Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Liberty #66: 76th & Long

The car was found at the corner of 76th and Long Streets. There was nothing out of the ordinary, it was parked legally and the owner once lived at the brownstone it was parked in front of. The out-of-state license plate caused the call to the police after the car hadn’t moved in two days. The intersection of 76th and Long hadn’t changed in the three years that Edwin Pierce had left. The brick church remained the same. The brownstone he had grown up in remained the same, although all of the windows had been boarded up and the neighboring brownstone looked like it had caught on fire. Adjacent to Long Street was Division Avenue, a massive bridge that completely bypassed the neighborhood. The only way into the neighborhood was either from the south on Winding Street or the north from Gordon. The Avenue was built in 1983 and left the neighborhood destitute and desolate in a matter of years. Those who were able to get out were considered lucky and told never to come back.

Edwin Pierce was one of those lucky ones. Smart, almost gifted, his entire life, he was able to get out and far away. What was he doing back in the neighborhood was the question the police should’ve been asking but they weren’t.

“Anything illegal in the car?” one of the officers asked.

“Nope. Nothing,” another one said. “Not even a speeding ticket in the glovebox.”

“He left his phone and his keys in here,” the other officer said. “Let’s see if we can find out who he called last.” The phone was an older flip phone and wasn’t locked. Edwin’s recents easily gave away who he had been talking to.

The most recent was Deray Ross but the cops were more interested in the third name on the list, Devontae Simms. Devontae was a noted drug dealer and gang member. The police had had him in their sights for years but had yet to catch him on anything. Devontae and Edwin went to school together from Kindergarten until their sophomore year when Devontae dropped out. Devontae lived in what should have been an abandoned apartment building. The building had bricks falling out, broken and missing windows, and there were holes in the floor and ceilings. About two dozen other people also lived in the building including three families.

“They should demolish this place,” the first officer said.

“Where would the residents go?” the other asked.

“That’s not my problem.” They got to Devontae’s apartment and pounded on the door. “Simms, open up!”

Devontae slowly opened the door and looked at the officers. “Is it time for my monthly apartment raid already?” he asked.

“That’s next week,” the other officer smiled. “We’re looking for someone. Edwin Pierce. Have you seen him?”


“We found his car at 76th and Long. His stuff was still in it. You were one of the last people he talked to on his phone.

“We did talk on the phone. Briefly. He also came by and we talked for a bit. That was about mid-morning two days ago. I don’t know where he went next. He mentioned wanting to see his ex, Jaiden, and Deray.”

“They are also listed in his phone,” the officer said the other. “What did you two talk about?”

“Old times,” Devontae sneered. “We talked about college and the neighborhood.”

“College? You aren’t in college,” the officer chuckled and looked at the other one.

“Nah, but Eddy does. He’s smart. Had the sense to do good and get the hell out.”

“What was he doing back here then?”

“As far as I know, he just wanted to say hello to some old friends.”

“Did you sell him anything?”

“Eddy doesn’t do that. Like I say, Eddy has sense.”

“Mm-hmm,” the officer grunted. “We’ll be in touch. Don’t leave, we may want to talk to you later.”

“You know where I’m at,” Devontae said.

“I don’t understand why you are asking me where he is,” Deray Ross said, calmly, as he and the police officers sat in his living room. “He came by, we talked about the neighborhood. He seemed upset or tired. Then he left.”

“Anything specific about the neighborhood?”

“He wanted to help change it. Eddy has always been under the impression that everyone here was as smart as him. If we just applied ourselves or took chances, we could be a force for change and good.”

“You don’t believe that?”

“Nah. We need more than just smarts here. The Avenue needs to come down. Our schools need to be treated better. Police need to realize that they are not in charge.”

The officers looked at Deray. Deray didn’t take his eyes off of them. He had seen too many of his friends and neighbors gunned down--many were unarmed and just walking down the street. Only one, that he could think of, actually had a gun and committed a crime. The gun had not been used, the crime was robbing a convenience store. For that someone should have their body riddled with seventeen bullets?

“Was he high or drunk or anything? Could you tell?”

“Eddy doesn’t do that.”

“Yeah, we know. He’s smart and has sense,” the officer rolled his eyes. “Don’t leave town or anything. We may want to talk with you later.”

“I won’t,” Deray sighed and stood to walk the officers out of his apartment.

Jaiden Benfer worked at a convenience store, not the one that was robbed by Deray’s now-deceased friend, but another one. It had also been robbed but the criminal hadn’t been caught yet. The two police officers came into the store and walked up to the counter. “Jaiden Benfer?”

“Who wants to know?”

“Drop the attitude, sweetheart. We just want to talk to you about Edwin Pierce.”

“Can we talk outside? Our customers don’t like it when the employees talk to the cops,” Jaiden untied her apron and laid it under the counter. “And don’t call me ‘sweetheart.’”

Outside, in the alley, Jaiden lit up a cigarette. Her and the police officers stood on the other side of a trash bin, unable to be seen from the street. “So, Edwin Pierce? Did you see him the other day?”

“Yeah, I did. I wasn’t expecting him. He called and asked if he could come over. I haven’t seen him since he left for college so it was nice to see him. We dated in high school.”

“Did you two talk? What did you talk about?”

“We talked about our relationship. He talked about college a lot. I wanted to hear about it. It’s nice to live vicariously through a good life than what I have.”

“How long was he over?”

“An hour or so.”

“What did you do when he left?”

“I put my kids to bed and went to my second job.”

“What’s your second job?”

“What I do in the privacy of my own house is none of your business,” Jaiden said. “Anymore questions?”

“Do you where Edwin went after he left your place?”

“No, I don’t. I wish I could help,” Jaiden threw her cigarette on the ground and walked back into the store from the back.

“Let’s get back to the precinct,” the other officer said.

Edwin’s parents weren’t around anymore. His father, disappeared after learning that the cute McDonald’s cashier he chatted up after ordering a number 4, large size, with a Dr. Pepper, was suddenly pregnant. He ran off to New Jersey or Los Angeles or, maybe, Detroit, either way, Edwin’s mother was fine with him not being around.

Edwin’s mother worked hard her entire life for Edwin. She always made sure that he had a roof over his head. They lived with her mother in the brownstone at 76th and Long for the first two years of his life when his grandmother unexpectedly passed away. Edwin’s mother had to work even harder after that. There were nights that she went hungry but Edwin was always fed. Edwin’s mother passed away shortly before his graduation of an undetected heart condition. It’s hard to detect heart conditions when you can’t afford to go to the doctor. Edwin finished out his last couple of weeks and was allowed to move into the dorms of his college early. His childhood home had been empty ever since.

“Maybe he had a hotel room or something,” the other officer said. “We could call around to the hotels in the area and ask.”

“If you want to do that much extra work, go for it. I’m thinking Simms had something to do with this. Him or the girlfriend. Poor bastard has no family in the area anymore. No family anywhere from what I can tell.”

“He used to live at the house right there at the corner. Wouldn’t it be funny if he was just in there the whole time?” the other officer chuckled.

“No. It wouldn’t. Let’s go check it out,” the officer pushed himself out of the chair.

The brownstone was in a decent part of the neighborhood, probably because it was so close to the Avenue. It was across the street from a simple but beautiful red brick church. No one in Edwin’s family was particularly religious but the church was a symbol of hope for Edwin, all churches and schools were, a symbol of hope surrounded by hopelessness.

Whoever had boarded up the old Pierce home did a good job but the boards were clearly an afterthought since when you went inside there were holes knocked in the walls, doors were ripped off their hinges, the carpet was torn away from the floor.

The officers went through the house, looking in every room and closet, even in cabinets and where the furnace and water heater went--both had been hauled away. “There’s no one here,” the officer said. “There have been people here,” he scuffed around some ashes that were on the floor “but no one here now.”

Most of the memories Edwin had in that house were happy. His mom barely dated when he was growing up so there wasn’t a rotation of guys going in and out like at a few of his friends houses. She liked to have fun but she rarely brought guys home and rarely did any guy she seriously saw became a permanent fixture in their lives.

When Edwin went to school, his went mom went to work. When he went to bed, she went to her second job. This continued from Kindergarten to third grade until she got a better paying job and could quit her second job. After that, she had more time. They would go walking together to the park or farther to the school. They would play catch, or hide and seek, or tag. Until middle school when Edwin would rather stay out with his friends. They still had dinner together and talked about their day. That was a tradition they kept up until the day she died.

After her death, Edwin stayed home. He packed what he wanted and sold everything else. What he didn’t want or couldn’t sell went in the trash. When he got permission to move into the dorms early, he left the brownstone and never came back.

“He didn’t leave much to go on,” the other officer said, locking the door behind him.

“Probably doesn’t want to be found. Until we have evidence of something suspicious or a body, I say we lean on the drug dealer. If anything, maybe he’ll slip up and we can get another dealer off the street.

The other officer followed behind and paused to look back at the brownstone.

There was a knock on Jaiden’s door. “Shit. My first appointment is early. Shawniah, take your brother and go to bed. Remember to lock the door and turn on your music.” The four-year-old girl took the small baby into the bedroom. Jaiden heard the locks on the bedroom door then went to answer the front door. “Deray? What are you doing here?”

“I want to talk about Edwin.”

“Do you have any news?”

He shook his head. “I’m assuming you haven’t.”

“He came to see me a couple days ago but after he left, that was it.”

“What did you talk about?”

“Life. He was all bragging about college,” she smiled. “I listened because it was nice to hear something like that from someone who lived here.”

“So you just got caught up? That’s all we did, too.”

“I wanted to do more,” she smiled bigger and looked down at her lap. “But he said that he had to get going. Nothing I offered could get him to stay.”

“I didn’t do any of that but I wish you would’ve succeeded. Maybe Eddy would still be here.”

Every morning, when Edwin would walk to school, he would wait for Deray, who lived on 70th Street, closer to the next street east, Irving, next to the green street sign marking the intersection of 76th and Long. He always waited for people by that sign. He could see to the north, south, and east. A support pillar of the Avenue, which stood 20 feet above the sign, blocked his view to the west. A tall chain link fence bolted to the bridge kept people from going underneath the Avenue.

Edwin and Deray would meet at the sign and head off to school or the park or a convenience store or wherever and talk. Deray was also smart, not like Edwin, but still smart. He could’ve gotten out of the neighborhood too if his father hadn’t gotten sick. Deray had to work which hurt his grades. Even though he never showed it, he was bitter about it. But Deray loved living and working in the neighborhood and showing the next generation that they could be something more than what the neighborhood offered.

Edwin and Jaiden started dating early in their sophomore year of high school. They had known of each other since second grade and began dating after going on a group thing after an early school dance. Jaiden had decided that she wanted to date a nice guy for once and Edwin wanted a girlfriend. Within a few short months, their relationship blossomed into a love that everyone thought would last beyond high school. When Edwin got his acceptance letter to college, Jaiden had a dream that he would take her away with him. Instead, they agreed to break up. Jaiden began seeing other guys, almost immediately getting pregnant with Shawniah.

“I never should’ve broke up with him,” Jaiden wiped a tear from her eye. “When I saw him at my door, I wanted him to take my hand and take me away with him. If he said so, I wouldn’t have even taken my kids.”

“Eddy would never say something like that,” Deray sighed.

“I know. I would give anything to see him at my door again.” As if on cue, there was a knock on the door. “That is probably my first appointment.”

“I’ll get going then,” Deray stood up. “It was nice seeing you, Jaiden. Let me know if you hear anything.”

“Same to you,” she said.

Deray left the apartment, passing by a guy waiting at the door. Jaiden began with some pleasantries and then invited the guy into her apartment. Deray went downstairs, out the front door and he began walking home.

The sign at 76th and Long was installed in 1983 after the Avenue was finished. All street signs were replaced with this style between 1981 and 1985. The sign that Edwin waited with for most of his life marked that important intersection of his life for decades. It was one of the last signs of that style still in the neighborhood. Most had been replaced either due to construction, vandalism, or theft. About a month after Edwin’s disappearance, a city crew was at the corner. Two workers were installing a new street sign on the light pole at the corner next to the church while two other workers were removing the old sign from the ground.