Our Local Serengeti
He lay in bed chain smoking fresh cigarettes while his bared feet pumped rhythmically with the drums. If it were my show playing, he’d have said it was too loud, but the pulsating throbs under the British accented narrator reverberated through the house. I placed his requested glass of ice water on the nightstand and tried to ease out before he noticed.
“Sit down and look at this,” my dad said. Profanities laced my thoughts as I sat on the edge of his bed thinking about all the other, more interesting things I could have been doing. My lungs began to burn as the unventilated room hugged the puffed smoke, refusing to let go, and I strained trying to focus on the television through the haze.
“Those are some bad cats there, jack!” my dad exclaimed. “But watch…there you go!” A hearty laugh and even stronger coughs thrust from his insides, and I was sitting there wondering what about a lion and hyena fight was so darn funny. “You see that?” he asked. “That’s life on the Serengeti! Them some bad motherfuckers, man!”
My dad wasn’t home a lot when I was growing up, and he watched television even less, but when he was so inclined to engage in some boob tube action, besides the news, it was, more often than not, his custom to watch some wildlife documentary or Marty Stouffer on PBS, and if either I or my brother was anywhere within shouting distance, we were forced to watch with him. I can tell you that a summer afternoon stuck with your dad watching nature shows when all of your friends are out bike riding or playing Catch-One-Catch-All is torture. We did not appreciate this “quality time,” nor did we see any real value in what we were forced to watch, unless we would be deemed smart enough to compete on Teen Jeopardy! (we never were, by the way). So there I was stuck in a pre-second-hand-smoke-is-bad-for-kids hell, learning more than I ever hoped to know about the migratory patterns of Serengeti wildlife.
Last night, my husband, a childhood friend, my dad, and I sat on my dad’s porch reminiscing about our pasts. The princess and the pirate were picking “flowers” (aka weeds) from my dad’s yard and skipping gingerly toward Dad’s sprinkler, pretending to be oh so concerned about avoiding getting soaked, but not taking off running until the first sprinkles wetted their arms. Still in our church clothes, my husband and I tried to sit carefully as we laughed and talked, and the sun slowly descended behind the house sending lightning bugs out to play. My dad, realizing that his granddaughters are never outside as it gets dark, and playing into the girls’ fascination with insects, calls to them so that they can look at and hopefully catch these bugs they’ve only read about in bedtime stories. Excitement dripped from them like the water from the sprinkler off their arms, and ecstatic squeals floated on the breezes when they each caught and held their first lightning bugs.
“Look, Mommy!” the princess roared. Her dancing eyes made me smile as she open her hand slowly to show me her capture. “I think he loves me,” she said, blowing it gently, encouraging it to fly away.
“What’s not to love?” I replied, giving her a soft kiss on the top of her head.
“Can I catch some and take them home, Mommy?”
“No,” I answered. “They have families, too. But you can catch a few and let them go for the next few minutes. We’ll be leaving soon.”
She and the pirate continued their adventure, and I watched my dad, with cigarette in hand, trying to keep smoke away from his grand-babies, attempt to catch bugs, too. The serenity of the scene put me a bit on edge, and I was reminded of the Serengeti. The zebras taking a leisurely stroll, the wildebeest pausing for a cool drink of water are usually attacked when the calm is highest. Like those documentary percussions, my heart pounded, and like the prey of the Serengeti, those most at risk knew not of the dangers lying just within striking distance.
You see, every weekend since the weather has gotten warmer, people have been shot sitting on their porches, laughing with neighbors, playing in their front yards, and far too many of the victims are innocents, too young to offend or warrant the finality of a death bullet. I watched my babies play, and I watched as car after car careened too fast for the neighborhood or cruised noticeably too slow peering too intently at our gathering. Our babies can’t even catch fireflies anymore. Our daughters can’t give dads loving hugs. Our friends can’t share in a long ago tale. Not outside at night, at least. And it’s sad.
Yesterday, our church family gathered outside to pray for the family of one of our young church members who was gunned down right outside our church. I can remember my mom yanking me even harder on Sundays when I disobeyed. “You don’t act like that, especially not on a Sunday. Have some respect!” she would fuss, and because I had that type of upbringing, I can tell you that the thought of a killing on a Sunday outside of a church seems most deplorable of all. When I think about the seven-year-old killed as she finished selling candy with her mom in her neighborhood and the ten-year-old critically wounded as she played in a fire hydrant to beat the heat and the fourteen and fifteen year olds shot as they played basketball before the sun even completely set, I wonder if the “wild” really exists right here in Chicago.
Sweat started to gather on my forehead, and I rose from the steps, giving my dad a hug, a kiss, and an “I love you.”
“You leaving already, kid?” he questioned.
“What’s the rush?”
“There are some bad cats out here, jack, and I want to get in the house before they mistakenly think I am an enemy.” There were no hearty laughs this time. We’re not watching animals a million miles away killing for survival. We’re human beings scared for ourselves, scared for our loved ones, scared for our communities.
“Yeah,” he replied, “There are some bad motherfuckers out here, man. You better get those girls and get on in.”