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ON a deceptively peaceful morning last August I set out for work, accompanied by my mother and two of my younger brothers, Greg, 18, and Joe, 6. Joe had a doctor's appointment and since Greg had the day off, he was carrying Joe, who was babbling about a recent Cubs game. I walked ahead, thinking of other things.
About halfway down the block, I stopped. In the driveway of a house across the street lay a woman stretched out on the ground--asleep, I thought--under an umbrella.
Having lived in Cambridge for two years I'd become inured to the ugliness of homelessness. But Mom insisted, "I think you'd better go see what's happened."
I said I thought she was asleep.
My mother indicated that I should try to wake her. After a half-hearted attempt to do so, the woman responded with a soft, almost inaudible groan.
My mom walked over. Other neighbors became curious. The family in whose driveway the woman lay came outside.
My mother recognized the woman. She was Marina Justice, a civil-rights lawyer who lived in the most stately house on out three-block-long street. My mother and I told our neighbors to call 911 and we searched for someone to accompany Marina to the hospital.
Marina had moved into our neighborhood of Austin a few years ago with her husband and two children. As we ran, I learned from my mother that the Justices had divorced the previous spring and Marina now lived alone, except for a tenant on the top floor of the mansion and frequent visits from her children. So we were only able to get her next-door neighbor, George, and her neighbor from across the street, who were about to carpool to work together.
Back at the driveway, two well-meaning citizens had turned Marina over. The police and the ambulance arrived and failed to secure the scene of the crime, but took down a few names and asked some questions.
"I saw someone following her, but saw Mr. Montgomery slow down as he came to her. I thought he was going to pick her up," her second neighbor said.
After taking a few more statements, the police left.
Marina was admitted to a local hospital as Jane Doe, since none of us were related to her. Mom, Greg and Joe went on to the eye doctor and I took the bus to work, knowing there was, at the moment, nothing more we could do.
For days the police went on the theory that Marina had fallen over backwards after having her purse snatched and cracked her skull. Accidental, they said. We wondered.
The Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times ran lengthy articles, one a front-page feature on the uniqueness of Austin Village. TV news hounds moved in and interviewed everyone. The mother of the family in whose driveway she had ended up was on the news the news the next evening, saying she had found Marina.
Marina lapsed into a coma almost immediately after we had spoken to her. Only 38 hours after, she died of blunt trauma. The police continued with the same story and began to canvass the area to find out if anyone had seen the man following her.
It took little time for the neighborhood to react. Austin is a precariously wholesome, integrated, mixed-income area and we sometimes pride ourselves on caring what goes on and how our neighbors are doing. Sort of a mythical all-American neighborhood, sans the TV blandness. We've had a Neighborhood Watch Committee for many years, but it had atrophied greatly by last August.
Everyone suddenly was concerned about the neighborhood. A forum was organized at the local Episcopal Church, St. Martin's. Our Alderman, who seldom appears on Midway Park except to claim credit for someone else's achievements, came, as did the local police commander. Tribune and Chicago News Service guys showed up.
The meeting ran long. Serious talk about starting a new block club on the streets north of Midway alternated with complaints about the lengthy response time of 911.
All shorts of scum floated to the top of the meeting's pond. A family of career criminals who'd started out 10 years ago by robbing the houses around them every other week had prostitutes and drug dealers hanging around. A crack house was four blocks north. A local grocery was selling drug paraphenalia as more prostitutes had been pling their trade in a nearby park. Many people began to talk about moving out. Everyone felt frustrated. Where were the police?
"Look," said someone. "It's our neighborhood, not the commander's. We're the ones who have to call and keep calling, who have to tell Mars Hill Church assembly the park their children play in is full of whores."
But the feeling of impotence remained.
Finally, the coroner's report came out: Marina had suffered three skull fractures from a blunt instrument. And the police caught the man who'd been seen following her. He confessed he'd robbed her for fourteen dollars. He needed $45 for a brake job.
The next night at the memorial service St. Martin's was packed. The organ played old Catholic hymns, a bit out of place, but comforting. Marina's employer eulogized her. One of the boys who'd turned her over broke down, saying he wanted to say how sorry he was he never knew her. Marina's tenant told how they'd become fast friends over the past year. Alderman Davis, who maybe met her once, stood up near the end and gave a long-winded speech insisting that Marina Justice Must Not be Forgotten.
Finally, Owen stood up. His contorted face was streaked with tears.
"I just...wanted to tell you all...how much you all've eased our plain this week," he mumbled into the microphone.
The helpless feeling lingered for several months. No one heard anything about a court date for Marina's assailant, and when I came back to school in February I felt little had changed since August.
Last month I returned home for several weeks to find Austin's atmosphere changed. Walking the dog late at night in the park I saw no evidence of streetwalkers. Those friends of Marina's who last year said they would move were-still there. After the memorial service, one of them who at first considered leaving told me "Marina would have wanted me to stick it out. And I will. Leaving would be to admit defeat."
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