Dammit, why am I always late? This one wasn’t my fault at all, but I will concede that it is a trend. After 20 hours of checkpoints – national, state, civic, militia – I was at least in the right city. By the time I arrived at my actual destination, James Nelson wasn’t at his office. The staff told me I would have to catch up to him in the field. They scribbled down an address that I didn’t recognize, but then again I don’t know an inch of Chicago.
I punched it into my phone and decided to walk the eight blocks. Chicago was just as dirty as I expected. Not just the garbage and decrepit buildings, the people were dirty. Not a promising start for a city that was supposed to have all the answers. I was skeptical this trip would lead anywhere; just as skeptical as I was of the side streets and alleys my phone tried to lead me down. I skipped a few, but I was already two hours late.
I walked past a street vendor selling beat up old shoes on a tarp and tried not to make eye contact. Across the street, one of the only buildings with gates on the windows a bakery that even my empty stomach didn’t want to stop at. I finally turned the corner at a cellphone repair shop and there he was. I could see Nelson and his team through a chainlink fence and what used to be a park. I looked for a way around the fence and got a preview of what was waiting for me as I walked the length of it. Up against the red brick of a project building were eight or nine men spaced a meter or so apart, most of them young and all of them black. Nelson walked the line with two huge men in black secret service-style suits. On each end of the line were guys in uniforms emblazoned with “police”, but from the heavy tactical gear and assault rifles they were carrying, they looked more like SWAT.
I thought I had caught them in a crackdown or a drug bust, but what the hell would the mayor be doing here? To make things weirder, none of the men were in handcuffs. They all waited motionless and nervous against the wall. And then it happened. I turned the end of the fence, but I was still 50 feet away from the mayor. Close enough to see him wave the first man forward. The man took two big steps towards Nelson, came to a complete stop with his hands by his side, and without hesitation, James Nelson wound up and punched him squarely in the face.
The man stumbled, but just managed to stay on his feet as his hands jolted out to the side in case his feet couldn’t quite figure it out. I couldn’t fathom what I was seeing. I stopped, reached out my right hand, totally speechless. I quickly told my feet to keep going. Searching for words or a category for my brain to sort out what I was seeing, I wasn’t quick enough. Nelson took a few steps to the left, motioned the next man to come forward, and like clockwork, he obeyed and got socked in the face too. He wasn’t lucky enough to stay on his feet, instead crumbling to the pavement.
“Hey!” I shouted. “What the hell are you doing?”
Nelson turned with a scowl. I could now see the face of the assailant. He wore black jeans and a pair of worn out old runners that looked like they used to be white. His red collarless t-shirt was obviously distressed, I imagine from holding his considerable gut in. It was all decidedly un-mayoral. The fact that he was white stood out against the men he was hitting. I couldn’t tell exactly how old he was. His hair was salt and pepper and the parts that hadn’t thinned were shaped into a sort of crew cut. He had tough, worn skin with deep lines across it, and his eyes looked tired – not weak, the opposite – the ragged intensity of someone who’s seen some stuff. His face definitely looked like it was ready to retire, but he threw a punch like a young man for sure.
“Who are you?” he said flatly. The two secret service dressed goons let go of the man they were picking up off the ground and stepped towards me as I got closer. He motioned for them not to bother.
“Jeff Young,” I said, still trying to catch my bearings.
“Ah, Jeff,” he said and stuck his left hand out to shake mine. I warily obliged.
“Jeff, I’ll be with ya in a minute,” he said, and stepped again to the left as natural as… well, as natural as someone who wasn’t a mayor punching a row of minorities in the face. Sure enough, he waved again. As the man stepped forward my words caught in my throat.
A distressed, “Ahh,” is what slipped out and I lurched forward.
It was too late. This guy couldn’t stay on his feet either. The young man, no more than 18, caught his fall with his hands and slid back into a sitting position against the wall, rocking and holding his jaw. I could see now that the bottom half of his face was twisted around in a direction it shouldn’t be.
“Stop!” I yelled, grabbing hold of the mayor by the shoulder. Without hesitation he lifted his meaty right arm and flung me, no small man myself, sprawling to the ground. He looked down at me without blinking, so full of conviction, but to my mind, obviously psychotic.
“Don’t you ever put your hands on me. I won’t tolerate bein’ touched,” he said. The irony of the situation was dripping. “Did you come here to learn, or to stick your knows-better-than-everyone nose in things?” he asked, it seemed not rhetorically. I was, unfortunately, totally speechless.
“Where are ya from?” he asked.
“Toronto,” I said, leaning forward into a seated position, not sure if I wanted to stand back up yet.
“Now they’re sending ‘em over the border to see how I fixed Chicago. Maybe that will give your know-it-all attitude a break.”
He turned his back to me and waved the next man forward. I realized I was going to have to take on Nelson and his whole private militia before I could stop this, so I didn’t budge.
This time, the next man in line looked down at me and shook his head. “Nah man,” he said, avoiding eye contact with the mayor. The two men in suits stepped forward and pinned him against the wall. Nelson wound up all the same and hit him in the mouth. The sound was horrifying. Now I could see why all of them had stepped forward voluntarily up to this point. Not only did his jaw get busted up, the impact of his head hitting the wall was worse. The men let him go and he stood in place, clutching at the back of his bleeding head.
“You know what Chicago’s problem was, son?” Nelson said taking a break to look down at me. He very quietly rubbed the knuckles on his right hand with his left.
“Violence? Poverty?” I offered. “I don’t know. What the hell is going on here?”
“That’s exactly right. And what is the solution to those problems?” Nelson asked.
I took a deep breath, not understanding why I was answering his questions. “To feed the people?”
“Right again. Half right anyways. Most people say prison reform or violence education programs. I never met anyone reformed by a prison though. An’ education isn’t the issue either. You see, these young men know they shouldn’t be stabbin’ an’ killin’ each other.”
Nelson took a deep breath and turned back towards the line. He motioned for the next man. This one complied and took the punch better than any so far, though I imagined he’d still feel it for a year.
Nelson looked at me again. “The city was hungry. An’ you can’t be mad at a hungry man for stealing a loaf of bread; never have. But we had a larger social problem. People weren’t stealing loaves of bread, they were hijacking bread trucks. They were sellin’ drugs to children, not even so they could eat, but so they could drive a fancy car. An’ worst of all, half these cowards did it gun in hand. The other half had knives. There were no more roll arounds after Friday night at the bar: what could have been a fist fight turns into a murder. So you know what I did Jeff? I resolved to fix the problem by punching every young man that I could in the face.”
“What?!” I yelled, “What are you talking about?” I finally scrambled up to my feet, but didn’t have the nerve to step towards the man. “That is literally insane,” I said waving my hand with a palm to the sky.
“Is it? Crimes with a weapon are down 300%. Murder is down 500%. That’s why you’re here isn’t it? To see how I saved Chicago? Well this is it.”
He turned his attention to the line again and hit the next man. He fell. I couldn’t believe how numb I had already become to such an absurdly violent act as I got wrapped up in this crazy question and answer. I was equally concerned that he was trying to appeal to me on the basis of reason.
“So you just bully them into submission?” I accused.
“Not at all my boy. You misunderstand me. I ran on the premise of gun control, safe neighbourhoods, a hands-on approach to tough parts of town. I didn’t give any details, an’ they didn’t ask for any. They only ever want you to promise. Privately, I told my staff my real campaign slogan: a punch in every face, an’ a chicken in every pot.”
I was flabbergasted. He came off as simple and boorish, but he was clearly intelligent. How could he possibly believe what he was saying? How could my administration send me down here not knowing his lunacy? Or worse, what if they did know?
“People have forgotten how much it hurts to get punched in the face,” he continued. “So cowards run off an’ get their guns an’ their knives an’ kill each other.” He motioned for the next man in line to step forward. Nelson wheeled his head around to me. “It hurts to get punched in the face.”
The man hit the ground, but one of the guys in suits caught his head before it bounced off the pavement. He was out cold, but thank God that goon was there or it would have been worse.
“I’m hopin’ that if they remember what it’s like to get punched in the face, they might think twice before pickin’ up a weapon.”
“So it’s a deterrent?” I asked, bewildered.
He gritted his teeth and huffed at me exasperated, like I was an idiot for not grasping his lofty ideal. “No! No one’s going to turn their life around from one punch in the face from me. I don’t need to stop ‘em from fighting. The next time they get worked up, all I want is for them to punch the guy they’re mad at instead of shootin’ him in the back. If they could just remember how much it hurts to get punched in the face, then they’ll use their fists the next time they need to teach someone a lesson, or someone cuts ‘em off in traffic, or whatever else.” He paused and motioned at the second-to-last man. “And it’s workin’.”
“First I went into the prisons and punched every man with a charge for usin’ a weapon. Then just anyone who unlawfully carried one. Now we go building by building an’ seize any weapons we can find, an’ punch any man who had one. I would punch every able-bodied man in the city just to get ahead of it if I could. Haven’t figured out what to do with the women yet though. There aren’t many of ‘em, but I wouldn’t hit a woman.”
“That’s illegal search and seizure, it’s aggravated assault, it’s probably unlawful detainment. It’s wrong and it’s barbaric,” I said, my eyes almost popping out of my head.
“It’s not barbaric! What’s barbaric is letting hundreds of young men murder each other in the streets each year because they don’t got an old school education! It’s wrong to let him,” he pointed at one of the men on the ground, “use a Desert Eagle to blow the head off of some idiot who took his parking spot at the Save-A-Lot. Next time, he’s gonna think, ‘Boy I’m gonna punch his lights out, just like the mayor did me last week.’”
Nelson waved for the last man to take his customary two steps forward, saving his head from the impact of the wall. As he stepped, the mayor turned back to me. “Then we take all the money we used to spend on puttin’ these young men in jail and we give it back to the communities. Half to food an’ shelter, the other half for jobs: havin’ ‘em build walls and roads and whatnot.”
The mayor hadn’t seen how much the man over his shoulder was shaking as he lectured me. He faced back towards the building and closed his fist. The sweaty jittering man only waited for the backswing of Nelson’s arm before he took off. He barely made it two strides before one of the men in suits cracked him in the knee with something like a club. The man’s feet both left the ground and he landed in a heap.
“Now why’d you do that?” Nelson said to the man. “Now your mouth an’ your knee are gonna hurt and you’re going to be last to the truck.” He took the man’s face in his left hand and punched him with the right. There was no saving his head from crashing into the relatively close sidewalk.
The mayor looked at me once again, shaking out his right hand and rubbing the knuckles. Seeing the horror on my face, he tried one more time. “Don’t ya see? There are worse things for a mayor to do than punch someone in the face. And there are worse things for a city than a bunch of guys with a sore mouth an’ a safe neighbourhood.” He looked over his shoulder, “What’d we get today?” he asked a man behind him.
One of the SWAT guys standing in front of a box looked down into it. “Two shotguns, two 9mm, a .38, the Desert Eagle, and 10 various stabbing implements,” the man said.
“See, a few years ago it woulda been double that.” He nodded to the men in suits. They began helping the injured men to their feet while one of the heavily armored officers opened the back of what looked like a large moving truck. I thought for a moment they were going to throw these guys in and add to the nightmare of everything else. Instead, I was surprised to see them hurry towards the truck, except the last man who limped his way over with the help of one of the suited guys.
Each man was handed three or four plastic bags and then made their way back into the building they were first stood up against. As they shuffled past, I could see that the bags were all filled with groceries. Then a flood of people came out the same apartment door the men were going in.
Nelson studied my face a moment, “a chicken in every pot, don’t forget,” he said. The juxtaposition was more than my brain could handle. What an evil and oddly benevolent man. Or maybe he wasn’t evil? Maybe evil meant he had to have an evil intent in his heart, which James Nelson seemed to be totally lacking. He smiled while he watched the wheels turning in my head.
“How the hell do you get away with it?” was all I could think to blurt out.
“Oh common, Chicago’s a nation all to itself. Most big cities are now. I don’t bother the governor and he doesn’t bother me. An’ no one talks to the federal media, nevermind listens to ‘em. A few cellphone videos got out, but the country’s in such bad shape, nobody pays much attention. Especially to a system that’s workin’. Everywhere else is fallin’ apart. We’re just comin’ up.”
I could see that he was trying to make rational arguments for the most elaborately irrational thing I had ever witnessed. He put his hand on my shoulder and I was shocked I didn’t move away.
“My people are happy with me,” he said. “An’ I know this’ll all catch up with me one day, and when it does, there’ll be more than a few guys waitin’ to punch my lights out in prison. But until then, I’m gonna keep tryna save Chicago.”
I felt his right hand, which laid on my shoulder, tremble. I almost mistook it for a moment of genuine emotion – remorse? Pride? But as I looked down, I saw that it was something else entirely. His hand was completely in shatters. I pulled my shoulder back and examined the hanging hand. It was red and misshapen, and except for it having five fingers, you might not have known it was a hand at all. It looked like a sock filled with marbles and twigs.
He smiled again. “11 years. I threw every punch myself… Didn’t want to let anything get out of hand. I know how Chicago loves violence. If you want to see the rest of the program an’ try to save that backwards country of yours, you can ride with me tomorrow. Just let the office know.”
He nodded at me and walked towards the line of residents waiting to get their food. People streamed towards him with hugs and left-handed handshakes. He even kissed a baby. I tried not to let my mouth gape too long before I caught it. I was totally glued in place, watching the crowd pour past me to the truck. I must have been there 45 minutes before all the people left. I stood there another 45 minutes before I began walking towards Mr. Nelson’s office. I’m sure I couldn’t punch every man in Toronto in the face, but I guess I was willing to listen on the guns and the food trucks.