Bookended by Marina City to the south and the glittering American Medical Association tower to the north, the sidewalks along State Street between the river and Illinois see their share of well-heeled traffic. But the stretch is also close to several construction sites, this newspaper's office, a few corner-bar-type establishments that still water a regular clientele, and the urine-stained dungeons under the elevated sections of Wabash and Michigan. In the evening, hustlers still mill around the AMA park on the northeast corner of State and Illinois, and panhandlers, some seated in wheelchairs, untiringly guard the doors of the White Hen on the southeast corner.
One recent Wednesday a steady stream of tourists passed an after-work crowd in front of the White Hen. The commuters were munching on snacks and waiting for the bus alongside the panhandlers and a few hustlers. Suddenly, on the southwest corner, the front door of Snickers bar and grill coughed out two short Latinos pursued by two white guys--one small, the other oxlike. They were all yelling. The shorter Latino turned around to say something; the big guy sucker-punched him in the face.
The short guy--a black bandanna tied around his head made him look more like a skate punk than a Latin King--shook it off slow, backing down State. The crowd in front of the White Hen perked up and quit chewing, though nobody said much. "Oh, so now you're backing off!" yelled the big guy. The bandanna guy tried to scuttle behind a silver sports sedan, but the ox lunged to hit him again. This time the little guy was ready; he took only a glancing blow, then got in a kick to the opposition's stomach. They started hitting and kicking each other, maneuvering around the sedan, and soon their buddies joined in. The crowd began to look around for cops, but there were none; the intersection was clotted with taxicabs. Finally the car's alarm began going off, and the four contestants piled onto the sidewalk and started rolling around.
They weren't landing many punches, and nobody was bleeding. But the police were still not in evidence, and finally three hustlers across the street, all black, looked at each other, shrugged, and crossed State to break it up. As they waded through the traffic, a group of elderly female tourists--gazing up at the buildings occasionally but down into their shopping bags mostly--came north across Hubbard and made to meander into the fight, oblivious to the grunts and flailing limbs. One of the hustlers broke into a jog and made it over in time to shepherd them into the street. When they first noticed a shouting black man coming their way the ladies looked terrified; when he tried to move them into the busy street they looked confused; when they finally realized what was going on, they said "Oooh!" and threaded their way around the parked cars, giggling.
The bus still hadn't shown up, and the crowd of onlookers grew--some wincing on the rare occasion when a gladiator's aim was true, some snickering; others resumed snacking and smoking without taking their eyes off the action. A woman in workout sneakers and a bright orange tank top huffed by, glancing at the fight and then yelling at the crowd, "Free entertainment, huh? Nice!" She got no response.
Meanwhile the two other hustlers--one skinny but tall--didn't have to shove anyone to can the skirmish. They put their hands on the sternums of the ox guy and the bandanna guy and both duos backed off, wiping their noses. The Latinos turned west into the alley a couple doors down from Snickers, and the little white guy headed south. The big guy followed him, but only till he wasn't being watched anymore. Then he turned on his heel and went into the alley to challenge the Latinos to another round. He shut up when he saw that a squad car, at last, had pulled into the alley and that the officers were talking with his rivals. He spun around again and resumed bellowing, all the way to the corner of Hubbard, where he took a right and waddled west. Valets at Vong's Thai Kitchen tried to show the police the direction he'd taken, but the officers ignored them and headed back north toward Snickers, swinging batons.
Suddenly all was quiet; the commuters went back to complaining about the CTA, and an overcoiffed college-age girl walked past, confiding to her friends, "I wasn't going to tell you guys this about these shoes, but you know why I got them? They were--"
Just then a middle-aged black woman in heels barreled around the corner from the ox's direction, screaming at the valets--apparently she'd had a moment with the big fellow. The valets shouted something to the police, pointing around the corner. By this time the officers were back in the squad car, and they shot off in the right direction.
"Wait--does that lady have something to do with those guys?" somebody asked a panhandler, peering toward Hubbard after the cops. There was still no sign of the bus.
"You bet she does," the panhandler replied. "I'm getting out of here. She's crazy." And he wheeled away.