A few weeks ago, I was flagged down by a pretty little girl in the Gravois Park Neighborhood of South St. Louis.
It was maybe 8:30 in the morning and she was wearing a back pack as she stood on the corner of an intersection where very recently a man had been shot and killed.
“What’s up, young lady?” I asked.
“I think I missed my bus.” She said.
I laughed. “You think you did?”
“I did miss it. I know I did.”
“Do you want me to take you to school?” I offered.
“Can you drive me to my house?” She asked instead.
“Sure, kid. How old are you?”
“Oh wow,” I said. “You’re right in the middle of my two boys. One of them is six and one of them is eight.”
She looked at me puzzled as she climbed into the police Tahoe.
“You have kids?” She finally asked as she settled in and put her seatbelt on. Kids often seemed shocked that police officers have kids of their own for some reason. Like with teachers, I guess.
“Yes ma’am I do. Those two little boys and a beautiful daughter like you, but my daughter is a teenager. Yikes, right?”
Unimpressed with my attempt at humor, she pointed north and said that her house was that way.
We called her house on the way and I told her older sister that I was bringing my new friend home because she’d missed her bus.
I made my way slowly up the state street she lived on, expecting that she would say to stop very shortly after I began moving. Instead, she just looked ahead through the windshield.
“Keep going,” she said. “I’ll tell you when we’re close.”
I gave her the puzzled look now and started driving north.
“Do you know your address?” I asked. “What are the numbers?”
She said that she didn’t know the numbers because she’d just moved there recently.
We drove up one block, and then another.
I stepped over the corpse of a woman who just died in that house two days ago from a drug overdose. She was one month pregnant.
Crap, I suddenly thought. Did I just say that out loud?
My passenger was still staring straight ahead, hands clasped in her lap.
Good deal, I thought. That was an inside voice.
Another block passed and another crime scene came to mind, this time an armed robbery, a carjacked pizza delivery guy. Nobody was hurt. That was just a few months earlier.
The next block, it was a shooting victim. The man who was shot lived, in spite of being shot three times in his torso in the middle of the afternoon of a nice summer Saturday.
I wondered what my passenger was doing that day the man was shot. Maybe she was playing in a nearby park or playground. Maybe she heard the shots. Maybe her mother heard them and they all took cover in their living room.
That’s a sad reality for a lot of inner-city residents.
I sighed to myself.
Two more blocks. Two more crimes.
These were petty crimes.
Petty for the Gravois Park Neighborhood anyway.
A stolen car.
Shots fired into a vacant house.
No big deal, those two.
Another block. At the stop sign I see what I recognize to be spent shell casings at the curb. They look to have been there for a while.
City kids kick spent shell casings around like country kids kick rocks. It’s sad.
Up ahead, our path is blocked by a car with its flashers on. It’s in the middle of the road facing north, the same direction we are traveling, and there’s another car facing south. Both with their hoods up.
We stop and a woman walks to my open window.
She’s sort of dressed up, but sort of a mess, like maybe she had a long night out the night before.
Oh officer, she says. I’m so sorry.
She looks at the little girl. “Is she okay?”
“This is my daughter,” I said. “I’m taking her to school. Why wouldn’t she be okay?”
The woman, who is black, looks at me incredulously, and then looks to the little girl in the passenger seat, who is also very much black, and shakes her head.
I see my passenger smile, or maybe smirk, as she turns from me to stare out the windshield again.
She’s stifling a laugh.
The woman out my window touches my arm as it rests on the door.
“Don’t judge me, but I ran out of gas.”
“I’m not judging you, ma’am. Certainly not for that.”
I stare at her for a few moments and then look to my passenger. She’s looking at me now, clearly confused.
“I’m confused too, I tell the little girl.”
“My neighbor over there is trying to help me out,” the woman says. “I don’t know anything about cars outside of making them go.”
I look at the woman and then the little girl. She’s looking at the woman outside my window as well.
“What?” The woman finally asks.
“You ran out of gas? Are you sure that’s what happened?”
“Yes,” she said. “I ran out of gas.”
We looked at each other a bit longer, perhaps waiting for the other to say something helpful, but nothing came out of our mouths that was helpful in the least bit.
Finally, I told the woman that she seemed to have everything under control, and that I needed to get my “daughter” to school, so I would turn around and let her get her car moved with her neighbor and be on her way.
We turned around and drove past the shell casings and bullet riddled vacant house again, and made a right turn and then another right up a different state street.
We made it to the next block and turned right past what used to be a gas station.
A man killed his wife several years ago in the street here. He stabbed her to death. Another person was killed right here too, and this gas station was set on fire.
We turned left back onto the little girl’s street and waved to the ladies with their car hoods open. The woman who talked to us briefly waved back. She had a gas can in her hand.
“Hey officer?” The little girl had a question.
“Why did they have their hoods up? The gas doesn’t go there, right?”
“You’re pretty smart,” I said. “Who knows what’s going on there. We deal with a lot of that sort of silliness.”
The girl flashed her pretty smile and then turned back to stare out the windshield.
I continued north.
“You’re pretty sharp, young lady. You should think about being a police officer. We need some smart people instead of the dummies we have now.”
She turned to look at me.
“Dummies like me,” I finished.
The girl laughed and said, without missing a beat, “No way.”
“It’s too dangerous and people don’t like the police.”
She’s not wrong, I thought, as we drove past a house where I had one of my very first ever resisting arrests. That was over fifteen years ago.
It seems odd, but I remember the address still.
There was nothing to it, really. The officer I was with wanted to arrest a man who had assaulted his niece, and I had chased him into a backyard and tackled him.
I pointed to the house and said, out loud.
“I wrestled a man in that back yard one time, way before you were born.”
She looked out her window towards the house. “What did he do?”
“He beat up his niece. She was only a few years older than you. I think she was ten.”
“That’s terrible,” she said.
“It was, yes. He wasn’t a nice man,” I answered.
I told her about how I had to mace that man and we landed inches from the mouth of a snarling pit bull who was chained up to a dog house. That dog was just itching to bite somebody.
I told her how other police officers responded because there was an “aid call” and we always come to help those in need.
We also laughed when I told her about how one of the police dogs who showed up bit my boss on the hand because he got too close to its mouth.
I drove forward in silence for three more blocks. Each block brought back a recollection of something bad that happened while patrolling over ten years in this girl’s neighborhood.
I wondered if the people who lived nearby knew of even half the things that happen while they’re away or asleep or inside watching television.
The little girl finally pointed me to a house she said was hers and I pulled to the curb.
She grabbed the door handle and looked at me for a minute.
“Did you win?” She finally asked.
“What? Did I win what?” I was confused.
“When you wrestled that man, did you win?” The seemingly genuine concern on her face was sweet.
“I’m here, right? The police always win versus the bad guys. You remember that, okay.”
“Okay, thank you.” She said.
After she got out and closed the door, I quickly rolled down the passenger side window and called to her, before she got to her steps.
We’d just driven well over ten city blocks in what is one of the harshest neighborhoods in all of St. Louis City, certainly outside of North St. Louis, where the violence is epic, and I wanted to know how she got to her bus stop everyday, so I asked her.
She seemed taken aback, like it was a dumb question, but she answered anyway.
“I walk to my bus stop.”
She turned to go inside, but before she opened the door, she turned back to me and, perhaps because she sensed I was appalled, said, “I don’t have to walk home in the dark after school though. I get a ride.”
With that, she went inside her house.
I drove off and thought of that little girl, and all of the other city kids I see playing at bus stops, and wonder how many blocks each of them has to walk to get to a bus stop.
How many drug houses and homicide scenes have these kids unknowingly, or maybe knowingly, traversed from their homes to their bus stops?
I thought of those kids this morning, as I looked outside at my own kids at their bus stop.
I can see it from my house.
There are no drug houses or homicide scenes or bullet riddled houses along the way.
I’m thankful that policing has offered me enough, even if I must work numerous side jobs, that I can provide this environment for my family, but I’m also thankful that it’s allowed me to see how others live, and what they have to endure to do something that seems so simple, like catching a bus to school.