Offering a sigh where a scream would be more appropriate..
In late November 2015, I picked up an Uber passenger.
As was par for the shift, the first sentiment she expressed upon entering the car was gratitude for the warmth because it was so cold outside — startlingly so. At some point, Tuesday’s temperature dropped the way a person’s mood can, subsequently affecting the moods of everyone within the radius of that change.
I felt a certain dread regarding what the weather forebode because I’m not particularly enthused about this year’s holiday season. Other passengers felt a sort of dismay as well, likely because walking down Bostonian sidewalks last winter felt like walking through snow-sculpted war trenches as deep as the average man is tall.
But instead, this passenger was nervous.
She was going to a wake. But she didn’t like going to wakes or, more appropriately, she didn’t believe in them. “I don’t want to look at him like that to have to say goodbye to him,” she said, noting that her friends and family didn’t share her perspective.
I suddenly remembered not going to a wake when I was a teenager because I didn’t want to see the person that way. I got scolded for refusing to go. But that was an experience that taught me how true it is that a person’s grief is as intimate as the heartbeat. I told the passenger as much and then we just talked for the five-minute trip.
She shared a funny road rage story that pulled a laugh out of me with both hands.
Then she asked me if I had heard about a particular shooting that happened last week. I had, and I remembered that shooting because it happened in a neighborhood that I don’t usually think of as a hotspot for violence. “Was he a friend of yours?” I asked.
“Not the kind of friend I’d see every day. Just drinking buddies. I still have some of his voicemails,” she said.
There is a strange phenomenon surrounding inner city violence that I personally refer to as “dramacide.” It’s just a moment when someone tries to add a dramatic touch to an already traumatic incident like a violent death. I think there are varied reasons for this, ranging from insecurity and immaturity to just trying to cope with the shock. That’s also likely why one neighborhood I grew up in, Dorchester, was nicknamed “Deathchester.” And Mattapan was called “Murderpan.”
The antithesis of dramacide, however, is just completely downplaying the effect of a tragedy — the offering of a sigh where a scream would be more appropriate. And I kind of felt like that’s what this passenger was doing. I suppose that’s because she seemed just a little bit happier in that split second when she spoke about the voicemails that she still had. It was the kind of moment that reminded me how when I was young, inner city pain only felt worthy of noting if it reminded me of something I’d seen in a movie.
Ironically, one of the most haunting inner city deaths for me happened to someone I only knew for the length of a football game or two. I don’t remember how old I was. But I remember that he was 15, and I felt cool for getting to hang out with someone as old and mature as a 15-year-old. He asked me my name and, most importantly, didn’t pick on me which happened a lot when I was young. Instead, we just watched football on television — and I felt like we were just two guys. It was a great Saturday afternoon with a complete stranger — a boy who was the son of one of my adult cousin’s friends.
Sunday morning, my father came into my room and said, “That kid you were hanging out with yesterday died last night. He was shot on his porch — died in his father’s arms.”
The news from my father never felt real until the next day when I saw a strange woman crying in the newspaper, and my adult cousin holding her.
Still, that’s not a story I really talk about because I wasn’t there when he died. I didn’t know him personally. I actually don’t have a word for what our brief time together was. All I know is that I’m more than twice his age now and he still matters to me, even today when I can’t remember his name and never asked my cousin because I was honestly afraid to.
When we reached the funeral home, I told the passenger that she could just sit and take a few breaths. She did, and decided she would put on makeup. And then she left.
The psychedelic side of writing stories is that I don’t always write them to explain what happened. Sometimes, I write them to find out what happened. To find a slower pace in a fast world, and take a meticulous look at who I am in a moment. I sat in the car for a bit, after the passenger had left, wondering what I was thinking and feeling — but failing to discover it.
But, now that I’ve sat down and written myself up to this moment, I realize that I was afraid — for some reason I was truly scared that that five-minute Uber ride, and that passenger, were going to stick with me for the rest of my life … the same way that 15-year-old dead boy does.
Photo Credit: Kyle May/Flickr