Three men emerged from a burned-out building near the learning center where I work on Calumet near 51st Street. They crossed the street, and two overweight women walked up to them. One woman turned and blocked my view, but I still saw the quick exchange of money for plastic packets of white. Then the women rushed through an empty lot and disappeared behind a garage, and the men walked over to their new car and drove off. The street was quiet, and it was hard to believe I had seen anything at all.
An hour later, a white man stopped his banged-up pickup across the street and sat staring at the burned-out building. He got out of his truck, carefully walked over the charred brick littering the sidewalk, and walked inside.
A tall, elderly black man watched him go in. "Can't be police," he muttered, and then stopped still and watched.
The white man's face could be seen through the holes in the building as he moved from room to room and floor to floor. A few other men gathered to watch.
"What do you think he wants there?" one man asked.
"He sure doesn't look like a junkie."
"I don't think he's a junkie," said a third, moving closer to the building and leaning against a car.
The white man became visible again through a hole in a wall.
"Ever see such a thing?" the elderly man asked. "Man's trying to get himself killed."
The white man walked back outside, walked to the curb, and stood looking up at the building. Then he started to go back in.
"Hold it," one of the men shouted. "Don't go back in there."
The white man turned and looked at us. He looked like he wanted to make a run for his pickup, then he looked confused. Finally he walked over to us. "Are one of you the owners?" he asked.
"Yeah," the elderly man answered quickly, and the others smiled. "What you want with this here building?"
"I live in Hyde Park," he answered. "I'm a rehabber. I saw this building going down 51st, and I like the concrete above the first floor."
"Well," said the elderly man, his words coming slow as he enjoyed the role he had created for himself, "this here is a dope house. Falling down, sure enough, but still a dope house. Wrong person saw you going in, you wouldn't be coming back out. They don't know what you want, and they don't care. I don't think you'd better go in there again."
"Hey," the man said. "Hey, thanks." A sliver of sweat had formed on his forehead.
"But you want those concrete designs, do you?"
"Tell you what. When the building comes down, I'll save them for you."
"I'd appreciate that."
"You got a card or something?"
The man reached into his pocket and handed the elderly man his card.
"Don't you go back in there now," the elderly man said, folding the card and pushing it into his pants pocket. "That's a dope house. Wrong people see you, you don't come out. And you never can be too careful about places like this. Needles everywhere. You could fall and come up with all kinds of diseases." He paused. "Yeah, I'll give you a call when the building comes down."
"Thanks," the white man said. He walked quickly to his pickup, did a U-turn, and tore into the traffic on 51st Street.
One of the men leaning against the car burst out laughing. "You own the building?"
The elderly man looked at him with the slightest smile curving his lips. "Better I lie than let someone get himself killed for not knowing any better."
"He's right about that," one man said, and the laughter stopped. "I don't know about you all, but I'm getting out of here. You never can tell who was watching us."
And they were gone.