It's a short trip along I-290 or on the CTA Green Line or the Metra line from Geneva to Chicago's West Side, where suburban teens and adults come to buy their heroin.
Walk or drive down just about any side street off of the major thoroughfares of Central and Cicero and Lake streets and you enter an open-air, 24-7 drug market.
Young men and a few women loiter in small groups and call out their wares. "Rocks, blows, weed," they yell. Or "2:30," for come back at 2:30 p.m., or "turn the block" for drive around the block and come back after the cop's cruiser leaves. Many do their dealing half a city block away from the Chicago Public Schools their children likely attend.
Oftentimes the older children hold the drugs, notes Scott McDonald, a 24-year-old St. Charles resident who was addicted to heroin for seven years. Children carry the drugs because the police are not likely to search or charge them, he says.
Doing a drive by
On a cold, cloudy Friday afternoon, we take a driving tour of the vicinity. Four of us in a van are as conspicuous as the suburban teens who frequent this inner-city neighborhood in their late-model sedans and SUVs.
The groups of men throwing dice or women sitting with their preschool children on the front stoop stare as we do our drive-by.
McDonald serves as tour guide. He has been clean for just over a year after seven on heroin that ended with him living on Chicago's streets anywhere he could find some heat.
We turn down one block and drive slowly past a group of three or four young men. One looks directly at McDonald, now clean-cut in his crewneck sweater in the front passenger seat. "Hello, officer, I mean, aw-cif-fer," he says with a grin.
PCP-dipped joints, known as "wiki sticks" can sometimes be purchased here. "Blow" or "blows" may once have been slang for cocaine, but now it's street terminology for heroin. "Rocks" are what you ask for if you want crack cocaine and "weed" is the preferred term for ubiquitous marijuana.
The dealing on these streets is so rampant, the notion that you could find which places the suburban teens and young adults frequent quickly seems silly. They patronize any and all of them.
The drugs are so readily available in so many places, the notion the police could stop the dealing seems even sillier. It is everywhere.
Chicago police have run a few special operations with suburban police, running checks on license plates and sending letters to the owners of suburban vehicles spotted in this neighborhood, said Cmdr. Eugene Williams.
They also regularly arrest drug buyers and impound their cars. "We're hoping the deterrents will have an effect on them and the parents" Williams said. "Maybe the parents won't be as forthcoming with the keys to the vehicle."
In fact on our tour, we watch, and so do the neighbors, as one man is cuffed, searched and stuffed into a police cruiser.
But it is barely a dent.
"I've seen people get pulled over and while the cop is driving away with the person in the back, the deals start happening again," McDonald says. "The cop's still in view but he's not going to do anything. He already made his bust."
Stealing for cash
Once suburban teens develop the heroin addiction, they will do whatever they need to get money for drugs.
McDonald tells of a time he loaded up two baskets full of needed products like bottles of aspirin, pregnancy test kits, Rogaine, Nicorette gum and Mach 3 razor blades and walked right out the front door of a store with them.
A jumbo-sized bottle of aspirin or ibuprofen will get you $4 cash at some shops on the West Side. It will be re-sold for $25. Store workers will tell you what they need: DVDs that are hot sellers, even televisions or snowblowers, he said.
An addicted teen, who soon enough needs heroin just to "get your sick off," will break into suburban garages to get the product that will get him cash that will score him some blow.
They take the stolen or shoplifted goods to certain grocery stores and pawn shops in the neighborhood where they are paid cash on the spot. Chicago police officials could not comment about these stores. Chicago Ald. Emma Mitts also did not return calls for comment about the effect suburban drug buyers are having on her community.
But addicts can make about $300 a day from one round of stealing, cashing in the hot merchandise and getting the dope.
"They'll get that and depending on their habit, probably have to go back that night to get some for the next morning, so it pretty much becomes a job, a 9-to-5 job," McDonald says. "You're always concentrating on getting the money to get the dope. Once you get the dope, they're concentrating on getting more money so that they're not sick when they come down."
A few blocks away from the stores and pawn shops, heroin can be had in seconds.
For $10, you can buy a bag filled with a quarter-sized dollop of dope that will last maybe two days when you're first starting out. The off-white or brownish powder is wrapped in tinfoil or plastic baggies or a rubbery substance like a balloon.
Most suburban teens start out snorting, but soon many progress to injecting themselves with a needle for a better high or to more quickly fend off the unbearable sickness, McDonald says.
They use spoons and Q-tips to prep the powder.
Dealing done quickly
It doesn't take much time sitting tight in the parking lot of an Amoco station, before several cars of teens drive by having just pulled off the nearby expressway.
One red Jeep Cherokee is occupied by four teen-aged girls. We follow them around the corner and down a side street, but a "spotter" - a young woman in a silver jacket - alerts her dealing co-workers she has seen us sitting at the station and could be police. "5-0," as in "Hawaii 5-O," they will yell down the street. Or they whistle or hoot when a suspicious car is approaching. The red Jeep winds its way around the West Side neighborhood streets. Eventually, we lose them, but not before coming up alongside close enough to see one girl "nodding," dozing off, practically comatose, in thefront passenger seat.
We drive back to the stores that pay cash for goods to watch and wait. In less time than it takes for a traffic light to cycle through its colors, a beefy teen strides out of a store's front door, his bent-in baseball cap pulled down low on his forehead. He folds quickly into a black Pontiac Sunfire that is an easy police target because it has no license plates. His buddy, also in baseball cap, pulls the car from the curb.
A few turns here and there, blocks away, and we see the car stopped mid-street as a neighborhood man leans into the driver's side window. Seconds later they are on Cicero Avenue and heading in heavy traffic toward the expressway, presumably with dope from the cash they made dumping stolen goods at the grocery store.
At a Marathon gas station near Cicero and Flournoy, they pull up to a pump and sit for several minutes. The beefy boy gets out and goes inside. "They must need water and Q-tips," speculates McDonald. The teen eventually returns and pumps gas. McDonald suspects they will take their drugs now, at the station, and then drive dozily high back along I-290 to the suburbs.
The entire process, from grocery store to drug buy to gas station, takes five minutes at most.
- Daily Herald staff writer Alicia Fabbre contributed to this report.