Chicago Style

Book Bag: Gritty Essentials About the Windy City

Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski, author of the story collection Painted Cities, selects five books that showcase the struggles and otherness of life in Chicago.

05.07.14 7:40 PM ET

Sometimes you set out to find differences and all you find is how much we are the same, which is disappointing because in the big city, in Chi-Town at least, we thrive on differences: North Side vs South Side, Cubs vs Sox (White Sox Rule), Pilsen vs Little Village, Black vs White. Our politics are set up this way. Our neighborhoods are set up this way. To read these five books about Chicago life is to become enlightened to the fact that there is another side to the “struggle,” namely that we are all in it. Further, these five books, these five “real-life” perspectives, have an interesting way of marking time. We are all comfortable hiding behind differences. Heartbreak comes with realization. Each of these narratives comes from a different point in that life continuum, that journey of reflection and ultimate awareness, which not only makes for absolutely fascinating reading but makes us question where we are in the process of understanding our own lives.

‘Chicago Cop: Tales From the Street’ by Star #14931. 332 p. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. $12.56

Wow, a heartbreaking set of short, tremendously human tales about what it meant to be a Chicago cop in the ’80s. Nothing is held back in this officer’s portrayal of life mostly in the 10th and 12th police districts of Chicago, districts I know intimately. The book is gritty without being noir, touching without being melodramatic. And there’s not a cop cliché in it. In addition the book does a fantastic job of describing neighborhoods, not just the people but the actual physical make-up, the open air flea markets, the 12-story “projects,” the squat two-flats. As Chicago grows and continues to clean itself up, much of these defining “neighborhood” characteristics are being torn down, giving this book added value as historical document. A great read.

‘Lords of Lawndale: My Life in a Chicago White Street Gang’ by Michael Scott. 384 p. AuthorHouse. $17.66

A sometimes moving, more often relentless, account of what it means to be a gangbanger, day in and day out—not a life you’d wish on anybody. Street gang or not this author’s depiction of losing a young friend is something we can all relate to. Here again a lot of effort is made to describe a specific neighborhood, and within that, very specific gang turf boundaries, and they’re so pinpoint you can find them on Google Maps. Written about a time before drugs sales shaped gang boundaries, this book highlights two of the more illusory aspects of gang life, respect and family, making us wonder if they exist at all. The hard truth is it doesn’t really matter. Once you’re in a gang, that becomes your identity.

‘My Bloody Life: The Making of a Latin King’ by Reymundo Sanchez. 320 p. Chicago Review Press. $13.41

One of the more brutal tales of life on the street, life as a gangbanger, I have ever read. And even with that this book gives us so much collateral damage—the really young kids, the city itself, the school system. This book is hard to put down. A truly memorable read. Much like Chicago Cop, Tales from the Street, the first book in this selection, there’s an emotional pull that gets stronger with each successive page. I think this emotional pull is perspective, these authors are writing about their lives from a position of distance, maybe emerging maturity, and it’s heartbreaking to live the process along with the authors.

‘Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets’ by Sudhir Venkatesh. 320 p. Penguin Books. $9.57

I include this book because it seems a more honest portrayal of life inside a housing project. Perhaps it took an “outsider” to tell the tale as it really is, without all the gory appeal of drive-by shootings, snipers and crack addict babies. I worked in CHA housing projects for five years, processing public assistance applications. The depictions here are real. Yes with drive-bys, etc., but also with the very real sense that there is life there, not the type of life we’d all want to live, but certainly a life bred of its own environment, an existence and economy all its own. Underlying all this is a very real “struggle,” the author’s attempt to figure out what he is doing there to begin with.

‘Armed and Dangerous: Memoirs of a Chicago Policewoman (Illinois)’ by Gina Gallo. 336 p. Forge Books. $12.54.

A book about the relentless struggle to retain one own identity when the world we live in is fighting to do the work for us. I am not sure who wins in this book. The outcome is not quite as obvious as in the previous four books. The journey in this book seems more tragic. But the struggle to “exist” in spite of everything collapsing around us, emotionally and in some cases physically, is deeply palpable.

Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski grew up in the Pilsen neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. He has taught in the Chicago public school system and is currently a high school counselor for students with disabilities. In his spare time he builds and repairs motorcycles.