small, angry industrial town where I came of age in the 1960s, I was scarcely noticeable against a
backdrop of gang warfare, street knifings, and murders. I grew up one of the good boys, had perhaps a
half-dozen fistfights. In retrospect, my shyness of combat has clear sources.
As a boy, I saw countless tough guys locked away; I have since buried several, too. They were babies,
really--a teenage cousin, a brother of twenty-two, a childhood friend in his mid-twenties-- all gone down
in episodes of bravado played out in the streets. I came to doubt the virtues of intimidation early on. I
chose, perhaps unconsciously, to remain a shadow-timid, but a survivor.
The fearsomeness mistakenly attributed to me in public places often has a perilous flavor. The most
frightening of these confusions occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I worked as a journalist
in Chicago. One day, rushing into the office of a magazine I was writing for with a deadline story in hand,
I was mistaken for a burglar. The office manager called security and, with an ad hoc posse, pursued me
through the labyrinthine halls, nearly to my editor's door. I had no way of proving who I was. I could only
move briskly toward the company of someone who knew me.
Another time I was on assignment for a local paper and killing time before an interview. I entered a
jewelry store on the city's affluent Near North Side. The proprietor excused herself and returned with an
enormous red Doberman pinscher straining at the end of a leash. She stood, the dog extended toward
me, silent to my questions, her eyes bulging nearly out of her head. I took a cursory look around,
nodded, and bade her good night.
Relatively speaking, however, I never fared as badly as another black male journalist. He went to nearby
Waukegan, Illinois, a couple of summers ago to work on a story about a murderer who was born there.