One man's memoir of growing up in the 'gang-ridden' suburbs

I went for tradition and joined the gang my dad belonged to when he was growing up on the mean, rose-bushed streets of suburban Chicago – the chess club.

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We have all been shocked by the revelations of untruthful memoirs. The most recent is "Love and Consequences," the book by Margaret B. Jones supposedly about her life as a drug-running member of the Bloods gang in South Central Los Angeles. In fact, she grew up Margaret Seltzer in the middle-class San Fernando Valley. Nonetheless, true gang stories exist out there. Like mine, which, until my book contract came through, I never intended to release, hoping to spare my family. But a contract is a contract.

It was about as tough a neighborhood as they come. And they come pretty tough in Highland Park, Ill. Sure, the houses look big on the outside, and inside, but that is only the outside and inside. Once you walk away from the six-car garages, once you get past the illegal immigrants cutting the grass – and I do mean grass – the violence is ready to boil over into our half-caf caramel macchiatos with soy milk toppings.

I was a kid when I was born. And I guess you could call the people who lived in my house my family. Other people, and the census takers, did. There was Momma, we called her 'Mom,' and Dad, who wasn't around a lot between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Said he had to go to work "downtown." We all knew what that meant. When he would come back was always a question: If he missed the 5:48 would he be on the 5:49?

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Then there was my brother Alan or Al or Ace ... we never could figure out a nickname for him, so we called him Alan. He laid low for most of his youth. Mom kept him indoors and out of the sun. (He had very white skin.)

I didn't live on the worst block in town. Or the best. Just the nosiest. If Mrs. Simon got a new Cadillac every other month, we all knew where it came from (Rogers Park Cadillac).

And if my neighbor Bud Herzog came home at 2 a.m. in June dressed in a white jacket and black pants with a black bow tie, we knew what that meant. He'd had a really good time at what the Future Engineers Club (the toughest gang of all) called a "Prom." I used to think that it was short for "promiscuous," which I had hoped to be but never was.

The most important moment in our lives was joining a gang to watch out for us when we got to what the College Boards called high school. So I went for tradition, the gang my Dad belonged to when he was growing up on the mean, rose-bushed streets of Highland Park – the Chess Club.

But the gang at the Model U.N. was not thrilled. They had been recruiting me since day camp, telling me there were branches of the gang everywhere: Harvard, Amherst, Alcatraz. The local U.N. boss, Kazakhstan Phil, told me after I joined up as a pawn in the Chessies that my family should stay out of The House of Chan and never order the orange beef or I would pay for it. I won't frighten you with all the details of what it was like to survive the turf wars in the Chessies. (Black versus white took on new meaning when they brought out the chess pieces.)

But I made it through and even had time to take the notes for this tough, but mostly true, memoir. If you don't believe it, that's your problem. You probably think Roger Clemens wasn't telling the truth either.

• Chuck Cohen writes from Mill Valley, Calif.

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