December __, 2014
In addition to running BrickCityLive.com, I run content for a technology company based on Los Angeles. In December of 2014, my marketing colleagues and I flew out to the headquarters for end-of-year meetings and some holiday corralling. Part of the holiday activities was a gift exchange hosted at one of my colleagues’ homes in Venice Beach.
My colleagues all brought “fun” gifts to the party, including a cider maker, which is what I went home with. But I as in a more serious mood. Although we tend to post more upbeat stories on BrickCityLive.com, the underside of life in our city is never far from my mind. So while my colleagues had brought feel-good gifts to the parties, I came toting a book: The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace.
The book is about a young man from East Orange who went to high school in Newark, then off to Yale, where he studied biochemistry. Despite his genius and potential, his life ended when he was shot to death in a Newark basement. In the book inscription I wrote the message to whoever would receive it: “A little more information about where I’m from.” I wanted to give the gift of another reality to someone on my team.
That someone wound up being our team’s honcho – our Chief Marketing Officer. She had an opportunity to exchange the gift for something else, but she didn’t. I was happy she got it. I knew she’d appreciate it, and I knew she would read it. As we wrapped up our LA meetings and headed into the holidays and New Year, life went on. I eventually forgot that I’d given her the book. I had not for seen the devastating symmetry and irony that would come to pass just one year later.
October 24, 2015
I woke up in the late afternoon in my downtown apartment with a start. On most days – even on the weekend – I wake up with work on my mind. What is there to be done? I stretched a little and then sauntered out into my living room. The first thing I noticed was a print perched on top of my screen. It was The Unusual Suspects photograph I’d purchased after writing a story about the making of the print. The photograph depicted black men from all walks of life in the city. In my mind, I always add one face to the photo.
Darel is my cousin. He arrived in the world only seven months before I did, and we grew up together in my grandmother’s house on Wainwright Street. As kids, we were inseparable. In my mind, 80 percent of my childhood memories had him in them. Like lots of siblings, we fought like cats and dogs when we were very young, but were co-conspirators in all sorts of households shenanigans. We forged an incredibly special bond as we grew into adolescence, our teenage years, and adulthood. Darel was one of the greatest people I’d ever met. He was so great that it didn’t take hindsight for me to appreciate his genius or specialness — I knew it then.
I’ll save the details about Darel’s biography for another time. Suffice it to say, he became fairly popular when he was featured on Brick City on the Sundance Channel, where he was referred to as “Creep”. By that point I’d known about his Crip affiliation for three years. It still confused me. The docuseries aired on the Sundance Channel in September 0f 2008. I applied to Columbia Journalism School that November. One of the driving reasons for me applying was to have the tools to figure out what happened to my cousin.
While Darel was living that life, our relationship carried on as usual. I’d see him at family holidays. We’d call and text each other. He’s stop by my house. When he launched his comedy career and had a radio show, I created his website and started his Facebook page. Because we were so close, I knew how to talk like him. I posted as him on his page.
But in the past year, we hadn’t seen each other as much. Our communications had slowed down to every two months. Our grandmother had passed away in 2013. We both had very special relationships with her. Her passing made it hard for me to come around to family outings, so I’d missed a number of them over the past year.
And now there I stood in my living room, staring at a photograph of black men in Newark, thinking about how much I missed my cousin. Yesterday was his birthday. I’d left a message on his Facebook page but hadn’t called. That wasn’t how we do things. I think I’ll give him a call and tell him I miss him.
I second-guessed myself. That would be kind of corny.
I doubled back. But you are kind of corny when it comes to loving your family, Andaiye.
I grabbed my cell phone. It rang one time before Darel picked up. I didn’t even say “hello”.
“I miss you!”
“I miss you too cousin.”
And we fell in from there. I told him it was ridiculous that we lived in the same small city and didn’t see each other a lot more often. He’d just taken the firefighter’s exam. I told him I’d take him for a drink to celebrate. We talked about how he planned to cut of his locs and get a new start. He told he about a healing surprise conversation he’d had with our grandfather the day before.
“Call me when you pass, cousin.”
“I will Day-Day.”
“I love you!”
“I love you, too.”
December 7, 2015
I was in the last couple weeks before my company went on hiatus for the holidays, scrambling to finish up yearly plans for both the company and for Brick City Live. This year, I’d give myself the gift of a full vacation by shutting down the site for the holidays.
Our Chief Marketing Officer had invited me for a one-on-one lunch to catch up and talk about what I’d accomplish in the New Year. We went to a nice Japanese restaurant in east midtown and started chatting. We spent the beginning of the conversation catching up on family and our personal lives. She brought up the book, which I’d given her nearly a year before, to the day.
I brought up Darel.
“That book was on my mind because he’s like the mirror image of my cousin,” I said. I explained that Darel had gone the wrong way when we were teenagers, but was taking steps to do more positive things, like starting his comedy career and taking the firefighter’s exam. I mentioned how hard it could be to move on from that life in a place like Newark. “I’m proud of what he’s trying to do,” I told her.
We spent the rest of the launch talking about business. I came home that evening and worked well into the night, energized by my conversation. I packed up my computer a little after midnight. As I settled under the covers, I had no idea that my cousin what terrible fate had already befallen my cousin.
December 8, 2015
At first I thought I’d woken up on my own.
My phone’s buzzing? I shuffled over to the edge of the bed and grabbed it. What was this 973 number?
My eyes adjusted to the stark contrast between the darkness of my room and brightness of my screen. It’s 2:55 a.m.?
They must have the wrong number. I rolled over and tried to settle into the sleep stance. The phone stopped buzzing.
And then it was buzzing again.
I grabbed my cell. “Hello?” I rasped into the phone. I turned up the sleepiness in my voice on purpose. Just so you know, whoever you are calling me at this ungodly hour, I’m still asleep.
A shaky, small voice addressed me on the other end. She identified herself. This person was also like a sister to Darel. What is going on? My whole body tensed. The dark room got darker. My boyfriend stirred.
“I never wanted to have to call you and tell you something like this.” Her voice caught, and suddenly I was sitting up. My stomach dropped. Please God no.
“Don’t tell me this,” I said. My boyfriend was sitting up now. “Please don’t tell me this,” I repeated. I practically coughed it out the second time. My breath was all but gone.
“They got Darel. He’s gone.”
I think this is when I gasped. “I’m so sorry Day-Day. His mom is here with us.”
I’m not sitting at the edge of the bed. “Oh shit. Oh shit. Dammit! This can’t be happening.”
“His mom is at my house.”
“Okay. Okay.” I hung up the phone.
OH shit Oh shit should have left Newark
Now I was on the floor. My boyfriend was at the edge of the bed, rubbing my back. “How do I tell my mom?”
My mother had always told me never to tell her news like this on the phone if I could help it. But it was now after 3 a.m., and she knew I didn’t have a car. What would she think if I showed up to her house in the middle of the night, red eyed? That delivery might be even worse.
“I think you should call her,” my boyfriend said.
I welcomed someone else making a decision for me in this moment. My hand was shaking. Darel was like a son to her. Her favorite nephew. Your only nephew! Darel would say when she’d tell him that.
My mom picked up the phone.
I didn’t want to alarm her, and overcompensated by sounding way too cheery. I realized at this point that I was about to usher her into the worst day in her life. There was no good way to say this.
“No!!!” She screamed.
“Mom I’m so sorry.” This I kept repeating, over and over again. I’m so sorry. We were both crying into the phone. I told her I’d take an Uber to her. I could tell she was not doing well.
My boyrfiend and I started getting dressed when she called me back a minute later. She was gasping for air. “Just stay on the phone with me,” she said.
We hopped into the Uber. My boyfriend held my hand as we navigated over westward, up Orange Street and onto my mother’s block. I rang the doorbell and she answered. “I just can’t believe this,” she said. We walk in and I sit on the couch. We had to get over to his friends’ house to pick up my aunt.
We pull up to the house in Hillside, and I see his friends and girlfriend standing out side. I’m afraid to see my aunt. When I walked into the living room, I looked right past her. She looks so small. I sat next to her on the couch and held her.
“I spoke to the detectives,” said his close friend, who had been at the scene on Dewey Street where Darel was shot. “She has to be there at 9 a.m. to identify him.”
My chest clenched. This was only just beginning.
My mom got into the driver’s seat; I saw and held onto my aunt in the back. We drove in a circle, trying to figure out what to do next. I glanced at my phone. The Facebook icon was staring me back in the face.
He broke the tie. I thought of the macabre countdown happening in the media. When will the murder rate in 2015 match the one last year? I realized that Darel was the one.
Then I remembered Brick City. He’s a public figure, I thought. For at least a day, this was going to be news beyond Newark. This was going to go viral.
My mind rewound back a half hour, to the cluster of friends gathered outside his friend’s house. Someone had to have posted a tribute already. This was about to go viral. My aunt’s was now crying into my lap. I held my breath and fired up Facebook. Darel’s picture was the first thing I saw. “I can’t believe this. Rest in peace forever, Creep.”
It was starting. We had to tell as many people in our family as possible before daybreak. We diverted to my cousin Nikki’s house. I took two phone calls to wake her up and tell her to open the door. My mother, my aunt, and I crossed the street as she pulled open her door, glasses on, bonnet, and pajamas on. My mother and I sat on either side of her in the livingroom, illuminated only by a string of Christmas lights. We could hear cartoons blaring from her bedroom. She knew something was wrong.
“Somebody killed Darel,” my mother said.
I held onto her, and we all went through it again.
We sat there in the dark, plotting out who we would tell and how before social media or the news got to them first. His oldest daughter. His father. His grandparents.
I saw the first notification on RLS Media: “Newark South Ward Shooting Fatally Injures Man”
I felt like I was outside of myself. I was reminded, for every headline such as this, perhaps a thousand people had experienced the same nightmare that I had.