“If it hadn’t been for that cup of cold coffee, none of this would have happened.”
—Allan Kornblum, founder, Coffee House Press
I woke up at 5:00 this morning to the sound of a motor droning outside my bedroom window and flashing red and white lights reflecting along the wall. I got up and looked out the window and saw a fire truck, an ambulance, and four police cars parked across the street, blocking the entrance to the alley.
I threw on my bathrobe over my nightgown and ran down the stairs and stepped out into the cold Minneapolis morning. It was still dark out. Across the street, two newsmen talked softly as they pulled their cameras out of their vans. I walked toward them and stood out of sight, hoping I could hear what they were saying. But their voices were too low, so I walked directly up to them.
“What happened?” I asked.
“There’s a dead man in the alley, ma’am,” the younger one replied. I was stunned, even though I had guessed already that there’d been a murder. Why else would so many cops, firemen, paramedics, and reporters be here so early in the morning? Why else would they have draped the yellow ribbon that warned Police Line Do Not Cross between the leafless maple tree and the telephone pole that stood proudly at the entrance to the alley?
A crowd began to gather. Elders, young people, and children poured out of the old Victorian homes and ’60s-style apartments that characterize the neighborhood. They were oblivious, it seemed, to the cold air, the early morning blackness, and the drizzling rain mixed with snow as they stared down the alley, past the yellow ribbon, to the bloody body that lay several feet ahead.
“I need to see his face,” I muttered to no one in particular. I was desperate to see if he was someone I knew, perhaps one of the kids for whom my home had been a haven when my children were growing up.
I eased my way to the outskirts of the crowd and stood like a statue until I was sure no one was watching me. The cops were preoccupied, trying to keep order in the crowd of onlookers that was growing larger and more unruly. Then I took a deep breath, looked over my shoulder, and walked slowly toward the body, hoping to get close enough to get a good look before they pulled the sheet up over his face.
A deep sadness came over me as I looked at the still figure of a young Black man whose face I did not recognize. He couldn’t have been more than nineteen, maybe twenty years old. And if he hadn’t been so well dressed, his clothes so clean, except for the blood, I might have mistaken him for a homeless person who had found a spot to lay his head for the night.
He was lying face up. His LA Raiders cap, soaked in blood, lay inches away from his head. The stiff fingers on his right hand were frozen around a McDonald’s paper cup as though he’d been struggling to hold on to it, and cold coffee spilled over his hand and onto the concrete.
When I looked up I noticed that my neighbor, Lynn, was standing next to me. I took her hand and, together, we began to weep. We wept for the boy’s mother and for the mothers of the children who died in wars. We wept for the mothers of the boys whose bones were found in Jeffrey Dahmer’s refrigerator. I guess we just mourned for all the mothers in America; the only place in the world where young Black men get blown away every day over a pair of sneakers, the wrong colors, or a cup of cold coffee.
We stood watch over the body until the coroner arrived and pronounced the young man dead, and took him away.
The next morning Lynn told me that, later that night, she filled a pail with water and went back out into the alley, got down on her hands and knees and scrubbed and scrubbed until all of the blood that the rain hadn’t washed away was gone.