Standing on Exchange Avenue at 81st Street, looking up at the police helicopter, was the first time I didn't feel like I was in Chicago.
It was the end of the Fourth of July weekend and Exchange was lit up. Police in green coveralls and black flak jackets patrolled with civilianized rifles made for war. SUVs packed with more firepower were driven into a three-block by three-block perimeter.
In a little more than two years while working overnight at the Chicago Tribune, I've been to more than 450 scenes. I see cops chasing people, people chasing each other, people fighting each other. I hear gunfire. Sometimes I see it.
But it was the drumbeat of the helicopter and the large-scale manhunt that finally did it for me.
This scene on Exchange played out during a 13-hour stretch when 30 people were shot in Chicago. The escalation of force from basic patrol to infantry tactics made sense. Standing there, I thought, this all makes sense.
As reporters we can use these scenes to explain what's happening to a neighborhood in a city of neighborhoods. But none of the observations capture how it feels to cover this night after night.
We're paid observers of human misery. We go toward bad things, watch people during the worst moments of their lives and hope they'll talk to us.
Before we went to the scene on Exchange, photographer E. Jason Wambsgans and I were standing outside a murder scene in the West Pullman neighborhood. The victim had been taken away and we were standing near our cars a few houses away from a lone squad car.
We heard a few shots, then a "zing." It sounded like a ricochet, like a round had bounced off a piece of metal nearby.
A few seconds later there was another shot that sounded like it came from a different gun.
While I called 911, Wambsgans tapped on the police car's window and told the officer what we saw and heard. Which wasn't much, given the night: gunfire and one or two guys ducking between cars.
That's what it's like to cover violence in this city. Quiet. Then gunfire. Short, to-the-point bursts of violence.
But the July 4th weekend was different. More intense, gunfire often erupting after police arrived, sometimes aimed at police. If someone is willing to shoot with hundreds of officers around, how's it going to be when they're not there?
Then there's the heartbreak. We've been to dozens of scenes where a parent struggles with the sight of their dead child, arms and legs twisted on the pavement, maybe a sheet covering them up.
It doesn't matter that the kid was armed or that he would have returned fire if he had the chance. It doesn't matter that he was a stone-cold gangbanger, a leader of young men, a dope dealer. At that moment, a parent's grief is real. And it matters.
The job has changed me and I've accepted that. It has started to wear on me. It's OK because I think it makes me more sensitive to what the people are going through.
I don't like surprises. Sudden noises -- my dogs barking, dropping a pan -- make me jump. I get angry a lot easier. I don't like large crowds where people drink because I know how it leads to conflict, even gunfire. I try to let off steam by running or lifting weights or jumping around to the point of exhaustion.
What I tell myself -- at every scene -- is that people live here. By choice or not, they make their homes here, so that's where we should be.
We talked to a woman in Englewood who was trying to get her parents out of their home. "They shoot out here every day," she explained. "They may not hit nobody, but they're shooting."
She wants her parents somewhere away from the city, but they don't want to go. Her father doesn't want to be run off by gangbangers.
After we heard the shooting in West Pullman, we left the neighborhood. We went to the next shooting in South Chicago. Then we went somewhere else. To the people we met, gun violence is not an abstraction they read about. It's what they live with.
That's why the job is important.
Peter Nickeas is a Chicago Tribune overnight reporter.
This is an excerpted version of an op-ed published by Chicago Tribune. Click to read the full piece (Digital Plus subscription required).
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