“Watch, watch, watch, it’s about to happen,” said one of the men clustered beside the counter of Mike Discount Food Store in the 5400 block of East Berry Street in Stop Six. The clerk had passed his cellphone to the men so they could watch the surveillance camera footage captured shortly after 4 p.m. last Saturday.
“Here it comes,” the man said as he pointed at the jittering low-res video. “You are going to see it, that boom, boom, boom!”
Two cars were parked in front of the store. One was a red Chrysler, the other a silver four-door. A woman walked around the silver car as a man, older and in a wheelchair, rolled slowly across the lot. In the upper corner of the screen, where the corner of Mike’s meets an empty lot, a sudden movement blurred on the screen. Fire flashed. The woman dived to the ground beside the silver car. Showers of sparks erupted where bullets punched through and glanced over both cars. The man in the wheelchair threw himself to the ground and crawled on his elbows to get behind a dumpster as bullets struck the ground. Two men appeared in the empty lot. One seemed to be shooting, the other running. It is hard to tell — they are moving too fast for the low frame-rate security camera. The look of fear on the man huddled behind the dumpster, that was captured in perfect detail.
“Third time this week,” one of the men remarked as the clerk took his phone back. Luckily, the woman behind the silver car suffered only a grazing wound. No one else was hurt.
I asked if anyone knew who did the shooting this time. I got a jumble of mumbled answers and a lot of shrugged shoulders. Some guy — maybe he had on a yellow coat, maybe a green jacket. Not from around here, one man offered. One of those youngsters. The picture they painted was as indistinct as the image of the shooters from the security camera.
In front of the store, yellow police tape blocked off most of the empty lot. Police officers were at work, photographing the crime scene, escorting people in and out of the store to round up witnesses.
I found Roni was standing in the cold, pulling her coat tight around her small frame, her back to the store and the yellow police tape. The red Chrysler, the first car to be hit, belonged to her.
“I had just pulled up,” she told me.
She had parked her car, got her children out of the backseat, and walked around the corner to her Granny’s house.
“As soon as I got to the apartment, I heard this boom, boom, boom. I said, ‘Damn, seem like the store getting shot up again.’ I came back, and I saw that my car had been all shot up. My back windows was all shot out. I hadn’t been away from my car for not even two or three minutes.”
After the police photographed her car, Roni parked it in the apartment complex directly behind Mike’s store. She didn’t know how many bullets had struck it. Six or seven, she thought, maybe more. Both back windows had been blown out. At least two rounds had impacted the back doors and punched straight through. Broken glass and bits of interior paneling had been sprayed over a doll’s plastic car seat and a small rainbow-colored backpack.
“My kids was just in that backseat, right there,” Roni said — and it wasn’t the cold that made her voice shake. “Thank God I got them out of there, out of that backseat.”
When I asked Roni if this is the first time she has been involved in a shooting at the 5400 block of East Berry, she shrugged as if the answer could not be more obvious.
“No,” she told me with a thin, tense laugh, “Last week, I was out here when they shot the place up. Just the first night, not all them other nights.”
Crime, especially gun crime, is a common occurrence on the 5400 block. Virtually every storefront window has at least one bullet hole. The violence has driven some away. Others stay and endure the stress of working in a place where gunfire is the status quo.
Asif, who works at Mike Discount Food Store, was not behind the counter on the night of the 11th, but when asked how often the store is shot at, he replied, “All the time. They are shooting all the time.”
Recently, two bullets had traveled through the front of the store and tore into the plastic cigarette bin that hangs above the cash register, inches above Asif’s head. Asif told me that he remembered hearing the shots and then feeling plaster, plastic, and bits of broken bullet rain down on his head.
“They come here — boom, boom, boom — they shoot, and then they leave,” Asif said. “Sometimes there are people out front who get shot at. Sometimes there are no people, just shooting. Another day, my friend was working, and a bullet come in and stop right here,” Asif pointed to a bulge in the front of a metal locker where a round had failed to penetrate. “Almost kill my friend. Another one come in here,” again Asif pointed at a locker, this one with a hole in it. The bullet had punched through the back and spilled Black N’Milds all over the floor.
As he rang up a customer, Asif glanced up at the two bullet holes in the cigarette bin hanging over his head and said, “I am scared. Every day I am scared, but I need the work.”
A frequent customer of the shops along the 5400 block, the man who goes only by the name NFL says he’s been present for at least two of the recent shootings. “This shit out here, this is madness, straight fucking madness.”
He hooked a thumb in the direction of where some of the bullets hit, blasting holes in a few bricks at head height. When I asked why the 5400 block is such a magnet for gun crime, he threw up his hands.
“They always shooting up the Barry Street Store, always have been, since always,” NFL said.
I asked him who it is that keeps pumping bullets into the buildings along East Berry. He simply replied, “These youngsters. I think they are looking for someone, hoping they can find him here. Who knows?”
When asked if he feels safe, his answer was quick and emphatic. “Hell, no. I try not be here too often. I’m not trying to become no innocent bystander.”
Latasha, 41, whose small cafe a few doors down from Mike Discount Food Store has been on the 5400 block for a little over a year, says she has, rather miraculously, managed to avoid the shootings. Having grown up in Stop Six, she admitted to a certain familiarity with gun crime, saying that she wasn’t worried about moving into the 5400 block, though she says that she has altered her hours since the recent rash of shootings.
She dished up smoked meatloaf, mac ’n’ cheese, and greens into white Styrofoam to-go containers while I peppered her with questions. Unlike Roni, who met the realization that her children had missed their deaths by a handful of minutes with a thousand-yard-stare and a nervous laugh, or Asif, who seemed so afraid that he was almost frantic, Latasha took a more measured, philosophical perspective.
“It’s like this everywhere,” Latasha said simply. “Shootings happen everywhere, in any side of town. You can open up a business on the south side of town, it’s going to happen. No matter what side, it’s going to happen. Some of this is just that tit for tat. Somebody comes up from the Southside and shoots it up over here, and then somebody from here and goes to shoot up the Southside. It happens that way. It goes on forever.”
As Latasha prepared to close up her cafe, she talked about what makes the 5400 block special, even important.
“Everybody who is born and raised in Stop Six comes through this block,” she said with something like reverence in her voice. “All the big commodities, everybody that is somebody from Stop Six and Eastwood, at some time they touched these pavements here. I guess this younger generation is trying to live up to an image from the older stories and trying to make a name for themselves.”
Unlike many others, Latasha does not believe that the 5400 block needs be a target for gun crime forever. “Until we decide to come together and talk to this younger generation, get a hold on them, this will keep happening. Going forward in 2022, we are going to be holding conferences and all that type of stuff. If we as a community don’t reach back to the youth, try to save them, then we have nothing to look forward to. All that gangbanging, it’s only going to get you life in jail or put in a grave, so what is the purpose?”