tries to sell her diamond ring, but Dan’s brother, Paul, talks her into pawning it instead. “You like that ring too much,” he tells her. An Hispanic teenager with a lip piercing pawns a gold chain for $160 to help pay tuition at Truman College, where she’s studying to be a nurse. (This, too, is her first time at a pawnshop.) A gentleman in gray T-shirt with a paunch pawns his trumpet for $50 so he can pay the light bills.

Customer: “Motherfuckers would pawn their kidneys if they could” (June 17)

Customer pawning his BOSE Radio….” I love this more than I love my woman” (August 10) 

Midday, the customers are still lined up, a few checking out the stereos in the front of the store. (Retail sales, Dan tells me, are down considerably.) I ask Dan whether he ever cuts people a break. “I’ve got a business to run,” he tells me. But he looks sheepish. The first woman who came in, he tells me, the woman from the suburbs who’s trying to pull together private school tuition for her daughter—”Did I give her a hundred bucks more than I should have?” He looks away. “Yeah. I believed her story.”

“Ninety-eight percent of our customers are people who have had shit happen to them,” he says. “Me, I’ve got nothing to complain about.”



Barbershop of Second Chances: The Story of Eddie Lopez and Xclusive Cuts

In Cicero, on 26th street, a paved vacant lot on one side, a chiropractor’s office on the other, sits an unassuming barbershop with the unassuming name: Xclusive Cuts. On Tuesday, nine barbers—all young, all men, all Latino—were giving fades and squares to young boys and teenagers primping for their return to school. The other thing worth mentioning about these barbers is that each of them is looking for a second chance. They’re from the street, some former gang members or drug runners or just hangers-on—young men who had nowhere to turn but here, to Eddie Lopez, the loquacious, no-nonsense, 37-year-old barbershop owner with the mischievous grin.

Eddie, who is broad shouldered and sports a trimmed beard, himself has had his close calls—and has found his way back. At 16, he ran away from his home in Little Village, and within three weeks, got shot in the groin. He continued to bounce around from friends’ attics and garages. Even after his second stint in prison, when he was released, he sold drugs—big time—and put away his cash, planning to move his family to Florida. When his partners heard that, they robbed him of his money and shot him in the right temple, leaving him for dead. Amazingly, he survived. But he was set on retaliation—until he discovered God. He eventually ran into his assailant, and Eddie forgave him. “One of the hardest things I had to do with my life was to let go,” he told me. Every new barber at Xclusive Cuts has heard this tale (usually a longer version); it’s a part of the hiring process. Eddie recounts his life’s trajectory and sees if it resonates. If it does, you’re in. If not, well, he’s still likely to give you a shot. “It’s my testimony. I just want them to know they’re in good hands,” he says.

This is not a story about the power of faith, though that’s clearly girded Eddie. Nor is this a story of forgiveness, though that’s wrapped up in the walls of this barbershop. Rather, it’s about a small storefront in a small town where a guy can get a haircut for $12, enjoy some good company (on weekends, especially, the place is packed), watch TV on a couch, play video games (Eddie’s old-school, so he has “Mario Brothers” and “Galaga”), get by in either Spanish or English, and know that you’ve become a tool of Eddie’s—and I mean that in the best sense. You’re helping support Eddie’s cause: getting guys to believe in themselves.

Eddie sees a bit of himself in each of these barbers. He knows what it means to burn with vengeance, to feel self-pity, to play with temptation. And so he runs a tight ship. On the day I was there, he chastised one young barber for leaving his lunch on the desk. He doesn’t allow hats or hardcore rap, and while he tries to keep the guys from cursing, especially because moms accompany their young children, it’s tough, even for him. “They don’t need to hear that crap,” he told me. He got rid of the DVD player because, he says, the guys were watching “gangster rap videos with half-naked women.” I once saw him lecture his barbers for hanging outside the store after hours, fearful that neighbors would think they were up to something other than barbering.

Though he can appear stern at times, there’s a tenderness to him, a certain vulnerability. Eddie’s given people second, third, even fourth, shots at a life away from the street. He’s taken risks on young men whom others had given up on. He’s taken risks on young men even he’s given up on. One barber came to work at the shop while on parole, but he got caught up with drugs. Eddie let him go. Then he asked Eddie to give him one more go. Eddie did. And he’s now one of his best employees, whom Eddie trusts with the key to the store so that he can open it in the mornings. Not everyone makes it, though. One young man was nodding off between haircuts, which, for obvious reasons, concerned Eddie. And then one day he dropped a small bag of powdered heroin on the floor. Eddie got him into rehab, but once the employee got out, he relapsed, and Eddie let him go. “I try to help people,” he says, “but they got to be ready to help themselves.”

A few years ago, the mother of a 13-year-old boy named Edwin came by and begged Eddie to let her son hang around the shop. The boy was involved in a street gang and messing up at school. Eddie eventually taught Edwin to cut hair, and removed a tattoo on his arm. (Much to his wife’s chagrin, Eddie bought tattoo removal equipment for $2,000 and does the procedures for free.) “[Edwin] did okay,” Eddie told me. “But anytime something wasn’t going right in his life, he’d head back to the streets. If you want the streets, you can’t be here.” Eddie talked to him, and then Edwin conceded he needed to stop coming by—he didn’t want to jeopardize the business.

Edwin, who’s now 16, returned about six months ago, his tattoo back on his arm, to ask for a third chance. Eddie hesitated, but Edwin’s now been at Xclusive Cuts for half a year, working toward his GED and cutting hair. “He never closed the door on me,” Edwin told me, speaking of Eddie. “He never gave up on me.”

On this particular day, Edwin’s giving a haircut to a seven-year-old boy headed back to school. “You want it faded?” he asks the boy’s mother. “Or square?” She looks bemused, and replies, “I don’t know nothing about a fade. Make him look decent.” And Edwin, who has a shy smile and still has traces of baby fat in his open face, picks up a pair of clippers and goes to work.   

Eddie, who is sitting to the side, remarks out loud to no one in particular, “Somehow they end up in my lap. Somehow they end up working for me.” And he lets out a gentle laugh.



The Danger of a Single Story

On an early fall afternoon in 1992, a year after There Are No Children Here came out, I was visiting the Henry Horner Homes, the setting for the book. In a parking lot by a highrise, I ran into Dede, who at the time was 18 years old. I had known Dede for five years; she was Lafeyette and Pharoah’s cousin. She was a troubled girl—a bit wild, tough to rein in, prone to fisticuffs. But it was understandable. Both parents drank, and she lived in a building controlled by the gangs. When I saw Dede, I paused. She was leaning against a car, her shirt and jeans hanging off her emaciated body like sheets on a clothesline. She had dark circles under her eyes. Her hair was a tangle of knots. She seemed in a stupor, and as she rested against the parked car, swaying with the breeze, she fell in and out of sleep. She’d become addicted to crack cocaine, and honestly I figured this would be the last time I’d see her. She looked as close to death as one could get without actually dying. She was gone, swallowed by the ravages of her community.

Fast forward to a few years ago. Dede’s younger brother, Porkchop, had been shot six times coming out of a liquor store in what appeared to be a case of mistaken identity. I rushed to Mt. Sinai Hospital, and as I waited on line in the lobby to obtain a pass, a young woman standing behind me tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around. “Alex,” she said. It was clear she knew me, but I couldn’t place her face. She was a handsome woman, dressed in jeans and a colorful blouse. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I know I should know you.” She smiled. “Alex,” she said, a bit exasperated. “It’s me, Dede.” She then threw her arms around me, and introduced her husband, a young, roundfaced man who’d been standing beside her. I shook my head, and reminded Dede of the last time I’d seen her some 15 years earlier. She told me that a year after she saw me, she had a daughter, and everything changed. She stopped smoking crack, and began attending church where she met her future husband, who was a truck driver. She was beaming, and bright-eyed and filled out. I couldn’t stop smiling.

I think of this story often, as a celebration—and as a cautionary tale, against what the Nigerian-born novelist Chimamanda Adichie calls “the danger of a single story”: the danger of thinking that people have a single narrative, that, for instance, if you’re growing up poor on Chicago’s West Side, your narrative will be the same as the person next door. Or that because you’re poor we think we know your story—or in the case of Dede, because you’re poor and a drug addict we think we know the shape of your narrative. As Adichie warns, ”Show people one way over and over again…and that’s what they become.”

It speaks to the great Chicago (really, American) paradox: We all belong to this great city, and yet are so disconnected from each other. I remember once having lunch with a Chicago Tribune correspondent who had just returned from years reporting abroad. He’d spent a day on the city’s West Side and told me it was like being a foreign country. And yet all he had traveled was a couple of miles from his office downtown to spend time with people who, in more civilized times, would be considered his neighbors.

Stories inform the present and help sculpt the future, and so we need to take care not to craft a single narrative, not to pigeonhole people, not to think we know when in fact we know very little. We need to listen to the stories—the unpredictable stories—of those whose voices have been lost amidst the cacophonous noise of idealogues and rhetorical ruffians. We speak in shorthand of gangbangers and thugs, teenage moms and high school dropouts, ex-felons and drug addicts.

I thought I knew Dede, but I didn’t.


Chicago is one of America’s most iconic, historic, and fascinating cities. For Alex Kotlowitz, an accidental Chicagoan, it is the perfect perch from which to peer into America’s heart.

Separated by a river, St. Joseph and Benton Harbor are two Michigan towns that are geographically close, yet worlds apart. St. Joseph is a prosperous, predominately white lakeshore community while Benton Harbor is impoverished and predominately black. When the body of Eric McGinnis, a black teenage boy from Benton Harbor, is found in the river that separates the towns, relations between the two communities grow increasingly strained as longheld misperceptions and attitudes surface. 

There Are No Children Here chronicles two years in the lives of two boys, Lafeyette and Pharoah, struggling to survive in Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes, a public housing complex disfigured by crime and neglect. 

© 2018, Alex Kotlowitz. All rights reserved