The projects of Chicago are massive low-income housing units. A few are well-maintained and relatively free of crime, but most are high-rise,
run-down conglomerations of enormous apartment buildings where crime is so commonplace that murders there hardly make the news.
(Many of the projects of Chicago have been razed since I left there in 1984, and most of the rest are so doomed by the end of 2003.)
The projects are where grandmothers put their grandkids to sleep in the bathtub on weekends to protect them from the random rounds of gunfire.
The projects are war zones into which paramedics and even firefighters often won't enter without first getting armed protection from the police,
even in an emergency.
In the big projects of Chicago the residents and the administrators are at the mercy of the drug dealers and the drug users, the prostitutes and their
pimps, and mostly the gang-bangers, many of whom are also drug dealers and drug users. The evil yet seductive power of gangs and the evil yet
seductive power of drugs in Chicago are twin blights on every citizen, of course, but the grief lands mostly on the poor and the desperate.
One day my supervisor handed me a first report of a rear-ender, which meant I had twenty-four hours to track down the claimant or have a good reason
why I didn't. I was still new to Chicago, and I asked the 35-year-old woman behind me, Peggy, where the address was. She said, "Johnny,
that's the Robert Taylor Homes on the South Side. It's part of the projects, and you can't go there."
"It's too dangerous for you. You'll stand out like a sore thumb, and they'll mug you or worse."
"I find that hard to believe. How do you know?"
"Johnny, I used to live there."
Despite Peggy's warnings I re-decided that I was still immortal, plus which I admit it sounded like the sort of thing I would enjoy getting away with.
So I drove to the South Side, located the correct building and pulled into the parking lot. A bunch of guys playing basketball saw me and stopped
to make a point of staring at me. I decided that I was either going to have to bail or bluff.
While I was still in the car I pretended to talk on a two-way radio. I watched them through the corner of my eye, through my extremely cool
Ray-Bans, and I saw that they were still watching me. As I stood up from the front seat I pretended, ever so subtly, to be adjusting a gun holster
inside my suit coat.
I strode confidently right through the middle of the group of guys and walked into the building, whereupon I entered the elevator.
It's at this point I should note how dangerous elevators in the projects are. First, they are the subject of almost unbelievably frequent
vandalism, which means they don't run a lot of the time. (I know, because I was the insurance adjuster who handled most of the claims against Otis
Elevator in Chicago, and Otis had the construction and maintenance contracts for the projects.)
Second, they are by far the single most dangerous square footage in Chicago, per capita. Elevator cars in the projects are a superb place to
commit a crime of violence such as battery or armed robbery or rape or murder, because they're completely isolated. You may be sure no one's going
to help even if your victim's screams can be heard.
Anyway, about half a dozen of the guys followed me into the car. It had more layers of gang tags than paint. It was filthy with rubbish,
and it stank of urine. But it did operate.
I was there looking for a claimant in an insurance case, and I looked at those guys and said, dripping with all sorts of confidence, "Who knows
where Mrs. Jones is?"
After a while -- what seemed like a really long while to me -- one of the guys finally said, "She's in 1150, Detective."
The second bad-ass project I went into in Chicago was Cabrini Green. It's the one that's probably best-known for being Mayor Jane Byrne's
residence for a month in 1981, during which she was trying to prove a point, which was that it could be made safe.
Did I mention that I sat next to Mayor Byrne a couple times at a restaurant -- the 181 Grille -- where lawyers go, near City Hall, and that we
chatted a bit, and that she actually remembered me from one time to the next? Did I also mention that shortly thereafter a car plowed into the 181
Grille and put it out of business for two weeks? Well, I should
Cabrini Green is the high-rise on the North Side where the administration had to completely fence in the interior walkways because so many people were
being thrown off to their deaths into the courtyard below.
It's the one whence so many bullets are fired that prudent Chicagoans avoid driving within a few blocks of the place on weekend nights.
It's the one where, later, I was in the company of an Otis repairman to investigate a claim and, after we met up he called the cops, as he routinely
does, to escort us inside. I still remember the apartment where the witness lived. There were four or five little kids living there, and it
was a veritable hog scravat. This was a television writer's starkest example of inner-city poverty. Speaking of which, I had a hard time getting
the witness's attention because she was riveted by her big-screen TV.
Anyway, having learned my lesson that a good bluff is better than reality, I walked straight up to biggest dude I saw hanging on the playground out
front, looked him in the eye, and said, "Where can I find Mrs. Mildred Johnson?" He looked at me for a moment, him and his half a ton's
worth of friends, and said, "Why do you want to know?" For no reason I can remember now, I changed tack and told the truth: "I'm an
insurance adjuster, and maybe I need to give her some money." The guys thought about this awhile, not believing me, so I pulled out my
insurance company checkbook from my briefcase and showed it to them. "See?" I said, "Here's my checkbook."
It turns out they knew Mrs. Johnson, and they also had heard that she'd been in a car accident that morning. They thought a moment, and the guy
I'd accosted said, "We'll take you to her." They escorted me into one of those damned elevators and, for the entire ride, I was about
pretty sure they were going to mug me for that checkbook I'd been so foolish as to show them. After riding up what seemed like a couple hundred
floors (it was five), we all exited and they formed a van for me to walk behind. We traipsed down a hallway, me in my
business suit and them in their gang colors, till we came to the claimant's door, upon which one of my escorts knocked. The claimant took a long time
to answer, and when she did my new main-man buddy announced who I was and then told her, looking straight at me, "This guy wants to give you
some money because of your car accident."
(That was the only time I ever recorded an interview with, gave a final check to, and got a signed release from a claimant who was in the oppressive
presence of a batch of bangers. It wasn't until later, after I'd been escorted off the premises, that I realized Mrs. Johnson probably had to give
up a chunk of her thousand dollars to them.)
With the exception of the time I jumped off that 60-foot cliff at Blackwater, which didn't go exactly as planned and about which I'll tell you more
later, riding up in that elevator car in the Cabrini Green housing project in Chicago was maybe the scaredest I've ever been. And maybe the most
It was mostly as a claims adjuster that I learned how easy it is to fool people into thinking you're someone you aren't, which is really handy when
you're conducting an investigation. I have pretended to be a cop twice, I have pretended to be a doctor in two hospitals, and I have pretended to be
a lawyer more times than I can remember.
Once, though, a judge thought I was a lawyer when I'd had no intention of fooling anyone. What
happened was that I met with a plaintiff's scumbag lawyer in the hallway outside a motions courtroom, and we came to a certain agreement about settling
his client's claim then and there. He said he needed to make his motion in the case anyway and invited me in to sit in the gallery while he did so.
I sat down and waited while he walked up to the bench and talked to the judge. After a while the scumbag lawyer pointed at me at the back of the
courtroom, and the judge looked. I smiled or nodded or something; I don't remember. Moments later the judge made a ruling that had the effect
of hurting our case. Back outside in the hallway the scumbag lawyer told me what had happened, without any obvious trace of remorse or shame.
It turns out the scumbag lawyer had told the judge I was the defendant's lawyer!
I had to report to my supervisor what had happened, of course, and he realized that he had to report the incident to the manager of the whole
department, who then called me into his office to "discuss" it. The manager (Hi, Al L.) had reviewed the legal file and the motion I had
"agreed" to, and then he asked me to explain what had happened. I told the exact truth, and I got yelled at big-time for using "poor
judgment." Did I mention that the plaintiff's lawyer was a scumbag?
Anyway, I have learned that impersonating people is easier than you
might think. The first trick is to look the part. In the Robert Taylor Homes
project, where I got away with impersonating a police detective, I was driving an American-made car and I was dressed in a suit and tie. I was
neither too young nor too old (and I was wearing really cool sunglasses). But all I really got away with was a quick settlement for a thousand
One of the times I impersonated a doctor had more significant consequences.