The People Like Us Who Live in Places Like This*

Jonylah watkins
6-month old Jonylah Watkins, shot to death 5 times in Chicago, March 11, 2013

My mind hadn’t really caught up, yet.

If not for my new early evening coffee habit, I still might not know that the 6-month old child who was shot to death in a Chicago drive-by suffered her fatal injuries right around the corner from my home. I had put it away, as something that happened in those neighborhoods…far away from mine. I, thankfully, was swathed in and around the University of Chicago campus. Here, the private police security force is (reportedly) second only to the Vatican’s. So, the baby was shot somewhere else. Had to have been. Could not have been near me.

But, now I know I am incorrect.  I might have never known because, quite frankly (and I feel guilty for saying this), I had not wanted to know any more. I recently subscribed to The New York Times. At least there really is news on the covers of The Times. In the Chicago papers, stacked up like towered coffins on racks in the dusty corners of corner and grocery stores, I am more likely to be confronted with a mass obituary on the front page than a world report.

Chicago crime has made me sick.

As a reality t.v. and public television junkie, I deliberately escape my local news broadcasts. I can find out the weather online. I can check for local events via Google. My only skirmishes with newscasters’ grim voices, burdened by the task of informing our city what deaths came down that day or past night, occur in betwixt my daily fixes of Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune. Only then do the trumpets that signal the newscasts blare. Then, before commercials resume, I hear a soundbite or two announcing tragedies.

I drown the grim voices out. I continue answering questions and solving puzzles. I turn up the vacuum cleaner, fall back on the swoosh of the washing machine, run to to the roar of the dishwasher…anything, anything but more murders I can do nothing but know about. When I was a small town girl, I may have found out about pointless gunfire or break-ins on the third or fourth pages of my small town newspaper, in a quarter section called “The Blotter.” It provided more town gossip than revelations of tragedy. I survived New York City alone, never noting one murder to take place too close to me on Harlem, Washington Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant apartments. But now, after nearly 8 years back in a town I only relocated to for college,  I am tired. There is death all around me.

On Monday, I heard the beginning: “6 month old baby is shot on Chicago’s South Side…”  Given it was not just another outbreak of gunfire claiming grown lives, I stopped. I listened. I glimpsed the picture, of a precious ball of energy and potential. Jonylah Watkins was her name.  And, she was not dead.


According to her father, whom news reports first described in terms of his prior noted criminal activity and not as a grieving dad, he was changing her diaper when gunfire rang out.  He suffered two shots. Jonylah endured five. She was at the Comer Children’s Hospital right around the corner from my home, literally. She was being surgically repaired to healthy life anew. I finished my television program and let the wonders of modern medicine ease my mind at what I might find out later when I checked back for details.

I recall having trouble speaking with someone on the telephone that day, but I thought I was too far from the receiver with my cordless phone. I came closer to the signal’s ground in my office, but there was still enough interference that the speaker and I thought it best to have our conversation later. Reclusive and withdrawn, working and living from home, I had not ventured out that day to know helicopters raged above me looking for a killer.  Simultaneously, Comer’s surgeons used every resource they could find on Jonylah. Both searches were futile. She died early Tuesday morning. Her killer remains at large.

In initially hearing about the murder, I had caught something about “65th” street as the scene of the crime.  65th Street is a Chicago thoroughfare trailing up to Kennedy King College and what was once a legendary street shopping center called “Jew Town.” I had traveled in and around that area in my twenties, to visit my fiance, who lived with two other men he went to college with. One man’s uncle owned property in the area, to explain why my fiance and his friends lived so far from their downtown arts and media school. They went where it was cheap, where their Black faces and Timbalands and hip-hop bobbing heads were accepted. He hated to visit me in Hyde Park, the presumed Upper West Side of Chicago’s South Side. Parking was scarce. Black men were surveilled. Traffic was too busy. Bike riders took over the streets. But, he came. On the rare occasion I journeyed to his part of our world, known as locally as “Inglewood” and nationally as the neighborhood where Jennifer Hudson’s family was killed, I almost always heard gunshots or witnessed fights.

So, the baby was shot “up there.”  But my mind hadn’t caught up yet to the fact that I have re-oriented myself in and around my alma mater. I first and mostly preferred East Hyde Park: the dense skim of Lake Michigan known for its beach, posh high rises and small business shops. Briefly, I preferred Central Hyde Park, closer to where people believe Obama resided and down the street from the legendary bar where the same jazz musicians play every Sunday night at 10:00 as they have for the last ten years. I satisfied my late night cravings with walks to the 24-hour Walgreens, at 2 and 3 a.m. I walked home from the bars for exercise. I sometimes took the bus, but I also skipped past abandoned corners and alleys without fear of anyone jumping out at me.

But now, I reside on the side of Hyde Park which is still in “development.” The huge property that occupies nearly an entire block is the relocation of an expanded police force.  The University of Chicago Law School rests within one view down the street from my patio, its massive library and naive students renewing my faith in the law with every glance or pass-by on my way out. Buildings that once composed chalked murder victim sketches and broken mailboxes in their lobbies now gleam with chandeliers and glistening, restored wood. They are condos, duplexes and upscale apartments with diverse complexions–rarely Black–darting in and out of strongly gated entrances. So, no, 6-month old children burp and giggle and take their first steps around here. They live. They thrive. They go on to preschool. But about one block away, the population changes and there is nothing but open prairie waiting to be built upon. And, as I was told on my first day of freshman orientation at the University of Chicago (I did not obey): “Don’t go past there.”

Now, over 15 years later, nearly every day at some warmer points, I make a seven to ten minute walk in that opposite direction of campus. There is a soul-food restaurant, currency exchange, liquor store, beauty supply, and the best Korean eyebrow waxer I’ve ever closed my eyes for.  I no longer drive to Target. I just kill two birds with one stone-exercise and budgeting: right around the corner to the Family Dollar located at 64th and Cottage Grove. As Sonia Sanchez once advised her audience to do in a lecture I heard, I give the same proper greeting to the unsavory characters peddling drugs and bodies as I do to the rare polite businessman downtown. I do not scurry past with my head down. But, had I been around that corner just a few days ago in the healthy light of afternoon sun, I would have winced and ducked from the sounds of bullets that rang out from a car driving past Jonylah’s father.

How truly disgusted, nervous and fearful am I that I could have mixed up the address of a 6-month child’s murder site… fabricated a fantasy that it was so so far away.

Last night, I felt my attention span and energy wane in front of my computer. I decided that freshly-made coffee available at a new dormitory around the corner was my answer. I arrived to greet the usual faces of University of Chicago security guards who know me as their “Night Walker”– the woman in the bright orange glasses who is a night owl, who takes advantage of their postings between every few blocks to power-walk her way through the midnight hours. I decided the hiked-up Folgers instant coffee sold there was not worth the $8.50 that insomniatic students would pay. I pored over what size ready-made coffee to buy. In step with my vegetarian nature, in solidarity with animals as well as people, I paid extra to substitute soy milk for cream. I grabbed extra Sweet ‘n Low packets to stuff my pockets with for my brews at home. I went outside to greet the gentleman who always looks for me around the corners on the coldest nights, who provides me with an “escort” to my door.

He resumed the same cautionary tales he means to partially scare me into staying as close to the guards as possible, but mostly to inform me that much goes on that I refuse to know. Last night, his lecture was no different. He was happy to see me out much earlier, and rightfully so.

“You know, that baby who got shot around here?” he started.

“Oh, yeah, way up there…” I began to finish.

“No, Maryland is right back there, the street where the  hospitals start. It happened on 65th and Maryland.”

He paused at the possibility of my naivete. He grew up in this area, he shared. He could walk it in his sleep. I was, however, quite possibly just one of the many cerebral and serious foreigners come down on campus, unsure how to navigate much beyond the book stores, coffee shops and lecture halls. But I am not. I am a woman who has lived most of my adult life in this pocket of Chicago. I know the streets so well I can walk them in my sleep, too.

I stopped in my tracks, shattered to think how I could be so unaware. Of course I knew where Maryland street was. I had only known of it for the past 18 years. But, what I had not known, where my mind had not caught up yet, was that I was a full-fledged resident of the 60’s streets in Chicago now…out of range of where my mind associated my Hyde Park and myself to be. I had known, of course, but chose not to know.  For what was supposedly so bothersome about the streets in my new number was not the land but the people–and they were mostly Black like me.  I blended in, walked proud and patronized good business closeby.

And the officer had more to share. The average news watched had not yet picked up on a curious characteristic of the car Jonylah was shot within. There were no bullet holes at all in the sedan’s passenger side, although the child was supposedly shot when its father changed her pamper as she lie on the passenger side. The passenger side window was busted out of the car. But, it was no shower of holes in the vehicle on this side. Was the child lifted up from the seat by its frantic father once death showed? Was she a sacrifice, a shield, an offering? The thoughts were too horrific to bear.  We arrived at my door and I was dumbstruck.

The totality of all realizations, that the child was shot right around the corner and presumably in sacrifice, sends me to bed earlier than usual after coffee at night. I come inside my dark apartment. I have the fleeting thought of someone inside waiting to rape and bludgeon me– maybe dash down the long hallway out of one of the rooms, wait for me behind the door. Of course, no one is there. I get on with my night.  The Black man I imagine, my own brother with dreadlocks and a broad chest, is only a figment of mass hysteria, community post-traumatic stress and shared mental illness with the rest of a city who hears the news just like I do.

Today, in defiance and hope, I decided to walk much earlier on an errand near Jonylah’s murder site. I justified the trek; I reasoned I was not going to pay $8.50 for an 11.5 ounce jar of Folgers around the block where U of C security guards stand. I could get a 16 ounce barrel for $4.50, if I only walked 15 minutes in the direction of chaos, budget whoring, crack and bud sales, and now, a newborn’s death.  But the shooting happened in broad daylight. Darkness played no role. It is funny how we delude ourselves. We insist upon the sanctity of our worlds, the right of freedom, the belief that there is no place on this Earth we can’t go or live in.

As soon as I swung open the door to the Family Dollar, Jonylah Watkins’ face smiled back at me from a flyer someone posted to beg the public for any information on her sad, senseless, upsetting and terrifying murder.  According to her flyer, there is an $11,000 windfall promised to the people like us who live in places like this, to rack our brains and remember anything we can about that day which might lead to the capture of her killer. Less than two blocks away, just a dart east and a twist South, a memorial of coins, teddy bears, flowers, and balloons holds up to the weather.

I pored over the best deals for coffee. Then, I stood in line with the rest of the weekend shoppers who had seen the same flyer I had. I made irrelevant conversation about Kim Kardashian and Kanye West with a few women my age who insisted they had broken up. We passed around a tabloid I picked up, politely shuffled ourselves and our carts to accommodate each other, said “Thank you” and “You’re welcome.” Then, with a wispy plastic sack of Folgers coffee dangling from my hand, I walked out onto a littered street to head home without so much as a glance back to Jonylah’s flyer on my way out. I saw nothing. I have no clues. I hold no help.  I know nothing but the knowledge that it happened.

*Since the time of this writing, a Chicago man has been charged with Jonylah Wakin’s murder. Criminal proceedings are currently underway.

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3 thoughts on “The People Like Us Who Live in Places Like This*

  1. Seems even senseless to give a ‘like’ for a sad post like this. Give it just as a bit of Thanks to You for sharing this.

    Yes, these kinds of things are not just Frightening, they are Heavy. Right in the post about Hadiya, which I read first, and all through this one, felt ‘Tired’ just reading. Breathless. Took me a good hour to read this two articles, with plenty of breaks in between. It is, as You know, Soul Tiredness. Does not my question, ‘Is life worth living’ make sense?

    The words, and the idea, ‘Was she a sacrifice, a shield, an offering?’ make terrifying reading.

    May God have Mercy on Us. Regards.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for reading these essays…they are among the most important to me that I’ve written on this blog but few take the time to get through it. Yes, both of those deaths so affected me, I got tired, felt lost. There are no answers. God Bless, Kalisha

      Liked by 1 person

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