68 Blocks: Life, death, hope: Part 4 of 5

Pushing back against the tide

Mayhem has a kind of momentum; it can be exhausting to resist. In Bowdoin-Geneva, an anticrime effort flops. And Big Nate explodes. But the peace festival rocks, and a son in jail has started to pray.

This project was reported and written by Akilah Johnson, Meghan E. Irons, Maria Cramer, Jenna Russell, and Andrew Ryan

Theresa Johnson’S workday is over, and her sister is at Marshall Elementary to pick her up. Theresa jumps in the driver’s seat of her sister’s white Camry — she always drives when they’re together.

They swing by Dunkin’ Donuts on the way home, and Theresa gets her usual, a hot medium ­hazelnut, despite the July heat.

Then they head toward home. As they drive up a side street lined with colorful Victorian homes, a police cruiser whizzes past. Then another, and another, and another.


“Where are they going?” she remembers thinking.

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She speeds up, trying to keep pace. They turn toward her street. She tries to turn, too, but the light turns red. She’s stuck waiting for 15 seconds. Panicking.

What if they’re headed to her house? What if something happened to Easy? What if the police have him in handcuffs? What if someone shot him, stabbed him, beat him up?

What if?

Sean and Easy have called her while hiding in alleyways, chased by enemies. Both have come home bloody. And too many young men are being shot in the streets — four just this month in Bowdoin-Geneva, two just blocks from her childhood home.


The light turns green. And she speeds off, pulling in front of her gray house a minute later.

Nothing. No police cars.

Still, Theresa worries, walking to her second-floor apartment, thinking: “I gotta call and check on Easy.” There’s just too much crime for her not to call at the sound of sirens, or the sight of flashing lights.

But when she opens the door, Easy is there and she exhales.

It’s this same fear-and-relief cycle that causes Theresa to check the living room first thing every morning to make sure Easy and his lean 6-foot frame are stretched on the couch. He usually is.


But lately, with her daughter, Jalanae, away at summer camp, her anxiety, usually more of a murmur, has spilled over.

“People tell me I worry too much,” she says. “But you never know. I’ve just heard too many stories of mothers thinking everything’s OK.”

The apartment, located a neighborhood away, is a bare box: stark walls, inexpensive couch, clinically clean, like the waiting room of a dentist’s office. A neatly dressed man standing uncertainly on the new carpet has tears in his eyes. It’s 1 p.m., and he’s sober for now.

Susan Young, the neighborhood worker from the Bowdoin Street Health Center, is bustling around him, cheerful and solicitous, poking her head in the plain bedroom, the bathroom with a toothbrush laid out, still in its wrapper. The apartment is now Tony’s to live in. She’d helped find this place for him, to get him off the street.

“Tony, what are you going to do with all this?” she exclaims. Then, seeing the tears, she says gently, “God is good.”

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff
Susan Young helped Tony find an apartment, getting him off the street and, she hopes, on the path to sobriety.

Tony is one of a dozen and a half alcoholics who spend most of their time drinking nips and pints at a patch of sidewalk on Olney Street they call “the office.” They’ve been there for years. Susan has made it a mission to find places for them to live and, ultimately, get them off alcohol.

Like all her missions in the neighborhood, she thinks of it as an act of love. She grew up on the northern edge of Bowdoin-Geneva, on Stanley Street near Columbia Road, the youngest of 12 children. She went to church at St. Peter — she still crosses herself when she passes by — and recalls the lessons of her parents: “Be good to people and get your blessings.”

Before coming here, she was a social worker and later worked at an alternative high school in Roxbury. Starting work at the health center three years ago, she began gathering in a drawer programs from the funerals of people in the neighborhood killed by violence. She discovered she felt something powerful inside when she sat with the families, crushed with grief, and was able to provide comfort.

Visiting the alcoholics at “the office” quickly became part of her routine. She knew them by name. She counseled and chastised, and they tried to please her. In the dead of winter last year, she discovered Tony living with a man called Slim in an abandoned house with a hand-lettered sign out front, “Nothing 2 Steal.”

Tony’s face was covered with growths and he had a maggot-infested wound on his foot. She got both of them into a homeless shelter and spent the next six months making sure they got to doctor appointments, obtaining copies of their birth certificates, applying for ID cards and health insurance.

Finding homes for them had required a lot of paperwork and time on the phone. It will all amount to little if she can’t keep them off booze. She speaks to Tony sternly.

“I don’t want people from Bowdoin Street up here,” she says. “When I see you on the street, I want you clean. No alcohol.”

“I know,” he says, and swears he’ll enroll in a program for his drinking.

“As quick as you got this, you can lose it.”

“I won’t let that happen,” he says.

In an hour, Tony is back at the office with the other drinkers.

One night a few days later, Tony’s friend, Slim, was waiting for her on the sidewalk outside her office. She’d found him housing in May, a room in a boarding house that comes with conditions — that he take part in an antialcohol program and that he not drink.

Tonight, he smells heavily of liquor. “I want out of the program,” he says.

It’s been a long day already. She is tired and at 6 a.m. must report to her second job in the paint department at Lowe’s. But this is how it goes. She girds for the hours she may need to spend with him to straighten out his situation and replies, “You can’t.”

‘Nate, when you gonna let me paint the hallway, man?” Phil is drunk and sweating in the fierce heat on Nate Davis’s porch on Norton Street.

Big Nate shoots him a look and keeps talking to the other guys who are there. The afternoon sun is a blaze of white glare. People are on porches all around, and there is a listless buzz on the block.

Nate Davis looks with pride at his certificate after his May graduation from a 12-week online computer program at United South End Settlements House.

On Nate’s porch there is some relief in the shade from the big tree in the side yard and in the cold beer. People come and go, most of them friends from the old days, a few of them heavy drinkers. It’s a crowd that started coming around more often after Nate’s son Nicholas died. Nate has taken comfort in their presence, especially with his other son, Little Nate, now in prison.

Today, there’s Bill, a fast talker who spins tall tales about the corporations he runs and the fortunes he’s won in Vegas, another named Ricky, and a short man who sits quietly, with empty, bloodshot eyes. Phil is just belligerent. He’s been drinking hard and needling Nate all afternoon to give him a job for a few dollars. Nate doesn’t have money to hand out jobs anymore. He doesn’t have a job himself. It chafes at him.

Since the trial in his son’s murder, he can’t seem to find his footing. He misses his boys; the collect calls from Little Nate come sporadically now. He spends most days hunting online for jobs and sending out resumes. He quit Home Depot in May to be at the trial. He calls a job center that promised to help, but his case worker keeps putting him off. The certificate he got for graduating a center’s computer training course seems, for the moment, worthless. Bill collectors are calling. The cable was shut off. Recently, he searched his house and yard for scrap metal to cash in. It had given him, for a few hours, a sense of purpose.

Phil takes another swig of beer and leans in again, glassy-eyed and insistent. “Nate, when you gonna let me paint it?

Nate turns on Phil and snaps. “Get up off my porch.”

“Nate, man,” Phil says, not moving, “when are you going to get some money?”

Nate moves toward him suddenly, and Phil scampers away. But then he comes back, cackling and taunting, and follows Nate off the porch when Nate stomps away to his truck.

Phil just keeps at it. He follows ­Nate to his truck, then snatches a beer from him and runs up the street, laughing. All at once, Nate is furious as he starts up the truck. He careens around the block, spots Phil, and jumps out to chase him. Nate throws a beer bottle and a plastic water jug, but the little man is too fast.

Susan happens to come around the corner and, seeing the commotion, runs toward them, shouts for them to stop. Nate drives off again, and Susan runs after Phil, finally cornering him. “Come on, you all are brothers,” she tells him. Then Nate returns in the truck, looking calmer, and gets out.

“Hey, Phil,” Nate says, sheepishly. “Come here. I ain’t gonna touch you.”

As they come together, Nate draws back his fist and crashes it into Phil’s face. Susan screams. A set of dentures falls from Phil’s mouth and clatters on the pavement.

After a short stunned pause, Phil picks up his dentures and runs away, shouting back over his shoulder. “I still got love for you, man.”

Nate says later that the man deserved what he got, but he seems astonished by his fury and the old troubled self it unleashed.

ON THE FRONT PORCH of a neatly kept white house on Hamilton Street, Susan and Father Richard “Doc” Conway and a crime watch coordinator from the police department talk to a man who has opened the door only enough to see out. Hamilton, a long street that pierces deep into the neighborhood, has had its share of gunfire over the years. Two weeks ago, two residents of the street were shot and killed in the South End. Police say the shooting wasn’t gang-related, but Susan and Doc think it might help galvanize residents to band together against crime. They’ve been knocking on doors all afternoon, delivering their pitch.

They ask the man about crime on the street and talk about efforts to do something about it. They try to sound friendly, nonthreatening. Doc has his collar on. Susan wears her health center badge. The man keeps his hand on the doorknob, ready to shut the door, but he keeps listening. Dogs bark inside. Two children cling to his legs.

They extract a flier from a stack, asking if he would come to a meeting tomorrow night. He takes the flier. “I don’t see what good it will do,” the crime watch coordinator recalls him saying. “Nothing’s going to change.”

He heaves the door shut, and they move up the block and try again at another house. This is part of the city’s effort this summer, and officials enlisted Susan and Doc and others who work closely with residents to organize groups that would take a more active role tamping down neighborhood crime. If nothing else, residents would get to know one another. But also, according to the city’s theory, they would begin to feel empowered to act together against gangs.

Susan knows it’s not quite that simple. She’s knocked on doors all over the neighborhood. People have been living with gunfire for decades. Efforts to stop it come and go. Meetings come and go. Few seem to see the point of another one.

Some don’t even notice the violence, or say they don’t. Already today, Susan’s group has come across a middle-aged man who shook his head absently — Violence? Not a big issue — and an elderly resident who said there really aren’t any problems around here. Three weeks earlier, a man was shot in the leg on Hamilton Street just before 11 p.m. on a Sunday night.

Susan and Doc and the woman from the police department keep at it, on porch after porch until they’ve covered the street. And despite resistance, enough people have seemed enthusiastic to make them feel upbeat.

The next day at 5:30 p.m., Susan comes back to Hamilton, to a house where the owner agreed to host the meeting. He is a tall, slender man who has lived on the street for 37 years. They get stacks of green and white plastic chairs and arrange them on the blacktop in front of the house.

Susan sits to wait, wrapping herself in a blanket she’d brought from the car. It’s overcast and cool. After a time, officials trickle in — someone from the mayor’s office, the crime watch organizer, a block captain. But no other residents come.

“I told everybody,” the host says. “I can’t make them come.”

Susan wonders if it would have been different if they had food, and the others agree that food helps to draw a crowd. She thinks about how busy people are, and if she should have held the meeting later, to give them time to come home from work.

An uncertain rain begins to spatter irregularly on the blacktop.

“It gets sickening,” Susan says. “I get tired of it. I get tired of all the work.”

Jhana Senxian is making progress in the community garden on Coleman Street. The plots of vegetables she planted with her neighbors are tidy and full. The problem is in her pine-shaded backyard, where rows of leftover plants are languishing.

The seedlings were donated last month by local farms — the first step in her quest to make the garden a neighborhood jewel. She has already crammed thousands into the garden, a modest space tucked away behind a tall black fence. Hundreds more, still piled in her backyard, won’t fit.

Jhana Senxian (right) has come to count on Kaori Tate, 10, in her work in the community garden on Coleman Street in Bowdoin-Geneva. The girl is thriving in her role.

It is time to give away the excess. So Jhana calls her neighbors to the garden for a meeting. She tells them she has herbs and vegetables for them to grow, and plastic bins to plant them in, right in their front yards.

The street is soon abuzz, and a dozen people descend to claim pots of basil, parsley, chard, and collards. Under cloudy midday skies, neighbors are outside planting, painting, trimming hedges. One shows off his bag of organic compost. Jhana feels things knitting together.

They are with her, these people she barely knew in the spring, working to address nagging problems on the street. There is less trash strewn about these days. They have asked the city to bait the sewers, to banish the rats.

The vegetables they are planting in their yards don’t add up to the ambitious street farm she once envisioned. But this sharing of the bounty may be close enough.

Jhana turns to her assistant, who is toting armfuls of seedlings to neighbors’ front yards. Kaori Tate is only 10, but she craves responsibility.

Jhana had not known, back in the spring, which of her neighbors might join her in the garden. Most of them have jobs, or kids, or both. In summers past, she might have called on Ella Pierce, a neighbor who had been devoted to the garden. But Ella, already frail, has taken a bad fall. She sits in a hospital across the city, pining to return to the place she loves most in the world.

But help for Jhana has come from unexpected places.

Kaori finished fifth grade in the spring. Headed off to middle school in September, she is nonchalant about the big transition ahead. She trains with a track team in Cambridge, her father driving her to practice several nights a week. On top of the bureau in her pink-painted bedroom, she is running out of room for her shiny trophies.

She is a kid, often playful and silly, but the sense of duty Jhana sees in her goes deep. Her parents have sacrificed so she can run: buying her track shoes, traveling to meets. “That’s why I have to be hard on myself,” says Kaori. “I don’t like to disappoint them.”

In the garden, Kaori is learning from Jhana. She buries her head in the basil, breathing in the pungent smell. She tears wrinkled leaves off the mint plants and chews them. She is 10, and she can be pushy, urging a reluctant friend to try one.

“Why are you scared?” she demands. “Don’t you chew mint gum?”

Jhana has come to count on Kaori. And the girl is thriving in her role. As her neighbors claim plants from Jhana’s backyard, Kaori zips here and there, making deliveries.

The garden has come into fullness now, in late July. The peaches, still green, weigh down the branches in the trees. The grapes in the arbor, once pea-sized, are fattening. The corn is waist-high. Black and orange butterflies circle lazily.

Jhana works with Donald Aaron on her goal of spreading greenery beyond the garden’s fence.

Jhana grabs a pen and starts a list: Who is cooking for the August garden party?

Kaori’s father promises to make his famous fried chicken. A woman who used to be homeless — shyly attending her first street meeting — signs on to make ribs. Jhana smiles, thrilled to see her join in. Jhana has spent weeks coaxing her to come, assuring her she would be welcome. It’s the kind of little triumph that keeps Jhana going.

She has also recruited Floyd, and that helps hold things together.

Floyd lives next door to the garden, but he shuttles constantly up and down the sidewalk on both sides of Coleman Street. He doesn’t just walk, he says with a laugh, he sashays — mediating disputes, dispensing advice to the lovelorn.

Floyd relishes his role on the street, but some days his bell rings constantly. “This one wants a cup of sugar; that one wants information,” he complains. Sometimes he just wants an hour of peace, to wash his floors and apply his papaya facial.

This summer, Floyd says, he’s lonely. His longtime boyfriend is in jail.

It only made sense for Jhana to get him a clipboard and put him to work. Chatty and charming, he is a natural: knocking on doors, passing out fliers, talking to people. He is in charge of food for the garden party.

Jhana calls over the woman who used to be homeless. The garden is crowded, but Jhana makes room. Here, she says: a plot for you, where you can grow plants of your own.

GRILLS ARE GOING, sound equipment is being put together. Tal is in a white doo-rag, hauling coolers full of food and barking orders to friends who are helping him set up. It is the day of Tal’s “Norton Street Peace Cookout,” the block party that Doc and Susan hope will give him the confidence to pursue another life. It’s also an event that makes cops nervous. Tal is a known target of violence; the event seems, literally, an invitation for trouble. Police have positioned a blue barricade at the mouth of the street, and two officers are guarding it. An officer who arrested Tal on two different occasions stands sentry at a driveway where all the activity is. Back then, the officer and Tal hated each other. After one arrest, Tal told the officer he’d be waiting for him one night when the officer least expected it. But that was a long time ago. “He’s a totally different person now,” the officer says. “I tell him that all the time.”

There were burgers and dancing and face-painting at a block party on Norton Street this summer that was organized by Tal, a magnet for trouble.

In an attempt to avoid trouble at today’s party, Tal took precautions. The fliers he handed out and taped to lampposts along the street pointedly did not mention his name. He agreed with police that officers should be there and that the street be blocked to car traffic, just in case rivals had an idea of driving by.

He went door to door, inviting neighbors to the cookout and asking them to bring food. He reassured those scared of what a party on Norton Street might bring.

He needed some of the same reassurance. The party would be held in the same driveway where his cousin was killed the year before on July 4.

Some of his friends, considered gang members by the police, are there. Tal already has told them there is to be no drinking.

It takes a while for people to come out, but by late afternoon, a small crowd gathered in groups. Doc, who brought the grill, wanders among them, and Susan helps set up food. Tal shakes hands, hugs women, bends down to talk to children and shows them the face-painting table. He urges tentative neighbors to dig into the burgers.

“I want you all to eat!” he shouts, smiling. “Don’t be shy!”

Big Nate and Trina come sit on their porch, watching. In a minute, Nate gets up. Too many people are just standing around. He walks off the porch, blurts out, “Let’s get this party started,” and walks slowly to a microphone, where he breaks into a broad smile.

“What we want to do is have a little dance contest,” he booms. Soon just about everyone is dancing and carrying on. Children writhe wildly. Nate sways and Doc says he seems like a different man. Trina smiles.

Big Nate helps get things moving at Tal’s party, organizing a contest that had everyone up and dancing.

Tal waves his arms in the air, singing along to the Black Eyed Peas. He rushes over to Doc, who stands with his arms folded, and grabs the thin man by the shoulders.

“Dance! Dance! Dance!” he yells, as Doc laughs, arms still folded.

A police sergeant who has known Tal since he was 12 comes by.

“He pulled it off,” he says.

A short time later, Nate comes back to the microphone. “I want to thank everyone for coming out today,” he says. “I want everyone to enjoy themselves, but most of all I’d like everyone to take just a moment and think about loved ones that are not here right now—”

Tal waves his arms and quiets the crowd. There isn’t a sound for 10 seconds, and then Nate speaks again.

“Now I just want everybody to look around, look at the kids and stuff. And just remember that we still have young ones out and still have to raise them. We are neighbors. We down here, we been watching our kids grow. As I look around, I see a lot of kids that I’ve seen and watched grow—”

He is still for a moment, looks out at the people watching him. Words can’t carry what he wants to say — about a lost son, about what it means to be in the company of people having a good time on a Saturday afternoon, about the possibility they might help one another.

“I don’t know — most of all, I just want you all to have a good time. Everybody just be free, you know? Don’t be shy about nothing.”

A few days later, Doc and Susan get word that a job has come through for Tal. It’s a city job, on a cleaning crew in the parks department. It pays $530 a week. It’s only an eight-week gig, but Tal is ecstatic.

On his first day, he wakes up at 5 a.m. and walks the three miles to Franklin Park. He is a half-hour early.

It’s early August. Theresa’s house has returned to full capacity with Jalanae home from summer camp, and Theresa’s granddaughter Trinity spending nights again. And today, Theresa is in full Nonnie mode, caring for the sick 3-year-old, Sean’s daughter.

Theresa is running errands with her mother’s gold SUV, and Trinity, usually a ball of hair beads in motion, sits in the back seat, eyes droopy from Benadryl.

She’s on her way to a Wendy’s several miles away to grab her granddaughter an afternoon snack and, eventually, to purchase a money order for Sean, who needs it so he can buy things at the jail commissary. A cup of noodles, a pack of soup, chili, tuna, Kool-Aid, all cost a dollar a pop.

The cellphone rings.

It’s Tricia, Trinity's mother, who just got off work and is in front of Theresa’s house. So Theresa makes a detour to pick her up. Tricia jumps in, sidling up to her daughter in the back seat.

Theresa Johnson outside the South Bay House of Correction, where she took money for her son, Sean.

“Hey, baby!” Tricia says, bending over to kiss her daughter’s forehead.

“She destroyed my room,” Theresa says. The 3-year-old poured a box of Epsom salt on the floor. She found Easy’s condoms stashed in a Life Savers box and asked for one, thinking it was candy.

“She loves her uncle, though,” Tricia says. “When no one can handle her, Easy can.”

“Yeah. Well, I told him not to come back to my house,” Theresa says. “He had an appointment with his probation officer, and he said he wasn’t going. He was going to call. I said, ‘No, dude. Here’s the deal: You’re off probation on the 24th. I don’t want you coming back into my house until the 24th.’ ”

Easy was placed on probation about 1½ years ago for assault and battery on a police officer. He was accused of stealing a woman’s wallet in 2009, and when police approached, his arrest report said, Easy “became very irate.”

They pick up food from the drive-through and come home. Theresa settles at the glass kitchen table, Tricia in the living room on the phone, and Trinity runs up and down the hallway.

Theresa is midsentence when the back door opens and Easy takes a step halfway through. Theresa jumps up, heaves at the door with her shoulder to keep him out.

“Did you go see your probation officer?” Theresa barks, pushing her weight against the door.

“Yeah, mom,” he says through the crack.

Defiant yet dependent, that’s Easy, who will ask for a ride to get a haircut but not to see his probation officer. He will do just about anything the women in his family ask, except when it concerns him — getting a job, going back to school, leaving the street life.

“You can’t come in!” Theresa says.

“Mom, I went to see my PO.”

She lets him in, though no one really ever thought she wouldn’t. Putting him out goes against everything her children know to be true about her.

Easy asks his mother for “a square,” then returns to the back porch to smoke the cigarette. Theresa steps out to join him. The neighbor’s son is detailing his parents’ black Toyota Avalon, making sure the rims sparkle and the windows are streak-free, inside and out.

“I don’t even know how to change a tire,” Easy says in between drags of the menthol-flavored tobacco, a theater mask tattoo visible on his right forearm. “I just don’t like to do anything. I’m lazy. Right, ma?”

“Yup. You know I’m a co-sign on that,” Theresa says.

At 6:20 p.m., the time has come to go to bring the money for Sean to the prison.

“Let’s make this move before this money does not make it to your son, and I get cussed out,” Tricia says.

Sean calls from jail every day. He calls Theresa. He calls Tricia.

He was put in jail for violating his probation but remains there because of an open case in Quincy.

Last year on Christmas Eve morning, Sean and two friends were riding on the Walter Hannon Parkway when police say one of them started shooting out of the car window. Directly in front of them was an off-duty Quincy police officer. He stopped when he heard the shots.

Sean is torn. He doesn’t know whether to take the charge or fight the case. This is what he does know: He hates jail, but on the streets snitching is punishable by death. He misses his family. He misses his freedom.

If only his intuition had won, if only he had gone home.

If only.

“I wish I never got involved.”

Sean was a boy when he started repping his ’hood, the Franklin Field housing complex. Now, he’s a man trying to find his way.

He started going to church in jail. At first, it was just to get out of his cell and kick it with “other dudes that’s from my ’hood.”

Then, things changed. He got what the pastor was saying. He connected. “Sometimes, I be in church and when the dude be talking I’m like, I swear, I feel like he’s talking to me.”

He started praying. Every night, he prayed.

Workers are setting up tables and inflating balloons in the Rev. James K. Allen Park, a triangle of grass and trees criss-crossed with walkways.

The city is putting on another of its resource fairs. They’ve been having them all summer — tables with balloons and banners and advice on things like jobs and health. Today, it’s personal finance.

A few people are filling plates at a table with aluminum trays of ribs and chicken.

But there is a problem. A park bench near the fair is soaked with blood.

The night before, a man in his 20s was shot in the chest and legs and was found there slumped over.

Workers at the fair debate what to do. Finally, someone notifies City Hall, and soon a fire truck arrives from the station down the road and pulls up on the sidewalk.

Firefighters hop out and attach a hose. They blast the bench for a few minutes and then, with a wave to the officials in charge, pack up and head back to the station.

Sometimes, it just feels like too much. Sometimes, it is too much. Theresa needs to relax.

Her cousin has dragged her out of the house every weekend this August. And she needs the break.

The fast percussion beats of soca and reggae carry her away. She’s able to leave her problems at the door, step on the dance floor, and jump and wave until the lights come on.

The abandoned house where Tony squatted before getting the apartment.

So she is disappointed the night before Boston’s West Indian Carnival when she steps inside Prince Hall auditorium for a precarnival party and only 10 people are there. It’s a stark contrast to the phalanx of feathers, sequins, and beads that will pulse through the streets of Roxbury and Dorchester tomorrow.

Most people, she and her cousin surmise, are at the Machel Montano concert, which is where Theresa would prefer to be, but not at $50 a ticket. So here they are, sitting at what looks like a poorly attended junior high prom. Round tables line an empty dance floor. A photographer sits in the corner with a backdrop of faux green rolling hills and a black Rolls-Royce.

The dance floor is still empty just after midnight, and the photographer starts packing up.

“We have to go to an after-party,” Theresa screams to her cousin, sipping pineapple juice and Grand Marnier as her black and silver sequin shirt sparkles in the low light.

If they stay out long enough, they’ll go to j’ouvert — pre-parade carnival festivities that begin at dawn — then to the parade, where her cousin will transform into a siren, her costume made mostly of blue and red rhinestones and feathers.

Just then, Chris Brown’s “Strip” comes on. “Take it off. I wanna love you.”

Theresa jumps up and moves.

JHANA SENXIAN KNEELS beneath the locust trees on Coleman Street. Since the spring, when she decided to revive the garden on the street, she has dreamed of planting flowers along these sidewalks.

It is the middle of August and finally, she is ready.

Two young men, her employees, kneel beside her, hollowing out space in the dirt around the trees. They lift floppy ferns and hostas and settle them gently into the earth. Moving slowly down the street from tree to tree, they plant eggplant, Russian sage, exotic-looking green and pink caladium.

A hopeful note on the Bowdoin Street sidewalk.

The planting is not exactly as Jhana imagined it. There wasn’t time to grow flowers in the garden, so they use some vegetables and store-bought flowers. Next spring they will plant seeds, filling a swath of new flower beds in the garden. Maybe then the sidewalk planting will expand into the neighborhood.

They kneel in front of another house. A woman is outside, talking on her phone; she pauses to compliment Jhana on her progress.

“We’re getting there,” Jhana says in measured tones.

It is a phrase she uses often these days, a way of acknowledging how far they have to go.

The headlights on Big Nate’s truck are a shock to the darkness of the cemetery. He slows along the ragged pavement of a winding lane and parks. Switching off the engine and the lights, darkness closes around. He has brought a friend, and they slip out of the truck.

Nate comes here sometimes when he can’t sleep and wakes to pace. He comes and sits by his son’s grave. Tonight he’s here because Little Nate called from prison the night before. His son had told him that he had heard a Homes Ave. gang member talking triumphantly about Nicholas’s murder and bragging about what they would do to his grave — desecrate it, piss on it. Little Nate fought the gang member and ended up in solitary once again.

Big Nate, seized with fury and panic about what might happen to the grave, racked his mind about what to do. He went to the store and bought solar garden lights. It was the only protection he could think of.

He now walks the rows of headstones, the friend following behind, and finds Nicholas’s near an iron fence. He takes one of the solar lights his friend holds out for him and presses the stake into the ground on one side of the gravestone. He moves to the other side and tries with the second light, but the ground is too hard. He kneels to use his weight and stays on one knee after it is firmly in place, as if in prayer. The lights cast a small blurred radius of brightness.

Finally, he stands and puts his hand softly on the gravestone and whispers something that sounds like reassurance.

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