By Laura Kina
Crossing the street:
I’m very grateful that the City of Chicago has started putting up florescent yellow signs in the middle of the crosswalks that say “STATE LAW. STOP FOR PEDESTRIANS WITHIN CROSSWALK.” You see I scurry-shuffle across the street. My family claims I “run” and they laugh at me but I have always just felt it’s impolite to the oncoming street traffic to make them have to come to a complete stop. I’m also slightly scared that I’ll get hit and that this might be a game of chicken.
My stepdaughter, on the other hand, likes to saunter across the street. She has perfected the urban stone cold glare. She is untouchable. She’s never been mugged.
When I was her age, 18, I was mugged twice at the same damn CTA “L” stop. I looked like an easy target, maybe even a tourist. I smiled at strangers and looked up too much.
The first time it happened I was going to get off the train at the Jackson red line stop. It was morning rush hour and I was standing by the train exit doors. Three men suddenly crowded in on me and pushed me forward to the opening door while a fourth grabbed my purse and ran. It happened so quickly that I didn’t know what to do. I was a freshman in college who had just moved to the Windy City from a small rural West Coast town. I bit my lip and continued on my way to class. I didn’t want to be late. As soon as I got to class, I remember just bursting out crying in front of everyone but I don’t recall getting much sympathy. It must have been my fault. The seasoned city kids gave me some advice on how to hold your purse tight with your hand over the zipper. Never have a bag open or a purse with just a magnetic clasp. Don’t look at strangers. Pay attention. I must not have been listening. I was just shaking.
The second time I was mugged, I was on my way to install an art show at an alternative gallery. To get from the north side to my destination on the west side, I had to transfer from the red to the blue line and that requires going through this long pedestrian tunnel. You frequently see travelers with suitcases in tow on their way to O’Hare airport so it’s choice spot for pickpockets. It was a Saturday morning and remember I was wearing an old SPAM t-shirt splattered in paint that I’d picked up in Hawaii and my arms were full carrying a white laundry basket of miscellaneous hanging supplies…picture wire, hammer, drill, spackle, pencil, measuring tape etc.
A man asked me if I needed help carrying my basket. I turned my head to smile at him and say “no thanks” when another man ran up and yanked my purse from my shoulder and dashed ahead. My basket fell to the ground and the other man who had asked to help me ran the other way in the tunnel. No one around even bothered to look up. I wasn’t going to cry this time. I was pissed.
Without thinking, I ran after the man who stole my purse. I ran as fast as I could, screaming obscenities at him all along. I couldn’t keep up though. I’m under five feet tall and he had a running start on me. I thundered up the subway stairs to the blue line platform and was screaming for a CTA agent or someone to help me.
No one did. It was if they didn’t see me. I was invisible, just a crazy Asian chick running around in a SPAM shirt in a dark underground tunnel. This was in the days before cell phones. I walked up to the CTA agent booth and told them to call the police, to catch the thief. They wouldn’t help me or let me use the phone. They had some rule they cited which I didn’t understand. I was lacking some sort of proof about my side of the story. Nothing happened and I realized then that the system, it wasn’t there to help me. It was broken. I better learn how to have street smarts and walk through a tunnel on my own. I had to learn how to glare.
Knowing when to fight:
A few years after the two muggings, in 2001 my friend Larry and I organized a show at an alternative gallery space in the south side Bridgeport neighborhood that used to be colloquially known at “Canaryville” and was historically a working class Irish neighborhood. Our mutual friend, whose artist studio space this was, happens to be an immigrant from Korea who had lived in Bridgeport and was a property owner there for over 15 years. We used to have kegs at art shows back then. I’m not sure if this was legal or not but people would have open by appointment only “galleries” in their backyards, garages, whatever. And since it was a private residence, we were technically just throwing a party. So the keg would be hidden in a big rolling garbage can in the back and as the night would go on, things could get kind of rowdy. But even with the beer flowing, there was a hipster code of decorum. We were just hanging out.
Well sometime in the evening a guest who had been visiting the garbage can/keg too much stumbled over an intricate floor based installation of burned wooden birds. Everyone assumed it was just an accident but I saw him intentionally kick the work and then he was moving forward suddenly towards my friend Larry and I over heard him calling him a “chink” and rambling on about the Asians invading the neighborhood and urban gentrification or something. The hipsters kept hanging out. A few nervously giggled. Who was this fool who couldn’t hold his booze?
But then I saw him going toward my painting. My painting that I had slaved away for on months. My painting that my grad school advisor, who I so admired, had actually called “good.”
The fool with the red plastic cup full of foaming beer was pulling his arm back getting ready to toss it onto my painting. I jumped up and tried to put him in a chokehold but I am so short that I was just dangling off his neck. Thanks to gravity, I successfully pulled him to the ground, and away from my painting. The veneer of politeness shattered as the gallery crowd began to realize this wasn’t an accident or performance art. This was a fight.
The men around me dragged the fool with the beer into the street and Chicago style justice was swiftly served. I didn’t see what happened but some time later, the police rolled in. No one was arrested. We made the usual plans to go to Chinatown for a late night post-opening dinner. The street had taken care of itself. Or so I thought.
It turned out the fool with the beer had come to the art opening accompanied by an art critic/buddy of his who proceeded to write up a negative review of our show. This was when things were just in print and I wish I had kept that review but he sided with the impulse to kick the work and toss beer at us and called us “multiculturalists” who had recently arrived to gentrify the neighborhood; that somehow we were taking the authentic Chicago out of Chicago. We later found out the critic was from Canada!
So this is how I learned to be street smart. It wasn’t going to be enough to learn how to “represent” in my artwork, or glare, saunter or fight back. I also needed to learn how to write back. Maybe with the new Chicago pedestrian stop signs in place, I can practice sauntering across the road now too.