Before I began my current job, I was a site manager for a security company that works in conjunction with HUD on HUD's Multi-family Dwelling Disposition Program. If HUD recognizes that the New York City Housing Authority is mismanaging a city-owned multi-family property, HUD will seize the property from the city. HUD's property management company will take over the day-to-day operations of managing the property, and the security company that I worked for will provide armed security for the site. HUD maintains its control over the housing site until they believe that the property is marketable, at which time they work to sell it to a private company.
The property I worked at was the Medgar Evers/Betty Shabazz Houses which sits in the heart of Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, stretched out for two blocks on Gates Avenue. Being from Bedford Stuyvesant, I welcomed the opportunity to work in my neighborhood. It felt good to be able to provide an adequate level of security for people in my community, and I discovered a level of honor and pride for my job that I had never looked for in jobs before. I supervised eighty off-duty police and correction officers on the thirteen-building site. Being in my mid-twenties, I was the youngest site manager working for the security company, and I would always have to prove my capability to the people who saw me as young and inexperienced. Of course, my inner motivations would never let me back down from the challenge, and I worked hard to earn the respect of my employees. Our mission on the site was to patrol the buildings, deter criminal activity, and maintain order on the property.
Medgar Evers/Betty Shabazz houses are low-income project buildings, six stories each. All of the hallways, and all of the floors, and the ceilings are concrete. There are bars on all of the windows. The stairways all reek of urine and garbage, with drug paraphernalia and dirty condoms out on the steps. The elevators are always broken, which means that elderly women have to walk through those rotten stairways just to get home. Rats and mice fill the incinerators, so much so that women sometimes take brooms to the incinerators, just so they can defend themselves if something should jump out of the chute while they try to throw their garbage in.
There is no hope in a place like this. One time, the property manager told me that only twenty percent of the adults who live on the site are employed. I sat in my office, which was just one of the apartments, and I wrestled with trying to understand how people find themselves here. I looked out of the barred windows onto the street, and, for a moment, it felt like I was sitting inside a detention center. I wondered, if this was my view of life, through these bars onto this street, would I be able to get out?
There were always incidents on the site. Fights were as commonplace as television: domestic disputes, beefs between young boys, drug fiends fighting each other for quarters. There was always a dispute for my staff to handle. Oftentimes I'd be out there helping out, trying to break up people going at each other, trying to make people stop. My workers always asked me why did I bother being in the middle of the chaos? They were all cops, with guns, street experience and the ability to call nearby precincts for backup. They all thought that I should stay my ass inside the office, write reports and not get involved. But I used to go to school up the block from these projects. I grew up around these same people, ate at the same Chinese restaurants, washed my clothes at the same laundromat, and shopped at the same supermarket. I was involved, and so I felt obligated to help with as much as I could.
People who lived on the site began to take notice of my approach to my work. Some of the older women would come by my office to talk about things going on in their buildings. I'd listen and then follow through on a plan to fix the problem. Younger women would come by and ask me to talk to their sons. Maybe the boy wasn't going to school, or maybe he was hanging out all day selling drugs. I'd follow through on those requests as well, and I'd speak to these young men. I tried to have them relate to me. I'd tell them about my mess ups, where I went wrong, so that they could look within themselves to judge whether or not they were doing some of the same things. I'd tell them about the good things I've done, and the places I've been, and when they would wonder about how the world was outside Gates Avenue, I'd tell them that while physically there is a world of differences, mentally it's all the same. It isn't about who you can be somewhere else. It's about who you are where you are at. I really loved what I did, and it had nothing at all to do with security.
I rode my bike to work every day during the summer. It made for good exercise, and the bike doubled as a patrol vehicle during my shift. This particular day was a nice one. It was late spring, and at about a quarter after two, in the middle of the afternoon, I made the right off Throop Avenue, onto Gates Avenue, like I always did, and started through the block. One security guard was posted in front of each of the four buildings on this block and in front of the nine buildings on the next block the morning crew. Whenever they saw me coming, they would shout me out, happy because they knew their shift was coming to a close. On this day it was no different. As I passed each building, the guard on duty spoke. I passed 630 Gates, which is the last of the four buildings, and stopped in front of the bus stop at the corner. A young man from 620 Gates was standing in front of the 99 cents store on the corner of Gates and Marcus Garvey. His name was James. I knew him from the block. He was a tall, lanky, brown-skinned boy of about twenty. I pulled up in front of him.
"What up, Rice?"
"What's up, James?" We shook hands. I hadn't seen him for a couple of weeks. His girlfriend had delivered their baby daughter recently.
"How's your baby girl?"
He cracked a smile. "She's good."
"Alright then. I'll see you later, man."
The light changed, and I crossed Marcus Garvey Boulevard, headed further down Gates. I made it to in front of 650 Gates when I bumped into Ms. Rogers. Ms. Rogers lived in the building my office was in, 745 Gates. She saw me and started laughing at how I looked on my bike. She always laughed when she saw me on the bike. She said once that a man as big as me looked foolish on such a bike. I stopped right in front of her, prepared to be ridiculed for my mode of transport. I opened my mouth to speak, but gunshots made my words choke me.
I've been around gunshots before, and these shots sounded closer than I have ever been to bullets. I hopped off the bike and knelt down by a car. I wanted to run, but I didn't know where the shots were coming from, and I didn't want to run into a stray bullet. Ms. Rogers knelt down beside me. I remember hearing the screeching brakes of a car and thinking that maybe someone in the car was shooting. I didn't move. I knelt firmly behind the car until I didn't hear any more blasts or screeching brakes.
When I got up, I looked back towards Marcus Garvey Blvd., scanning with my eyes, trying to find out what had happened. Across Marcus Garvey, right there on the corner, in front of the bus stop, a crowd began forming a circle around someone on the ground. I left my bike, and ran back across the street, towards the circle. There, on the ground was a lanky young man. He was bending himself into the fetal position, still trying to curl himself away from harm. I looked down on him, trying to believe what my eyes were telling me. It was James. His chin was blown open, and leaking onto the concrete. His light blue shirt was beginning to turn deep purple in places.
One of the housing site's maintenance men, a Trinidadian man named Ricardo, knelt down by James and took his hand. He was telling the wounded boy to hang in there, telling him to squeeze his hand, telling him to hold on. People were yelling all different things. I heard people yelling for someone to call the cops. Other people were wailing. Others were asking what had happened, to no one in particular, just asking. I looked at James. His wounds looked so painful. Those bullets had torn through him, and he was lying there trying to curl himself into a ball, fighting for his life.
For some reason, I looked down the block. In front of 630 Gates, another crowd had formed. I could see one of my guards, a detective named Al, standing over someone. He had the person face down on the ground. I walked over to 630 Gates. By the time I reached the front of the building, a group of young boys were screaming at my guard.
"Yo man! Why you handcuffing him man? You shot him! He's dead!"
Al cuffed the boy's hands and then turned him onto his back. Blood leaked down the boy's torso, soaking through his black t-shirt. His eyes were rolled back into his head. The young boys cried out,
"Aw, no, man! Aw, no! Carlos, man, get up man! Carlos!"
I knew the boy lying in front of 630, too. His name was Carlos. He didn't live on the site, but he often hung out, and sold his drugs over in front of 620, the same building James lived in. Carlos was a small boy, maybe 5 foot 7 inches tall, but wild. He was always involved in fights and other confrontations. I told him once that the small shit he always seems to get into is going to turn into big shit one day if he didn't check himself. He just laughed at what I said. He didn't give a fuck. Now he was lying on Gates Avenue, dead.
Death seemed to incite rage in everyone. By the time the cops and paramedics arrived, people were shouting at them, cursing them. The paramedics peeled James' prone body from the ground and sped him to the nearest hospital. Carlos remained handcuffed in front of 630. One of the cops grabbed a white sheet from his trunk, and placed it over the suspect. More and more tenants came outside to witness the commotion. People were screaming at the top of their lungs at each other. I couldn't make it all out, but at the same time something inside of me was screaming, too.
Somehow, I made it back to my bike, and then into my office. When I got into the office, I could still hear the muted sounds of everyone outside. Guards were calling me on the walkie-talkie, telling me how they were handling the crowds outside, assuring me that everything was under control. They were lying. Everything was out of control. Everything had always been out of control here. I felt the urgency in me whenever I came to work. It's that urgency that made me take my job so seriously. The kids around here need guidance because things here are out of control. I sat behind my desk, and I cried. I cried hard. Tears fell from my eyes, and my heart ached. My hands were shaking. I kept thinking about what I saw, how much pain James seemed to be in. I felt so bad for him, for Carlos, for myself.
As the day went on, pieces about what had happened began to come together to form a coherent occurrence, not the bedlam I remembered it to be. Apparently, Carlos was walking west on Gates Avenue, towards Marcus Garvey, when he spotted James. He pulled a gun, and shot James five times. As the new father of a baby girl hit the ground, Carlos tried to run back down Gates, heading east. Al was at his post, in front of 630 when the shooting took place. He watched as Carlos mercilessly pumped shells into James. Al watched Carlos running in his direction. He pulled his weapon, and shouted for Carlos to freeze. When he didn't, Al didn't hesitate to stop the young boy in his tracks. Carlos and his weapon lay on the ground in front of 630 Gates Avenue until 8pm. Coroners in Brooklyn are very busy during the summer. James died on the way to the hospital, his life lost because his killer came before the B52 bus. I found out later that Carlos killed James because James and a friend had robbed Carlos' older brother of a hundred dollars. My monthly cable bill is more than a hundred dollars. Life has to be worth more than cable, even on Gates Avenue.
I think about that day a lot, because I've never been more disappointed with my community. Two young men who could've done anything died over what amounts really to nothing. I think sometimes that maybe if I had stayed to talk to James just a little longer, maybe Carlos would have seen me with James, and just maybe my presence alone would have caused him to approach the whole thing differently. Maybe the three of us could have gone up the block to my office to discuss the matter. Surely I could have helped them settle this.
I go past Gates Avenue now and again. People still wait for the bus in front of that 99 cents store, standing right over the spot James once curled into. They stand there without trepidation, as if what happened never took place. I remember what happened though.
Copyright © 2007 by Marlon Rice