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Abbey Perkins: A disturbing look at Chicago, outside of the box

Updated: May 2, 2013 6:09AM

Every afternoon I walk five blocks from my Loop office to the bus. By my estimate, 90 percent of my time in Chicago is spent within a box of two square miles or a slightly larger, self-constructed box bounded by the lake on the east, the expressway on the west, Addison on the north and Jackson on the south.

My morning CTA commute is nearly silent and is entirely populated by business people mesmerized by a device or staring out the window.

The afternoon crowd is different: elderly people using crowded, litter-covered buses to usher them to and from errands, workers in uniforms, visitors attempting the “authentic” urban transit experience.

On one recent ride there was another demographic on the afternoon bus that was particularly abundant because of spring break: high school-aged boys.

I became annoyed with the group, as they were loudly cursing and playing music, and one of the boys took photos of me without my permission. Fortunately, the debauchery subdued as the bus became increasingly full. Then two boys behind me (I would guess they were 14) began to talk to each other.

“We’re gonna die anyways,” one said. “We’re going to die no matter what, why die old where we’re at.”

The conversation continued, laced with references to how it would be worse to grow old in their community, continuing to feel the effects of poverty and violence, than to have their existence prematurely terminated for participating in the “game” or simply getting caught in the crossfire. There was no mention of leaving or improving this place. They didn’t mention where they lived by name, but I can assume it was one of the many Chicago neighborhoods, outside of my small box, where gun violence is a daily reality. You know, one of those scary places where you don’t recognize the names of intersecting streets where bullets rain and witnesses are hard to come by.

I felt ill. This wasn’t an NPR report, or a segment on the evening news.

I was sharing a bus ride with two teens who were presumably from the front lines, carefully evaluating the pros and cons of living a full life in a set of circumstances that composed their past, present and, undoubtedly (to them), future.

Proximity is a critical part of how crises of this nature are perceived. Is Chicago dangerous? Only certain areas.

Is this acceptable? No. Am I the first, or last, person who will demand that the more prosperous areas of the city help our flailing neighbors? Certainly not. But for that bus ride, boxes overlapped and I felt uncomfortable — a sensation we should all feel as members of this community.

Tomorrow morning, I will go back to work in a secure high-rise, end my day with an overpriced spin class and return to my condo overlooking my small, illuminated box — you know, the real city. And Chicagoans miles down the same stretch of lake will shoot others and be shot at in their own small, claustrophobic boxes.

As the bus approached my neighborhood, an adult man toward the front yelled for the group behind me to get up because they were approaching the movie theater and other popular tourist destinations in the area. One by one, they enthusiastically jumped out of the door and onto the sidewalk, visitors in their own city.

Abbey Perkins lives in Streeterville.

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