Monday, January 2, 2017

Dust

I grew up as the son of a Sunday-School teacher. Religious iconography, prayers, hymns and verses still fill many of my earliest memories like old relics heaped on dusty shelves at the furthest back of my mind. Barring illness, or an emergency, we attended church every Sunday. This dedication naturally extended to the weekly bible studies, special events, and of course the church's summer programs. Nearly every evening my mother read the bible to us for 20 minutes, and we said our prayers before bed.

The barest mentions of angels always drew my attention because I found the subject fascinating. The baptist church of my childhood did not espouse the romanticized versions of these otherworldly messengers that depicted them as adorable cupids, or just beautiful humans with magnificent wings. No, these were old testament tales that described angels as powerful beings that were wholly alien and unsettling in appearance.

As a child I was told there were angels of death. I often tried to picture in my mind how such beings would look so I could draw them. I came to envision these entities as lightless, winged silhouettes that trailed shadows in their wake. To me the angels of death were like the hunting hawks that circled the skies high above the Oakland Hills. I imagined these grim angels silently gathered above places where death was frequent. With so many dying regularly in East Oakland I doubtlessly knew they were circling high above our own city.

Many young men and women never left the old neighborhoods. Their individual stories abruptly ended sometime during the 90s when they were barely half the age I am now at the time of writing these words. It is easy to cluck one's tongue in disapproval, and offer only callous words of condemnation.

“There but for the grace of God, go I”, can be readily, and aptly applied to the tragic fates of these young people. However, one does not require faith in any Gods to understand the empathic meaning of this expression. This “grace” can be interpreted as the good fortunes of belonging to a healthy family, living in a crime-free community, having compassionate mentors as guides, or having access to the benefits and privileges inherited from a life in the higher socioeconomic brackets. People born into poor communities often start life with few of these graces.

Shalim was one of those young men. He was a friend of my oldest brothers, and a friendly familiar face around the neighborhood. At 23, he had a wife and two children that he supported with money earned through a minimum wage job, and supplemented by drug sells.

My friends, and I, came to know Shalim because we frequently saw him on our way home from school while in the 4th, and 5th grade. He normally asked what we learned in class that day, then would patiently listen and ask questions. At other times he occasionally wandered into this local liquor store many of us kids stopped at to play the Street Fighter II arcade. We all thought it was amusing how he never failed to select the fighter Dhaslim. No matter how many quarters this cost Shalim he was adamant about this choice. When we finally asked why he never tried one of the other characters, he smiled and explained, “He's not a brotha. But he is as close to one as I can get in this game.”

It was like that for a long time. I saw him all over the neighborhood, or sometimes at my house when he dropped by to hangout with one of my brothers.


The events of the night leading up to the tragedy still feels murky. One moment we were all sitting in the house watching television. The next we were ducked low as shots and panicked yells erupted from up the street. Then there was that dreaded and tense silence that always followed after nearby gunshots.

Outside a woman was yelling out for someone to call the paramedics. As my mother, siblings, and I finally risked cautiously looking out the windows, and back door, we could see many of our neighbors beginning to do the same.

“Shalim is hit! Shalim is hit!” A fearful man's voice began yelling. This awful news drew a few people from their homes, and they began hurrying up the street. I think everyone who dared to draw closer to the scene wanted to help him. Yet, to this day I am not sure what any of us thought we could do once we arrived. I remember hoping he was struck somewhere that would deliver only the consequences of short term pain. However, upon arriving we soon discovered the situation was much more grim.

Shalim was lying there on his back, starring up at the night sky with glossy eyes, while trembling and struggling to breathe. More then one round had struck from behind and become lodged somewhere within his chest. Some of his friends, including my oldest brother, were all knelled at his side encouraging him to hang-on, and trying to offer some semblance of comfort.

Multiple sirens heralded the arrival of an ambulance, and numerous police cruisers. Their flashing lights temporarily held the night at bay around us. The paramedics cleared everyone away and began immediately trying to save Shalim's life. They were urgently calling out all sorts of medical jargon to one another. The police began demanding answers from various people in the crowd. No one had any.

It felt at once horrifying, and absurd that we all could only gather there around Shalim to watch him drowning to death in his own blood. I felt partially disconnected from it all. Maybe it was a defense mechanism. Or perhaps the intensity of the scene was just too much to fully process as a kid.

Somehow, despite the constant efforts of the paramedics, I came to the sad understanding there was nothing they could do. I sometimes flinched when those horrible, uncontrolled convulsions wracked Shalim body as if he was struggling against the inevitable, forcing the paramedics to try and hold him still so the desperate attempts to stabilize him could continue. Perhaps mercifully, it was not long before Shalim simply fell still. Someone mournfully screamed his name as if it could call him back to the world he was slipping away from. He died there that night.

What were the responding police officers doing as Shalim bled to death? They were discussing some sort of upcoming barbecue while laughing, and joking with one another. No one present at that tragedy was asking for them to feign signs of grief. None of us expected or perhaps even wanted their condolences, or pity. The issue was there was absolutely no professional decorum in the presence of what was clearly a murder.

Regardless of whatever personal opinions or prejudices they may have harbored for this young man, or despite if years of frequently responding to these sorts of tragedies left each of them exceedingly jaded. None of the above, or any number of other factors, would have made it any less cruel for these officers stand barely a few yards from Shalim's loved ones, all the while merrily chatting like they were attending a box social. Sometimes seasoned law enforcement, or medical personal forget-- or perhaps ignore-- that what is just another day on the job for them, is a personalized apocalypse for victims, or their loved ones.


At some point a large argument broke out as some of those within the crowd began calling the officers out with outrage and disgust. By then my family, and I were returning home.

Days later, I was the only one in my family who did not attend Shalim's funeral. I refused because I wanted to remember him as he was opposed to what was left of him in that coffin. Later that night I watched the cold, starry sky from my bedroom window. I was wondering which one of those shadowy angels swooped in and carried our friend's soul away.