Everybody’s already made up their mind

Illustration by Jeff Crosby for Salon.com

Illustration by Jeff Crosby for Salon.com

The sound of vomiting awakened me. The smell of it assured no return to sleep.

My roommate was coming out of his coma.

“That’s OK, that’s OK,” a woman told the gently groaning man who had just emptied his stomach and, I noticed a moment later, his bowels. “We’ll take care of that. You don’t worry.”

I heard but did not see any of this. A gauzy, cornflower blue curtain on a metal rod trembled from the activity behind it. Between gulps, the man apologized, his words wavering in the air.

“No problem, no problem at all,” said another woman. The pair sounded much younger than the man they were addressing. “Here, just roll over a little this way so we can get – there, that’s it.”

The whisper of changing bedsheets filled the room. The thud of something wet and heavy landed in a plastic bucket, followed by another thud.

My attention span rippled like water in a breeze. The drugs administered to arouse me from surgery were prying me out of a deathly slumber, but a mild grip continued. The analog wall clock said 3 a.m.

As I noticed this, the women emerged from behind the curtain wearing purple smocks, latex gloves, and their frosted hair bound up in small buns. Each clutched a bulging plastic trash bag and a facial expression wrought from a hard night. The air improved when they left.

My roommate coughed and cleared his throat a few minutes, then was silent. When next I heard him, the hands on the wall clock had spun around three times and sunlight dribbled through the window blinds.

I needed to pee – I could not remember the last time that happened – and so began focusing on how to do it. I had come out of surgery without a catheter and without the use of my shoulders. Long, raw, S-shaped scars curved beneath my arms. A tube jutted from the bottom of each scar. Beneath each tube, a plastic bulb collected orange fluid. Concentrating on how to squirm out of bed unaided softened the edge on my urge.

But in fumbling to stand, I brushed the room dividing curtain, causing one side to slide back on the rod. And that is when I met Clarence from Anna, Illinois. His drooping, swollen eyes stared at a muted TV on his side of the room. He had long white and red tubes running the length of his black arms.

“Hey, hi. Sorry about that,” I said as I grabbed at my loose gown with one hand and my rolling intravenous fluid pump with the other. Pain coursed from my shoulders to my ribs. The half-filled bulbs pulled on my scars.

“No, that’s fine,” he replied and waved to me with thick fingers. “Hope I’m not disturbing you. I guess I got a little noisy last night.”

“Nah. I wasn’t really asleep anyway. They kept waking me every hour to ask a question or poke me with something. How are you doing?”

“Better, I think. They tell me I was out awhile, so I’m not sure,” he said, groggily.

“You mind if I asked what happened?”

“Car crash. I was making a delivery and a woman plowed into my side at a stoplight.”

“You remember that?”

“I remember that much, then I woke up here.”

“So, you feeling better?”

“Yeah. I think one of these tubes is morphine.”

As the last syllable dribbled from his mouth, two other women slid past me, nodded acknowledgment, then positioned themselves on either side of Clarence’s bed. He greeted one as Mom.

“Ohh, baby, how’re you feeling?” She knitted the words together in a long, soft musical note.

“Mmm. ‘K,” he mumbled.

At that, I regathered my gown and rolling IV stand to address the business that forced me upright. When I finished and returned to bed in a way as innovative and as painful as I had left it, the conversation behind the re-extended curtain had changed from a lovely tune to legal matters.

“Police say she’s already got a lawyer …” the woman called Mom said.

“… and he’s already talked to them,” the other woman added. Clarence called her a word like “Sulee.”

“She was the one who didn’t stop,” he told her. “I was stopped and moved out a little to see past the car and then she was slamming into the side of me.”

“I know, honey,” Mom said. “And they know it. But she’s got this lawyer now.”

Piece by piece, the puzzle came together before me. Clarence was working his second job, floral delivery, and had pulled up to a flashing stoplight two blocks from his destination. Cars parked close to the intersection interfered with his view, so he stopped then inched and stopped then inched forward to see better.

He remembered flashing lights, a siren, and someone shouting questions at him. That was four days ago.

“Mmm, yes,” Mom hummed.

“But now you gotta get a lawyer, too,” Sulee said. “You gotta talk to somebody at the college. Got a lot of friends there, right? You’ve worked there a long time. Somebody there knows someone who can help, right?”

“Dunno,” Clarence said. “Maybe.”

“Oh, we gotta try,” Sulee said.

“Dunno,” Clarence repeated. “I mean, look at me, look at that town. Everybody’s already made up their mind.”

Remember Mike Brown – and William and Angela

Melted wax still stains the street and sidewalk on Park Avenue at 11th Street in south St. Louis where two people were killed in a drive-by shooting in March. The stains appeared during a candlelight vigil for the victims two days after the shooting.

Melted wax still stains the street and sidewalk on Park Avenue at 11th Street in south St. Louis where two people were killed in a drive-by shooting in March. The stains appeared during a candlelight vigil for the victims two days after the shooting. (Photo by David Sheets)

In Ferguson, Mo., at least three permanent monuments recall Mike Brown.

In south St. Louis, there are only stains on the street where William Crume and Angela Wysinger perished.

In Ferguson, a brass plaque bearing Brown’s likeness and another plate shaped like a dove flank where he was shot dead in the street at Canfield Green apartments a year ago. On the spot where the teenager’s body lay in the summer sun for four hours is a rectangle of new asphalt; Brown’s family had the old asphalt scooped up as a keepsake.

In south St. Louis, dark, greasy stains from candle wax remain on the pavement and sidewalk at 11th Street and Park Avenue in the LaSalle Park neighborhood. There, near a concrete light pole, is where Crume and Wysinger died in March, killed in their car during a drive-by shooting. Two days afterward, about 70 people lit candles and stood in silence around a 17-foot wrap of balloons, ribbons and stuffed animals tied to the pole as a memorial to the couple.

Brown died in a confrontation with police officer Darrin Wilson. Brown was said to be unarmed. Wilson shot six times at Brown for reasons that protracted scrutiny has not made entirely clear.

Crume, 23, and Wysinger, 26, were killed as shooters from at least one passing vehicle fired multiple times into their car as it rolled east on Park Avenue. The shots also injured one of Wysinger’s three children – ages 2, 7 and 9 – riding in the back seat. Police say Crume and Wysinger were unarmed and probably knew their assailants.

Brown’s death triggered weeks of unrest in Ferguson and turned a magnifying glass on the way some municipal governments and police perform their duties. In many communities around the country, officers now wear cameras on their uniforms to account for their actions.

Little has happened in the wake of Crume’s and Wysinger’s deaths. The authorities presume the shooting was an act of retribution but still do not know who is responsible.

This week, millions of people worldwide remembered the events in Ferguson on the first anniversary of Brown’s death.

This week, hardly anyone will remember Crume and Wysinger.

But the young couple also deserve our attention, our remembrance, as much as Brown. His death, though tragic, raised awareness of pervasive social and legal imbalances in our government and the courts, and hammers home the need for changes in how the public and police deal with each other.

Crume and Whysinger died in an act of rage that hammers home the stark reminder of our obligation to be just and civil to one another. Lacking that, we risk leaving a legacy that amounts to little more than wax stains on sidewalks.

“You see a family shot up like this needlessly – the car was riddled with bullets. Just senseless,” Metropolitan Police Capt. Michael Sack told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in March. “It’s frustrating to have to deal with and try to find those responsible for it.”

‘It’s up to us to stop this’ : The shooting behind my backyard gate

Park Avenue Shooting Memorial

The memorial for two fatal shooting victims that grew to embrace a light pole on Park Avenue near downtown St. Louis started with a couple of teddy bears and a few flowers. (Photo courtesy of Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

Bright, multicolored balloons twist and bob around a concrete light pole about 20 yards from my backyard gate. People of all ages took photos of the balloons even as children tied more onto the pole.

In the adjoining community park, a couple hundred people talked, laughed, cried and held each other during a memorial vigil Tuesday as they recalled what happened a few feet from that light pole 24 hours earlier.

A bullet-riddled Nissan carrying two adults and a 9-year-old girl had rolled to a halt with one of the adults already dead and another dying. The girl was wounded but would survive. Their ride ended after a 12-block shootout with the occupants of another car who authorities say were targeting the couple.

I had heard the yelling from bystanders outside my second-floor window before realizing what was wrong. I saw the car go by, followed briefly by four people sprinting after it on foot. By the time I made it downstairs and out the door to investigate, a handful of wailing, distraught people were already reaching into the car to pull out the victims.

Police arrived mere seconds later. A detective at the scene told me they were receiving 911 calls about the shooting before the car had reached a full stop. Once they turned the corner, they only had to follow the sounds of the wailing.

More people rushed to the scene on foot at almost the same rate as the police, who drove in aboard 17 patrol cars and immediately closed the street in both directions. Officers cordoned off a wide area that extended all the way to my gate hinges.

The police anticipated trouble. When large numbers of African Americans are involved, they assume as much and show up en masse. Ferguson – 12 miles northwest of here – is to blame for that. The victims in the car were African American. The detective said the suspects likely were African American, and the growing crowd was upset and almost exclusively African American.

But the tension that was anticipated never materialized, because there was no rage, only outrage and frustration. The police were there like the rest of the crowd, trying to understand what brought two young lives to such a violent end on a tree-lined residential street, probably at the hands of someone equally as young.

One officer bent down on one knee just outside the loop of yellow police tape to talk with a group of boys, none of whom appeared older than seven. All of them, including the officer, had the same stunned looks on their faces, because at what age does one truly understand how anything like this can happen?

To the other side of me, a woman walked past holding her head in her hands and saying to nobody in particular, “I’m never letting my girl out of the house now.”

Then screams pealed out from several of the 70 or so people watching across the street in the park. They just learned the other adult in the car had died at the hospital.

At that, the crowd started to dissipate, with the strong and resolute assisting the inconsolable. The armada of patrol cars dwindled to 12, to eight, to two. The car that held the victims was the last to go, on the back of a flatbed tow truck, beneath the pale glow of that now-landmark street light, the only odd thing at that point being the sight of a single officer standing in the road watching the cargo being loaded.

For me, the hardest part was seeing the pain in the faces of those who either knew the victims or knew that this kind of internecine violence was not about to end. They were worried for their children and their friends and family, and said as much out loud, over and over. The police would be no help; the solution had to come from within.

And so the vigil formed around 5 p.m. Tuesday and lasted well after sundown. About 200 people showed up. They brought flowers and balloons, and a couple brought barbecue kettles. Posters of the dead were pasted to the light pole. The wrap of balloons reached 12 feet in height. And yet, police passed by only infrequently because for this second gathering the people themselves were doing the policing – directing traffic and trying to keep order. I spoke briefly to a few of the people trickling in and out; they replied in broken voices about taking back their lives.

“It’s up to us to stop this. It’s up to us to stop this,” one woman muttered.

Another woman who looked as if dressed for church touched my arm gently and said, “Please, be careful.”

We should all follow that advice.