Sometimes we are just broken

“What are you going to do about it?” The man is really shouting now. He points at three of us sitting quietly across the room. “They keep on shooting and dying.” I am not looking at him but looking slightly down and simply nodding my head. I want to stand up and just yell. I want to scream at the top of my lungs until there is no air left to create sound. “What do you think I have been doing asshole?,” I want to yell. I spend every day trying to figure out what more I can do, how else I can have an impact. I already work eighty hour weeks and leave before the sun comes up and struggle back in the door long after it has retreated for the night. I have given you and this community what is left of my crumbling soul, I have nothing else that I can give.

 

There are gym windows above his head. I stare out at them, wishing I could escape his wrath. He is a parent and I know the son that he lost. He has every right to be mad, there are two more innocent lives that he must shelter from the storm. He needs help. I know that he needs help, but so do I. We need each other, we all need each other but no one here gets that. Today is about blame and responsibility.

 

These meetings are a waste of effort and I grow tired of them. Some politician will come in and remind everyone about how much they have done to help the crime and violence problem. They look to us to support their claims, although we each know that their “efforts” are just talk and the end result is absolutely nothing. The impact is none at all, their effort cannot do much. A fly cannot possibly move an elephant yet these fly’s want to take credit for trying.

 
The uniformed chief next to me speaks first. He explains that we use data to help deploy resources to areas that need then, that officers walk the streets now instead of driving up and down with windows closed and eyes hidden behind dark glasses. He says that we talk to people now.

 

All of those things are true, yet it hasn’t changed. We do walk around now and talk to people but they don’t talk to us. They don’t trust us and they don’t trust each other. Here if you are heard saying the wrong thing to us and your name will be shared quickly with those who do not like that you chat with us.

 
A community opens its door to everyone. When I was a kid, the back door was never locked. The mothers, all of the mothers, would sit and listen to the yard to hear what kids were doing and to seek retribution when they heard one of us wrong another. More than once I was corrected by another mom or dad on the block for my violation of our neighborhood rules for the way we treat each other. They would not do that now. They could not do that now, it would be disrespectful toward the kid. The kid who decides what respect means and uses his 9 to communicate the decision.

 

I look back at their faces and see the fear. It looks like anger and hatred, but that is exactly what fear looks like. Fear and anger are the same. I cannot get angry at something that holds no sway over me, that I am not afraid of. But if I fear you, then you have power over me and that makes me angry. They have no control and they are angry.

 

So am I. I am angry every time I look at the lifeless eyes staring back at me from a child whose bright future came to a dark end on a cold filthy street for no reason. I am angry because that same street is empty of life, no witnesses, no empathy for the family or guilt for the failure to stop it. They will come here and be brave and bold in accusation but out there, they cower and hide. They avert their eyes but I cannot.

 

They leave shaking their heads and muttering about how useless we are. That is the first thing that they would say today that I agree with. That is what I feel. This is why so many days I have to close my door and hide so that I can just break down. The tears will come for maybe a half an hour then just stop. I have no idea when they will come again. I don’t know what images trigger them, but I do know why. It is because I am helpless. I am a tool for a broken system. I am a broom left to clean up whatever mess is created. But even a broom needs a hand to help it. There is no magic here. The broom will sit quietly in the corner until someone, anyone, steps up to use it.

 

I am tired of feeling this way. I am tired of not sleeping and feeling the guilt of a hundred innocent lives and countless more who have yet to suffer but I know will. I am tired and weary when I leave. My shoulders sag and I feel as if I can do nothing but stagger under the imaginary weight of all of them.

 

broken windows
These are the days that I don’t just have thoughts when looking outside this dirty and disgusting broken window. These are the days when I just wish that I could jump and not feel it any more. I am too afraid to jump. I am afraid and I am angry. I cannot look out the window anymore, I just close my eyes and wait for the pain to stop.

When fear shatters our view

As I am gazing out of the picture window on this brisk and starry night, I am thinking about fear. Fear that is so biting that it keeps some hidden behind their closed windows. Ny is hiding behind those windows in another city tonight, being sheltered in a relative’s home far from his normal life, out of fear. He hasn’t slept a peaceful night’s sleep in a month and I know that it may be many more before his fear subsides and he can again sleep the rest of the weary yet safe.

shattered window
I have known him for several years. He was a good kid, made the same mistakes that so many of these young men do, fall for the deception that is a gang’s lifestyle. Desperation for a sense of belonging, something to fill the void left from broken homes and shattered dreams of a family life far removed from his reality.

He was always willing to do what others would not, just to get noticed, to get recognized and feel accomplished. This did not happen at the dinner table at home nor at the student desks in school. But being bold and sometimes reckless are attributes rewarded in the wasteland of a crime ridden and desperate city. He would get caught and spend time away from the streets. Each time he returned, we tried to help him start anew. Each time he told us he had changed and would not follow the path of destruction that he followed before.

But each time the grip of the lifestyle would reach back for him. Almost like a drug addict in desperate need for the next fix, knowing that they shouldn’t, but needing that relief. He was addicted to the lifestyle of a street gangster. Ny was no more, replaced by a low level thug doing what he had to do to get attention and gratification. Seeking those rewards often comes with a cost. He was now discovering that cost.

For every gang identity there are other gangs whose identity is based on conflict. They declare ownership of their streets and seek to defend their own abnormal and often twisted sense of respect. With conflict comes blood. On our streets today, fists no longer suffice to end the battle. These are now gunfighters and the sound of gunfire echoes through our streets daily. They feel power when they are the ones holding the gun. They are also coming to know fear when they are on the wrong end of the gunfight. Ny is learning that lesson.

Last week three people jumped him as he walked to his school bus after school. They attempted to beat him, to hurt him and in the same way that animals in the wilderness show their superiority by vanquishing their enemies until their enemy will pose a threat no longer. Adults interfered. Their attack was thwarted. But there he felt the first real twinges of fear.

When I saw him next it was with his grandmother by his side in a hospital not twenty-four hours after the first beating. The shades in his hospital room were drawn tight and even then he looked suspiciously between the window and the door. The bandages wrapped around his head hid the stitches where the bullet grazed his temple. Another inch, the doctor had told him, and he would have expired. Ny understood what that meant. That meant fear.

He looked up at me with the same fear. I knew that he would not tell me who had done this to him. He knew, he was walking toward them when they did it in broad daylight. But if he told me, if I went out and attempted to serve justice, the real justice that is done in the sterile environment of a courtroom, the street would seek its vengeance upon him. It will be worse he said. I knew that is what he would say. Snitches get stitches isn’t a catchy play on words in his world, it is a code.

His grandmother cries. She cannot help him and has other babies in her home. She too is afraid, for his life, for her life, for the lives of the others trusted to her care. She is the foundation of this small family. She also knows that for the sake of the rest, she must let this one go. He will go to another city. She packs a bag and the relative meets us the next day at the hospital.

Like a person in the witness protection program, every noise as he walks from the open doors of the hospital to the waiting car startles him a little. His eyes are weary, sleeplessness and helplessness twist together to cloak him in a dark fabric of despair. I tell him to look out for himself and to call if he needs anything. I tell him to get some sleep in the car ride, knowing that he will not. Knowing that it may take months or even years for him to sleep without waiting for the crack in the silence that comes with violence.

The car pulled away and I went home to ponder another victim to those streets where I grew up. How had I survived yet so many of them cannot find a way out of the decay? I had hope and with hope comes the courage to fight for that escape. Without it they simply exist, waiting to be swallowed up by the demons that consume them and their community. Ny doesn’t have to wait any longer. The demons have won. He will sleep in their grasp now, simply waiting for the darkness to come.

I look at the sky one last time and say a quiet wish for him. I pray that he will find renewal and peace. He is out there tonight, under these same stars but he will not take the time to see them. They hold nothing for him now, his only concern is for what lies below. I still hold a fleeting hope that he will not become a statistic. I must believe that or the journey would not be worth the fight for me. Once again, I go inside, kiss my wife and draw the blinds. Tomorrow is yet another day to seek renewal and a better view from inside my sometimes shattered windows.

When the tears no longer come…

What happens when the tears just cannot come any longer?

Sometimes I hold her at night and stare out of the window, hoping that they will come. Hoping that somehow the silence will be broken by my own whisper, my own quickened breath as I can feel the tension finally give way and the sting begins in my eyes.  I want them to come, I need them to come. I need to feel something, I want to feel human again.

I cannot see what I see and lose myself. I cannot sit there in the corner and watch this drama unfold upon these innocent creatures and not feel anymore.  Why can’t I cry? Please God remind me that it still works, that my heart hasn’t finally broken.

He was four years old. The blood was still visible on the back of his pants when they brought him to me.  I knew the older boy he had been with and I knew, deep down inside my tortured and fleeting soul, what had happened. I couldn’t ask for a minute. I watched this boy, his mother couldn’t stop crying. I asked what had happened.  I was right and I hate when I am right.

room with no windows

Normally I try to find the window, to look out and remind myself that there is more to it than this.  I try to remind myself that there is good in the world and that I can smile at someone, that there will be no strangers today but then when I meet this little one, he will share the most intimate details of his violation and we will not be strangers.

In fact he will forever be part of me now. I will carry his pain forever. I always do.

Today there is no window in the cold hospital room. Only a curtain meant to hide the victim’s shame. It does nothing to help anyone escape the pain.  From now on he will look suspiciously at everyone as if they all know what happened to him.

I almost fall back when he describes what happened. The boy who did it. The memory comes back to me like a painful bolt.  It was just four years ago when he sat before me and shared his pain. His mother had been addicted to drugs and had always been high. He and his brother were in the back of the car and watched as their mother ran down two of their classmates on the street. They heard the innocent children cry and scream and then stop suddenly as the car came to rest upon both of their small now lifeless bodies.  They watched as their mother jumped from the car and ran away. They never saw her again after that day. She still sits in jail.

I had to try to put his pieces back together.  I had to listen then and comfort him.  Try to explain why we had to handcuff his mother and why she went away.  He cried then but then, after a while his tears just stopped.  His face lost its emotion. Became cold and almost robotic.  I lost track of him for a while and today, today I must find him again.

The cries of the boy as the nurse looks at him rush me back to the here and now. I have to leave, I can’t breathe.  I run for now. I will find the other but not tonight. Tonight I need to lie in her arms and cry.

They never come. I fall asleep and they never came. She held me tightly before I slept and I know she would make them go away but they didn’t come. Is it possible to run out of tears? Is it possible that the last straw finally snapped and the now fragile frame of my once whole emotional self finally gave way?

I pray not. There will be others and I still need to care. I still need the tears to come just as a release. Maybe tomorrow they will come. Maybe tomorrow will be different.