One of the most remarkable traits of New York City has always been it's ability to be both epically big and remarkably intimate at the same time. Despite all reputations as a city of aggressive, self-obsessed and impersonal beings banging into each other on the subway, I have mostly found New York to be the opposite in residential neighborhoods like ours, Fort Greene. In this city of 8 million people, 3 million alone in the borough of Brooklyn, we still manage to feel so much of the time like we live in a village. Because we are crammed into absurdly small apartments we tend to spend as much time as possible outside in public spaces, and I think because of this we are uniquely connected to our neighbors. We are a small town in a big city.
Early Saturday afternoon, the sanctuary of our little piece of Brooklyn was shattered by a lunatic in a van. For reasons that are still unknown, a local man crashed his car into the building on the corner of our street at Clermont and Dekalb Avenues. He hit four people standing on the sidewalk. A young woman, whose ankle was broken, and a mother with her 2 little boys, Theo 5 years old and Lucian, 9. The van went right over the 2 little boys, devouring them like a black hole taking in the stars.
I heard the crash and then a scream and ran out of my house clutching an absurd array of medical supplies that proved useless. A group of men were scrambling under the car trying to get the boys out. Peter and Nina, who have a book stand on that corner every Saturday were 2 feet away, the books unbelievably intact. Peter was carefully stacking books - I think a reaction of pure shock. Within 2 minutes an army of EMTs, firefighters, and police descended on the chaos. They are amazing people and I truly do not know how someone copes with such a scene on a regular basis so calmly and efficiently. Still under the van, a tousled head of blonde hair streaked in blood was stabilized. The little boy, hardly older than my own, crying but alert was carefully arranged on a stretcher. You could see that he was moving well and speaking. An EMT said hang on little buddy or something equally tender. I sat with some other people next to the woman with the broken ankle and said the little boy looks like he's going to be OK, he's OK. We waited for the same to happen with the second boy, get him out get him out get him OUT of there, but the urgency subsided and everything went quiet. Lucian, 9 years old, had been killed instantly.
The van was wrapped in a black sheet and our street was wrapped in crime scene tape for the remainder of the day. The vehicles left and the bystanders petered out, but for a few cops. The driver of the van stood with two officers, drinking a bottle of water. How can you stand there when you know you have done this? How do you even feel that your feet deserve to stand on this street that you have just traumatized? I wondered, above all, if anyone was staying with the little boy. I couldn't stand the thought of him being alone. I hated that they thought of him as no longer a boy but part of a crime scene. I wanted someone to acknowledge that this was now sacred ground, that he would forever be a part of this street, even after the firemen came and hosed down the sidewalk.
A few media hounds loitered throughout the day. There wasn't anything to see but the flapping black sheet. Finally they took down the sheet, unwrapped the tape and the street was ours again. People descended immediately to the spot. A huge dent was pushed into the wall as though it were made of ash instead of brick. The 15 foot long iron gate that had stood guard lay flattened to the concrete. We all stared at the empty space.
Roan, Sam, and I returned later with our neighbor Claire. I took a purple flower I had worn on a top hat for Halloween and wrapped it around a candle. Throughout the day and night a bed of flowers and candles built up like a sand dune. I believe in the need for shrines. When we were in Vietnam we saw them everywhere, dusty photographs surrounded by piles of incense, candles, flowers and religious icons. It is how we say to the departed you are gone so we will create you out of what we have left, things to look at, to smell, to touch, that will keep our senses full of you. They are touchstones on the sidewalk that keep us connected to each other in grief and memory.
I spoke to neighbors about the loss. Can you imagine what this family is going through? they say, and oddly in many ways I can't. With Lula we got to say goodbye. We got to hold her and kiss her as she died peacefully. Being alive was worse for her than her death was on us. It was the best scenario for the worst day of our lives. For Lucian I can only pray that his death was instantaneous and that we will all do the suffering for him. But his family will feel like they have had their hearts ripped violently from their chests. The universe will cease to have any order or fairness. Any poetic meaning to this tragedy is a very long time to come.
Fort Greene holds it's children a bit more tightly now, hugs are lingering here. There are groups forming, discussions, vigils, marches in the works. I wander out to the corner several times a day, relighting candles, watering flowers, cleaning up the debris as do many others. I put out a pail of sidewalk chalk, the ultimate tool of expression for any Brooklyn kid. I hope people will continue to pour their love onto this space.