For a little while now, I've been stopping by a local bakery every Friday morning to pick up a challah loaf. Most often I was served by Charles, a good-looking black man who ran the morning shift, seemed to love his job, and clearly had a sense of pride in his work that he shared with the rest of the staff, a mix of young neighborhood and university students.
We never really got to that level of familiarity that sometimes develops between regular customers and staff. But he clearly had a rapport with other customers, especially students, even the geeky foreign ones whose English was not great and who spilled their change all over the counter in the middle of the morning rush. He had an aura of toughness and street-cred that was unmistakable but not threatening. He had been there for what seemed like forever. The staff clearly looked up to him, and he seemed to anchor a hip and friendly camaraderie behind the bread racks.
The last time I stopped by, about a month ago, I had the Spot in a stroller. Charles had just finished the morning shift and was waiting for his ride by the door on a sunny but chilly spring day. I'm not sure if he had a car. I didn't know then that we had a few substantive things in common: fatherhood and age. He had 4 children and was 38, almost exactly the same age as me. I wished him a good weekend, and he returned the pleasantry as I maneuvered my stroller through the foyer, preoccupied with the fluctuating caffeine level in my bloodstream and the timing of Spot's next meal. That was the last time I saw him.
Charles Carpenter was shot to death on Saturday night, May 19.
I happened to know who he was. But he was preceded and followed by others unknown to me. A few weeks before, one teenage black male boarded a CTA bus near a local high school and fired four rounds, killing another teenage black male, who happened to be someone's only son. Just a few days ago, a black bank teller was murdered by robbers when he insisted that he didn't know the bank vault's combination. Tramaine Gibson was 22 and father to a 4 year-old daughter. All of these spasms of violence happened in seconds. They are part of the steady beat of black-on-black violence that fills the morning metro section, a tiny bit of Bagdhad hell here on the Chicago River.
A former black student of mine, a devout 30-something single father, once told me that most young men in his neighborhood felt there were basically two avenues in life that offered real chances of success, and the respect that came with it: rapping or sports. Charles Carpenter wasn't heading down either of those avenues. Neither was Tramaine Gibson. They were both holding down jobs and raising children on the classic middle class model. They were doing what for so many American men is a matter of course. In their case, it was heroic.
Looking at the Spot as he fidgets in his stroller, I've become aware that his being is the greatest risk I will ever assume. His conception was an enormous gamble in a game of chance that never ends. In a lot of ways he has the odds in his favor -- so far. Not all children are so lucky. If Charles at the bakery were still around, I would make it a point to say hello more often. To find out what he thinks about being a dad, what his kids are like. To let him know that he has my respect.