Sometimes you don’t realize how much someone has become a presence in your life until they’re gone. That’s how it was with Fred Hale. I used to see him daily; often several times a day. I wouldn’t have called us friends. I doubt we ever talked for more than two or three minutes at a stretch. The conditions of his employment didn’t allow it. But there was definitely a connection, a resonance, between us. I liked Fred; and when he was no longer around, felt his absence. Each time I passed the spot where I used to see him, I wondered where he was and how he was doing.
Fred worked in the drug trade at Stateway Gardens. For 12-hour shifts each day, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., he stood beside a dumpster along the fire lane outside one of the high-rises. He was part of the security system deployed around the drug bazaar in the open-air lobby—a loose network of individuals, most of them heroin addicts like Fred, who act as lookouts, frisk customers to check for weapons, and hawk the brands of dope sold in the building.
Drug dealers operating out of different buildings market “blow” (heroin) and “rock” (crack) under different names. Among the names: “Big Dawg,” “Titanic,” and “Blast Off.” The brand of heroin sold at the building where Fred worked is called “Dog Face.” The lookouts call out the names in the sing song of street criers.
It always brightened my day to see Fred. He seemed genuinely to enjoy his work. Cheerful and dignified, he carried himself like a doorman at a first-class hotel.
When the police are in the vicinity of the drug marketplace, the lookouts sing out warnings—“blue and white northbound on Federal”—and the message is relayed from voice to voice into the interior shadows of the lobby. If the police make a move toward the building, the drug dealers run upstairs, and everyone else scatters.
Everyone, that is, except Fred who would stay at his post, puttering around. One of the janitors lent him a shovel and a rake, which he used to keep the area around the dumpster clean. I once asked him why he didn’t flee like the others when the police hit the building. “I play stupid,” he replied. “I say I’m just collecting and burning garbage. And they leave me alone.”
This strategy seemed to work well for Fred. Then one day, it didn’t. On a May afternoon last year, several police cars converged on him at his post. This time his shovel and rake didn’t shield him. I was crossing the grounds when he was arrested and watched from afar. Surrounded by uniformed police officers, he looked small and alone.
On a spring day earlier this year, as I walked across the grounds, someone called out to me. I turned. It was Fred. He was well-dressed and robust, having just emerged from ten months in prison. We embraced and made a date to talk the next day. After knowing each other for several years and seeing each other daily during much of that time, we had our first sustained conversation. I began by asking about his daily routine when he worked in the drug trade…