Nine-year-old Pharoah, his twelve-year-old brother Lafeyette, and their friends are climbing through dirt and vegetation to reach the railroad tracks near their housing complex. The railroad connects downtown Chicago to the suburbs and, when the group reaches the tracks, Pharoah stops to admire the vision of downtown Chicago in the distance. The glow of the buildings contrasts starkly with his own home, a seven-story building that looks permanently dirty and run-down. Pharoah soon finds himself admiring a butterfly’s elegant movements, but Lafeyette pushes him roughly to play, which makes Lafeyette laugh but annoys Pharoah.
The contrast between the vision of Chicago in the distance and Pharoah’s home emphasizes the physical and socio-economic distance between the city and the “projects.” It serves as a metaphor for the difficulty of achieving socio-economic mobility, as certain families find themselves at a clear disadvantage, compared to well-off city dwellers. The scene thus signals the existence of a structural (and visible) reality in society: social and economic inequality.
The two brothers and their six friends include “Porkchop,” Pharoah’s cousin and closest friend, and James Howard, a close friend of Lafeyette who has grown up with him and lives in the same building. With crowbars, the boys dig holes in the dirt around the railroad tracks in the hope of finding snakes. A friend of theirs (who was later killed after playing with a gun that he thought was unloaded) had recently showed them a snake he had found. Inspired by their friend, the boys want to dig a snake up in this wild, deserted area, and to keep it as a pet. Their search is fruitless, although they do spot a big rat. Bored by the search, Pharoah and Porkchop play in a pile of old tires.
At this point, neither Lafeyette nor Pharoah seem suspicious of the concept of friendship or of childish games. Rather, both boys seem to enjoy this group activity, working together to achieve the common goal of finding a snake. However, the passing mention of a boy who was killed while playing with a gun signals, from the very beginning, an undercurrent of violence—one that might be so ordinary that it does not even require a lengthy explanation.
When the boys hear a train approaching, they frantically hide in the dark corners of a boxcar and tell each other to keep quiet. The boys are scared of the passengers heading to the suburbs because they have heard rumors that passengers would shoot them for trespassing on the tracks. Passengers in the train are afraid of the neighborhood children, since they have heard rumors that the neighborhood children might shoot at the train windows. Both the neighborhood boys and the train’s passengers thus hide from each other, terrified of this invisible, unknown enemy.
The fear and suspicion that the neighborhood boys and the train passengers feel toward each other is humorous, since it turns out that neither group is actually dangerous. At the same time, it is also tragic, because it emphasizes the enormous lack of understanding between two communities who live in the same urban area, but have little chance of interacting with each other due to tightly held stereotypes and rumors.
After the train passes, the boys laugh among themselves. Lost in thought, Pharoah appreciates the smells and sounds of this peaceful place, which offer him a much-needed respite from the chaos and violence he is accustomed to in the neighborhood. Although all the boys want to linger, they decide to go home when the sun sets, since staying longer could be dangerous. On their way back, Lafeyette takes Pharoah’s hand to cross the street, and the two of them walk home.
The boys’ awareness of potential dangers signals the habitual nature of violence in their lives. Although they are children, they are forced to consider their safety before pure enjoyment as if they were mature adults. Lafeyette’s protection of Pharoah reveals the two boys’ tight-knit bond, as well as their awareness that they need to defend each other from the dangers of their environment.