Darryl Starks' little sister needs $20. She needs it for a new tattoo, one that will commemorate his death, which is imminent. Starks himself lies intubated and comatose in a narrow hospital bed, in ICU room #19, at the Alameda County Medical Center, a.k.a Highland Hospital. He lies under bright lights. His head is tilted back a little on the white pillow, skewed just slightly to his left, toward where his oxygen tube runs. His eyelids are not completely closed.
It’s Saturday night. Starks was shot on Friday evening, at 78th Avenue and Bancroft, while driving home from the store. He was hit once in the shoulder and once in the back of the head. Now an ICU nurse sits distractedly at a computer station just outside a picture window with a view onto Starks' unmoving body. Occasionally the nurse checks his iPhone.
A social worker seeking Darryl’s organs hovers in the glare of the dingy hospital hallway. The family is onboard for the harvesting of the organs of their twenty-six-year-old son. But the process will not move swiftly. Darryl’s violated body is evidence, and so the coroner must give its permission to pull the plug, as it were. And this being a Saturday, the coroner’s office is closed. So nothing will happen until Monday, at the earliest.
A Seventh Day Adventist pastor stands over the body. I see a number of pastors hovering around the ICU protecting their claims, their black, tattered bibles in hand. (Later the Adventist clergyman will join hands with Darryl’s mom, out in the waiting room, and say a lucid and plaintive prayer for strength and peace. She will bow her head and close her eyes tightly and hope for the best, even as five minutes earlier she’d been saying she did not want an Adventist service for her son.)
In twos and threes, Darryl’s sisters, his cousins, his aunt and mother, and his father, estranged from his mother, stand at his bedside, variously staring down at him, talking at him, or chatting amongst themselves. They are remarkably poised. His mother, Ella Thompson, tells me she’s been crying for two days, but of course, Darryl was shot only 24 hours ago. Probably it just feels like two days.
Today is precisely one week before Christmas, 2010. Three days ago, Starks had visited his little sister out in Antioch, where earlier this year she and her mother had moved. He’d asked her what she wanted for Christmas, and once it had been decided that a car was out of the question, she’d suggested she’d settle for some jeans and shoes, which her big brother had said sounded more reasonable. Now Danesha just wants that $20.
The Conveyor Belt of Grief
Danesha is 16, petite, with braces and beautiful, deep brown eyes. Tonight, like the rest of her family, with the exception of her older sister’s little boy, maybe 3-years-old, who is bored and hungry, she is calm. She’s also put-out with an ICU nurse who declined to indulge her talk of miracles. In the room, staring at the lines moving across the monitor, she’d asked the nurse what they would look like if Darryl was to take a turn for the better. The nurse, in impatient tones, according to Danesha, answered only that her brother would not be taking any good turns anymore, that he was going to die.
“I looked at her,” she says, with disbelief in her voice, “and then I looked at him...” Here she trails off. But she doesn’t cry.
I can see both sides of the incident. Probably, the ICU nurse felt it was best to nudge any lagging family members onto the conveyor belt of this reality and its unavoidable grief. You have to get on the belt somewhere if you are ever going to get off. It was something like an act of mercy. Probably this is inconceivable to a sixteen-year-old. And maybe the nurse could have been gentler while insisting on her realistic assessment. Maybe Danesha misinterpreted her tone. It’s a confusing time. A painful time. All the alien sights at the ICU, all the exhaustion and emotion, they tax the senses and the mind.
Occasionally Danesha doesn’t quite know what to do. Who would? When her mother leaves the waiting room to speak to a reporter from a local paper, she asks me if she has to go with them. I say No, but later, when I see a picture of her mother and older sister accompanying the article, I feel guilty. I know she would have liked to be part of the public aspect of this event.
She’s already told me how, when she herself was shot, almost a year ago, on the day after Christmas, while at a gathering of kids at Rainbow Park, near the violent East Oakland intersection of Seminary and East 14th, through her left thigh -- in one side and out the other, so now she has two scars -- they said her name on the TV news. She seems proud of that, and then briefly disappointed when I tell her that the TV will probably not be coming tonight. Her brother’s death is too demographically unspectacular for the TV. 1) He is 26, smack in the heart of the 17-to-34 year-old age range of African American men most likely to die by homicide. 2) He is a black man who lives in Oakland, and while most black men in Oakland will never get shot or killed, they do make up an absurd portion of this year’s 90-plus homicides, and nationally, their most recently calculated murder rate was 40.6/100,000, compared to 6.2 for white men. 3) Darryl was shot on a street in a neighborhood where violence is common. I count within a few blocks of Bancroft at least six homicides this year, including that of 13-year-old Jimon Clark, back in August. (See part 1 & part 2 of the September post called "13.") 4) Finally, Darryl had a gun in his car; people with guns are more likely to get killed than people without them. Four and a half times more likely, according to some studies.
And so, although this event, the violent death of a young man, might hold cosmic heft, to the TV news, it holds little of interest.
Ella Thompson tells me that the fact that her son had a gun in the car with him seemed to be all the police were interested in when they’d questioned her at the hospital last night. A very thin woman anyway, tonight she looks to be disappearing into nothing. She’s only 44, but in the general frankness of the hospital lights she’s the color of a dry, fallen leaf. Her hair is brushed back, her face is narrow, her speech is slow, but there is life in her eyes and they meet my gaze directly as we talk.
“I’m mad at the investigators,” she says, “because they did not come out here to get evidence, his clothes, nothing; they came out here to find out why he had a gun in his car. The gun was a registered gun, though. And they didn’t ask anything else. They didn’t want the bloody clothes. They don’t even know where the clothes at. I’m the only one knows where the clothes at.”
That might be why she was interested in talking to me tonight, and to a reporter from the Oakland Tribune. Surely she knows how these stories get played here. Ella was born and raised in East Oakland. She grew up on 65th Avenue. She has one brother who is incarcerated and an uncle who was killed by the gun. Darryl grew up in East Oakland, too. He went to Castlemount High until his first daughter was born nine years ago. He has two daughters. The other is a two-year-old by a different woman. Ella herself, in addition to Darryl and her two teenage daughters, has a five-year old girl.
It is all so easy, so easy to sum up in a paragraph, the typical life of an East Oaklander. Violence, out-of-wedlock children born to children, dropping out, more children by shifting combinations of parents.
Maybe that is why she wanted to have some say in this story, to lend it its proper complexity. And so Marilyn Harris had called me earlier in the day to ask me to come to the hospital tonight.
“Darryl Starks,” she’d said, “he’s about to die, and his mother wants his story told.” Miss Marilyn is here now. Ten years ago she lost her only son, Khadafy Washington, to the gun, and since then, through the Khadafy Washington Foundation for Non-Violence, she has spent her days and nights guiding families of victims in Oakland through the poisonous aftermath. Mostly Miss Marilyn comes into the picture immediately after someone dies, often at the crime scene, but wherever the family is, she goes. More and more she seems to be joining the often long, trying hospital vigils of victims clinging to life. No doubt word has gotten out that she is a confident, competent, knowledgeable, watchful presence. Tonight she has one eye on the family of Darryl Starks and one eye on her iPhone, as her own daughter is in a hospital a few miles from here, with kidney problems. I know she is anxious to get to her daughter, but she shows nothing but patience with the family, with their scattered emotions and uncertainty. She keeps nearby, but always just beyond the inner circle, where she knows things have to be allowed to develop in their own way: there is no stopping the conveyor belt that will take this family on their tour of emptiness and loss.
Sitting next to each other, on yellow, plastic seats in a room around the corner and down the hall from where Darryl lies, I ask Ella Thompson to describe what she is feeling. "Last night," she says, slowly, "I spent a horrible night crying in despair. It’s just a shock, and knowing that your son was not out there selling drugs or hanging out on corners or nothing like that, and to know that he was a good son doing what he was supposed to do, it just don’t make no sense.
“I’m angry right now,” she says, “and the fact is, this was supposed to be a mistaken identity. They was looking for a green Infinity, and my son drove a black Infinity." When I ask her how she knows this, she says, "A couple of people done checked around for me and then they done found this out.”
The Best Year
The initial headline of the Tribune article, which hits the Internet just a few hours later, announces that Darryl’s organs will go to the saving of lives. The story mentions that, after dropping out of high school at the birth of his first daughter nine years ago, he had recently been taking classes at Merritt College and preparing to transfer to a four-year school, that he had been working with his father at a hotel in San Francisco.
“This year was supposed to be the best year,” says Ella. “I done got myself back together. Moved to Antioch, although it was the ghetto part of Antioch. I didn’t know that before I moved there.”
She says she’s fallen asleep three times at Darryl’s bedside, holding Darryl’s hand. At home again early this morning, she says she slept briefly, only to be awakened by a call of condolence, a call back into reality. I think a lot about waking up after a sleep, in the early days of life after death. How it dawns on you anew every time, sometimes in an instant, sometimes after a moment of confusion and later you wish you had clung to that confusion longer. I remember going home the morning my father died, to a house full of relatives, and a mother in shock, how that afternoon, before we went to plan the funeral, I sat by my mother in an upstairs room. She was lying on a sofa sleeping for probably the first time in two days. I was in my dad’s blue recliner chair, vaguely scanning the day’s newspaper, but never turning the page, desperate not to wake her just yet, knowing that when she woke up on this day she’d lost her husband, she would have to re-live the first moments of this incomprehensible loss. But also knowing I would have to do this cruel thing sooner or later. That would have been eighteen years ago now. Today my father lies under the snow, and Mom is well.
“Now it’s all bad”
It will probably be two weeks before Darryl Starks is buried. While he was shot in mid-December, he was not destined to be our last 2010 homicide, and the coroner has been busy. I saw Darryl in the ICU on Saturday night and by Sunday two more men were dead. Then, all day on Monday a helicopter wove its way through the skies above my neighborhood in East Oakland. Half a mile from my house, after a short car chase, the OPD shot to death a suspected murderer. They say he was on his way to kill members of a rival gang. They say he pointed a gun at them, that they found an assault rifle inside his car. They say that two of his three associates escaped on foot. Thus the helicopter vigilance. Four days later, on the day before Christmas, the body of a woman was found floating in the estuary out near the airport. Police have indicated that she was a homicide victim, stabbed to death. She was from Fresno, but her family says she visited Oakland often. When I characterized the story as “strange,” Marilyn said, “No, it’s not so strange. A lot of girls come up to Oakland from places like Fresno to work as prostitutes.” Of course, that might not be the case with this victim. Or with the woman whose naked body was found on Christmas day, at the entry to a bike path in the Oakland hills. Her name has not yet been released, or perhaps even determined. By my count, she is our 95th victim this year. Each year since 2007 the number has dropped by a few souls. A week from now 2010 will end and we will have had about ten fewer killings than in 2009, even as the dark urge ends the year with a bloody flourish.
Ella Thompson summed things up as our conversation in the ICU waiting room closed and she prepared to return to Darryl’s bedside. She was talking about her family, but she could have been speaking for 95 other families hit by violent death in Oakland in 2010:
“This was a good year, until the end of the year, now it’s all bad."
Oakland, with its lush hills, its great food, its radical political history, its integrated public spaces, will never be defined for me solely by its troubles. But our troubles live on.
Late December 2010