Conroy is old school. He asks the questions, but he’s reluctant to answer them, especially when they are about him. When he was approached by Chicago Magazine to write about being mugged in 2008, his instinct was to say no, even though he needed the money. He ended up writing the piece, “A Mugging on Lake Street,’’ which was published in September 2009. In the piece he writes about his ambivalence: “As I scramble to make a living from freelance assignments, I should also be thankful that an editor solicited this story and kept the offer on the table until I overcame my reluctance. That editor was laid off while the contract was in the mail.’’
The article touches on the main issues of Conroy’s reporting career—crime and violence, race and justice. It begins:
I was ambushed on the West Side last year, an attack that on its face made no sense. I’d never seen my assailant before; he’d never seen me; no words were exchanged; nothing was taken. Like many crime victims, I wanted the incident, which changed my life for the worse, to have some meaning. I’m white, he is black, and in time it was hard not to wonder if race had something to do with it.
His mugger turned out to be a teenager who stepped off a curb to slug Conroy, apparently for kicks, as the journalist rode past on his bicycle. The blow knocked Conroy to the pavement. He tore ligaments in his right knee. His face needed stitches. “I think of myself as a tolerant man,’’ Conroy wrote, “but that tolerance has been taxed by the pain and the consequences to my body and my life.’’
Conroy eventually meets with his mugger, whom he calls Larry. Larry and his mother agree to cooperate on a story about the incident, but when Conroy calls them for an interview they duck him. He calls again and again until Larry’s uncle demands payment for their cooperation. There is no interview. “Deep down,’’ Conroy writes, “I’ve had an irrational and ridiculous sense of betrayal. As a fellow journalist put it when I tried to explain this to him, you pay into the karma bank, and you expect a certain protection in return.’’
I ask Conroy why he was so reluctant to tell this powerful personal story. He answers in an e-mail: “Writing about race is not difficult, but writing about race when you’re in the story is a minefield. I did not want to write a story that made me out to be a whining victim.’’ He tells me he worried about what the response might be, but it was better than he expected. “Nothing I’ve ever written has provoked such an outpouring of commentary, and although there’s a certain gratification in the volume, there’s also a definite sadness. I wrote about the likelihood of men being executed for crimes they might not have committed for years—a far more important topic—without hearing much of anything at all.’’
Conroy has written a play, My Kind of Town, based on his reporting about police torture. He started writing it before he was laid off. Finishing the two-act drama has proven to be both therapeutic and nerve-wracking. There have been several readings of the play by professional actors, but so far it has not been staged. Nor has it done a thing for Conroy’s bank account or the college fund for his two children.
On a chilly Chicago night, just before spring, a group of haunted men sit in the front row of Thorne Auditorium at the Northwestern University School of Law, waiting to hear a reading of My Kind of Town as part of a fundraiser for the Center on Wrongful Convictions based at Northwestern. They are tough men, from tough neighborhoods, street-accredited professors of crime and punishment. One of the men is an ex-general in a once-powerful Chicago street gang. Another used to be called Satan. Some perch on the edge of their seats as the night progresses. Others sink so low they almost disappear. All of them could teach a seminar about the unspeakable acts that even ordinary people inflict upon their fellow human beings in the name of law and order.