“You’re either a chaser or a sitter,” she said. “You’re a chaser.”
The police officer raised her eyebrows and shrugged as she said it, and a few minutes later I was hopping in a Chicago Police Department suburban for a ride home.
It was midnight on a Monday night, one that had abruptly transformed my Chicago experience. Earlier in the day I was bummed out about falling into a routine here, grinding more, experiencing less.
I took the CTA’s Brown Line train home from the Loop. It’s a long ride, my stop coming near the end in Lincoln Square, but I love it.
I love watching people going about their lives, love staring out the windows at the streets and the skyline, still not over the wonder that comes from a small-town boy in a huge city. When I look down these streets from up on the El platform, I’m still struck by the fact that there are more people on a single block than live in my entire hometown.
I’ve certainly grown complacent here, and like nearly everyone else, I’m reading on my phone for much of my ride. I check my surroundings and I grip my phone tight, but I don’t worry.
That’s what I was doing as the doors opened at the Montrose stop, what has to be one of the city’s safest. That’s when a man slapped his hand down on mine, snatched my phone and bolted from the train. I was up and after him immediately, my computer in my bag flung over my shoulder. When I stepped out of the train he was only walking, joined by three buddies on the platform, none of them over 18.
One, who looked all of 13, turned as I came out of the train.
“Oh shit, he’s comin’,” he said, surprised.
With that, the dreadlocked kid who had my phone took off down the platform. I expected his three friends to get in my way, but they parted, and I hopped through the crowd fast enough to stay with him, to squeeze down the stairs after him, and to get through the exit without plowing through the old lady about to enter it.
“He’s got my phone,” I yelled when I hit the street, which at this time of night is lined with sidewalk diners at Glen’s Diner, Margie’s Candies and a couple other restaurants. One of the diners, a skinny kid clad in shorts and a t-shirt, joined the chase with me, soon catching up and passing me as we rounded the corner down a dark street. I thought we’d lost the thief, but the diners at the corner restaurant spoke up.
“He’s right there, behind the SUV,” they said, pointing.
My new partner in justice went around one side, me to the other, and sure enough, there he was. He stood, and before I could contemplate my next move (tackle him? Negotiate? Another chase?), a deep voice made the decision for me.
“GET ON THE GROUND! GET ON THE GROUND OR I’LL F*(&ING SHOOT YOU!”
I thought the voice was talking to me, but when I turned (with arms raised) I saw a gun trained on the thief.
“My work here, is done,” I thought, stepping backward toward the street.
“I’m a cop,” the man said, eyes on the thief. “I’m an off-duty cop. Get on the ground.”
My assailant went to the ground, and soon the officer had a knee in his back. The officer had been sitting outside Margie’s Candy with his wife, right next to the El tracks, when I darted out of the station after the kid.
“That guy just got robbed!” she told him, and unbeknownst to me, I had an armed officer in the chase with me.
“Do you have a weapon?” he asked the kid, rifling through his pockets.
That question hit me, and for the first time in the chase my brain kicked in. It hadn’t even occurred to me that he could have a weapon. In fact, nothing had really occurred to me, I just started chasing, like a guy had just stolen the basketball from me and darted toward the hoop.
The thief, it turns out, is 17 years old and hails from Englewood, Chicago’s most gun-riddled, crime-stricken neighborhood, and he carries a book of prior offenses.
I got my phone back. The cops called it an “apple-jacking.” Kids from Chicago’s impoverished south side neighborhoods take the train to the north side to steal people’s iPhones. They can get $100 for them on the street.
“They’re not doing it a lot more than usual,” one of the officers told me back at the station. “But they are getting more violent. They’ve started to do it by punching you in the face first, so you instinctively drop or release your grip on the phone.”
At least they didn’t jack me in the face, I thought. Which is nice.
It felt good to chase the guy, even better to see the surprise in his eyes when I kept chasing him, and better yet to catch him. But now the adrenaline was gone and I was texting my girlfriend under the fluorescent lights of a barren police station office.
“It was probably stupid to chase him, wasn’t it?” I asked the officer.
“It’s instinct. You can’t help it,” she said. “You’re either a chaser or a sitter.”
So I guess I’m a chaser. My girlfriend would prefer I wasn’t.