Sep 19, 2007

Tale of a Tree-lined Block

I told my 3 year old that the neighbors probably think it's Halloween, even though it's still just the middle of September. "Silly neighbors," I said. She shook her head and put her palms face up in an exaggerated gesture of surprise. It's not Halloween. But how else do I explain the candles and roses and empty bottles of liquor decorating every step of the stoop across the way?

My 7 year old seems content with our vague responses to her questions--I heard her explain to her friend Clem yesterday--"well some man went into that house and we're not really sure what happened but Mommy heard loud noises but Laura and Isadore and I were making loud noises upstairs so I think that's what she heard, right Mommy?' Right sweetheart.

My 8 year old son is the one who knows. He was the only one who wasn't home when it happened, came walking down the street a few hours later--carrying a plastic fairway bag with his pajamas and toothbrush in it, and hugging the blue shoebox that held his baseball card collection to his chest. He'd slept over at a friend's house the night before and so his return to home was more of a tour of the reality of what had gone down than anything those of us who'd been trapped inside had experienced. Slanted police cruisers blocked both entrances to the block (even though we're a one way street), police helicopters buzzed just overhead--searching backyards and other blocks, yellow and black crime scene tape roped off a square, like a boxing ring, kind of, that included the house where the shooting occurred and the houses on either side of it, as well as OUR HOUSE and the houses on either side of us, because we're right across the street. I'd tried to get a hold of the mom whose house he'd stayed in, to warn her about the situation on our block, but she didn't have her cell phone with her. She knocked on the door and came in, announced that she'd left him on the corner with a policeman while she checked to see if I was here to receive him. Once she found me here she left to fetch him. I watched from the top of the stoop as she escorted him back down the block to me--as the crime scene tape was lifted so he could duck under it, clutching the shoebox of baseball cards. My son returned to his house, to me, smiling awkwardly at the attention he was receiving, walking bravely.

This block has almost always seemed so ideal for young children, if a city block could ever be ideal. The postman really walks by and delivers the mail, our lemonade stands do well, people hang out on their stoops and look after each other, dragging garbage cans in for neighbors, sweeping leaves off each other's sidewalks. It's a vibe I didn't get on my dead-end street in Ohio, even though it was a very friendly town and we all had magical grassy lawns. This place felt like Sesame Street to me. I don't remember crime scene tape on Sesame Street.

It was Thursday, and the public schools were closed for Rosh Hoshanna. My daughter had had two friends spend the night the night before, a belated granting of her only birthday wish. And in the morning we walked Piper to (her Catholic-affiliated non-Rosh-Hoshanna-observing) preschool. We had a great eggy breakfast at a diner and then made our way home here slowly, laughingly, up the sidewalk. The girls had learned some funny hand-gesture-style game at school the day before and were doing it, almost conga style, as they walked. Hello, hello, hellohellohello! they giggled and then twirled and pointed and found a 'new partner' and found a new way to face, wiggle, and continue. I was taking pictures, it was so cute. Such a magical morning. At 11:15 we piled in the car to pick Piper up from school, since we were also in charge of Piper's friend Fifi. At 11:30 I was herding the 5 of them to the van, and then heading home.

Our departure from the van was typical--I tossed the keys to Etta, told them to get out of the car on the sidewalk side, and then stayed behind grabbing up lunchboxes and stuff. We were a slow parade in--there was probably a moment where I was leaving the car, the two three year olds were swinging on the front gate, and the three 7 year olds were dribbling up the steps. Once in, I had everyone take their shoes off and wash their hands. The two little girls aimed for the tv-which had been promised to them. They were in the phase-in period for school and an hour had just been added to their day--this being their first week of school and all. Fifi's mom and I agreed that some tv downtime would be perfect for them, as they'd been together after school the day before and had been tired and cranky with each other. They sat in the front of the living room (little heads visible from the street through the big front windows--curtains open--only flimsy cat-screens between them and the street out front) and watched The Backyardigans. The three 7 year olds tromped upstairs to introduce their tamagotchis to each other or to play with the karaoke machine or something...I headed for the computer.

As I typed an email to a friend I heard two loud cracks. Those loud cracks always sound like guns I thought as I typed but I didn't even look up. I'm not easily spooked and have often felt safer living in a city than I ever did in a tiny town where a dark forest filled the windows at night. Piper appeared next to me a second later and said she needed a bandaid; she held up her mosquito-bite-riddled arm and showed me the one she'd scratched open. I scooted my chair back and stood up to get a paper towel to staunch the bleeding (amazing how those scratched-off mosquito bites bleed!)--as I reached for a paper towel I heard it again--crack crack crack. This time a feeling of dread swept over me and I stepped back to look out the front of the house--all I could see was the stoop across the street--directly across the street from me. A black man in a blue tee shirt and jeans was lumbering quickly up the steps holding a gun out with his right hand, shooting crack crack crack. It was electric--sharp, urgent, desperate, sloppy. Like the moment in a movie theater when the film turns brown, crackles and burns, and melts before your eyes, and everyone in the theater is kind of jolted out of their suspended belief and back into reality. A minute ago we were swept away by a story, and now we're just a bunch of strangers sitting in the dark together. My heart-raced.

"Fifi go to the kitchen sweetheart, right now, Fifi right now, go over to Piper in the kitchen" I said, gliding past her to lock the front door.

"But I want to watch Backyardigans" she murmured looking over her shoulder at the tv as she obeyed me anyway.

"Girls!" I called upstairs--in a sing-sing voice that was sharp, but not alarmed (kind of like if there was a big colorful bug I wanted them to come see, quick, before it crawled away)--"Girls come down here right now, right away girls, Right now I need you to come down!"

Someone leaned a head over the banister, I was already in the back with the little ones holding a paper towel on Piper's bloody arm.

"But we.." someone began to protest.

"No girls, I need you down here right now, all of you right now. Just come."

They galumphed giddily down the stairs and came into the bathroom on the back of the house.

"What Mommy" Etta said--

"Umm Piper's arm is bleeding, can you help her get a bandaid?" I said, not having thought this far ahead, but still needing Piper's bloody arm to be tended to.

"But why did we..." she asked as she headed to the purple cabinet that holds the bandaids. Her friends leaned in to check out Piper's arm.

"There were loud noises sweetheart, I just need you to help with the bandaids." I shut the door to the bathroom and dialled 911. Dead silence, static, clicking. My home phone had been losing its dial tone every now and then. After a minute I realized this was the case so I called it from my cell phone.

"911 what's your emergency?"

"A man's shooting a gun on the street" I said.

"You heard it?"

" I saw it, right now, he's there with a gun, shooting into the house across the street" I said.

"Maam we'll get a car over there right now, what's the address?" She asked. I didn't know. I gave her my address, my name and phone number even though those last two bits were optional. She asked if it was #22--"I don't know" I said. She asked if the man was still in the house. "I don't know" I said. I got off the phone and put on a pot of water to boil, as if some lady on Little House on the Prairie had just gone into labor.

Within minutes the nose of a police cruiser nudged into view. The seven year olds disappeared back upstairs, never questioning the urgency of that stupid bandaid and why it required all three of them plus Fifi to help put it on. By then I was able to take little steps to the front of the house. I could see some neighbors milling about, almost everyone on phones. I thought back to the other shooting I witnessed here, from this house, nine years earlier. I was pregnant with my first, and I had some neighbor kids over for a kind of dance party--they were 3 and 4 and enjoyed coming over to paint and stuff and it suited my maternal nesting urgings just fine. A man ran up the street firing a gun crack crack crack and we all ducked, I called 911 and the lady said "wow your block is really involved-you're like the 30th call we've gotten about this in the last few minutes." Good block. Nice block. No one had been injured in that last one, it didn't make the news, and that's kind of what I assumed this time around too.

The most noteworthy part of the next hour or so is that I was alone in the house with 5 little girls--60% of whom weren't my own. They needed to eat lunch (ramen noodles that I kept messing up--if that's possible--served with ketchup, and cranberry juice that my daughter called 'cherry whatever you call it' which cracked us all up). They needed to watch television (Dora, Diego). They needed to play dress-up. They needed me to get the dominoes. What I needed was grown-ups to talk to, and a home phone that was working (my cell phone was perilously close to our minutes-limit for the month and the penalty for going over is enormous). So I made a huge pot of tea and kept looking out the window, hoping to catch the eye of someone who'd think to come tell me what was going on.

I watched the police knock on the door across the way, I watched them run sideways up the stoop with guns drawn, I watched one neighbor in a tan shirt being led down the block in handcuffs, saw another woman crying. Eventually the handcuffed guy was released (silly policemen, the shooter was wearing blue), more neighbors were crying. An ambulance pulled up quietly and EMTs went in. I called my husband to share the story with him and he offered to leave work. I told him there was no need to come home, that it would probably blow over by the time he could get here anyway. When I was on the phone with him I heard more shots down the block, and watched the police race away. It was a dramatic street-emptying, like someone had tilted our block that way and all the blue and white marbles just rolled off. Detectives still milled about, Police helicopters hovered. The EMTs brought a man out on a stretcher, a few yards away from where Piper and Fifi watched Blues Clues. I pulled the curtains closed.

"That's silly so many people outside," Piper said, peeking out the window--she and Fifi liked to hide behind the long curtains so drawing them closed really only served to attract the girls to the windows. "I gonna go tell those people what they doing out here," she said, walking purposefully to the front door and flinging it open. I nudged her back into the house, blaming all the mosquitos. "Too buggy out there, Piper. Let's just stay inside."

And stay inside we did. I was in email touch with a friend who owns a store down the block and she was able to fill me in on what she was hearing. Another friend had been in that store, saw all the commotion, and called to see if I was okay. Eventually I learned from people who weren't on the block that the guy on the stretcher had died. I was shocked, because, of course, my only other experience with a shooting on the block had been just that, shooting. And once a year my friend's neighbors on Clermont shoot guns into the air at midnight on New Year's Eve. Somewhere in all of that victimless shooting, I'd kind of lost the connection between bullets and dying. Shooting just came to mean shooting to me.

My son came home from his sleepover (the little limbo with the crime scene tape), and then another friend offered to stop by, with her three children. I was eager for the grown-up company so I encouraged her to come. Now we had nine children in the house, and 66% weren't mine, and when Fifi's mom and brother came to pick her up there were ten kids in the house, and 70% weren't mine--but the adult to kid ratio had improved dramatically, so I was feeling fine. Plus the block felt ultra-safe now, swarming as it was with police and anchormen, and undercover cops wearing Mets jerseys-which was fun for my son to see.

Eventually the kids fell apart--too much togetherness, too much being inside, too hard to continue to negotiate. The moms who were here drank up their tea and shuffled off with most of the extra children, leaving me over-caffeinated and in a house where only 25% of the kids weren’t mine. Isadore’s grandma was in the hospital being tended to by her mom, and wasn’t going to be returned until ten that night.

A friend called me from a nail salon to report she'd just recognized my minivan on the news. Our tenant called from work to see if I was okay. And googling 'shooting in Fort Greene' started to yield more than the film-related events whose version of shooting (the Hollywood kind) has come to be more common in these newly gentrified but still Pratt-influenced artsy parts. The articles that were popping up described our block as being 'tree-lined' which sent pride surging through my body. Ten years ago this block would not have been considered 'tree-lined'--you had to live in Park Slope or the Cosby's Brooklyn Heights to earn that pastoral description. Fifteen years ago you would not have walked down this block unless you had to (or so I've been told). We're tree-lined now, woo-hoo. It's official. It took a murder to make me realize that we’ve finally arrived.

By the time I headed outside to drive Isadore home, the stoop across the way blazed with candlelight in memorial of the victim. The news people had left, but the cops were still in their car, which was facing the wrong way on the street, which continued to be eternally amusing to my 3 year old. A parent emailed concern about the event on the neighborhood list-serve. I looked at the email's first sentence 'does anyone know anything about the shooting?' and didn't even consider responding. I respond to things like 'help! can anyone recommend a roofer?' and 'we're expecting a son in a month and would love to hear thoughts about circumcising.' all the time. But this one didn't interest me at all.

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