Authors: Triss Stein
“Chris!” I called it up the stairs. “I'm home.”
“Heard you come in.” Her voice floated down. “What's for dinner?”
“Clean out all the leftovers in the refrigerator. You can have first choice. Five minutes.”
“Again?” She groaned.
I covered the table with an array of plastic and paper takeout containers. It was a far cry from Ruby's elegant tea service, but I added real plates.
Tonight my child would have to live with it.
She made a face but then started opening everything. “Ooh, is that pad Thai? I didn't know we had some of that. And peanut chicken? Dibbies on these. I'm good.”
Two containers down. I claimed a slice of lasagna and the last of a supermarket roast chicken. Two more down.
“And not out of containers. Real plates, at least.”
“Oh, Mom, are you having a guilt attack? Honest, I don't mind this kind of meal when there's so much deliciousness.”
“You were the one complaining.”
“Silly Mom. Why do you listen to me?” She made a funny face. “You know I am being a mouthy teen.”
She had a point.
“Anyway, you have to listen about this. Not more important than dinner, but a little more interesting than this one. So as soon as we are doneâ¦” She tapped her laptop with a significant look in her eyes.
“You found something?”
“Oh, yeah.” Her smile was both triumphant and mocking. “But of course we don't have gadgets at dinner.”
“You're being a smart aleck again. Give it up. We'll look together.”
“But peanut sauce might get on my keyboardâ¦you always sayâ¦” She was whining for fun, not for real, but she wisely stopped when she saw my expression.
“Okay, so what I didâ¦no, you don't want to know how, right? Only results?” I nodded. “So here, I ran across this. Here's video of this Tyler, walking around the neighborhood.”
The video was jumpy, and none too clear, but it was definitely him.
“People were following him around. See? Those kids are getting autographs. Is he kind of famous?”
“Evidently. At least in the neighborhood.”
Tyler looked up, right into the camera, probably someone's phone, and the video stopped abruptly.
Chris changed the screen. “This is where it came from. See? The guy who filmed it is talking about how cool it is to see Tyler back in the projects, walking the home streets and stuff.”
The street slang was dense, but that did seem to be the point.
“And here is someone else, with some snaps.”
Tyler talking to old people in front of a building, genially shaking hands all around. Tyler with a little posse of small children, all smiles and fist bumps. Tyler not smiling at all as he talks to a group of boys his own age. And here was Tyler holding someone in a shoulder lock and definitely not smiling. He was shaking the boy, holding him against a wall, and then it stopped.
“There's another one, though. See?”
Someone else was there too, filming from further away, showing the first recorderâor so I assumedâbeing approached by a much larger guy, and walking away. Fast. That explained the abrupt end of the previous video. And this one showed Tyler saying something to the guy he had pinned to the wall with one arm. With the other, Tyler held his chin, forcing his head up to Tyler's eyes. Then Tyler let him go and they walked away in opposite directions, Tyler ambling, not even flustered, and the other one moving away as fast as he could.
“This is incredible, Chris. How on earth?”
“You like it? I found one more.”
A few clicks and there was a page I had seen before, Tyler's brother Jackie
Probably his brother. He had written:
“He wrote that? And put it up in public? Can he be that stupid?”
“The answer to that would be âyes.' He sounds dumb, overall, but, I don't know, it's hard not to just let it flow when you're typing in random thoughts. So look here.” A strategic distraction.
She pulled something up that was from Tyler himself. Leaving out the slang, it said his relationship with Savanna was not a secret now, and he was asking for help about what happened to her. If someone stepped up, he'd owe him big. And if he learned one of his crew knew and didn't tell him, there would be a big price, worse than they could even think about in their worst nightmare. And it ended with,
Yo, Jackie, you little worm. What you know? You gon give it up? Ain't you heard? You can run but you can't hide. Mom can't help this time.
“How did you find all this? It's amazing.”
“Thanks but it wasn't even that hard, just too 21st century for you, right?”
“Okay. Sort of true though I can do without the sarcasm.”
“Hold on. There's more. I mean info, not sarcasm.”
She scrolled down through comments, most of them offering support and respect to “my man” Tyler and his honey. Then someone else popped up.
Bad spelling, bad typing, but the meaning was right out of a teen songbook of my youth, or anyone's. StarrGurl was back.
Why you not DUMPIN that skinny skank and get back wit me? You know we ment to be together. You go change all those status back to IN RELATIONSHIP with me. Starr!
And the other commenters piled on, stomping on her for harassing their man. And she posted back:
“Y'all haters? Can go f**k self. Free country last I heard. I can say whatev.”
On one of the sourcesâby this time, I had lost trackâgraphics popped up next to the entries, a personal photo or an animal or a cartoon. Avatars, that's what they were called. And there was Starr Gurl herself looking seriously into the camera. She wore a low cut top, a frayed turquoise leather jacket and huge, gold, hollow-square earrings. Not a flattering style for her, but they sure did make a statement.
Oh, wait. With Chris' help I went back to the little videos, and there she was in one, in the background, not close to Tyler but watching. Watching with tears running down her face.
Finally Tyler came on and wrote:
We were done before I met Savanna. It wasn't her, it was you and me not being good together. We're over. And you are blocked from every way to reach me.
So done with you.
This was not sad teen songs; this was a grand opera, playing out in real time on a phone screen.
“If I wanted to send this out? I'm not even sure what to do with it, but if I did?”
“Already sent you the links. So what do you think?”
I stood up and hugged her. “Terrific. Brilliant. Thank you. Thank you twice. I see a great career ahead of you as a detective.”
“A cop? Don't think so. You know I'm more like an artsy person. And I'll take the brilliant, but most any kid could have done this. Is it time to talk about those new boots?”
“I'll see what I can do. Honestly, you've earned them.” She stood and surveyed the messy table. “Cool part about leftovers is the takeout containers go right into the garbage. Fast cleanup.”
“You're sprung. Cleanup is on me.”
As soon as I was done, I sent Sergeant Asher a note, telling her what Chris had found and asking what I should do with it. And even though it was already eight o'clock, I had a response almost instantly. “Yes. Send all to me immediately and other addresses I cc'd. There's always a chance she found something new.”
I sat down with the newspaper and a cup of cocoa and it became one of those moments when the world throws us a little gift. It was delivered by PBS.
I glanced idly at the television section of the paper. Tonight I wanted to turn everything off, and TV is pretty good for that. And there it was, on public television, a new episode of a series about the making of modern New York. Tonight it would be about the mid-century intellectual life, “The Making of Ideas.”
Really, I was hoping for reruns of
, escape not education, but the name Maurice Cohen popped out at me. Maurice Cohen, the writer and former Brownsville resident. My guide to old Brownsville. And not least, Ruby's brother.
In a fast minute, my cocoa and I were settled in front of the television. Because it was 20th century history, these people had been filmed in interviews over the years and bits of those moments were included. Gestures, voices, how they saw themselves, all in their very own words. A historian's dream.
It was large group of people with much in common and active in the worlds of both literature and politics. They worked together, socialized together, and were friends. Or enemies. That depended on the most recent intense political argument or who was sneaking around with whose wife. Lofty dedication to the realm of ideas, well-mixed with ego, ambition and sex. Human nature at war with high-minded intellect.
After awhile I may have drifted, lost in the details of long ago political feuds and love affairs, but I sat up again when Maurice Cohen first appeared on the screen.
What? He'd been dead a long time. It took a sleepy moment before I realized this was an old interview.
He was very short, but broad. Burly, even. Mostly bald. Dressed like a professor from central casting, down to the tweed jacket with leather elbow patches and a pipe.
He didn't sound like a stereotyped professor, though. He had a Brooklyn accent that came though even in the most arcane lit crit terms.
And he had an attitude. It took me a few minutes to realize I see it every day on the street. It said, “I'm too tough to mess with.”
The interviewer wanted to talk about the early, groundbreaking works that made him famous. Well, not Frank Sinatra famous, but certainly famous in the literary world.
And he did not want to talk about them at all. “All you young smartasses want to ask me about Brownsville. I've lived a whole life since then! Did you even do your homework? I've written fifteen more books, all well reviewed, and I edited a major journal. I didn't write some great works and die young, for crying out loud!” He leaned forward, aggressively staring into the interviewer's eyes. “I've been here all along.”
He leaned back, folded his arms and seemed to be saying, “Dare you.”
The interviewer was a pro, not easily intimidated, and had the interview back on track in no time but I wondered if Cohen was always that prickly. He refused, in a few choice words, to talk about old scandals. However, he was scathing about old friends who became conservative political writers in later years.
I was alert to any mention of the old neighborhood, his childhood, and his family. His sister was in the midst of her own productive life at the time of the interview. Not one word. He made it very clear that he was there to talk only about himself and his ideas.
When my phone rang I jumped. It was Ruby, asking me, no telling me, to watch television immediately.
“I saw it, just by good luck.”
“What did you think?”
“Was he always like that?”
“Like what? Self-centered? Conceited? Combative? Yes, he was. Did you notice, he never even mentioned our parents or any family?”
“Did I ever! And that large chip on his shoulder?”
“Always! I think it wasâ¦” She slowed down. “I think it was growing up where we did. Kids fought all the time, especially the boys. You had to be tough.”
I thought it was the first time she had admitted that.
Near the end of that segment, Cohen was back on, in an even older interview. When he said, “Crime?” I started taking notes. “People were desperately poor. Some thought they had to do anything they could. In fact, a friend disappeared.” His voice slowed and grew softer. “Poof! Just like that. And he was a good guy. We knewâ¦well, we believedâ¦he got on the wrong side of some very bad people.” For a moment, the tough guy was gone and his voice dropped to a whisper. “I never saw him again.” He turned away from the camera and I saw a handkerchief come out.
What? Had I heard that right? He was talking about Lillian's brother? Damn, they only took a clip from an old, longer recording. Could I find the whole thing?
I puttered around, still thinking about what I had seen, and finally called the one person I knew who would understand my excitement. It didn't matter that it was so late. His sleeping habits were never the same as normal people.
“Hey, Leary. Want to hear an interesting story?”
“Always, kiddo. It's what I live for.”
“I might be on the trail of something.”
He listened while I told about meeting Ruby and Lil, and Lil's request, and what I had seen tonight.
“So that's it. I just wanted to tell someone about maybe, finally, getting some answers. Or am I completely crazy?”
“It's not impossible to be both, ya know, hot on the trail AND crazy.”
“Not the reaction I was going for.”
“Aw. Did I hurt your little girl feelings?”
“Shut up. Or say something useful. Choose one.”
“Awright, awright. Yeah, you had some luck tonight. What else you doing to find out?”
I told him about the Municipal Archives and how I knew I'd have to go back. I hadn't known it until that moment when the words came out of my mouth. What I had copied was good but there were considerable sections I had not copied.
“Ah, court papers. They can be a long slog, but sometimes there's that little nugget. You're reading about some crazy bastards there.”
“Yeah. It's all kind of interesting, and I'm pulling out some info for my dissertation for sure. But for Lil, I'm not quite getting there. And it feels like the answer is almost there in front of me, but then it isn't.” I stopped and thought it over. “Yikes. That sounds kind of crazy, even to me.”
“Not at all. You've got that nose for a story. Kiddo, you should have been a reporter.”