In the early morning of February 17, 1991, a nineteen-year-old Yale student on his way home from a party was shot through the heart on a New Haven street by a single bullet from a .22-caliber handgun. His wallet, with forty-six dollars inside, was left intact beside him. As murders go, it was senseless, motiveless, and as random as a blindly flung stone. The boy was white, privileged, and widely loved, a scholar and athlete, with a future that seemed assured. The boy accused in his killing, a sixteen-year-old gang member from the inner city, was an angry, desperate youth whose life careened almost daily--as ghetto lives often do--between the never-distant prospects of jail and death.
Dead Opposite is the story of these two boys--and of the boys and men, fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, and friends who peopled their lives. Geoffrey Douglas tells the story of hope and hopelessness, ignorance and rage; of waste and courage and loss. But above all, it is the story of the chasm that divides us one from the other: black from white; rich from poor; the suburbs of Chevy Chase, Maryland, from the squalor and despair of New Haven's meanest streets. You will see and hear both stories. And by the end, you not only will have touched the differences of race, wealth, education, and hope, but will have seen and heard also the commonness that links us all--the love of a parent, the dreams of a child--that joins us, one to the other, as the humans we finally, sometimes sadly, are.
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About the Author
Geoffrey Douglas is a former newspaper publisher, editor, columnist, and reporter whose work as appeared in many magazines. His first book was the critically acclaimed Class: The Wreckage of an American Family. Douglas lives and works in New Hampshire.
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The Lives and Loss of Two American Boys
By Geoffrey Douglas
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1995 Geoffrey Douglas
All rights reserved.
The inscription, in three deep-cut lines across the center of the headstone, is derived from a schoolmaster's tribute to a then-living boy:
Christian Haley Prince
July 8, 1971 To February 17, 1991
Scholar, Athlete, Leader, Friend
The grave site, a flat, gray, granite marker backed by a single row of holly trees, is barely a speck in the vastness of Washington's Rock Creek Cemetery. One of only two in the small family plot, all but invisible except from above, it seems a fitting memorial to a life only barely defined.
Its visitors — mother, father, sister, brother, a friend or uncle now and then — come most often in groups, nearly always on "special days." Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, the dreaded July eighth birthdays. Seasonal family pilgrimages of joy-reversed.
They bring the only gifts they can: evergreens in winter, bouquets of wildflowers from the family garden in April and July. Through the autumn months of the football season, a triangular maroon-and-gold pennant — Washington Redskins — flutters on a stick a foot from the grave, the lightsome invention of a close family friend. The first year it was placed, the Redskins went on to win the Super Bowl, assuring a tradition. The next year, of course, they did not.
He is a well-remembered young man. Remembered best, by those who knew him best, for his plainness, his quiet-smiling privacy, his open wonder at worlds not his own — Cree Indians, Arkansas rednecks, the aurora borealis — until the real world killed him one late night when his back was turned to it, in what should have been among its safest spots. There is no lesson in his death but that the lessons of life are sometimes more mockery than truth.
* * *
The other boy. Prisoner #203345 in the Manson Youth Correctional Facility in Cheshire, Connecticut, for a crime he says he didn't commit. It's not hard to believe him, for the evidence is slim. Or to doubt him, either, because of the boy he is: poor, black, dull eyed, an accused car thief and killer. He grew up in the ghetto, joined a gang at thirteen, got high every chance he had. He saw his first killing at ten years old, had sex before he was twelve, walks with a limp from a bullet through both legs. His best friends are drug dealers; he may have been one himself.
He sees death as "business," guns as "tools," his days in the street as "family time." He figures, he says, that if he weren't in jail he'd likely be "somewhere else." He smiles thinly as he says this, cocks his thumb and forefinger, points them at his ear, and yanks.
His name is James Duncan Fleming; James to his parents, "Dunc" to most everyone else. He is nineteen years old, the same age as the boy — Christian Prince — he was said to have killed, who would be twenty-three today. He, like the dead boy, was the third child of three. Both were born on the eighth of the month; both worshiped their fathers, who worshiped them back.
Beyond these small links, it is hard to fathom that even the air they breathe is drawn from the same source.
* * *
I never knew Christian Prince, or knew about him. He was dead more than a year before I knew he'd lived. The New York Times story that introduced us — "Son of Privilege, Son of Pain," the lead story in the Metro section on a Sunday in June of 1992 — told of a boy "almost too good to be true": star athlete, honor-roll scholar, school leader ("the kindest guy I ever knew," a roommate remembered), a fourth-generation Yale student whose "blond good looks and trim, 6-foot-2 athletic frame seemed to strain reality."
The dead boy's father, the story went on, "a prominent lawyer in Washington" and former doubles partner of George Bush, headed the family home in "the upper-middle class terraces of Chevy Chase, Md."
There was more. The story covered most of two pages, including photos, 120 column-inches in all. It told of how Christian Prince had met his death and of the boy who'd been charged in his killing: the then-sixteen-year-old black gang member from "the bleak side streets of New Haven," who, "despite his parents' hopes, had scant reason to believe he could look forward to any but a narrow band of choices in life."
Both boys were pictured. The accused killer — skinheaded, mustached, lean but well muscled, in dark pants and white T-shirt, looking older than his years — half sits, half leans on a desktop in the warden's office of the New Haven city jail. His photo tops the page, three columns wide by nearly five inches deep, with the story's full headline — "Son of Privilege, Son of Pain: Random Death at Yale's Gate" — in four uneven black lines against the white cinderblock of the prison-office wall. The sense you get is of menace.
* * *
And the other picture, the victim's. Less than a quarter the size, it is centered between two columns of type an inch or so below the photo of the accused: smiling and squinting into the glint of sunlight off new Vermont snow, windblown blond hair matting his forehead, broad shoulders, straight white teeth — handsome, wholesome, a milk ad made real. I would learn later that the photo was the family's favorite.
And under it, this caption: "The murder of Christian Prince, a Yale sophomore, has sharply illuminated the differences between the lives of the haves and have-nots."
Murder as illumination. A white boy's death as the price of understanding a black boy's rage. Paradigms as principles, ignorance dispelled by line drawings from a reporter's notebook.
Maybe. If it works. If the drawings are full enough, if the heart can somehow be engaged. We are, after all, most of us, more voyeurs than Samaritans. And there is value in looking through windows — if we don't mistake what we see for what it is not.
* * *
This is a story about life — two lives, and the lives that surround them — about death, waste, grief as dark as the darkest canyon of the deepest sea on earth, hope and hopelessness, courage, cowardice, dignity, love that nurtures and love too dulled to act, survival, injustice, economics, the skill and science we call the American Way.
And the utter, absolute futility of crafting perfect truth from any of it.CHAPTER 2
On a weekday evening in mid-July 1992, seventeen months after Ted and Sally Prince had lost their son, three weeks after I learned of his death in the Times, I arrived as a stranger to their home. I had come, this first time, more as salesman than writer: to enlist their blessing, and their help, in the telling of his story. Without them, we all three knew well, there could be no story.
The whole family was there: daughter Jackie, the firstborn, pretty and plainspoken, who would be thirty in three months, an engineer with the Environmental Defense Fund; and Ted Junior, five years younger, a second-year law student at Duke. Christian, their mother would tell me later that night, "was the baby. He would have been twenty-one this month."
It was a warm night, even for July in the Potomac Valley. We sat outside, the five of us, at a round, all-weather table on the patio by their swimming pool, sipping wine and talking, for most of the first hour, about Washington and its metroplex: inner-city gridlock, the spread of the suburbs, the troubles I'd had finding my way to their door.
It would be nearly dark before Christian's name was mentioned, close to midnight before the evening was done — and more than a month before they would give their final blessing to the story I wanted to tell. I was, for now, a stranger in their home, come to lift the lid on their grief at no price to myself. They were wary but gracious hosts.
We ate outdoors — "salad under the stars," someone called it — a meal that began when Ted Prince on one side, his daughter on the other, reached for my hand in the saying of grace: "Bless, O Lord, this food to our use and us to Thy service," it began. And ended: "Please take good care of Christian."
By degrees, over dinner, the strangeness lifted. We talked about their son, and mine: sixteen at the time, with many of the same privileges, hopes, and reasons to think well of life. I spoke of the spirit I would try to bring to the story, the importance I felt it had. All four asked questions; two of the four, at one time or another, cried. I asked almost no questions myself. It was a right I hadn't yet earned.
I had come prepared for their graciousness. For the comforts of their home and the affluence it spoke of, for the warmth I received and tried my best to return. This was a home of decent, privileged people. That much I'd known before I'd boarded the plane. It was much of why I'd come.
But there was more than that. There was a purity at the table that night. I could call it by no other name. A fractured family, openly in grief, sharing their tears with a stranger, without posturing or shyness, or wish of sympathy or gain. Our voices, all night, remained soft, almost muted. No one person, it seemed, counted for less or more: "Sally, I think, may not be comfortable with that," or, "I'm not sure Teddy feels the same." The troubles of one were the troubles of all.
The mother's anguish was easily the most visible, the brother's perhaps second. The sister was stoic, though wet eyed from time to time. The father took refuge in his pride — which glowed from him as though lit from within.
But what was remarkable for a family on display: There was no pandering to the more wounded ones, no hand-pats or knee-squeezes, or embarrassed, apologetic looks my way when a voice broke in midsentence or a face wrenched up in pain. If anything, it was the reverse: The smiles drew courage from the tears and grew wider; the tears passed, then went to smiles, then — sometimes — even to laughter. By the end of the night, there seemed little to tell between one and the next.
Their anger was as naked as their grief, though (for that night at least) nearly as muted. The death of her son, said Sally Prince — she'd said the same to the Times — "has made me question my belief in God." Christian's brother told of the gang members who'd been present at the trial a month before, of how they'd leered and taunted in the courtroom. The rage in his voice, and on his face, almost hurt to witness.
There would be less restraint in days to come, and sometimes less to admire. But one thing, always, would be the same. As a family, they were a fortress. Violated, wounded, angry, often bitter, sometimes blinded in their grief — but renewed and renewing, each by the other, in a strength that cannot be taught.
It was the way, I thought — and would think a hundred times as, over the months, I watched them grip their pain — that families are supposed to work.
* * *
It was close to midnight. We had said our goodbyes and agreed to talk in a week. There was no certainty that we would meet again.
I was outside now, the door closed behind me, in the half-circle driveway in front of their home, rifling my pockets for the keys to a rental car. It was a still, clear night. There was barely a light on in the four or five homes I could see.
"Have you seen any pictures of Christian?" It was Ted Senior, looking sad and rumpled and a little abashed, alone in the doorway.
Only the one in the paper, I told him.
"C'mon back inside then," he said. "I'll show you some pictures."
It was more command than invitation. The look on his face was as flat as a ghost's.
We went back in together. The downstairs lights were out. No one else was in sight.
For twenty more minutes, in a small sitting room to the left of the front hallway, Ted Prince showed me pictures: Christian in Vermont three weeks before his death (the same one I'd seen in the Times, but framed now and in color), as a Yale lacrosse player, a schoolboy defensive end, a dripping-wet teenager in a red bathing suit, a bleached-blond six-year-old with melting vanilla cone.
For each one, there was a story. Most, if not all, I would hear again. "I was there the game this was taken — I used to go to all his games. ... This one, too. ... This one here, I think, we were on vacation. ... This was when he came back from out west, the summer before he died."
But there was no joy in the telling. Even the pride seemed gone. Ted Prince stood throughout: wooden and wretched looking, passing each picture, from wall or drawer or table, him to me — formally, lifelessly — as though the two of us were partners in some awful rite. I ached for him. I'd never before seen a parent's love so raw.
"He was a beautiful boy" was all I could summon. "You must be very proud."
He seemed not to hear.
"Happiness," he was saying now, his head tilted over a photo he held in one hand: the five of them together, backed by the blue of a New Hampshire lake, close bunched and smiling under a summer sky.
"Happiness," he said again, still seeming not to know or care that I was there. "That's happiness."CHAPTER 3
Newhallville, the neighborhood that is home to Jim and Julia Fleming, their three children, three grandchildren, unnumbered nieces and nephews, and roughly a fourth of New Haven's blacks — perhaps ten thousand people in all — is the unlikeliest ghetto I have ever seen. There are no projects or tenements, or rusted-out car hulks, or overturned garbage in the streets. In their place: convenience stores, laundromats, wood-frame Baptist churches, a "Neighborhood Watch" sign on every tenth or twelfth block. The sidewalks, more or less, are clean. Here and there, an elm or sumac, planted years ago by the city, grows healthy and straight to the sky.
New Haven has more than its share of gutted-out slums. In both the Elm Haven projects in the Dixwell section and in Quinnipiac Terrace across town, the poverty is as abject and visible as any in America. Driving the streets of those sections (you would not want to walk them, at least not alone) is an object lesson in apathy and despair.
Newhallville, next to those, seems an Eden. The houses, to begin with, are mostly all wood: two- and three-family row homes built nearly a century ago, in faded pastels, with windows point-blank to the windows of the houses next door. Some, perhaps a fifth, are sagging now and boarded up, though just as often there is a gay-colored plant near the door front or a fresh coat of paint on the porch.
* * *
But the signs are there. You need only look twice to see. On winter midafternoons, the fifth- and sixth-graders from the Martin Luther King Middle School on Dixwell Avenue, on their way home to expectant mothers, will outnumber — just briefly — the boys in their teens and early twenties who cluster, loose-lipped and familiar, with the false swagger of recruits under fire, at the corners of every fourth or fifth block. Half an hour later, the children safely home, the streets will belong to the pushers again — who, once darkness has fallen, with a frequency that (residents will tell you) runs more or less in spurts, will make the night ring with their gunshots and tire screams and the squawks from the beepers they carry hitched to their belts.
The first time I drove the Newhallville streets at night, I was as skittish as a deer: doors latched, windows up, eyes to the sides as much as ahead. I learned soon, though, that I had little to fear. A white man in a car is a hopeful sign for these boys: At every fourth or fifth light, I catch an eye with a hand below it that offers a shiny bag. I shake my head and drive on.
* * *
Neighborhood mothers, fearful for their families and knowing there is no help to be had, will call for it anyway — as Julia Fleming has done more times than she can count.
"With the police," she says — and makes a face like a prune — "it always goes the same. But what you gonna do?
"'They's shootin' out here,' I tell 'em — 'these kids, they's shootin' again, you gotta send a car ...'
"'Name, address, phone number?' — they always ask the same ...
"'What you wanna know all that for?' I ask 'em — 'I tell you, they's shootin' in the street.'
"'How many is shot?' they wanna know then.
"'What? You want me to go out there and do a count? I told you already, they's kids bein' shot outside.'
"Half the time, they don't come at all. Other half, they come, ride by, never get outta their cars. They scared, like everybody else. Ain't gonna do no good anyways. It's the kids, these days, be runnin' the streets...."
* * *
At the spot they call the Mudhole, a vacant, rubble-choked lot off Shelton Avenue that straddles a disused railroad track, the Friday night traffic is almost nonstop. Mustangs, Volkswagens, Firebirds, BMWs, Audis, Saabs, at least one flawless, fifties-era, spanking white MG — young and old, white and black, from the suburbs and the city.
Excerpted from Dead Opposite by Geoffrey Douglas. Copyright © 1995 Geoffrey Douglas. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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