*with featured artwork: “Words Take Wing” by Ann Calandro
That morning the bitterness of the chill, another single-digit day, surprised us as it did every morning that first Brooklyn winter. We trudged, faces down, toes frozen, to the subway. We rode the B to Atlantic, walked the whole underground tunnel through the station, past the stairs to the uptown 2/3 on the right, downtown on the left, past the 4/5, and headed to the farthest exit by the D/N/R trains. This nexus of subway lines was originally above ground until history and progress shoved them beneath the streets, deciding who could emerge where and how. We chose to stay underground as long as we could. We braved the masses with their heavy rank of sweat and stress before facing the freezing wind on the final leg of our daily trek to my daughter’s kindergarten. The overheated air, thick with the breath of everyone’s breakfast, grunge and dried urine, odors of oil and rubber, warmed our chapped faces, raised out of fleece scarves just enough to talk as we battled the rush hour hordes that gathered every morning and every afternoon, and really every hour in between.
The station flooded with harried people. Crowds swelled, dissipated, and swelled again. Colorful puffy jackets, fur-lined parkas, wool coats with wooden toggles, army-green anoraks, floor-length quilted down. A child’s red mitten flattened under so many boots. Anyone who tried to stand still got pushed forward. We held gloved hands and through layers of wool, skin, and flesh I squeezed the bones in my daughter’s fingers, still so small but not as tiny as they once were. At the bottom of the triple-wide, double-high flight of stairs the commuter current changed direction and suddenly we were swimming upstream into the waves of people.
We heard the shouts before we saw anything: hot rage not far off, as if all of Brooklyn might come apart at once, might send hipsters and night shift nurses, high school students, and men with leather briefcases swirling. Instead, a pulling in, drawn by curiosity, concern, or duty, by our hearts’ quick imagining of tragedy or terror. People slowed and made passage impossible.
Under the stripes of fluorescent lights that lined the concrete ceiling, three teenagers, three mothers’ sons, leaned against the grimy wall on the landing halfway up the staircase. Four cops stood around them in a semi-circle, hands on holsters, at least one gun drawn. At least I think one gun was drawn. I see it in my memory, in the tension, in the clarity that we were all too close to where no one wants to be, but now I’m not so sure. The police and the boys forced an eddy as the crowd shifted around them, then stopped and turned and stayed, pushed in closer.
“Step back,” the police officers yelled at the encroaching observers. “STEP BACK,” they repeated. The kids stood rigid, arms pressed to their sides, palms open. The scene froze people in place, stole time, and pulled our hearts up through our throats so they beat behind our eyes, anything you believed about the guilt or innocence of police and the guilt or innocence of teenagers now muddled, everything you meant to shield your daughter from now right here, the scene so complicated or so simplified, or both or neither, by each teenager and each of the cops’ Black and Brown faces and the crowd of Black, Brown and white faces, holding up a thousand phones, recording everyone’s every move. No one could step away. We had to be there, to witness what was about to happen or not happen. The scene we’d watched on our screens, or avoided, now live, splitting our morning commute in two.
Only three months had passed since Tamir Rice was killed holding a toy gun, and barely six since Michael Brown was shot with his hands up. Two months since Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, Brooklyn police officers, were killed in their squad car barely two miles from where we all stood. In two years, Jordan Edwards would be shot and killed in a car with his brothers. Five years before George Floyd’s murder electrified the world. The names, the lives lost, piled up and weighed us down.
The cops’ eyes, tense and tired, fixed on the young men and scanned the crowd.
“What’d they do?” someone yelled.
“We’re watching you!” another voice called. I could not see the faces behind the voices, could not tell if they were young or old, people of color or not.
“Step back! Keep moving,” the largest cop shouted. He waved his arms to sweep us away, to sweep it all away.
I stood still and heard fear stories writing themselves. I could see the accusations, the care, the sorrow, the guilt, forming in each heart. I wondered what moments over a morning and a life led each of us to that spot. I wondered about the specific events, the early morning decisions, phone calls, coffee—it was not yet 8 a.m.—but more than that what series of circumstances led each kid and each cop here, to this staircase, this station.
Suddenly I couldn’t tell if we, the expanding mass of observers, were making the boys safer or less safe, if our presence and heat protected today’s boys but doomed tomorrow’s. Or if the blanket of bystanders was exactly what was needed, a buffer of bodies, a cushion of eyes and lives, surrounding and protecting each other, perpetual witnesses. The kids—I could not tell if they were thirteen or nineteen, my words ricochet between kids, teenagers, boys, young men, children—were not visibly emboldened by the crowd. The cops were not visibly cowed. And not the other way around either. Everyone locked in time and space with no clear path forward or out.
Bodies pushed against me and my daughter until all at once I unfroze, my body now a molten flow. The child whose hand I held, my daughter whose brown skin matched the boys and the police and not my whiteness: I lifted her, not to see the scene, but the opposite, to move us away from it as fast as I could. I wanted to carry her out into a world where this wasn’t happening, didn’t happen, never happened. I lifted her to me and held tight. For a moment, she saw it all, the boys who looked like her, surrounded by police who looked like them, surrounded by all of Brooklyn.
“Are they going to shoot those boys?” she whispered, her lips touched my ear. “Are they the good kind of police or the bad ones?”
I pushed up the steps, carrying her and her oversized pink backpack through the turnstile, up another flight out of the station into the ghost-white sky and icy hard sidewalks. Frozen air slapped against overheated skin, and burned cold into my lungs. I kept us moving down the block as fast as I could but her words broke me open, held me in place, even as I plowed ahead. I didn’t answer until we were far enough down Pacific Street that we would not hear the gunshots I hoped would not come, as if I knew that distance, as if I knew anything of gunshots or sound or safety.
She asked again, “Mama, are those boys going to be dead like the others?”
For a few seconds, I did not answer. What could I say?
“I hope not, baby.”
That was not a day when children died in a subway station, but still, there is always more we don’t know than we do. There is always more we must do to undo what’s been done. On so many other days Black and Brown people did die, do die. Plus, all the other traumas and pain that are not death. My still small girl and I followed the same route for weeks, and months, walking by that wall, the rows and rows of stained subway tile, the twenty-nine steps that connect the subway lines, the spot where the cops stood the young men in a short line of three. I cradled a bubble of relief when the other mornings were not that morning, when the police huddled together by themselves and teenage boys bounced, settled, and scattered in their own clusters, undisturbed and momentarily free, and we talked about spelling words and recess.
(after Moving Water, Tucson by Peggy Shumaker)