The intersection of Vandeventer and St. Louis Avenue isn’t in my district.
I am not subject to calls that come out in that area, but my car had a tire that was running low on air.
I told the dispatcher that I was going to the police garage to have the tire filled and I put my mic into my bag. I was out of service now so I could relax for a little bit and enjoy the trip to the garage without having to worry about another call coming my way for a few minutes. I cranked up Billy Joel’s Piano Man and headed south on Vandeventer.
As is often the case with the best laid plans of a police officer, my relaxing drive was interrupted, almost immediately.
An officer in the adjacent district heard shots fired nearby. He was on the scene almost immediately.
A more veteran officer in my own district called out to the shooting as well.
I was nearby too, just trying to get some air in that tire of mine.
I could have gone around the whole scene to get to the garage, but I felt compelled to go to the shooting scene that wasn’t in my area and that was zero percent my responsibility. It may sound harsh, but shootings in North St. Louis are hardly rare. There would be plenty of other officers on the scene in no time, but I stayed my course on Vandeventer and ran right into the huge crowd of people gathering at the gas station where a woman and a man had just been shot.
I made my way through the crowd to the woman on the ground at the gas station.
She was young, maybe early twenties. I was hard to tell. The blood and mucus and other shit on her face made it hard to tell what she might look like on her best day.
She was unconcious and if she was breathing, it was too shallow for me to tell.
A complete stranger tended to her as she lay there dying.
“Sir, were you with her?” I asked.
“No. I was pumping gas and she was pumping gas. She got shot man”
He was talking to her.
“Keep that up, sir. Keep talking to her, the ambulance is almost here,” I said.
The crowd nearby was angry.
“Where’s the goddamn ambulance!?” A lady screamed. “Where’s the fucking ambulance?? We don’t need the fucking police, she need a ambulance!!”
“The ambulance is coming, ma’am. It’s on its way.” I assured this woman I sort of wanted to punch in the face.
I knelt down near the woman as she lay there dying.
Maybe she was already dead.
I thought she was.
“Keep talking to her sir, you’re doing great,” I told the stranger helping a young woman he didn’t know.
I still didn’t really know what had happened, so I asked the man tending to the dying woman what happened.
“She was pumping gas man. This is her car. Somebody came and shot her.”
It made sense now.
It’s hard to construct an incident in your mind when there are hundreds of people around yelling and screaming, but it started to make sense to me now.
Then I heard crying.
“What the fuck was that?” I thought to myself.
I stood up and looked into her car.
Not even little kids, they were babies.
There were three, maybe four of them in the back seat of the car. I only remember three of them. One was asleep. The other two were awake, but not aware of what was happening.
They were so young and so tiny.
The ambulance showed up as I told a younger officer to get the kids from the car.
“Hand me that first one,” I said.
“Bring the other two over here so they don’t see their mom like that.” I’ve seen people in many states of alive during my fifteen plus years as an officer, and I was certain that this woman was at least walking to the light as I spoke.
The other officer, the one with twenty-seven years of service looked at me and spoke.
“There’s no way.” He said.
I knew what he meant.
The officer leaning into the car handed me the first baby as I’d asked and I walked with him over towards the police tape separating the scene from the crowd.
The boy was maybe eight or nine months old and he was sleeping.
“This is what sleeping like a baby must mean,” I thought.
He was maybe nine months old and handsome as handsome could be.
I cuddled him in my arms and wondered what my wife would say when I called her and told her that I was going to bring a baby home tonight.
In the middle of what can best be described as chaos, me, a forty-one year old white curmudgeon of a police officer held a nine month old black baby in my arms and nearly shed a tear.
I can count on three fingers the number of times I’ve shed a tear in my uniform, and every one of them involved a police officer’s funeral and some bagpipes.
For whatever reason though, I nearly shed tears as I held a baby whose mother I was sure was dying on the other side of a Chevy Impala.
As he was awoken because of the crowd noise, I wondered how he’d react. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I wanted him to stay asleep through this whole ordeal.
He rubbed the sleep from his face, and as babies who are awaken from their slumber prematurely do, he looked around confused by what was going on. He finally joined the ranks of the fully cognizant and made eye contact with me.
Just as I thought he was going to cry, he smiled. He smiled so big that his pacifier fell from his mouth.
We shared a few smiles and coochie coos with each other before he decided he was wet or hungry or just plain wanted his mother instead of the stranger holding him right then and there and began crying.
It’s been a little while since I’d held a baby that small, and my skills had clearly eroded. In my defense, I didn’t have a bottle or a baby toy with which to distract him.
As EMS raised the stretcher with his mother on it, I covered the baby’s face by touching my forehead to his.
“Shhhhhhhhh,” I whispered. “It’ll be okay.”
The boy continued to cry and I knew I could never soothe him.
He wanted his mom just then. I knew that from my own experience as a dad.
I knew when my own kids wanted their mom, just as I’d learned to know when they wanted me instead.
Parents get it.
Believing that their mother was being put into the back of an ambulance never to be seen again, I rubbed that baby’s head and hugged him tight.
He stopped crying for a few moments and I put his binky back in his mouth.
I looked towards three other officers trying to console three other, older kids and suddenly felt sad for all of them.
I looked at the baby in my arms and without thinking, I told him that I loved him.
He looked at me and furrowed his brow. I felt awkward all of a sudden.
I’ve made it a point with my own kids to say I love you as often as I can, because I suck at saying it, so I have to make myself say what couldn’t be any more true in my heart. The disconnect there is one of those things I just don’t get.
The baby started to cry some more and a sergeant came over and took the baby from me so that I could tend to something else.
As I watched the kids, kids I assumed were brothers, trying to register what was happening, my heart sank.
I walked through the crowd to a mini mart and made my way inside.
All eyes were on me in an uncomfortable way.
“Do you have any juice or milk I can have?” I asked. “I’ll bring money tomorrow. I don’t have any cash right now, but it’s for the kids across the street.”
After I said that, the folks in the store relaxed and were very accomodating. “Here, here, here, take this. How many do you need?”
“Just one.” I said.
Only the one seemed old enough for a drink outside of a bottle. The others seemed too young.
I made my way back to the kids and extracted the straw from its wrapper and poked it through the hole as only a dad with ten plus years of service can do.
I knelt down and gave the oldest brother his drink and told him to promise me he’d take care of his little brothers.
“Be a good big brother, okay? I’m the oldest of my brothers. It’s an important job.”
He said he would.
He got it.
He knows what’s going on because I suspect he’s a kid who’s living a rough life.
The news crews came and did their interviews.
I watched from my car as the news crews turned off their cameras and made their phone calls.
By this point, I’d heard that the woman who was shot was in critical but stable condition.
I was stunned when I heard that.
God bless EMS crews and trauma units for what they’re able to do, because I’d have lost a lot of money betting that the woman I saw on the ground earlier was going to meet her maker very soon.
That she’s alive makes me happy.
While I have my doubts, I hope her near death experience will cause her to appreciate her life and love her kids as though she were dying, because last night on that gas station parking lot, she was.