On the Street Doing Life is a book about an enigma written by an enigma. Anne Keegan doesn't bore her readers trying to explain Mike Cronin, who wasn't a typical cop, and I don't pretend to know what pushes Keegan's buttons. A monk sworn to a life of silence toots his horn better than Keegan toots hers. We've known each other more than 30 years, and her refusal to promote herself falls somewhere between a virtue and a phobia.
On the Street Doing Life is a series of stories about the west side of Chicago as experienced by a cop who worked its streets for over three decades and by a reporter who rode with him, on her own time, for a couple of years back in the 90s. Yet Keegan doesn't once let the first person slip into her text. In her view, journalism is a "feeble attempt to find the truth," and the truth is "what happened, and that's all."
She continues, "I made no judgments on anyone. None. Zero. Nor did I say, 'I stood there, and gee whiz, I'm so scared.' And 'Gee whiz, I felt so sorry for that lady, and I cried when she said, "I don't want to be arrested."' I'm not a Gen Xer boring everybody with what I think. I wasn't part of the show."
Saying "I" isn't necessarily a sin of vanity in journalism. It's the point of a newspaper column. In return for a nice salary and star treatment, a columnist is expected to establish a personal relationship with readers that keeps them coming back. And if some days the common touch falters and the columnist works a little too nakedly at sounding scared, or inspired, or saddened, or some other plebeian emotion, editors forgive. Sincerity's a tough act to pull off.
But even as a front-page Tribune columnist in the 80s, Keegan would have none of it. "I never wrote about myself," she says. "They [her Tribune editors] may have decided I didn't write enough silly stuff about my kids' diapers. Or about my twins. Or my psychiatrist. Or how I found a coyote in my yard. I may have led a very interesting life, but there are people whose stories are far more fascinating than mine. When I went to Thailand and wrote about the Cambodian refugees did I write, 'I stood there and watched them crawl across the border'? Oh, please! I wrote about the nurses who picked them up. You don't say, 'Oh, I stood there.' You write about Lisa the nurse from Skokie holding a little boy laden with malaria.
"My point is, I don't want to bore people with me. Cronin's much more interesting."
Keegan spent 24 years at the Tribune, left unhappily in 1997 when she was moved to women's news, went home, and stayed there. From time to time she talked about the book she was trying to write on Cronin.
He's quite a story. He grew up on the north side, joined the marines, lost his left foot in Vietnam to a mine, and got on the police force anyway because the first Mayor Daley heard how passionately he wanted to be there and made a call. In 1991, when he'd been working gang crimes for 17 years, Alex Kotlowitz wrote about him in There Are No Children Here: "He followed the Vice Lords. He probably knew the organization as well as its members, if not better."
In Keegan's book there's something ghostlike about Cronin. Unmarried, a man with no other place to be, he drives the streets by day and night and is apt to show up anywhere at any hour, often alone. Everyone knows his name. If he's spotted in time by the barely adolescent sentries, their whistles empty the drug houses he's casing. But often he isn't spotted.
One night Keegan was with Cronin when he hid in an empty apartment in Rockwell Gardens and through a peephole watched the dealers who'd set up in the breezeway. Then a lookout pushed open the door, looking for a place to pee. Keegan's husband, Leonard Aronson, picks up the story, which he heard that night as soon as Keegan got home. "There's a big commotion. They scurry like cockroaches. And all of a sudden Anne's out in the hallway and everybody's gone but her and three humongous gangbangers." Cronin was nowhere around. "And all she had was a flashlight," Aronson continues, "I asked her, 'What did you do?' And she said, 'Well, I just kind of acted like I belonged there.' She said, 'Line up against the wall.' She knew she had to do something. I said to her later, 'What was your next line?' But I guess Cronin reappeared."
Says Keegan, "They were very respectful. They didn't do a darned thing bad to me. Cronin told me, 'Never look weak and never be fearful. If you're in an elevator and you're afraid of somebody, look them right in the eye.' So there I was with my flashlight. I wasn't scared though. Not for a minute. I never thought anyone would hurt me. I just didn't think they'd do it, I guess because they knew I was with Cronin."
Another night, around 1 AM, Cronin and a partner picked up some boys scampering down an alley. The oldest was eight, the youngest four. Cronin took two of them home. A surly drunk man let them in a back door, and then a woman poked her head out of an apartment. Keegan writes:
"You their mother?"
"I'm their auntie."
"Where's their mother?"
"She live here, but I ain't seen her in a while. She out. I don't know where she be."
"Well, we found these two boys over at-- "
"What the fuck you doing here?" said the drunk man. "You the police and you ain't got a warrant. What the fuck you doing in here? Who you to be stomping in this place, no fucking warrant, these kids bringing the fucking police back with 'em, you got no right--"
"Shut the fuck up," said Cronin.
The woman just stood there. So did the two boys. They did not run into her arms nor did she open them . . .
"How long they been gone?" she asked.
"We don't know. We just found them. Don't YOU know?"
"Ain't missed 'em," she said.
This sort of desolate moment can tear Keegan up, but her book never lets on. If there's a comment to be made, Cronin has to make it. Which he does, climbing back into the squad car: "'You know,' he said, 'I don't know if we did these kids a favor.'"
The book's lighter moments wouldn't seem so light anywhere else. There's Rat, a petty thief and user Cronin chased and nabbed and chased again for years. Rat has a certain stature on the street because he once played some ball. "Straight up, it's true man, he was better than his brother Isiah," someone says.
The night we meet Rat, he and Cronin are sitting in a squad car parked out of sight at the end of a dead-end street. Cronin's saying, "I saw on TV a movie about your brother and it showed how the gang members came to your house, to your mama's house, and tried to get your baby brother into a gang and she pulled a shotgun and chased them off. But they weren't there for your brother at all. They were there for you, right?"
Rat says, "Yeah, I ran off with some dope. They were there looking for me. . . . They didn't want my brother . . . but my mama don't know that. It looked good on TV."
"Tell me something good," says Cronin, "name some spots where there's guns and dope." Rat mumbles a few, and then Cronin starts up his car. But a tire's flat. Cronin curses, and he and Rat get out and change it.
"Are you taking me out west [to his home]?" Rat asks when they're done.
"I don't see a meter in this fucking car," says Cronin. "I don't believe you are asking--"
"I was just assuming that you would, Cronin," says Rat.
It's four in the morning. And Cronin does.
Because this is the story of Rat, not the story of the famous brother who played for the Detroit Pistons, Keegan doesn't say straight out who the brother is, regardless of how much more commercial a detail like that would make the book. She's so lame at self-promotion that On the Street Doing Life is self-published.
But Keegan says, "You ask cops, and their favorite TV police show is Barney Miller, because that's their life. Police work is relationships, and Cronin did it better than anybody. That's why I wanted to do the book the way I wanted to do it, and no agents in New York thought it was very sexy. So that's the way it goes."
Cronin just retired. There was a dinner February 1 at the Fraternal Order of Police hall. "It was the typical bullshit policeman fare," Keegan says. "Italian beef, chicken, mostaccioli. It wasn't ritzy at all. And it was jam-packed." Mayor Daley stopped by and said it was clear that his dad hadn't made a mistake. Before Cronin said a few words, Keegan gave him some advice. "I told him you have to say something, but don't go on and on and bore everybody to death." A friend of Keegan's peddled 89 copies of the book. She was too embarrassed to hawk it herself.
No readings are planned. "You're supposed to write and shut up," explains the author.
Did you help change the tire? I asked her.
"You think I wanted to change a tire on an undercover squad car? Hell no! I had two men there. Both healthy."
Did Rat want to change it?
"Absolutely! He loves Cronin. I watched and listened to their repartee and enjoyed it. Remember, I liked Rat a lot."
No reporter is ever truly invisible--it's the reporter who decides what to put in the story and what to leave out. Keegan admits to slipping fleeting descriptions into On the Street Doing Life of sights unknown to Cronin. "The lightning bugs at night going across the chain-link fences," she says, "and the Queen Anne's lace that I have planted 19 times in my backyard and it will not grow--but it grows in the ghetto, thank you very much.
"I was out with Cronin once, and I said, 'Oh, look at the moon. It's full.' And he said, 'I've never noticed it until now.' He saw people with things. He'd say, 'That guy's got dope in his pocket,' and I'd be looking at the moon. He saw things I didn't see, and I saw things that were not his concern--the Queen Anne's lace and wild chicory."
But now he knows they're there?
"Yes, he does," she says, "and the wild sunflowers that grow along the railroad track."
For more, see Michael Miner's blog at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.