Chapter 47 – Let’s Get Some Jacks
Although a guy striking himself in the face at Shilin Night Market was exactly the sort of thing that my jealous ass had wanted to see happen at the time and I’d gotten a good laugh out of it, it didn’t make me feel happy the way I figured it would. The beer and the cigarettes too were doing nothing to alter my mood. Not only did I remain without the deer penis wine that I’d set out to purchase in order to salvage the total bust of an evening, but I still felt alone and frustrated in the place where I could find not a soul who spoke my language. I was in desperate need of something that would make me feel at home.
As the trail of red dots that’d been left on the sidewalk from where that dork beat himself up began to dry, the crowd dispersed and the dude in the booth resumed ranting into his microphone in hope of drawing new contestants to his bow and arrow game.
At this point I stood up from the bench, cracked open my final Heineken and started wandering further into the game section. After passing up several booths housing diversions that I felt were either quite childish and/or totally gay, I came across one at which I ended up seeking refuge. The booth of which I speak had been one where the contestant is handed a wire basket full of baseballs which are to be thrown at a strike zone with nine squares in it sixty-feet six-inches away.
Ever since I was a little kid having a catch with my dad or playing living room sports with my brother, I’ve loved to throw shit around. Up until about fifth grade, my throwing abilities had mostly been used for little league baseball or improvised games of tackle football at the park or on the front lawn. But it was around that age that my friends and I had begun to take pleasure in using our throwing abilities to chuck anything and everything we could get our hands on at random people and moving vehicles. I don’t know exactly when the term had surfaced, but at some point we began referring to this activity as “getting some jacks.” Although we’d throw pretty much everything from rotten produce to store-bought baked goods, our most common weapon of choice when getting jacks had been the snowball.
When I was a young’un, there’d been a restaurant in my neighborhood called Nam Viet. Before we’d ever thrown anything at it, my buddy Mac would routinely walk into this place and pretend he was asking something of the man or woman serving as the establishment’s captain before suddenly collapsing and faking seizures on the floor in front of all the guests. Inevitably, everyone in the place would stop eating and stare at this kid as he shook and foamed at the mouth until he got tired of the act, stood up, dusted himself off and casually walked back out the front door.
During an epoch that feels so long ago – back before Nam Viet had gone out of business and become nothing more than a memory – the eatery had once upon a time been one of our favorite targets on which we’d get our jacks. For us, repeatedly attacking a commercial establishment was actually quite rare. Aside from a certain neighborhood television store where we’d repeatedly thrown bricks at and shattered the large red plastic sign hung from the front of the building with the company’s name on it every time they’d gotten it fixed, Nam Viet was the only other place of business on which we’d gone out of our way to put the hurt over and over.
Although the fact that we were little xenophobic pricks who’d all lived sheltered-ass upbringings might’ve had something to do with why we’d continually picked on these people who looked different than us, I like to tell myself that it had more to do with the location than our inherent racism. When I was a kid, Nam Viet had been situated on the corner of a main street called Northwest Highway and a side street called Oshkosh. On the other side of Oshkosh from Nam Viet’s former location is a tiny parking lot. After that, in the same direction is a playground called Edison Park followed by the Happy Foods grocery store. Between Nam Viet and Happy Foods, there’d been at least five different streets and alleyways we could each turn down before disappearing into neighborhood backyards when making an escape from malicious, vengeful and sometimes knife-wielding Vietnamese cooks. Whether or not these guys actually would’ve stabbed a group of kids had they caught up to us is beyond me. Either way, I never wanted to stick around and find out.
What we’d do to this place that would get these employees so unbelievably pissed off would typically involve four or five guys lining up on the Oshkosh side of the restaurant in a formation that resembled a Revolutionary War era firing squad. Once he’d gotten the signal that all the ammunition had been prepped for the assault, one guy would creep forward, pull and hold open the perpetually unlocked steel door leading to the kitchen while all other jackers cocked back and chucked a minimum of two tightly-packed snowballs at the chef, the manager, the waiters or basically anyone who’d been unfortunate enough to be in the kitchen when we decided to make it rain.
These resilient Vietnamese people had withstood some brutal blows in their day. As the shitty little bastards we were, we dealt everything from near-fatal misses that’d knocked chef hats off into the steamy pots of phở they’d been putting together to groin shots and dead-on facials that caused busboys to fumble and drop whatever plates or dishes said victim may have been handling at the time.
After several of these guerilla-style attacks, the employees of Nam Viet had gotten so sick of our bullshit that they’d actually abandon the restaurant and hunt us down as we bobbed and weaved through the neighborhood of which we knew every twist and turn and nook and cranny. For the people whose backyards through which we bolted near Happy Foods and Edison Park, it truly must’ve been a sight to see a butcher-knife-wielding cook tearing through their property and cussing in Vietnamese while trying to catch up with an unruly group of twelve and thirteen-year-old assholes who’d done more running and fence-hopping in our day than a team of Olympic hurdlers. In our playground, on the terrain that we so intimately knew, we were as slippery and difficult for those guys to catch as the NVA had been for the American troops as they snaked out of sight into gopher-sized holes deep in the Vietnamese jungle.
About a block away from Nam Viet on a street in our neighborhood called Oriole had been the property once belonging to Old Man George. OMG was a fat old alcoholic with a Santa beard that’d been stained yellow from all the cigarettes the guy would always be smoking. Even though he had a house of his own, George could often be found staggering ‘round the ‘hood, pissing on front lawns before dabbing his dick dry with the never-ending stash of Dunkin Donuts napkins he carried and sleeping on park benches at any given hour.
As the story goes, when Old Man George had been out on a bender during a seasonally frigid day in the heart of a Chicago winter, he’d left his space heater on full-blast next to a pile of newspapers so he could come back to a warm home after passing out in the snow or whatever type of depraved drunken activities he’d had planned for the afternoon. Turns out, the old papers that’d probably been as yellow as his beard caught fire and OMG’s house burnt to the ground. I don’t know if he didn’t have insurance or what his deal was, but that was the end of Old Man George having a home. For about four years, nothing was built on the property. It turned into an empty lot with grass that’d grown chest-high. It’d become a perfect location from where my friends and I could get some jacks.
A block down from George’s in the Happy Foods parking lot had been one of the last of our neighborhood’s pay phones. It was there that we’d open up the accompanying phonebook, dial the number of any neighborhood pizza place we saw fit and order what we’d referred to as a “Phantom Pizza” to Old Man’s George’s lot. We’d then scurry over to the ex-property of Edison Park’s very own Otis Campbell where we’d assemble a stockpile of ammunition in the tall grass and await the pizza man’s arrival.
Inevitably, some dude would show up in a piece of shit car and step out with a pizza box in hand. As we’d watch his every move from the brush like cannibalistic savages getting ready to pounce and feast on that which we needed to survive, he’d walk over to a house on one side of the empty lot and see that the address didn’t match. Figuring it must be the house on the other side of the empty lot, he’d then begin walking over there to go check that address. Upon seeing that that one too did not match, the pizza man would usually stop in his tracks, stare at the empty lot and scratch his head in confusion. This is when we’d pop out the brush and fire snowball after snowball at the delivery man as he retreated to his car while trying not to drop the pizza before driving away.
Over the years and throughout our jacking careers, we’d experiment with different methods that we could use to make other people’s lives miserable. This experimenting was usually done during times of the year when there hadn’t been any snow on the ground and since not getting jacks was not an option, we’d have to find other things to throw. Our most often used alternative to snowballs had usually been tomatoes which we’d steal from neighborhood backyards. We knew where all the “patches” were and would often sneak onto people’s properties and load our pockets before heading off to get our J’s. Sometimes, if we were feeling especially antisocial, we’d just uproot the entire tomato plant and take it with us for our jacking pleasure.
Tomatoes were classic and dependable but during some parts of the year, we’d have neither snow nor tomatoes at our disposal. It was during these times that we’d spend what little money we had buying things that we could use to feed our addiction. Of course, eggs were one of the things we bought. Everybody who’s anybody has bought eggs to throw at some property that doesn’t belong to them at some point in their lives but here, I’m talking beyond eggs. There were few things with which our crew would hesitate to experiment. One might even say, had such a thing existed, that my grade school buddies and I had been connoisseurs of jacks.
Aside from Old Man George, there was another classic old alcoholic guy in my neighborhood who’d always been drunk on the streets. My friends and I had pet names for pretty much everybody we saw as being different from us but for some reason or another, this is one character for whom we’d never made one. I recall one time as a child walking down Northwest Highway with my dad and my brother, seeing this wiry white-bearded sun-ravaged man digging through roadside garbage receptacles, pulling out empty cans and bottles of beer, holding them up to his face and pouring whatever drips remained from the bottom of the containers onto his tongue before continuing the ethanol excavation. When I was that young, I couldn’t comprehend or empathize with the desperation of this man. Even a few years after first seeing what I’d seen, I still couldn’t imagine what he’d been going through and instead only saw him as a target that needed to get jacked.
During one of the aforementioned “offseasons” when we resorted to jacking alternatives, I recall seeing my buddy Mac hit the alcoholic hobo in the back of the head on Northwest Highway with a hamburger that he’d just purchased from Tailgator’s restaurant for the sole purpose of doing what he’d done. We ran away immediately after so I’m unsure of Skinny’s reaction, but if I had to guess I’d say that the guy had probably picked the remnants of the perfectly good hamburger off the sidewalk, took it to the dome and chased it down with the piss-warm droplets of a discarded and discovered garbage can beer.
Another time we’d encountered this guy had been on an afternoon when we decided to purchase several packages of Grandma’s brand cookies from Happy Foods to throw at cars. Using the thumb and index fingers of our throwing hands, we’d make a circle around the cookies and chuck ‘em sidearm. Upon striking our intended targets, these sweet treats wouldn’t make a loud thud or anything like that but were nevertheless still pretty fun to throw because of the way they’d flown like discusses.
On that day, right after we’d emerged from Happy Foods with freshly purchased packs of Grandma’s jackables, we spotted the skinny alcoholic hobo guy a bit down the road, making his way up Northwest Highway towards Park Ridge, ranting to himself and as per usual, digging through cans for half-drinken beers. As he scavenged, we approached with intentions impure.
Once we’d been near enough to strike, we began firing one baked-goods-laser-beam after another at this poor-ass motherfucker. Once a few had hit him and a few more had flown right past his face, the man threw his arms up over his head, began shouting and running away. If I had to guess, I’d say we’d inadvertently triggered in him a flashback to his time spent fighting the Vietnam War. Aged thirteen or fourteen and ignorant as hell when the event had occurred, we didn’t really give a shit and kept tossing cookies at him as he retreated amid a seemingly claustrophobic PTSD freakout.
During the times when a general tiredness of spending our money on food to throw had pervaded among the crew and coincided with a seasonal absence of naturally occurring elements that we could employ to satisfy our depraved need to throw shit at cars, we came up with the concept of “reusable jacks.” Reusable jacking missions usually consisted of two or three guys hiding out behind a thick set of bushes in front of a random house in my neighborhood from where a barrage of tennis balls had been chucked at cars. After striking the passing automobiles of our fancy, we’d either stay hidden in the bushes or run away. This of course was all dependent on the aggressiveness of the driver’s reaction upon being struck. If the operator of the most recent automobile we’d hit had seemingly deemed the ambush unworthy of retaliation, driven away and been decided among us to no longer be a threat to our enterprise, we’d retrieve our tennis balls and jack again.
Since tennis balls don’t splatter and make a mess, these jackable armaments proved to be a bit of a bore and were only used a handful of times before we’d decided that items purchased at the store that explode on impact were indeed worth the money spent. My favorite and most memorable of the Happy-Foods-obtained offseason munitions had been something I’d come up with called “mustard peppers.” Like Charles Manson with his “Helter Skelter” business, I like to blame this diabolical creation I’d unleashed on the world as something that The Beatles had told me to do when listening to the songs “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
I was fourteen-years-old when I first used a pen to punch a hole into the top of a bell pepper and – taking advantage of the fruit’s naturally hollow insides – put the tip of a mustard cap to said aperture before squeezing the container of French’s and filling nature’s grenade until the void’d been topped off. Eager to witness the capabilities of my creation but without the balls to try it out myself, I went out that night and handed my baby over to my buddy Clay.
Clay used to heave bowling ball sized snowballs at cars – ones so big the rest of us dared not project in fear of shattering a windshield – and not give a shit about it. In fact, any oversized snowball assembled became known as a “Clay-sized snowball.” Clay was also the only child of a first responder who I knew that’d throw a Clay-sized orb of precipitation at the windscreen of a speeding ambulance with its sirens on and not feel an iota of remorse, thus making him the perfect candidate to test out the power of the Mustard Pep.
Right before it went down, a group of us’d all been at Brooks Park – a place which more or less served as the gathering point for all neighborhood juvenile delinquents after hours. There, we’d been hanging out in the alley next to the tennis courts on the west end of the park, situated behind a garage that’d offered the perfect hiding spot from southbound traffic on Odell Street.
“Alright. Get ready to run,” Clay said after peeking around the corner of the garage and spotting a car heading in from the north, “I’m gonna go ahead and jack this next one.”
Just as the car was about to pass, Clay skipped toward the street and did his trademark crowhop before chucking the prototype at the driver’s side of a passing sedan. He’d timed it perfectly. The thing struck the hollow part of the driver door and made a loud WABONK! that caused the guy to slam on the brakes. Just as I’d hoped it would, the shell of the pepper had cracked on contact and a fat-ass wad of mustard was left dripping down the side of the car. After sticking around to see what I needed to see, my buddies and I took off running and disappeared into the backyards of Edison Park.
The raw power of our new weapon had my dick as hard as America’s must’ve been following the first detonation of an atomic bomb somewhere in New Mexico on July 16, 1945. With mustard peppers now officially in our bag of tricks, we’d been bestowed with a vehicle of destruction unlike any we’d previously had. And I knew that on whatever we’d decided to use this subjugating medium, it had to be something big.
In the weeks following the successful test run, I heard that a family in my neighborhood that lived on Lunt right near Brooks Park had won a contest on a local radio station called B96. Word on the street was that two DJ’s from the station would be going to their house on one of the upcoming weekends and broadcasting live via a B96 van that would be parked in front of their house while they had a party. B96 is one of those stations that play all the newest, coolest, hippest music from all the sweetest artists for the enjoyment of all the super cool, super stylish, club-friendly youth around the city of Chicago. The DJ’s who were to host this event had been two guys named Styles and Roman. I don’t listen to B96 so I don’t know anything about these guys and have nothing against them personally, I just decided that their van was “gonna get got” and there was nothing they could do to stop it.
The day before the party I went to Aldi from where I bought forty green peppers and about twenty-five bottles of generic, cheap-ass mustard. My buddy Henry had gone with me and afterwards he and I sat in my basement for the next couple hours like total creeps, diabolically pumping mustard into one pepper after another. When we were done, we put all the ammo into leftover shoeboxes I’d had laying around the house and set them next to the furnace to get all nice and soft overnight so they’d have no problem popping on the B96 van the following evening.
When D-Day arrived, about ten soldiers reported to my basement for a rendezvous where we geared up and got ready to storm the beaches of Normandy. Once prepared, we stepped out into the crisp fall air and the dark of night. We marched the two blocks over to where the broadcast party was taking place and stopped when we were about five houses away. As prophesized, the van had been parked in the driveway and the antenna atop had been extended up into the sky.
“Alright,” I said to my fellow jacking jihadists, “that’s our bitch. We gotta hit this thing from every angle. Chuck ‘em as fast as you can. Try to cover every inch of this thing in mustard if possible. When done tossing, split up and run like hell. Got it?”
“Cool. Let’s do this shit.”
As planned, we encircled the B96 van and pelted it from every angle, leaving the thing a big fuckin’ mess. There was no way that anyone inside could’ve seen out any of the windows. It was a total disaster. Styles and Roman never knew what hit ‘em. All jackers involved had made a clean getaway. The mission was a total success.
Guerilla style attacks like the one on the B96 van had always gone more smoothly than the rest because they were the easiest to make an escape. You’re on foot, you approach your target, you hit it, you run away in different directions and you meet up with your buddies somewhere close by and you do it all again. Getting jacks like this – just like the ones on Nam Viet, the ones during Phantom Pizza attacks, all the times we’d ring doorbells, hide, wait for the homeowners to answer the door and then hit ‘em in front of their own homes – these were the most successful missions. It was when we decided to get our jacks from out car windows or from up in trees that we were sitting ducks and would get caught red-handed with uprooted tomato plants in our backseats or bags of apples up in the branches with us. There was however, one exception to this rule and that was when we’d get our jacks from random roofs around the neighborhood.
Some of the best jacks we’d ever gotten had been from the roofs of warehouses and other buildings of the like that we’d scale around Edison Park. Roof jacks were not something that I’d come up with. It was an idea spawned by a few friends and fellow jackers from childhood who one day happened to find their way onto the top of a small two-story office building in the ‘hood called Piazza di Papa which’d been right across the street from Happy Foods grocery store. Among these hoods had been my buddy Kevin.
Later on when playing baseball in college, Kevin’s fastball would be clocked at ninety miles per hour. He always had one of the strongest throwing arms in Edison Park. When getting jacks, he’d also been deadly accurate and, no matter what the distance between him and his target, most of his throws would end up hitting the head of whoever he’d been aiming at.
During one of the initial roof sessions at Piazza di Papa, Kevin and a couple other bros had been getting jacks on people and cars going in and coming out of the Happy Foods parking lot. At some point, a man had come out of the store and was pushing his shopping cart full of groceries along when Kevin fired an apple from about fifty yards away. As per usual, it connected directly with the back of his mark’s head. The blow caused the guy to fall straight forward. He let go of his shopping cart which rolled away and crashed into a light pole as he fell to the ground. When the guy got up, he rubbed the back of his head and walked away from Happy Foods, having completely forgotten about the cart-full of groceries that he’d just purchased.
The only other time in my life I’d heard of such an outrageous outcome resulting from the pursuit of jacks had been from friend and Southside Chicago native K-Mo with whom I’d attended Marquette University when he regaled me with the following tale.
“We were pegging cars with crabapples on 103rd Street near an area that leads to Western Avenue. After a few successful pegs, we see a backhoe rumbling down the street about a hundred yards from our current spot. Everyone’s eyes light up because as experienced peggers, we all knew what a can’t-miss treat throwing at a backhoe was. So Pete (another Southside guy who’d gone on to attend Marquette University) being the fearless brute that he is, steps to the curb about a foot from the street. As the backhoe drives up, I could see it has no doors and watch as Pete nails the son of a bitch at the wheel right in the head. He swerves – thankfully the opposite way of oncoming traffic – and crashes into a tree next to the street. We all start shitting our pants because that’s it – we know we’ve done it now.
“As we begin to run down the alley, the guy in the backhoe gets out and chases after us. We duck into the backyard of a girl we know and run into her house and go hide out in the basement. While chasing, the dude saw us run in there and ends up knocking on the door, asking to talk to us and gives the mom an identical description of what each of us are wearing. She comes downstairs, relays the given descriptions and says that the guy wants to talk to us. We all look at each other and my friend Neil says of his shirt, ‘This looks green to me,’ as opposed to brown which it actually was and had been described as by the guy. The mom laughs before walking back upstairs and covers for us by telling the dude that, ‘They aren’t here, they just ran out.’ Guy leaves never to be seen again. We all get away scot-free.”
I can’t decide which of these two apple-assault head-shot incidents is worse but in my opinion, these are the only times that I feel any fellow jackers had really gone too far while partaking in our beloved hobby.
Anyway, at age sixteen, towards the end of 2004, Kevin and I had gone out as a two-man wrecking crew on what’d been one of our last – and possibly our best – jacking sessions of all time. We were juniors in high school. It’d either been late November or early December – I can’t remember, but I recall it as being a day on which we’d gotten the first significant snowfall of the year and a day that I’d had another run-in with Mrs. Gombak during seventh period English class. I don’t even remember what I did but whatever it was, it was something that she felt worthy of calling my parents about and informed me of her plan to do so. To relieve myself of this frustration, after the final bell rang I called up my buddy Kevin and we went out to get some roof jacks using the freshly fallen snow.
Over the years, our favorite roof in the neighborhood had been the one atop a warehouse on Avondale Avenue just south of the railroad tracks by the Edison Park train station. To get up there, we’d have to pull ourselves up onto an eight-foot-tall brick wall from the adjacent parking lot then hop over to the lower back roof of the warehouse. We’d then weasel our way through some sort of permanent scaffolding on that roof and pull ourselves up onto a higher roof. From there, on the back side of the building – the side that faces the railroad tracks – we’d pull ourselves up to the top of the warehouse and walk to the front of the roof that overlooked Avondale.
Since Avondale is the street closest to the train station that offers free parking which doesn’t require a permit, on business days it’s guaranteed to be packed with the cars of downtown commuters. On that day, the first two-inch snowfall of the year, we arrived to our roof of choice during the heart of evening rush hour. Everybody had been getting off the train and into their cars and driving down Avondale directly below our sniper tower.
Right from the start, Kevin and I had been going postal. We threw at anyone and anything that’d been moving. We were fuckin’ nailing the windshields, hoods and roofs of every make and model that drove past as well as all the people who’d been walking by and getting into their cars. A few people were able to tell from where the throws were coming, but most didn’t. Even of those that’d been aware of the snowballs’ origin however, we weren’t scared because we figured that no one was gonna climb up a wall and several roofs to come beat us up for nailing their shit and thusly remained imprudent in our jacking.
About fifteen minutes into this self-indulgent spree, a bunch of cars had been pulled over near the base of the warehouse on Avondale. From two stories up, as we ducked below the two-foot brick wall that’d separated the part of the roof on which we sat from the open-air, we could hear our victims commiserating with each other as they’d inspected the damage done to their vehicles.
“Hey,” said one man’s voice, “they get you too?”
“Yeah they got me,” replied that of another.
“Where’s it comin’ from?”
“Think they’re up there on the roof.”
At this banter, we laughed and we laughed. We thought the havoc we’d wreaked was so funny as we kept throwing at everything that passed as well the people having these conversations who’d been dumb enough to pull over on our hunting grounds.
After a couple more jacks, we could hear another car coming down the street. Kevin peeped over the barrier and through the tree branches with a snowball in hand.
“Yeah,” he said, “we got one about half a block down. Get ready.”
I grabbed my snowball, looked over the ledge and got ready to fire.
“Oh shit, it’s a cop car,” he added before offering a wicked smile. “Should we get it?”
In what I consider our Thelma & Louise driving-off-the-cliff point-of-no-return moment, he and I both got up, leaned over the edge and fired two fastballs straight down which had respectively landed on the hood and windshield of this Chi-town squad car resulting in a solid THUD! and WABONK! that prompted them to hit the brakes. We ducked down and silently listened.
“Yeah, they hit us too. We’re the ones who called. They’re up on the roof.”
“They’re on the roof?” the officer asked.
“Yeah. They’re right up there.”
We knew that was our cue to go.
“Yo,” Kevin whispered, “let’s get the fuck outta here.”
I nodded and we began crawling towards the back of the building. When we got there, there’d been another police car driving in the alley along the railroad tracks, shining a light on the warehouse. As soon as they were out of sight, we did our best to climb down from the roofs as safely as possible without slipping on any of the snow. About a minute later, the only thing left that we had to get down from was the wall but from the wall which sat a good hundred feet back from the street, it was impossible to see what was going on where all our victims had been hanging out. And since there was no back exit from that spot, running past all those assholes was our only way out of the situation.
“What should we do?” I asked Kev.
“We gotta get outta here man. We’re sitting ducks.”
“But what if we run into the cops?”
“Dude, just run like hell. If they spot you, never stop. We gotta go for it.”
“Alright,” I took a deep breath. “Let’s do it.”
Simultaneously, he and I jumped off the eight-foot wall into the front parking lot and took off running. We blew right past the two or three civilian vehicles that remained as well as the coppers without any of them taking notice and scurried into a random backyard about four houses down on a street that ran perpendicularly to Avondale. There, we posted up in some bushes and caught our breath from a spot where we could see all that’d been going on at the scene of the crime.
No more than two minutes after our escape, a fire truck pulled up in front of the warehouse. It’d been from nearby Truck 55 – a Norwood Park firehouse at where my uncle sometimes worked. After talking to the cops, the firefighters set the ladder from the top of the truck onto the roof of the warehouse whereupon a pair of police officers scurried up in what turned out to be an unsuccessful mission to catch the roof-jacking unsubs of Edison Park.