Here is another quote from Scott Turow’s legal/crime thriller Presumed Innocent that sticks in my brain (see quote 1 here). Turow’s Kindle County location is a stand-in for the Chicago area, long associated with… er… self-interested government officials, shall we say, along the lines of the old Tammany Hall political machine in the late decades of the 19th century in New York City. Chicago is also infamous for the criminal activity of gangs on the south side of the city, centering in the public housing projects.
Rusty Sabich, chief deputy PA, has spent his career prosecuting misdeeds ranging from public sex in the park to child abuse to drug-related gang activity. It’s no surprise that the city that practically invented American mobsters (sure, the Mafia was active in New York, but it reached its height of terrorism in Chicago) is still pervaded with the same kind of thing fifty years later. Only now it’s not the Sicilians selling illegal liquor, it’s African-Americans selling heroin.
This is a lengthy quote, spanning several pages, excerpted from Rusty’s thoughts about the Grace Street projects and the way things work there – much like the way things work anywhere that population is dense, good jobs and hope of betterment are hard to come by, and big money is available for those who break the law. Whether it’s selling “protection” and illegal beer in the Bronx in the ’30s, or making and selling moonshine in the mountains of Virginia in the same time period, or selling drugs in Chicago in the ’80s, it’s all the same problem.
(There are even some areas of my own rural Virginia community where I, a nice white lady, would not venture – not just after dark, but any time. In Parrott, where everybody is related to everybody else and about 30% of the population finished high school, they sell meth. And weed. And Oxycontin, the crack cocaine of the rural South. They do not like “niggers” in Parrott. They do not like “outsiders” in Parrott. And everybody has his own gun, sometimes more than one. It is not safe for you unless you grew up there.)
Rusty, drawing on his experience as a prosecutor, explains in some detail the origins of the prominent gang of Kindle County, the Night Saints. The gang began as a small-time street gang focusing on theft, until its leader accidentally killed a convenience store clerk during a robbery, went to federal prison, and there “met men to admire.” Four years later, the gang leader was out of prison and claiming to be a member of an esoteric religion. He gathered followers, and over the next year the group “began, as they put it, involving themselves in the community.” Harukan gathered his group together in a deserted apartment building and preached publicly in the evenings. Weekdays, he provided seminars on How To Steal, specializing in mail theft.
Harukan had what for lack of anything else has to be called the vision to recognize the principles of capitalist enterprise, and his profits were reinvested, usually in decimated real estate in the North End, purchased at county scavenger sales. Eventually entire blocks were Saint-owned. The Saints drove up and down in their big cars. They blasted their horns and played their radios. They hustled the daughters of the neighborhood and made hoodlums, willingly or not, of the sons. Harukan, in the meantime, emerged as a political figure. The Saints gave away food on the weekends.
Rusty then goes on to explain the businesslike and deadly way that the Saints dealt in heroin, with a production line, standardized menu of products, and heavy security. They paid the police to look the other way, and those cops who weren’t on the take were scared of them anyway.
Out on the streets in Saintland, high-grade heroin was sold from stands. There were drive-up windows in garages to which white kids from the suburbs could come down to score, and on weekends the traffic was so bad that some mogul in caftan and shades would be down there with a whistle telling people where to go… The Saints killed. They shot, they garroted, they stabbed. They murdered, of course, in dope squabbles; but they also killed because of minor differences of opinion, because someone insulted the upholstery in somebody’s ‘mobile, or because of an innocent brushing of shoulders on the street. They ran six square blocks of this city, their own little Hey Dude fascist arena, a quarter of their terrain occupied by the Grace Street projects.
And here’s a bonus quote for you: if this description of 1980’s drug-dealing gang activity as regimented as a corporate production plan fascinates you as much as it does me, please check out 2009’s Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, right now. “Chapter 3: Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live With Their Moms?” follows a three-year, personally-administered study by University of Chicago graduate student Sudhir Venkatesh, who went out and asked lots of people lots of questions, and wound up friendly with several Black Disciples gang members. The following quote may by illuminating to you – not for its striking verbiage, but for its striking similarity to Rusty’s observations about how the Night Saints did business.
So how did the gang work? An awful lot like most American businesses, actually, though perhaps none more so than McDonald’s. In fact, if you were to hold a McDonald’s organizational chart and a Black Disciples org chart side by side, you could hardly tell the difference.
So where’s the writing tip in this long, long quote? Simply this: learn how things work, so you can write about them. Scott Turow was an attorney for years before he wrote a novel – and not only did he spend his time in courtrooms and in law libraries and in depositions, he noticed why things happened the way they happened. Even if you don’t have education, you’ve got eyes and a brain. Use ’em. Notice.