How one of the biggest and oldest street gangs in the country helped me retrieve my stolen bike while I was a missionary on the Westside of Chicago.
"Never leave your bike unlocked.”
I knew this was the rule in the city. The other missionaries made it clear the day I was transferred from the suburbs to Garfield Park, one of a handful of missionary areas on the Westside of Chicago. I was dutiful for a few weeks, but as is human I eventually became complacent. One day we ran home for lunch. We left our bikes leaning against our building, which had a sidewalk running between it and the neighboring building with gate on the front side and a gate on the back side leading into the alley-way. We ate PBJs on the back porch. it was a beautiful spring day. We were wrapping up lunch when a tall, skinny hispanic man started talking to us from over the fence in the alleyway. (We lived in the corner of the Puerto Rican neighborhood of Chicago. It was generally consider safer than the other south side of Grand Avenue where we did most of our work.) He said his name was Hector. He had a tattoo of the Virgin Mary on his forearm. He talked and acted a little crazy, but so did many others in the city and he seemed interested, so we chatted a while and took down his contact info. We said our goodbyes, went inside to call our next appointment and when we came out to leave, the gate was open and my bike (including my helmet which was hanging on my handlebar) was gone. Crap.
We had no option but to go to work on foot. As we walked south from our apartment, we passed Miguel. Miguel was a drug dealer that spent most days on the corner of our block selling drugs. We said hello everyday and had often stopped to talk. My companion suggested we let him know that my bike was stolen. When we told him what happened and that I thought it might have been this Hector guy with the Virgin Mary tattoo, he said, “Doughy? That’s Doughy. Doughy knows the rules! He’s gonna get a beatdown! Come with me.”
“I don’t want anyone to get a beatdown, I just want my bike back,” I said.
"Doughy knows the rules. He’s going to get a beatdown!” Miguel said again.
He gestured to a lowriding Cadillac with oversized rims parked on the curb. “Get in. Let’s go spread the word and get your bike."
I’ll note here that there is no specific rule in the missionary handbook that says “Don’t be an idiot.” there really shouldn’t have to be, right? Everything in me was screaming “Don’t get in his car!” But I did anyway. I don’t have a good reason why. As soon as we pulled away from the curb, i was filled with dread. I was sure we were going to get knocked off and rolled up in a roll of carpet and tossed in a dumpster. Instead, Miguel slowly drove up and down the streets of our neighborhood. Every man we drove past from the ages of maybe 15-45 came running over when Miguel pulled up and flashed gang sign at them. Every car we passed pulled over at his signal. He spoke in Spanish, but as far as I could tell he was telling every one of these guys, “They took his bike, go find it.” he kept telling us they would take care of us, we didn’t need to get the police involved, and that “They were going to get a beatdown."
After a half hour of driving around the neighborhood and spreading the word, he dropped us off at our apartment and said, “Don’t worry, we’ll get your bike.” We stood on the sidewalk laughing at how crazy it would be if they really got my bike, more than a little freaked out by the glimpse we had just seen into the workings of what I assumed was the Latin Kings, a gang all the missionaries had heard of but really only knew by the five-pointed crown that was spray painted all over the neighborhood. Whatever was going on, Miguel seemed to have a lot of pull.
A week went by and unfortunately no news. I began to think that the miracle of the gang getting my bike back was a fantasy when one day while getting our mail from the front of the building, who should come riding by but Hector (or Doughy) on a bike. It wasn’t my bike, but he was wearing my helmet. I hollered. “Hey, where’s my bike!” He waved and rode off in the opposite direction. We sprinted after him as he took off down the road. He easily outran us on the bike, disappearing around the block. We were walking back home laughing at how silly he was to come around wearing my helmet (no one but missionaries wore helmets) when he came riding around the opposite corner, no helmet anymore, coming straight for us.
“Hey,” I yelled. “Where’s my bike?”
He played dumb and tried to talk Church with us. “What are you talking about? Are you going come study teach me about the Bible?”
“Don’t play stupid, you were just wearing my helmet and now you're not. I know you took it. I want it back.”
“I didn’t take your bike. I was just borrowing it from a kid down there,” He gestured down the road.
“I know you took my bike. You were just wearing my helmet.”
Then he leaned in close and began to whisper with a shaky stutter:
“Why you telling the Kings I took your bike? I can’t tell you where it is right now or the Kings will kill me! They’ll beat me down! Don’t tell anyone. I swear I’ll go get it and bring it to your porch in ten minutes! They’re going to mess me up! I’ll get your bike back but quit talking to the Kings!”
He was terrified. Apparently he’d heard that word was out about my bike. I was getting a scared myself, at the thought of someone being hurt or even killed because of our naive request. I didn’t trust him but had no option but to let him go on the promise he would get my bike. He left.
Twenty minutes later we stood on our front porch; Doughy was AWOL. Then we happened to see Prince round the corner. We had never talked to Prince, but we knew his name because everyone knew his name. One look at Prince and you could tell he owned the neighborhood. He was a big, broad, middle aged Puerto Rican who always wore basketball jerseys, gold rings and necklaces, and a grimace that said “Don’t talk to me. No, don’t even look at me.” Once again, my companion with the bright idea: “Let’s tell Prince about your bike!” I protested but it was too late. “Hey Prince!” We told him our story.
“Doughy? Doughy knows the rules! He’s going to get a beatdown! Meet me in front of your place in a half hour.”
A half hour later we were standing in front of our apartment with Prince and Miguel, I was simultaneously terrified and elated at the thought that these guys might actually track down Doughy and get my bike back. It was only a couple minutes when Doughy came riding down the street toward us. What happened next is hard to explain. When Doughy got to us, i swear they materialized out of thin air, but seven or eight guys appeared and encircled all of us. They were all pounding their fists and popping their knuckles. They were yelling at Doughy. Doughy was having a panic attack.
“I borrowed the helmet from Chico,” Doughly pled.
“Chico says he got it from you!” they shot back. “You know the rules!” They were yelling in his face.
"That’s a stolen bike, that’s his bike, you give it to him now!”
I was convinced we were about to watch a man get beat to death right before my eyes. Doughy just kept stuttering; he couldn’t even form a complete sentence. I was getting scared. I tried to calm the crowd and talk reason.
“That’s not my bike! I don’t want it.”
“It is now,” Prince said. “take it.”
“No,” I plead. "I don’t want to be the guy that has someone else's stolen bike, I’ll end up like Doughy!"
“okay,” Prince said to Doughy, “you’ve got five minutes.”
Doughy, still stuttering uncontrollably, left. The pack of thugs vanished. It was just us and Miguel. A few moments after Doughy turned the corner out of sight, a teenage boy came back around the same corner, riding a bike toward us. When he got near I saw that it was my bike and I told Miguel.
“Hey, where you’d get that bike?” Miguel stopped him. He said his friend bought if from someone.
“Go tell your friend ‘too bad,’ they stole it from the Church people on Potomac."
The teenage boy quickly complied, saying simply “It’s cool,” only stalling a moment to peel a small bag of weed from the underside of the seat. Perhaps the ten or twelve thugs popping their knuckles in a circle around us helped motivate him. I honestly don’t know where they came from, but they were back, surrounding us, pounding their fists.
As soon as I got the bike and the boy left, the circle vanished and we were left standing there with Miguel.
I was stunned, adrenaline still dissipating.
“See, we can take care of everything without getting the police involved,” he said casually.
We just stood there on the sidewalk for awhile, wondering what we had just seen.
This story has been a favorite of my seminary students for the past decade and I thought it was a time to put it in writing. I never saw doughy again. A month later, Miguel was run over and killed by his friend trying to escape a drive by shooting with the rival black gang the Gangsta Disciples. You can look up the Latin Kings on Wikipedia. They’re one of the oldest and biggest street gang in America. Gangs are not just a few punk kids causing trouble in a neighborhood! They helped us not because they are good, but because they are the only ones allowed to commit crimes (selling drugs) in the neighborhood. If you think deeply about the circumstances that exist behind the details, it actually paints a pretty sad picture. But let’s just let it be a fun, crazy story for now.