It was the beginning of a three-year stint working overnights at the Chicago Tribune, covering any violent event that happened in the city after dark. I’d wanted a job at the paper, and this was the one they had. I was 25 years old.
Earlier in the night, two guys had fired an AK-47 and a revolver into a park where people were hanging out and playing ball. They wounded 13, including a 3-year-old.... A park had been sprayed with bullets. Not in a war zone. In this city. Stretcher after stretcher was wheeled away. A rare bit of emotion in a dispatcher’s voice on hearing that a 3-year-old had been shot in the face: “Jesus Christ. Ten-four.”
Sometime that summer -- I have trouble recalling exactly when -- the bursts of exhilaration that had been keeping me going started to peter out. I had trouble staying awake and was stealing sleep in the car between shootings. I spent slow nights in a sort of tape delay, neither awake nor asleep, stirring only when I heard something on the scanner. My senses were dulled. The adrenaline valve wasn’t opening like it used to. I responded to intense scenes -- bystanders screaming at police, a paramedic wrestling an air mask onto a victim’s face -- with a weird calm. Jason felt it, too, and described it as the feeling you get just after you dive into a pool, your body weightless, your muscles relaxed, sounds muted, your mind focused. At ease.
And yet the shootings that followed that Fourth of July weekend were some of the most harrowing I’d ever covered. A kid killed at a slumber party. A 3-year-old shot on the block with his mom. Jason and I spent hours one August night in Englewood listening to relatives of a dead 16-year-old girl wail with grief. Hours of shrieking. A detective had confirmed the mother’s fear that it was her daughter lying dead down the street by walking up and starting the conversation with “So, uh, she has a tattoo on her left hand?”
I looked like shit. Few people told me, but I knew. I’d gained weight, and I’d taken on this gaze I couldn’t shake. My right eye twitched. I hadn’t been sleeping, and I looked mean when I was relaxing.
When my shift was done that morning, I went to the Billy Goat and drank Jameson with friends. We drank more at Rossi’s. I went home, ordered Mexican food, and passed out before I could eat it. It was a celebration for me.
I never really left overnights. I still work them here and there. More over the summer, when it’s busy.
For three years, I’d inhabited a world separate from the one my friends lived in. On the train into work on summer Fridays, the other passengers dressed up for a night out in Wicker Park or Lake View, I’d sit there preparing for my shift, checking Twitter to see where people were getting shot or where people were calling in gunfire. I’d vacillate between wishing I were out with my wife and just wanting to start working.
There’s not a relationship in my life that is stronger now than it was when I started covering violence. I don’t remember when I stopped giving honest answers when people at dinners or parties asked, “How’s work?” The truth is a conversation ender. I’d start a story, see things getting awkward, then power through it, apologizing at the end. It’s an isolating job. Part of leaving nights has been learning to move past that, or deciding whether to even try. Maybe it’s not healthy, but writing about violence feels like what I should be doing. It feels normal. It’s what I want to do. I want to help the city understand a little. That’s important to me.
August 16, 2016
"Three Years of Nights"
Very good piece by Peter Nickeas in Chicago magazine. "Three Years of Nights: Violence convulses the city after dark. Reporting on it leaves its own scars." It sure does. Same for policing (though for some more than others). And just another 17 years of the same and he's have the career of a copper: