Death on Dover Street

Susan Parker
Friday April 04, 2003

I heard the pop-pop of a gun outside my bedroom window late one night last month, but I didn’t get up right away. I waited for more noises. I heard a scream and someone running. I kept still, hoping the commotion was the result of friendly fireworks, but it was too late for Chinese New Year and too early for Independence Day. 

When I heard sirens I decided to investigate. I went downstairs, opened my door and found the corner aglow in red flashing lights. Police cars blocked both ends of Dover Street. My neighbor was on his stoop and together we walked to the corner of 54th Street, where a small knot of people stood. 

I shivered in my pajamas. I’d forgotten to put on my shoes and the cold soaked my feet and crept up my calves. 

“What happened?” we asked above the crackle of police radios.  

“Someone’s been shot,” a man answered.  

“A woman,” a voice added. 

Another voice chimed in, “She’s already dead.” 

A different kind of shiver went up my spine. A fire truck was parked in the middle of the street, but none of the many police or firefighters nearby appeared to be in a hurry as they walked back and forth between two houses to the backyard of a large, square duplex. 

When the ambulance finally appeared I knew it was true, that whoever lay behind the house, whoever I had heard scream and then run, must be dead, for the ambulance arrived silently. The paramedics got out of their vehicle slowly, and when they returned from their trip to the backyard they left, only the beep of their back-up alarm announcing their departure.  

A policeman asked those of us standing on the corner to leave. Yellow caution tape now stretched from my porch banister to the fence in front of the house across the street. I ducked underneath and went inside, climbed the stairs, lay down in my bed and stared at the ceiling where the reflection of police lights kept me awake.  

Sometime during the night, the victim’s body was removed and the caution tape came down. When I got up, Dover Street was awash in early morning sunshine, the rows of front lawns sparkling with dew. The newspaper rested on my porch. There was no mention of the shooting in its pages. 

I took my dog for a walk. I hurried past the house where the woman had died the night before, the second drive-by shooting in our neighborhood in the past six months. I looked for signs of what had happened — blood on the sidewalk, empty bullet cartridges, anything that might mark what had occurred — but found only the dusty gray ashes of emergency flares.  

A few days later I read in the newspaper that the victim was a 35-year-old mother who sometimes lived in the area. Neighbors had heard the shots, the slap of her sneakers running on the pavement and then her soft, weak voice pleading for help as she lay dying, the article reported. She was Oakland’s 20th homicide of the year and it was only the first week of March. 

But lately I have found it difficult to concentrate on the streets outside my front door. The abandoned wars against ignorance, poverty, racial inequality and gun control have been replaced with another. Instead, I watch the evening news on television. War has begun in a country on the other side of the globe. I watch the satellite transmissions and momentarily forget about the woman who died in my neighbor’s backyard. Sometimes it’s less difficult to stare at the distant images on TV than to think about the problems at home. 

Susan Parker lives in Oakland near the Berkeley border. She is the author of “Tumbling After,” a memoir published last year by Crown Publishing.