Sometimes we're neighbors and sometimes we're just in the same space at the same time

On safety and mourning

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I’m writing this just around midnight, Tuesday night. The flashing lights— red-and-blue-red-and-blue-red-and-blue-over-and-over— haven’t stopped yet. Some of the cops are still out there, some have gone home. Most of the young folks have gone home. I’m already home, I guess.

There’s a lot that I don’t know but here’s what I know.

A few nights ago, a couple of young guys who lived in my neighborhood and who love fast cars were out driving really, really fast. Too fast. There was, it seems, some sort of police pursuit. That chase very likely caused them to drive faster, wilder, into a tree. The tree was a block from my house. The two young guys are dead. It was awful, tragic, horrifying.

There was a memorial the next night. Big crowd. The median age couldn’t have been more than twenty-one, if that. Pretty diverse crew for a hyper-segregated city. White and Black and Mexican and Puerto Rican. They brought prayer candles and balloons and handles of Hennessy. They hugged and laughed and cried and burnt a fair amount of rubber and revved and revved and revved and oh God I never knew how quickly the smoke from revved-up-tires could fill the sky. A few folks drove really fast. Most just hung out. They were young and heartbroken and honoring their friends and it fills me with bittersweet joy to see the love they have for each other. And yet (and yet, and yet, and yet), it’s also true that the presence of additional fast cars was more than a little scary for parents on the street like us… parents who, if not for a tree, came pretty damn close to having a car crash into their kids’ bedrooms the other night. Their pain and hurt is real. So too is my and my wife’s fear of another car accident on the street where our kids play.

Sharing space is hard.

Community is even harder.

In the days since those first couple nights, a new automated “THIS IS YOUR SPEED” sign has shown up on our street. I’m grateful for that sign. So grateful. The two young men who lost their lives weren’t the only too-fast drivers on our street. Hell, I’ve been a too-fast-driver on my street, even with all my “this is the street where my kids play” self-righteousness. We could all use a reminder to slow down.

In the days since those first couple nights, the crowds have occasionally gathered again, mostly pretty respectfully. Sometimes I can focus on the young folks and how heartbroken they must be. I read their tributes to their friends online and donate to their GoFundMe and I keep their story in the foreground. Other times one of their still-mourning buddies drives too fast down our street and I get a bit huffy because, damnit, my kids DO live on this street, because there’s a daycare across the way and bus stops all over the place. Community isn’t a single right answer. It’s a complicated holding of so many things in our hands that the pile is always teetering, always threatening to tumble out.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the young folks at their memorial, my emotions a cage match of empathy for them, fear for my kids (who are so tiny and so unable to get out of the way of a car), and love for my wife (who, as a medical professional, ran out when the accident first happened and had to see its immediate aftermath). What I haven’t done, for all sorts of reasons that are understandable and that I shouldn’t beat myself up over (but still!)… is to spend much time talking to them, mourning with them, welcoming them into the dilemma I’m feeling. I haven’t respected them enough to say “I’m sure we can figure this out…” I haven’t asked them to help imagine something more beautiful than an either/or between what they deserve (time/space/respect for their mourning) and what my family and other neighbors deserve (safety for our kids in a world where children and fast cars don’t mix). I’ve had those conversations with myself, which isn’t nothing… but which also isn’t community.

I’m thinking about all these connections I haven’t made yet because the young folks were back tonight (smaller numbers, fewer cars) but so too were the cops (larger numbers, so many cars, blocking off the whole road). It sounds like another neighbor got fed up by all the gatherings and came out with a knife. She kicked some candles down before going back into her house. The cops showed up and (per the young folks), issued citations to them for modifications to their cars but didn’t truly address the woman with the knife. Again, I wasn’t there, so I’m passing on stories second-hand. Sometimes people yell at each other on the street. Sometimes people yell at each other on a neighborhood Facebook group.

I walk outside occasionally to double-check that tensions are lower (they are, for now, but the lights are still flashing and goodness knows I don’t think anybody feels safe right now). I go back inside and curse myself for not having had more conversations before the cops came out.

When I say I want a better world, I don’t just mean a world with fewer lights flashing red-and-blue, red-and-blue, red-and-blue. I don’t want a utopia where complicated, no-single-right answers, no-pure-heroes-and-no-pure-villains situations all just disappear magically. I want a world where we’re allowed to be complicated and half-formed. I just want a world where our muscles of figuring it out together aren’t so atrophied.

There is no path forward that doesn’t ask something of every single one of us. Neighbors who see each other’s pain rather than each other’s faults. Individuals overwhelmed with grief but still connected to and responsive to something bigger than themselves. People like me who still need how to get more comforable at having conversations-with rather than conversations-about. Government employees with de-escalation skills rather than government employees with guns.

I don’t yet know what I’m going to do tomorrow. I don’t know what I’ll do if neighbors whom I haven’t gotten to know personallly are still threatening one another. I don’t know what I’ll do if the cops are still out. I don’t know what I’ll do if there is still too much too-fast-driving-by. I don’t know what I’ll do if folks aren’t looking out for my kids. I don’t know what to do if people who are still strangers but don’t need to be strangers to me are still in mourning.

What I know is that I can’t do it alone.

If you’re interested in contributing to the memorial/family support fund for the two young men who lost their lives, you can do so here.