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Jaws of Victory

Lost, confused, hysterical: how one woman celebrated the Bulls championship

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By Ben Joravsky

On a normal night, it would have taken Debbie Cohen 30, maybe 40 minutes to drive from Northbrook to her home on the near north side.

But Sunday, June 14, was no normal night in Chicago. It was then that the Bulls clinched their sixth NBA championship. And what should have been an uneventful jaunt along the Kennedy Expressway turned into a nightmarish three-hour odyssey, as Cohen found herself trapped in the near west side like a rat in a maze.

"I was lost and it was horrible!" says Cohen, a third-grade public school teacher. "I had this helpless feeling of driving and driving and driving and never getting home. The worst part about it is that no one, not even the police, would help me."

The problem stemmed from the propensity of some Bulls fans to display, as police spokesman Patrick Camden puts it, "a pretty peculiar way of celebrating championships, if you can call it celebrating." It wasn't so bad in 1991 when the Bulls won their first title, as celebrants by and large restricted their antics to horn honking. But in 1992 revelers caught police off guard on several fronts, including the Gold Coast, where upscale white kids from the suburbs went on a rampage, racing along Michigan Avenue shattering windows, overturning cars, and taunting police.

Determined to keep the violence from happening again, the city devised a rigid and expensive (since it requires a full force on the street) containment policy. "We like to think that we're like the Bulls in that we've learned from past championships," says Camden. "We've learned that people see celebrants on Rush Street and say, 'Wow, it's a great idea! Let's go party!' Then you have a safety problem where there's too many people for the space and the potential exists for disturbance. So we adopted a restrictive policy. If you're not there before the game ends, you can't get in."

That means state and city police are dispatched to key intersections and to exits along the Kennedy and Lake Shore Drive to keep motorists--and they mean any motorists--from getting anywhere near the party zone.

And so it was that Cohen found herself caught in a safety net as she headed toward her home near Clark and North. "I was at a birthday party for my sister at a restaurant in Northbrook. We watched the game and sometime before ten we started heading home. I knew I was going to be up against a lot of traffic. I knew there was going to be some craziness out there. My brother-in-law wanted me to stay north. He thought I was crazy to head off. But I wanted to get home because I had school the next morning. The plan was I would follow some friends who got off at Diversey. I thought I'd be all right."

The trip was uneventful--until she tried to get off the Kennedy at Diversey. "The exit was blocked by police who were waving traffic ahead," says Cohen. "There was absolutely no sign that said 'all exits closed.' I just assumed since I couldn't get off at this exit I'd get off at the next one."

But, no, the next half dozen or so exits--from Fullerton to Ohio--were blocked off: "There were state troopers at every exit and we had to wait in line to be told that we couldn't get off. I said, 'But, I don't know where I'm supposed to go.' The troopers said, 'Just keep driving, lady.' It was so frustrating. What was I supposed to do? Where was I supposed to go? And I wasn't alone. I saw other older couples looking as helpless as I was.

"This happened at every single exit, as I kept pulling off looking for help. I was pleading, 'Please, you don't understand, I live here.' But they wouldn't listen. I asked one trooper, 'Where am I supposed to go?' And he said, 'Get off at 18th Street and make a right on Augusta.' Well, I had no idea where that is. I've since learned Augusta and 18th Street don't even intersect. I said, 'Please, help me. I don't know where you're telling me to go. I don't know where I'm going.' He said, 'Just keep driving, lady.' Another trooper told me to get on 290 west. I said, 'What's 290 west?' He said 'Get off at the western suburbs and come back.' I said, 'Western suburbs? I don't want to go to the western suburbs. I want to get to Clark Street.' And he's like, 'Move it, lady, move it.'"

Back in her car she went, heading south. "You have to understand the scene--it was madness, utter madness. The expressway was jammed, cars were swerving all over the place, people are hanging out of their windows and yelling. And I was frightened and frantic--hysterical. I felt I had to talk to someone. So I get on my car phone--thank God I have a car phone, thank God I had a full tank of gas--and I called my girlfriend. And when she heard where I was, she got hysterical. She had third-party calls and so she got her father on the line to help with directions. Poor guy, she woke him up, and we all got on the phone together, only he couldn't hear one word I was saying because I was under a tunnel. And everyone was screaming and the cars are honking and all I can hear him saying is, 'I can't hear a word, I can't help her.'"

At Randolph she got a break. "They were letting cars off. My girlfriend said, 'Get off.' I said, 'But Randolph's a bad neighborhood.' And she said, 'You've got to get off the expressway--you'll be safer off the expressway.' And now my girlfriend's hysterical, she's so scared for me, and her husband's in the background yelling, 'Tell her to get off the expressway!' So I get off, only they won't let me go east. So I said, 'Now what?' And my girlfriend said, 'Don't worry, you're heading for Greektown. You'll recognize Diana's, you've been there before. Go right on Halsted--you'll find your way home.'

"Well, guess what? There's a policeman at the intersection and he won't let cars go north on Halsted. I pull over to tell him I have to get home, and this truck pulls up next to me and the driver doesn't want to wait. I'm trying to talk to the policeman and this big truck driver's cursing and screaming, 'Lady, if you don't move your car I'll hurt you.' I felt so violated, I felt so scared. I was yelling, 'Help! I need help!' But the policeman said, 'Drive on, lady, drive on.' I said, 'This guy verbally scared the hell out of me. I need you to listen to me. I'm single and alone and I want to get home.' But he wouldn't listen."

So Cohen headed west on Randolph, only she wasn't sure where she was going, just as now she's not sure where she went. Not having grown up in Chicago, she's unfamiliar with most of its neighborhoods. Her sense of direction is not strong to begin with, and her sense of the city is limited to several fixed routes she drives during daytime. She had a vague sense that the land beyond Greektown is dangerous and rough. She didn't know that she was wandering through one of the hottest, hippest real-estate markets in the city, which, when gentrification is complete, will probably be as familiar to her as the near north side. All she knew for sure was that she was lost and that the apocalyptic din of honking cars and shrieking revelers and exploding firecrackers was terrifying. And no one would help her. The city was lucky that she was only lost. What if Cohen, or somebody else in her predicament, had been making an emergency run to the hospital?

"I was hysterically crying, tears streaming down my face. I was all turned around, I was just going with the flow of traffic. I pulled over to some young policeman and said, 'I need to go to North Avenue,' and he said, 'I don't know where that is.' I said, 'How can you be a policeman and not know where that is?' I mean, I know where it is--I just didn't know how to get there.

"Finally I saw the East Bank Club. And I knew how to get home from there. I had to go right, and there was a policeman blocking the roadway. I said, 'You have to let me go right.' He said, 'Prove to me you live down there.' So I whipped out my license, and he let me through. I got home at 1:10 in the morning. I was a wreck, my heart was beating so fast. I was pale as a ghost. I ran into a friend in the elevator and she took one look at me and said, 'Are you all right?'"

In the aftermath, police say they were bombarded with similar tales of frantic motorists snared in traffic. It was, they contend, a small price to pay for peace. "The number of complaints this year was down as compared to last, and so were the number of arrests--we only had 451 arrests, down from 579 last year," says Camden. "We apologize for any inconvenience we may have caused. In an ideal world we would not have so many policemen out to quell our so-called celebration. But we'd rather have you inconvenienced than be a victim of a crime."

In retrospect, Cohen says she figures the police are not completely to blame. "I know there's something wrong with our society when we can't just enjoy a celebration for what it is. And I think Mayor Daley had good intentions when he tried to do this. And I don't want to knock the police. I tell my schoolchildren to be respectful of police. I think of policemen as people who protect me. But there's something wrong if I can't feel safe when I'm around police. There's something wrong when I'm pleading for help and policeman after policeman tells me, 'Sorry, lady, move it.' o

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